AmeriScan: March 5, 2003

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U.S. Aims to Overturn EU Biotech Food Import Ban

WASHINGTON, DC, March 5, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick told the Senate Finance Committee today that the Bush administration is working to build an international coalition to help lift the European Union (EU) moratorium on import approvals for genetically modified foods.

"I'm trying to build a coalition" that would join the United States in filing a challenge in the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the four year old EU moratorium, Zoellick said. "I don't want this to be just the U.S. versus EU." Zoellick said action could be taken "soon," although he set no date.

U.S. farm and industry groups say the EU moratorium on approvals of new biotech derived products costs them more than $300 million in annual sales. Some members of Congress have been pressing the Bush administration to initiate action in the WTO, noting that virtually all experts agree that the United States would win the case.

Zoellick's campaign has attracted bipartisan support in the Senate. Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said he was "profoundly disappointed" with the slow pace of action. "I simply can't understand the administration's decision to delay bringing a WTO case against the European Union on biotech policies," he said.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Max Baucus of Montana, was also critical of the administration's decision not to move forward immediately with a WTO challenge to the EU. "I don't know any objective commentator who believes that we would not prevail at the WTO," Baucus said. "And yet the United States is not bringing an action before the WTO. And I, for the life of me, cannot understand why."

Zoellick said that beyond winning EU compliance on import approvals, he was interested in addressing the larger need to educate the public on the benefits of biotechnology such as higher crop yields, lower pesticide requirements and vitamin fortified foods.

Critics of biotech foods fear they could trigger allergic reactions. Criticial farmers worry that biotech crops will irreversibly contaminate organic crops that may be growing near them.

Zoellick and other officials have pointed out that confusion over biotechnology is having devastating effects, most notably in the refusal of famine stricken African countries to accept U.S. food aid that might contain products derived from biotechnology.

"I think the bigger issue here is what [the EU moratorium] is blocking in terms of agriculture, not just for us, but for the developing world in terms of nutrition, ways of dealing with the environment more safely, dealing with health and hunger issues," Zoellick said.

The U.S. trade representative said he had been encouraged by recent statements made by African scientists meeting in Brussels and by officials of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum supporting U.S. action against the EU biotech policy.

"If and when we bring a case, it shouldn't just be a legal matter," Zoellick said. "What we have to do is win the debate about biotech and world public opinion."

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Washington State Sues To Block Radioactive Waste

OLYMPIA, Washington, March 5, 2003 (ENS) - Washington state filed suit in federal court Tuesday to block shipment by the U.S. Department of Energy of radioactive wastes from other states to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, located in the south central part of the state. State officials said the legal action results from the Energy Department's failure to develop a plan for the eventual removal of the waste from the state, a commitment that was to be completed by March 1.

Last December the Energy Department had agreed in principle to provide enforceable assurances that transuranic waste currently at Hanford and more waste scheduled to be shipped to the site would ultimately be disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. This agreement, state officials say, prompted them not to file suit at that point, even though they had planned to do so.

"We received assurances that the federal government would prepare to ship approximately 78,000 barrels of radioactive waste out of Hanford, if we let another 170 barrels in," said Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire. "But the Department of Energy has not lived up to its end of the bargain, and now they have left us with no choice but to file suit."

Transuranic waste is material contaminated with radioactive elements that is produced primarily from reprocessing spent fuel and from use of plutonium in the development of nuclear weapons.

Some 40 drums of transuranic waste have arrived at Hanford since December, with another shipment currently en route, and another set to be shipped on March 18.

In its lawsuit the state asks the court to prevent further shipments of transuranic waste to Hanford and to declare DOE's shipments of the waste are in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as other environmental laws and regulations.

"The Department of Energy's blatant disregard of our previous agreement is indefensible," said Washington Governor Gary Locke. "On behalf of the people of Washington, we will do whatever it takes to ensure that a timeline is developed for Hanford, a cleanup plan is put in place, and the Department of Energy follows through on it."

The 560 square mile Hanford facility produced material for nuclear weapons during World War II and the Cold War. It contains more radioactive waste than any other site in the nation.

"We are extremely disappointed and believe it is very unfortunate that the State has decided to go to court in an attempt to halt the work of the Department of Energy to cleanup the legacy of the Cold War," said Energy Department Assistant Secretary of Environmental Management Jessie Roberson. "Efforts spent in court would be better spent making progress on the cleanup of the Hanford site."

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Conservationists in Court To Stop Wyoming Land Exchange

POCATELLO, Idaho, March 5, 2003 (ENS) - A coalition of conservation groups filed suit in federal court Tuesday to halt a U.S. Forest Service land exchange they believe could threaten Grand Teton National Park.

The planned Forest Service land exchange would transfer 120 acres of Caribou Targhee National Forest lands at the base of the Grand Targhee ski resort to a private developer.

The Grand Targhee area provides habitat for elk, grizzly bears, and wolverines, and conservationists fear the exchange would spur new development at the resort, which borders the Jedediah Smith Wilderness only four miles from Grand Teton National Park.

The plaintiffs say the Forest Service did not properly review the contract and ignored public comment on the proposal.

"The Forest Service's supposed reconsideration of the Grand Targhee land exchange was a sham process with a predetermined outcome," said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who is representing the conservation groups. "The Forest Service could not objectively consider whether a gold rush of private development in this crucial wildlife area is a good idea, when throughout its decision-making process it was under contract to complete the exchange."

The current plan, the plaintiffs say, will allow the resort's owners to reap a financial windfall at taxpayers' expense because of the Forest Service's inadequate appraisal of the Grand Targhee property. The Forest Service originally approved the Grand Targhee exchange in December 2000.

That decision was invalidated in an August 2001 ruling by a federal judge, who found the agency had failed to properly analyze the exchange. The judge determined that the agency did not fully consider the substantial development at Grand Targhee that would be a result of the exchange.

In response to the court order, the Forest Service was tasked with reconsidering the exchange, but its decision authorized the same exchange the court had invalidated, the filers say in the lawsuit.

The agency's existing appraisal of the Grand Targhee property dates from November 2000. A review of that appraisal by the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse Coopers demonstrated that it undervalued the federal lands and that its valuations are outdated.

"You or I wouldn't sell our house on the basis of a two year old appraisal, but the Forest Service is trading away millions of dollars worth of public land on the basis of a two year old appraisal," said Pam Lichtman of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, one of the plaintiff groups. "It doesn't make any sense."

The other plaintiff groups are - Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Citizens for Teton Valley, Wyoming Outdoor Council, and the Sierra Club.

Their lawsuit asks the court to prohibit the land exchange until the Forest Service conducts an unbiased analysis of the Grand Targhee land swap and obtains a fresh appraisal of the federal property.

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Clean Air Act Violations Cost Graphics Firm $230,000

BOSTON, Massachusetts, March 5, 2003 (ENS) - A graphic arts firm will pay some $230,000 in fines to settle an enforcement case with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding Clean Air Act violations.

MacDermind Graphics Art Inc. of Waterbury, Connecticut has agreed to pay the penalty for violations between 1997 and 2001 at its manufacturing plant in Adams, Massachusetts.

The EPA found that the company had exceeded allowable emissions limits for volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The agency is allso alleging monitoring, record keeping and reporting violations under federal and state air regulations.

VOCs react with nitrogen oxides in the presence of heat and sunlight to create ground level ozone, commonly known as smog. Ozone can irritate the respiratory system and can cause coughing, damage to the lungs and asthma. The EPA reports that 107 million Americans live in areas that violate health standards for ozone.

"Given the poor air quality that frequently exists during the summer in western Massachusetts, violations like these are unacceptable," said Robert Varney, regional administrator of the EPA's New England Office.

Varney said western Massachusetts had 12 days last summer when ozone levels were unhealthful.

The company had been manufacturing fabricated rubber products for the graphic arts industry at its Adams facility, which it has since shut down for business reasons. The coating lines for the products emitted VOCs and were subject to emission limits.

In addition to the fine, MacDermind has agreed to permanently retire any VOC emission reduction credits that may have been generated by the shutdown of the Massachusetts plant. The agreement will ensure that these pollution credits are never available to other pollution sources.

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U.S. Seeks Justification to Expand Continental Shelf

DURHAM, New Hampshire, March 5, 2003 (ENS) - The University of New Hampshire will lead an ocean mapping project that could expand the U.S. continental shelf on both the east and west coasts with land containing up to $1.3 trillion in resources according to some estimates. The project will be funded with a $3.2 million appropriation secured by Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, and approved this week by Congress.

"We are very confident that we can expand the limits of our continental shelf," says earth sciences professor Larry Mayer, director of UNH's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. Mayer and researcher Martin Jakobsson have been gathering data to show where the U.S. might logically make its expanded claims, which would include access to oil, mineral, and fisheries resources.

The stakes are huge, according to the journal "Science," the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which mentioned the $1.3 trillion estimate in its issue dated December 6, 2002.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea gave about 150 coastal nations control of exclusive economic zones that extend 200 miles off their shores. According to one provision of the convention, some countries stand to gain territory and resources if they can prove their claim to the sea floor. While the United States has not yet formally approved the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Bush administration is moving to protect potential U.S. interests.

To make that claim, the U.S. government needs a map providing information such as seismic data to determine sediment thickness, and bathymetry a sciences that determines the shape of the ocean floor.

"With poor data, it will be difficult to make a claim," says Jakobsson. "So the first step was determining what information exists and where we need to gather more."

A map produced two years ago by Jakobsson providing the world's latest information on the floor of the Arctic Ocean led Gregg to request a report on what would be needed to protect U.S. interests under the Law of the Sea. NOAA turned to the University of New Hampshire for technical input to the report, which was delivered to Congress last summer.

Senator Gregg, who now heads the Appropriations Subcommittee for NOAA, said the $3.2 million appropriation for the university's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping to lead the survey to gather data for the U.S. claim is a smart decision. "It's a minor investment," says Mayer, "for the potential gain in our ability to access and control the oil, mineral, and fisheries resources off our continental margins."

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Florida Declares March Seagrass Awareness Month

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, March 5, 2003 (ENS) - Florida Governor Jeb Bush has declared March 2003 Seagrass Awareness Month. The intent is to highlight the importance of seagrasses to Florida's marine environment, commercial fisheries industry and the state's economy.

"Florida is home to the most extensive system of seagrass meadows in the world," said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs. "However, much of Florida's 2.6 million acres of seagrass shows signs of damage and propeller scarring, impacting marine life, and in turn, our economy."

Found in estuaries, lagoons and shallow, open shelves off Florida's coast, seagrasses are underwater flowering plants that must have clear water to collect the sunlight they need to survive. The seagrass community of South Florida is the largest seagrass meadow in the world. Seven of the world's 52 seagrass species are found in Florida's waters.

Seagrasses provide critical habitat for marine life, including sea turtles, manatees and wading birds. They provide a filtering system for nutrient runoff, help stabilize bottom sediments and provide a nursery ground for many fish species.

The declaration of March as Seagrass Awareness Month is part of Florida's effort to educate residents and visitors, in particular boaters, of the importance of seagrasses.

State officials estimate some 30,000 acres of Florida seagrass have been damaged by boat propellers. This damage can take two to 10 years to recover.

Boating in seagrasses beds is not just bad for the plants, but it can damage vessel engines, hulls and propellers. Florida and federal laws punish boat owners that ground their vessels causing damage to seagrass with civil penalties, damage assessment and habitat restoration costs, and long term monitoring of the restored site.

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Marine Scientists to Replenish West Coast Rockfish

SAN DIEGO, California, March 5, 2003 (ENS) - West coast rockfish have been overfished to meet a growing demand for seafood. Rockfish live so long and reproduce so slowly that it could take nearly a century for some of the wild species to recover without intervention, even if all fishing was halted, marine experts say.

Species like the bocaccio, canary, yelloweye and cowcod are popular with restaurateurs worldwide who serve them as "red snapper," but these fishes are vital to the west coast's marine ecosystem.

To Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute of San Diego and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) are about to launch research to explore the potential of speeding up the recovery of these rockfish species. They are preparing a program to breed and rear juvenile rockfish toward replenishment of the depleted fisheries.

"We are beginning a six month feasibility assessment to see if we can help restore depleted coastal fisheries through stocking," said Hubbs president Don Kent. "If successful, it could be a significant new approach to rebuilding these rockfish species much sooner than nature working alone."

Scientists from Hubbs are collaborating with NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Fisheries Science Center's Manchester Research Station in Washington state.

Dr. Bill Hogarth, NOAA Fisheries director, said, "It is critically important to U.S. Pacific fisheries that we actively seek new management and research strategies. This program will help us learn more about these valuable species and their early life stages and provide essential information to replenish and recover depleted rockfish."

Some rockfish recovery models predict that replenishment time could be shortened with the release of juvenile rockfish reared in culture facilities and allowed to grow to a size that would promote survival in the wild.

"Both federal and state agencies have acted to close these fisheries off our coast - a stern measure, but one that was made after significant deliberation and input from stakeholders and with the interests of the wild resource in mind," Kent said. "Working with NOAA Fisheries and the California Department of Fish and Game, we have developed a program designed to evaluate another management tool for resource agencies."

Kent said both recreational and commercial fishermen unanimously support the current replenishment research, and he believes this newest rockfish project will get similar endorsements. The new research project begins this month, funded by NOAA and private industry grants. Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest also have offered to assist in this research endeavor.

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Ag Scientist Produces Hair Gel from Soybeans

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, March 5, 2003 (ENS) - Hair styling agents made from petroleum and synthetic polymers are old news, says Sam Kuk, a chemical engineer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kuk, based in the Commodity Utilization Research Unit at the USDA's Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, has been studying plant compounds as alternatives to the synthetic ingredients used in most hair care products today.

Most hair gel works through the holding power of synthetic polymers. When the gel is applied, the main ingredient, water, evaporates, leaving a thin film around the hair strands that keeps them in place.

Kuk has found that the same kind of hold can be obtained with lipid compounds derived from soapstock, an underused byproduct of oilseed processing.

Normally, these lipid compounds are hard to recover, the Agriculture Department says. They degenerate through oxidation and are wasted. But Kuk has found a way to reclaim the lipid compounds and then treat them so that they can be used to hold hair in place.

Kuk has created hair gels from the soapstock of safflower and soybean oilseeds and tested them in the lab. The gels work well on a variety of hair types, from thick and kinky to fine and straight, says the Agriculture Department. They would be inexpensive to produce, since soapstock costs a fraction of the price of synthetic polymers.

Kuk has used the same thin film technology to create transparent and translucent coatings for freshly harvested vegetables. In the lab, he has shown that the biodegradable films can extend the shelf life of produce such as bell peppers and cucumbers by at least 30 percent when compared to uncoated vegetables. The films wash off easily with water, unlike paraffin wax coatings, which also cost more.

Kuk hopes to generate interest in this technology and collaborate with a hair care product manufacturer or fresh produce processor.