AmeriScan: January 22, 2002


WASHINGTON, DC, January 22, 2002 (ENS) - Forest Service employees who tested a lab's performance using planted lynx hairs did not do so with the intent to skew data, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has concluded.

In December 2001, the "Washington Times" ran a story about lynx biologists in Washington state. The story implied that a number of biologists employed by the USFS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, had conspired to defraud the public by planting lynx hairs as part of a habitat survey.

The survey was attempting to assess the current range of the lynx, which is classified as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The USFS and other experts have now determined that the biologists did not plant lynx hairs in the field, but did send samples that were not collected in the field to a laboratory. The laboratory was supposed to determine what species the hair samples came from.

According to the USFS, the control samples were submitted to test the accuracy of the lab. A number of biologists familiar with the survey had expressed concern that the lab was not set up to handle hundreds of hair samples without contamination, making errors and false positives possible.

The biologists did not try to hide the fact that they had submitted control samples. In each situation, the scientists noted in their station or field notes that so called "blind control samples" had been sent to the labs.

None of the control samples were used in any official surveys, where they might have led to the conclusion that more lynx were living in the habitat then were actually present.

Before agency scientists could respond, a number of politicians began demanding hearings, investigations and even termination of the scientists involved. A press release from Republican Representatives Scott McInnis of Colorado and James Hansen of Utah claimed, incorrectly, that the biologists had admitted to planting hair samples in the field, and called for their dismissal.

On Monday, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) notified the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior that calls to fire or reassign the federal scientists violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits the Secretaries from acting on those recommendations.

The Hatch Act, which guards against on the job partisan activities by federal workers, forbids members of Congress or their staff from making recommendations to agency leaders concerning any civil service personnel action, a term defined to include discipline, termination or reassignment.

The Act provides that if an agency head receives such a communication, he or she, "shall not solicit, request, consider or accept and such recommendation or statement; and shall return any such written recommendation or statement, appropriately marked as in violation of this section, to the person or organization transmitting same."

"This is a case of right wing politicians conducting a witch-hunt against agency scientists," said PEER field director Eric Wingerter. "The question now is whether Gale Norton and Ann Veneman will follow the law protecting the merit system from political interference."

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 22, 2002 (ENS) - Light truck fuel efficiency standards will remain unchanged for the 2004 model year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced Friday.

Since 1996, Congress has prohibited NHTSA from spending any funds to consider any changes to the level of 1996 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. This prohibition was lifted in December 2001.

But NHTSA said it did not have sufficient time to study whether a CAFE level other than the one that has been in place since 1996 should be proposed. By law, NHTSA must issue a final rule establishing a model year 2004 light truck CAFE standard by April 1, 2002.

The agency is proposing a CAFE standard of 20.7 miles per gallon (mpg), the same level that has been in effect since 1996. The standard would apply to sport utility vehicles (SUVs), minivans and light trucks.

The agency is inviting comments on the maximum feasible level of average fuel economy and will consider all comments, including comments with data and analysis suggesting a level higher or lower than 20.7 mpg.

In a speech today before the Center for National Policy in Washington DC, Senator John Kerry called for quick action to raise that standard, and all CAFE standards, as high as possible.

"Even the largest passenger vehicle can be made safe, reliable and more efficient," said Kerry. "SUVs, minivans and light trucks can be built to provide high performance at higher mileage. They don't have to be hogs. And there is nothing more American than efficiency."

Kerry cited a study by the National Academy of Sciences which found that the U.S. can "significantly improve fuel efficiency through better use of technology, without limiting vehicle choice, without harming safety, without harming the industry, and at a cost that will ultimately save consumers money."

"Today, because of CAFE standards, we save three million barrels of oil every day," Kerry added. "Each year, consumers keep more than $20 billion in their pockets instead of paying for fuel, and greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lower. CAFE is a genuine and concrete step toward energy independence."

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 22, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to let manufacturers of heavy duty trucks pay monetary penalties in lieu of complying with new engine emissions standards.

EPA is proposing non-conformance penalties (NCPs) that would be available to manufacturers of heavy duty diesel engines used in large trucks and buses. The penalties would be paid if the manufacturer is unable to meet the 2004 model year hydrocarbon plus nitrogen oxides emission standard set by the EPA.

These penalties would be available for 2004 and later model year heavy duty highway diesel engines, including engines used in urban buses. The EPA says the NCPs would provide flexibility that would encourage long term improvements in emission reductions, without driving manufacturers out of the market.

Under a penalty structure established by existing regulations, manufacturers may choose to pay a monetary penalty on a per engine basis rather than comply with the applicable standard. The penalty varies with the degree to which the engine family involved does not comply with the standard.

The Clean Air Act requires that the penalties increase with the degree of noncompliance with the emission standard, that they increase over time and that emissions may not go above an upper limit established by regulation.

In 1998, the Department of Justice and the EPA announced settlements with some manufacturers of heavy duty diesel engines that resolved claims that these manufacturers installed illegal emissions control defeat devices. The settlements specify penalties, based on noncompliance with the terms of the decrees, that are to be based on 2004 model year NCPs.

Because the consent decrees refer to NCPs for the 2004 model year, this rule, when finalized, would have an impact on the penalties determined under the consent decrees.

The EPA will accept comments on the proposal until March 18. A public hearing will be held February 15 at the Dulles Marriott Hotel near Washington, DC.

The proposal, supporting documents and more information about the hearing and how to comment are available at:

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 22, 2002 (ENS) - Three Wyoming based conservation groups have filed suit in federal court to stop damage from coal bed methane production.

The suit challenges the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' general permit that governs the construction of reservoirs for water from coal bed methane production wells, as well as roads and pipelines in Wyoming. The groups, represented by Earthjustice, are the Wyoming Outdoor Council, the Powder River Basin Resource Council and Biodiversity Associates.

Coal bed methane is natural gas that is trapped in the fissures and fractures of underground coal beds by overlying water in underground aquifers. The gas is released when the water is pumped to the surface, at a rate of anywhere from several up to hundreds of gallons a minute, easing the pressure and allowing the gas to follow the water up.

This water has been found to contain salts, arsenic, iron, barium and manganese.

The Corps' general permit allows the construction of reservoirs to hold water produced at coalbed methane wells. During the first 10 months of 2001, coalbed methane drilling in Wyoming resulted in the withdrawal of 18 billion gallons of coalbed methane water.

"All of these ponds are unlined. That is part of their design. They are intentionally built to leak into the groundwater," said Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

"By issuing a general permit, the Corps of Engineers is treating these reservoirs like stock watering ponds. But they contain contaminated water from CBM wells and are more like wastewater treatment ponds than livestock ponds," added Steve Jones of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

The high salinity levels of coalbed methane waters threaten rivers and streams, and farms and ranches, since many plants are sensitive to salinity levels in the water and soils. Over time these soils can lose their productivity as the salts begin to saturate the soils.

Many ranchers are upset about this. Last year a Congressional committee heard from Ed Swartz, a third generation rancher from the basin who said, "Myself and other ranchers and landowners in the Powder River Basin are facing very real and destructive impacts."

He told the committee that water pumped from coal bed methane wells threatens to destroy his hay fields. He added that it has already destroyed the vegetation in the creek bottom of Wild Cat Creek.

"The unique fish and aquatic plant communities in Wyoming's streams are threatened by both the quantity and quality of CBM produced water allowed by this ill conceived and illegal general permit," said Jeff Kessler of Biodiversity Associates.

The Powder River Basin, located in northeast Wyoming and part of Montana, has seen a surge in drilling for coal bed methane. Seven years ago, there were 110 coal bed methane wells in the basin. Today there are more than 12,000 CBM wells that have been drilled in northeast Wyoming, with another 8,000 wells under permit for drilling.

Coal bed methane now provides almost eight percent of the nation's reserve of natural gas, more than quadrupling its share of the reserve since 1989. Over 50,000 wells are expected to be drilled in the Powder River Basin by 2010, requiring between 2,000 and 4,000 reservoirs.

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GALVESTON, Texas, January 22, 2002 (ENS) - National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Director Bill Hogarth met with eight of the nine former directors of the agency to seek input on future fisheries management.

"The meeting allows us to draw from past successes, learn from past setbacks and continually improve management, streamline the regulatory process, and ensure that sound science and analyses are accessible in decision making," Hogarth said. "We expect to continue to make real progress as we make decisions that are effective, consistent and based on the best science possible."

The eight former directors joined Hogarth and Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Scott Gudes for an intense two day meeting in Galveston.

"We found that we had a lot in common over the past 30 years of federal fisheries management and have faced many of the same issues," Hogarth added. "Hearing from these leaders reinforced my understanding of the critical changes we must make to balance environmental and economic concerns as we improve our fisheries management decision making."

During the meeting, the group pooled experience, information and insight to tackle some of the difficulties of effective management faced by NMFS. They discussed numerous approaches to developing more efficient operations.

Among the group's suggestions were expanding communications and cooperative efforts with a constituents in commercial recreational, environmental, governmental and academic organizations.

"We are beginning to address many of the issues outlined by the former directors," said Hogarth, who has been delegated all fisheries management decisions by Secretary of Commerce Don Evans to reduce additional layers of review. "And I won't lose sight of the most important lesson that all of us have learned over the years - keeping our lines of communication open to all of those we serve."

Streamlining administration procedures for approving and implementing fisheries management proposals and regulations was among the suggestions, as was establishing more responsibility and accountability in the agency's five regional offices to coordinate fishery management actions with regional councils.

The group also called for more timely responses to the public's requests for information, and more rapid dissemination of agency documents. The agency hopes to reduce the number of lawsuits filed against NMFS through better evaluation of the basis of the lawsuits, and actions to remedy problems before they cause litigation.

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KNOXVILLE, Tennessee, January 22, 2002 (ENS) - The largest single monetary corporate foundation gift in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park was announced today, as the Alcoa Foundation awarded a $250,000 grant to Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Friends organization is matching the gift, bringing the total funds to $500,000. The donation launches a major fundraising effort for Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, the first key step to strengthen the park's residential environmental education programs.

Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, founded in 1993, is an independent, nonprofit organization, and by contract, the sole fundraising agency for the park.

Friends President Gary Wade, a state judge and member of Alcoa's Community Advisory Board, said the $250,000 "will help Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (GSMIT) achieve its mission of delivering in-depth, educational programs that nurture appreciation for our environment."

"Since 1993, Friends of the Smokies has raised more than $8 million to support conservation, education, and other park priorities," said Ken Voorhis, executive director of the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (GSMIT). "We sincerely appreciate their help in securing this gift from Alcoa."

Mike Coleman, president of Alcoa Rigid Packaging and Vice President of Alcoa Inc., said the two year grant consists of $125,000 per year.

"Alcoa Foundation is proud to provide this key leadership gift," Coleman said. "Alcoa Foundation and Alcoa consider this to be a clear investment in the future, and a landmark event in the long-standing relationship between Alcoa and Great Smoky Mountains National Park."

The gift is the culmination of work by the Alcoa Community Advisory Board (CAB), a 14 member community board that identified the grant as its top priority last year. The advisory board was formed last January as part of Alcoa's community partnership plan.

"There are no more worthy causes than kids, environment, and education," said Bill Cobble, chairman of GSMIT Board, which supervises operations at the Tremont Environmental Center. "The Alcoa Foundation contribution is the lead gift for an initiative to make Tremont the finest environmental center in the world. The money will build on Tremont's superior residential environmental education programs, and ensure that they are available to all children, including those who are economically disadvantaged."