AmeriScan: August 14, 2001

ARMY CORPS REVISES WETLAND FILL PERMIT PROGRAM

WASHINGTON, DC, August 14, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is proposing to reissue nationwide permits (NWPs) which authorize discharges of fill and dredge material to U.S. waters.

Nationwide permits give developers sweeping permission to destroy certain types of wetlands "that will have minimal adverse effects on the aquatic environment," the Corps states. Under Nationwide Permit (NWP) 26, the most common permit involving potential impacts on wetlands, developers can destroy limited amounts of wetlands at each development site without individual site inspections.

The Corps proposed to increase environmental protection for some activities, such as discharges associated with coal mining and projects within a floodplain. The agency will maintain the minimum acreage thresholds established in June 2000, which limit the size of wetlands that can be filled without a permit, but several refinements are included that are intended to allow the Corps to target its resources at projects with the greatest potential for environmental damage.

Several provisions of the permits have been simplified to increase compliance by developers. The Corps will continue to require an individual permit for any project, whether covered by a general permit or not, which it determines would have more than minimal environmental impact.

The revised permits are the result of extensive consultation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies. The full text of the proposed changes is available at: http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/fedreg/a010809c.html

The Corps will seek the public's input on these proposed permits for 45 days. The Corps will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes in Washington, DC on September 12 at the General Accounting Office Building.

"The revised permits will do a better job of protecting aquatic ecosystems while helping the regulated public with clearer, simpler language," said John Studt, chief of the Corps regulatory branch.

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FUEL EFFICIENT VEHICLE PROGRAM NEEDS REVAMPING

WASHINGTON, DC, August 14, 2001 (ENS) - A report by the National Research Council recommends that the goals of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) program be reevaluated and updated.

PNGV is a partnership between the federal government and the U.S. automotive industry - DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation under the umbrella organization, the U.S. Council for Automotive Research. The program was designed to develop a new generation of vehicles with up to three times the fuel efficiency of conventional cars without compromising performance, affordability, safety, utility or emissions.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the report confirms his agency's call, earlier this year, for major changes in the PNGV program. The Department of Energy (DOE) hopes to refocus the program to give more flexibility to the automakers and greater benefits to the taxpayer.

"The current goals of the PNGV program include production prototypes for an 80 mile per gallon sedan by 2004. Since roughly half of the light duty vehicle sales in the U.S. are sport utility vehicles, vans and pickup trucks, the PNGV program is out of step with markets and consumer demand," Abraham said. "This spring, I suggested a need for a thorough program reevaluation. I'm pleased that the scientists reviewing the PNGV research program share this view."

The NRC report makes a number of recommendations and observations, including:

"No reasonable amount of funding would ensure achievement of [the goal of producing a marketable, affordable 80 mpg family sedan by 2004]."

"The priorities and specific goals of the PNGV program should be reexamined. There is a need to update the program goals and technical targets in the context of current and prospective markets."

"The demand for sport utility vehicles, vans, and pickup trucks in the United States has drastically increased This has increased the importance of reducing the fuel consumption of these vehicles compared to the typical family sedan."

"If the program goal were refocused on reducing total new light duty vehicle petroleum consumption, this would encourage the emphasis to be placed on those vehicles that offer the greatest potential for achieving this societal goal."

"The NRC report also praises the fact that the program has overcome many challenges and forged a productive partnership with industry," added Secretary Abraham. "We have a tremendous opportunity and obligation to move this partnership to the next level with new leadership, priorities and goals."

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UNIVERSITY SEEKS TO PROTECT ACCESS TO STEM CELL LINES

MADISON, Wisconsin, August 14, 2001 (ENS) - The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday, to ensure broad research access to the five stem cell lines developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher James Thomson.

The lawsuit against Geron Corporation of Menlo Park, California, seeks to have the court declare that Geron has no right to add additional cell types to its license agreement with WARF.

WARF, a nonprofit Wisconsin corporation that licenses patents for the benefit of research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has licensed certain rights for human embryonic stem cells to Geron since 1999.

Geron has told WARF that WARF is obligated to add additional cell types to Geron's license agreement on an exclusive basis. WARF disagrees with Geron's claim and has sought court intervention to resolve this issue.

"It is important that WARF continue to license additional stem cell types to a wide variety of researchers," said Carl Gulbrandsen, WARF's managing director.

Gulbrandsen said Geron's attempts to secure exclusive use of additional cell types, if successful, would preclude the use of important stem cell types by other researchers in the pharmaceutical, medical and scientific communities.

"Through this action we hope to enable more academic researchers and private companies to join the search for new therapies and cures for some of the world's most debilitating diseases," Gulbrandsen said. "We hope that federal funding and appropriate access to stem cells will increase the number of researchers who work with human embryonic stem cells. A greater number of good researchers promise to bring the medicine of tomorrow closer to today."

Embryonic stem cells are of great interest to medicine and science because of their ability to develop into virtually any other cell made by the human body. The first potential applications of human embryonic stem cell technology may be in the area of drug discovery.

Last week, President George W. Bush announced that the administration plans to permit federal monies to be used for research on existing stem cell lines, but not to create new lines. This position makes existing stem cell lines even more valuable to medical researchers.

More than 100 academic researchers and numerous companies have approached WARF about licensing stem cell technology in the past two years.

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SOLAR POWERED CRAFT SETS ALTITUDE RECORD

KAUAI, Hawaii, August 14, 2001 (ENS) - NASA's solar powered, propeller driven Helios aircraft set a new world record altitude of 96,500 feet on Monday, surpassing the old record for aircraft without rocket power by more than 10,000 feet.

Sustained operations at that altitude promise to enable capabilities ranging from environmental monitoring to improved communications on Earth to simulating flight in the atmosphere of Mars.

"This is a ground breaking accomplishment which will advance this technology to new heights," said National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Daniel Goldin, who has been a strong supporter of solar powered flight.

Helios

The Helios Prototype aircraft during Monday's record flight, flying at about 10,000 feet above cloud cover northwest of Kauai, Hawaii (Photo by Carla Thomas, courtesy NASA Dryden Flight Research Center)
The remotely piloted wing, built by AeroVironment, Inc., Monrovia, California, took off from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai at 8:48 am local time. Flying at about 25 miles an hour, the aircraft stayed aloft almost 17 hours, passing the old altitude records of 80,200 feet for propeller driven aircraft and 85,068 feet for any aircraft not powered by rockets.

The record flight sets the stage for missions that will use a regenerative fuel system now under development to enable Helios to remain aloft 24 hours a day for months at a time. The aircraft reached record altitude during daylight hours, relying on solar cells on the wing's surface to provide electrical power.

Descent after dark was possible, as the 14 electric motors were no longer needed to maintain altitude. During descent the propellers acted as generators, providing electrical power to control the aircraft.

Production versions of Helios might see service as long term Earth environmental monitors or as communications relays, reducing dependence on satellites and providing service in areas not covered by satellites. The successful flight at high altitude also provides NASA with information about flight on Mars, since the atmosphere at that height above Earth replicates the atmosphere near the Martian surface.

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SOUTH CAROLINA THREATENS TO BLOCK PLUTONIUM SHIPMENTS

AIKEN, South Carolina, August 14, 2001 (ENS) - The governor of South Carolina is threatening to set up roadblocks to keep federal trucks from transporting radioactive materials across his state, "The New York Times" reports.

Governor Jim Hodges sent a memo to the South Carolina Highway Patrol last week ordering the agency to develop plans for blocking state highways to federal shipments of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons.

Hodges told the newspaper that the Bush administration has abandoned a plan developed by the Clinton administration to remove weapons grade plutonium stored at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, after converting it into fuel for power plants or encasing it in glass.

Unless the Bush administration guarantees that the plutonium will be removed from South Carolina, and that no new plutonium will be brought in, Hodges told the "New York Times" he will "do whatever it takes" to bar federal shipments.

"I'll stand squarely in front of the trucks, if that's what it takes to protect the health and safety of our people," Hodges said. "In the meantime, we've got a range of options, including roadblocks. We are not going to be stuck with permanent storage of plutonium in our state."

Hodges ordered the state's public safety director to review the possibility of setting up highway roadblocks. The governor warned that if plutonium from across the country is shipped to South Carolina for reprocessing, it will be difficult to get the material back out of the state, because other states will also not wish to accept the radioactive material for permanent storage.

"We will be left holding the proverbial bag," Hodges wrote in his memorandum.

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NATURAL GAS FACILITY AGREES TO CONTROL ODORS

SAN BERNADINO, California, August 14, 2001 (ENS) - Air quality officials have secured a stringent agreement with Omnitrans requiring the transit agency to take specific actions to promptly eliminate odors from its San Bernardino natural gas fueling facility.

Residents living near the public transit agency's fueling facility have complained of strong odors, particularly during evening hours. The odors are associated with the off gassing vents from the old style compressors used to fuel Omnitrans' compressed natural gas (CNG) powered buses.

The odors are from methyl mercaptan, a nontoxic but pungent chemical added to natural gas - including gas used in home stoves and appliances.

Under terms of the agreement, Omnitrans will replace its existing CNG fuel supply with a temporary liquefied natural gas (LNG) fuel supply no later than October 5. Unlike CNG, liquefied natural gas does not contain methyl mercaptan or other odorants.

Omnitrans also agreed to launch an aggressive and stepped up maintenance program to curtail any odors from its CNG powered compressors used in its fueling station.

The temporary LNG fueling equipment, which will cost Omnitrans more than $150,000, will be replaced by a permanent, $3.5 million LNG fueling station sometime next year.

"Omnitrans recognizes that its fueling operations have caused a significant concern in the community and has agreed to switch to a temporary, non-odorized liquefied natural gas fuel supply within the next two months to eliminate odors," said Peter Mieras, district prosecutor for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the air pollution control agency for Orange County and portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

"Natural gas is an extremely clean burning fuel that offers great potential for reducing the Southland's smog," Mieras said. "However, there is no reason that the use of alternative fuels should cause odor problems for the community. This settlement will ensure cleaner air for the region and an end to nuisance odors in west San Bernardino from Omnitrans' fueling facility."

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JUDGE BARS FEDERAL-PRIVATE LAND EXCHANGE

BOISE, Idaho, August 14, 2001 (ENS) - Federal District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has ruled that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) cannot go forward with a controversial land exchange on the west slope of the Grand Tetons.

Judge Winmill ruled that the USFS misled the public about the environmental damage that might result from the Grand Targhee land exchange, violating the National Environmental Policy Act. The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund on behalf of a coalition of six community and conservation groups.

Judge Winmill's order prevents the Targhee National Forest from delivering 120 acres of publicly owned land at the base of Grand Targhee ski resort to GT Acquisition, a private developer, unless and until the Forest Service fixes its flawed analysis.

In his ruling, Judge Winmill found that the USFS failed to reveal the true environmental impacts of the land exchange, glossing over the substantial development at Grand Targhee ski resort that would be propelled by the exchange. The Forest Service's projections of development at the ski resort, according to the Court, suffered from failings "akin to ignoring the Rocky Mountains in evaluating the odds that Lewis and Clark would reach the Pacific Ocean."

"The Court held that the Forest Service can't sweep the impacts of this deal under the rug," said Sanjay Narayan, an attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "The agency can't simply ignore the environmental consequences of changing Grand Targhee from a small resort into a massive development."

"The Forest Service stacked the deck to sell this deal to the public," said Pam Lichtman of Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. "The Court affirmed that this was a flawed process, and it led to a flawed result."

Conservationists hope a fair picture of the exchange's impacts will lead the Forest Service to abandon the land exchange.

"We've said from the beginning that creating a private and exclusive inholding in the midst of publicly owned land is a bad deal for the public," said Marv Hoyt of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, one of the groups bringing suit.

The organizations who brought the lawsuit are Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Citizens for Teton Valley, Inc., Wyoming Outdoor Council, Sierra Club, and American Wildlands.

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REFORESTATION PROJECT WINS AWARD

MEMPHIS, Tennessee, August 14, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's (USFWS) Southeast Regional director today presented a conservation award to American Electric Power for the company's 10,257 acre reforestation project near Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Louisiana.

Sam Hamilton, director of the USFWS southeast region, presented one of the first annual Southeast Regional Director's Conservation Awards to Diane Fitzgerald, AEP vice president for environmental affairs, during a meeting of the Lower Mississippi River Ecosystem Team at the Ducks Unlimited national headquarters here. The award is "in recognition of outstanding contributions to conservation" by the company.

Hamilton praised AEP for being an exceptional conservation partner. "AEP not only is restoring wildlife habitat but has acquired land for that purpose and is making great strides in its innovative carbon sequestration efforts," Hamilton said. "We applaud AEP for setting a high standard for conservation in the lower Mississippi valley."

Fitzgerald cited two primary reasons for AEP's involvement in the Catahoula reforestation project. "First of all, as public policy, we advocate the planting of trees and preservation of forests for carbon sequestration or storage to help offset releases of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas," she said. "Secondly, the restoration of hardwoods in this location benefits wildlife as it restores the natural habitat and maintains biodiversity."

More than five million tons of carbon dioxide are predicted to be captured and converted to biomass over the 70 year life of the Catahoula reforestation project. Some three million trees - various oaks, bald cypress and green ash - will be planted by early 2002.

AEP's 10,257 acre tract will be managed by the USFWS as part of the Catahoula NWR. USFWS acquired an adjoining 8,115 acres in a transaction arranged by The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit group that seeks to protect land and water resources in partnership with corporations, public agencies, other organizations, foundations and individuals.

More information about AEP's Catahoula reforestation project is available at: http://www.aep.com/environmental under environmental stewardship.

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GENE FOR METAL LOVING PLANTS DISCOVERED

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana, August 14, 2001 (ENS) - Genes thought to allow plants to accumulate large amounts of metal in their tissues have been identified and cloned by a Purdue University scientist.

The finding is expected to lead to new crop plants that can clean up industrial contamination, new foods that fight disease and reduced work for some farmers.

David Salt, associate professor of plant molecular physiology and principal investigator on the project, said the discovery opens up new avenues for plant breeders.

plant

Genes from this rare Austrian plant, called Thlaspi goesingense, could allow scientists to engineer plants that clean up polluted industrial sites (Photo by David Salt, courtesy Purdue University)
"This is really one of the first tools that we've got to manipulate this process of metal hyperaccumulation," Salt said. "So what we're going to do now is to start expressing these genes in nonaccumulating plants to see if we can turn them into metal accumulating plants."

Scientists are interested in using metal hyperaccumulating plants as a means to clean up sites contaminated with heavy metal or radioactive materials. This process is called bioremediation, or more specifically when using plants, phytoremediation.

"Imagine if you have a site contaminated with cadmium. Right now your options are to put a fence around it and put a sign up telling people to stay out, build a parking lot over it, or dig up all of the soil and truck it to a landfill, which is very expensive," Salt said. "The idea would be that you could take plants that accumulate metal - you could essentially farm the metal out of the ground. Over five or 10 years, by growing crop rotations there, you could remove the metal from the site. The nice thing is that it's cheap, and you're left with a soil at the end of it which could be used for other things."

Salt said the metal hyperaccumulating plants found in nature would not be used for phytoremediation because they are all small and slow growing. Instead, scientists could move the genes Salt and his colleagues have identified into fast growing, large plants, such as grasses.

The genes were identified from the tiny wild mustard Thlaspi goesingense, a plant that lives in the Austrian Alps, where it hyperaccumulates nickel. The plant is similar to the nonmetal accumulating plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which is often used in scientific research.

The research appears today in the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Science."