AmeriScan: December 9, 2002

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ProdiGene Fined for Biotechnology Blunders

WASHINGTON, DC, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - ProdiGene Inc., the company that allowed genetically engineered corn to contaminated about 500,000 bushels of soybeans, will pay a $250,000 fine - the first such penalty levied by the federal government.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reached an agreement that settles violations of the Plant Protection Act (PPA) involving ProdiGene. While ProdiGene neither admitted nor denied any violations of the PPA, the company will pay a civil penalty of $250,000.

In addition, the company will reimburse the USDA for the costs of buying and incinerating tons of soybeans now stored in Nebraska, and pay to clean the facility and all its equipment.

Last month, USDA officials learned that a small amount of corn, genetically engineered to produce a protein that serves as a pig vaccine, had contaminated thousands of bushels of soybeans grown in Nebraska. The soybeans were grown in a field that had previously been used by ProdiGene to grow the engineered corn. When the corn crop failed, ProdiGene plowed it under and planted food grade soybeans.

Some corn plants came up among the soybeans, and when the field was harvested, ProdiGene found a few corn stalks mixed in the soybeans. Under federal law, the presence of even a tiny amount of a genetically engineered substance that has not been approved for human consumption makes the soybeans unfit as food for animals or humans.

The soybeans were intercepted before they could reach the human or animal food supply.

"This is an example of how biotechnology safeguarding regulations are working to ensure the integrity of the system," said Bill Hawks, USDA's under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs. "When inspectors identified noncompliant items in the ProdiGene experimental field trials, we moved quickly to ensure confinement and take appropriate actions."

In a previous case involving ProdiGene, USDA officials ordered the company to pay to harvest and incinerate 155 acres of conventional corn that may have been cross pollinated by an engineered variety grown on an adjacent test site.

ProdiGene has also agreed to set aside a $1 million bond to guarantee that it can pay for any future lapses, and submit to stricter standards for complying with federal biotechnology regulations, including a requirement for additional federal approvals before field testing and harvesting genetically modified material. The company will develop a written program with the USDA to ensure that its employees, agents and managers comply with the Plant Protection Act, federal regulations and permit conditions.

"We are pleased to put recent allegations behind us, and are optimistic about the future of bio-pharmaceuticals and their regulation," said Anthony Laos, president and CEO of ProdiGene. "We have learned some valuable lessons, and we hope the entire industry will benefit from our endeavors as we work with USDA on an enhanced compliance program."

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Wildfires Add Carbon to the Atmosphere

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - Wildfires contribute tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, increasing global warming as part of an accelerating cycle, U.S. researchers said this weekend.

The fires take carbon out of storage in vegetation and soils, and feed it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Drought makes the problem worse by stunting tree growth and turning forests into dry tinderboxes, and environmental disturbances caused by human activities further reduce the ability of forests to store carbon.

These are some of the preliminary findings from computer modeling studies of the 2002 Colorado wildfires, conducted by a team of researchers from Colorado State University, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Their results were at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

"We're using the western U.S. as a case study area where climate and land use are interacting in several interesting ways," said NCAR senior scientist David Schimel. Western lands, particularly evergreen forests, represent about half of all U.S. carbon storage, he said.

The researchers developed a new computer model of a complex forest ecosystem to simulate the release of carbon during the 2002 fire season in Colorado. The findings estimate how much carbon would be stored in a normal year compared to a drought year, such as 2002.

More carbon is freed from storage during droughts, not only because more dry vegetation burns, but also because plants deprived of water grow slower, absorbing and storing less carbon in their tissues.

The team's preliminary conclusion is that the fires have impacted the regional carbon balance, changing Colorado from a storage area to a source of atmospheric carbon. Because carbon circulates around the world, the Colorado fires have also had a small effect on the global carbon budget.

The team is also using computer models to compare different approaches to reducing wildland fire risk. "We don't know which method takes more carbon out of storage, mechanical thinning or prescribed burning, but that's one of the questions we're looking at," Schimel said. "Land disturbance is a fundamental factor shaping ecosystems."

Computer models have been used before to estimate how much carbon dioxide is circulating in the atmosphere, how much is stored as carbon in vegetation and soils, and how much is shifting between land storage and the atmosphere. But "it's much harder to take the system apart than early modeling efforts suggested," said Schimel.

For example, increasing road density in the West has been linked to increasing wildfires. Roads bring in more people who may ignite fires, and clearcutting and road building channel away water once held in place by the living forest floor, causing a drop in the water table.

Projections of climate change in the western U.S. include hotter temperatures and increased drought, a recipe for more forest fires. If further research supports the project's early findings, "We're either going to be spending a lot more money on fire suppression or we're going to be seeing a lot more carbon released by wildfires," Schimel concluded.

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Climate Change Could Come Fast and Furious

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - The effects of global climate change could be more abrupt and more catastrophic than many scientists have predicted, warns a Penn State climatologist.

Debate in the U.S. over climate change often focuses on whether things will be as bad as some scientists say they will be. Dr. Richard Alley of Penn State says the more important question may be whether researchers are confident that things will be as good as they are predicting.

"I am not an alarmist," said Dr. Alley, the Evan Pugh professor of geosciences at Penn State. "Essentially, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is very good and is doing a very good job."

The IPCC is under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization and operates through the United Nations Environmental Programme.

"What some policy makers are seeing as information on climate change looks nicer than what is likely to happen," Alley said Saturday at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. He was the Cesare Emiliani Lecturer at the conference.

Alley's concern is that what most policy makers hear is an executive summary of an executive summary. This diluted, abstracted information almost always shows a smooth curve of predicted climate changes.

Alley, who chaired the National Research Council's Panel on Abrupt Climate Change, is concerned that changes will be quicker and larger than now predicted. The curve will be rough on a daily, monthly or yearly basis, rather than the smooth curve that appears for predicted aggregate data.

"If there is one thing we are almost positive of, it is that nature never does anything smoothly," Alley said. "Scientists like to work from models and our current models are really pretty good, but we find that models do not make changes as big as nature did in the past. Models are not as sensitive to change as nature is."

Given that the future could be quite challenging, it would be wise for policy makers to start looking for ways that people can adapt when climate changes, Alley said. He noted that there is ample historic evidence of human groups who refused or were unable to adapt to climatic changes, and their societies collapsed or failed, while other groups adapted to the new environment and coped and sometimes thrived.

Congress, federal agencies and even local governments who must deal with these changes when they happen should look at ways to plan for changes in water supply, crop production, heating oil demand, flood control and other things likely to be affected by climate change, Alley said. These groups should establish contingencies to meet problems with scarcity of resources before there is competition for these resources, he advised.

"Likely we will be surprised no matter how good our models are," Alley concluded, "and the IPCC and other governmental groups need to plan for this surprise and deal with resource conflicts in a progressive way."

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Air Pollution Hotspots Found With Satellite Help

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - Satellite data has allowed U.S. and German researchers to pinpoint the locations of high concentrations of air pollutants worldwide.

Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and other institutions combined data from four satellite imaging systems to measure atmospheric levels of three types of pollutants that can affect human health: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and aerosols. They found high concentrations of each over the eastern United States, western and southern Europe, and eastern China, which are among the most industrialized regions in the world.

Steven Massie, an atmospheric chemist at NCAR on the data analysis team, said such satellite images of air pollutants are important for efforts to improve air quality.

"As the capability of these imaging systems becomes more and more powerful, the international community will have a way of studying pollution on a global basis and the technical means to monitor emissions from each country," Massie explained.

The pollutant concentrations vary from season to season. In eastern China, for example, urban and industrial emissions of nitrogen dioxide spike during the winter. In the spring, aerosol levels are high, both because of industrial activities and because of winds that blow in dust from the Gobi and other deserts to the west.

Once airborne, the pollutants often drift eastward and diminish the air quality in neighboring areas. The research shows that carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and aerosols from China flow eastward over Japan and the north Pacific Ocean.

Nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide are produced by industrial activities and vehicle exhaust. Nitrogen dioxide leads to the formation of smog and can irritate the lungs, while high levels of carbon monoxide cause a variety of health effects, particularly for people with cardiovascular diseases.

Aerosols, or microscopic particles in the air, can cause respiratory ailments, reduce visibility and damage buildings. They are associated both with industrial activities and with such natural sources as desert dust and forest fires.

Previous research has demonstrated that high aerosol concentrations in nonindustrialized regions over Africa, western China, and eastern Siberia are due to desert dust storms, wildfires and the burning of vegetation for agriculture, home heating and cooking.

The researchers used four instruments to collect their data. The Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment (GOME) is a spectrometer on the second European Remote Sensing Satellite.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS), and Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT) device take atmospheric readings from aboard satellites operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). MOPITT is a joint project of NCAR and the Canadian Space Agency.

In addition to NCAR, the research team includes scientists from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Bremen in Germany. Their findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

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Central Valley Farmers Get Extended Exemptions

SACRAMENTO, California, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control has decided to extend a 20 year old policy that exempts the region's farmers from water pollution regulations.

Following a packed public hearing on the issue last week, the Board decided to extend the exemption on agricultural discharges for two more years.

"The Central Valley Water Board has once again caved to the pressure of big agricultural business in the Central Valley," said Bill Jennings, director of the Stockton based environmental group DeltaKeeper. "The Board has also failed to do its duty to protect the health of California citizens, and fish in our waterways."

The Board's decision came two years after California legislation was passed in 1999 declaring that all waivers under the California Clean Water Act would expire on January 1, 2003. One of these waivers, created in 1982, exempted growers from regulating their discharges into surrounding rivers and streams.

The waivers covered surface discharges, subsurface drainage, operational spills and storm water runoff.

Members of the Clean Farms, Clean Water Campaign, a coalition of more than 50 fishing, farming, environmental, and community groups, fear the Board will be in the same place when the latest extension for the waivers expires in 2004.

"The Central Valley Water Board has been aware since 1999 that these waivers would expire this January," added Jennings, whose organization DeltaKeepers is a member of the Clean Farms, Clean Water Campaign. "Yet they have failed to come up with a regulatory plan to replace these outdated waivers. What is to say we will not be in the same place in two years when the extension of these waivers expires? The Central Valley Board should deal with agricultural runoff and pollution now, not in two years."

The Regional Board's decision replaces the existing regulatory exemptions with a conditional waiver from state clean water act permitting requirements. Under the new system, growers will remain exempted from the state clean water act's permitting requirements if they implement unspecified pollution prevention and monitoring efforts.

However, the Board's decision did not include any benchmarks for improvement or an explicit requirement to reduce pollution or protect water quality.

"We've waited almost three years for the Board to gather information and be ready to make a rational decision," said Mike Lozeau, an attorney with Earthjustice. "We don't know what they did during that time, but I've never seen a Board so unprepared to make so important a decision. Unfortunately, the decision didn't substantively address any of the environmental concerns, and forces the environmental community to consider their appeal options."

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High Flow Releases Could Benefit Colorado River

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - Experimental water releases from Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River above Grand Canyon National Park will begin in January with the goals of rebuilding downstream beaches and sandbars, and disrupting the spawning cycles of nonnative fish.

Three federal agencies including the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), the National Park Service (NPS), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have given their environmental clearances to the project after completing an environmental assessment.

The proposed flows are the result of ongoing studies by scientists from USGS and were recommended by the Adaptive Management Work Group, a federal advisory committee. The experiment is intended to test methods for protecting the ecosystem downstream of the dam.

Scientists propose using high flow tests to move sediment to rebuild beaches and sand bars. Unlike an experiment conducted in March and April of 1996, these flows would be timed to make use of sand and sediment that enters the Colorado River from tributary flows of the Paria River.

Seasonal monsoon storms provide an average of one million tons of sediment a year to the Colorado River from the Paria River. High flow tests would be timed to make use of this introduced sediment.

The 1996 test flows were designed to attempt to mobilize sediment in deep pools in the river bottom to achieve the same result. Studies by USGS scientists over the past six years demonstrated that while high flows work to rebuild beaches and sand bars, the 1996 experiment scoured the upper reaches of the canyon to rebuild beaches further downstream.

By timing the high flow test to correlate with sediment inputs from the Paria River, which is about 16 miles downstream of Glen Canyon Dam, the sediment supply for rebuilding beaches would be increased.

The past drought year failed to produce large enough monsoon storms to enable a high flow test in 2003. That portion of the experimental program will carry over into 2004.

The second aspect of the experiment relates to endangered fish species. Scientists have recognized that the humpback chub population has been declining since natural fluctuating flows were curtailed in November 1991. Those flows helped keep the non-native fish - particularly rainbow and brown trout - in check.

The trout are thought to prey upon and compete with native fish such as the endangered humpback chub. The experimental flow proposal includes high fluctuating flows starting in January 2003 and continuing through March to disrupt the spawning and survival of the non-native trout.

In addition to benefiting the native fish, the experiment is also expected to improve the quality of the Lee's Ferry trout fishery by reducing the density of rainbow trout just below the dam. The result should be larger, healthier fish in that Lee's Ferry stretch - a fishery valued by the state of Arizona in the millions of dollars each year.

The experiment also includes mechanical removal of non-native fish, such as rainbow and brown trout, near the confluence of the Little Colorado River and the mainstem Colorado River. To address the concerns of Native American tribes, who consider the region to have spiritual significance, the trout that are harvested will be donated to the Haulapai Tribe, which will return the trout to the earth as fertilizer in gardens.

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More Canada Lynx Headed for Colorado

DENVER, Colorado, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - Up to 180 Canada lynx will be relocated to Colorado over the next five years to supplement lynx released in 1999 and 2000

The relocations are part of an ongoing effort to form a viable population of the native cats in Colorado. The reintroductions were approved by the Colorado Wildlife Commission based on a new lynx conservation plan between the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which reduces the potential impacts of incidental take of lynx by bobcat hunters or livestock producers.

Livestock producers had said they feared prosecution under federal or state law should they accidentally kill a lynx. The new agreement seeks to allay those fears by requiring the state to inform bobcat hunters and livestock producers about the presence of lynx.

Livestock producers then have the option of signing an agreement stating that they have received the information material. If they or their employees then inadvertently kill or injure a lynx, they will not be prosecuted under federal or state law.

The agreement allows up to two lynx to be inadvertently taken by livestock producers and two by bobcat hunters each year.

The state Division of Wildlife reintroduced 96 lynx to Colorado in 1999 and 2000. The Division is now monitoring 35 of those and believes that more than half may still be in southwestern Colorado.

While Division monitoring has confirmed that lynx have established territories and found enough prey species to survive, reproduction has never been documented. Lynx experts say the most likely reason is that there may not be enough lynx on the ground for reproduction to occur.

"If we don't bring more lynx in, we will not have given this reintroduction a fair chance and we won't know if lynx can still survive in Colorado," said Jeff Ver Steeg, the Division's terrestrial wildlife manager.

Greg Walcher, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, told the wildlife commissioners that it is important to continue the effort so that Colorado has control over the federal listing of lynx as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

"This has the potential to be one of the most successful endangered species efforts we've ever undertaken," Walcher said.

The Division's goal is to have about 250 lynx and 30 breeding females in the lynx recovery areas in southwestern Colorado by 2015.

Division biologists will work with trappers in four Canadian provinces to capture up to 50 lynx for release in spring 2003 in Colorado. In each of the following two years, 50 more lynx will be brought in, with smaller numbers possible in 2006 and 2007.

The Commission directed the Division "to obtain the best data possible to determine reproduction, recruitment and habitat and movement patterns." The Commission also urged the Division to find additional funding from foundations and groups outside government to pay for the reintroduction.

Funding for the continuing reintroduction effort will come at first from money obtained from the Colorado Lottery through the Great Outdoors Colorado program and donations to the Division's nongame tax checkoff fund. No tax dollars or revenue from hunting and fish license fees will be used to pay for lynx reintroduction.

In future years, donations may help pay for the reintroduction effort and monitoring of the lynx.

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Motor Tour Guide, Braille Trails Win Awards

WASHINGTON, DC, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - An environmentally sensitive guide to motor touring and new trails for the blind are among the projects honored by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last month.

Jim Jennings, a recreation planner from the BLM's Bishop, California field office, won the agency's 2002 "Excellence in Interpretation or Environmental Education" award for his work in developing an innovative guide to remote roads in California's Eastern Sierra region. Wade Johnson, a resource interpreter/wilderness coordinator at BLM's Grand Junction, Colorado field office, won an honorable mention award for his work on interpretive trails designed for the visually impaired.

The BLM "Excellence" Awards recognize outstanding BLM interpreters and educators for their work on employee conducted programs that enhance public appreciation and understanding of natural resources on public lands. Nominees were judged on the quality of their work, their ability to involve partners, their effectiveness in enhancing public understanding of cultural and natural resources, their programs' or products' accessibility and sensitivity to diverse audiences, and their success in helping the BLM accomplish its management goals.

This year's winner and honorable mention awardee each received a framed certificate of recognition and will also receive monetary awards.

BLM deputy director Jim Hughes, who presented the award, said the production of "Motor Touring in the Eastern Sierra" was the result of a large cooperative project involving federal, state and local governments as well as civic and volunteer groups.

"Jim Jennings not only helped with much of the research for the guide, he also helped forge a partnership of many agency and citizen groups to support and promote the guide," Hughes said. "Once the guide was published, Jim created a marketing plan and helped distribute it throughout the region."

The 18 routes in the guide are almost all on public land. Jennings and his team chose routes that visitors can use without damaging the lands, and the guide weaves in a message about environmentally responsible recreation.

More than 70,000 copies of the guides have been printed, and it has become very popular among motor tourists in the Eastern Sierra region of California and Nevada.

Honorable Mention award winner Wade Johnson was nominated for establishing and maintaining interpretive programs and exhibits for the Colorado Canyons National Conservation Area, and working with local partners and diverse groups. Among his accomplishments are an interpretive trail for the sight impaired and another trail in the sensitive Fruita Paleontological Area.

Johnson helped create BLM's first interpretive trail designed for the sight impaired. He worked with the local chapter of the National Federation for the Blind to design a trail at Dinosaur Hill with special interpretive signs that can be read and understood by sight impaired individuals.