AmeriScan: May 5, 2003

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Army Corps Denies Washington State Inquiry Into Oil Spills

WASHINGTON, DC, May 5, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is refusing to allow Washington state environmental inspectors in to investigate oils spills at two hydroelectric facilities because of national security concerns.

In a March 31, 2003 letter to Tom Fitzsimmons, director of Washington state's Department of Ecology, the Army Corps' top official in the Pacific Northwest wrote "these facilities have been identified as potential terrorist targets."

"Accordingly, the Army has mandated that plans, specifications, and drawings of the federal projects cannot be provided to other entities or members of the public at this time," wrote David Fastabend, Brigadier General with the Army Corps of Engineers. "As a governmental agency responsible for maintaining public safety, you surely recognize the immediate need for adhering to this policy."

Fastabend's letter was released today by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals, working to protect the environment.

Washington's Department of Ecology wants to get a firsthand look at oil spills in facilities on the Columbia and Snake Rivers because oil is routinely discharged into the sumps and drainage vaults within the dams.

According to reports from the Army Corps, this often done while these holding areas are full of migrating fish and the spills range from a few gallons to thousands of gallons of heavy machine grade oil.

State officials say they have no idea how much of this oil is eventually discharged into river channels.

In a January 31, 2003 letter, the Washington Department of Ecology warned that the Corps "could be violating state and federal water quality laws and operating outside the legally mandated spill response system."

Fastabend's letter contends that the state has no jurisdiction over his agency's facilities, but says that both the state and the Army Corps "share similar values for the use and protection of the water resources under our control and management.

PEER's Executive Director Jeff Ruch doubts this.

"Arrogance thy name is the Army Corps of Engineers," said Ruch whose organization represents Corps whistleblowers. "The notion that state pollution inspections compromise the war against terrorism manages to be both bizarre and self-serving-the Corps is supposed to be an environmental compliance organization not an environmental avoidance operation."

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American Fuel Economy Worse Than 20 Years Ago

WASHINGTON, DC, May 5, 2003 (ENS) - Americans are driving bigger, more powerful and less fuel efficient vehicles and as a result, the nation's average fuel economy is less than it was two decades ago.

New data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds that the fuel economy of U.S. Model Year 2003 vehicles is 20.8 miles per gallon (mpg).

The nation's fuel economy peaked in 1988 at 22.1 mpg, but has been on downward trend since then. Average fuel economy in 2002 was lower than in any year since 1980. The figures released by the EPA show a slight increase from 2002, but are based on early estimates from automakers and could still change by as much as 0.5 mpg.

The EPA says fuel economy averaged 24.8 mpg for cars and 17.7 mpg for light trucks, which include sport utility vehicles (SUVs), minivans and pickup trucks.

It is the rising popularity of gas guzzling SUVs that has driven the drop in fuel economy since 1988. SUVs, which on average consume one third more fuel than cars and now make up half of all vehicles sold annually in the United States.

The heightened concern about the nation's oil consumption has prompted some in Congress to suggest increasing the corporate average fuel economy standard, which is 27.5 mpg for an auto company's car fleet and 20.7 mpg for its light truck fleet.

Last week a Senate panel rejected a proposal to raise both these standards to 30 mpg by 2011, citing concerns about compromising vehicle safety. Many supporters of higher standards say SUVs are not as safe as cars, but the American public has been fueling a growing demand for this type of vehicle.

The Bush administration issued a rule to raise the standard for light trucks to 22.2 mpg by 2007, yet critics say this is not aggressive enough to reverse a trend of falling fuel economy and growing oil consumption.

The United States consumes some 20 million barrels of oil a day, with 40 percent used for fueling cars and trucks.

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Conservationists Aim To Stop Bush Wilderness Policies

WASHINGTON, DC, May 5, 2003 (ENS) - A coalition of 10 conservation groups filed papers in U.S. District Court Friday charging the Bush administration with violating the law, the U.S. Constitution and federal court decisions when it agreed to give up the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) authority to review and protect its wilderness quality lands. The legal challenge is in response to the actions carried out by the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the state of Utah against the federal government.

The settlement, announced on April 11, effectively removes wilderness protection from more than 200 million acres of public lands managed by the BLM.

Federally designated wilderness areas are off limits to road building, logging, mining, and off road vehicle use. Congress designates such wilderness areas, usually after they are brought to its attention by the BLM or Forest Service.

The settlement eliminated the process by which the BLM identifies lands that deserve wilderness protections, removes protection for lands the agency has previously identified as wilderness study areas and disallows the use of a 1999 comprehensive statewide BLM reinventory of Utah's public lands.

"Why would BLM end the process for identifying and protecting irreplaceable wilderness jewels deserving of protection? One reason - so they can be opened to exploitation by oil companies and other commercial interests," said Heidi McIntosh of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The conservation groups say that the settlement with the state of Utah unlawfully surrenders the BLM's clear authority to inventory for and protect wilderness character lands, as set out in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. It violates federal environmental laws and defies a court order in a federal case in California that required the Interior Department to protect certain areas until BLM decides whether to treat them as wilderness study areas, according to the conservation groups.

In addition, the groups say the Bush administration's settlement violates the US Constitution by attempting to bind future presidents to an unlawful interpretation of law.

"The federal government is rushing to develop some of America's last wild lands," said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell, who is representing the coalition. "Truly wild lands, that support native plants and animals are not being made anymore. It is clear to most Americans that it's best to first identify and protect the pristine. You can always mine, log, drill, and bulldoze later if you decide that is what is most important."

The conservationists noted the secret deal between the state and the federal government followed the Bush administration pattern of "sue and settle," whereby the federal government sells out public lands protections under the guise of settling a lawsuit brought by development friends. This approach cuts the public out and guts federal environmental laws behind closed doors with few fingerprints on the deal.

The conservation groups challenging the illegal settlement include: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Natural Resources Defense Council, California Wilderness Coalition, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and Idaho Conservation League.

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Lawsuits Filed To Halt BLM Coalbed Methane Plan

BILLINGS, Montana, May 5, 2003 (ENS) - A coalition of environmentalists, ranchers and landowners filed lawsuits Thursday challenging the challenging the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) approval of the largest oil and gas development project ever approved by the agency. The BLM's project allows widespread coalbed methane development in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming through the authorization of some 66,000 coalbed methane wells in the two states.

The coalition of stakeholders wants the project put on hold because they believe the BLM did not adequately address the environmental impact of the project.

The BLM did not consider the ramifications of the development on air and water quality, private landowners or wildlife habitat, and failed to conduct an environmental impact study for the entire 12 million acre Powder River Basin. The project authorizes a total of 82,000 gas and oil wells, including the 66,000 for coalbed methane by 2001.

"The BLM admitted these projects will have significant impacts on groundwater, surface water and air quality," said Susan Daggett of Earthjustice, an attorney for the coalition. "But they have jumped into this without figuring out how to effectively mitigate these impacts. The National Environmental Policy Act requires that agencies 'look before they leap.' That was not done in this case. We believe this plan is not legal."

The BLM has authorized up to 26,000 miles of new roads, 53,000 miles of pipelines and powerlines, 8,000 excavated infiltration pits for water disposal, 300,000 acres of disturbed soils, rangeland and vegetation, and trillions of gallons of produced water to be depleted from aquifers and dumped onto the ground.

"We knew we would get increased energy production on public lands in this administration," said Tom Darin, representing the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "The Powder River Basin project, however, was the perfect opportunity for BLM to live up to the other half of its promise: to utilize the latest and best technologies to reduce impacts. By failing to include alternatives that addressed aggressive water treatment and phased development to reduce overall impacts, BLM has let the public down once again."

Of particular concern is the impact to the region's water supply - coalbed methane is natural gas trapped in subsurface coal deposits that also serve as aquifers. In the Powder River Basin, the average coalbed methane well discharges and wastes 15,000 to 20,000 gallons of water per day onto the ground surface, with enormous impacts to soils, vegetation and aquatic life.

For the 77,000 coalbed methane wells expected in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, BLM predicts four trillion or more gallons of water to be wasted onto the ground surface over the next 15 years.

"The BLM failed to provide a good range of alternatives for the management of the water," said Nancy Sorenson, a rancher in the Powder River Basin, and chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council. "Water is scarce out here and BLM also failed to safeguard the depletion of our aquifers and to protect us from impacts to artesian and domestic wells on which we all rely."

"Our lawsuit is a last resort to stop unprecedented damage from this massive coal bed methane project," said Johanna Wald, senior public lands attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council. "We tried every step of the way to find a responsible compromise solution. But the Bureau of Land Management ignored our efforts in its rush to fast track the Bush administration's national energy plan."

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Bush Administration Touts Rio Grande Water Agreement

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, May 5, 2003 (ENS) - Bush administration officials say a new agreement that allows some public use of private land along the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River is an important step in a plan to better managing the river.

Originally designated wild and scenic in 1978, the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River is a nearly 200-mile stretch of the river that begins in Big Bend National Park and ends at the Terrell/Val Verde county line. More than half of the river flows through private land on the United States side.

Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton and National Park Service Director Fran Mainella appeared a celebration last week to tout the deal, which they say is the first official agreement between a private landowner and Big Bend National Park.

The agreement allows limited public use of private land along the Lower Canyons stretch of the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River and details Park Service responsibilities along that stretch, including managing all public use and protecting the values for which the river was originally designated wild and scenic in 1978.

The protected values include recreational uses, such as floating, camping, fishing and hiking. In addition, the Park Service will monitor and protect archaeological sites, work to reduce or eliminate exotic species, and help to improve water quality and quantity.

"Local citizens working together with all stakeholders for the good of the community is a classical example of citizen stewardship and my Four C's at work," Norton said. "This is a precedent-setting agreement that establishes the key element of the management plan for the Rio Grande River Wild and Scenic River."

Norton has been a staunch supporter of private public partnerships to achieve conservation goals. The Interior Department is continuing to work with stakeholders on the river to reach agreement with private landowners on public use issues.

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The Growth of Green Buildings

WASHINGTON, DC, May 5, 2003 (ENS) - A new report prepared for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee details the economic and environmental viability of building high performance "green" buildings.

The report, "Building Momentum: National Trends and Prospects for High-Performance Green Buildings," finds that buildings that meet "green standards" increase workers' productivity, consume less energy and water, produce less waste, and can save significant natural and monetary resources in operation and management costs.

The report was coordinated and prepared by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a nonprofit coalition of nearly 3,000 companies and organizations from across the building industry. The coalition has developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, which sets a standard for green buildings and recognizes achievements in this field of buildings design and construction.

USGBC says that more than 600 private and public buildings, comprising 86 million square feet, have registered for third-party certification under the LEED standard.

"We know that a movement is afoot," said Jim Hartzfeld, chairman of the USGBC Board and vice president for Sustainability at Interface Americas, Inc. "Now the key is to strengthen existing Federal policies to maximize the environmental and economic benefits of green building."

Senator Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Independent and Ranking Member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, hailed the report and said he intends to make sure the "federal government does its part to promote the economic, environmental, and health benefits that can be realized within a 'greener' built environment."

Environmental health organizations also praised the report and urged Congress to use it to address school facility environmental issues across the nation.

"This report brings a breath of fresh air to the national debate on the crisis of school facility environments," said Claire Barnett, executive director, Healthy Schools Network.

"Stimulating healthier buildings for children is a path to better attendance and test scores," Barnett said.

The recommendations by the report for schools call for tightening the EPA's indoor air quality programs for schools, establishing indoor air quality standards specific to schools and funding school environmental quality research.

"If the recommendations in this report are followed, children will breathe better, learn better, and live better - even as schools, in the long run, save money," said Daniel Swartz, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Children's Environmental Health Network.

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Pollution Runoff Threatening North Carolina Water

RALEIGH, North Carolina, May 5, 2003 (ENS) - North Carolina regulatory agencies should develop a statewide buffer rule to protect its water from pollution runoff, finds a new report released today by Environmental Defense.

The report, "Riparian Buffers: Common Sense Protection for North Carolina's Water," calls for protection of a minimum 50 foot buffer of trees and grass adjacent to streams in each of the state's 17 river basins. This protection should be afforded to intermittent and year round streams, according to Environmental Defense.

"The greatest threat to North Carolina's waterways is not pollution from factories or wastewater treatment systems, but non-point pollution, or widespread runoff that is caused by virtually every human activity in a watershed, from construction and farming to individual homeowners fertilizing their lawns," said Dave McNaught, senior policy analyst with the North Carolina office of Environmental Defense.

The population of North Carolina has grown from five million to eight million over the past three decades and is expected to grow to some 11 million by 2020.

Roads, parking lots and houses reduce the land's ability to absorb and filter pollutants, but natural buffers can help. Lands nearest to water - or riparian lands - provide critical ecological benefits, protecting water quality and wildlife habitat. These natural buffers also prevent stream bank erosion and downstream flooding.

Parts of the state basins are already benefiting from buffers, said McNaught, but this development has been piecemeal across the state.

"What North Carolina needs now is a statewide buffer rule that will help maintain water quality in all its river basins," he said. "A buffer rule will protect stream banks, wildlife habitat and downstream property owners."

The report suggests the state use incentive programs for private landowners, as well as limits on how much paved or built upon surfaces allowed in a watershed.

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New Jersey Asks Residents To Limit Pesticide Use

TRENTON, New Jersey, May 5, 2003 (ENS) - New Jersey state officials have urged residents of the state to use pesticides sparingly and have reminded commercial applicators that they are obliged to provide the public with advance notice before large scale pesticide applications. The announcement was made in the anticipation of increased landscape and gardening activities this spring and summer and to remind the public of the risks posed by pesticides to human health and the environment.

"Homeowners and licensed applicators need to protect themselves and the environment from pesticide misuse and overexposure," said New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bradley Campbell. "I encourage all residents to explore alternative pest control measures that are not only safe, but also help New Jersey minimize the contribution of pesticides to water pollution."

The risk to human health, Campbell explained, can result from several sources - direct exposure through improper use, residual pesticides on food, and release into the environment from improper storage or disposal. In his announcement, Campbell stressed that children and infants are in particular susceptible to pesticide exposure.

The effects of exposure to pesticides include poisoning, eye damage, disruption of the endocrine/hormone system, and respiratory ailments.

DEP, through its Web site, posts information on alternatives to pesticide use, including biological controls, barriers and household remedies such as the application of soap and water.

Campbell suggested that homeowners check the credentials of professional pesticide applicators to ensure they have the proper state licenses. New Jersey licenses applicators for weed, termite and household pest control, among others.

The public must be informed of any large scale outdoor applications of pesticides, such as for gypsy moth or mosquito control, Campbell said. The DEP requires the pesticide applicators to place one legal advertisement and one prominent display advertisement in two newspapers circulated in the proposed target area at least seven days before the scheduled application date.

Commercial pesticide applicators also are required by law to give an individual advance notice of pesticide application if that individual requests it of the applicator.

Sign posting on lawns and at public buildings is also required when pesticides are being used.

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