AmeriScan: June 11, 2002

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Administration Will Not Buy Back California Leases

SACRAMENTO, California, June 11, 2002 (ENS) - Interior Secretary Gale Norton says the federal government will not seek to buy back oil leases off the California coast.

After receiving word that the Bush administration planned to buy back dozens of oil leases off Florida's coast to protect beaches and the Florida Everglades, California Governor Gray Davis asked that the administration take similar steps to protect California's coast from oil and gas drilling.

"There are significant differences between the situations in Florida and California," wrote Norton in a letter to Davis. "A major difference between Florida and California is that Florida opposes coastal drilling and California does not."

Norton noted that no oil or gas has ever been commercially produced from state or federal leases off Florida's coast, while they are now 34 active offshore leases in California state waters within three miles of the coast, where more than 150 new wells have been drilled since 1990.

"These California state offshore leases have produced more than 2.5 billion barrels of oil," Norton noted. "There are 43 federal producing leases within approximately 12 miles of California's coast where 114 new wells have been drilled since 1990. In total, more than one billion barrels of oil have been produced from federal leases offshore California."

Norton also noted that while a lawsuit challenging California's offshore was filed by the state in January, similar legislation has been underway in Florida for almost two years.

"The parties to the California case have had insufficient time to obtain information that is essential to evaluating the merits of the arguments and to structuring any settlement, if resolution by settlement is appropriate," Norton said.

"Finally, I want to make clear that the Administration will honor existing leasing moratoria regarding mineral leases off of California's coast," Norton concluded. "We are seriously considering the concerns and objections of those opposed to offshore development, and we welcome the opportunity to work with you to resolve your issues in pursuit of a result that benefits both California and the nation."

Governor Davis responded by charging that Secretary Norton "fundamentally misunderstands the legal issues in California's long fight about offshore oil drilling."

"Ever since the spill off Santa Barbara in 1969, Californians have vehemently opposed new offshore drilling. We have not issued a new lease since 1968," Davis said. "And there will be no new leases in the future if I have anything to say about it."

"We are proud that California has done its part to provide our fair share of the energy the nation uses," Davis added, noting that California coastal leases have produced more than 2.5 billion barrels of oil over the years. However, all recent drilling has been from existing platforms whose leases date back almost 50 years, Davis argued; current state law bars new oil and gas leases "except in the case of a national emergency."

"We should not be punished for doing our part to provide energy to the nation," Davis concluded. "What is good for Florida's coast is good for California's. The administration continues to fail to establish a reason to treat California differently than Florida."

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Budget Office Will Help Craft Diesel Rules

WASHINGTON, DC, June 11, 2002 (ENS) - In an unusual collaboration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will work together to craft new regulations governing non-road diesel engines.

"Non-road engines emit significant amounts of fine particles and nitrogen oxides," said John Graham, administrator of OMB's Information and Regulatory Affairs, in a press statement on Friday. "OMB and EPA share a concern that inhalation of fine particles is associated with a variety of adverse health effects. We are interested in addressing these critical issues and protecting Americans from the harmful health effects of diesel pollution."

But conservation groups said the Bush plan could permit diesel engine makers to "trade emission reduction credits" rather than produce cleaner trucks and buses, weakening emissions standards.

"This industry friendly plan is a Trojan Horse," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust. "In the guise of a cleanup plan, it would actually permit industry to evade the tough diesel truck standards set by the Clinton administration."

EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman has said in the past that she supported the Clinton truck standards, O'Donnell noted.

"It is disturbing that she is apparently now backing away from her promises - and from those much needed truck standards," said O'Donnell. "It is equally disturbing that Whitman appears to be abdicating her authority - and permitting OMB to run her agency."

Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman questioning the legality of the collaboration between the EPA and the OMB.

"This appears to be an unprecedented action and raises serious questions," Waxman wrote. "Congress granted rule making authority under the Clean Air Act to the administrator of EPA., which is an independent regulatory agency, not to the director of OMB."

But the EPA says the collaboration with the OMB will speed up the new diesel rules, as the budget office must approve all new environmental regulations in the end. The two agencies will consider incentives to encourage voluntary reductions in emissions from non-road diesel engines, emissions trading programs and the use of very low sulfur diesel fuel.

The EPA announcement comments came as state and local air pollution regulators unveiled a new report that points out the health problems caused by emissions from dirty diesel engines used off the highway. The report, released by the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, concludes that tough emission and fuel controls on these non-road diesel engines could prevent more than 8,500 premature deaths and 180,000 asthma attacks a year.

Non-road diesel engines include such machines as construction equipment, bulldozers and portable diesel generators. Fuel for such engines contains high levels of sulfur - up to 200 times the sulfur that will be allowed in highway diesel fuel in 2006 under current EPA regulations.

"Much of that sulfur is chemically converted to dangerous fine particle soot," O'Donnell said. "The sulfur also prevents use of pollution control devices. That's why health and environmental and state and local government groups have called on EPA to set standards for non-road diesel engines and fuel to match the progressive standards for highway trucks and highway diesel fuel."

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Interior Department Supports Native Whaling

WASHINGTON, DC, June 11, 2002 (ENS) - The Department of Interior says it will seek to restore whaling rights to native peoples in Alaska.

Last month, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted not to renew the subsistence whaling quota for Alaska Eskimos for the 2003 - 2007 period. The quota on bowhead whales was jointly requested by the United States and the Russian Federation at the 54th Annual Meeting of the IWC in Shimonoseki, Japan.

By one vote, the IWC failed to garner the three-fourth majority required to renew the quota of 102 bowheads, which was identical to the 1998 -2002 quota. Opposition to the quota was led by Japan, in retaliation for U.S. and Russian opposition to Japan's so called research whaling.

An IWC Scientific Committee assessment found that the annual take of up to 102 bowheads does not jeopardize the stock.

In a letter sent to the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb expressed the Department of the Interior's regret over the IWC decision.

"I don't understand, how the IWC could vote to deprive the Alaska Eskimos of eighty percent of their food supply causing them undue hardship and threatening their way of life," wrote McCaleb. "However, I can assure you that my office will continue to advocate forcefully for the continuation of aboriginal subsistence hunts."

The conditions created by the vote may affect the subsistence of the Alaska and Chukotkan natives that have hunted bowhead whales for thousands of years, McCaleb argued.

Whaling underlies the historic way of life of the Inupiat and Siberian Yupik Eskimos of northern and western Alaska. The natives use the whales for food, clothing, and materials for tools and housing.

McCaleb has formed a working group of departmental staff to develop an action plan to assist the Alaska natives with the ramifications of the IWC's action.

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EPA Grant Supports Tribal Research

WASHINGTON, DC, June 11, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded a $1.2 million research grant to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, located in the state of Washington.

The grant is the largest competitive EPA research award ever given to a tribe.

The researchers will study whether the Swinomish people are exposed to contaminants when they eat shellfish from traditional harvesting areas. The project will also help the Swinomish tribe understand whether this exposure contributes to the high incidence of health related problems on their reservation.

Scientists will study 16 shellfish harvest areas in Washington that are used by the Swinomish Tribal Community. Sediments, littleneck clams, Japanese oysters, butter clams and dungeness crabs will be analyzed for several chemicals and heavy metals.

Researchers will also investigate effective and culturally appropriate ways to communicate any health risks they identify to the Swinomish community and nearby tribes who also participate in subsistence shellfish harvests. The results of the project will help the tribes develop ways to reduce the health risks of shellfish consumption.

The research grant to the Swinomish tribe was awarded through Science to Achieve Results Program (STAR), an EPA program that funds research grants in numerous science and engineering disciplines through a competitive solicitation process and independent peer review.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman announced the grant last week at the Sixth National Tribal Conference on Environmental Management.

Whitman also said that despite the EPA's progress in reducing pollution on tribal lands, it is "all too apparent that EPA needs to do more."

"For tribes, clean water often means providing basic sanitation that most of America takes for granted," Whitman said. "Today, there are 1,100 open dumps in Indian country and only about one out of 10 tribes have developed solid waste management programs to date."

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Diversa Will Mine Biodiversity in Hawaii

HONOLULU, Hawaii, June 11, 2002 (ENS) - Diversa Corporation, a biotechnology company, has signed an agreement with the University of Hawaii to seek novel, commercially valuable genes in Hawaii.

The biodiversity access and research collaboration agreement, between the Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center (MarBEC) at the University of Hawaii - Manoa in Honolulu and Diversa, gives Diversa the right to discover genes from existing material collections and from environmental samples collected by MarBEC researchers in and around Hawaii.

"Diversa continues to discover unique molecules from the unusual environments within our biodiversity access network," said Dr. Jay Short, president and chief executive officer. "This network has contributed to the success of our proprietary discovery program and, in combination with our DirectEvolution® technologies, has shown that it can deliver product solutions that are superior to those derived from evolution technologies alone."

Recognized as the most isolated group of islands in the world, Hawaii is the ninth biodiversity hotspot represented in Diversa's gene collecting network. Hawaii features unique environments representing most of the world's climatic zones, including the snow capped mountains of Mauna Kea, Maui's alpine desert, and miles of coral reefs that encircle the islands.

Of the more than 22,000 known species that inhabit Hawaii, 8,850 are found nowhere else in the world.

Diversa Corporation is seeking genes from these species that could be used in new drugs or in agricultural, chemical and industrial applications. The company has formed joint ventures with The Dow Chemical Company and Syngenta Seeds AG, focused on commercialization of products for the industrial and agricultural markets.

Diversa is also collaborating with Celera Genomics, GlaxoSmithKline plc, Invitrogen Corporation and Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc.

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Rio Grande Called Critical for Silvery Minnow

WASHINGTON, DC, June 11, 2002 (ENS) - The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed designating the middle reach of the Rio Grande river in New Mexico as critical habitat for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

The proposed critical habitat area includes the area downstream of Cochiti Reservoir to the Elephant Butte Reservoir Dam as well as the tributary Jemez River from Jemez Canyon Reservoir to its confluence with the Rio Grande. A 300 foot area on each side of the river is also included.

"The Rio Grande silvery minnow has good recovery potential," said H. Dale Hall, director of the USFWS Southwest region. "We will continue to work closely with area landowners and water users as we refine this proposal and develop strategies to meet the needs of the minnow and the surrounding communities."

The proposal replaces an earlier critical habitat designation set aside by a federal court in 2000. The court's ruling required the UFSWS to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Economic Analysis.

The new proposal covers about the same portion of the middle Rio Grande as was contained in the earlier proposal.

Federal agencies whose actions influence water in the middle Rio Grande already consult with the USFWS to address the impacts their projects have on the Rio Grande silvery minnow. These requirements would not change with the designation of critical habitat.

"The target flows in the Rio Grande that we have recommended in the past will not differ," said Hall. "We anticipate that this proposal will have little impact on water users."

The Rio Grande silvery minnow is a native fish first listed as endangered in 1994. The minnow was once one of the most abundant and widespread of the desert fishes in the Rio Grande Basin, ranging from Espanola, New Mexico, to the Gulf of Mexico.

The silvery minnow has now vanished from the Pecos River and the upper and lower Rio Grande. The species' decline has been attributed to decreased and interrupted stream flows caused by impoundments, water diversion for agriculture and stream channelization.

The species may also be affected by interactions with nonnative fish and poor water quality.

The recovery plan for the silvery minnow recommends the fish be established in three distinct river reaches before it is removed from the endangered species list.

"Our preference is to use both critical habitat and experimental populations to recover the minnow," said Hall. "We will end up with greater management flexibility and a better chance for success."

Public comments on the critical habitat proposal will be accepted through September 4.

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Texas Hosts Endangered Sea Turtles

PADRE ISLAND, Texas, June 11, 2002 (ENS) - Infant Kemp's ridley sea turtles - the world's most endangered sea turtles - will be released into the waters of Padre Island National Seashore later this week.

The release is part of a research and monitoring program aimed at saving Kemp's ridleys from extinction. Funded in part from Unilever, H.E. Butt Grocery Company (H-E-B), and the National Park Foundation, the program has been collecting sea turtle eggs and releasing hatchlings for more than two decades.

Begun in the late 1970s, the sea turtle restoration program aims to establish a second nesting colony for the Kemp's ridley in the protected haven of Padre Island National Seashore's beaches.

So far in the 2002 nesting season, 28 Kemp's ridley nests have been located on the Texas coast. Only one other confirmed Kemp's ridley nest has been found in the United States this year.

The eggs were collected to protect them from predators, and incubated at special hatching centers. The successful release of the hatchlings adds to the species' chances for long term survival.

"The year 2002 has been a record setter in Texas for accomplishing the critical task of locating and preserving the nests of the Kemp's ridley, the most endangered sea turtle in the world," said Jock Whitworth, superintendent of Padre Island National Seashore. The cooperative program allows the Park Service to "patrol the beaches through the nesting season and increase our chances to save this amazing creature," Whitworth added.

Michael Mac, center director of the U.S. Geological Survey's Columbia Environmental Research Center added, "The long term research and monitoring efforts to restore a sustainable population of Kemp's ridley sea turtles pays off, as witnessed by the record number of nests this season. The dedication of scientists and the many partners makes this exceptional year possible."

Unilever, H-E-B, and the National Park Foundation are contributing $20,000 to the project. This year's grant marks the second consecutive year that the partnership has sponsored the program, representing a total grant of $60,000.

"Unilever's commitment to global sustainability is demonstrated through our ongoing commitment to preserve and protect America's National Parks," said Lisa Klauser, vice president of consumer activation at Unilever Bestfoods. "Within this steadfast commitment are grants to support important programs such as the Kemp's ridley sea turtle preservation."

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Princeton Students Map U.S. Natural Hazard Risks

PRINCETON, New Jersey, June 11, 2002 (ENS) - Natural hazard data from across the entire United States has been combined into a comprehensive hazard map revealing the areas most at risk for natural hazards.

The map, the first of its kind, was prepared by Princeton University geoscience students in a course taught by Gregory van der Vink, director of planning for Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology. The poster, entitled "U.S. Vulnerability to Natural Disasters," was presented at the recent American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington, DC.

"This is the first time that these individual hazards have been collected together to demonstrate the natural hazard risks for the entire U.S.," said van der Vink, "The students realized that to reduce the costs on natural disasters, we need to demonstrate that these are not random events and we need to increase awareness about the predictable consequences of high risk land use."

The hazard map includes information from all 50 states about flooding, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricane tracks, population growth, and the costs of these events.

"We found that the cost of natural hazard events was driven by large events such as hurricane Andrew and the Northridge earthquake," van der Vink said. "We also noticed a 30 year east to west oscillation in hurricane tracks, which means according to our data, hurricane tracks may be moving more east and north in the coming years."

While some of the data were collected by previous classes, the majority of the data were gathered during the fall 2001 semester. The data indicated that the costs of disasters are increasing due to increases in population and wealth density in disaster prone areas.

The map was created for the Congressional Hazards Caucus. The Congressional Natural Hazards Caucus plans to distribute the information across the U.S. to help states at higher risk request the funds needed to protect against future disasters.