AmeriScan: January 23, 2003

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Amendment Would Overrule Missouri River Management

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2003 (ENS) - Senator Kit Bond has introduced a measure that would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to move nests of endangered birds that are threatened by high flows of the Missouri River.

Bond, a Missouri Republican, has proposed an amendment to the Omnibus Appropriations Bill now before the U.S. Senate that would exempt the Missouri River from certain Endangered Species Act Requirements. The measure would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to flood or move the nests of endangered birds nesting downstream from Gavins Point dam near Sioux City, Iowa to ensure sufficient river flows for the handful of commercial barges plying the lower Missouri River.

The rider also directs the Corps to move the nests and baby chicks of the endangered interior least tern and the threatened piping plover off river sandbars into a captive rearing facility, a scheme that in the past has killed many of the hatchlings.

"Moving these struggling birds to a brick building is a death sentence," said Chad Smith, director of American Rivers' Missouri River field office. "Common sense dictates that what troubled species on the Missouri really need is a healthy river system, not a healthy dose of legislative riders."

American Rivers is part of a coalition of conservation groups taking legal action to reform operations at six dams on the Missouri River and its tributaries.

The Corps now releases water from its dams on a schedule intended to maximize the length of the commercial shipping season for a barge industry on the lower third of the river. These unnatural flows have driven three species - the pallid sturgeon, piping plover, and interior least tern - to the brink of extinction, the groups charge.

The flow scheduled also undercuts the economic benefits associated with "nearly one million recreation based days of hunting, fishing, sightseeing and boating annually," on the upper Missouri River, according to one Corps study.

Last month, the Corps requested re-initiation of formal consultation with the USFWS on the current Master Water Control Manual for the Missouri River and the Annual Operating Plan for 2003. The Corps said the consultation, which allows the agencies to exchange information on the impacts of proposed operations, is needed to explore ways to protect endangered species while maintaining flood control and shipping on the river.

Senator Bond's amendment would sidestep these consultations and force the USFWS to give the Corps permission to relocate or flood plover and tern nests in order to maintain river flows of more than 30,000 cubic feet per second during the summer.

"Without dam reforms, these species will creep closer to extinction and dozens of additional species will need federal protection," said Scott Faber, water specialist with Environmental Defense, a national conservation organization based in New York. "But Senator Bond's rider would go further and undermine navigation on the Mississippi River during an unprecedented drought, and devastate reservoir recreation in Montana and the Dakotas."

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Senate Restores Funding for Amtrak

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate has voted to restore $400 million in funding for Amtrak, a move that environmental groups are calling a victory for mass transit.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Washington Democrat Patty Murray and Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison led support for the amendment to the fiscal year 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which was offered in response to a proposed 31 percent cut to Amtrak's budget.

The Senate Appropriations Committee last fall agreed to provide $1.2 billion for Amtrak. But this week, the Senate's new Republican leadership reneged on the agreement by unveiling an Omnibus Appropriations Bill that slashed $374 million from Amtrak's budget.

"When it comes to Amtrak, senators thankfully broke their gridlock and decided to roll up their sleeves, reach across party lines and keep the trains running in this country," said David Hirsch, director of economic programs for Friends of the Earth.

Friends of the Earth opposed the budget cut as an assault on an environmentally friendly transportation system that already receives billions less than highways and aviation.

The amendment to restore the funding cut was drafted by Hutchison and Murray, and cosponsored by 18 senators.

While applauding the Amtrak funding increase, Friends of the Earth expressed concern about the severe cuts that the bill makes to overall spending on the environment. The Omnibus bill, which funds agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior, proposes deep cuts to accounts including clean water infrastructure, safe drinking water, toxic waste cleanups and public lands management.

"The Senate took a small step toward a cleaner environment by restoring Amtrak's funding," said Hirsch. "Unfortunately, Congress needs to take a giant leap in order to ensure that funding is restored to the many other programs that protect our health and environment."

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Spending Bill Would Fund Project to Drain Wetlands

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2003 (ENS) - A provision in the omnibus congressional spending bill would have taxpayers spend $181 million to drain about 200,000 acres of wetlands in six counties near Yazoo City, Mississippi, to open more land to cotton farming.

The language, contained in the fiscal year 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act, would provide more than $346 million in federal funds, "For expenses necessary for prosecuting work of flood control, rescue work, repair, restoration, or maintenance of flood control projects threatened or destroyed by flood as authorized by law."

The measure authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use $15 million of those funds "to continue design and real estate activities and to initiate the pump supply contract for the Yazoo Basin, Yazoo Backwater Pumping Plant, Mississippi.

Federal feasibility studies for the Yazoo wetlands drainage project have not been completed. A draft environmental review of the project was so problematic that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave it the lowest possible rating.

The project may also lack economic justification. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA), use of cotton in U.S. mills is in its fourth season of decline, and is at its lowest level since 1986-87.

An analysis of USDA data by the Environmental Working Group, a not-for-profit environmental research organization based in Washington, DC, suggests that area cotton farmers are already among the most subsidized in the nation, and cotton prices have fallen because of overproduction.

From 1996 to 2001, six area counties paid out $248,022,030 in direct cotton subsidies to 1,930 recipients - an average of $128,508 per recipient for the six year period. In addition, there were taxpayer underwritten certificates for cotton awarded to cooperatives in 2001 that amounted to almost $6 million for those six counties.

The omnibus spending bill containing the language is on the Senate floor for a vote this week. The giveaway can only be taken out if a senators offers and gets the Senate to accept an amendment to delete the language.

One the bill passes, the House and Senate will have to negotiate a final version of the bill in the House-Senate conference committee before it goes to the White House for enactment.

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Engineered Corn Blamed for Pig Problems

DES MOINES, Iowa, January 23, 2003 (ENS) - A farm advocacy organization and an environmental group today released evidence that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sold corn that one of its own researchers said might be harmful to sows.

The groups raised concerns that the suspect corn may end up being used as animal feed or even in grocery products.

The Iowa Farmers Union (IFU) and Friends of the Earth (FoE) obtained a copy of a receipt for sale of 950 bushels of corn marketed by the Commodities Credit Corporation on behalf of the USDA's Farm Services Agency (FSA), and sold on January 9 to G&R Grain and Feed Company of Portsmouth, Iowa.

The corn is suspected by USDA researchers to have caused a reproductive problem called pseudopregnancy, or false pregnancy, in sows in Iowa. The Iowa sows exhibited the signs of pregnancy for a full term but carried no fetuses.

In a letter to the USDA last fall, FoE appealed to Secretary Ann Veneman to obtain all of the corn to save it for science and to keep it off the market as long as the source of the reproductive problems remained unknown. The USDA wrote a response, dated October 29, saying that USDA "scientists are testing the corn to determine if it contains a novel toxin that might impact swine production." The department has yet to complete an investigation.

"Why would USDA Secretary Ann Veneman allow her department to sell this corn to a feed company before finishing a scientific investigation to learn if it is harmful to pigs or other farm animals?" asked IFU's Chris Peterson. "We want sound science to avoid reproductive problems in Iowa's swine herds. Independent hog farmers have told us that this problem could be the final blow to their farms, forcing them out of business."

The IFU and FoE delivered letters today to Secretary Veneman and the Des Moines office of the FSA, asking that the 950 bushels already sold not be allowed to be used for food or feed, and that no more of the corn be sold while there are unanswered questions about its safety.

In August 2002, a lead researcher in the USDA's Agricultural Research Service wrote that, "one possible cause of this problem may be the presence of an unanticipated, biologically active, chemical compound within the corn" and that "animal reproduction studies, especially with swine, will require considerable quantities of the suspect corn."

Researchers at Iowa State University later released a statement saying that genetically engineered Bt corn was not the cause of swine reproductive failures experienced by numerous local farmers, but did not conclude whether some other aspect of the corn was causing the problems.

By a twist of legal fate, the USDA has control of about 22,000 bushels of the corn through the FSA. The corn is part of the 2001 harvest from the Rolling R Farm in Harlan, Iowa. It was used as collateral on a loan to the operation.

USDA officials in Washington, DC had directed that the corn not be sold as food or feed. The FSA attempted in late 2002 to sell the corn for ethanol production, but it was rejected by Tall Corn Ethanol, a local processor.

A byproduct of ethanol is gluten, used in animal feed and human food, raising concern that any problem with the corn might enter the food chain. Now the FSA has sold part of the corn to a company that handles animal feed and loads trains destined for export markets.

Foe's Larry Bohlen said, "When there is a mysterious problem that could affect the fate of farmers, our health and the environment, we need answers - not attempts to sweep it under the rug like the USDA has done."

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Bankruptcy Pact Will Help Clean Up Steel Mill

ALTON, Illinois, January 23, 2003 (ENS) - Federal and Illinois officials have reached a settlement with the bankrupt Laclede Steel Company that will lead to the cleanup, sale and partial reopening of the company's former steel mill in Alton.

The Justice Department, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of Illinois announced the settlement Wednesday.

As part of the deal, Laclede will sell the mill to Alton Steel for $1 million. These funds will be placed in a trust to be used by Alton Steel to perform cleanup activities at the site, according to an agreed order of priorities, and under the supervision of the federal EPA and its Illinois counterpart.

Alton Steel has committed to reopening the facility and bringing it back into compliance with environmental laws, regulations and permits. Laclede will place $100,000 in a special Superfund account for later use in cleaning up the site, if necessary.

"This settlement will result in the cleanup of hazardous waste, creation of jobs and enhancement of the corporate tax base of Alton, Illinois," said Tom Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's environment and natural resources division. "This is a win for the environment and the community."

Laclede operated the Alton million nearly 90 years, before halting operations there as part of its 1998 bankruptcy reorganization. On July 27, 2001, Laclede filed a second bankruptcy petition, this time seeking dissolution rather than reorganization.

The United States filed a multi-million dollar claim in bankruptcy court seeking the funds necessary to clean up the Alton facility were it abandoned by Laclede. In view of the limited size of Laclede's bankruptcy estate and the size of competing claims, it appeared unlikely that the U.S. would be able to recover sufficient funds from Laclede to clean up the site without the use of public funds.

Since 1998, Laclede has been violating its Resource Conservation and Recovery Act permit. Under the settlement agreement, this permit will be transferred to Alton Steel, which will be responsible for bringing the facility back into compliance with it.

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Support Grows for Milltown Dam Removal

MISSOULA, Montana, January 23, 2003 (ENS) - Montana Governor Judy Martz and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are both backing a plan to remove the Milltown Dam from the confluence of the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot rivers and clean up tons of contaminated sediment.

In her State of the State address on Tuesday, Martz endorsed the removal of the dam as the best permanent solution to the growing problem of toxic sludge that has built up behind the dam.

"The health of our families and communities; the health of our environment and our wildlife - these must come first," Martz said. "That is why tonight, I am announcing that I am placing the full support of my office behind removal of the Milltown Dam at Bonner. "It's simply the right thing to do."

In the past, Martz had refused to comment on the best way to get rid of the arsenic and heavy metals that have accumulated in Milltown Reservoir, carried there form mine tailings and smelters for the past 100 years. The dam has helped to prevent the downstream migration of those contaminants, but the silt behind the dam is now so deep that it threatens to begin to flow over the top of the dam.

In 1996, an enormous ice jam stirred up the sediments and pushed some of them downstream, causing a massive fish kill and prompting a new examination of the problem. Proposals for solving the contamination problem have included removal of the dam and cleanup of the sludge, and raising the height of the dam to keep the sludge contained behind it.

On Wednesday, following Martz's surprise announcement, the Montana office of the EPA said it will propose a $90 million cleanup plan next month for the Milltown Reservoir. The plan will include removal of the dam and about three million cubic yards of the most contaminated sediments in the reservoir, using a slurry pipeline and a reconfiguration of the Clark Fork River channel.

"It's permanent and it's complete," John Wardell, director of EPA's Montana office, told the "Missoulian" newspaper. "Fundamentally, the dam removal sediment removal option is the remedy that deal with all the problems. It does the best job of cleaning up both the river system and the aquifer. And it lasts. We never have to do back."

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NASCAR Driver, Caterpillar Promote Wildlife Refuges

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2003 (ENS) - A professional race car driver and a construction equipment company have agreed to help promote wildlife refuges.

NASCAR driver Ward Burton and his primary sponsor, Catepillar Inc., will work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to promote wildlife conservation and education, and to highlight the importance of the National Wildlife Refuge System, which will celebrate its 100th birthday this March.

"The National Wildlife Refuge System would not be what it is today," said USFWS Director Steve Williams, "without dedicated partners concerned about wildlife conservation who were willing to put forth a great deal of hard work."

Burton, a conservationist, founded the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation in 1996, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the natural environment for future generation. The foundation now owns or manages 2,100 acres.

The organization focuses on both habitat enhancement and youth education projects, such as its youth education affiliate, Return to Nature, Inc., which has reached more than 120,000 boys and girls with its conservation message.

Burton has agreed to participate in three public service announcements promoting the National Wildlife Refuge System, to display a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge logo on his racing uniform, and serve as a refuge spokesperson during media appearances. In addition, the USFWS will continue to work with the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation on education projects.

"Preserving our natural resources," said Burton, "has become a passion that was instilled in my by my father and my grandfather. I believe that it is the inherent responsibility of all sportsmen and conservationists to preserve the wildlife, habitats, traditions and values we hold so dear."

Much of the work on refuges involves habitat restoration, from stabilizing stream banks to constructing water delivery systems that sustain wetlands - work that requires the use of heavy equipment, the kind of machines made by Caterpillar.

"At Caterpillar, we're committed to social responsibility," says company vice president Steve Gosselin. "We're proud of our involvement in conservation and particularly our relationship with the National Wildlife Refuge System. It has a great legacy that can be enjoyed by current and future generations."

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Whooping Crane Patriarch Dies at 39

PATUXENT, Maryland, January 23, 2003 (ENS) - Canus, a one-winged whooping crane that played a crucial role in establishing a captive breeding population of his endangered species, died last weekend of natural causes, just a few weeks short of his 39th birthday.

Scientists believe that the average lifespan of a whooping crane lasts from 25 to 30 ears, although captive birds can live much longer. Canus was part of the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) captive breeding program at the Wildlife Research Center in Patuxent.

"Canus the individual may be gone, but his legacy will persist in the every growing populations of wild whooping cranes in North America," said USGS Patuxent Center director Judd Howell. "He was a great symbol for restoration of wildlife populations, and he will be missed."

Canus, named as a symbol of cooperation between Canada and the United States, sired a large proportion of the whooping cranes in captivity and is the progenitor of many that have been released into the wild. The first whooping crane to fledge in the U.S. in 60 years was a descendent of Canus.

"Although Canus' role as a sire helped in bringing the whooping crane back from the brink of extinction, teaching us how to keep his species alive and how to breed them was really his most significant contribution," said Kathleen O'Malley of the USGS's captive breeding program. "When Canus because a resident at Patuxent, we had to learn what to feed whooping cranes, how to get them to breed, and how to keep their eggs alive. The staff is really shaken up over Canus' death."

When Canus was rescued form the wild with a fractured wing in 1964, there were just 42 whooping cranes left in the world. The number had dipped as low as 17 before rebounding due to the protection of critical habitat in both the U.S. and Canada, and the joint efforts of both countries to save the birds, including captive breeding efforts.

After some time in Colorado, Canus was shipped to Maryland in 1966 to become the first whooping crane in the endangered species recovery program at Patuxent, which was then part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, the whooping crane population has increased to about 420 birds.

For more information on whooping cranes and Captive Breeding Program at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, visis: http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov, or visit the USGS whooping crane report at: http://whoopers.usgs.gov public recreation is suitable for the lands.