AmeriScan: January 15, 2003

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New Priorities Set for Wildfire Reduction

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, January 15, 2003 (ENS) - Federal, state and local agencies have agreed to work together to prioritize the annual selection of projects aimed at reducing the risk of wildfires in forests across the country.

The memorandum of understanding between the Department of the Interior, U.S. Forest Service, State Foresters and National Association of Counties states that the agencies will focus their efforts on two high priority areas: the wildland-urban interface, where the greatest risk to property and life exist and; in areas that are at the highest risk of catastrophic fire. Projects will be selected May 1, so that firefighting personnel can prepare fuels treatment projects before the beginning of the intense June through September fire season.

"We need to take action and leave a legacy of healthier lands and thriving communities. Together, we can fulfill this vision," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. "A century of fire suppression and forest management policies have left forests with too many trees and trees that are small and unhealthy. Insect and disease damage have turned whole mountainsides from rich green to rust - and then to gray as the trees died."

Norton noted that more than 7.1 million acres burned last year - more than twice the annual 10 year average. These fires caused the death of 21 firefighters, drove tens of thousands of people from their homes and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings.

The fires also destroyed sensitive wildlife habitat and damaged soils and watersheds that will take decades to recover. About 190 million acres of public land and surrounding communities are considered at increased risk of extreme fires.

"For the good of communities and their economies, most agree that we have to treat the forests and rangelands to prevent catastrophe," Norton explained. "We are working with communities to reduce the risks of catastrophic fires and to restore health to our forests and rangelands."

Norton also announced an agreement signed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Forest Service and State Foresters that will avoid duplication in fire related federal grant programs. The agreement will leverage funds to assist local fire departments efforts to improve firefighter safety, suppression response and risk mitigation.

Grant applications will be reviewed simultaneously by all federal agencies to avoid duplication.

The Interior Department has designated five pilot projects aimed at demonstrating the effectiveness of fire management techniques:

"Our proposals and pilot projects will help protect forest and rangeland for future generations," Norton said. "These thoughtful initiatives can make a difference in the number of fuels treatment projects we are able to move forward. They will help us restore the health of our forests and reduce risks to our communities."

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Parasites Top List of Factors Behind Frog Deformities

CORVALLIS, Oregon, January 15, 2003 (ENS) - A variety of environmental factors - all linked to human activities - are thought to be behind a worldwide plague of deformed frogs and other amphibians, a new report argues.

The primary cause of many of the deformities is an epidemic of a key parasite, the researchers say, but the amphibians are made more susceptible to the parasite by human impacts on their habitat.

The findings are the results of eight years of research by scientists around the world, and are presented in the February issue of "Scientific American" by researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) and the University of Wisconsin.

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This frog developed an extra hind leg. (Photo courtesy Oregon State University)
Increases in ultraviolet radiation, contaminated water and a parasitic trematode are the leading culprits in the wave of deformed legs, eye damage and other ailments that have now been found in more than 60 species of frogs, toads and salamanders in 46 states and across four continents. Of these three leading causes, the parasite appears to be the major cause of many of the deformities, the scientists say.

"We've finally synthesized from a wide body of research the range of causes that are linked to amphibian deformities," said Andrew Blaustein, a professor of zoology at OSU and co-author of the report with Pieter T.J. Johnson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin.

"As is often the case in nature, it's now clear that there are multiple causes to this problem, some of which may act in concert," Blaustein said. "But the common thread that runs through the issue is that each cause can eventually be traced to human alteration of our climate or amphibian habitat. And one of the most common deformities, extra or deformed legs, is most often linked to a particular parasite."

There has always been some level of deformities in amphibians, scientists say, but nothing of the magnitude now seen. The sudden increase in deformities may be one factor in the population declines of amphibians around the globe.

"Deformities undoubtedly impair amphibian survival and most likely contribute to the dramatic declines in populations that have been recognized as a global concern since 1989," the researchers write. "Both trends are disturbing in their own right and are also a warning for the planet. Chances are good that factors affecting these animals harshly today are also beginning to take a toll on other species."

The parasite, known as a trematode, seems most prevalent in waterways that are contaminated by agricultural runoff, the researchers note. Water pollutants or ultraviolet radiation, while not causing the majority of deformities, may set the stage by weakening an amphibian's immune system and making it more vulnerable to a parasitic infection, the scientists conclude.

"The challenge to scientists becomes teasing apart these agents to understand their interactions," the article states. "Humans and other animals may be affected by the same environmental insults harming amphibians. We should heed their warning."

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Fear of West Nile Virus Growing

BOSTON, Massachusetts, January 15, 2003 (ENS) - Many people in U.S. areas with high concentrations of mosquitoes will feel threatened by the West Nile virus next summer, suggests a new study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers.

The opening study of the Project on Biological Security and the Public finds that 33 percent of Americans who live in areas where there are a lot of mosquitoes think they or a family member is very or somewhat likely to get sick from the virus in the next 12 months. In addition, 32 percent of dog owners in high mosquito areas are concerned that their dog might get the West Nile virus.

In those high mosquito areas where there has been special spraying against mosquitoes to prevent the spread of the West Nile virus, 91 percent approve of the spraying. Nationwide, 77 percent of Americans said they would favor special spraying to prevent the spread of West Nile if it appeared in their area.

"The public has become sufficiently concerned about the West Nile virus that they are willing to take some risk on mosquito spraying, a controversial issue in many areas," said Robert Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Some groups have protested against spraying, arguing that it aggravates respiratory problems and can cause environmental damage.

The findings were based on interviews with 1,001 Americans nationwide, including 516 who said there are a lot of mosquitoes where they live. Some 3,955 human cases of illness from West Nile have been reported, resulting in 252 deaths as of today.

Concern about the virus is rising even in areas where the virus has not yet turned up. Next week, representatives from local, state and federal agencies and interest groups will convene in Portland, Oregon to present information about the possible effects of West Nile virus on human health, wildlife and the environment.

About 250 people have registered to take part in the day long workshop on West Nile virus, to be held at the Oregon Zoo. West Nile virus is not yet known to be in Oregon, but it has been identified in Washington and is expected to arrive in Oregon this spring.

The virus can be fatal to humans, domestic animals and wildlife, but efforts to control the spread of West Nile virus also can have direct and indirect health effects on humans, domestic animals, wildlife and entire ecosystems. The goal of the workshop is to provide current information about the disease and bring the health and conservation communities together to develop a comprehensive plan to combat West Nile virus that is both effective and ecologically sound.

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Manhattan Dry Cleaners Must Clean Up Their Act

NEW YORK, New York, January 15, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered Splendid Enterprises Limited of New York City to come into compliance with state and federal regulations that ensure the proper handling of hazardous waste.

The company, also known as Splendid Cleaners and Splendid Clothing Care, must also pay a $34,250 penalty for improperly using, storing and disposing of hazardous wastes of tetrachloroethylene, also known as perc. Splendid is a large commercial dry cleaner located in midtown Manhattan with about 10 additional customer pickup and dropoff locations throughout the borough.

"EPA's investigation revealed that Splendid threatened the health of employees, local residents and the surrounding environment by improperly handling perc," said EPA regional administrator Jane Kenny. " EPA has been working with area dry cleaners to help them come into compliance with these regulations. We will continue to assist those who seek our help but we will also continue with the same determination to inspect and fine dry cleaners who violate these regulations."

Administrative Law Judge Barbara Gunning, in her decision on the case, found the company to be in violation of the law and set the penalty at $34,250, the level EPA prosecutors had requested. Judge Gunning stated that the testimony "amply supports the EPA's characterizations of the seriousness of the violations as measured by the potential for human and environmental harm resulting from the violations."

Perc is suspected of causing cancer in humans, is considered toxic, and can cause dizziness, nausea, and headaches when either inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

When the EPA inspected Splendid's facility in August 2000, numerous hazardous waste violations were found. They had not properly handled perc sludge, perc lint waste and perc wastewater.

The EPA issued a complaint saying that Splendid did not have the proper permits for storing hazardous waste; failed to keep hazardous waste storage containers closed; did not conduct required weekly inspections where hazardous wastes were stored; failed to properly handle and ship hazardous waste; and, did not alert nearby emergency response teams and hospitals about the wastes it handled and the possible dangers resulting from improper releases.

The complaint also cited Splendid for improperly disposing of used flourescent bulbs without determining whether they were a hazardous waste because of the level of mercury. The complaint required Splendid to come into compliance or appear in court to contest the violations. When Splendid did not appear at a hearing to answer the charges in May 2002, Splendid was found to be in default and lost the opportunity to contest the charges.

The case is part of the EPA's ongoing effort to protect human health and the environment at dry cleaning establishments and the surrounding communities. Dry cleaners are required to adopt procedures that are in compliance with the state and federal regulations that assure proper "cradle to grave" handling of hazardous wastes.

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NASA Tests Environmentally Friendly Rocket Fuel

PALO ALTO, California, January 15, 2003 (ENS) - A new, alternative rocket fuel may increase operational safety and reduce costs over current solid fuels, say researchers from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).

Two years of collaboration between Stanford University and NASA's Ames Research Center have led to the development of the non-toxic, easily handled fuel made from a substance similar to what is used in common candles. The new paraffin based fuel could someday be used in Space Shuttle booster rockets.

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Stanford scientist Arif Karabeyoglu installs a cardboard tube containing the paraffin wax based fuel into the test combustion chamber at the Ames Hybrid Combustion Facility. (Photo courtesy Ames Research Center)
The byproducts of combustion of the new fuel are carbon dioxide and water. By contrast, conventional rocket fuel produces aluminum oxide and acidic gasses, such as hydrogen chloride.

"There is great cost in making, handling and transporting traditional solid rocket fuels, but the new paraffin based fuel is less expensive, non-toxic and non-hazardous," said Greg Zilliac of Ames. "Because the fuel is very stable and environmentally friendly, a hybrid rocket could be fueled at the launch site rather than at the factory, thereby saving money."

The main goal of the NASA test program is to determine if the promising results of earlier bench top experiments conducted at Stanford will scale up to the combustion chamber conditions required for space launch operational systems.

"The NASA combustion tests have been very promising and indicate the burn rate for the larger scale apparatus is as high as that achieved in the small scale Stanford tests," Zilliac continued. "This new fuel could significantly impact the future of space transportation."

The concept of a fast burning, low cost, paraffin based fuel was first conceived by Dr. Arif Karabeyoglu of Stanford, Dr. David Altman, president of Space Propulsion Group Inc., and Stanford University Professor Brian Cantwell. Karabeyoglu developed the theory in his doctoral thesis, which was supported in part by Stanford and NASA.

Cantwell said the new fuel could be used to create a hybrid rocket equivalent to the Space Shuttle's solid rockets.

"Hybrid rockets, using the paraffin based fuel, can be throttled over a wide range, including shut down and restart," Cantwell explained. "That's one reason why they could be considered as possible replacements for the Shuttle's current solid rocket boosters that cannot be shut off after they are lit. One design concept being considered is a new hybrid booster rocket that is able to fly back to the launch site for recharging."

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New Protection In Store for New Jersey River

BRICK TOWNSHIP, New Jersey, January 15, 2003 (ENS) - New Jersey Governor James McGreevey has announced plans for new protections for the Metedeconk River, a key drinking water supply in the state's shore region.

Governor McGreevey ended New Jersey's 10 month drought emergency last week, but reaffirmed his commitment to protect New Jersey's waterways and drinking water supplies.

"Today I am lifting New Jersey's statewide drought emergency, but while the short term crisis is over, the long term threat still remains," said McGreevey. "I am asking all New Jerseyans to join me in the battle to protect our waterways, to end crisis to crisis management of our most precious resource, and to stop the overdevelopment and sprawl that threaten to destroy both our water supplies and our quality of life."

Joined by other state officials and environmental leaders, McGreevey announced that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will work with mayors from the communities within the Metedeconk watershed to identify sections of the river for Category One (C1) designation - the highest level of water quality protection. C1 designation protects waterways from any discharge that produces a measurable change in the existing quality of the water.

"Since it serves as the source of 75 percent of our drinking water, I am extremely pleased that the Metedeconk River will gain C1 status," said Brick Township Mayor Joseph Scarpelli.

McGreevey said protection for the river is just one of many steps his administration plans to take "to protect New Jersey's air, water and quality of life against sprawl." The boundaries of the C1 designation will be achieved by determining how best to ensure a safe and plentiful drinking water source and allow for smart growth within the affected towns.

"Under the Governor's direction, the DEP is setting tougher standards to protect New Jersey' s waterways - particularly those that provide our families with drinking water," said DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell. "The Metedeconk River represents an exceptional water supply and will be critical to meeting the area's water supply demands in the future."

The Metedeconk River serves as a drinking water source for more than 100,000 residents and will serve many more people in the coming years. In addition to meeting current water supply needs, the Metedeconk River will support a new billion gallon reservoir to meet anticipated future water demands in Brick Township and surrounding communities, scheduled for completion in 2004.

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EPA Commemorates National Radon Action Month

WASHINGTON, DC, January 15, 2003 (ENS) - About one home in 15 across the U.S. contains too much radon, making the invisible gas one of the nation's leading causes of lung cancer.

In some areas of the country, as many as one out of two homes has high levels or indoor radon. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Whitman urged Americans to test their homes for radon gas in January, which has been designated as National Radon Action Month.

"As many as 22,000 people die from lung cancer each year in the United States from exposure to indoor radon," Whitman said. "Americans could help prevent these deaths and protect their families by testing their homes for radon as soon as possible. Not only is radon testing a sound investment in the long term health of your family, but it could also be a good investment in terms of the resale value of your home. In many areas, radon testing is a required part of real estate transactions."

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This year's winning radon action poster was drawn by a 6th grade student from North Carolina. (Photo courtesy EPA)
Radon, a radioactive product of the element radium, is invisible, odorless and occurs naturally in soil, rock and water across the country. When inhaled, radon releases small bursts of energy that can damage the DNA in lung tissue over time and lead to lung cancer.

The EPA and partner organizations are sponsoring activities around the country this month to increase awareness of the health risks of radon. Radon levels can soar during the colder months when residents keep windows and doors closed and spend more time indoors. Radon can also be a danger in summer when homes are closed tight for air conditioning.

Although some areas of the country have naturally higher radon levels than others, the EPA recommends that everyone test their home because isolated radon "hot spots" can occur anywhere. The EPA also recommends testing in schools, work places, community centers and other buildings where people spend long periods of time.

The EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that homes with radon levels of four picoCurries per liter of air or higher pose a danger and should be fixed by an experienced contractor.

The EPA partners with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) and their extension services, the National Safety Council, state and local government agencies and other nonprofit and commercial organizations to conduct an annual national poster contest to heighten awareness of radon. The national poster contest concludes with the winner and their parents or guardian brought to EPA Headquarters for an award ceremony and a photo opportunity with the EPA administrator and other top level officials.

This year's poster winner is a 6th grader from North Carolina. The winning poster will be distributed across the country as part of radon public awareness efforts.

For more information about indoor radon, visit: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/radon

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Florida Launches Invasive Plants Website

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, January 15, 2003 (ENS) - A new interactive website designed to help residents and visitors learn about invasive plants that can harm Florida's environment may help the state battle the invaders.

The website is the first of its kind for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Bureau of Invasive Plant Management. Driven by Flash technology, the multimedia web site uses video clips and sound effects to demonstrate the impact that non-native plants have on Florida's natural resources and the economy.

water hyacinth

These water hyacinths may look attractive, but they are damaging many of Florida's waterways. (Photo courtesy Florida Department of Environmental Protection)
Invasive, non-native plants now occupy about 15 percent of Florida's public conservation lands, decreasing native biodiversity and affecting an ecotourism economy valued at more than $7.8 billion a year.

"Almost everywhere in Florida, we can see the overwhelming destruction caused by exotic plants," said Eva Armstrong, director of DEP's division of state lands. "From dense water hyacinths that can obscure state waters to the 1.7 million upland acres consumed by invasives like melaleuca and Brazilian pepper, invasive plant species are a serious problem. This web site provides insight into the problems and solutions."

With the touch of a button, visitors of all ages can learn:

The website is available at: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/lands/invaspec/inv3/index.html