AmeriScan: January 8, 2002


WASHINGTON, DC, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - Wild Atlantic salmon in Maine's rivers are genetically different from each other and from populations in other areas, a new study concludes.

The report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) adds credence to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's decision to list the state's native salmon as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in November 2000.

A committee appointed by the NAS found that wild salmon in eight Maine rivers have remained genetically distinct despite the presence of farm raised salmon stocked in the rivers for more than a century.

"The committee concludes that wild populations of Atlantic salmon in Maine are distinct from other wild Atlantic salmon populations and that differentiation occurs among populations within Maine," the report concludes. "The pattern of variation is so typical of wild salmon that it suggests considerable genetic cohesion and resilience of the resident populations, in spite of large scale stock releases."

Releases of farm raised salmon have "clearly not been effective" at bolstering the wild populations, because the size of the population has continued to decline over the past 30 years, the committee notes.

Just 75-110 adult fish in this endangered population returned to spawn in 2000. This was the lowest estimated return in 10 years - less than half the estimated average annual returns of adult salmon over the previous nine years.

The report concludes that Maine salmon are a distinct native population, showing marked genetic differences from populations in Europe, Canada, and other regions of North America.

"The genetic studies reviewed … lead to consistent conclusions: there is large divergence between continental populations of Atlantic salmon in North America and Europe, considerable divergence among regional populations in Canada and in Maine, and divergence between populations in different watersheds in Maine."

In December 2000, the state of Maine appealed the decision to list Maine's Atlantic salmon as endangered. The suit charges that the federal government's claim that Maine's salmon constitute a "distinct population segment" was not supported by sound science.

The state has not decided what additional steps to take based on the NAS study, according to Governor Angus King's office. But the study does appear to weaken the state's case.

"Maine has wild salmon populations in the eight ... rivers that are as divergent from Canadian populations and from each other as expected among wild salmon populations elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere," the report concludes.

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - An ancient supernova may have triggered an ecological catastrophe by destroying part of Earth's protective ozone layer about two million years ago, researchers said this week.

The effects of the exploding star devastated some forms of ancient marine life, according to a new theory presented at this week's meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington DC.

A stellar cluster with many large, short lived stars prone to producing supernovae passed near Earth's solar system several million years ago, learned Narciso Beniítez, an associate research scientist in astronomy in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

That discovery, made by coauthor and Space Telescope Science Institute astronomer Jesús Maíz-Apellániz, led Benítez to check the scientific record for potential effects of nearby supernovae on the Earth.

"When I did a search, one of the first things that popped out was a 1999 finding where a team of German astronomers led by Klaus Knie detected the presence of a highly unusual isotope of iron in samples of the Earth's crust drilled from the deep ocean bottom," Benítez said.

Knie had proposed that the iron isotope was debris from a recent supernova explosion that took place close to Earth. But astronomers had no plausible candidates for such a nearby explosion until Maíz-Apellániz's work on the stellar cluster.

Benítez consulted with his wife, Matilde Cañelles, an immunologist at the National Institutes of Health who had done her master's thesis on microscopic algae, to learn if the fossil record included an extinction with unusual characteristics that could be linked to a supernova.

"Such an extinction would have had especially pronounced effects on the plankton and the marine organisms," Benítez explained.

Evidence exists for a widespread extinction of plankton and other marine organisms about two million years ago, and Cañelles noted that scientists are still debating the possible causes of the event.

Benítez calculated that cosmic ray emissions from a supernova could have had a devastating effect on the Earth's ozone layer, an upper layer of the atmosphere that absorbs harmful ultraviolet emissions from the sun and other sources.

"This would have produced a significant reduction in phytoplankton abundance and biomass, with devastating effects on other marine populations, such as bivalves," Benítez said.

The theory may heighten concern about human impacts on the ozone layer, Benítez and Maíz-Apellániz said. Benítez emphasized that the theory is consistent with the fossil evidence, and also with the pattern of movement of the star cluster, which would have been at its closest to Earth at that time.

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SANTA MARIA, California, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - A $14.95 million settlement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of California resolves the state's liability for a contaminated landfill.

Under the proposed settlement, the state will waive claims against most parties for reimbursement of $1.4 million in past cleanup costs incurred by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control at the Casmalia Resources Superfund Site near Santa Maria in Central California. The state will also waive all past and future cleanup claims against the federal government.

The EPA has identified more than two dozen state entities which sent waste to the site, making them liable for cleanup costs under the Superfund law. The state sent about 220 million pounds of waste to Casmalia during its 16 years of operation.

The state's largest waste contributors were the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board and Caltrans.

"This settlement is a fair resolution of the state's liability at the site for the cleanup costs," said acting assistant attorney general John Cruden. "It allows the EPA and the state to avoid liability disputes and to coordinate as regulatory agencies to ensure efficient cleanup of the site."

The announcement is part of an ongoing EPA effort to secure funding for the cleanup of the 252 acre landfill, which was designated as a federal Superfund site in September 2001.

The Casmalia Resources Site was an active hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facility from 1973 to 1989. The site accepted about 5.5 billion pounds of waste from about 10,000 contributors, placing it in 92 waste management facilities that included landfills, ponds, shallow wells and treatment units.

"Our agreement with the state provides much needed funding to continue cleanup activities at one of the state's most complex hazardous waste sites," said Jane Diamond, the EPA's Pacific Southwest acting director for Superfund. "We look forward to continuing our partnership with the state of California in limiting the impacts this site has on the local ecosystem and surrounding community."

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GOLDEN, Colorado, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - The world experienced an average number of earthquakes in 2001, but they caused an above average number of fatalities, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says.

Last year was a typical year based on historical seismic activity, producing 65 significant earthquakes worldwide. Significant earthquakes are those of magnitude 6.5 or greater or those that cause fatalities, injuries or substantial damage.

During a typical year, 18 major temblors - magnitude 7.0 to 7.9 - and one great earthquake - 8.0 or higher - occur worldwide. Last year's quakes killed 21,436 people.

"Dense urban populations coupled with weak building structures near the epicenters are responsible for most of the fatalities, in any year," said Waverly Person, director of the USGS National Earthquake Information Center in Golden.

The largest earthquake in 2001 was a magnitude 8.4 event off the coast of Peru on June 23. It caused more than 100 deaths, but the impact of such a large earthquake was reduced because of its offshore location.

The most memorable event for the United States occurred in the Seattle-Tacoma area on February 28, when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck the northwest population center. No deaths were directly attributed to the earthquake, but more than 400 people were injured.

Damages were estimated to be about $1.5 billion and 24 counties were declared eligible for federal disaster assistance. The damage, though considerable, was far less than it would have been in many cities of the world, in part because of aggressive earthquake damage mitigation programs carried out at the state, county and local levels in the Pacific Northwest.

Last year's deadliest earthquake, a magnitude 7.7 event in northwestern India, caused the majority of the world's fatalities. At least 20,103 people were killed when the quake hit on January 26.

The earthquake occurred in a region where strong earthquakes are rare, so buildings were not designed to withstand earthquakes. Most of the fatalities resulted from people caught in collapsing buildings.

The USGS estimates that several million earthquakes occur in the world each year, but many go undetected because they occur remote areas or have very small magnitudes. The USGS now locates about 50 earthquakes each day, or 20,000 a year.

Real time earthquake information can be found at:

The USGS is working to improve its earthquake monitoring and reporting capabilities through the Advanced National Seismic System. In 2001, a total of 110 new earthquake monitoring instruments were installed in the San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Anchorage, Reno and Memphis areas.

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - A comprehensive study of fuel cell vehicles published by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) details the hurdles to be crossed before fuel cell vehicles can see market success.

John DeCicco, a senior fellow with the conservation group Environmental Defense, has released a study of fuel cell vehicles published by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The study highlights rapid progress in fuel cell research and the technology's future promise, but notes that technical and public policy barriers are hindering the technology's development.

"Compared to other long run options," said DeCicco, "fuel cells hold great promise to address multiple concerns, including air pollution, oil dependence, and global warming, while efficiently meeting car customers' growing needs for on board electricity."

In light of the report's findings, Environmental Defense is calling on auto makers to take a more constructive stance on fuel economy standards and other policies that will pull advanced, energy efficient technologies such as fuel cells into the market sooner.

The study finds that the absence of market wide requirements for higher fuel economy blocks progress on many vehicle technologies, including fuel cells.

"It is inconsistent for the industry to tout its work on fuel cells while fighting higher fuel economy standards," said Mills.

Several auto makers have committed to putting fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2005. But the report identifies a "deployability gap" of another 10 to 15 years before a business case can be made for mass market fuel cell cars.

"Closing this gap entails speeding up progress along several challenging technical pathways," said said DeCicco.

In addition to its technology assessment, the study evaluates fuel cell vehicles within the broader context of competing technologies, market trends and pertinent public policies.

"Fuel cell technologies should receive a high priority for government research funding," said Kevin Mills, director of Environmental Defense's Clean Car Campaign. "Well targeted tax incentives such as the Senate CLEAR Act [Cleaner Efficient Automobiles Resulting From Advanced Car Technologies] will also help advance clean vehicle technologies."

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BALTIMORE, Maryland, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - Researchers have discovered a strain of bacteria capable of breaking down toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which contaminate soil and sediments near many industrial sites.

The bacterium breaks down tough chlorine bonds in PCBs in river and harbor sediments. The discovery of the bacterium is reported in the current issue of the journal "Environmental Microbiology" by scientists with the University of Maryland Biotechnology (UMBI).

In experiments using bottom sediments from Baltimore Harbor, researchers of UMBI's Center of Marine Biotechnology (COMB) and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), discovered the PCB degrading bacterium using a rapid DNA screening method.

For several decades, environmentalists and regulators have been trying to deal with tons of banned PCBs in the environment, released by industries for over 70 years.

Beginning in the 19th century, PCBs were made from petroleum as insulators for electrical equipment and other electronics. In 1979, the federal government banned them because of possible environment and human health hazards. But all over the world, PCBs are still bound to bottom sediments of many rivers, harbors and bays.

"Particles of PCBs persist after many years, because they don't dissolve well in water. They attach to sediment and get covered over," said Kevin Sowers, research microbiologist at COMB. "Unless there is some turnover, a lot of PCBs stay hidden."

The hazardous pollutants can build up in fish and marine mammals, in which PCBs can reach thousands of times higher levels than in the water they live in, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"This first identification of a PCB dechlorinating, anaerobic [without oxygen] bacterium is important for bioremediation efforts and for developing molecular probes to monitor PCB degrading where they are found," said Sowers.

The researchers linked PCB dechlorination to the growth of the bacterium, which appears to live off the compound.

"This is a great example of how manmade pollution can be handled by microorganisms through their incredible ability to adapt," said Jennie Hunter-Cevera, UMBI president and environmental biotechnologist.

The report concludes that the UMBI method could be used to identify additional PCB degrading microbes.

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MONTPELIER, Vermont, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - The Trust for Public Land (TPL) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) have purchased 11,854 forested acres in Vermont from the Hancock Timber Resource Group.

The lands are located in the towns of East Haven, Newark, Brighton, Ferdinand, Morgan, Westmore, Warners Grant and Warren's Gore. TPL now holds title to 6,508 acres of these lands and TNC owns the other 5,346 acres.

Most of this land has conservation and public access easements on it that were first conveyed in 1996 by Hancock Timber to the state of Vermont through the Forest Legacy Program. The new nonprofit owners do not expect to hold the property forever, but plan to resell the land to private timberland buyers in the future.

"We look forward to working with the communities where these properties are located, as well as with prospective buyers, to assure that public values are protected and enhanced for the future," said Jon Binhammer, director of land protection for TNC. "Our goal as partners in this project is to protect ecological resources, public access, and the economic potential of these lands for the benefit of the people of this area and the entire state of Vermont."

Scott Abrahamson, project manager for TPL, added, "We are committed to ensuring that these lands are ultimately transferred to responsible timberland owners with a track record of sustainably managing land protected by conservation easements."

Hancock Timber Resource Group has owned these lands since 1993 and has managed them as a timber investment for its institutional clients.

"In our business as timberland managers, we seek to maintain a balance among economic, environmental and community values," said Henry Whittemore, northeast regional manager for Hancock Timber. "This transaction and our partnership with TNC and TPL will help to protect this balance as an integral part of the Northeast Kingdom for years to come."

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WELD, Maine, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - More than 2,400 acres have been added to the Mount Blue State Park in Maine, permanently protecting a 1,298 foot peak known as Hedgehog Hill and about half of the park's popular 20 mile multi-use trail.

The property was purchased for $980,000 from New River Franklin Ltd., a subsidiary of McDonald Investment Company, Inc. Funding came from a combination of money from the Land for Maine's Future Program, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, and private money.

The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization, assisted with the purchase.

As part of the deal, the Maine Department of Conservation's Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) spent $20,000 of all terrain vehicle (ATV) trail money. ATV riders, horseback riders and outdoor enthusiasts who frequent the popular trail will now remain within the park's boundary.

"Western Maine's panoramic vistas in the Mt. Blue and Tumbledown region will be protected for future generations and I'm grateful for the many players who made today's exciting announcement possible,' said Governor Angus King, Jr.

Mt. Blue, which had almost 70,000 visitors last year, is one of Maine's most popular state parks. Monday's purchase increases the size of the park from about 5,000 acres to almost 7,500 acres.

The lands surrounding Mt. Blue are known for their scenic beauty, natural resources, productive forests, and importance for recreation. Conservation of this region has long been a state priority.

Last year, in response to large scale changes in ownership, five organizations - the Webb Lake Association, Friends of the Maine State Parks, Western Maine Audubon Society, Foothills Land Conservancy, and the Appalachian Mountain Club - formed the Tumbledown Conservation Alliance to develop and promote a conservation vision for the region.

The Maine Department of Conservation and the Trust for Public Land are working with the Tumbledown Conservation Alliance to conserve about 30,000 acres in the region. Conservation priorities include mountaintops, popular recreation trails, and habitat for declining wildlife species, such as the peregrine falcon, Bicknell's thrush, and spring salamander.

"The completion of this portion of the Mt. Blue-Tumbledown project is an important step towards ensuring conservation of this wonderful part of Maine," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. "The community around Weld has worked hard to protect the recreation and outdoor resources at Mt. Blue and Tumbledown."

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MILLINGTON, New Jersey, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - A federal-state agreement in New Jersey will turn part of a Superfund site into new acreage for the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Most of the 30 acre New Vernon Road property - part of the Asbestos Dump Superfund site in Long Hill Township - will be preserved and used to expand the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The property is one of four areas contaminated through the improper handling and disposal of asbestos materials.

The agreement to transfer the property was announced today by U.S. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).

"This refuge is a testament to the good that can be accomplished when interested citizens come together in an important cause," said EPA Administrator and former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman said.

"I look forward to continuing to work to see this property transformed from an environmental blight to a model of environmental restoration," added Representative Frelinghuysen.

The EPA has completed cleanup work at the federal Superfund site and will transfer custody of 25 uncontaminated acres to the USFWS, which will set up an environmental awareness center in a barn on the lot. NJDEP will take title to the remaining five acres containing the landfill of asbestos material cleaned up by the EPA.

The USFWS will give the NJDEP $300,000 to help maintain this portion of the property.

The Asbestos Dump site consists of four different properties, including an 11 acre site in Millington, New Jersey where, beginning in 1927, a succession of owners operated an asbestos product manufacturing plant. Asbestos material disposed of at the Millington site created a large mound of about 1.5 acres.

Three separate sites were contaminated when asbestos waste materials from the Millington site were landfilled at nearby properties, including the New Vernon Road site, which was a corn and dairy farm in the 1960s and was later used to landfill broken asbestos tiles, siding and loose asbestos fibers.

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - A 46 year old man was treated and released from a local hospital Monday night after a confrontation with a mountain lion.

Mark Hurd of Colorado Springs told the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DoW) that he went outside about 9 pm to investigate a commotion in his back yard and saw an animal attacking his small dog. Hurd thought it was a German shepherd, and entered the fray to intervene on his dog's behalf.

He jumped on the back of the larger animal, and realized that the animal attacking his dog was a mountain lion. A brief scuffle ensued before Hurd released his grip on the lion and the cat ran off. Hurd received stitches for cuts behind his ear.

Colorado DoW officers spent several hours tracking the lion, but called off the search early Tuesday morning. The Division of Wildlife estimates there are between 2,000 and 3,000 mountain lions in the state.

"Mountain lions are common on the city's West Side," said DoW officer Trina Lynch. "We strongly encourage people who live in mountain lion habitat to secure their pets in covered kennels to prevent lion attacks."

"This is a good time to reiterate the some common sense precautions," said Lynch. "It's not uncommon for a mountain lion to travel through areas where people live and work. It's possible that the lion has killed a deer or other prey; so if you see a carcass covered with dirt, branches and leaves, it's best call the Division of Wildlife as it is likely the lion will return to continue feeding."

Lions are active year around. Deer make up the main portion of a mountain lion's diet, but it is common for them to hunt small mammals. Wildlife officials stress that the best protection for pets is to make sure that kennels have coverings over the top to prevent lions from jumping in.

Mountain lions can travel many miles in a day, and have a territory of 100 square miles or more.