AmeriScan: May 6, 2003

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EPA Considers Relaxing Pollution Laws for Factory Farms

WASHINGTON, DC, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - Environmental groups are worried that the Bush administration is cutting deals with the livestock and poultry industries behind closed doors to exempt factory farms from existing pollution laws.

According to state and local air pollution officials who have pulled out of negotiations to revise the regulation of air pollution from large factory farms, administration officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are contemplating an agreement proposed by the meat industry that would shield polluting animal factories from enforcement for Clean Air Act or Superfund violations.

Environmental groups say the confidential proposal, which was submitted by the meat industry last summer, would provide animal factories the opportunity to enter a "safe harbor agreement" with the Bush administration.

Larger animal factories would opt-in by consenting to possible monitoring of air emissions and in return would receive amnesty from enforcement for Clean Air Act or Superfund violations. The agreement would also protect smaller animal factories, with no risk of monitoring.

"This backroom deal smells every bit as bad as the stench from these animal factories," said John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) Clean Air Program. "It is yet another example of the Bush administration trying to dismantle our bedrock environmental laws at the expense of public health."

NRDC is part of a coalition of environmental groups that sent a joint letter Monday to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman urging the Bush administration to neither remove animal factories from the Clean Air Act's permitting and pollution control programs nor grant immunity to animal factories violating federal law.

The coalition also includes the Association of Irritated Residents, Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, Environmental Defense, Environmental Integrity Project, and the Sierra Club.

The proposal relies on redefining emissions from confinement buildings and manure lagoons at feedlots as "fugitive emissions" - a definition that effectively shields the U.S. livestock and poultry industry from the Clean Air Act.

Large feedlots and poultry plants, often called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), are the dominant force in American agriculture, with some of the largest facilities with capacities exceeding one million animals.

"We are suffering from the effects of toxic emissions from local feedlots," said Tom Frantz, a resident of California's San Joaquin Valley and president of the Association of Irritated Residents. "We object to federal policy devised in a secret, backroom deal, a practice that has become all too common with the Bush administration and its friends in polluting industries."

EPA officials are expected to issue a decision on the air regulations later this month.

Environmental groups have already filed a legal challenge against the Bush administration's revisions to water pollution regulations for CAFOs, which were issued in December 2002.

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NRC Investigates Boric Acid Leak at Texas Reactor

ROCKVILLE, Maryland, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is investigating potential leakage in the bottom of the reactor vessel at Unit 1 of the South Texas Project nuclear power plant.

The unit has been shut since March 25 when a routine inspection uncovered deposits of boric acid at the bottom of the pressurized reactor vessel. Borated water is used to cool the reactor's nuclear fuel and can potentially leak through flanges, pump and valve seals, and other parts of the reactor cooling system and cause corrosion.

The discovery is similar to deposits found last spring at Ohio's Davis-Besse nuclear plant and some are concerned it could represent an industry wide problem.

At Davis Besse, the operator and the NRC failed to identify a boric acid leak that almost ate entirely through the lid of the reactor pressure vessel.

In the wake of the Davis-Besse finding, the agency told operators of these reactors to inspect their reactor vessel heads. There are 69 pressurized water reactor plants in the United States; the other 34 U.S. nuclear plants run using boiling water reactors

The South Texas facility, which is in Bay City, some 90 miles southwest of Houston. has two operating reactors. Its operator - the STP Nuclear Operating Company notified the NRC on April 13 that they identified potential leak indications at the bottom of Unit 1's reactor vessel during a visual inspection.

Although the operator says the deposits are very small, they could be the result of leakage from over four years.

The NRC's Special Inspection team, comprised of metallurgical and engineering specialists, will monitor the utility's investigation and evaluation of the potential leaks. Following completion of the inspection, the NRC will hold a public meeting in the plant vicinity to discuss the inspection findings.

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Massachusetts Oil Spill Threatens Endangered Species

DARTMOUTH, Massachusetts, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service are wrestling with the impact to wildlife from the April 27 oil spill that dumped some 15,000 gallons of oil into Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.

A barge carrying some four million gallons of fuel oil hit an unknown object, causing a 13 mile long oil slick. Massachusetts state officials imposed a shellfish ban in most of Buzzards Bay, which accounts for some 25 percent of the state's shellfish economy.

And the spill came at bad time for coastal birds and other wildlife, agency officials say. They are particularly worried about the potential impact of the oil on between 30 and 50 pairs of endangered piping plovers that typically begin nesting on the islands in the bay in May.

"Service staff at the spill have seen several dead birds, some heavily oiled birds including plovers, and some with a small amount of oil on them," said the Fish and Wildlife Service's Acting Regional Director Richard Bennett. "Even a small amount of oil on their feathers or feet can be fatal to birds," he said.

Nearly all of the beaches in Buzzards Bay where piping plovers nest and feed have been oiled, Bennett said. The highest concentration of piping plovers each year nest at Barney's Joy Beach in Buzzards Bay, and that beach appears to be one of the hardest hit by the spill.

The birds can get oiled on beaches or when they dive into oily water while feeding.

Endangered roseate terns also nest on island in the bay. Of the oiled dead birds collected thus far, most are common loons, which winter in Buzzards Bay.

Loons, which spend almost all of their time on the water diving to catch fish, are at particular risk from oil spills.

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Conservationists Will Sue To Protect Alaska's Sea Otters

OAKLAND, California, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - The Center for Biological Diversity filed notice of its intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Monday for failing to list the Aleutian Islands population of northern sea otter as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The conservation group says the Bush administration has ignored recommendations from agency biologists that listing is needed to prevent the population from going extinct.

"By definition, endangered species are short on time, and the Bush administration's unending delay in protecting this population is inexcusable," said Brent Plater, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "They have stated in declarations under oath that the money was there to protect the sea otters in 2002."

"They have stated in public notices that the money was there and that they must protect the sea otters in 2002," said Plater. "They even directly promised us that the money was there and that they would protect the sea otters in 2002. It is time the Bush administration was held to its word."

The Aleutian Islands sea otter population was once the largest population of the species in the world - in the mid-1970s it numbered between 50,000 to 100,000. But estimates find only about 6,000 otters remaining in the entire Aleutian chain.

The species is suffering in part from overall changes to the ecosystem, according to The Center for Biological Diversity. The group reports higher predation of sea otters by killer whales, which have turned to this smaller food source because of declines in the populations of the larger steller sea lions and harbor seals.

Plater says the administration, despite the completion of the scientific review of the species decline, has delayed the formal protection of the species, putting the species precisely at the time conservation efforts should be implemented.

"The sooner the Bush administration acts, the more useful recovery efforts are likely to be," Plater said. "If the administration delays too long it will likely require the listing and protection of all sea otters in Alaska, because the decline will undeniably become a significant portion of range of the entire subspecies."

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Troubling Trends Found in California Sea Otter Deaths

DAVIS, California, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - A new study finds that adult sea otters in California in 1998-2001 died in unusually high numbers from newly recognized diseases and in geographic clusters. The findings suggest that the species' coastal environment may be so substantially altered that the species could be in jeopardy, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis).

Some 100 southern sea otters have washed up dead on California beaches this year alone.

The new analysis, done in collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Game, does not include those 100 otters, but its findings could help researchers understand their deaths.

"We are very concerned that the otters are dying so frequently of diseases," said wildlife epidemiologist Jonna Mazet, director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center and leader of the campus' otter-research programs. "This indicates that the ecosystem is very unhealthy."

The southern sea otter is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The historic range of the southern sea otter extended from Oregon south to Baja California, Mexico.

During the 18th and 19th centuries otters were hunted for their luxurious pelts and by the early 1900s the species was believed to be extinct. Today the species ranges from Half Moon Bay to Point Conception off the coast of central and southern California, with some 2,000 animals believed to exist in this range.

The new study reviews 105 deaths of southern sea otters - all the beached carcasses found in California from February 1998 through June 2001.

Some two thirds died of some form of disease, with 38 percent dying from parasitic infections.

The researchers note that in a healthy population, juvenile and aged otters should account for most deaths, but their analysis found that 47 percent of the deaths were 4 to 9 years old, an age range when the animals should have been most healthy.

The analysis is expected to be published this year in the "Journal of Wildlife Disease."

Federal and state officials and other researchers continue to investigate this year's high rate of sea otter deaths, but have yet to announce any conclusions.

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Federal Agencies Pledge to Improve Air Quality Index

WASHINGTON, DC, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - Federal officials announced a new interagency partnership today to jointly develop a forecasting tool to enhance the ability to predict air quality across the nation. A new model will create a consistent national, numerical system of forecasting ozone and particulate matter and draws on the resources of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

It will provide the Air Quality Index in daily weather forecasts, and will report a more accurate warning of the days in which outdoor activities could prove to be a health risk.

"As ozone season begins this month, the Air Quality Index will be an important resource for people who are concerned about their air, and this new national model will be an important addition to the tools state and local agencies use to make those forecasts," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman. "During the warm summer months when ground level ozone can occur, this tool will help citizens and businesses make important everyday decisions that directly affect air quality, such as deciding to take mass transit instead of driving."

EPA and NOAA pledged to produce a model that provides daily forecasts for ozone in the northeastern U.S. by Sept. 2004 and within five years, following initial deployment and evaluation, the enhanced forecasting system will be used nationwide.

The agencies say the air quality forecasting model should be able to forecast particulate matter and provide a four day forecast within 10 years.

Ozone is formed near the ground by the action of sunlight on hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides and is primarily caused by emissions from motor vehicles, industrial emissions and chemical solvents.

Children, the elderly and individuals with chronic lung disease, such as asthma, are at greatest risk of breathing problems from ozone exposure. At least 31 million Americans suffer from the ailment, including some nine million children.

A report released last week by the American Lung Association found that some 137 million Americans continue to breathe unhealthy amounts ozone. The report criticized the Bush administration for its air pollution polices, which the ALA believes will do little to help improve the ozone problem.

At today's event, which took place on World Asthma Day, Whitman said that Americans with asthma will "breathe easier with more accurate forecasts of high ozone days."

Commerce Department Deputy Secretary Sam Bodman explained that the new air quality forecast tool "will help people make better decisions to protect their health on daily activities such as working or playing outdoors, driving their cars or choosing other means of transportation."

"For people affected by poor air quality, an improved forecast can mean a higher quality of life," said Bodman.

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Hunters, Fishers Pony Up $478 Million For State Wildlife Agencies

WASHINGTON, DC, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - Some $478 million in excise taxes paid by America's hunters, anglers and boaters will be divvied up among state fish and wildlife agencies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams announced Monday.

The two laws that allow for the taxes - the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, and the Dingell-Johnson Act, enacted in 1950 - collectively have raised more than $8.5 billion.

"Anglers and hunters have been the leading force for conservation in America," said Williams. "By supporting these excise taxes, they are contributing critical funds for maintaining and restoring our fish and wildlife resources."

The agencies will use the money for fish and wildlife conservation by acquiring land, improving habitat, and conducting research, education, and other programs, Williams said, and to help pay for hunter safety, aquatic education and fish and wildlife-related recreation projects.

The wildlife restoration apportionment for 2003 totals $213 million, with $39 million apportioned for hunter education. The apportionment for sport fish restoration for 2003 totals more than $265 million.

The Pittmans Robertson Act of 1937 authorizes an 11 percent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition, a 10 percent tax on pistols and revolvers and an 11 percent tax on certain archery equipment. Half of the tax on handguns and archery equipment is made available for state hunter education and safety programs.

This money is put into the Wildlife Restoration Program - these funds are made available based on land area and inland waters such as lakes and large rivers, and the number of hunting license holders in each state. Distribution of hunter education funds is based on the relative population of each state.

States use Wildlife Restoration Program funds to manage wildlife populations, habitat, research, surveys and inventories and to fund hunter education.

Enacted in 1950, the Dingell-Johnson Act collects funds for the Sport Fish Restoration program through a 10 percent excise tax on fishing equipment and a three percent tax on electric trolling motors and sonar fish finders.

This money is distributed based land and water area and the number of fishing license holders in each state.

It is used for a range of efforts to ensure there are places for people to catch sport fish - and fish for them to catch.

Funds from both wildlife and sporting fishing pay for up to 75 percent of the cost of each project while the states contribute at least 25 percent.

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Scientists Find Big Red Jelly in the Ocean

MOSS LANDING, California, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - A new species of jelly has been discovered by scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), living some 2,000 to 4,800 feet below the ocean's surface. This large, deep red jelly has a bell diameter of up to a meter wide and is so different from other jellies that it had to be assigned to a new subfamily - Tiburoniinae.

Unlike most jellies the Tiburonia granrojo or "big red" has no tentacles, instead it uses four to seven fleshy arms to capture food. In another surprise, MBARI researchers determined that the number of arms varies from individual to individual, generally a diagnostic feature for determining different jelly species.

"Diving almost every day, we tend to take for granted some of the unusual and even bizarre animals that we see in the deep ocean." said George Matsumoto, MBARI biologist and lead author of the paper. "This just shows that we need to keep our eyes open, because there is still plenty to discover down there."

According to MBARI, the species "looks like a big red spaceship cruising the ocean depths."

The discovery was published in a recent online version of the journal "Marine Biology."

Although MBARI scientists saw this jelly during remotely operated vehicle dives as early as 1993, it was not recognized as a new species until several years later. Matsumoto, MBARI biologist and lead author of the paper, was first called in to identify the jelly after it was seen during 1998 geology expedition and began a painstaking process to confirm his suspicion this was a new species.

Although first observed in the Pacific Ocean off California, MBARI scientists have also seen T. granrojo in deep waters near the Hawaiian Islands and, most recently, in the Gulf of California. To further extend the jelly's range, Matsumoto and Raskoff worked with scientists at the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center, who spotted the jelly in Japanese waters.

"There are still so many unanswered questions about this jelly," Matsumoto said. "What does it eat? Who are its predators? How does it reproduce? We have an idea of where it lives and continue to document sightings, but we have much to learn about its role in the ecosystem."

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