AmeriScan: January 6, 2003

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Agency Missed Opportunity to Shut Down Nuclear Plant

WASHINGTON, DC, January 6, 2003 (ENS) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) could have shut down the Davis-Besse nuclear plant due to safety concerns months before a hole was discovered in the nuclear power plant's reactor lid, the agency's inspector general has concluded.

In November 2001, the commission had drafted an order to shut down the plant, after inspections of reactors with similar designs had uncovered cracks and other problems. The NRC chose not to issue that order, allowing the plant's operators to wait three months until a scheduled refueling shutdown before examining the reactor head at Davis-Besse for problems.

During the shutdown in February 2002, workers for the FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company, which operates Davis-Besse, discovered cracks in five of 69 Control Rod Drive Mechanism (CRDM) nozzles, which help support and guide the control rods which control the power of a nuclear reactor, and shut the reactor down if necessary.

The workers also found two holes eroded into the reactor head, where corrosive coolant leaking from the cracked nozzles had eaten through several inches of steel, leaving just 3/8 inch of stainless steel between the reactor itself and its containment building.

NRC inspector general Hubert Bell said the NRC's decision to delay the shutdown was made due to concerns about how much it would cost the plant's operators to take the reactor offline earlier than scheduled - potentially millions of dollars. That decision was in line with the NRC's performance goal of reducing the costs of regulatory requirements to nuclear licensees, he said.

However, the decision was contrary to an August 2001 bulletin issued by the NRC, Bell noted, which required inspections of reactors like those at Davis-Besse by December 31, 2001. Such reactors had been identified as "highly susceptible to vessel head penetration nozzle cracking," in order to "avoid a possible control rod drive mechanism nozzle ejection and possible loss-of-coolant accident."

The NRC "appears to have informally established an unreasonably high burden of requiring absolute proof of a safety problem, versus lack of reasonable assurance of maintaining public health and safety, before it will act to shut down a power plant," Bell concluded.

"The staff articulated this standard to [the Office of Inspector General] as a rationale for allowing Davis-Besse to operate until February 16, 2002, even in light of information that strongly indicated Davis-Besse was not in compliance with NRC regulations and plant technical specifications and may have operated with reduced safety margins," wrote Bell.

NRC chair Richard Meserve told the Cleveland, Ohio newspaper that broke the story that his agency made the right decision based on the information available to them at the time. "The Plain Dealer" broke the story on Friday, prompting the NRC to release the inspector general report, dated December 30, to the public.

"Safety is in fact our highest priority," Meserve told the newspaper. "We're fully prepared to issue [shutdown] orders if we think it's necessary to protect public safety."

"You're faced with a situation where you had some uncertainty about conditions in the plant," added Meserve. "I don't want to necessarily disagree with the inspector general. You're faced with a situation where you had some uncertainty about conditions in the plant."

Representative Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, told "The Plain Dealer" that the report "is an illustration of how the NRC violated the public trust."

"FirstEnergy and the NRC worked together to put profits above public safety," Kucinich told the newspaper. "It's unacceptable."

The inspector general's office investigated the Davis-Besse shutdown order at the request of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a watchdog group that has questioned the safety of nuclear power plant operations. In August 2002, UCS released a report suggesting that the NRC knew that a problem might exist at Davis-Besse, but failed to act on that knowledge.

"The Davis-Besse near miss demonstrated that the NRC has a brain," the report said. "The near miss also demonstrated that the NRC lacks a spine."

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New Wetlands Mitigation Guidance Released

WASHINGTON, DC, January 6, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration has issued new guidance that details how developers must replace, or mitigate for the wetlands they destroy.

The National Wetlands Mitigation Action Plan lists 17 action items that the agencies will undertake to improve the effectiveness of restoring wetlands that are impacted or lost to activities governed by clean water laws. Completing the actions in the plan will enable the agencies and the public to make better decisions regarding where and how to restore, enhance and protect wetlands; improve their ability to measure and evaluate the success of mitigation efforts; and expand the public's access to information on these wetland restoration activities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in conjunction with the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior and Transportation, said the guidelines will strengthen the nation's commitment to achieve the goal of no net loss of wetlands. The guidance includes a comprehensive action plan to ensure effective restoration of wetlands that are impacted by development.

"These actions affirm this Administration's commitment to the goal of no net loss of America's wetlands and its support for protecting our Nation's watersheds," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

Acting assistant secretary of the Army for civil works Les Brownlee said that "the improvements in the Corps' regulatory guidance and implementation of the action plan will enhance effective regulatory decision making in the permit process and improve the planning of successful wetland mitigation projects."

Independent evaluations published in 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the General Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed the effectiveness of wetlands compensatory mitigation for authorized losses of wetlands and other waters under the Clean Water Act. The NAS concluded that, despite progress in the last 20 years, the goal of no net loss of wetlands is not being met for wetland functions by the mitigation programs of federal agencies.

The new action plan and guidance were developed in response to the recommendations made in those reports.

A revised Regulatory Guidance Letter leads the list of action items in the National Wetlands Mitigation Plan. To advance the goal of no net loss of wetlands, the guidance letter emphasizes the a watershed wide approach to prospective mitigation efforts for proposed projects impacting wetlands and other waters; the increased use of functional assessment tools; and improved performance standards.

The guidance letter also emphasizes monitoring, long term management, and financial assurances to help ensure that restored wetlands result in planned environmental gains. The guidance letter also provides greater consistency across the Army Corps' 38 district offices on issues such as the timing of mitigation activities and the party responsible for mitigation success.

Conservation groups had mixed reactions to the new wetlands mitigation plan.

"The Bush administration has taken a positive step to improve federal wetlands mitigation policies, but safeguards that are needed now are still not in place," said Julie Sibbing, wetlands policy specialist at the National Wildlife Federation.

"Mitigation certainly should result in the creation of real wetlands," Sibbing added. "But that alone is not enough. At an absolute minimum, we need a no net loss of wetlands policy that replaces wetlands lost to development on an acre by acre basis. The new guidelines fall short of that benchmark."

Jessica Wilkinson, wetlands director at the Environmental Law Institute, said that while the new guidance echoes many of the group's own recommendations and findings, the guidance letter provides little practical guidance on how to apply a science based watershed approach in the field.

"Without solid guidance on how to effectively protect wetlands and mitigation for their losses on a watershed scale, a misapplied watershed approach could lead to a weakening of current provisions in place to assure replacement of lost wetland functions," said Wilkinson, the study's principal investigator.

Copies of the National Wetlands Mitigation Action Plan and the Regulatory Guidance Letter are available at: http://www.usace.army.mil or: http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands

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EPA Says World Trade Center Dust Posed Little Risk

NEW YORK, New York, January 6, 2003 (ENS) - With the exception of those exposed just after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, people in the surrounding community are not likely to suffer serious health effects from the attack, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded.

The EPA has released for public review and comment a draft evaluation on the effects of exposure to airborne pollution from the destruction of the World Trade Center. The draft concludes that with the exception of those exposed right after the collapse and perhaps during the next few days, people are not expected to show serious long or short term health effects from the terrorist attack on the towers.

EPA researchers evaluated the measured outdoor levels of various air pollutants to which the public may have been exposed as a result of the collapse of the World Trade Center. These data were evaluated in terms of available health benchmarks and typical background concentrations for New York City or other urban areas.

The EPA will accept comments on the review draft for 60 days from the official release of the report on December 27. The report will also be reviewed by a panel of independent scientific experts.

The draft document is available at: http://www.epa.gov/ncea/wtc.htm

The EPA also released the results of a laboratory study in which scientists exposed mice to particulate matter samples collected at the World Trade Center site. The researchers found that the particulate matter samples were dominated by calcium containing compounds derived from the towers' building materials.

At high doses, the fine particles from the towers caused mild lung inflammation and air flow obstruction in mice. These findings suggest that similar high doses in people could cause short term respiratory effects such as inflammation and cough.

A final report on the respiratory toxicology studies is available at: http://www.epa.gov/nheerl

These reports will be followed by long term studies of people exposed to the dust from the World Trade Center collapse. As many as 200,000 people, including residents and employees of lower Manhattan along with disaster personnel who worked at the towers, will be registered and followed for long term health effects until 2021.

The study's organizers are still compiling a list of the people who will be asked to participate in the $20 million study.

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Groups Collaborate on Coral Reef Conservation

WASHINGTON, DC, January 6, 2003 (ENS) - The Nature Conservancy and The Ocean Conservancy are collaborating in an effort to conserve and protect the Caribbean marine environment and its species.

The two organizations pooled their resources to host a five day workshop at the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS) in St. John last month. The workshop brought scientists, conservationists and government agencies together with fishermen from Belize, Grenada, St. Lucia, Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas to share expertise, concerns and possible solutions to protect and conserve Caribbean marine life and environment.

The Caribbean has lost between 35 percent and 40 percent of its coral reef in the last three years alone.

The workshop was the first of its kind in the Virgin Islands. For a number of the sessions, the fishers were the resource persons, sharing information on the experiences in their home situations.

Two areas of research were presented and discussed: reef fish Spawning Aggregation Sites (SPAG) and Marine Protected Areas (MPA's). These topics were of great interest to all participants as the rapid decline of fish population and the increased loss of coral reef has sparked concern in fishers, scientists and conservationists.

The Nature Conservancy has partnered with local fishers and divers in Belize to identify, monitor and protect several fish spawning areas off the coast of Belize. The team is attempting to create a network of protected spawning sites throughout the Caribbean Basin in an effort to sustain the reef fish population and the viability of the reef.

Several spawning aggregation sites have been eliminated by overfishing, which causes a decline in reef fish population and impacts local fishers on an economic level.

Dr. Will Heyman, marine projects coordinator for The Nature Conservancy Belize Program, noted that the fishers who are out there every day "have much more knowledge than any scientist. The only way to face the issues of overfishing and the decrease in fish population due to pollution, etc. is to collectively put information together."

Fishers at the workshop were very concerned about protecting the present fish population as well as the future of the fishery.

"I never looked at fishing from a conservation standpoint before, but after seeing these patterns it really concerns me," said Esau Ross of Virgin Gorda. "I think policies need to be made, implemented, and enforced so that these species can survive to feed our children's children."

Out of the same concern, many fishers in Central and South America are now working in the conservation field, assisting with research instead of fishing commercially.

After establishing the need for protected areas, towards the end of the workshop, participants were asked to develop a zoning plan for the island of St. Croix as well as fishing regulations. This activity brought together fishers and managers in small groups from around the Caribbean to solve current problems and anticipate future issues.

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Animal Group Targets Fried Chicken Restaurants

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky, January 6, 2003 (ENS) - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has launched a worldwide boycott of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) restaurants, charging the chain with failing to take action against cruelty to chickens.

KFC is the animal welfare organization's latest target, following successful campaigns against fast food companies including McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's, all of which agreed to take steps to reduce cruel treatment of animals raised and slaughtered for food.

PETA will launch the campaign Tuesday by unveiling new "Kentucky Fried Cruelty" posters, leaflets and stickers, and will show broadcast quality footage of abusive animal treatment by KFC suppliers.

PETA attempted to negotiate with executives at Yum! Brands, which owns KFC, for 21 months prior to the campaign launch, but despite assurances made by senior vice president Jonathon Blum that KFC would "raise the bar" on animal welfare, the company refused to eliminate the worst abuses, PETA says.

On the KFC website at: http://www.kfc.com/, the company states that Yum! Brands is "committed to ensuring the humane treatment of animals."

"For this reason, KFC has established a system to ensure that the very best conditions are maintained and appropriate procedures are followed at all our suppliers' facilities," the website states. "As a major purchaser of food products, we have the opportunity, and responsibility, to influence the way animals are treated. We take that responsibility very seriously, and are working with our suppliers on an ongoing basis to make sure the most humane procedures for caring for and handling animals are in place. As a consequence, we only deal with suppliers who maintain the very highest standards and share our commitment to animal welfare."

Among the improvements that PETA wants KFC to implement are:

"KFC has shortchanged the chickens, leaving us no choice but to turn up the heat," said PETA director of vegan outreach Bruce Friedrich. "McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's responded to consumer pressure; KFC would do well to follow their lead."

For more information, visit: http://www.kfccruelty.com/

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Lynx Wins, Norton Loses Court Case

WASHINGTON, DC, January 6, 2003 (ENS) - A summary court judgment spells victory for the lynx and the conservation group that went to court to protect the threatened animal.

United States District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled late last month that Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her department violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect the lynx, a wild cat native to northern woods. The federal court granted summary judgment in favor of Defenders of Wildlife in Defenders of Wildlife v. Norton, a suit challenging inadequacies in the rule listing the lynx as a threatened species.

"This is the fifth successful lawsuit brought by Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups against the federal agencies responsible for lynx recovery, we hope it will be the last," said William Snape, vice president and chief counsel for Defenders of Wildlife. "Yet again, it took a court order to break through Bush administration footdragging and give this wild cat a better chance of surviving the many obstacles to its recovery."

Defenders of Wildlife charged that there were deficiencies in the court ordered ruling listing the lynx as threatened.

Judge Kessler granted Defenders' motion for summary judgment and ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) acted "arbitrarily, capriciously, and in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA)" by claiming three of the four lynx zones in the continental U.S. - the Northeast, Great Lakes, and Southern Rockies - do not amount to a "significant portion" of the range of the lynx.

The USFWS had written the lynx listing rule so that these three huge areas could be ignored in favor of lynx recovery in the Northern Rockies and Cascade Mountains in the northwest. The agency must now reconsider the lynx's status across all four areas.

Kessler ruled that the defendants must identify critical habitat for the lynx as required by law, and provide 60 day progress reports to the court. According to the ruling, the Department of Interior and USFWS have "undermined the purpose and function of the consultation process . . . of the ESA . . . and precluded the Fish and Wildlife Service from issuing Biological opinions which satisfy the standards of that provision of the statute."

In the first ruling of its kind, Judge Kessler granted Defenders' request to require formal consultation on all projects in lynx habitat until the agencies identify critical habitat for the lynx. Without this injunctive relief, the agencies could continue their current practice of signing off on damaging projects in lynx habitat with minimal analysis of total impacts.

"This is a huge victory for all species in our northern forests, and could slow the Bush Administration's headlong rush to undermine wildlife and environmental protections in our national forests" said Snape.

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Federal Agency Denies Protection for Lizard, Bird

CARLSBAD, California, January 6, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is withdrawing a proposal to list the flat tailed horned lizard as a threatened species, and has declined a petition seeking emergency protection for the Mono Basin population of greater sage grouse.

On Friday, the USFWS announced that it is withdrawing its 1993 proposed rule to list the flat-tailed horned lizard as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency said it had learned that threats to the species are not as grave as earlier believed, and are not likely to endanger the species in the foreseeable future.

Since June 1997, when seven federal and state agencies signed a conservation agreement, a concerted effort has been made to conserve viable populations of flat tailed horned lizards throughout their U.S. range, said Steve Thompson, manager of the USFWS California-Nevada operations office.

"Although work remains to be done to implement some of the high priority actions outlined in the Management Strategy, the parties to the 1997 Conservation Agreement have been working in good faith to accomplish their tasks," Thompson said. "We will continue working with our federal and state partners to conserve the flat tailed horned lizard in the United States."

Parties to the Conservation Agreement include the USFWS, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, Arizona Game and Fish Department, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

The USFWS has also concluded that a petition requesting emergency Endangered Species Act protection for the Mono Basin population of greater sage grouse does not present "substantial scientific or commercial information to warrant such protection."

"We are concerned about the sage grouse in Mono Basin. However, given the available information, the status of the population is uncertain at this time," said Bob Williams, USFWS supervisor for Nevada. "Conservation plans are being developed to address ways to protect the species and its habitat while we continue to research if this species is unique and if the range extends into other areas of California and Nevada as believed."

In its petition to list greater sage grouse in the Mono Basin area under the emergency provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the Institute for Wildlife Protection asked the USFWS to recognize populations of birds in Long Valley and Bodie Hills in Mono County, California and in the Desert Creek area of Lyon County, Nevada as distinct from other forms of greater sage grouse.

The group stated that these two populations, known as Mono Basin sage grouse, are genetically unique and isolated from other greater sage grouse and should be considered a distinct population segment, making them eligible for protection as a separate species. The petition also states that invasion of cheat grass into sage grouse foraging areas, the spread of juniper trees, disease, grazing, development and other human caused threats could cause the Mono Basin area sage grouse to become extinct in the foreseeable future.

After analyzing the petition, the USFWS determined that it does not present sufficient evidence that emergency listing is warranted, or that the Mono Basin population should be designated as a distinct population segment.

"We agree with the findings of the USFWS in regards to this petition," said Terry Crawforth, administrator for the Nevada Division of Wildlife. "This decision will allow the state of Nevada to continue with its proactive sage grouse conservation planning process."

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Scavenger Hunt Targets Clean, Green Cars

DETROIT, Michigan, January 6, 2003 (ENS) - Kids attending the North American International Auto Show can participate in a scavenger hunt for clean cars, created by a coalition of environmental groups.

The game created by the Sierra Club and the Michigan Environmental Council deputizes kids in the fight against global warming. The game encourages them to find the hidden treasure of clean cars amid the many gas guzzlers at the auto show.

"Kids like cool stuff, and hybrids are the coolest, cleanest cars around. And it looks like kids are gonna be the ones who have to figure out how to deal with global warming," said Lana Pollack of the Michigan Environmental Council. "If kids are gonna have a cleaner future, they're gonna have to start finding these cars now. The scavenger hunt will help."

The game features the a 21st century Wyatt Earp, from the Marion County, Florida Sheriff's Department, who traded in his gas guzzling fleet for a posse of hybrid vehicles. It challenges kids to become "Environmental Deputies" - and win a trip to Orlando, Florida to meet Wyatt - by finding the few clean cars on display that feature hybrid engines and other fuel saving technology.

Through word and number puzzles, players will learn about the new technologies that could help cars achieve fuel efficiency of 40 miles per gallon, cutting pollution and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The game contrasts these advances with older designs, by asking competitors to find examples of gas guzzlers.

For example, the Freedom Option Package includes fuel saving technologies like the integrated starter generator, the variable valve control engine, and the continuously variable transmission. All of these components will be featured in select models on display at the show, which are available for sale now.

But although these technologies could be added to almost all standard cars, sport utility vehicles and other light trucks, automakers have not done this. By giving car buyers the option to buy popular models with better fuel economy, automakers could save consumers money at the gas pump and cut global warming pollution, conservation groups argue.

"Automakers need 21st century know how if they want to target 21st century consumers," said Lana Pollack. "Among the hundreds of vehicles on display at the show are a handful that use modern technology. Automakers should make this technology standard."

Once they complete the game and get parental consent, kids drop their answers in the mail, in hopes of winning the "Environmental Deputy" title, and the trip to Florida.

"The quest to become an Environmental Deputy really offers something for the whole family," said David Holtz, of the Sierra Club's Mackinac Chapter. "Not only is it fun and educational for kids, but it could end up scoring Mom and Dad a trip to Florida."

The Auto Show Scavenger Hunt can be downloaded at: http://www.sierraclub.org/freedom