AmeriScan: May 16, 2003

* * *

House Committee Approves Military Exemptions to Wildlife Protection Laws

WASHINGTON, DC, May 16, 2003 (ENS) - The House Armed Services committee approved the 2004 military budget this week, a bill that includes broad exemptions from two major federal laws designed to protect the nation's wildlife.

Critics of the exemptions say the language in the bill goes beyond what the Pentagon requested and essentially guts both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marin Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The Pentagon request only covered military lands, but environmentalists say the House bill would compromise the laws on all U.S. land.

"This assault on the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammals Protection Act is far more extreme than anyone expected," said Tom Wathen, executive vice president and general counsel, National Environmental Trust. "It gives all federal agencies an escape clause from protecting endangered species, and lowers the bar for military and even commercial ships for protecting whales and dolphins.

The exemptions were supported by committee Republicans because they believe these laws have compromised military training and readiness, even though a recent General Accounting Office report on the subject does not support this position. Critics argue that both laws already afford the military case by case exemptions and contend that the military has done nothing to prove that this is in any way compromising readiness or training.

The bill eliminates the designation of any critical habitat on all lands "owned or controlled" by the military where the Defense Department (DOD) has established its own Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan., even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has shown this type of plan is inadequate for the protection of endangered species. This could affect some 25 millions acres nationwide, including crucial habitat for more than 300 species considered under threat of extinction.

A provision in the bill seeks to eliminate critical habitat protections under ESA, although the military did not request this. Environmentalists say the provision rolls back roll back important protections not only on DOD lands, but also on public and private land. It requires that only critical habitat deemed "necessary" be designated but fails to define "necessary," leaving the protection of critical habitat to the discretion of the Secretaries of Interior and Commerce.

"These exemptions are not about military readiness - they are about excusing the Pentagon from taking responsibility for its actions," said Susan Holmes, senior legislative representative for the environmental law firm Earthjustice. "The Pentagon is using its claim of military readiness requirements as a fig leaf to cover up a sweeping rollback of the Endangered Species Act."

The bill allows the DOD to grant itself categorical exemptions from the MMPA and weakens protections under the MMPA for whales and dolphins. These protections are revise under the bill because it alters the current definition of "harassment" under the law, a change critics say will allow projects, such as oil and gas exploration and high intensity sonar testing, to escape analysis by wildlife agencies, public comment, monitoring, and mitigation.

The legislation removes the current requirement of MMPA's permitting process that requires any injuring or killing of marine mammals be limited to "small numbers" in a "specific geographical region."

"The DOD has never been denied a permit under the MMPA, making such sweeping changes completely unnecessary," Holmes said. "No agency should be above the laws that protect our wildlife and natural resources."

There is, however, some good news in the bill for environmentalists. The Pentagon's request for exemption from toxic waste and Superfund laws, as well as the Clean Air Act, were stripped out of the bill.

But an amendment written by Arizona Representative Rick Renzi, a Republican, gives the military an exemption from any responsibility for ground water pumping around Arizona's Fort Huachuca. Environmentalists say this provision, which the Pentagon did not request, would threaten the health of the San Pedro River.

"Water used for golf courses and gardens of military personnel is not a matter of national defense," Holmes said. "The Defense Department should not be allowed to drain the San Pedro River just to keep some lawns lush."

* * *

EPA Proposal Would Delay New Smog Rules

WASHINGTON, DC, May 16, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration plan to implement the new smog standards would weaken smog control requirements for some 35 metropolitan areas. These areas currently do not violate the existing smog standard, but do violate the new standard slated to go into effect in 2004.

Under its plan, the administration affords these areas additional time and flexibility to comply with the rule. The proposal, released Wednesday, would allow metropolitan areas that comply with the one hour standard to take at least six years to comply with the new standard when it takes effect in 2004.

Some 50 million people live in the metropolitan areas that would be affected by the rule, most of which are in the Midwest and Southeast. These areas are in violation of the rules proposed in 1997 but still not in effect, but they do comply with the rules that currently govern the land that were created two decades ago.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the new standard, which measures smog over eight hours, is some 30 percent more stringent than the existing standard, which measures smog over a one hour period.

EPA officials say the move is an important step to protect the nation from ozone, which can cause respiratory problems in particular among children and the elderly. Some 6 million American children suffer from asthma.

Although the new standard was finalized in 1997, the new rules sparked a slew of legal challenges, which were only resolved in February 2002.

Under the new standard, areas with ozone levels in excess of 0.08 parts per million over an eight hour period would be in violation. The current standard has a maximum ozone level of 0.12 ppm over a one hour period.

Environmentalists blasted the proposal, which they say is part of the Bush administration's continued effort to rollback environmental protections.

"It is yet another Bush administration strategy to favor polluting industries over breathers," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust.

The administration will hold public hearings on the proposal in June, in Dallas, San Francisco and Washington. The public can comment on the rule for at least 60 days.

* * *

Conservationists To Sue Norton for Not Protecting Horned Lizard

WASHINGTON, DC, May 16, 2003 (ENS) - Conservationists intend to sue Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton for her decision earlier this year not to protect the Sonora Desert flat-tailed horned lizard under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

It is only the latest move in a lengthy list of legal maneuvers over protection for the species, which has declined because of habitat loss due to urban and agricultural uses.

In 1997 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a 1993 proposal to list the species as threatened under the ESA. This was challenged in court by conservationists and in October 2001 the agency was ordered to reinstate the proposed rule and to make a new final listing determination for the species.

In January 2003, the agency again withdrew that rule, with Secretary Norton saying a voluntary conservation agreement will protect the species.

"Bush and Norton's unjustified and illegal denial of protection for the flat-tailed horned lizard must be reversed," said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson. "Our notice gives Norton two months to correct her illegal decision by moving to list the lizard."

The flat-tailed horned lizard inhabits portions of the Sonoran Desert in southern California, Arizona, and northwestern Mexico. It has a broad,flattened tail, long, sharp horns on its head, and conservationists say it looks like a "mini dinosaur."

Adults of this species range in size between 2.5 and 4.3 inches long, excluding the tail, and they feed primarily on native harvester ants.

"Without ESA listing and critical habitat designation, imperiled species get only bureaucratic lip-service as they slide to extinction," Patterson said.

Secretary Norton's decision is yet another example of how Bush administration officials at the Interior Department refuse to follow the law and protect wildlife, "even in the face of a federal court appellate decision rejecting the current rationale not to list," said Cynthia Wilkerson, California species associate with Defenders of Wildlife.

"The Bush administration must be held accountable to avoid the loss of this lizard species and the continued degradation of California's last wild places," Wilkerson said.

* * *

U.S. Energy Policy Misses Huge Gains From Improved Efficiency

SNOWMASS, Colorado, May 16, 2003 (ENS) - Americans spent $285 billion on transportation fuel in the 2000 - about as much as on national defense - according to a new report issued Thursday by Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a non profit research group.

The report, "U.S. Energy Security Facts," finds that the efficiency will is the key to reducing dependence on oil and increasing the nation's energy security.

"The Iraq war, the economic downturn, and the ongoing Congressional energy policy debate make this a ripe time to refocus attention on reducing America's energy vulnerability by increasing her energy efficiency," said the report's author Amory B. Lovins, who is the cofounder and CEO of RMI.

"Efficiency does not require sacrifice, it makes money, it makes sense, and it is the fastest, most powerful way we know to shift to energy sources that cannot be cut off," Lovins said.

The report details that the United States has great potential for achieving large and rapid gains in U.S. oil efficiency. Lovins explains that the nation has doubled the economic activity wrung from each barrel of oil since 1975.

Overall energy savings, worth about $365 billion in 2000 alone, are effectively the nation's biggest and fastest-growing energy "source," according to the report. They provide two-fifths of all energy services - equivalent to 1.65 times the total amount of oil use or 12 times the amount imported from the Persian Gulf.

Lovins says that without gains in energy productivity since 1975, energy consumption in the United States would have grown by 253 percent more than it did.

The report criticizes federal energy policy that continues to focus on supplying more fossil and nuclear energy, rather than further developing "this enormous and largely unexploited 'efficiency resource.'"

* * *

Report Shows Marine Biodiversity Flowered in Last 50 Million Years

CHICAGO, Illinois, May 16, 2003 (ENS) - The apparent increase in marine biodiversity over the last 50 million to 100 million years is real and not just a false reading produced by the inconsistencies of the fossil record, according to new report published in today's issue of the journal "Science."

The study, conducted by a team of paleontologists led by the University of Chicago's David Jablonski, could help scientists place the future of global biodiversity in its proper context.

"If you want to understand what is going to come in the future you need to understand the dynamics that led up to the biodiversity we see now," said Jablonski, a geophysical sciences professor and chair of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago.

The study takes what some consider a major step in dispelling the concept that the level of biodiversity is inflated in younger fossil deposits because sampling of the modern world is so much more complete than in the geologic past.

According to Harvard University paleontologist Richard Bambach, the study sheds important light on the true extent of biodiversity during the Cenozoic Era, which began after the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago and continues today.

The team studied bivalves, which are clams, scallops, oysters and mussels, to address the issue because they are one of the major contributors to marine animal biodiversity.

In order to screen out a potential false reading for Cenozoic biodiversity, the team inventoried bivalve diversity in the youngest part of the geologic record.

"This involved churning through a massive amount of the published paleontological literature of marine bivalves that lived during the last five million years," Jablonski said.

As there was still the possibility that rocks deposited five million years ago were unusually rich and that they were distorting the fossil record, the team conducted a second inventory of bivalves that plunged much deeper into the fossil record, back 65 million years ago to the days of the dinosaurs.

The paleontologists still were able to recover 87 percent of the types of bivalves that lived through that interval, when some thought the record might be poorer. The high recovery rate supports claims that the lower diversity levels observed from this time are genuine and not artificially depressed by sampling or preservation.

The researchers hope this study could open the door to further examinations of biodiversity that could shed more light on how it evolved.

"We have been talking about putting together a consortium of people to do exactly this kind of study with essentially all the major groups that make up the biodiversity increase," Jablonski said. "It would be a real boon for the field if we can get this under way, because it will simultaneously tackle the sampling question and put a huge chunk of the fossil record into a standardized evolutionary framework."

* * *

People Trashing America's Coastlines

WASHINGTON, DC, May 16, 2003 (ENS) - The millions of people who visit U.S. beaches are leaving are finding - and leaving - more and more litter on the nation's coastlines, environmentalists say.

In its annual announcement of beaches certified as "clean and healthy," the Clean Beaches Council (CBC) reports that the nation's beaches are suffering from a serious and widespread litter problem that is not being adequately addressed.

"Our nation's beaches are literally getting trashed and people are responsible," said Walter McLeod, president of the CBC, a non-profit group dedicated to sustaining America's beaches.

"Even though millions of Americans spend their summer vacations and weekends on a beach, this nation is still not committed to an ethic of stewardship for beaches, one of its greatest natural assets.

As many as 180 million people visit the more than 95,000 miles of U.S. coast each year, and many U.S. population centers, such as Boston, New York, Miami, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle, are located in the nation's coastal zone.

An average of 445 pounds of litter was collected per mile of coastline traversed in 2001, according to data collected by the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group that sponsors an annual beach clean up effort.

Beaches certified by through CBC's Certified Blue Wave campaign yielded less than 100 pounds of litter per mile of coastline traversed and met a set of criteria for cleanliness and environmental health. The group hopes the public will look upon its certification, which is good for one year, as a "good housekeeping stamp of approval."

"Our Blue Wave Campaign is the only program of its kind that provides strong incentives to beach communities to keep their beaches clean and healthy both for visitors and the wildlife that depend on this resource," McLeod said.

Beaches that meet these criteria receive the Blue Wave flag, the symbol of the program, which is prominently displayed beachside. The list can be found at http://www.cleanbeaches.org

* * *

Florida Chefs Give Up Chilean Sea Bass

MIAMI, Florida, May 16, 2003 (ENS) - More than 100 Florida chefs joined the national campaign to stop serving Chilean Sea Bass, citing growing concern that the popular fish is in danger of extinction.

The campaign "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass," is sponsored by the National Environmental Trust and The Antarctica Project, and more than 1,000 U.S. chefs from more than a dozen of the nation's major metropolitan areas.

"We are taking Chilean Sea Bass off our plates in order to keep it on the planet," said Pedro Maradiaga, executive chef of Bongos Cuban Cafi.

The restaurant industry accounts for 70 percent of all Chilean Sea Bass sales in the United States.

The Chilean Sea Bass is a marketing name for the Patagonian toothfish, a deep water fish that gained tremendous popularity over the past decade. The species is being decimated by illegal overfishing and several populations have already gone commercially extinct.

"The non-stop pace of illegal fishing virtually guarantees that the entire fishery will collapse in less than five years unless we take immediate action," said Beth Clark, director of the Antarctica Project. "Last year alone, with regulations in place, nearly 40,000 tons of Chilean Sea Bass were illegally fished in the waters around Antarctica."

Some estimates find that as much 80 percent of Chilean Sea Bass sold on the world market is obtained illegally. Many environmentalists believe that the current regulations are not enough to prevent the species from extinction.

"Chilean Sea Bass had been a signature dish at Nikki Beach ever since we opened," said executive chef Brian Molloy. "This has been an extremely hard decision because the entree is so popular, and we were selling about 60 to 80 pounds of it each week, but we know that removing it from our menu is simply the right thing to do."

* * *

Texas Fines Petrochemical Company $9 Million for Violations

AUSTIN, Texas, May 16, 2003 (ENS) - Texas state officials announced a $9 million settlement with the Hunstman Petrochemical Corporation today for violations involving the company's Port Arthur facility.

The settlement resolves some 18 categories of violations that were discovered by inspections and record reviews conducted in 1994, 1997, 1998, and 1999.

Violations included unauthorized emissions, inadequate record keeping and reporting, as well as failure to have permit authorizations.

State officials say one of the most significant violations involved the failure to properly report upset events. This contributed the emissions from those events being unauthorized, first discovered in a review of the company's own sampling results, and the events alleged in the enforcement action occurred from 1994 through 1997. One event involved the release of up to 100,000 pounds per day of volatile organic compound emissions from a cooling tower.

And in early 1995, the data shows that in some instances the emissions of benzene, a known human carcinogen, from the cooling tower exceeded several thousand pounds per day.

"We are pleased to bring this enforcement case to a successful conclusion," said Margaret Hoffman, Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which announced the settlement along with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. "An important part of this settlement requires the company to spend more than $1 million dollars on air monitoring which will provide a discernible environmental benefit to the local community."

The total civil penalty includes $7,500,000 in cash payments and a $1,572,474 Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP).

According to state officials, Huntsman will be required to pay $850,000 within 30 days; $1 million in the first year; $1.65 million in the second year; $2 million in the third year; and $2 million in the fourth year.

The SEP requires Huntsman to conduct fence line monitoring at two locations at the facility for a period of 33 months and the company will monitor for the following seven air contaminants: benzene, ethlyene, propylene, 1-3 butadiene, cyclohexane, isobutene, and n-butene.

* * *