AmeriScan: February 5, 2002


DAVIS, California, February 5, 2002 (ENS) - As carbon dioxide levels rise, plant life around the globe may lose the ability to incorporate certain forms of nitrogen, like those found in most fertilizers, says a plant physiologist at the University of California, Davis.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations have risen by more than 30 percent during the past two centuries. For many years, scientists believed these rising levels of carbon dioxide would benefit plants, because CO2 is one of the essential ingredients in photosynthesis, the process by which green plants use sunlight to manufacture the chemical energy they need.

In laboratory experiments, plants first responded to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels by assimilating 30 percent more carbon. But within a few days or weeks, this accelerated rate of carbon processing dropped back to just 12 percent greater than normal.

"The results from our study indicate that carbon dioxide inhibition of nitrate assimilation contributes to this phenomenon and suggest two physiological mechanisms that may be responsible," said lead author Arnold Bloom, a professor in the UC Davis vegetable crops department.

Farmers and gardeners often apply nitrogen rich fertilizers to their crops, because nitrogen is key to producing proteins and nucleic acids such as DNA in plants. Bloom and his colleagues have been studying how crop plants respond to being fertilized with two different forms of nitrogen: nitrate and ammonium.

In their new study, which appears in today's issue of the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," the researchers found that nitrate fertilizer is not as efficient as ammonium fertilizer when atmospheric CO2 levels are higher than normal.

After growing wheat seedlings with either nitrate or ammonium under varying concentrations of CO2, the team discovered that elevated levels of CO2 inhibited the processing of nitrate in the wheat leaves in two ways.

First, plants place a higher priority on storing and processing CO2 than they do nitrogen, so when carbon dioxide levels rose, some of the chemicals needed to assimilate the nitrate were already tied up in assimilating CO2.

Second, to make use of nitrate, the plants have to convert nitrate into nitrite and then move the nitrite into structures within their cells called chloroplasts, which are the center for photosynthesis. Bloom's research indicated that elevated levels of CO2 interfered with the overall process of photosynthesis by blocking this transfer.

"We expect that the data from this study will have real world implications for crop production," Bloom said. "In well drained soils generally devoted to wheat production, nitrate is the common form of nitrogen available in the soil. This study suggests that a shift to increase ammonium availability might be needed."

As atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise, nitrate sensitive plant and tree species in the wild could be at a competitive disadvantage to species that are either able to convert nitrate into amino acids in their roots or use ammonium as their predominant nitrogen source, Bloom added. This could change the distribution of plants in natural ecosystems.

The study was funded by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, February 5, 2002 (ENS) - Just days before the start of the 2002 Winter Olympics, the host site, Salt Lake City, is in the midst of an air inversion that traps air pollution in the region's valleys.

The Sierra Club today called on Utah drivers to take transit and other steps to reduce auto emissions, a major contributor to the lung clogging smog now blanketing the Olympic site.

Monday was designated by the state as an official "unhealthy" day, and residents were notified that they should reduce driving and not burn wood.

"Utah should be providing the most healthy environment possible for the Olympic athletes and visitors. The last thing Olympic athletes should have to worry about is the air they are exposed to in the Village and the valley," said Nina Dougherty of the Sierra Club's Utah chapter. "The pollution in this inversion is bad stuff to breathe."

A temperature inversion is caused by a high pressure system that pushes down colder air on Utah's valleys holding in all air pollution at ground level where it is most hazardous to breathe. During these periods, people are warned to limit exercise.

Children, older people and those with respiratory or heart diseases are cautioned not to go outside at all. On several occasions during inversions, Utah's hospital emergency rooms have been crowded with asthmatic children.

The Sierra Club has been critical of Utah's preparation for an automobile dominated Olympic games. Olympic officials were aware of the temperature inversion health threat but maintained that only five percent to 10 percent of the spectators would be willing to take buses to venues.

Instead of more buses, officials obtained thousands of sport utility vehicles, which are three to five times more polluting than cars.

The Sierra Club is urging people to make use of the limited transit and other ways to help reduce air pollution during the games.

"We cannot control the weather, but we can control the levels of pollution underneath it," said Marc Heileson of the Sierra Club's southwest office.

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WASHINGTON, DC, February 6, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) secured commitments for a record $4.3 billion in pollution control and cleanup measures from polluters last year.

The agency released data on its enforcement and compliance assurance results for fiscal year 2001 last week. The EPA said it also secured commitments for an estimated reduction of more than 660 million pounds of harmful pollutants and the treatment and safe management of an estimated record 1.84 billion pounds of pollutants.

"With our state and local partners, we set a high priority on areas that posed serious threats to health and the environment," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman. "The Administration is determined to actively pursue those who fail to comply with the law while working closely with the regulated community to find workable and flexible solutions."

But according to figures released January 10 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), there has been a steep decline in environmental enforcement during President George W. Bush's first year in office.

PEER's analysis of the latest figures available shows cases referred by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for criminal prosecution dropped by 20 percent overall during the 2001 fiscal year. The fall-off in EPA referrals was most significant in several of the agency's principal anti-pollution priority areas:

The EPA says its major priorities included compliance with the Clean Air Act's New Source Review rules, which require emissions control upgrades at older facilities which expand their output, regulations governing protection of drinking water and illegal discharges from combined and sanitary sewer outflows and animal feeding operations, and compliance by permit evaders, those practicing illegal hazardous waste practices in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Enforcement and compliance results from last year include:

Still, PEER analyst Jessica Revere is critical of the EPA record over the past year. "The spigot for environmental cases entering the prosecution pipeline is being cranked way down during President Bush's first year in office," she said. "We can expect even greater declines in 2002 with the removal of nearly half of the criminal investigators and the new agency leadership's pledge to de-emphasize environmental enforcement." More information is available on the EPA website at:

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WHITE PLAINS, New York, February 5, 2002 (ENS) - Growing concern about the vulnerability of the Indian Point nuclear plant in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks prompted a rally today in New York.

In his State of the Union message last week, President George W. Bush said that captured terrorists were known to have engineering drawings of U.S. nuclear plants. Last Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld revealed U.S. intelligence reports that al Qaeda had active plans for crashing hijacked planes into U.S. nuclear plants and recruited operatives to carry it out.

On Friday, saying "since September 11, everything has changed," New York Governor George Pataki called on the federal government to reassess its guidelines for the Indian Point evacuation plan and asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a limited number of potassium iodide pills for use in the case of a nuclear accident or terrorist attack.

The warnings made headlines across the country, and the New York media carried several stories warning that terrorists may be plotting to attack Indian Point.

The Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC) is calling for a shutdown of Indian Point's reactors and tighter security of its radioactive fuel pools in light of the threat of terrorist attack. Members of the New York Congressional delegation have responded to mounting public concerns with calls for decommissioning the plant and federalizing plant security.

Speakers at today's rally highlighted the growing number of state and local officials and members of Congress, along with local, regional and national civic and environmental groups, who oppose the current Indian Point evacuation plan as unworkable. Critics are calling for the plant to be shut down to protect public safety until the plan can be updated.

Last Thursday, Governor Pataki certified the evacuation plan, despite widespread objections that the plan cannot protect the public from a terrorist attack. The Governor's approval allows the plant to keep operating for another year.

On Friday, Representative Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, became the first member of Congress to call directly for the decommissioning of Indian Point and securing the spent fuel and radioactive material stored on its site.

"Today, I have concluded that the continued operation of the Indian Point nuclear power plant presents an unacceptable risk to the safety and security of the New York metropolitan area," Lowey said. "A failure at Indian Point, resulting either from a terrorist incident or from an accident, would have a catastrophic human and economic impact on New York, far more devastating in its scope than anything our nation has experienced."

Lowey has introduced the Nuclear Security Act (HR 3382) into the House, which would federalize security at nuclear facilities.

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BARSTOW, California, February 5, 2002 (ENS) - A Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land manager in southern California is being reassigned because he angered ranchers and off road vehicle enthusiasts, conservation groups charge.

The Department of Interior (DOI) is reassigning Tim Salt, Desert District manager for the BLM, for his actions in settling a lawsuit with environmental groups to protect endangered species including the desert tortoise and peninsular bighorn sheep, say Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The settlement curbs grazing, off road vehicle use and mining on BLM desert lands.

Salt oversaw the 11 million acres California Desert Conservation Area, which includes sensitive desert areas in San Diego, Los Angeles, Imperial, Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern, Inyo and Mono counties.

"The Interior Department's action against Salt followed a months long campaign for his dismissal by so called 'wise use' groups," said PEER California coordinator Karen Schambach. "Ranchers and off roaders have become accustomed to BLM going to the mat in their defense. Tim Salt knew they could not win a case against species protections and negotiated the best deal he and BLM attorneys could for these folks."

The conservation groups believe the reassignment is part of an emerging trend by the Bush administration to get rid of public lands officials who bring balance to land management decisions. In December, Kate Cannon, manager of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, was reassigned after ranchers and a Republican congressman complained about lack of grazing access for cattle in the monument.

In California, the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Region head, Brad Powell, was reassigned after approving a management plan for Sierra Nevada national forests that that did not satisfy logging interests. His replacement has taken steps to reopen the management plan, 10 years in the making, to allow more logging.

"Salt reached a reasonable compromise with the environmental groups and was trying to move BLM into compliance with the law," said Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity. Interior Secretary Gale Norton's "removal of Salt signals a disturbing return to the day when the agency ignored its legal obligations to protect the public lands."

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky, February 5, 2002 (ENS) - A planned coal burning power plant near Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky could release thousands of tons of haze and smog forming pollutants each year.

The state of Kentucky has issued a draft permit for the 1,500 megawatt, pulverized coal fired power plant, which critics say could threaten human health and the park's natural resources. The proposed Peabody Energy Company Thoroughbred Generating Station would be built just 50 miles from the park.

"Mammoth Cave is already one of the most polluted parks in the country," said Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). "Problems with haze, smog and acid deposition at Mammoth rival those at Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks."

Computer models indicate that emissions from the Thoroughbred power plant could reduce scenic views by up to 25 days a year. Three out of every four visitors at Mammoth Cave never venture into the depths of the world renowned cave system, but enjoy hiking to scenic overlooks.

Thoroughbred would become Kentucky's fourth largest producer of mercury. Toxic pollutants could harm the park's aquatic ecosystems, including the Green River, home to more than 80 species of fish and sensitive mussels, and the unique species which live deep within the park's cave system.

"Clearly this plant would make a bad situation worse at Mammoth Cave," said Don Barger, NPCA's southeast senior regional director. "It is the state's legal responsibility to protect the public and the parks from this pollution."

The Thoroughbred Generating Station would be located in Muhlenburg County, where the Paradise Steam Plant, Tennessee Valley Authority's second largest coal fired power plant, has operated for more than 30 years. Despite addition of pollution control equipment on two of the plant's three units, the Paradise plant continues to produce thousands of tons of pollution each year.

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BANGOR, Maine, February 5, 2002 (ENS) - Acadia National Park needs an additional $7.3 million a year to achieve the highest standards of resource protection, finds the park's first business plan.

The Acadia business plan is part of a four year old nationwide partnership between the National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). Friends of Acadia helped fund the program at Acadia National Park, supporting the work of two graduate students who helped the park set priorities for funding, improving and preserving park resources.

"We looked at what it takes to operate Acadia National Park," said Acadia National Park superintendent Paul Haertel, "and identified needs and set priorities for the money that is available."

To date, the partnership program, called the Business Plan Initiative (BPI), has analyzed 40 national park units across the country, discovering that chronic funding shortfalls are crippling the parks' ability to preserve resources. On average, the parks are operating at a 32 percent shortfall.

Acadia is under funded by about 53 percent, the review found. Lack of funds impedes the Park Service's ability to protect resources and provide a high quality experience for visitors.

At Acadia, more than one million items wait to be catalogued, education programs have been cut, and scientific knowledge about the park's native plants and wildlife is limited.

"Acadia National Park is one of Maine's most precious resources and it must be preserved to ensure that it may be enjoyed for generations to come," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. "I am grateful to the National Parks Conservation Association and to Friends of Acadia for helping to develop this important business plan, which gives Congress a clearer sense of Acadia's true funding needs."

The Bush administration has pledged $4.9 billion for the national parks over the next five years, although the NPCA says his budget requests so far have failed to measure up to this pledge.

"Full funding [of Acadia] will require another $7.3 million annually," said Representative Thomas Allen, a Maine Democrat. "That is a small price to pay for the protection of this national treasure. You can be assured that I will continue to work to convince my colleagues in Congress that this money would be very well spent."

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OAK RIDGE, Tennessee, February 5, 2002 (ENS) - Scientists have launched an international effort to sequence the genomes of valuable tree species.

Cottonwoods, hybrid poplars and aspens could play a role in improving the environment, displacing imported oil and creating domestic jobs. But first, scientists from the Department of Energy (DOE), Oak Ridge National Laboratory and around the world have to sequence the Populus genome.

Trees like cottonwood, hybrid poplar and aspen have long been used as model organisms in forestry, and the choice of Populus as the first tree genome to sequence is due in large part to their rapid growth rate, small genome size and widespread use in areas of interest to the forest industry and the DOE.

"This effort will furnish scientists both in this country and abroad with an unprecedented molecular 'parts list' for a tree," said Jerry Tuskan, a researcher in ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division. "Such a list will provide the scientific community with a catalog of genes, knowledge as to what these genes do in trees and an exciting opportunity to better understand how trees grow."

This information will allow scientists to use trees to better carry out functions like carbon sequestration - using vegetation to capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas - and increase production of biomass for fuels and fiber. Researchers expect to make the genetic blueprint of Populus available within 18 months.

"Genetic sequencing of Populus is expected to lead to faster growing trees, trees that produce more biomass for conversion to fuels, while also sequestering carbon from the atmosphere," said Stan Wullschleger of ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division. "In addition, trees with unique traits may be used in phytoremediation, a process whereby trees such as cottonwoods or hybrid poplars could be used to clean up hazardous waste sites."

"Clearly, the information we gain from this effort will benefit ongoing and future projects within DOE and open the doors to countless other opportunities to use woody plants in the pursuit of goals related to traditional forest products and even ecological preservation," added Wullschleger.

Poplar trees are already being used in a variety of ways ranging from paper production to carbon sequestration to the development of fast growing trees as a source of feedstocks for renewable bio-based products.

"I have never seen the forest genetics community more excited," said Toby Bradshaw, a molecular biologist with the University of Washington, which helped DOE lay the foundation for this effort. "The sequencing of the poplar genome will be a bonanza for researchers seeking to understand how individual genes influence the growth of trees and their adaptation to the natural environment. This knowledge might eventually be applied to the breeding of fast growing trees capable of producing wood, fiber and energy sustainably on a small amount of land."