AmeriScan: January 22, 2003

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Administration Ordered to Add Enviro to Committee

SEATTLE, Washington, January 22, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. District Court in Seattle has ordered the Bush administration to comply with a court order and appoint an environmentalist to a federal committee that advises the government on international trade in chemicals.

The Bush administration had rejected a nominee proposed by the environmental community, instead appointing an academic with deep industry ties to serve as the environmental representative. The chemical panel, known as ISAC-3, is one of 17 sectoral advisory committees whose members shape U.S. policy and have access to confidential trade texts and documents.

The ruling follows an action taken by attorneys at Earthjustice, representing Public Citizen, the Washington Toxics Coalition and the Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange on December 18 to protest the appointment of Brian Mannix. The groups asked the court to order the Bush administration to follow through on its commitment made in prior litigation to appoint an environmentalist to the 23 member committee, which is already packed with chemical industry executives.

Mannix, a fellow at the Mercatus Center, a conservative research center at George Mason University, had also served as research director for the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation and has often opposed regulatory approaches to environmental problems.

The Court found that the appointment of Mannix fell short of achieving the Federal Advisory Committee Act's (FACA) requirement that appointments to federal advisory committees be "fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented."

In her decision, Judge Barbara Rothstein said that there is nothing to indicate that Mannix, "has ever been affiliated with any environmental group or ever advocated on behalf of protecting the environment. The court is, therefore, unpersuaded that Mr. Mannix's appointment provides a voice for the environmental community on ISAC-3."

Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman, who represented environmental groups in their court battle over the trade committee, said that international commercial agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) "have significant impacts on public health and the environment."

"When U.S. trade policy is dictated by an advisory board dominated by industry, those issues get short shrift. This decision will help balance the playing field," Goldman added.

On June 29, 2001, at the groups' urging, Greenpeace USA nominated Rick Hind, the legislative director for its toxics campaign, for the position. But on December 16, 2002, 18 months after his nomination, Hind received official notice that he would not be appointed to the committee.

Although Hind's nomination was supported by a broad range of environmental organizations, the USTR provided no explanation why he was not an acceptable candidate. Mannix's appointment was announced December 17, 2002.

The environmental community will now nominate a new member to the Chemicals and Allied Products Advisory Committee.

The court order is available at: http://www.earthjustice.org/news/documents/ISAC-3Order.pdf

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Administration Launches Bioterrorism Monitoring Network

WASHINGTON, DC, January 22, 2003 (ENS) - Monitoring equipment capable of detecting smallpox, anthrax and other bioterrorism agents is being piggybacked onto an existing system of environmental monitors, the White House confirmed today.

The federal government began today to retrofit thousands of monitoring stations operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said.

"It's part of our precautions to protect the country," Fleischer said, noting that the project was not prompted by any information about a specific "impending" terrorist threat to the U.S.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have been working to refine and adapt some of the EPA's 3,000 air quality monitoring stations with advanced data analysis software that will help detect a release of a bioterror agent within 24 hours.

"The administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control, is moving forward with a program of monitoring," Fleischer said. "EPA will deploy these systems to major population centers throughout the country. CDC will monitor the equipment on a regular basis."

Funding for the program will come out of the new Department of Homeland Security, he added.

The "New York Times," which first reported the new system in its Wednesday editions, said the system is based on new air filtering equipment that will gather samples of airborne pollutants, including biological agents, on a "tissue like" paper. Samples of the paper will be forwarded each day to CDC laboratories for analysis, with results available with a day, and in some cases within 12 hours.

The CDC will test for bioterror agents using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques to detect the unique genetic material associated with each type of pathogen, such as the virus that causes smallpox.

The system will be sensitive enough to detect very small amounts of bioterror agents, government officials said. The project is aimed at giving health officials additional time to deliver medicine, equipment and doctors to the site of a bioterror attack.

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Accident Prompts Stricter Mine Enforcement

PIKEVILLE, Kentucky, January 22, 2003 (ENS) - The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is taking steps to strengthen enforcement of regulations covering mine waste impoundments, following an accident that sent millions of gallons of liquefied coal waste into Kentucky's Big Sandy River in 2000.

The MSHA said it is "correcting weaknesses in enforcement procedures" following an internal review into the agency's actions prior to the October 2000 slurry spill at Martin County Coal Corporation's Big Branch impoundment.

"The purpose of the internal review was to conduct a critical self-examination to determine how MSHA management practices could be improved," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Dave Lauriski. "By strengthening MSHA's internal management process, we can make more effective use of all the tools provided in the law - enforcement, education and training, and technical assistance - all aimed at increasing safety for miners."

On October 11, 2000, about 250 million gallons of coal slurry poured from the impoundment near Inez, Kentucky, into an underground mine, where it burst through mine portals and contaminated local waterways.

The slurry flowed into two local streams that fed into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River. As a result of the spill, about 75 miles of rivers and streams in the area turned an iridescent black. Community water treatment plants along the Big Sandy had to be shut down, as did some schools and roads in the area.

Kentucky wildlife officials said that the spill caused a "total kill" of fish along the Big Sandy and some of its tributaries.

MSHA accident investigators last year determined that the accident occurred because Martin County Coal Company failed to follow its approved sealing plan for the impoundment.

Lauriski said that as a result of the internal review, MSHA is adopting new guidelines to make sure new impoundment plans get a prompt and thorough review by Technical Support specialists, while eliminating backlogs of plans awaiting approval. The agency is working to clarify and streamline safety directives on impoundments, and will issue a new impoundment inspection handbook, he said.

The MSHA is also reviewing technology to help verify the exact extent of underground workings shown on mine maps.

"During 2001 and 2002, the U.S. mining industry had its two safest years on record," Lauriski said. "Now our goal is to drive continuous quality improvements within MSHA and make safety a value throughout the mining industry."

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States To Get More Say in Refuge Management

WASHINGTON, DC, January 22, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has issued a new policy calling for more cooperation with state fish and wildlife agencies in managing the 540 national wildlife refuges around the United States.

The new policy was developed in cooperation with a team of state fish and wildlife agencies. It requires the USFWS to involve states early in the process, when initiating national policy development to address either a legislative requirement or a broad scale refuge management issue.

"We are committed to involving our state counterparts early in all aspects of refuge management, not just as reviewers, but as participants," said USFWS Director Steve Williams.

"I expect the Service to involve our state counterparts early in all aspects of refuge management, not just as reviewers, but as participants," Williams told the agency's regional directors in a Director's order. "I am committed to seeing the Service strengthen its ties with the agencies."

The Director's Order requires that when the USFWS initiates national policy development to address a legislative requirement or to address a broad scale refuge management concern, need, or issue, it will inform the states early in the process to obtain scoping or other preliminary information. The USFWS will invite interested state representatives to participate on working groups to develop policies that affect federal and state interests using intergovernmental personnel agreements (IPAs) to employ state representatives.

State fish and wildlife agencies will continue to be provided opportunities to discuss and, if necessary, elevate decisions within the hierarchy of the USFWS, Williams said.

Williams said the USFWS will work with interested state fish and wildlife agencies to help develop comprehensive conservation plans (CCPs). These plans guide management decisions for each refuge unit, and they outline a vision and the strategies to achieve it. They also provide valuable information about the refuge unit to other agencies and the public.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the only system of federal lands devoted specifically to wildlife. The system offers a haven for millions of migratory birds, hundreds of endangered species, and an enormous variety of other plants and animals.

"Fish and wildlife conservation is a responsibility shared by the states and the federal government," Williams said. "We need the scientific expertise and local perspective of the state agencies."

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Forecast Calls for Continuing Western Drought

SILVER SPRING, Maryland, January 22, 2003 (ENS) - A thin snow pack is raising concerns that stream flows and water supplies will be low for the spring and summer in several Western states, making an ongoing drought even worse.

Forecasters at the National Weather Service said Tuesday that its latest drought assessment shows severe drought continuing over most of the interior Western states and the central and northern Plains. Conditions ranging from abnormal dryness to moderate drought extend across the Midwest from western Missouri to the Great Lakes.

"The dryness in the Midwest is expected to continue during the next several months, although lake effect snows will bring local improvement," said Douglas Lecomte, a climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"Rain or snow should bring improvement from the Southwest into the central Plains, while little significant change in the drought situation can be expected across the northern Plains and northern and central Rockies," added Lecomte.

Last summer, more than one-third of the nation experienced severe drought, making it one of the most expansive since the devastating droughts of the 1950s.

"Despite major improvement in the East, we still have severe drought covering more than one-fifth of the country, so it will take at least several more months to get back to a more normal situation," Lecomte said.

Lecomte said the latest outlook raises concern that "serious water shortages" could occur this spring and summer in parts of the northern Rockies and northern Plains, if precipitation continues to be below normal. In contrast, forecast rain and snow later this winter should ease water concerns farther south from Arizona into New Mexico.

"Some areas will continue to see low water supplies, even if normal or slightly above normal precipitation occurs," Lecomte said.

The worst prospects for drought relief are in Montana and Wyoming, which are already mired in a multi-year drought, he added. Spring and summer stream flows are expected to be less than one-half of normal in several river valleys in both states.

"Because the last couple of years have been so dry, even normal snow pack this winter will not be enough to get many western states out of their drought, and snow pack is currently below normal in most states outside of California," Lecomte said.

Conditions have been dry across much of the Midwest since fall, allowing drought to persist in some areas or expand in others. The winter pattern of an active jet stream dipping southward into the eastern U.S. brought drought ending rain and snow to the East, but this pattern has left areas in the central part of the country and interior West cut off from Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean moisture sources.

"We need to see the pattern change so that the jet stream extends farther southward in the Rockies and High Plains," Lecomte said. "This change shows signs of occurring, at least temporarily, resulting in snow spreading across the Midwest this week."

In recent weeks, El Niņo has contributed much needed precipitation to many parched areas of the country. For example, fall and winter storms along the Gulf and East Coasts have almost ended the drought from Texas to Georgia, and along the entire East Coast. The precipitation has many wells and reservoirs in the East at near normal levels, with some even above normal.

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EPA Invites Public to Discuss TCE Contamination

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California, January 22, 2003 (ENS) - At an open house today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will address concerns about trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination in Mountain View.

Over the past 30 years, the semiconductor industry used hundreds of toxic chemicals, including TCE. Mishandling of the chemicals left a toxic footprint of contaminated groundwater, and a legacy of more Superfund sites in Silicon Valley than any other area of the United States.

Most of these sites were caused by the processes of producing silicon wafers and electronic components, or by related industries, such as equipment manufacturers, chemical suppliers and waste disposal.

Much of the manufacturing is no longer occurring at these sites in Mountain View, and cleanup of the contaminated groundwater is now underway. But new research from the EPA shows that one of the chemicals, TCE may be more toxic than originally believed.

The EPA is now warning residents that TCE, a volatile chemical, may be posing health risks by evaporating and seeping into people's homes, offices and into outdoor air.

"We have been raising our concerns to the EPA about these high-tech chemicals for many years" said Ted Smith, executive director and founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC). "We first alerted EPA about TCE seeping into people's homes near the AMD chip plant in Sunnyvale more than 10 years ago. TCE has been listed on California's Prop 65 list for many years. We urge EPA to take swift action to prevent health problems in the neighborhoods."

The EPA will hold an open house today at the Mountain View Community Center, from 4 pm to 9:30 pm. The event will include an informational poster board session until 6:30 pm, with EPA staff available to answer questions. From 7 pm to 9:30 pm, the EPA will make presentations, followed by question and answer session.

"The high levels of TCE raise new concerns because of the higher health risk for susceptible populations like infants, children and people with chronic disease who are living in the Mountain View area," said Kyle Yamasaki, a Mountain View resident and community educator for the health and environmental justice project of the SVTC. "It is important for community members to come to this meeting, to ask questions and to insist that steps be taken to protect the community's health."

For more information, visit: http://www.svtc.org/index.html

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White-Tailed Prairie Dog Colonies Need Protection

PAONIA, Colorado, January 22, 2003 (ENS) - A coalition of six groups and author Terry Tempest Williams have petitioned the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to designate key white-tailed prairie dog complexes as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.

The coalition says the protective designation that would aid the BLM in helping the beleaguered species to recover.

In a report released Tuesday, titled "Recovering the White-Tailed Prairie Dog and its Habitat: Management Needs," the coalition spells out the steps required of state and federal agencies to stem the precipitous decline of the prairie dog.

The white-tailed prairie dog is an essential part of the sagebrush ecosystem of central and western Wyoming, northwestern Colorado, northeastern Utah, and Montana's Carbon County. Endangered black-footed ferrets depend on prairie dogs for food, and on their burrows for shelter. Prairie dogs also provide food and crucial habitat to many other animals, including badgers, burrowing owls, and golden eagles.

"The Bureau of Land Management has the responsibility to protect prairie dogs, which are a keystone species for high desert ecosystems and therefore are critical to the survival of rare wildlife such as burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, and ferruginous hawks," explained Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. "Designating these colonies as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern would be a huge step in the right direction."

White-tailed prairie dogs are one of five prairie dog species in North America. Two of the species, the Utah and Mexican prairie dogs, are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that a third, the black-tailed prairie dog, also warranted Endangered Species Act protection. Because of ongoing declines and the refusal of state and federal agencies to take action, the conservation coalition petitioned the USFWS to list the white-tailed prairie dog as threatened or endangered in July 2002.

While white-tailed prairie dogs can be a common sight in the region, appearances are deceiving; white-tailed prairie dogs now occupy just eight percent or less of their historical territory. Sylvatic plague, a Eurasian disease introduced to North America around 1900, is now present throughout the range of the white-tailed prairie dog.

Prairie dogs are very susceptible to this exotic disease, and the white-tailed prairie dog has suffered large scale population declines as a result. Oil and gas drilling, suburban sprawl, and conversion to agriculture have also devastated prairie dog habitat.

Most prairie dogs now live in small, isolated colonies that can be eradicated by plague outbreaks, poisoning, or recreational shooting.

"The white-tailed prairie dog has declined by at least 92 percent and is headed for extinction," said Jacob Smith, executive director of the Center for Native Ecosystems. "In our report we've detailed what the agencies need to do to stem these declines."

Key recommendations of the report include:

The report and BLM petition are available at: http://www.nativeecosystems.org/press/020711.htm

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Pennsylvania Forest Gains 3,000 Acres

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania, January 22, 2003 (ENS) - Pennsylvania's Tuscarora State Forest is about to grow by 3,000 acres, thanks to an agreement between the state and the Shippensburg Water Authority.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has reached a tentative agreement to buy the wooded parcel from the Shippensburg Water Authority for $1.8 million.

"This property makes an ideal acquisition for DCNR because of its location linking up with existing state forestland," said DCNR Secretary John Oliver. "With the purchase, we can open the lands for public recreation, while continuing to protect a water supply for local communities. It's a wonderful piece of property - virtually untouched forests with scenic views, beautiful streams and plenty of room to explore."

DCNR and the water authority are working on the final details to continue the water agency's ability to provide water to its customers.

Known as the Gunter Valley tract, the property adjoins the southwestern portion of Tuscarora State Forest, and is divided by the Pennsylvania Turnpike as it passes through the Blue and Kittatinny Mountains. The Turnpike Commission maintains ownership of the land over these two tunnels.

The tract contains the Trout Run watershed, including a stream and a 78 foot high dam which forms a 35 acre reservoir.

DCNR intends to add the property to Tuscarora State Forest, which now includes 91,165 acres spanning six counties. It will be managed for recreation, timber, wildlife habitat and water quality.

"We are glad to see these unspoiled lands will be protected for future generations," said Bill Wolfe, manager of the Shippensburg Water Authority. "With these lands under DCNR management, the Trout Run Watershed will continue to receive the protection it deserves."

The property has one road, one dam and many miles of logging roads. Once acquired, DCNR will determine what public recreation is suitable for the lands.