AmeriScan: April 23, 2002

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EPA Ombudsman Resigns

WASHINGTON, DC, April 23, 2002 (ENS) - Robert Martin, the national ombudsman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has resigned from his post to protest the agency's attempts to undercut his authority.

Martin, who has held the position since 1992, has earned the admiration of environmental groups due to his aggressive pursuit of polluters at the nation's most contaminated sites, those that make the National Priorities or Superfund list.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, Martin said he is resigning from government service due to Whitman's decision to transfer the Ombudsman's position away from the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to the EPA's Office of Inspector General.

"I have objected to your decision to dissolve the Ombudsman function as it relates to the hazardous waste and Superfund programs," Martin wrote. "I was disappointed that you would not meet last year at my invitation before your decision to end the Ombudsman function and was dismayed this year of your refusal to engage in settlement discussions to avoid continuing litigation on the matter."

Martin accused Whitman of seizing his files in preparation for his transfer to the Office of Inspector General, "where I will not continue to serve as an independent Ombudsman, but will merely answer a telephone."

For the past decade, Martin has helped communities fight for thorough cleanup of hazardous waste sites, investigating complaints regarding the EPA's handling of Superfund projects. Since the waning days of the Clinton administration, however, Martin has faced increasing resistance from the EPA.

In November 2001, Whitman announced that Martin would be transferred to the inspector general's office, where she said he would have more independence to pursue his duties. Martin, arguing that the EPA wanted to hamstring his efforts, won a temporary restraining order against the transfer.

But on April 12, a federal judge rescinded that order, and the EPA proceeded with the transfer, reportedly changing the locks on Martin's doors and boxing his files for shipment to the new office.

"I am pleased with today's decision because it allows us to proceed with our efforts to make the ombudsman function more independent," said Whitman after the judge's ruling.

Whitman said the decision to transfer Martin came after a General Accounting Office (GAO) report that recommended greater independence for the ombudsman function.

"The GAO report recommended that the agency 'take steps to strengthen the independence' of the ombudsman. By relocating the position to the Office of the Inspector General we are doing just that."

Critics of the decision say the EPA's move will remove the public's strongest champion for hazardous waste cleanups.

"I hope you find it in yourself to recognize that by obliterating the independent Ombudsman function, you have deprived the American people and the Congress of a valuable means with [which] to keep the EPA true to its mission of protecting human health and the environment and to be accountable to American communities," Martin wrote. "It was wrong of you to unilaterally decide this matter while ignoring the pleas of dozens of Members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats."

"The American people deserve nothing less than a truly independent Ombudsman, especially those facing threats to their health by uncontrolled hazardous and toxic waste sites across the Nation, most recently at Ground Zero in New York City," Martin added.

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Post-Fire Logging in California Roadless Area Halted

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 23, 2002 (ENS) - A post-fire logging plan proposed by the Six Rivers National Forest in a roadless area along the western border of the Trinity Alps Wilderness has been blocked for the third time by a federal judge.

Judge Maxine Chesney of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled today that the environmental analysis prepared for the logging plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act. The injunction stops any logging from proceeding until the U.S. Forest Service prepares a supplemental environmental impact statement.

Seven environmental groups filed the lawsuit last year, arguing that the Forest Service failed to address scientific evidence indicating that the proposed logging in the 1999 Megram Fire area in Humboldt County would damage soil, harm fish habitat, and retard ecosystem recovery after the fire.

Plaintiffs include the Environmental Protection Information Center, Sierra Club, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, California Wilderness Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Klamath Forest Alliance, and Forest Conservation Council. Plaintiffs are represented by attorney Marc Fink of the Western Environmental Law Center.

The court agreed with the plaintiff groups that the forest service failed to address the overall, cumulative impacts of logging the roadless area on wildlife, failed to consider the impacts of past fire-fighting operations in the area, and failed to show how the project would meet forest plan soil standards.

The Phase 1 timber sale would log large fire scorched trees from approximately 1,050 acres, including over 300 acres within an inventoried roadless area, and extract more than 20 million board feet of timber - about 4,000 log truck loads. The proposal would log in several critical watersheds in the Trinity River Basin that have received tens ofmillions of dollars in salmon restoration efforts over the past 20 years.

This injunction is the third time the logging project has been stopped. In spring 2001, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth issued an "emergency situation determination" exempting the project from public appeals. Logging began immediately after a decision was signed in July of 2001, but was blocked three days later by the court after the groups filed suit. Bosworth then withdrew the emergency finding.

The forest service did not address the issues raised by the environmental groups in their administrative appeal, and the groups went back to court. To avoid another injunction, the forest service agreed to postpone logging until the court ruled on the merits of the case. The court has now ruled for the environmental groups on the merits, extending the injunction until the Forest Service prepares a new analysis.

The plaintiffs claimed sucessfully that logging in remote areas would not protect communities from future wildfires.

"The Forest Service says the project is intended to protect communities from wildland fires, but it will do little to help because the area is miles away from the nearest community," said Christine Ambrose with the Environmental Protection Information Center.

Maps and additional background information are available at: http://www.wildcalifornia.org

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Whooping Cranes Return to Wisconsin Unaided

NECEDAH NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Wisconsin, April 23, 2002 (ENS) - Five whooping cranes that were taught to migrate by following ultralight aircraft made their way back to Wisconsin on their own this week.

The cranes, part of an experimental flock of cranes reintroduced to the wild last year by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), returned to central Wisconsin following a 10 day migration of about 1,175 miles from Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Florida.

The return north is the cranes' first unassisted migration, guided only by their natural instincts.

Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (UFSWS) and the International Crane Foundation have been tracking the birds by their radio collars since April 9, when they began their northern migration from in Florida.

The whooping cranes left Necedah NWR last October led by ultralight aircraft piloted by Operation Migration Inc. They are part of an attempt to establish a second migratory flock of North America's largest and most endangered cranes.

The sole wild flock, made up of about 120 birds, now winters at Aransas NWR in Texas, where a disaster like a major storm or an oil spill could wipe out the entire population in the wild.

Eight whooping cranes were guided on a 50 day, 1,228 mile migration last fall that took them through seven states on their way to new wintering grounds in Florida. One was electrocuted by power lines during the migration, and bobcats killed two near their winter roosting area.

"The strength of the instinct that drove these cranes to make this return flight so directly and in such a short time is amazing," said Darrell Bazzell, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "They've made it look easy compared to the efforts the partnership put out last summer and fall to raise, train and lead them to Florida."

The five whooping cranes have made the trip to Wisconsin much quicker than many expected, and while this is not uncommon for the existing wild whooping cranes, it was cause for excitement for the study's project members.

"The progress these birds have made is exciting," said Beth Goodman, project co-leader and whooping crane coordinator for Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "We knew existing wild whooping cranes were capable of crossing great distances on migration. However, these birds were an unknown, and to have them fly for six to eight hours each leg is exciting and rewarding to all of us."

The whooping cranes will be monitored throughout the summer and as they migrate back south in the fall in an effort project biologists hope will teach them new aspects of whooping crane behavior and migratory instincts.

Up to 20 crane chicks hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland will be trained this year to join the new Wisconsin flock.

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Parasite May be Causing Frog Deformities

WASHINGTON, DC, April 23, 2002 (ENS) - A new study suggests that a parasite may be responsible for many of the deformed amphibians found in the western United States.

In recent years, the frequency of frogs, toads, salamanders and other amphibians found with missing limbs, extra limbs, and skin webbings has increased. The shrinking populations of many North American amphibian populations make finding the cause of the deformities a priority for many biologists.

In a research article appearing in the May issue of the journal "Ecological Monographs," Pieter Johnson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and colleagues describe the results of their field survey of deformed amphibians. Covering parts of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, the team of researchers looked for malformations in more than 12,000 amphibians representing 11 species of amphibians.

While the researchers did not find a relationship between pesticides and the frequency of malformed amphibians, they did find a connection between malformed amphibians and the presence of a parasite known as Ribeiroia.

"The presence of this parasite was a powerful predictor of the presence and frequency of malformed amphibians in an aquatic system," said Johnson. "The greater an amphibian population's infection with Ribeiroia, the more frequent and severe the population's limb malformations."

Amphibians at sites where the parasite occurred exhibited six times as many abnormalities as the average number of malformations recorded at sites without the parasite. The researchers found the parasite embedded around the base of amphibians' limbs and tails, where they form cysts beneath the skin.

The parasite has an unusual life cycle: to complete its development, it depends on a bird or mammal to eat an infected amphibian or fish. The parasite matures inside the mammal or bird, and its eggs are released in feces where they infect an aquatic snail.

When a fish or amphibian eats in infected snail, they become infected, and the cycle begins again.

Andrews Blaustein, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University and one of the world's leading experts in the study of amphibian ecology and decline, noted that the researchers, "believe the increasing number of parasites and snails can ultimately be traced to human caused alterations in habitat."

"For example, runoff of nitrogen based fertilizers into aquatic systems may cause increases in the algal population that the snails feed on," Blaustein said. "The snails carry the parasites. More snails means more parasites infecting frogs and causing deformities."

"People assume that parasites are 'natural' and therefore of no conservation concern," added Johnson. "However, we suspect that nutrient pollution from fertilizers and cattle may be increasing the numbers of snails, parasites, and therefore malformed amphibians."

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Grants Help Combat Invasive Species

WASHINGTON, DC, April 23, 2002 (ENS) - Ten states and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission have received $825,000 in grants to help them combat invasive species.

"The United States now has hundreds of plants and animals here that don't belong here," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Director Steven Williams. "Many of these are benign, but a small percentage cut a wide swath of damage to everything from native fish populations to municipal power plants."

The 10 states and single tribal organization received cost share grants to implement seven approved State Aquatic Nuisance Management Plans and two Interstate Plans.

The management plans must identify technical, enforcement, or financial assistance for activities needed to eliminate or reduce the environmental, public health and safety risks associated with aquatic nuisance species. The plans focus on identification of feasible, cost effective management practices to prevent and control aquatic nuisance species infestations "in an environmentally sound manner."

Plans are submitted to the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force by state governors. The plans that are approved become eligible for up to 75 percent of the cost of their implementation.

The Task Force, co-chaired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is composed of representatives from the Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Agriculture Department Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Department of State, the Army Corps of Engineers and eleven ex-officio members from non-federal government entities and an invited Canadian observer. Since 2000, the Task Force has awarded $825,000 in grants each year.

The states and other entities and their grant amounts are:

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Mixed Messages Seen in Puget Sound's Health

OLYMPIA, Washington, April 23, 2002 (ENS) - A new report on the health of Washington's Puget Sound finds strong signs of improvement, but also signals of problems affecting the overall ecosystem.

Today, the Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team issued its third biennial report on the health of the Sound, "Puget Sound's Health 2002." The report condenses data from several state and federal government organizations on 2,800 square miles of inland marine waters and 2,500 miles of Puget Sound shoreline.

The report also looks at 200 species of fish, 26 kinds of marine mammals, 100 species of sea birds and thousands of species of marine invertebrates in measuring 19 indicators that help biologists determine whether the Sound's health is getting better or worse.

"The good news is that we continue to make progress in protecting habitat and keeping contaminants and pollution out of the Sound in the first place," said Scott Redman, acting chair for the Action Team. "The bad news is that habitat lost and degraded over time and contamination that has been in the Sound for years continue to threaten marine life including birds, fish and shellfish."

Eight of the 19 indicators show Puget Sound's health is getting better; two measurements show the Sound's health is getting worse; three are mixed; four document continued concerns about persistent toxic contamination problems; and two are new indicators about habitats near the shores, known as nearshore habitats.

Among the measurements that show improvement are:

The populations of two marine species - scoters, a sea duck, and rockfish - have dropped, offering evidence that the Sound is not in perfect health. Scoter populations have declined by 57 percent in the past 20 years, and the spawning potential for rockfish measured in 2000 is just seven to 12 percent of the levels recorded in the late 1970s.

Two indicators spell bad news for the health of the Sound, declining populations of marine birds and fish. A look at the populations of harbor seals and herring brought mixed results in the latest report, as did measurements of marine water quality, and various types of pollution, such as contamination of bottom sediments, mussels and harbor seals.

"Some of our pollution problems came from and come from industrial activities; however, it may surprise people to know just how much each of us can hurt or help the health of the Sound," said Redman. "Our growing population continues to stress the Puget Sound region. If each of us commits to stop doing one activity that can harm the Sound, it will help. Fixing oil leaks in cars and using fertilizers and pesticides sparingly are just a couple of actions people can do to protect the Sound."

"Puget Sound's Health 2002: is available online at: http://www.wa.gov/puget_sound/

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Michigan Dumpers Face Record Fines

LANSING, Michigan, April 23, 2002 (ENS) - A Michigan court has handed down one of the largest civil fines in state history in an illegal dumping case.

Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm announced Monday that the Macomb County Circuit Court has ruled in favor of the state in an important illegal dumping case, assessing what may be the largest civil fine ever imposed in the history of Michigan environmental law enforcement.

The court order, entered on April 9, assesses fines of more than $36 million against 16 individuals and businesses for violating the state's environmental laws at nine different sites in Wayne, Oakland and Barry Counties. In addition, the defendants will be responsible for repaying the state for any "response costs" - or costs incurred to clean up the sites - which have already been incurred or will be incurred in the future.

"On the eve of Earth Day, what a blockbuster message to send to would be polluters in Michigan: if you dump it in an illegal way, we'll make certain that you pay for it in a big way," Granholm said. "In a state so literally defined by our natural environment, we simply will not stand idly by while polluters run rough shod over the law.''

The ruling is part of an illegal dumping case involving Phillip Stramaglia, several members of the Stramaglia family, Peter Adamo, Andiamo, Inc., and numerous corporations owned and operated by the Stramaglias. The state alleged that the Stramaglias illegally dumped construction wastes including insulation, broken concrete, roofing materials, used mattresses and other trash at sites they operated as unlicensed solid waste disposal facilities beginning as early as 1992.

Despite a previous court case which found the defendants liable for operating the illegal dumping facilities and ordered them to clean up the sites, the polluters did not clean up their messes.

The largest of the sites, an industrial building on Harper Avenue in Detroit, had, at one point, been so full of rubbish and construction trash that the walls had buckled. The Harper Avenue site was demolished - and all of its wastes disposed of - in October 1997 at a cost of more than $1.3 million to the state.

"We agree with the judge that a cleanup of these sites is long overdue," Granholm said. "Though the defendants have completely ignored their responsibilities, this ruling may give the state the financial ability to make the cleanup a reality."

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Trees Block Some UV Radiation - Not All

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana, April 23, 2002 (ENS) - A new method of estimating the amount of protection that trees provide against ultraviolet-B (UV-B) radiation may influence how communities are built, and help reduce the incidence of skin cancer.

"We now have a model to predict how much UV-B radiation people receive under different amounts of tree cover," said meteorologist Richard Grant, an agronomy professor at Purdue University who helped develop the model. "If you're in what most people consider shade, you're still getting 40 percent to 60 percent of the UV-B exposure that would hit you in direct sunlight."

Experts consider UV-B to be the most damaging of earth atmosphere-penetrating solar radiation, which also includes UV-A. More than one million cases of skin cancer are expected to occur in the United States this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Grant and his research team report their findings in the April issue of the journal "Photochemistry and Photobiology." The paper describes the development and verification of a three dimensional model that can predict how much UV-B radiation exposure exists under trees offering varying amounts of shade.

The scientists then used the model to estimate how much exposure people received in residential suburban areas under cloud free skies.

Grant said the protection from a 50 percent canopy isn't "much because some people sunburn in 20 minutes."

In other words, if a person is standing in the sunlight under a tree that provides 50 percent coverage, it will take about 50 minutes for them to burn instead of 20 minutes. However, that same person standing in the full shade under a tree could be there for 100 minutes before they received too much ultraviolet radiation.

With 90 percent tree canopy coverage, the ultraviolet protection factors are 10 times greater, giving the equivalent of a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 10 sunblock lotion.

"Clearly, significant exposure of pedestrians is likely unless the tree cover has a nearly closed canopy. We have considered here only the UV-B exposure under clear skies resulting from the existing vegetation cover," the researchers write, adding that even planting some trees in an open area provides protection against the rays.

Residential and urban planners should consider the ultraviolet protection factors, Grant said. Many multifamily communities and office complexes, particularly those in urban areas, are lacking trees.

"There are indications that the relative factors for protection of children from ultraviolet radiation differ in single family verses multifamily developments," said Grant.