AmeriScan: July 23, 2003

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Nebraska Judge Wades Out of Missouri River Controversy

OMAHA, Nebraska, July 23, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. District Court of Nebraska Judge Laurie Smith Camp today said she would not hold the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in contempt of a prior ruling if the agency moves to resolve the legal controversy that emerged from a higher court ruling. Camp's decision could prompt the Corps to reduce the water flows on the Missouri River in order to protect endangered species, as ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler on July 12.

The federal agency has refused to comply with Kessler's order, citing the ruling by Camp in 2002 that requires the agency to maintain water flows to support the barge industry. That ruling was affirmed in June 2003 by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Camp announced today that she will not withdraw or modify her ruling, but will also not take any steps to enforce it so long as the Army Corps promptly takes the matter to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals for a resolution.

In a written statement, Camp said "...an immediate appeal from this order may materially advance the ultimate termination of this litigation," and that no proceedings will be held for ten days "to allow either party to file a petition for permission to appeal to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals."

The move appears to remove the Corps' primary argument for not complying with Kessler's order - that compliance would prompt a contempt of court finding from Camp.

On Tuesday, Kessler cited the agency and the secretary of the Army in contempt and told the agency it faces fines of $500,000 a day if it does not lower the river flow by Friday. She warned of further action if the agency does not reduce the flow of the river by July 31.

"This takes away the Corps' rationale for not dropping flows now," said Rebecca Wodder, president of the conservation group American Rivers. "Judge Kessler will fine them $500,000 per day if they do not drop flows, but Judge Camp will not penalize them if they act swiftly to resolve the conflicting resolutions."

Kessler's ruling is in response to a request made in May by a coalition of some 10 conservation groups - including American Rivers - who asked for the preliminary injunction.

The coalition filed suit in February to challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations plan for six dams that inhibit the flow of the Missouri River. The conservation groups believe the Army Corps is violating the Endangered Species Act as the high water levels have a negative impact on federally protected bird and fish species.

"Longstanding U.S. Supreme Court law makes it clear that endangered wildlife receives precedent over the primary mission of federal agencies, including the damming and dredging of rivers for navigation," said John Kostyack, senior counsel at National Wildlife Federation. "We hope the 8th circuit quickly corrects this egregious error."

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House Panel Votes for Peer Review of Army Corps Projects

WASHINGTON, DC, July 23, 2003 (ENS) - The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee today voted for a measure to require peer review of U.S. Army Corps of Engineer civil works projects as part of the Water Resources Development Act of 2003. Army Corps projects have historically been controversial and are frequently the bane of conservationists, who contend environmental oversight of the agency is often lacking.

The measure approved today as part of the Water Resources Development Act would establish mandatory peer review mandatory for projects estimated to cost $5 million or more. It does, however, contain a slew of exemptions that can be made by the agency chief, including an exemption if the Chief of Engineers determines a project is not controversial or has no substantial adverse impact on fish or wildlife species.

Still, environmentalists hailed the move as an important step in the right direction.

"While we believe the independent review provisions adopted today need to be substantially strengthened, it is a major milestone in the campaign to reform the Corps that, for the first time, a Congressional committee has acted on the well demonstrated need for independent review of the Corps' civil works projects," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

In recent years, two National Academy of Sciences panels and the Army Inspector General have concluded that the Corps has an institutional bias for approving large and environmentally damaging navigation, flood control and other types water resources projects, and that its project planning process lacks adequate environmental safeguards.

"Corps civil works projects have been responsible for damaging many of the nation's most important rivers and other waters, destroying wetlands and fish and wildlife habitat, and reducing recreational opportunities," said Mulhern. "These abuses must be stopped, and today's committee action shows that Congress recognizes it is high time to address these problems and restore some integrity to the Corps' civil works program."

Today's vote comes as the Army Corps is mired in a legal battle over its management of water flows on the Missouri River. The bill will now move to the full House.

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Ecologists Urge Preventive Conservation of Coastal Areas

WASHINGTON, DC, July 23, 2003 (ENS) - A new report published by the Ecological Society of America finds that marine conservation and management strategies need to address juveniles and their habitats and should shift from mitigation and restoration measures to more preventive conservation of key coastal areas such as seagrass meadows, marshes, oyster reefs and kelp and mangrove forests.

The concept of nursery habitat and strategies for protecting them have been poorly defined, according to the report, titled "The Role of Nearshore Ecosystems as Fish and Shellfish Nurseries."

"Most marine conservation and fisheries management strategies focus on adult populations, not on protecting juvenile habitats, which are probably the hardest hit by human activities," said lead author Michael Beck of The Nature Conservancy and the University of California-Santa Cruz. "We have been talking about the importance of the nursery value of these near shore habitats for too long without focusing concerted effort on their management and conservation."

The report outlines clear guidelines on assessing which coastal areas actually serve as vital nurseries for animals such as clawed lobster, pink snapper, blue crab, flounder, and brown shrimp.

These guidelines include comparison of nursery value among different ecosystems, consideration of juvenile survival and growth, measurement of the movement of juveniles to adult habitats as well as measurement of the size and number of individuals added to adult populations.

"Because our ability to restore ecosystems such as salt marshes and seagrass meadows is limited we believe more effort should go towards conservation efforts," Beck explained. "More habitat needs to be protected, for example, from the impacts of dredging and coastal development."

The report also notes that nursery habitats are caught between the jurisdictions of multiple agencies and recommends that key U.S. federal agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey establish a jointly funded program focused on nursery ecosystem management.

But the government can not be expected to "do it all," Beck said.

"We should increase opportunities for private sector involvement for example through the conservation lease and ownership of coastal, intertidal and submerged lands," Beck added.

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Conservationists Want Protection for Lesser Prairie Chicken

SANTA FE, New Mexico, July 23, 2003 (ENS) - Conservation groups today warned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of their intent to sue the agency for its failure to list the lesser prairie-chicken under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The groups' notice of intent to sue asserts that although the agency determined the species warranted ESA protection some five years ago, it has not acted on this finding. And in the intervening five years, the conservationists say, the prairie chicken has declined further as a result of continued habitat destruction from oil and gas and agricultural development and livestock grazing.

"With the hardship of intense agricultural development and the callousness of the Bush Energy Plan - in addition to drought - we are losing the prairie chicken," said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, endangered species director for Forest Guardians. "Warranted but precluded status has been a purgatory for this bird on the brink. We will not sit by while this species continues to slip towards extinction."

The notice challenges the Fish and Wildlife Service's policy of delaying listings by designating at-risk species as candidates that warrant listing but are precluded by higher priority actions.

In June 1998, the federal agency determined that the prairie chicken - found in Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas - occupied less than 10 percent of its former range. At that point, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined the grouse species warranted ESA protection, but was considered precluded by higher priority species.

Current national policy - started under the Clinton administration and continued by the Bush administration - instructs regional Fish and Wildlife Service offices to cease work on listing actions not under court order or settlement agreement unless additional funds remain to allow work on non-court ordered actions.

The groups say that the federal agency can no longer rely on its "warranted but precluded" status for the prairie chicken because doing so requires making "expeditious progress" in addressing the backlog of unlisted species, something the Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to do.

In 2002 and 2003, the listing of only one species was finalized in the Southwestern Region, despite the region's backlog of more than 20 candidate species, and that listing was forced by a court ordered settlement.

The groups point to a mandate by Congress that the warranted but precluded designation be a short term measure for the Fish and Wildlife Service, and not be used as cover for the "foot-dragging efforts of a delinquent agency."

The conservation groups also argue that the Fish and Wildlife Service is padding the list of candidates in the Southwestern Region to avoid protecting the prairie-chicken.

The Interior Department reports 1,263 species listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Bush administration, which has been criticized by conservation groups for its policies regarding endangered species protection, has thus far not added any species to the list.

Additional organizations signing on to the Notice of Intent to Sue include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance, and T & E, Inc.

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New View of Gravity Could Unlock Secrets of Ocean Circulation

PASADENA, California, July 23, 2003 (ENS) - The first science project from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace) mission - a joint project of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the German Aerospace Center - has produced the most accurate map yet of Earth's gravity field.

The data are expected to significantly improve the ability to understand ocean circulation, which strongly influences weather and climate, and this initial model is "a feast for oceanographers," according to Dr. Byron Tapley, Grace principal investigator at the University of Texas' Center for Space Research.

"This initial model represents a major advancement in our knowledge of Earth's gravity field," Tapley said. "Pre-Grace models contained such large errors many important features were obscured. Grace brings the true state of the oceans into much sharper focus, so we can better see ocean phenomenon that have a strong impact on atmospheric weather patterns, fisheries and global climate change."

The preliminary model was created with 111 days of selected Grace data to help calibrate and validate the mission's instruments and improves knowledge of the gravity field so much it is being released to oceanographers now, months in advance of the scheduled start of routine Grace science operations, scientists say.

Grace is the newest tool for scientists working to unlock secrets of ocean circulation and its effects on climate and is providing a more precise definition of Earth's geoid, an imaginary surface defined only by Earth's gravity field, upon which the planet's ocean surfaces would lie if not disturbed by other forces such as ocean currents, winds and tides.

The geoid height varies around the world by up to 200 meters (650 feet). Grace will allow scientists to know the exact geoid height with centimeter-like precision, which will allow scientists to separate out gravitational effects on the ocean's surface and improve the accuracy of satellite tools that measure sea surface height, ocean heat storage and global ocean circulation.

Grace senses minute variations in gravitational pull from local changes in Earth's mass by precisely measuring, to a tenth of the width of a human hair, changes in the separation of two identical spacecraft following the same orbit some 220 kilometers (137 miles) apart.

It will map the variations from month to month, following changes imposed by the seasons, weather patterns and short term climate change.

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Cars Named as Largest Remaining Source of Lead Pollution

NEW YORK, New York, July 23, 2003 (ENS) - The use of lead in cars accounts for the largest remaining source of lead pollution, finds a new report released jointly today by Environmental Defense and the Ecology Center. The report "Getting the Lead Out: Impacts of and Alternatives for Automotive Lead Uses" details that the lead starter battery used in automobiles is responsible for the majority of current lead use in the world.

It finds that the North American automobile industry is responsible for the release or transfer each year of more than 300 million pounds (136,508 metric tons) of lead through mining, smelting, manufacturing, recycling and disposing of lead-containing automotive components - primarily batteries - and through normal vehicle use.

"Automobiles are responsible for a majority of lead pollution in North America, or approximately 16 pounds of lead per vehicle over its lifetime," said Jeff Gearhart, report author and clean car campaign research director for the Ecology Center.

The report calls on the automotive industry to phase out lead use in cars, most notably in the starter battery, and to take responsibility for ensuring the recovery and proper management of lead used in cars.

There is increasing concern about the health effects of lead, in particular for pregnant women and children.

"Research suggests there is no safe exposure to lead," said Jerome Nriagu, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan. "Lead poisoning is one of the most serious environmental health problems in the United States and the world."

The report details that lead is used in a number of car components, including lead wheel weights, solder in electronics, and lead car batteries, even though lead-free alternatives are available.

For example, the report says that lead wheel weights can be replaced with tin or steel weights and that alternative battery technologies such as nickel-metal hydride batteries are on the road today in gas-electric hybrid cars and can be further developed for use in conventional vehicles.

"Investment in alternative technologies - much like FedEx is doing by introducing vehicles with lithium-ion batteries into its fleet - is critical," said Kevin Mills, coauthor of the report and director of the Clean Car Campaign at Environmental Defense. "The automotive industry can safeguard children's health by improving vehicle design."

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Report Finds Sprawl Hurts Pocketbook and Environment

WASHINGTON, DC, July 23, 2003 (ENS) - Environmentalists often decry how the nation's transportation planning shortchanges the environment, but a new report released Tuesday finds that something else is being shortchanged - the budgets of American families. A report from the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) shows that America's families spend more than 19 cents out of every dollar earned on transportation - an expense second only to housing and greater than food and health care combined.

The report says that the nation's poorest families are in particular hard hit, spending more than 40 percent of their take home pay just to get around, an expenditure that that has risen 33 percent since 1992 and is making it all the more difficult for lower income families to afford housing, health care, and other critical services.

Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report titled "Transportation Costs and the American Dream: Why a Lack of Transportation Choices Strains the Family Budget and Hinders Homeownership," ranks metro areas according to the portion of household expenditures devoted to transportation.

STPP is a nonprofit organization with the goal of ensuring transportation policy and investments conserve energy, protect the environment, strengthen the economy and make communities more livable.

Its latest report details that transportation costs are highest in sprawling areas such as Tampa, Phoenix and Dallas, due to spread out development patterns, the lack of transportation choices and the absence of convenient neighborhoods within walking distance of shops and schools.

These development patterns force people into vehicles, the report says, with negative impacts on air and water quality, as well as wildlife and habitat.

The report finds that for many low and middle income families, the costs of owning and maintaining several vehicles may even be prohibiting their ability to own a home - considered one of the most reliable forms of wealth creation.

"It makes no sense to build transportation systems that exacerbate income and wealth inequalities," said Rich Stolz, senior policy analyst at the Center for Community Change. "It is time for Congress and state and local planners to make policies that place the needs of people ahead of automobiles."

The new findings come at a time when Congress is debating renewal of the massive federal transportation bill and beginning deliberations over the budget for the Transportation Department.

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New Jersey Agencies Embrace Mid-Atlantic Wind

WAYNE, Pennsylvania, July 23, 2003 (ENS) - A mid-Atlantic energy company today announced the largest single retail sale of wind power in the region's history. The deal calls for Pepco Energy Services to supply an aggregation of New Jersey state agencies with wind-generated electricity from Community Energy of Wayne, Pennsylvania.

Pepco Energy Services, a subsidiary of Pepco Holdings, Inc., has agreed to a 33-month contract to supply more than 24 megawatts of electricity - 12 megawatts of which will consist of energy purchased from Community Energy and produced by wind farms located in the mid-Atlantic region.

More than 90 percent of the wind power will come from Community Energy's new Bear Creek wind farm near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, less than 60 miles from northern New Jersey.

The renewable energy will supply 180 New Jersey accounts beginning this month, including Rutgers University, New Jersey Highway Administration, New Jersey Transit and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

The public agencies joined together for the purpose of creating one electricity contract to obtain the lowest cost "Green-E" certified electricity. In addition, the agencies wanted to meet the 10-percent environmentally friendly green power goal established by New Jersey Governor James McGreevey.

Pepco Energy Services and Community Energy struck a longterm agreement in April 2003, a partnership that allows the energy provider "to provide emissions-free wind power to our customers," said Dr. Ed Mayberry, president and chief executive officer of Pepco Energy Services.

Community Energy markets power from five of the seven wind farms in the mid-Atlantic, and two of three wind farms in New York.

Pepco Energy Services also supplies energy from wind farms to the U.S. General Services Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Transportation, World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.

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