AmeriScan: February 22, 2002


ASHEVILLE, North Carolina, February 22, 2002 (ENS) - The last three months - November 2001 through January 2002 - have been the warmest on record for the contiguous United States, the National Climatic Data Center said Thursday.

Using the world's largest weather database, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calculated conditions for the past three months.

"Unusual warmth persisted across a large part of the contiguous United States during the past three months resulting in the warmest November through January since national records began in 1895," said Jay Lawrimore, chief of NOAA's Climate Monitoring Branch at the Asheville center.

The preliminary national average temperature was 39.94 F (4.41 C), which was 4.3 F (2.4 C) above the 1895-2001 long term mean. The previous record for the same three month period was established in 1999-2000.

Since 1976, the nationally averaged November-January temperature has risen at a rate of 1.2 F (0.7 C) per decade.

During the most recent three month period, temperatures far above average stretched from as far west as Montana and Oklahoma to the East Coast. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Massachusetts and Vermont had their warmest November to January, and as many as 18 states from the Plains to the Northeast recorded their second warmest November-January.

The warmth coincided with below normal snowfall. A lack of snow cover contributed to short term drought conditions in the northern Plains.

Although precipitation was near normal nationwide from November to January, an area of below normal precipitation stretched from Florida to Maine, worsening drought conditions along the East Coast. By the end of January, moderate to severe drought conditions were widespread from southern Georgia to Maine.

Drought continued in much of the Inter-Mountain West while abundant rain and snowfall along the West Coast alleviated drought in much of Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Severe to extreme drought covered about 18 percent of the contiguous United States at the end of January.

The Center also noted that the January global temperature was the warmest in the 123 year record kept by the Center, with mean temperatures more than 7 F (4 C) above average throughout large parts of North America and central Asia.

More information is available at:

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WASHINGTON, DC, February 22, 2002 (ENS) - More than 34,000 Gulf War veterans are dying at a rate almost ten times higher than a comparable group, despite being told by Pentagon officials they were not exposed to chemical agents after Operation Desert Storm.

In 2000, the Department of Defense (DoD) revised its estimate of the dispersion pattern of chemical agent fallout from the demolition of the Iraqi chemical weapons depot at Khamisiyah in southern Iraq, which was destroyed by U.S. troops in 1991. The DoD first estimated that 99,825 veterans had been exposed to low levels of the nerve agent sarin after the demolition.

In 2000, DoD remodeled the Khamisiyah plume exposure data. The new model excluded 34,418 veterans who had been told they had been in the Khamisiyah downwind hazard zone. The agency then added 34,638 other Khamisiyah area veterans to the new exposure model, bringing the total number of exposed veterans to 100,045.

In late 2001, the Veterans Benefits Administration's Data Management Office (DMO) decided to compare mortality figures between the veterans excluded from the new DoD model and the veterans who were added in their place.

The mortality numbers released by the Veteran's Administration show that of the 34,418 who were excluded from DoD's remodeling of the Khamisiyah chemical weapons fallout plume, 1,011 have died, compared to just 105 of the 34,638 veterans who were added to the revised Khamisiyah plume model in 2000.

"This pattern in entirely consistent with past practices concerning information relating to toxic exposures in Gulf War veterans," said Thomas Corey, national president of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). "We will request from Attorney General [John] Ashcroft the appointment of a special counsel to investigate this and other matters related to the Pentagon's conduct in dealing with Gulf War illnesses."

Since 1995, the Pentagon's Directorate for Deployment Health Support has spent more than $150 million on Gulf War related research projects, Corey noted. None of these studies have been peer reviewed or otherwise subjected to independent scrutiny or the standards of legitimate medical science, he charged.

Corey reiterated VVA's call for the creation of an independent National Institute of Veterans Health within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study veteran's medical problems.

"We cannot have the agency that created the problem studying the problem," Corey said. "An independent institute within NIH that is dedicated to studying the full range of health problems affecting veterans is the only way to guarantee that we get good science and therefore good medical treatment for veterans."

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SACRAMENTO, California, February 22, 2002 (ENS) - The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has been sued by environmental groups seeking first ever controls on agricultural discharges to Central Valley, California waterways.

Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of WaterKeepers Northern California and the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG).

"Millions of dollars worth of scientific studies conducted by state and federal agencies conclusively establish that agricultural pollutants are the most pervasive source of aquatic life toxicity in the Central Valley," said WaterKeeper's Bill Jennings. "Yet under political pressure, the water boards have exempted farmers from any requirement to monitor or control pollutant discharges."

The suit seeks the revocation of a 20 year old waiver issued by the Board which exempts irrigation return flows and farm runoff from compliance with the state's clean water act, the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act. Because agricultural discharges are also excluded from the federal Clean Water Act, California growers have been exempt from required best management practices, discharge limits or even monitoring requirements which regulate discharges from thousands of other businesses around the state.

"In 1982, regulators assumed that growers would regulate themselves," said Teri Olle of CALPIRG. "It's twenty years later and the data show that assumption was dead wrong."

An analysis by CALPIRG and the Pesticide Action Network of more than 92,000 water quality samples shows that pesticides are almost always detected in Central Valley waters, showing up at 96 percent of all locations. They are detected at levels toxic to aquatic life more than half of the time.

A total of 565 miles of rivers and creeks and 488,224 acres of Delta and other waterways in the Central Valley region alone have been recognized by the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for being impaired by agricultural pesticides. The groups submitted 20 studies to the Regional Board indicating pesticide toxicity in Central Valley waters, many of which document periods of lethal toxicity for days or even weeks at a time.

In addition to threatening fish and recreational uses, agricultural discharges into the Delta waterways may degrade drinking water used by millions of Californians in the Central Valley, southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

WaterKeepers and CALPIRG petitioned the Regional Board to dismiss the waiver in late 2000. The petition, which was supported by 67 other public interest organizations statewide, was dismissed by the Regional Board in May 2001. An appeal by the groups was dismissed by the State Water Resources Control Board on January 23.

"We've given the regulators over a year to propose regulations to control these discharges," said Mike Lozeau of Earthjustice. "By dismissing our petition and our appeal, the water boards leave us with no choice but to go to court."

A copy of the petition is available online at:

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WASHINGTON, DC, February 22, 2002 (ENS) - Seven universities will receive grants totaling almost $2.22 million to study the plant based remediation of soils contaminated by heavy metals or organic chemicals.

The joint initiative of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seeks to foster innovative scientific solutions to the worldwide problem of contaminated soil.

Plant based clean up, or phytoremediation, uses plants to degrade, remove or stabilize toxic compounds from contaminated soil and water. Soil contaminated with heavy metals or organic chemicals affects human health, ecosystem functions and agriculture.

Experts estimate the cost of soil cleanup in the United States in the billions of dollars. Researchers believe that phytoremediation could provide a cost effective and much less disruptive cleanup process when compared to traditional cleanup techniques, such as transporting massive amounts of contaminated soil to hazardous waste landfills.

The NSF is funding three multidisciplinary research projects that will investigate the genetic components of phytoremediation of heavy metals in soils. One project will determine the suite of genes responsible for heavy metal hyper accumulation in one plant species, Thlaspi caerulescens.

A second project will search the genomes of brassicaceous plants for genes involved in metal hyper accumulation. A third will study the mechanisms of arsenic uptake, translocation, distribution and detoxification by the Brake fern, a common fern in the southeastern U.S. and California.

EPA research projects are designed to explain the mechanisms for phytoremediation of organic chemicals including polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and chlorinated pesticides.

The EPA is funding three projects to aid understanding of three scientific problems: the microbial ecology of chemical degrading bacteria that live in the root systems of monoterpene producing plants; the role of chemicals produced by roots that aid in making the organic chemicals available for uptake and metabolism by plants; and the role of plant transported oxygen for degradation of organic contaminants in waterlogged, low oxygen salt marsh sediments or soils.

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WASHINGTON, DC, February 22, 2002 (ENS) - Women must be involved in environmental planning to develop effective policies and programs to safeguard the environment, argues a policy brief by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

The paper by the Washington DC based nonprofit group explains that men and women use natural resources differently because of their unique roles and responsibilities, access to and control over resources, and decisionmaking authority. They are also affected differently by changes in environmental policies.

"Ignoring gender distorts the understanding of human impacts on the environment," Justine Sass, policy analyst at PRB, writes in "Women, Men, and Environmental Change: The Gender Dimensions of Environmental Policies and Programs."

Social roles define the different ways in which men and women use natural resources, Sass argues. In much of the developing world, men exploit natural resources for commercial purposes, while women's work includes domestic tasks such as cooking, and fetching water and fuelwood.

Economic, institutional and legal constraints affect the way men and women use resources. In countries that restrict women's rights to own land, women have little incentive to invest in soil conservation.

Without land rights, women often lack collateral for loans and have difficulty accessing technology for innovative land management, Sass writes.

Environmental degradation also affects men and women differently. Deforestation can mean that men who log for a living must travel farther for work. For women, it can mean having to spend more time gathering fuelwood. Girls, often responsible for water and fuelwood collection, may need to drop out of school to assist.

Some countries have integrated gender assessments into their environmental decision making processes. Uganda's National Environmental Plan includes gender analysis for environmental planning. Mexico and countries in Central America adopted a regional statement about the importance of incorporating gender in environmental policies.

"Understanding these gender differences is an essential part of developing policies aimed at both better environmental outcomes and improved health and well being," Sass writes.

The paper will be used by women environmental ministers from 36 countries in a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on March 7-8. The ministers will meet with other global leaders to draft recommendations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa this fall.

More information is available at:

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HOUSTON, Texas, February 22, 2002 (ENS) - The Chinese tallow tree has invaded Texas grasslands, turning once complex ecosystems into single species forests.

Rice University ecologist Evan Siemann hopes to find out how this tree has been able to "break all the rules."

"The incredible diversity of native plants in the coastal prairies is gone within 30 years after the Chinese tallow tree invades the area," said Siemann, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "By studying how this tree has been able to thrive, we should be able to learn more about the rules that govern a biological community and the interactions among species within that community."


A researcher in a dense grove of Chinese tallow trees in Texas (Photo courtesy Evan Siemann, Rice University)
Known for its heart shaped leaves and white fruits, the Chinese tallow tree originated in Asia. The U.S. government brought it to the Gulf Coast area around 1900 in hope of using the wax covered seeds as an agricultural crop. That project was unsuccessful, and the trees escaped from cultivation.

Once Chinese tallow trees replace bluestem grasses, sunflowers, blazing stars and other plants found in the prairies, those species and their associated animal fauna will not come back, Siemann said.

One of the reasons this tree has been able to grow so well is that insects have left it alone and munched on other foliage. Siemann said this is peculiar because unlike the slow growing tallow tree found in China, the American variety lets its defenses down.

The Chinese variety has chemicals in its leaves which makes them hard to digest. The American variety does not produce this substance. Instead, it appears to use that energy to grow faster, which promotes the development of forests.

Siemann is testing various methods of controlling the tallow trees using land in Galveston County owned by the University of Houston Coastal Center.

"If you knock down the tallow trees, they just sprout from roots like crazy," Siemann said. "But fire can kill small tallow trees when they're vulnerable."

During a six year experiment, Siemann is studying how often a prairie needs to be burned to keep the tallow trees out.

He is also flooding sections of prairies and pumping water out of others to determine whether wet or dry conditions can make the prairies more vulnerable to invasion. Another study involves examining the effect fertilizing with nitrogen has on the trees' growth.

"Prairie grass is very efficient at using nitrogen, and the tallow tree uses nitrogen very inefficiently," Siemann noted.

Because the Chinese tallow trees are starting to sprout in the forests of East Texas, Siemann believes the lessons learned from his research will be applicable to many areas.

"This tree is gobbling up real estate everywhere," Siemann said. "Once the canopy trees come down, they'll be replaced by Chinese tallow trees."

Several experiments in the Big Thicket National Preserve investigate whether the same factors are responsible for the Chinese tallow tree's success in the forests as in grasslands.

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MAYWOOD, Illinois, February 22, 2002 (ENS) - Manmade alterations to the environment may increase the susceptibility of fish to an emerging virus, say Illinois researchers.

The scientific and fishing communities are concerned that factors such as high temperatures, stress caused by catch and release fishing, and environmental toxins may make largemouth bass more susceptible to the recently discovered largemouth bass virus (LMBV).

Dr. Tony Goldberg of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine presented details of this research today to participants at the third annual Largemouth Bass Virus Workshop in Little Rock, Arkansas. The workshop is sponsored by the Bass Angler's Sportsman Society (BASS), and brings together scientists and fisheries management personnel from across the United States.

Goldberg and Dr. David Philipp - senior scientist at the Center for Aquatic Ecology at the Illinois Natural History Survey - are leading a research effort into the biology and epidemiology of LMBV. They are collaborating with researchers and public officials from Illinois and 16 other states in which the virus has been found.

Theirs is the first study to examine whether susceptibility to the disease may be worsened by human impacts on the environment. The largemouth bass virus system may be a good general model for understanding the biology of other emerging viruses of wildlife, such as the West Nile virus, the Ebola virus and viruses related to canine distemper, the researchers say.

LMBV has been linked to die offs of bass in at least 10 states. The virus poses no danger to people.

The study was funded in part by the Conservation Medicine Center of Chicago (CMCC), a collaboration between the Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine and University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

The goal of the CMCC is to study how animals and people each affect the ecosystem and how changes in the ecosystem affect the health of all species. The CMCC is funding seven research projects, with the hope of identifying new diseases; using knowledge obtained through research to develop treatment methods for humans; and tracking species to species movement of viruses and other disease causing organisms.

More information is available at:

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FORT COLLINS, Colorado, February 22, 2002 (ENS) - A team of researchers led by Colorado State University plans to develop sunflowers into a rubber producing crop.

The team hopes to reduce harvest pressure on rubber trees in Southeast Asia and Brazil - now the world's sole natural source of rubber.

The United States is now dependent upon imports for its rubber supply, importing almost 1.3 million tons a year at a cost of $2 billion. Almost all natural rubber comes from rubber trees including those grown on plantations in Malaysia and in Brazilian rain forests.

The production of rubber trees on Malaysian plantations is now diminishing because farmers there consider it to be a crop with low value.

Research at Colorado State will be based at the Western Colorado Research Center, a part of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Colorado State. It will explore ways to increase rubber production in sunflowers.

Other project collaborators will look at optimizing rubber production in guayule, a plant native to southwestern states.

"Sunflowers naturally produce a small amount of rubber," said Calvin Pearson, Colorado State professor and research agronomist and research project coordinator. "By developing new sunflower varieties, the quality and quantity of rubber in sunflowers can be increased. Guayule naturally produces high quality rubber, but more research is needed to make it a more profitable crop. By developing these crops, we're able to support our national economy and become less dependent upon imports."

Natural rubber is a component of more than 40,000 products including 400 medical devices. The U.S., which uses about 20 percent of the global rubber supply, is the single largest consumer of natural rubber.

About half of the global rubber supply is natural, and the other half is synthetic. The federal government last year made finding alternative, domestic sources of rubber production a national priority.

"Although rubber supplies are currently sufficient to meet market demand, the supply will likely diminish since plantation owners don't see the crop as profitable," said Lee Sommers, director of the Colorado State Agricultural Experiment Station. "This could lead to stress on the American economy since so many products we use in our day to day life depend upon rubber."

The group received a $2.5 million Department of Agriculture grant to foster rubber production.

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GAINESVILLE, Florida, February 22, 2002 (ENS) - The Sea Turtle Survival League (STSL) will begin a new Sea Turtle Habitat Awareness Campaign this spring.

The STSL, a program of the non-profit Caribbean Conservation Corporation, says the campaign will provide coastal businesses with educational materials about Florida's sea turtles, their habitats and protection issues. The materials include Do Not Disturb door hangers, table top tents and placemat coloring sheets.

door hanger

In March, the Sea Turtle Survival League will begin passing these educational door hangers in seven Florida counties (Photo courtesy STSL)
Working together, STSL and local environmental groups hope to increase awareness about ongoing sea turtle issues, including the loss and degradation of Florida's sandy beaches, which are important for both sea turtles and humans.

Florida's natural coastal regions are being put under more and more pressure as the population in coastal cities and towns continues to grow in size and requires additional resources. Coastal areas provide vital nesting habitat for threatened and endangered sea turtles and contain some of the most fragile ecosystems in Florida.

Development and human encroachment on nesting beaches can disturb or discourage nesting female sea turtles and increase the mortality of hatchlings emerging from a nest.

With the beginning of nesting season in March 2002, STSL will begin the campaign to increase awareness about the threats to Florida's sea turtle nesting habitat with a focus on seven counties: Sarasota, Collier and Lee on the Gulf coast and Brevard, Volusia, Indian River and Martin on the Atlantic coast.

This campaign is being funded through a grant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Marine Turtle Grants Program, which receives revenue from the sale of the Florida Sea Turtle Speciality License Plate. The Sea Turtle Habitat Awareness Campaign will include information on information about sea turtles, the coastal habitat's that sea turtle depend upon, the importance of protecting Florida's coasts and ways people can reduce their impacts on Florida's coasts.

Coastal businesses that are working to protect sea turtles and their nesting habitat in the seven counties can be nominated for a "Sea Turtle Friendly Award." The awards program is designed to encourage more responsible management of coastal properties to benefit sea turtle nesting, and in the process, raise awareness about those establishments doing their part to protect sea turtles and coastal habitats.

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POCATELLO, Idaho, February 22, 2002 (ENS) - A professor and students from Idaho State University (ISU) are traveling to Guatemala to help the Ixil Mayan people set up and manage a biosphere reserve.

The 10 month project will involve thousands of Ixil people from more than 40 villages who will undertake a land use inventory and long term plan for the 200,000 acre area.

Using a $267,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Dr. Anthony Stocks and his undergraduate students will help the Ixil learn more about site designated as a biosphere reserve by the Guatemalan government. The future of the area, and its status as a reserve, will rest on the Ixil's research.

The Ixil opposed the 1997 biosphere designation because it banned traditional uses of the forest, demonstrating against the government. The Guatemalan government attempted without success to work on new management of the area with the Ixil.

"The current Mayan mayor of the municipality wanted to have a biosphere use plan designed, but didn't want the [Guatemalan] government to do it," Stocks said. "He approached me and said he wanted ISU to do it because of our previous experience in the region."

Between now and October, the ISU team intends to train about 90 Ixil researchers to conduct technical studies of the uses of the area, supervise the work, and assist the Ixil in data analysis. The team will train about 10 Ixil to facilitate local meetings regarding the studies, and will aid in the creation of a legal administrative structure for the area.

The ISU team also aims to produce a series of technical documents based on the studies provided by the Ixil, and create popular versions of maps of the reserve area.

"Ultimately, the Ixil may not choose to have the area classified as a nationally protected reserve," noted Stocks. "But the current biosphere zone is something the Ixil people want to preserve and have it surrounded by areas of human use. Through a democratic process, they want to try to determine which parts need protection."

About two-thirds of the USAID Guatemala grant will go directly to the Ixil people and will have a significant impact on the local economy. Future ecotourism could generate income for the Ixil, and scientists wanting to study the area may pay site access fees.

"It is tropical forest area that includes high mountains up to 14,000 feet covered with a mix of broad leafed and pine trees and features a lot of biological diversity" Stocks said. "It features 250 to 300 species of resident and migratory birds and has the full range of fauna, including jaguars and tapirs. If the area becomes more stable, it will definitely be of interest to more scientists and tourists."

Through traditional management practices, the Ixil have preserved the reserve as a wooded area for hundreds of years, Stocks said.

"The best outcomes of the project would be for the Ixil people to maintain a 'green area' they've managed to protect for the last thousand years and to manage it themselves with their own rules and to solve their own conflicts," Stocks said. "The Ixil value trees and forest. They don't want people to settle in the heart of the reserve or to have it logged or mined, but they want to be able to continue their traditional uses of the land."