AmeriScan: May 19, 2003

* * *

U.S. Drops Opposition to Global Tobacco Treaty

GENEVA, Switzerland, May 19, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration has reversed its stance and will now support an international treaty that aims to reduce the global health toll from tobacco.

Tommy Thompson, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary and head of the U.S. delegation told reporters Sunday that he will announce the administration's support for the treaty - the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control - in his speech to the World Health Organization (WHO) assembly Wednesday.

"Much to the surprise of many around the world, I am going to be supporting the tobacco treaty," Thompson said.

The treaty would put bans on cigarette advertising unless deemed unconstitutional and it calls for larger and more visible health warnings on cigarette packaging. In addition, the international agreement supports increased tobaccco taxes and warns that secondhand smoke is a public health threat.

The WHO estimates that some five million people die each year from tobacco related illnesses and predicts that this figure will double by 2025.

In late April, the administration asked the 171 members of the WHO to support its position that each nation has the right to withdrawal from any provision that it deemed unconstitutional or objectionable.

The U.S. said it would be very difficult to sign and ratify the treaty without this opt out clause, but found little support with the rest of the international community, which has spent some four years ironing out disagreements to forge the accord.

The reversal of the U.S. position bodes well for the treaty, which is now expected to be approved by the WHO's health assembly this week. Once adopted, forty countries must ratify the accord before it takes effect.

"While we welcome the U.S. decision to drop its efforts to reopen the negotiations, we hope that U.S. support for the treaty comes without conditions or limitations and that the U.S. government ends all of its persistent efforts to weaken the treaty," said Matthew Myers, president, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "The U.S. should now support full and rapid implementation of the treaty around the world."

* * *

California Agriculture Air Pollution Plan Challenged

SAN FRANCISCO, California, May 19, 2003 (ENS) - Public health and environmental groups filed suit today in federal court to challenge the Bush administration's implementation of a permitting program to regulate major agricultural sources of air pollution in California.

The groups argue that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed method would cover far fewer sources than the existing requirements under the Clean Air Act.

"EPA is basically regulating with a wink and a nod, telling the farmers what the threshold limit that requires a permit is, and then asking for an 'estimate' of what their emissions will be," said Anne Harper, staff attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice. "The reporting requirement could not be more lax."

The suit was filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by Earthjustice on behalf of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, Our Children's Earth Foundation and the Sierra Club.

The EPA's permit application form instructs agricultural operations to "estimate actual emissions" from diesel engines over the next year, but the Clean Air Act requires sources to determine the diesel engines' "Potential to Emit."

The groups say that this difference means that fewer sources will be considered "major sources" subject to permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act. They believe this will lead to more pollution in California, which has four of the top five worst ozone pollution areas in the nation.

Of particular concern is the effect the permitting process could have on the San Joaquin Valley, one of the state's largest agricultural centers and a region with serious air quality concerns.

San Joaquin Valley is considering voluntarily moving to an "extreme" ozone nonattainment classification, where a source that emits more than 10 tons per year of nitrogen oxides or volatile organic compounds is considered a "major source" requiring a permit.

The San Joaquin Valley is currently in "severe" ozone nonattainment, where a source that emits more than 25 tons per year of nitrogen oxides or volatile organic compounds - smog forming pollutants - is considered major.

"It is essentially a decision by EPA to illegally limit the number of agricultural operations that are required to obtain an operating permit," said Kevin Hall, of the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club.

* * *

Senate Tax Bill Contains Fourfold Increase of SUV Tax Loophole

WASHINGTON, DC, May 19, 2003 (ENS) - The $350 billion tax cut passed by the Senate late last week contains a $100,000 tax break for buyers of the largest, least fuel efficient sport utility vehicles (SUVs). This fourfold increase of the existing tax break effectively subsidizes the full purchase price for 38 of the largest and most expensive SUV models on the American road, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"Forget zero-percent financing. This is a six-figure loophole big enough for a Hummer," said Dan Lashof of NRDC. "And that is just what every American taxpayer will be footing the bill for if this measure becomes law."

The language in the tax cut bill would allow business owners to deduct up to $100,000 cost of a new, large-size SUV in just one year.

The original tax break for large SUVs was intended to help farmers, contractors and other buyers of working trucks, Lashof explained, not the owners of well-heeled luxury vehicles. It applies only to vehicles that weigh more than 6,000 pounds, including the Hummer, the Range Rover and the Cadillac Escalade.

The expanded SUV deduction will cost taxpayers billions, according to the congressional Joint Tax Committee, and environmentalists argue the tax break encourages the use of some of the nation's least fuel efficient and most polluting vehicles.

The House and the Senate will have to reconcile competing versions of the bill before sending the final bill version to the White House and the SUV tax break increase could still be removed.

"It is an unfair subsidy for select buyers of the biggest, most expensive SUVs," Lashof said. "The Senate bill makes us more dependent on Middle East oil at the very time we should be kicking the petroleum addiction."

* * *

EPA Keen on Fuel Cell Delivery Vehicles

WASHINGTON, DC, May 19, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration announced a new partnership with automaker DaimlerChrysler and delivery giant UPS today to develop hydrogen powered fuel cell delivery vehicles.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Christie Whitman, this partnership will lead to the first testing of delivery fuel cell vehicles in "a real-world driving environment on the nation's streets."

"We are delivering a commitment to bring the first fuel cell vehicle into this country's commercial delivery fleet," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman. "In making this commitment, we are taking a giant step forward for the environment and for the health of the American people."

The delivery fuel cell test program will be based at the EPA's National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory.

The partners say that a fuel cell test vehicle based on the DaimlerChrysler Mercedes-Benz A-Class will be available for use later this year as an express-delivery vehicle by UPS. By 2004, one or more fuel cell Dodge Sprinters will be delivered for use as medium duty commercial vehicles.

These fuel cell vehicles will be used in a typical UPS delivery operations on established routes, allowing the EPA and its partners to evaluate fuel cell vehicle attributes such as fuel economy, varying weather conditions and driving performance.

The EPA's Ann Arbor lab will provide a hydrogen refueling station to fuel the UPS delivery vehicles for the fuel cell vehicle initiative. The hydrogen fueling station will be designed and built by Allentown, Pennsylvania based Air Products and Chemicals Inc.

"This joint effort is delivering something to all of us, something that will help make the air we breathe cleaner and our skies clearer," Whitman said at today's ceremony.

* * *

Maryland Gives Up Federal Permit To Kill Mute Swans

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland, May 19, 2003 (ENS) - The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has returned its federal permit so shoot some 1,500 mute swans after pressure from an animal rights group prompted federal officials to ask the state to give up the permit.

Last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked the DNR to "give serious consideration to discontinuing activities under the permit and surrendering the permit." The request came after The Fund for Animals filed a complain in federal court challenging the state's plan and the issuance of the permit.

On Friday, the DNR sent a letter to the federal agency that said it "assents to the urging of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and will discontinue its activities under the permit."

"We are elated that the agencies recognized the serious legal flaws in granting a blank check to kill hundreds of mute swans at any time and any place, and acted quickly to remedy the problem," said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals. "Although one hundred swans were unnecessarily and illegally killed before the permit was surrendered, hundreds more of these graceful and majestic birds have been granted an eleventh hour reprieve."

In its complaint, The Fund for Animals alleged that the agencies failed to conduct even the most basic study of what alternatives are available and how the swan killing program would effect the environment - including the orphaning of baby cygnets during swan nesting season.

The killing of mute swans is only part of a broad effort by DNR officials to reduce the state's population of a species that the state believes is harming the Chesapeake Bay.

A species native to Europe and Asia, mute swans were introduced to estates and parks in the eastern United States beginning in the 19th century. Maryland's population of mute swans originated when five birds escaped from captivity in 1962.

Maryland state officials say scientists believe that the current population is on the verge of an exponential increase in numbers and could reach 20,000 birds by 2010.

Mute swans are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the International Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds, but the federal permit allows the swans to be killed at any time and in any location of the state.

* * *

Conservationists Sue To Protect Dakota Skipper Butterfly

TUCSON, Arizona, May 19, 2003 (ENS) - Conservationists filed a petition in federal court last week asking for protection of the Dakota skipper butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. The species, once widely distributed across the midwestern United States and south central Canada, has disappeared entirely from Iowa and Illinois, and from much of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The petition, filed by the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Xerces Society, and Center for Native Ecosystems, seeks protection in the states of Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota for the species, which was first considered for listing on the Endangered Species Act in 1975.

The federal government's inaction has left the Dakota skipper on the "federal waiting list" for 27 years, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), even as the species has continued to decline.

Declared a "candidate" for ESA protection in 1975, the species was proposed for listing in 1978 and a plan to designate five areas of crucial habitat in Minnesota was put forth. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew its plan for "technical reasons," according to CBD, and has never reissued the proposal as promised.

"The Dakota skipper is slipping toward extinction while the Service continues to make excuses and drag its heels," said Jacob Smith, Executive Director of the Center for Native Ecosystems.

Habitat loss is the main threat to the species, in particular conversion of prairie lands to cropland.

Conservationists say that prairie habitat in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Canadian Province of Manitoba has declined by more than 99 percent. In addition, prairie habitat in North and South Dakota has declined by some 75 percent and the Province of Saskatchewan has lost more than 80 percent of its native prairie.

Gravel mining, road construction, domestic livestock grazing, herbicide and pesticide use, the spread of non-native plants, burning, and mowing are also contributing to the decline of the Dakota skipper butterfly.

"The Dakota skipper has lost much of its habitat and what remains continues to be destroyed and degraded," said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director and butterfly specialist with The Xerces Society. "There is no question that this butterfly and its prairie habitat need to be protected."

"Butterflies are also important environmental monitors," he said. "They are like the canary in the coal mine and are another reminder that these grassland ecosystems, and all of the species that depend on them, are in trouble."

* * *

EPA Research Grants Program Judged Excellent

WASHINGTON, DC, May 19, 2003 (ENS) - A report last week released by the National Academies National Research Council praised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) competitive research grants program.

The grant program - called Science to Achieve Results (STAR) - has yielded significant new findings and knowledge critical for EPA's decision-making process, according "The Measure of STAR: Review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's STAR Research Grants Program."

The program, which began in 1995, has "established and maintained a high degree of scientific excellence," said Harold Mooney, chair of the committee that wrote the report and Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology at Stanford University in California.

"It has provided EPA with independent analysis and perspective that has improved the agency's scientific foundation," Mooney said. "By attracting young researchers, this program has also expanded the nation's environmental science infrastructure."

The grants program was designed to enable the nation's best scientists and engineers to explore new ways to safeguard the environment and protect public health. The EPA gives about $100 million a year in grants and fellowships to independent investigators, multidisciplinary teams, and graduate students at universities and nonprofit institutions.

The report finds that STAR research has resulted in a better understanding of the effects of particulate-matter air pollution on public health, new insights on the impact of pesticides and industrial chemicals on human and wildlife reproduction, and the development of new indicators for waterborne pathogens.

It has established a rigorous, independent peer-review process for selecting grant awardees and funds scientists with impressive track records, who frequently are leaders in their fields, the report says.

The committee determined that the program, however, is in need of increased and more consistent funding.

STAR funding, which has not kept pace with inflation in recent years, should be maintained at 15 percent to 20 percent of EPA's Office of Research and Development budget, even in financially constrained times, according to the report.

* * *

Fallen Astronaut's Family Sets Up EcoFund in Her Name

WASHINGTON, DC, May 19, 2003 (ENS) - The family of Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark today announced the establishment of a memorial fund at Defenders of Wildlife to honor the 41-year-old Navy Captain and flight surgeon, who died in the February accident involving the space shuttle.

Contributions to the fund will benefit Defenders of Wildlife's work, which includes protection for wildlife and endangered species, as well as environmental education.

"I have given a lot of thought to what I could do to fill the hole in my life," said Clark's mother, Margory Brown. "What could I do to replace Laurel? She told us 'the earth when viewed from space is both beautiful and boundary less.' Her love of the earth and its wild places kept bringing me back to the environment."

Brown explained that the last e-mail she received from Clark detailed took note of the visible scars on the Earth from humanity and said that her daughter shared a lifelong love of the natural world.

"I want to keep Laurel's memory alive," Brown said, adding that it is fitting to remember her daughter by honoring her passion for the environment.

Laurel Clark received a bachelor of science degree in zoology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1983 and four years later earned a doctorate in medicine from the same school. Selected by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration for training and evaluation for the space program in 1996, the ill fated February flight was her first on the space shuttle.

"We are honored that the family of Dr. Laurel Clark has set up a fund with Defenders to remember this American heroine whose life was cut short as she and the other Columbia astronauts pushed back the unknowns of space," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. "This fund will allow us, in her name, to help save the wildlife and wild lands she loved for future generations."

* * *