Court Orders Release of Trade Talk DocumentsWASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2002 (ENS) - A U.S. District Court today ordered the Bush administration to make public documents revealing U.S. and foreign government positions in trade negotiations with potential impacts on domestic public health, labor and environmental laws.
The court ordered the Office of U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to reveal the documents by January 17, 2003.
At issue in the court's order were documents requested by public interest organizations that the U.S. had already shared with foreign governments - in this case, Chile - but had refused to show to U.S. citizens. While the U.S.-Chile trade agreement was finalized last week and now heads to Congress for approval, the court's decision sets a legal precedent for the more transparent process that has been sought by public interest and environmental organizations for years.
"This ruling raised the bar for transparency in future free trade negotiations like the Free Trade Area of the Americas," said Martin Wagner, director of international programs for Earthjustice. "From now on the government can no longer negotiate in secret, hiding its actions from the public until it's too late to change the terms of the agreement. The court's decision will give the public the information it needs to make sure the government is truly negotiating in the people's interest."
The court's order was the result of a lawsuit filed in November 2001 by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for International Environmental Law, Friends of the Earth, and Public Citizen. These groups are concerned that the new international trade rules could weaken U.S. and Chilean environmental and health standards.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, the groups asked USTR to disclose documents shared between U.S. and Chilean negotiators during meetings over the last two years. Under discussion were investment provisions of the proposed trade agreement that would limit the ability of U.S. federal, state, and local governments to protect their own health standards and environmental laws.
Similar investment provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have been the basis for a $1 billion challenge to a California plan to phase out the use of the harmful gasoline additive MTBE, and a $16 million award to the U.S. based Metalclad corporation after it was denied a construction permit for a hazardous waste dump by a Mexican municipality. Extending these rules in an agreement with Chile could further weaken the ability of the United States and Chile to protect the environment and human health, the groups charge.
"This decision sends a strong message to the Bush administration that negotiations and proceedings must not stay behind closed doors," said David Waskow, trade policy coordinator for Friends of the Earth. "It's now up to the administration to take the issue of transparency seriously and make the rhetoric of public participation a reality."
Marcos Orellana of the Center for International Environmental Law added, "This ruling will finally provide an entry point for meaningful public participation in trade negotiations. The public can only provide meaningful input if the trade negotiation process is open and transparent."
The court decision is available at: http://www.dcd.uscourts.gov/01-2350.pdf
Two Massive Asbestos Settlements ReachedHOUSTON, Texas, December 19, 2002 (ENS) - Halliburton Company and Honeywell Company have reached agreements to pay billions of dollars to settle asbestos claims.
Exposure to asbestos, which was once widely used in insulation and fireproofing materials, can cause a lung disease called asbestosis, and lead to lung cancer. Millions of Americans have sued companies like Halliburton in recent years seeking compensation for illnesses related to asbestos.
Halliburton, an oil field services company, and Honeywell, a diversified manufacturer, were not directly involved in asbestos manufacturing, but used asbestos in some of their products and processes.
Today, Honeywell announced an agreement to pay $900 million to settle about 200,000 claims against its former cement subsidiary, North American Refractories Company. About $1.9 billion in insurance will cover claims against Honeywell's Bendix brakes unit.
After final court approval of the Halliburton settlement, which was announced Wednesday, up to $2.775 billion in cash, 59.5 million shares of Halliburton stock and up to $100 million in notes, will be paid to a trust for present and future asbestos and certain other personal injury claimants.
The agreements would result in a global settlement of all personal injury asbestos and certain other personal injury claims against Halliburton. The settlements were reached with attorneys representing more than 75 percent of the known existing asbestos claimants, as legally required to achieve a resolution of all of the cases.
"This agreement in principle represents good news for our shareholders, customers, vendors, employees, and everyone else with whom we do business," said Dave Lesar, chair, president and chief executive officer of Halliburton, an oil field services company.
"If this transaction is completed, it will resolve a major issue that has been clouding our future," Lesar added in a statement. "Not only have we taken care to responsibly provide for those affected by asbestos, this settlement will allow us to concentrate all our efforts on increasing shareholder value, and our total focus can return to Halliburton's core businesses."
Under the proposed agreement, the settlement will be implemented through a pre-packaged Chapter 11 filing of DII Industries, LLC and Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., both subsidiaries of Halliburton Company. Halliburton bought DII Industries, formerly Dresser Industries, Inc., in 1998 while Vice President Dick Cheney was that company's chief executive.
"The plan provides for resolution of all asbestos and certain other personal injury claims," Lesar said. "Other creditors will be paid in full under terms of their agreements."
Maryland Approves Protection for 27,000 AcresANNAPOLIS, Maryland, December 19, 2002 (ENS) - Maryland Governor Parris Glendening won approval Wednesday for two land conservation deals that will cost the state about $19 million.
The deals, which will protect about 27,000 acres of land on Maryland's Eastern Shore from development, raised controversy because the state is facing a budget shortfall of about $1.7 billion.
In the larger deal, timber company Glatfelter will sell about 25,000 acres of its Maryland forestland to The Conservation Fund for about $38 million. The Conservation Fund, a national non-profit land preservation group, has agreed to acquire the properties from Glatfelter's subsidiary, the Glatfelter Pulp Wood Company.
The state will buy the development rights to the land for $15.4 million, including $12 million in bond funds and $3.4 million in cash. The Conservation Fund will then sell the majority of the land to the Forestland Group, which will log the land in a sustainable fashion under terms approved by the state.
The remainder of the lands, some of the most ecologically sensitive in Maryland, will be held by The Conservation Fund and transferred to the state when federal grants are approved. The parcel - the second largest piece of land the state has ever purchased for preservation - includes almost 20,000 forested acres and more than 7,600 acres of wetlands.
"The selective sale of our woodlands is part of our business strategy of maximizing the value of all of our assets," said George Glatfelter II, chair and chief executive officer of Glatfelter. "We are delighted to partner with The Conservation Fund in their efforts to protect this valuable resource while maintaining the economic vitality of the Delmarva region and the local wood products industry."
Patrick Noonan, chair of The Conservation Fund, said the deal heralds "a sea change for conservation and forestry in America."
"If we are to permanently conserve our nation's forestlands, we must create innovative public private partnerships that balance economic growth with environmental principles," Noonan said. "Thanks to the commitment of Glatfelter and the leadership of the state of Maryland, we now have a bold model for forestland conservation in America."
Under the smaller of the deals approved Wednesday, the state will pay $3.5 million in cash to buy a conservation easement on 2,000 acres of Eastern Shore farmland. The parcel is owned by Charles "Buddy" Jenkins, a businessperson who has helped raise money for a number of Democratic candidates.
Maryland comptroller William Donald Schaefer, one of the Democrats whose campaign Jenkins supported, raised heated objections to both deals on Wednesday, charging Glendening with spending money the state does not have.
"You'll run around the country, saying what a great environmentalist you are," Schaefer told Glendening. "You'll never mention that you are the most fiscally irresponsible governor I've ever known."
Schaefer ultimately voted in favor of both deals.
Lawsuit Filed to Protect Puget Sound OrcasSEATTLE, Washington, December 19, 2002 (ENS) - A coalition of conservation groups filed suit Wednesday seeking protective status for the last population of resident killer whales in the continental United States.
The suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) seeks to force a reversal of the Bush administration's decision not to protect Puget Sound's resident orca whales under the Endangered Species Act, even after finding they are in danger of going extinct.
The coalition charges that NMFS decided against extending federal protection to the orcas because they decided it would not be a "significant loss" if orca whales no longer resided in Puget Sound.
In May 2001, the Center for Biological Diversity and 11 co-petitioners filed a petition to list this orca group as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. NMFS reviewed the petition and on July 1, 2002 determined that this population of orcas was indeed a discrete population. NMFS also found that they were in danger of extinction.
However, the agency determined that the whales didn't meet a third criterion - that the whales are "significant."
"This is the first time an agency has tried to avoid protecting a species by claiming that the species is insignificant," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound. "If the Bush administration could get past its scorn for environmental protections, it would realize that saving the Southern Residents is not only good for our ecology, but also Puget Sound's economy."
The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity, Ocean Advocates, Orca Conservancy, Friends of the San Juans, People for Puget Sound, former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, Karen Munro, and the Earth Island Institute.
The lawsuit alleges several violations of federal environmental law, charging that NMFS ignored several important aspects of killer whale biology and culture during its deliberations, including the fact that the Puget Sound resident orcas maintain a unique culture and that the extinction of the these orcas would result in the localized extinction of resident killer whales in the continental United States.
Over the past six years, Puget Sound's resident killer whales have declined by almost 20 percent, leaving just 78 individuals in the population at the end of the 2001 survey year. The cause of the current decline appears to be the combined effects of high levels of bioaccumulative toxins, a population decline in their preferred salmon prey, and human disturbance from vessel traffic and noise.
"You can't save these whales without protecting their habitat and prey from oil, PCB, and noise pollution," said Fred Felleman of Ocean Advocates. "None of our conservation laws protect habitat as effectively and as flexibly as the ESA, but we must look to the courts to counter the Bush administration's opposition to effectively enhancing the welfare of Washington's waters."
"In the end history will judge us by what we did to preserve the diversity and sanctity of life in our corner of the world," added Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman. "We take this stand today to make sure this unique population of killer whales will still inhabit Puget Sound into the future."
Winter Storms Batter Pacific CoastSAN FRANCISCO, California, December 19, 2002 (ENS) - Damaging storms have hammered the entire Pacific coast this week, and weather forecasters say the El Niņo weather pattern likely means more storms are on the way.
Record torrential rainfall, high winds and flooding have hit the West Coast, and forecasters at the National Weather Service said more storms are possible through Friday.
By mid-week, the Pacific winter storms were blamed for at least 13 deaths, including six in California, four in Utah, two in Oregon and one in Nevada. The winds, with gusts clocked as high as 100 mph, plunged almost two million Californians into darkness.
Another strong storm system was expected to emerge from the Pacific and impact central California today, said Dave Reynolds, meteorologist in charge at the NOAA National Weather Service forecast office in San Francisco.
"The next storm won't be quite as strong as the current one, but the biggest threat will be flooding, now that the ground is so saturated," Reynolds explained.
"These storms fit a typical El Niņo winter pattern," Reynolds added. "A tell tale sign of El Niņo's influence is the incredibly high surf that stretches so far south. The fetch [westerly winds that travel thousands of miles] is so long over the water that we get very high swells, which combined with the strong winds, produce coastal flooding."
At a news conference last week, Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, warned that El Niņo may bring unsettled weather to the entire country throughout the winter months.
"El Niņo will shape weather patterns through spring 2003," Lautenbacher said.
The El Niņo influenced weather is already setting records and costing lives. From December 12 to December 16, California's northern coast received more than 26 inches of rain. The Mt. Shasta area received more than 20 inches, and parts of the San Francisco Bay region measured more than 17 inches of rain during the same period.
"Even if the next storm is a slightly weaker, short lived event, it will still cause flooding problems," Reynolds said.
The heavy rainfall set records in California and Nevada: about two inches fell within 24 hours, San Francisco picked up 2.1 inches of rain and in Reno, 1.29 inches were recorded at the city's airport.
Forecasters noted that advance warnings can help save lives - when they are heeded. In Carlsbad, California, where three people died after flood waters swept their car down a creek just north of San Diego, local forecasters issued hazardous weather outlooks, which called for heavy rain, five days before the deaths.
"We knew this would be a dangerous storm even before it developed on satellite," said Dan Keeton, meteorologist in charge at in San Diego. He urged residents to "take flood warnings seriously" and listen to Weather Radio.
"These flood waters carry the potential to kill. People should not try to drive through flooded areas, no matter how safe they may look," Keeton said, adding that his staff issued a flood advisory five hours before the deaths.
PCB Violations Result in $85,750 FineNEW YORK, New York, December 19, 2002 (ENS) - Clean Harbors, Inc. and several of its subsidiaries have been fined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on charges that they improperly handled a shipment of 180 large capacitors containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
The capacitors originated at a Department of Energy (DOE) facility in Kentucky. Due in part to the mishandling, the capacitors were first improperly disposed of in the Chemical Waste Management landfill in Model City, New York, instead of being incinerated.
PCBs - considered likely to cause cancer in laboratory animals - had been used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications until they were banned in 1979. Clean Harbors has settled with the EPA for a penalty of $85,750, which also covers violations other than those involving the DOE capacitors, including spills of PCB containing oil at one of the company's facilities and the mislabeling of other PCB items.
"Companies in the business of handling PCBs are well aware of their responsibilities under the law, and owe their clients and the public the strict compliance that this agency expects," said EPA regional administrator Jane Kenny. "We're pleased that, in this case, we were able to rectify the problem and come to a settlement. EPA will continue to carefully scrutinize hazardous waste activities in and around Model City to protect the health and well being of local residents and their environment."
In September 2000, Clean Harbors and the DOE's contractor disclosed to EPA the possibility that the 180 large PCB capacitors had been buried in Chemical Waste Management's (CWM) Model City landfill instead of incinerated. After locating and removing the three metal containers housing the capacitors, CWM paid a penalty of $78,475 for failing to open the containers and inspect their contents prior to disposing of them - a violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
Clean Harbors, an environmental management firm, also played a role in the improper disposal of the capacitors, mislabeling some shipments of capacitors as PCB debris. PCB debris may be landfilled as hazardous waste, but large, high voltage capacitors must be incinerated.
Upon arrival at Spring Grove, the containers were opened and inspected, but no attempt was made to reconcile the discrepancy between the manifest and the contents, or to notify EPA of the discrepancy within 15 days - both actions required under TSCA. The containers were then shipped to Clean Harbors of Connecticut in Bristol, this time manifested as TSCA exempt ballasts, which may be disposed of in a hazardous waste landfill.
In Bristol, Clean Harbors again failed to note the discrepancy or to notify EPA. When the capacitors were shipped to the CWM hazardous waste landfill in Model City, the accompanying manifest identified the waste to CWM as "PCB soil and debris" - again, material that may be disposed of in a hazardous waste landfill.
The capacitors were buried in the Model City landfill in late September 2000. They were retrieved from the landfill in January 2002 and were then disposed of according to PCB regulations.
The company made its $85,750 payment in mid-November 2002.
Earth Team Gets More VolunteersWASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2002 (ENS) - The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced Wednesday that it has had a record breaking year for its Earth Team Volunteer Program with more than one million hours of service donated to conservation activities.
Volunteers worked on thousands of conservation projects including streambank restoration, clean up of rivers, streams and lakes, and outdoor classroom development.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Ann Veneman said the Earth Team volunteers "are working with individuals and communities to protect and conserve natural resources."
"These volunteers are an important part of our conservation delivery system and are just one example of how USDA employees are helping build stronger communities," Veneman added.
The National Earth Team Status Report for fiscal year 2002 shows a 19 percent increase in the number of volunteers, a 17 percent increase in the number of volunteer hours and a five percent increase in the number of NRCS offices using volunteer services over the previous year's figures.
For fiscal year 2002, the total value of volunteer time was more than $17 million, based on the $16.05 hourly rate established by national volunteer organizations. The total amount invested nationwide in the Earth Team is about $199,000, which gives NRCS a return on its investment equal to $86 for every $1 spent.
Since the Earth Team began in 1982, the number of volunteers has gone from 327 to more than 38,000 and the number of hours donated has jumped from 29,100 to 1,089,100.
"Earth Team volunteers will be particularly important as we move forward to implement the new Farm Bill and provide more conservation on private lands in the future," said NRCS chief Bruce Knight.
The Earth Team is NRCS' volunteer program for those who are interested in conserving America's natural resources and want to make a difference. Earth Team volunteers work with NRCS conservationists to provide conservation technical assistance to landowners and to help young people learn about conservation.
They also assist youth groups, professional societies or civic groups with local projects on water quality, community beautification and erosion control. In addition, volunteers work in NRCS offices to provide clerical assistance, organize computer data, prepare newsletters or educate others about natural resource conservation.
For more information on the Earth Team, visit the NRCS Web site at: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/feature/volunteers/
Cold Turtles Get Free Ride SouthYARMOUTH PORT, Massachusetts, December 19, 2002 (ENS) - Twenty-four turtles found stranded and freezing on Cape Cod will be relocated this week to the comfort of warmer climates thanks to a $1,000 grant from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Each year, a few dozen sea turtles wash ashore on Cape Cod beaches. Sea turtles migrate or float with the current and feed in Cape Cod Bay during the warm summer months.
When the water turns cold in early winter, it reduces the turtles' body temperatures below normal, and the turtles may wash ashore in a condition called cold stunned. IFAW has assisted with the rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles in previous years as well, including 1999 when over 200 turtles stranded within a month.
So far this year, 101 turtles have been transported to the New England Aquarium for rehabilitation. The turtles were suffering from hypothermia, illness and some injuries. Twenty-four of the rescued turtles - 22 Kemp's ridleys and two hybrid species - will be heading south to warm waters.
Four are going to South Carolina and 20 are going to Florida. The $1,000 donation will be used to pay for the trip on a commercial airline.
"We are happy to work with the New England Aquarium and do our part to rescue and rehabilitate these turtles," said Joanne Fielder, IFAW emergency relief veterinarian. "The shock caused by the sudden drop in temperature in our waters can be incredibly severe, so we hope these turtles make a full recovery and enjoy their winter home down south."
Twenty turtles - 18 Kemp's ridleys and two hybrids - will be transported today to Florida while the remaining four will leave for South Carolina on Friday. In Florida, four turtles will be taken to Volusia Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, four to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, six to the Disney Living Seas Rehabilitation Center, four to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, and two to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater.
In South Carolina, all four Kemp's ridleys will go to the South Carolina Aquarium in Charlestown.