AmeriScan: June 21, 2002

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North Carolina Restricts Power Plant Emissions

RALEIGH, North Carolina, June 21, 2002 (ENS) - North Carolina has become the first southern state to pass legislation restricting emissions from aging coal fired power plants.

On Thursday, Governor Michael Easley signed the Clean Smokestacks bill, which is intended to slash power plant emissions of air pollutants responsible for smog, haze and other air quality problems.

"With the stroke of my pen, North Carolina is now a national leader in fighting air pollution," said Easley. "This will allow us to reduce pollution in our state and will serve as a model for states around the country."

"There is not another plan in the country that goes this far toward cleaning harmful smokestack emissions from our air - and it does so without raising rates," Easley added. "These reductions will protect the health of all our people by reducing lung disease and asthma, benefit our environment by reducing smog and acid rain, and benefit our economy by preserving our investments in tourism."

Under the new law, North Carolina's 14 coal fired power plants are required to reduce their emissions of nitrogen oxides, a key element in ground level ozone or smog, from 245,000 tons in 1998 to 56,000 tons by 2009, a 78 percent cut.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions will be cut from 489,000 tons in 1998 to 250,000 tons by 2009, a 49 percent reduction. By 2013, SO2 emissions will be cut to 130,000 tons a year, a 74 percent reduction from 1998 levels. SO2 emissions lead to acid rain, particulate pollution and haze.

The law requires the North Carolina Division of Air Quality to conduct a study of mercury and carbon dioxide emissions across the state. The equipment needed to reduce SO2 emissions is expected to cut mercury emissions by about half. Airborne mercury ends up in streams and lakes where it can accumulate in certain kinds of fish, making them unsafe to eat.

Utility companies will be required to cut their emissions year round at power plants within North Carolina. The legislation differs from federal rules, which apply only during the ozone season from April through October, and which allow utilities to buy or trade pollution credits from other states instead of cutting air pollution from plants in North Carolina.

The new law is not expected to cause increased rates for consumers. North Carolina's two primary utilities, Duke Energy Corp. and Carolina Power & Light, agreed to support the legislation and absorb most of its estimate $2.3 billion in costs in exchange from a pledge by the state to keep utility rates at their current levels, which are higher than the nationwide average, for the next five years.

The bill "provides adequate timelines, clear standards and full cost recovery that will allow us to continue to provide reliable and affordable electricity to our customers while significantly improving air quality," said William Cavanaugh, chair and president of Progress Energy.

North Carolina joins Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Hampshire in requiring deeper emissions cuts than those ordered by the federal government.

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Activists Jailed for Montana Logging Protest

MISSOULA, Montana, June 21, 2002 (ENS) - Two environmental activists are being held at the Missoula County Detention Center on $70,000 bail after hanging a banner from a logging truck and rapelling off a bridge in Missoula, Montana.

The protesters from Wild Rockies Earth First! (WREF!) attached the banner, which read "Global Capitalism Kills Our Forest," to a truck transporting logs from the Roan Burke Timber Sale to draw attention to so called salvage logging activities in the Bitterroot National Forest. The activists charge that deforestation is a result of corporate globalization, which allows nations to profit from the sale of natural resources.

WREF! volunteers Stephanie Valle and Sean McCoy were charged with felony criminal endangerment and arraigned Thursday in the Missoula County Courthouse. Both defendants plead not guilty and Judge Karen Orzech set bail at $70,000 each after the District Attorney requested high bail as a deterrent to future protests in Missoula County.

"I'm appalled at the way the courts use bail to silence dissent," said WREF! activist and Bitterroot resident Delyla Wilson.

"Just this month in Missoula a man charged with the rape of a developmentally disabled women was given $20,000 bail," Wilson added. "The courts are being used by corporate interests to quash nonviolent civil disobedience. It is obvious that is more important to our courts to protect corporate interests than women and the developmentally disabled."

WREF! objects to logging contracts issued after wildfires burned over much of the Bitterroot in 2000. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) says the timber projects are part of a larger restoration plan for the forest, which includes removing 60 million board feet of timber from about 14,000 forest acres in one of the largest timber sales in Montana history.

Critics warn that logging the burned areas will do additional farm to the Bitterroot rather than helping the forest return to a healthy state.

In a statement made from the Missoula County Jail, McCoy said he participated in the protest after learning that Spike Thompson, interim supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest, "has admitted to the fact that changes were made to these sales in the interest of commercial value not the ecological intregrity of the Bitterroots."

"My bail is set so I will be punished for a crime I have not been convicted of," McCoy added.

On June 16, WREF! and other environmental groups visited the sites of planned timber sales in the Bitterroot with Thompson. WREF! says the visitors learned that the U.S. Forest Service has made changes in the logging contracts which contradict the agency's Record of Decision regarding the sales, the environmental impact statement concerning the sales, and recommendations by tree experts.

These changes were made under a loophole allowing the Forest Service to make changes in mediated plan of actions, without notifying the parties involved in the mediation, WREF! charges. Thompson said that at least 10 changes were made under that rule.

One of the changes made was that cable logging in Little Bull will now be allowed over soil, rather than solely over snow cover, as originally planned.

"We want everyone to know that fires don't kill forests, logging does. This is not restoration but exploitation; it's all in the name of greed," said Jay Buck, a volunteer with WREF! "We will continue to resist until the Forest Service stops using restoration as a cover for commercial logging."

Five other activists were arrested after the banner protest and arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct and being a pedestrian in a roadway.

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Colorado Fire May Have Been Set Deliberately

DENVER, Colorado, June 21, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) worker accused of setting a fire that has now burned more than 136,000 acres in Colorado could face between 17 and 65 years in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors for the federal government charge that Terry Barton, an 18 year veteran of the USFS, deliberately set the blaze now known as the Hayman fire. The fire has destroyed at least 95 buildings south of Denver.

Barton has told investigators that she started the fire accidentally when she burned a letter from her estranged husband in a stone fire ring within the Pike National Forest. Barton originally claimed to have found an illegal campfire set by someone else, but an investigation found inconsistencies in her story, and led federal officials to conclude that Barton herself set the fire.

The government now argues that Barton never burned a letter, but in fact started the wildfire outside of the fire ring, then changed the configuration of stones in the ring to make it appear that the fire could have originated there.

Federal prosecutors testified that Barton had applied for the training required to become a wildland fire investigator, opening up the possibility that they will argue that Barton set the fire intending to put it out herself and raise her status with the USFS.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Taylor said the fire could have resulted from "merely an act of extreme recklessness," but that the government believes the fire was set deliberately.

Witnesses for the defense testified that Barton is considered a trusted employee and a mentor to younger USFS employees.

On Thursday, Barton pleaded not guilty to four federal counts, including charges that she set the fire deliberately, that the fire destroyed federal property, and that the fire has injured at least one firefighter. She is also charged with lying to federal investigators.

The charges carry a minimum sentence of 17 years in prison, and a maximum of 65 years, plus fines of at least $1 million. U.S. Magistrate Michael Watanabe has set bail at $600,000, and ordered that if released, Barton live in a halfway house until the trial is over. Barton was also ordered not to set foot on national forest lands.

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UV Radiation Linked to Deformed Amphibians

WASHINGTON, DC, June 21, 2002 (ENS) - A new study provides more evidence that ultraviolet radiation could be responsible for increasing numbers of malformed frogs and other amphibians.

The depletion of the ozone layer - the atmospheric shield that helps block harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the Earth's surface - has been implicated by some scientists as a factor in the decline of amphibian populations, and the growing problem of malformed amphibians with problems such as missing or extra limbs.

A number of other causes have also been proposed to explain the malformations, including exposure to chemicals and parasites. But three consecutive papers in the July 1 print issue of "Environmental Science & Technology," a journal of the American Chemical Society, offer new evidence that UV radiation is one of the culprits.

Until now, most of the research has focused on exposing frogs to UV radiation in the laboratory, providing little information about how these findings translate to natural habitats.

"We really wanted to fill the gap between the findings of other laboratory research and what might happen in natural environments," said Dr. Steve Diamond, an environmental toxicologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and an author on all three papers.

In the first study, Diamond and his colleagues kept frog eggs in small outdoor containers while exposing them to varying degrees of UV radiation - from 25 to 100 percent of natural sunlight. As the eggs developed, the researchers observed hatching success, tadpole survival and the presence of malformations.

They found that the frequency of malformations increased with increasing UV radiation, with half of the frogs experiencing malformations at 63.5 percent of the intensity of natural sunlight.

In the real world, frogs rarely experience 100 percent of natural sunlight because of cloud cover and other variables.

In the second study, the researchers measured levels of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in water in wetlands in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The top five to 20 centimeters of wetlands absorb as much as 99 percent of UV radiation, the researchers found.

The third study involved a survey of 26 wetlands in the same region to estimate the specific level of risk of frogs living in these environments. Using a combination of computer models, historical weather records and DOC measurements, they concluded that UV radiation posed a risk to amphibians living in three of the 26 wetlands.

Diamond's team and a group of researchers from the National Parks are presently evaluating UV levels across landscapes to compare them with the occurrence or absence of amphibians.

"Those results," Diamond said, "combined with the risk assessment presented in these three manuscripts, will add significantly to our understanding of the relationship between UVB levels and amphibian declines or malformations."

Meanwhile, other studies now call into question the impact of the herbicide atrazine on amphibians. Previous work suggested that the common chemical could be causing many amphibian deformities.

Work sponsored by Syngenta Crop Protection Inc., a manufacturer of atrazine, fails to support that conclusion, according to the authors of three new studies. The studies by university scientists were unable to replicate the results of earlier research which alleged that atrazine may affect the larynx and sexual development of African clawed frogs.

The studies were conducted by a panel of eight university scientists convened by Ecorisk - a global network of environmental scientists - to examine the environmental effects of atrazine.

"As research on this issue continues, one thing is certain," said Ronald Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental & Human Health at Texas Tech University and chair of the science panel. "No conclusions can be drawn at this time on atrazine and its purported effect on frogs. We must get the science done in order to have the facts to make sound conclusions."

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Glacier Threatens to Block Alaskan Fiord

YAKUTAT, Alaska, June 21, 2002 (ENS) - A fast moving glacier is threatening wildlife and native Alaskans in the Russell Fiord near Yakutat, Alaska.

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) say that North America's largest calving glacier, the Hubbard Glacier, is now close to blocking the entrance to Russell Fiord near Yakutat.

"We will be continuing to closely monitor this glacier, which has a history of relatively rapid movement and the potential to form an ice dam that closes Russell Fiord," said USGS glaciologist Dennis Trabant. "If that were to occur, Russell Fiord would turn into an inland lake, potentially impacting marine life and fisheries for a significant period of time."

"We're working closely with the USGS and the National Park Service to monitor the glacier's movement," added Tricia O'Connor, district ranger with the Tongass National Forest's Yakutat Ranger District. "This is a unique natural phenomenon, with some potentially serious effects on the local community and National Forest System lands. We want to be able to predict these effects as far in advance as possible."


Hubbard Glacier is coming close to blocking the Russell Fiord, which could turn the bay into a fresh water lake. (Photo courtesy USGS)
Trabant, O'Connor and U.S. park ranger Jacqueline Lott flew over the glacier on June 14 and June 16.

"Those flights have shown that the glacier has narrowed the opening to about 150 feet," said Lott, who works at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. "Tidal influence in Russell Fiord has been reduced, however there is still seawater flowing between Disenchantment Bay and Russell Fiord".

Should an ice dam form and remain stable, Russell Fiord will begin to fill with fresh water. The water level will rise until one of two things happens. Either the ice dam will fail, as occurred in 1986, or the lake will fill until it reaches an ancient spillway at the south end of Russell Fiord.

If the lake level reaches the spillway at the south end, the lake level will be about 125 feet above sea level, and the Situk River, east of Yakutat, will swell into a major river. That could devastate the fish populations that use area streams and rivers, and devastate the sport fishing industry that helps sustain the town of Yakutat.

"However, all of these scenarios are speculative given that the glacier has not yet, and may not ultimately block the entrance of Russell Fiord." Lott cautioned.

Hubbard Glacier blocked the entrance to Russell Fiord near the end of May 1986. After that closure, freshwater flowing into the fiord raised the level of the lake 84 feet before the ice dam failed about five months later in October 1986.

Since 1986, Hubbard Glacier has continued to advance into Disenchantment Bay and Russell Fiord at an average rate of about 105 feet per year, but large tidal currents have kept a channel open between the glacier and hills to the south. The rate of advance across the narrow channel connecting Russell Fiord to the sea has averaged about six meters (20 feet) per year.

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GMOs Could Wipe Out Natural Species

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana, June 21, 2002 (ENS) - Genetically modified organisms introduced into wild populations could drive the natural species toward extinction, warn two Purdue University scientists.

William Muir, professor of animal sciences, and Richard Howard, professor of biology, used computer modeling and statistical analyses to examine the hypothetical risks of introducing genetically modified organisms into wild populations.

"We examined these hypothetical situations because the range of new transgenic organisms is almost unlimited," Muir said. "It is constructive for those developing such organisms to be able to anticipate how they could pose a hazard."

The new computer models have shown that the risk of extinction is greater than believed before, identifying three new scenarios in which genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could result in the extinction of a natural population.

"In the broadest sense, this research tells one how to do risk assessment and what GMOs need further containment," Muir said.

In 2000, Muir and Howard found that a release of fish that were larger - and therefore had higher mating success - but also had shorter life expectancy, could drive a wild population extinct in as few as 40 generations. Muir and Howard labeled this the "Trojan gene hypothesis."

Further investigation has found other scenarios that could also lead to extinction.

In one scenario, a genetic modification increases the size of the male, which results in the male finding more mates and also living longer. But if the modification also has a third effect of making the male less fertile, the predicted result is that the wild population will be extinct in just 20 generations.

"We consider this an extreme risk," Howard said. "That's the most severe time frame we've encountered so far."

Howard said this risk could arise if fertility was restricted in a genetically modified organism as a way to limit the spread of the gene in the natural population.

"This was the biggest surprise for me, that if you lowered fertility of genetically modified organism the time course to population extinction was faster rather than slower when the genetically modified young have better survival than wild type individuals," Howard said. "I still look at the graph of those data and find it amazing."

The researchers also found scenarios in which the introduced gene could spread through the population but not reduce the overall population size. The researchers termed this an invasion risk.

"The invasion risk is an unknown in assessing the overall risk," Howard said. "Given the biology, all we can say is that the gene would increase in the population. We don't know if that would cause a problem or not. In this case you wouldn't really know until you actually released the gene into the population."

The research appears in the current issue of the journal "Transgene Research."

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Fungi Bring Calcium to Acid Rain Damaged Trees

ITHACA, New York, June 21, 2002 (ENS) - Fungi on the roots of some trees in the Northeastern United States help supply calcium in forest soils damaged by acid rain.

Although forest scientists have known for more than three decades that acid rain causes the essential plant nutrient calcium to leach from forest soils, the role of root fungi was not suspected until about three years ago.

Electron microscopy examination of sand revealed tiny tunnels burrowed through soil grains. These miniature miners turned out to be ectomycorrhizal fungi that can penetrate pores in sandy soils and take up phosphorus, as well as calcium.

Living in symbiotic relationships on some tree roots, where the fungi obtain sugars, the fungi deliver calcium and phosphorus to the trees before the nutrients are lost to acidic soils.

But the study's authors warn that not all trees benefit from the fungi and the cushion it provides against acid rain damage.

"Not all tree species are fortunate enough to be associated with the types of root fungi that supply calcium," said Timothy Fahey, a natural resources professor at Cornell University and a co-author of the report. Sugar maples, which in some areas have suffered major declines in recent years, are among those that do not host the fungi, he said.

"Although our findings suggest that trees with the right fungal associations may be able to short circuit the loss of calcium in the soil, that may not get them around other problems with acidification of soil," added Fahey.

For example, when soil pH is lowered, and acidity rises, more natural aluminum is available to hinder plant growth. Fahey is one of the principal investigators in a soil study sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) at New Hampshire's Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest.

The Hubbard Brook study is testing the long term result of adding calcium to forested ecosystems to return acid base ratios to levels that may have existed a century ago, before industrial pollution began to change the chemical landscape of the northeastern United States. The Hubbard Brook researchers found that much of the calcium in some tree species growing in calcium poor, acidic soil was coming from apatite, a soil mineral mined by fungi on tree roots.

The fungi benefit the trees on which they grow, and may also help other tree species growing nearby by fixing calcium from the soil.

"But trees trying to grow in the center of a single species stand, like a sugarbush, could be in trouble," Fahey said, noting that the sugar maple decline in the Northeast has been linked with calcium and magnesium depletion in soils.

The study, "Mycorrhizal weathering of apatite as an important calcium source in base-poor forest ecosystems," appeared in the June 13 issue of the journal "Nature."

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Critical Habitat Proposed for Two Larkspurs

SACRAMENTO, California, June 21, 2002 (ENS) - More than 4,400 acres has been proposed as critical habitat for Baker's larkspur and yellow larkspur, two endangered plants found only in California's Sonoma and Marin counties.

Baker's larkspur and yellow larkspur are perennial herbs in the buttercup family that are found only in coastal northern Marin and southern Sonoma counties, north of San Francisco. Both have irregularly shaped flowers.

Both plants are threatened by road construction, overcollection by plant enthusiasts, grazing, development and rock quarrying. Because of their extreme range restrictions and small populations, the two plants are also vulnerable to such natural events as fire or insect outbreaks.

As critical habitat for Baker's larkspur, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is proposing 1,828 acres in two parcels in Marin and Sonoma counties. For yellow larkspur, the USFWS is proposing 2,584 acres in four parcels, also in Marin and Sonoma counties. All of the lands proposed as critical habitat are privately owned.

Unless activities on the private lands require federal funding or permitting, they will not be affected by the designation.

Over the years, Baker's larkspur has been found in only three locations - in Coleman Valley in southern Sonoma County; and in northern Marin County near the town of Tomales and about six miles east of Tomales Bay. Botanists believe the plant has been wiped out at two of those sites - Coleman Valley and Tomales.

Most historic populations of yellow larkspur have been partially or entirely destroyed. The total remaining population may number fewer than 300 plants.

When the USFWS listed the plants as endangered in January, 2000, the agency did not designate critical habitat due to budget limitations. The Center for Biological Diversity sued the agency, leading to a settlement in which the agency agreed to propose critical habitat for the two species by June 10, 2002, and to publish a final designation by March 10, 2003.

The USFWS will accept comments on the proposal through August 19 at: Field Supervisor, Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, 2800 Cottage Way, W-2605, Sacramento CA 95825.