AmeriScan: April 25, 2002

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Sierra Club Lawsuit Seeks Regulation of Air Pollutants

WASHINGTON, DC, April 25, 2002 (ENS) - The Sierra Club filed suit today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia challenging a Bush administration decision to stall the control of toxic emissions from more than 80,000 major sources of hazardous air pollutants. The toxics are coming from sources such as chlorine production facilities, hydrochloric acid and plastics production facilities, and landfills.

"Congress didn't want EPA to stall on these key standards to protect public health," said James Pew, attorney for Earthjustice, the nonprofit law firm representing the Sierra Club. "When Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990, EPA already had been stalling for 20 years. Precisely for that reason, Congress enacted strict deadlines by which EPA had to act."

In addition to deadlines, Congress enacted what Jane Williams who chairs the Sierra Club's Combustion Task Force calls the "hammer provision" of the Clean Air Act. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments set Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards. "Congress also put in place a 'MACT hammer' provision to require each individual facility to update their pollution equipment by the regulatory deadline, even if the EPA failed to issue standards by the deadline," Williams writes in a report on hazardous air pollutants that are going unregulated.

To stay in business, each facility in each industrial category for which EPA's emission standards are overdue must apply for special permit from its state. State agencies must then set emissions standards equivalent to those the agency should have set, on a case-by-case basis.

"The purpose of the hammer is to ensure that the control of hazardous air pollution doesn't get held up," said Marti Sinclair, chair of Sierra Club's environmental quality strategies team. "Because these pollutants are so dangerous, Congress provided an insurance policy against EPA delay."

Now, the EPA has missed every deadline in the Clean Air Act for air toxics control, and the agency is now almost 18 months late on standards to control the emissions of more than 80,000 major polluters.

Under the law, state standard setting processes must begin on May 15, 2002.

"That's where the Bush administration steps in," said Pew. "Rather than let the law protect public health, as Congress intended it to, EPA is trying to rewrite the law. Industry groups have told EPA that the law is inconvenient, and that's all the Bush administration needs to hear."

"There will be real and tragic effects of this sellout," said Williams. "Many communities have already been subjected to horrendous levels of toxic pollution - in some cases with devastating health effects. Sentencing the people in these communities to years more of uncontrolled toxic emissions is outrageous."

Williams' report, "Airborne: Hazardous Air Pollutants Causing Human Health Risks and Ecological Damage Go Unregulated" is online at: http://www.sierraclub.org/toxics/

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Senate Passes Renewable Energy Tax Incentives

WASHINGTON, DC, April 25, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate today passed a massive energy tax incentive package including Senator Harry Reid's legislation to expand the wind energy production tax credit to other renewable energy resources. Senator Reid, a Nevada Democrat, says these tax provisions signal a "significant and meaningful step forward in diversifying the nation's energy supply."

Currently, the U.S. provides ample tax breaks for oil, coal and natural gas companies, but offers little for alternative energy development.

Due to a wind production tax credit, nearly 1,700 megawatts (MW) of wind were installed in the U.S. in 2001, including more new wind capacity in a single state, Texas (915 MW), than had ever been installed before in the entire country in a single year.

Under the new provisions, the currently limited wind production tax credit, which has fueled this boom in new wind energy, will be extended to geothermal, solar, open-loop biomass, and animal waste. The credit has been extended for five years for geothermal and solar, and animal waste, and three years for biomass.

The Senate also passed a federal renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS). This measure requires that an additional one percent of the nation's electricity come from new renewable energy sources by 2005 and increase slowly each year thereafter, until renewable energy provides 10 percent of the national electricity supply by 2020.

A credit trading system would be established so that utilities could comply with the renewables requirement in the most cost effective manner.

"The Senate's passage of an RPS signals a firm commitment to fully capitalize on America's enormous renewable resources," said American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) Executive Director Randall Swisher. "The Senate energy bill will help pave the way for increased development of renewables by requiring electricity suppliers to look seriously at adding these clean, domestic energy sources to their power mix. We believe that once they do, wind will prosper because it is one of the most cost-effective renewables.

The AWEA says that some $3 billion worth of wind power investments, about 3,000 MW, are being proposed or planned for the next several years in the United States. Swisher says that wind energy can provide as much as six percent of the nation's electricity by 2020, or more than half of the renewable total required in the Senate-passed bill.

"Developing renewable energy sources is the only way we will meet the long term energy needs of this country without polluting our air and water," said Senator Reid. "Using renewable energy sources will create jobs, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and help consumers who are faced with soaring power bills. These tax credits will promote the development of alternative energy sources and with this legislation we have made great progress in building America's energy future."

"Our nation possesses only three percent of the world's oil reserves - but we are blessed with tremendous geothermal resources, and a climate ripe for the development of solar and wind power, especially in Nevada. In fact, in Nevada alone, the development of geothermal energy could meet one-third of the state's electricity needs," Reid said. "This production tax credit will help provide needed business certainty to ensure the growth of renewable energy development."

The Senate voted today to include the tax provisions as part of a national energy reform bill now under debate. A vote is expected on the final energy bill later this week.

Reid was instrumental in establishing one of the largest wind-energy farms in America at the Nevada Test Site, which will provide 260 megawatts to meet the needs of 260,000 people - more than 10 percent of Nevada's population within five years.

"No state has more potential than Nevada to harness the brilliance of the sun, the strength of the wind, and the heat of the earth to provide clean, renewable energy for our nation," he said.

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Marshall Center Cleanup Attracts NATO Attention

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama, April 25, 2002 (ENS) - A project to treat groundwater and soil contamination at the Marshall Space Flight Center has attracted international attention.

The Marshall Center studies are evaluating various technologies that can be used at locations where hazardous materials or their residues are present in soil or ground water. In this case, the focus is on removing chlorinated volatile organic compounds from soils and ground water.

This contamination occurred from former waste management activities at the facility before the harmful results of such activities were known.

The project selected by the NATO committee involves injection into the ground of zero-valent iron powder - small solid iron particles - in slurry form using a process patented by ARS Technologies Inc., an environmental engineering firm.

The technique has been added to a pilot program of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO is evaluating technologies that can be used where hazardous materials or their residues are present in the soil, subsoil and ground water.

The NATO Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society has picked one of the Marshall Center's on site remediation projects as one of just four worldwide for further study and evaluation.

In 1994, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed the Marshall Center on the National Priorities List of sites eligible for cleanup under Superfund. The Marshall Center studies are part of a process to clean up 67 sites at Marshall where hazardous material was used.

Since 1994, the Marshall Center has spent an estimated $24 million on identifying, investigating, sampling and restoring the sites. Most of the pilot projects are aimed at removing trichloroethene, a solvent that was used to clean rocket engines.

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Ecosystems Depend on Wide Diversity of Species

CHICAGO, Illinois, April 25, 2002 (ENS) - The number of species lost is not the sole factor in determining the impact of environmental problems within an ecosystem, University of Chicago researchers have found. The identity of the species lost also plays a vital role.

"How diverse the ecosystem is and how a particular species interacts with the rest of the system is perhaps more important than the actual number of species," said Mathew Leibold, an associate professor in the university's department of ecology and evolution, and co-investigator of the study, which appears in the April 25 issue of the journal "Nature."

Most previous studies have shown a so called saturation effect, which suggests that an ecosystem can lose a major portion of species before it harms the remainder of the system. In other words, the system does not break down until it is already too late.

"But we found that there is a much bigger effect initially," Leibold said. "When you start losing species, you start losing productivity right away."

Amy Downing, a former University of Chicago graduate student who now is an assistant professor of zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University, noted that most previous studies focused on the effects of biodiversity in much simpler ecosystems.

In this study, the researchers used a model of an entire pond: a more complex system, involving a larger portion of the food web. On average, ponds have four main levels: plants such as algae, herbivores such as zooplankton, carnivores such as insects or fish, and top carnivores that eat the fish and insects.

In the past, scientists have studied single level systems, focusing on plant communities. Leibold and Downing used three of the four levels in their study.

"We added a little bit of realism to our study," Downing said. "We don't have worlds that just consist of plants. We have worlds that have plants, those plants have herbivores and those herbivores have predators. When we lose a species, we lose a species that's in a food web - one that interacts with a lot of other species."

The researchers constructed 84 makeshift habitats using cattle tubs, well water and species from local natural ponds, manipulating the number and the identity of the species in the containers.

In the tanks with less diverse environments, the ecosystems showed less productivity.

"We found less biological activity," Downing said. "The animals weren't reproducing as quickly. The plant communities weren't absorbing as much sun so they weren't growing as fast. Everything was slowing down."

"None of these ponds [that we studied] have species that are at risk or are near extinction," Leibold said. "But if we can understand how they work, we might be able to better understand what the consequences are and better predict the effects humans have on the Earth's ecosystems."

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Energy Department Makes Record Renewables Purchase

WASHINGTON, DC, April 25, 2002 (ENS) - The Department of Energy (DOE) announced the agency's largest ever purchase of renewable energy on Monday, Earth Day. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the energy, generated from renewable sources like wind power, will be used at DOE headquarters facilities in Washington, DC and Germantown, Maryland, and challenged its other sites to take similar action.

This green power purchase will allow the DOE headquarters to become a partner in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Green Power Partnership, a voluntary program that encourages public and private organizations to purchase renewable power.

"Today I am pleased to announce that the Department of Energy will purchase electricity generated from renewable resources to power roughly 17 percent of our electricity needs at DOE headquarters, including our Germantown facilities," Abraham announced.

"Our new contract calls for an annual purchase of six million kilowatt hours, roughly the amount of electricity needed to power 600 homes each year," Abraham added.

The power will come from energy company Pepco Energy Services.

"We are proud to support our nation's government facilities - the U.S. Department of Energy and the General Services Administration - with electricity generated by renewable sources in an affordable and flexible manner," said Dr. Edward Mayberry, Pepco president and CEO. "Our ability to offer customers affordable alternative energy resources has become more important today than ever before. To date, Pepco Energy Services is providing green power to more than 25 percent of its customers in the mid-Atlantic region."

The DOE Headquarters Engineering and Facilities Management Group arranged for renewable energy to be supplied by Pepco Energy Services as part of a competitively awarded electricity contract. The contract was awarded and administered by GSA's Energy Center of Expertise.

The DOE funded the premium for the renewable portion of the contract using the savings it realized through the competitive procurement process, resulting in no net increase in the department's utility bill.

The department insisted on purchasing a blended renewable power product comprised of 25 percent wind power, supplied by Community Energy Inc., and 75 percent landfill gas fired generation to demonstrate the importance of supporting a diversified domestic energy resource base.

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Fire Altered Ecosystems in Prehistoric Times

SACRAMENTO, California, April 25, 2002 (ENS) - Native Americans altered vegetation distribution in the coastal ranges of California with the widespread use of fire long before Euro-American colonization, say researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The finding could have implications for land managers considering what natural ecosystems to protect or restore in the region.

While it is known that pre-Columbian peoples of North America used fire as a tool to manage natural resources, scientists have long debated the impact of this usage of fire on the landscape. The USGS study, published in the "Journal of Biogeography," details evidence of major impacts.

"By subsidizing natural fires, these first land managers living in the coastal ranges of California were able to thin out or displace shrublands, possibly changing one-quarter or more of the landscape from shrubland to grassland," said Dr. Jon Keeley, a research ecologist at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center.

According to Keeley's research, colonial Spanish missionaries arriving in California in 1769 found a landscape already primed for agriculture and ranching.

"Chaparral shrublands have long been the natural vegetation on this landscape, forming dense, impenetrable stands," said Keeley. "For a region with a large Native American population, chaparral stands offered limited food resources. Additionally, undisturbed shrublands would have made local travel difficult, harbored predators like grizzly bears, siphoned off precious water resources and presented a fire hazard during fall when Santa Ana winds prevail."

Repeated burning prevented chaparral shrubs from regenerating, allowing grasses and other plants more useful and nutritious for humans than the shrubs to become established, Keeley said. Around 5,000 years ago, Native Americans of coastal California began to rely more and more on native seeds.

By the time of European contact, they were using 100-200 plant species that fires helped make available. Burning also opened up the landscape for deer, rabbits, quail and mourning doves, which became important staples in their diet.

"Native Americans would have needed to set fires repeatedly to maintain the grasses and forbs, but the frequency would have been much less than the initial investment required to convert the landscape, probably no more often than once in 10 to 20 years," said Keeley. Without fire, the landscape would return to a shrubland.

Understanding the historical pattern of human impacts on landscapes is critical to interpreting the ecological basis for current vegetation distribution, said Keeley. In some parts of the world, such as the Mediterranean Basin, a long intense use of resources by humans has decimated forests and woodlands.

"The results of this study are important for land managers making decisions regarding restoration of coastal shrublands," said Keeley. "Today one quarter of this landscape is exotic grassland, and only one percent native grassland exists."

"Restoring alien dominated grasslands using native bunchgrass species may be inappropriate because over large stretches of landscape, woody vegetation was likely the natural dominant cover," Keeley added. "Additionally, on sites formerly dominated by shrublands, efforts to convert exotic annual grasslands to native grasslands may be unlikely to succeed."

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Wood Chip Trenches Filter Nitrate Runoff

AMES, Iowa, April 25, 2002 (ENS) - Trenches filled with wood chips could reduce the amount of nitrate seeping from fertilized cropland into waterways, say scientists from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

Dan Jaynes, a soil scientist and research leader at the ARS Soil and Water Quality Unit in Ames, Iowa, is leading studies on how to curb the flow of nitrate from farm fields into streams and rivers. Nitrate, a nutrient, can lead to damaging algae blooms in waterways, lakes and ocean bays.

The research, which is concentrating on fields planted with corn and soybeans, has found that wood chip filled trenches can cut nitrate losses to surface water by 70 percent.

The wood chips create a carbon barrier that helps change the nitrate into nitrogen gas, a common atmospheric component. The system does not require any management by the farmer.

The trenches help to counteract the effects of drainage tiles, which are used on 30 percent of Midwest cropland, Jaynes said. The tiles speed the draining of cropland and release the excess water into waterways.

But rapid draining allows nitrate to bypass the soil root zone, making it unavailable to plant roots and other natural processes that can remove it from soil.

Once excess nitrate gets into waterways, it feeds the growth of aquatic plants. As the plants die and decompose, they use up all the oxygen in the body of water, leading to a condition known as hypoxia.

Hypoxia has created a vast dead zone in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, where almost no animals can now live. High nitrate levels have also caused problems for communities that use rivers for drinking water.

In the study, the six foot deep trenches - two feet deeper than the tile drains - were filled with chips up to one foot below the surface and covered with soil. The trenches are laid out parallel to tile drains and placed 10 feet apart.

Jaynes says the trench method works just as well for small farms as for large farms. The study's next phase will explore how long the wood chips in the trenches will filter nitrate before decomposing.

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Wet Wastes Could Become Fuels

RIVERSIDE, California, April 25, 2002 (ENS) - Wet biological wastes, including sewage sludge and grass clippings, could be turned into a synthetic diesel fuel, say scientists at the University of California at Riverside (UCR).

The technique could reduce the need for landfill space and provide a cost effective alternative to mulching and other restricted uses of the wastes.

The research, funded by Riverside Public Utilities and Eastern Municipal Water District, is overseen by Colin Hackett, manager of the Alternative Fuels and Renewable Energy Program at UCR.

Hackett, who has experience in fuels, energetics and thermodynamics, said he hopes to have a scale model of the new process up and running this month. If the testing phase is successful, a full scale demonstration unit could be produced and operating by 2004.

"Productively managing the growing streams of waste is a key challenge for this region's future," Hackett said, "We believe the process we have developed for converting wet bio-waste into energy shows particular promise."

Wet waste has been difficult to use as a fuel source because previous technologies required the waste be dried before conversion into fuel. By adapting the hydro-gasification conversion process, developed to produce clean burning gases from coal, the researchers expect to be able to convert water and carbon based waste feeds into clean burning fuels and electricity.

The multi-stage fuel production process uses high temperature and pressure to produce gases that can be used for fuel synthesis or electrical power generation.

"The system requires no additional fuel or energy other than the chemical energy in the waste feed," Hackett said. "This process has enormous potential for energy conversion from any wet waste that contains carbon."

The technique would turn biosolid waste, the byproduct of municipal sewage treatment, into energy, leaving a fine ash that could be mixed into such products as asphalt or other construction materials, Hackett said.

Local utilities supporting the project are enthusiastic about the effort.

"We are always supportive of anything that increases the use of renewable resources and the creation of nonpolluting energy," said Dave Wright, deputy director of Riverside Public Utilities. "Reusing something that is currently literally going to waste is always better than depleting other resources."