AmeriScan: May 2, 2003

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Senate Panel Approves Fossil Fuel Heavy Energy Bill

WASHINGTON, DC, May 2, 2003 (ENS) - The Senate Energy Committee approved an energy bill Wednesday that its supporters say will help diversify the nation's energy supply, but critics contend it does nothing of the sort.

The "Energy Policy Act of 2003" passed the Senate Energy Committee by a partisan vote of 13 to 10 on Wednesday.

Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico said the bill "creates jobs, explores new energies and protects our environment."

"We expand production of wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energies as well as the clean production of oil, gas and coal in appropriate locations," Domenici explained.

But the bill does contain some $10 billion in tax breaks to oil, coal, gas and up to some $30 billion in loan guarantees for the nuclear industries and critics say it has little to offer renewable energy development.

The bill repeals the current federal law requiring utilities to buy wind, solar and other renewable energy resources when they are less expensive that fossil fuels, said Alan Nogee, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Energy program.

In addition, amendments offered by Democrats to create a national renewable energy standard, requiring most utilities to provide 10 percent of their electricity from new renewable sources by 2020, were rejected by the committee.

"At a time when the public is demanding cleaner energy resources and more energy independence, the Senate Energy Committee has voted to prolong our dependence on polluting and insecure sources of fossil fuels," said Nogee.

The committee's ranking Democrat, New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman's said the bill "does not do enough, or goes in the wrong direction, on too many key energy issues."

Bingaman said the bill does not protect electricity consumers from market manipulation, does nothing to address the nation's growing demand for imported oil in transportation, undercuts fish passages at hydroelectric dams and does little or nothing to address climate change.

The bill is part of larger Senate energy legislation, which could be voted on next week.

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NRC Issues Security Changes for Nuclear Industry

ROCKVILLE, Maryland, May 2, 2003 (ENS) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued new security rules to safeguard the nation's licensed 103 nuclear reactors. The agency approved three security rules, but said details will not be made public.

One rule enacts changes to the totality of the threat private security forces that protect nuclear reactors must be prepared to meet.

The other two order issued by NRC regard work hours, training, and qualification requirements for security personnel to further enhance protection of public health and safety, as well as the common defense and security.

According to the agency, the orders tighten work hour controls and increase training requirements for security personnel. The rules enhance access authorization controls to ensure all plant personnel with access to critical areas have had the most rigorous background checks permitted by law.

It said the orders were effective immediately, but that there would be allowed transition periods for full implementation.

"With the completion of these complementary Orders," said Chairman Nils Diaz in a prepared statement, "the public should be reassured that the nation's nuclear power plants are well-secured against potential threats."

"The NRC intends to continue working closely with the Department of Homeland Security and other Federal agencies, as well as with State and local law enforcement and emergency planning officials to ensure an overall integrated approach to the security of these critical facilities," Diaz said.

Environmentalists and some Congressional Democrats are concerned about the secrecy of the agency's news rules and wonder if they go far enough.

"It is difficult to comment on a secret Order, developed behind closed doors with nuclear industry lobbyists without any public input," said U.S. Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. "Rather than undertaking a public rulemaking that could have drawn on the advice of numerous security experts while protecting classified information, the NRC decided to hide behind a cloak of secrecy and take counsel only from the industry it is charged with regulating.

"While it is my hope that the outcome will be an industry that can be protected from terrorist attacks, it is my fear that the process NRC used will not lead to that end," Markey said.

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Federal Agencies To Cooperate on Oklahoma Superfund Cleanup

WASHINGTON, DC, May 2, 2003 (ENS) - Three federal agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding Thursday to take responsibility for cleaning up the Tar Creek Superfund site.

The 40 square mile site, which is contaminated with lead and zinc, is one of the nation's oldest Superfund sites. It was listed on the National Priorities list in 1983.

Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Interior and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made the announcement and to develop and implement solutions to the human health and environmental threats posed by the site.

"This Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) will help ensure a coordinated, effective, federal commitment to clean up the Tar Creek Superfund site and protect the local communities plagued by contamination from the site," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

The MOU gives the federal agencies the opportunity to coordinate with the affected Indian tribes, the State of Oklahoma, local communities, and other stakeholders in determining the most effective manner for resolving the issues at this site.

The EPA has already spent some $100 million to contain the health risks posed by the site and has done some removal of the lead, zinc and cadmium wastes from residential yards and from high access areas. According to the EPA, some 76,000 acre feet of shallow ground water is contaminated and some 75 million tons of lead and zinc waste, known as chat, remains on the ground at the site.

Tar Creek encompasses the Oklahoma portion of the Tri-State Mining District of northeastern Oklahoma, southeastern Kansas, and southwestern Missouri, and includes communities in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, outside the mining area that are also contaminated with mining waste.

Local politicians have said the federal government has been far too slow in moving to clean up the site, which poses health risks to at least 30,000 people who live in nearby communities.

The announcement by Bush administration officials came one day after the Associated Press (AP) reported that the head of the EPA's Superfund program had recused herself from the Tar Creek cleanup process because of potential conflicts of interest.

Marianne Lamont Horinkom, who is responsible for the Superfund program as assistant administrator of the EPA, told the AP that she removed herself from the case after learning her former consulting firm worked for a law firm that represented ASARCO, one of the Tar Creek mining companies.

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New Rules for Chilean Sea Bass Fall Short, Environmentalists Say

WASHINGTON, DC, May 2, 2003 (ENS) - The federal government announced new rules Thursday aimed at stopping the import of illegally caught Chilean sea bass, but environmentalists say the measures fall short of their goal.

Chilean sea bass is the now common name for the Patagonia toothfish, a deep water species caught in southern waters near and around Antarctica.

Consumption of the fish as skyrocketed over the past decade, leading to rampant overfishing of a species that takes 10 years to reach reproductive maturity.

The United States imports some 10,000 tons of Chilean sea bass annually.

According to the rules announced by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), U.S. seafood dealers wishing to import Chilean sea bass are now required to get pre-approval from the agency before shipments of the fish of more than 4,400 pounds enter the country.

The regulations, most of which enter effect May 31, serve to redefine the document system used to track Chilean sea bass catches and ban U.S. imports from two zones designated by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

These zones cover waters surrounding Antarctica that have long been recognized by the international governmental body that regulates the trade of Chilean sea bass, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), as "laundering points" for pirate fishermen who illegally catch fish inside CCAMLR's waters and then claim to have caught them in areas where it is scientifically unlikely that populations exist to support these claims.

Environmental groups welcomed the regulations, but contend that much more drastic action is needed to stem the decline of the species and to limit the harmful bycatch gathered by illegal fishing of the fish.

"Unless the U.S. prohibits the import of catches claimed as being caught in unregulated high seas areas, NMFS will still not be able to prevent illegal toothfish from entering the U.S. even if it is accompanied by a validated catch document," said Karen Sack, fisheries coordinator with The Antarctica Project. "The pirate fishermen will just start claiming that their fish were caught in other high seas areas that are not regulated by the United States," Sack explained.

Several organizations continue to urge chefs and consumers to pass on Chilean sea bass until stricter measures are put in place and aggressively enforced.

"While we applaud NMFS's acknowledgement of the problem and their effort to stop the import of illegal toothfish into the United States, it will fall far short of stopping the flood of illegal Chilean sea bass that winds up on dinner plates all across the country," said Andrea Kavanagh, campaign manager for the National Environmental Trust's Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass campaign.

"[This] is why we are still encouraging chefs to stop serving this fish until there are safeguards in place to ensure that all the toothfish that enters this country has been legally caught," said Kavanagh.

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Conservationists Sue To Protect California Water

OAKLAND, California, May 2, 2003 (ENS) - Conservation groups filed a lawsuit Thursday in California Superior Court seeking the reversal of a decision that gives the logging industry a broad exemption from the state's Clean Water Act. The exemption, granted by the Central Valley Regional Water Board, applies to logging operations on public and private lands through the Sierra range.

The coalition of groups challenging the decision say the exemption puts at risk municipal water sources for some two thirds of the California's population.

Filed by the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), DeltaKeeper and Sierra Club, the lawsuit charges the Central Valley Regional Water Board with violations of the California Environmental Quality Act for issuing the exemption. It cites water quality concerns relating to the increased rates of clearcutting and herbicide spraying throughout the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades.

"The protection of these rivers and streams is of utmost importance to millions of Californians, especially those who drink water from these sources," said Cynthia Elkins of EPIC. "Unfortunately, the Water Board seems more interested in protecting logging companies rather than its mandate to protect and restore water quality."

Some 45 percent of all industrial logging operations in California occur within the Central Valley watershed, which is the water supply for the San Francisco Bay Area and an important source for Los Angeles.

Conservationists say this region already experiences the majority of logging-related water pollution in the state.

Logging activities, which use herbicides, pesticides and oil, have been shown to cause erosion and runoff that negatively affects water quality.

"Healthy forests act like sponges, holding and filtering California's water," said Warren Alford of the Sierra Club. "Waiving water quality protection for logging operations over an entire region for the sake of convenience and the benefit of polluters is a disaster for the public."

Clear cutting is on the rise in this region, having grown 2,400 percent from 1992 to 2000. Federal agencies have criticized state regulations as not adequately protecting water quality.

"Exempting logging operations from all water pollution permits obviously has effects on the environment," said Greg Loarie, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which is representing the groups in their legal challenge. "We believe this abdication of responsibility by the water board is not legal and will not stand up in court."

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Food Group Downplays Perchlorate Fears

WASHINGTON, DC, May 2, 2003 (ENS) - The National Food Processors Association (NFPA) - the self-described voice of the $500 billion food processing industry - takes issue with recent warnings by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) about the potential dangers of perchlorate in vegetables.

In a report released Monday, EWG says that lettuce grown in Southern California and Arizona in the fall and winter may contain levels of perchlorate in excess of what is considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The group found that 18 percent of lettuce samples contained detectable levels of perchlorate, and an average serving of contaminated lettuce contained four times more perchlorate than the EPA says is safe in drinking water.

Perchlorate is the explosive component of rocket and missile fuel. Although there are currently no enforceable perchlorate safety standards, the EPA's currently recommended safe dose is equal to one part per billion (ppb) in drinking water.

Officials with NFPA say the findings should not alarm consumers and that the public needs to "rely upon appropriate regulatory agencies to proceed with monitoring and risk assessment."

"Widespread groundwater and surface water contamination by perchlorate has been found and studied since the late 1990s in the southwestern United States," said Henry Chin, NFPA vice president with the organization's Center for Technical Assistance. "Whereas drinking water has been the primary focus of study, implications for food and food safety are only beginning to be explored and better understood."

It is important for the public to realize that "no federal or state agency has called for a change in diet based on current information," Chin said. "More data are needed on perchlorate in food, and future monitoring is planned."

NFPA says its supports the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) plans to monitor for perchlorate levels in foods, to research actual consumer exposure and to undertake assessments to determine whether dietary exposures can pose a health risk.

It is estimated that perchlorate contaminates more than 500 drinking water sources in 20 states, serving well over 20 million people. This includes the Colorado River, a major source of drinking water for many in the Western U.S. and a key irrigation source - 70 percent of the nation's lettuce grown from October to March relies on water from the Colorado.

Of the 15 leading lettuce-growing counties in the U.S., according to EWG, 10 have known or suspected sources of perchlorate pollution.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, introduced a bill in March to unearth the extent of perchlorate contamination. In a letter sent Monday to the FDA, Boxer cited EWG's study and urged the agency to investigate perchlorate contamination in food.

"The federal government is already woefully behind in addressing perchlorate contamination in drinking water," Boxer wrote. "This delay is unacceptable. We cannot exacerbate the problem by ignoring the possible contamination of our food."

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Urban Populations Ill Prepared for Earthquakes

BOULDER, Colorado, May 2, 2003 (ENS) - One earthquake causing up to one million fatalities could occur each century unless more earthquake-resistant construction materials are implemented, finds a new study by a geological sciences professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The study analyzes the world's urban population growth in the 21st century including the number of rapidly expanding "supercities" and their locations close to major fault lines.

Study author Roger Bilham, who presented his paper at the 2003 Seismological Society Meeting held this week in San Juan, Puerto Rico, noted that in the pre-1600s few city populations exceeded one million individuals. By 1950, there were 43 supercities with populations from two million to more than 15 million, and today there are nearly 200 supercities, explained Bilham, who is a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences based at CU-Boulder.

Of these 200 supercities, more than 40 are located within 120 miles of a major plate boundary or a historically damaging earthquake, including Jakarta, Indonesia, Tehran, Iran, and Mexico City, Bilham said.

"Fifty percent of the world's supercities now are located near potential future magnitude 7.5 earthquakes," said Bilham.

According to Bilham's calculations, each year one earthquake event kills 100 people, every two years one event kills 1,000 people, every five years a single event kills 10,000 and for every century, an earthquake kills 300,000.

"But the 300,000 people is probably an underestimate because the size of these huge cites doubled in the last century and are expected to double again in the next century," he said. "We have never had such a devastating megaquake before, because it simply was not possible. But now we have many more target cities and they are bigger than ever before."

Bilham passed on some cautious optimism, noting that as cities are rapidly developing the world is in many ways in "a remarkably good position to make these new buildings safe to live in."

"Earthquakes do not kill people," he said, "but buildings and builders of inferior buildings do."

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The Soggy Secret of El Niņo

GREENBELT, Maryland, May 2, 2003 (ENS) - Scientists funded by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration say they have discovered the secret of how El Niņo moves rainfall around the globe. El Niņo is a periodic disruption of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific and has important consequences for weather around the globe.

The researchers report that they have found a significant pattern of alternating rainfall for El Niņos since 1979, with wetness in eastern China, dryness over Indonesia and wetness in the south Indian Ocean and Australia.

Their study, published in the American Geophysical Union's Journal of Geophysical Research, explains that this pattern swings eastward as the El Niņo weakens. In addition, as El Niņo weakens rainfall patterns alternate from one area to another.

In the eastern Pacific, there is wetness on the Equator, dryness off the coast of Mexico, and wetness off the coast of California, the researchers explain, adding that the traditional view of El Niņo based on seasonal rainfall patterns obscures these relationships.

The study took a different approach at understanding the effects of El Niņo by first looking at the evolution of rainfall over the geographic area of the Pacific, which has the power to change the global winds and re-direct rainfall patterns around the world.

Most studies in the past have focused on seasonal changes in rainfall patterns, like where and when rain falls during winter.

The results of the study, authored by University of Maryland professor Scott Curtis and Goddard Space Flight Center researcher Bob Adler, may help scientists improve rainfall forecasts around the globe during the life of an El Niņo, and may also offer new insights into how an El Niņo develops.

The researchers say they hope that in the future this kind of study will help pinpoint where an El Niņo will generate floods, droughts, and changes in rainfall around the globe.

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