AmeriScan: January 24, 2003

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Spending Bill Includes Water Damaging Provisions

WASHINGTON, DC, January 24, 2003 (ENS) - The omnibus spending bill passed by the Senate late Thursday includes two provisions that could damage wetlands and waterways.

The Senate voted to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to enter into contracts for a $181 million project to build a project that will drain and damage 200,000 acres of wetlands in the Mississippi River Flyway. The language in the omnibus appropriations bill directs the Corps to move forward with this project even though the legally required environmental and fiscal reports have not yet been completed.

The Yazoo Pumps project - which will be the world's largest hydraulic pumping plant - will be located near the confluence of the Yazoo and Big Sunflower Rivers north of Jackson, Mississippi. An amendment introduced by Arizona Republican Senator John McCain that would have required the Corps to finish its project planning before entering into contracts was defeated by a 68 to 29 vote.

"Three years ago the Senate voted to spend $8.1 billion to restore 35,000 acres of wetland in Florida's Everglades, today it voted to spend $181 million to destroy four times that many wetlands in Mississippi," said Melissa Samet, senior director for water resources at American Rivers. "Future generations of Americans will pay a terrible price for today's failure to learn from past mistakes."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned that the Yazoo Pumps project will damage more than 200,000 acres of ecologically significant wetlands and alter the natural hydrology of another 725,000 acres of habitat, including the Big Sunflower River. An independent economic analysis commissioned by the EPA concluded that the Corps has exaggerated the agricultural benefits of the pumps by $144 million.

American Rivers placed Mississippi's Big Sunflower River on its 2002 America's Most Endangered Rivers list, citing the ecological and social damage the pumping plants will cause.

Despite Thursday's vote, the Yazoo Pumps still has many hurdles to clear before construction can begin. The contracting directive still has to survive the omnibus bill's conference with the House of Representatives, and the language in the spending bill does not change the Corps' requirements to comply with the nation's environmental laws.

Federal law provides the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the authority to intervene as well.

The Senate also approved the Devils Lake Outlet project in North Dakota, which would spend $100 million dollars to provide an outlet for the lake. Critics say the outlet would send polluted water into the Sheyene River and jeopardize native species.

"Devils Lake and Yazoo Pumps fail the environmental test and the economic test, but passed the political test today," said Bob Perciasepe, Audubon's senior vice president for public policy. "Unfortunately the real losers are birds, wildlife and the taxpayers with this backdoor approval of these destructive projects."

A third amendment that would have exempted the Missouri River from certain Endangered Species Act requirements, allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to flood or move the nests of endangered birds, was not brought to a vote due to its controversial nature.

The Senate voted 69 to 29 to pass the omnibus bill, which combines 11 separate appropriations measures that were not completed during the last Congress.

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Coastal Commission Faces Constitutional Challenge

SACRAMENTO, California, January 24, 2003 (ENS) - An appeals court has refused to reconsider a ruling that could force the dismantling of the agency responsible for regulating development along California's 1,100 mile coastline.

On December 30, the 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling that found the California Coastal Commission to be unconstitutional. The court ruled that the agency, which wields executive powers, violates the state's separation of powers clause, because the majority of the commission's 12 members are appointed by state legislators, who can also remove these members at will.

"The flaw is that the unfettered power to remove the majority of the commission's voting members and to replace them with others ... makes [the commission] subservient to the Legislature," the appeals court wrote.

The appeals court gave the state 30 days to correct the problem. On Thursday, the court refused to reconsider its findings.

State attorney general Bill Lockyer had argued that the court disregarded the constitutional authority of the Legislature to make appointments. A three judge panel from the appeals court said Thursday that the state failed to offer evidence pertaining to a "separation of powers challenge to the Legislature's ability to remove its appointees at will, let alone to its ability to remove a majority of an executive agency's officers at will."

Governor Gray Davis has ordered a special session of the state Legislature, which began Thursday, to consider legislation to correct the constitutional problem with the Commission. Two bills will be introduced in the state senate and the assembly that would give all legislatively appointed members of the commission fixed, two year terms.

"The legislature and I have worked with extraordinary cooperation and unprecedented speed to keep the California Coastal Commission viable and doing its job," Davis said. "For more than a quarter-century, this commission has been protecting and strengthening California's coast. I'm pleased that we could agree on a proposal that will protect and strengthen the Commission. This agreement ensures that these good guardians of our coastal resources will be on the job for generations to come."

The legislature will begin voting on the bills next week. Davis hopes the new legislation will satisfy the appeals court.

But attorneys for the entrepreneur who first challenged the commission's constitutionality say the state might have to give up its authority to most, or any, members to the agency.

Rodolphe Streichenberger, a retired aquaculture entrepreneur, sued after the commission refused to allow him to build an artificial reef for marine species using used jugs, tires, pipe and rope.

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Washington DC Ozone Classed as Severe

WASHINGTON, DC, January 24, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today reclassified the Washington region to "severe" for ozone pollution.

The move, which will trigger stronger pollution controls for industries and motor vehicles, was prompted by a federal court order in a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club.

Residents of Washington DC, as well as those of downwind cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, suffer health threats due to smog pollution generated in the capital region. New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore are already designated as severe for smog pollution and are held to the stronger pollution control requirements that DC had avoided until today's announcement.

"This action will lead to cleaner, healthier air for people not only in the Washington region, but also in downwind cities," said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. "The stronger pollution controls required by this action are badly needed to reduce the large number of 'code red' days we suffer each summer."

Ten other areas have also been designated by the EPA as being in severe nonattainment of federal ozone standards, including Houston, Texas; Sacramento, California; Chicago, Illinois, New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore, Maryland. Los Angeles, California's smog problem is designated extreme by the EPA.

Areas in these categories, which now include metro Washington DC, must implement stronger pollution controls to bring their air quality in line with national standards. The court order also requires the EPA to decide by next April whether to formally disapprove the DC region's previous clean air plans, a move that would trigger legal requirements to redirect transportation spending from new roads to better mass transit and other projects that help to reduce pollution.

"More pollution controls are desperately needed in the Washington region," said Dr. Ronald Karpick, a Falls Church pulmonary physician. "Poor air quality means more children develop asthma and people with asthma have more attacks. This all leads to poorer quality of life, higher medical expenses, and even premature deaths."

Ozone is a lung irritant that damages lung tissue and reduces lung function, causing symptoms such as chest pain, nausea and pulmonary congestion. Ozone at the levels often experienced in the capital region is harmful to at risk individuals like the elderly, children and people with respiratory problems.

During a typical smoggy summer in metro DC, breathing difficulties send more than 2,400 people to the emergency room and cause 130,000 asthma attacks. Last summer, the Washington region suffered from the worst ozone pollution in more than a decade, with nine "code red" days, and another 19 "code orange" days, when children were warned to limit outdoor play.

To bring the DC metro area back into compliance with the law, the Sierra Club urges the EPA to adopt a comprehensive clean air plan that makes public transit affordable, convenient and dependable, and that promotes smart growth rather than suburban sprawl.

"Local officials should adopt smart growth policies, including clustering new development near transit and making our communities walkable and bikeable, to fight air pollution and help everyone breathe easier," said Sierra Club spokesperson Melanie Mayock.

Although welcoming the reclassification action, Earthjustice criticized another portion of today's EPA action that gives state and local governments more than a year to develop new clean air plans for the region. Baron also faulted EPA for allowing the region to delay annual cuts in ozone forming emissions.

"This is not a time for more footdragging," said Baron. "These plans were due more than eight years ago."

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Regulations.gov Website Offers Improved Access

WASHINGTON, DC, January 24, 2003 (ENS) - A new website launched Thursday will provide ready access to proposed new federal regulations that are open for public comment.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the creation of Regulations.gov, a site designed to allow citizens and small businesses to access and comment on hundreds of rules from all federal agencies.

The EPA was selected by the OMB to be the lead agency on the initiative, which will improve access to proposed regulations that impact people's lives.

"E-Rulemaking will allow citizens to participate actively by enabling them to be involved in federal rulemaking on their own terms at a location and time of their choice," said EPA deputy administrator Linda Fisher. "This initiative will help assure the public that they have a role in making regulatory decisions and that it can be done in a more timely and efficient manner."

The initiative is part of the Bush administration's E-government agenda, aimed at cutting costs and streamlining interactions between citizens, businesses and government.

The new website is available at: http://www.regulations.gov

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New Army Corps Head Nominated

WASHINGTON, DC, January 24, 2003 (ENS) - John Paul Woodley has been nominated as the new head of the troubled U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Woodley was named by President George W. Bush as his choice for Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. The position has been vacant since March 6, 2002, when Bush Michael Parker, his civilian appointee at the Corps, for inviting Congress to approve more controversial, expensive projects, while Bush sought budget cuts.

Woodley is currently the Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for the Environment. From 1998 to 2001, he served as the Secretary of Natural Resources of Virginia, and from 1994 to 1998, he was the Deputy Attorney General for Government Operations of Virginia.

Conservation groups hope that Woodley will help to reform the Corps, which has been plagued with allegations of misuse of funds, and a disregard for the environmental consequences of its projects. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the General Accounting Office, and the Army Inspector General, the agency has on many occasions justified its projects to Congress using inaccurate economic and environmental information.

American Rivers called on Woodley to resist Congressional efforts to use the agency as a vehicle to deliver environmentally destructive pork barrel water projects, and work to restore credibility to the agency. The environmental group, which greeted Woodley's appointment with cautious optimism, co-chairs a coalition of more than 60 national and local conservation groups and taxpayer advocates working to secure reforms at the Corps.

Once confirmed, Woodley will assume responsibilities for managing the nation's rivers and protecting its wetlands.

"Hercules may have faced a less daunting task when he confronted the Augean stables," said Melissa Samet, senior director of water resources at American Rivers. "We hope that Mr. Woodley will listen carefully to the public and work with us to help restore public trust in the agency."

With Congress preparing to resume work on a Water Resources Development Act in this session, American Rivers called on Woodley to work with legislators to enact policy changes, including new procedures to subject expensive or controversial Army Corps project proposals to independent peer review.

The conservation group also supports reforms that would ensure that the Corps satisfies its mitigation obligations by completing wildlife habitat restoration efforts in a timely manner and at a high level of quality. Army Corps proposals often come with promises to restore valuable habitat as "mitigation" for the damage caused by the desired project, but many of these promises are never kept.

"Mr. Woodley can serve the taxpaying public best by ensuring that his agency consistently provides accurate information to Congress about what its projects would cost, how much environmental damage they would do, and how much economic benefit they would provide, regardless of the pressure applied by individual members," Samet said.

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Funding Boost Sought for Fisheries

WASHINGTON, DC, January 24, 2003 (ENS) - President George W. Bush will seek a 16 percent increase for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) 69 national fish hatcheries in 2004, Interior Secretary Gale Norton told 500 delegates to the first National Fisheries Leadership Conference on Thursday.

Norton said "help is on the way" for the hatchery system in the form of $8.1 million in new funds next year.

"The proposed budget increase will help to recover imperiled fish species, increase recreation opportunities for anglers, eradicate invasive fish populations and repair aging infrastructure at fish hatcheries across the nation," Norton said.

The leadership conference is the first for a USFWS program that traces its roots to the U.S. Fish Commission, established in 1871, and was called to unveil the program's new Strategic Vision, which will be a blueprint for the fisheries program at the start of this century.

Norton told the conference that she was impressed by the work on the program's Strategic Vision document.

"Hatchery managers have labored to come up with a strategic plan that has convinced the Office of Management and Budget that it is time to increase your funding," Norton told the conference at their Washington meeting. "Now it is going to be up to you to follow the strategic planning and thinking you have done, with follow through and results."

The Vision document is an outgrowth of an effort that began in 1999, when the USFWS asked the Sport Fishing and Boating Partnership Council, a federally chartered advisory group to the Interior Secretary, to offer recommendations about the role and mission of the National Fish Hatchery System. The Council, composed of representatives from state and other federal agencies, Native American tribes, conservation organizations, private industry and academia, went on to complete a second set of recommendations for the entire fisheries program.

"The Council strongly supports the new direction charted for the Fisheries Program," said the Sport Fishing and Boating Partnership Council chair Bill Taylor, who is also one of the conference's keynote speakers. "We believe this program is uniquely positioned to reach across state and international boundaries to coordinate major fisheries management and conservation initiatives."

Addressing the conference, Norton gave special attention to recreational fishing, noting that of the $108 billion that Americans spent on wildlife related activities in 2001, $35 billion came from fishing. However, a third of the nation's freshwater fish are now listed as threatened or endangered, she noted.

The $8.1 million funding increase sought by President Bush would be used to increase hatchery production for listed species including pallid sturgeon and greenback cutthroat trout. Some of the funds would also help restore habitat for at risk species, assess the threats facing native fish, combat fish diseases and invasive species, and improve fish passages at dams.

For more information on the National Fisheries Leadership Conference, visit: http://pacific.fws.gov/fishconf/

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Maryland Approves Black Bear Hunt

SILVER SPRING, Maryland, January 24, 2003 (ENS) - For the first time in 50 years, the state of Maryland has approved a hunting season for black bears.

Despite receiving more than 500 comments from Maryland citizens who oppose bear hunting by a five to one majority, the Maryland Black Bear Task Force voted six to four to recommend a new bear hunting season.

"The Task Force has thumbed its nose at Maryland citizens - more than 80 percent of whom voiced their opposition to a bear hunting season," said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals. "We hope that Governor Ehrlich and the Department of Natural Resources will respect the will of the people and continue the 50 year tradition of black bear protection in Maryland."

Maryland's black bear population, estimated at 266 to 437 bears, has come back from the brink of extinction. Because of the state's growing human population, encounters and conflicts between humans and bears have become more common.

According to the task force website, "The Task Force feels that black bears are a valuable natural resource, that efforts should be used to conserve black bear habitat, but bear populations should be maintained at levels compatible with land use and property concerns."

The task force voted to approve "fair and sportsmanlike" bear hunting, barring the use of bait and dogs, and banning spring hunting. Funds raised from the sale of bear hunt permits will be used to fund bear management programs and to compensate property owners for damage caused by bears.

The Fund for Animals says that there are better ways to manage the state's bear population and reduce conflict with humans. The group says the task force was provided with scientific data on black bears but has not produced a comprehensive analysis of black bear habitat needs or the impact that a hunt would have on the bear population and non-target species.

"There was never any information suggesting that hunting bears would reduce bear/human conflicts," said Markarian. "In fact, hunting bears for sport would most likely make those problems worse."

The Fund for Animals suggested expanding public education efforts on implementing non-lethal methods to humanely prevent or resolve human/bear conflicts in the state.

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Cold Weather Bites Much of the Nation

WASHINGTON, DC, January 24, 2003 (ENS) - Dangerously cold temperatures seeping down from the Arctic region have plunged most of the nation into a deep freeze, prompting the Bush administration to call for more funding for the Energy Department's Weatherization Assistance Program.

A sagging jet stream has allowed a massive area of cold air from Siberia to sink farther south into the United States. Danaher said no temperature records were recorded Thursday morning, but the cold air should shatter records throughout the Southeast on Friday.

National Weather Service forecasters said the freezing conditions may get worse before they get better, and issued wind chill warnings or advisories from eastern Montana and North Dakota southeast across states in the northern Plains, Ohio Valley and mid-Atlantic regions. Wind chill temperature readings are expected to range near zero in the Carolinas, to minus 10 degrees in New England.

"Even the slightest wind, combined with these low temperatures, makes conditions outside almost unbearable," said Ed Danaher, a senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service. "It's best to stay inside and not venture out for long periods."

On Monday, a gust of wind was clocked at 54 miles per hour (mph) in Keansbury, New Jersey, and in Barnstable County, Massachussetts, on Wednesday a wind gust of 60 mph was recorded. Danaher said the strong winds across New England should ease by Thursday afternoon and over the Carolinas by Friday.

On Thursday, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that President George W. Bush's 2004 budget request includes $288.2 million for the Weatherization Assistance Program - an increase of $11.2 million above the president's fiscal year 2003 request.

By improving the energy efficiency in homes, the Weatherization Assistance Program reduces the burden of energy costs for low income Americans, including households with elderly residents, people with disabilities and children.

"As temperatures are falling to sub-zero levels, the funds for weatherization assistance are rising to help low income families across the country," Abraham said. "The President is keeping his commitment made when he took office to increase the Weatherization Assistance Program and provide energy saving home improvements to hundreds of thousands of low income families this year."

This year, the Weatherization Assistance Program will reduce the energy bills of about 126,000 low income families nationwide - 3000 more than 2003 and a 20 percent increase over 2002. The program will also provide jobs and improve the environment.

"At current production rates, weatherization decreases national energy consumption by the equivalent of 15 million barrels of oil every year," Abraham added. "As we strive to reduce our nation's dependence on foreign oil, the importance of such efforts cannot be overstated."