AmeriScan: May 27, 2003

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Conservationists Urge Quick Action on Missouri River Dams

WASHINGTON, DC, May 27, 2003 (ENS) - Conservationists have asked a federal judge to halt the federal government's management plan for six dams on the Missouri River. Last week, a coalition of some 10 conservation groups requested a preliminary injunction in their lawsuit filed in February that challenges the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations plan for six dams that inhibit the flow of the Missouri River.

The groups seek immediate changes in dam operation to reverse the river's ecological decline and charge that by failing to update operations, the Corps is in violation of the Flood Control Act of 1944, the Endangered Species Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

The suit is one of nine filed by various parties to the controversy.

"The most bizarre aspect of the Army Corps's refusal to change is that the Corps' itself has concluded that changes to protect the environment would produce greater economic benefits," said Tim Searchinger, who represents Environmental Defense in the suit. "According to the Corps, even the region's barge industry would benefit overall because water conserved on the Missouri River would be used to do more to keep many more barges afloat on the Mississippi River during droughts."

The groups are seeking new management for the river that complies with the terms of a 2000 "Biological Opinion" from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a plan that recommended restoration of modestly higher flows an average of once every three years during the spring to cue fish reproduction and build river sandbars.

The Service also recommended a short period of lower flows each summer to increase shallow water habitat and to expose more sand for nesting birds.

These flow changes were to take effect in 2003, but the Corps has not complied.

If the groups' motion is granted, the Army Corps will have to reduce flows in the Missouri River below Gavins Point Dam for several weeks this summer to protect endangered shorebirds nesting on sandbars in the river.

Recreational reservoir users could benefit from higher water levels during summer vacation season and improved conditions for recreation on the lower river. The Army Corps would raise river levels again on September 1 in time for river barges to haul their small share of the region's fall harvest under the conservationists' request.

"The lower river flows last summer brought a lot of people out onto the river to camp on sandbars, canoe, and fish," said Duane Hovorka with the Nebraska Wildlife Federation. "At the same time, dire predictions that power plants and drinking water facilities would have to shut down never came true."

A 2002 report on the Missouri River ecosystem by the National Academy of Science found that "degradation of the Missouri River ecosystem will continue unless the river's natural water flow is significantly restored."

It found reforming the dam operations would benefit the economy by increasing recreational and hunting opportunities, in particular through enhancing fishery resources and increasing waterfowl populations.

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Legal Challenge Aims to Protect Puget Sound Killer Whales

SEATTLE, Washington, May 27, 2003 (ENS) - Environmentalists asked a federal judge last week for a summary judgment in a lawsuit that aims to force the Bush administration to afford the fullest protections possible to save Puget Sound's Southern Resident killer whales. The environmental groups and activists are fighting the administration's determination that this population of the species is not "significant," a ruling that precludes protection for the whales under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The lawsuit, filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), came in response to the agency's July 1, 2002 determination that it would not list the Southern Residents under the ESA, even though agency biologists determined that the Southern Residents are going extinct.

"The Fisheries Service has scientists making legal determinations, lawyers sequestering scientific data, and Bush's appointed bureaucrats making determinations on whether a species lives or goes extinct," said Stephanie Buffum, executive director of Friends of the San Juans. "The Puget Sound resident orcas need and deserve our help now, and that is why this lawsuit is necessary."

The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity, on behalf of Earth Island Institute, Ocean Advocates, Orca Conservancy, Friends of the San Juans, People for Puget Sound, former five-term Secretary of State Ralph Munro and Karen Munro.

Environmentalists say that over the past six years, the Puget Sound's Southern Resident killer whales have declined nearly 20 percent, leaving only 78 individuals in the population at the end of the 2001 survey year.

This is the latest salvo in a long running legal battle over protecting this population of killer whales, or orcas. In response to a petition for listing from a collation of conservation groups, NMFS determined in a ruling issued July 1, 2002 that this population was a discrete group in danger of extinction, but found that the whales were not "significant."

After this decision, the agency began to consider whether the Southern Residents were "depleted" under a different statute, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). But conservationists contend that depleted status under the MMPA cannot address the threats facing the Southern Residents.

"The 'depleted' designation will not be effective, because it is only useful to address threats such as unsustainable harvest levels and fishery bycatch," said Brent Plater of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Neither of those threats are impacting the Southern Residents, the conservationists say, rather it is water pollution, decline in salmon prey and human disturbances from vessel traffic and noise.

"This is the first time an agency has tried to avoid protecting a species by claiming that the species is insignificant," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound. "If the Bush administration could get past its scorn for environmental protections, it would realize that saving the Southern Residents is not only good for our ecology, but also Puget Sound's economy."

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Preserving Biodiversity a Key to Global Health

EAST LANSING, Michigan, May 27, 2003 (ENS) - Scientists say preserving biodiversity and wildlife habitat are at the foundation of global health and the battle to prevent outbreaks of deadly disease across the world. In a policy forum in the May 23 issue of "Science," a group of scientists outlined ways to protect biodiversity in China's vast system of nature reserves and said the issues span farther than China, and are vital to more than pandas and gingko trees.

"As we look at outbreaks of diseases such as SARS and AIDS, there are indications that many diseases may cross over from animals," said Jianguo "Jack" Liu, an Michigan State University ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead author for the policy forum. "If the ecosystem is not healthy, then human health is in jeopardy."

The article examines the importance of finding better ways to protect China's rich biodiversity in its 1,757 nature reserves, as well as the challenges of meshing ecology with socioeconomics.

The meshing of ecological and social sciences is the key to success, the scientists say, since the needs of nature and of humankind cannot be separated.

"We need to address the bottom line when we are talking about conservation: How to help people," Liu said. "If people's basic necessities are not being met, they will do what they have to do to survive."

Liu and his colleagues discussed the push and pull in China, with tourism both providing needed funding for maintenance of reserves, yet at the same time degrading habitat. The authors expanded on this premise through discussion of villagers' need for fuel wood to cook food and heat homes conflicting with forest preservation.

It is important, Liu said, that people understand the longer-range benefits of preserving biodiversity. China, for example, holds a wealth of known and as-yet-to-be-discovered plants and animals with medicinal benefits.

"Once a species is lost, it cannot be restored," Liu said. "This is not like air or water pollution, which can be fixed."

"We need to better understand the complex linkages between biodiversity, human health, and economic development," he said. "We are not just talking about the environment here. We are also working to obtain long-term economic and health benefits to the world."

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Senate Bill Bans Asbestos

WASHINGTON, DC, May 27, 2003 (ENS) - Saying that asbestos kills thousands of Americans every year, Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, has reintroduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that would ban the substance in the United States.

Murray's "Ban Asbestos in America Act," first introduced in the 107th Congress, would authorize additional studies to determine which commercial products in the United States still contain asbestos. The bill seeks funding increases for asbestos related diseases and calls for a national mesothelioma registry to help public health professionals track mesothelioma, an asbestos related cancer.

The legislation is cosponsored by several other prominent senators and comes on the heels of a landmark report commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released May 16 that calls for a ban on the production, manufacture and distribution of asbestos in the United States.

A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives.

"Like most Americans I thought asbestos had already been banned," Murray said. "While more than 30 other countries have banned asbestos and protected their citizens, the United States still has not. The time for the United States to ban asbestos is long overdue."

The EPA commissioned "Asbestos Strategies" report urges that a ban "be proposed by the Congress, promptly debated and conclusively resolved."

The term asbestos describes six naturally occurring fibrous minerals - chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophylitte and actinolite. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that more than 26 million pounds of asbestos was used in the United States during 2001. Common uses are as thermal pipe and boiler insulation, spray applied fire proofing and sound proofing, floor coverings, ceiling tiles, roofing materials and insulated sheeting.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an estimated 1.3 million employees in construction and manufacturing still face asbestos exposure on the job.

Under Murray's legislation the EPA would be required to ban asbestos within two years. The agency would conduct a public education campaign about the risks of asbestos products and conduct a survey to determine which foreign and domestic products consumed in the United States today have been made with asbestos.

Money would be appropriated for research, tracking and treatment of asbestos diseases, a registry to track mesothelioma, and 10 treatment centers nationwide.

The National Academy of Sciences and the Blue Ribbon Panel of the EPA would be authorized to study issues beyond the six regulated forms of asbestos.

Reintroducing her bill, Murray was joined by congressional cosponsors Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, an Independent, and Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Barbara Boxer of California, Max Baucus of Montana and Mark Dayton of Minnesota. Asbestos victim advocates were also present as was Lieutenant Colonel Jim Zumwalt, son of the late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who died from mesothelioma in 2000.

"I hope that by continuing to work together," Murray said, "and through the positive steps we have seen by the EPA in the past few days, we will build support for the Ban Asbestos in America Act and we will get this important bill passed this year."

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Coastal Cities Making Their Own Rain

HOUSTON, Texas, May 27, 2003 (ENS) - A new study says that the city of Houston and other large coastal cities are making their own rainfall because they have become urban heat islands.

Urban heat islands result from high concentrations of buildings, roads and other artificial surfaces that retain heat and cause warm air to rise. Rising warm air produces clouds that result in more rainfall around these cities.

Authors of the study J. Marshall Shepherd of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Steve Burian of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, believe that the impact of large coastal cities on weather and climate will become increasingly important as more and more people move into urban areas in these coastal zones.

The Heat Island Group, which has been doing research on urban heat islands, says that temperatures in cities can be six to eight degrees higher than in surrounding locales. The higher temperatures in urban heat islands increases air conditioning use and raises pollution levels.

Data for the Houston study came from the world's only space based rain radar located on NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite and clusters of rain gauges on the ground. An analysis of the rain gauge data shows increases in rainfall since Houston became urbanized.

While previous studies have shown that urban heat islands do create more heavy rain in and downwind of cities like Atlanta, St. Louis and Chicago, this study is the one of the first to provide evidence of such an effect around a U.S. coastal city.

"Recent publications have shown evidence of increased lightning activity over and downwind of Houston," Shepherd said. "Since lightning and rainfall are so closely related, we decided to use TRMM's Precipitation Radar and a network of rain gauges to see if urban induced abnormal rainfall existed."

Using data from the 1998 to 2002 period, the researchers found that the mean rainfall rates during the warm season were 44 percent greater downwind of Houston than upwind, even though both regions share the same climate. They also found that rainfall rates were 29 percent greater over the city than upwind of it.

The report, "Detection of Urban-Induced Rainfall Anomalies in a Major Coastal City," appears in the journal "Earth Interactions," published jointly by the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society and the Association of American Geographers.

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Massachusetts Increases Ipswich River Conservation Efforts

CONCORD, Massachusetts, May 27, 2003 (ENS) - Massachusetts state environmental officials last week stepped up efforts to protect the endangered Ipswich River. Officials issued new Water Management Act (WMA) permits with tighter withdrawal limits and called for increased conservation efforts by communities in the watershed.

"The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is taking a strong stand to improve conditions in the Ipswich River by imposing much stronger conservation standards, requiring towns to eliminate water waste, and doubling river levels at which tighter restrictions will be imposed," said Acting DEP Commissioner Edward Kunce. "These permits will promote a healthier river for fishing, swimming and recreational uses."

Conservationists consider the Ipswich River one of the nation's most endangered rivers because of chronic and severe water shortages caused by excessive groundwater pumping and municipal water consumption. American Rivers listed the Ipswich as the nation's third most endangered river on its annual list, released in April.

According to the DEP, the new new WMA permits were drafted and released following an extensive public participation process, which included data from four studies of the Ipswich River by the U.S. Geological Services from 2000 to 2002.

The permits set mandatory water withdrawal restrictions on each community based on stream-flow thresholds. State officials said the permits reflect that the period from May to September is one of low water flow but high water demand.

Starting this June 1, permitted basin communities must institute mandatory water conservation efforts when the river reaches a flow level of 0.42 cubic feet per square mile, compared to the 0.21 level set by previous permits. At a minimum, those water restrictions will include limited watering hours, no pool filling, no car washing, and use of handheld hoses only.

"These permits will safeguard a precious natural resource and strike an excellent balance between water use and environmental protection," said Environmental Affairs Secretary Ellen Roy Herzfelder. "They will sustain a viable river ecosystem while also helping to assure an adequate supply of water for community residents."

The new permits were issued to water suppliers serving Wilmington, North Reading, Lynn, Lynnfield Center Water District, Peabody, Salem-Beverly, Danvers, Middleton, Topsfield, Hamilton and Wenham.

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Federal Agency Could Allow Fireworks in Marine Sanctuary

MONTEREY BAY, California, May 27, 2003 (ENS) - The National Marine Fisheries Service has given its preliminary approval to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to harass California sea lions and harbor seals during fireworks displays over its waters.

The sanctuary is a federally protected offshore area along 276 miles of California's coast. It supports one of the world's most diverse marine ecosystems and is the largest of the 13 national marine sanctuaries run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The request to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) includes a one year Incidental Harassment Authorization to take small numbers of California sea lions and harbor seals during professional fireworks displays and a five year application that would set regulations governing the displays.

In its preliminary determination the NMFS found that "although seals and sea lions may modify their behavior, including temporarily vacating haulouts to avoid the sight and sound of commercial fireworks, these fireworks are expected to have a negligible impact on the animals."

NMFS has defined negligible impact' as "an impact resulting from the specified activity that cannot be reasonably expected to, and is not reasonably likely to, adversely affect the species or stock through effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival.''

NMFS defines harassment as, "any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which (i) has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild; or (ii) has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering."

The petition says professional pyrotechnics displays have been conducted over sanctuary waters for many years as part of national and community celebrations.

The sanctuary waters are the preferred setting for fireworks in central California to optimize public access and avoid the fire hazard associated with display sites on land. Many fireworks displays occur at the height of the dry season in central California, when area vegetation is particularly prone to ignition from sparks or embers, the agency says.

The sanctuary, a component of NOAA, has been issued 42 permits for professional fireworks displays since 1993, with a current average of seven approvals per year. However, officials project that as many as 20 coastal displays per year may be conducted in, or adjacent to, sanctuary boundaries in the future.

The request suggests a limit of not more than 20 events per year in four specific areas - Half Moon Bay, the Santa Cruz/Soquel area, the northeastern Monterey Peninsula and the Santa Rosa Creek area in Cambria. An equal number of private and public displays will be considered for authorization within each display area.

Possible numbers suggested at all four designated display sites include harassment of an average annual total of 2,630 California sea lions and an average annual total of 302 harbor seals within the sanctuary.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the NMFS is requesting public comments before June 26 - for information on how to comment, click here.

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Monarch Migration Steered by Internal Body Clock

WORCESTER, Massachusetts, May 27, 2003 (ENS) - Scientists have found that monarch butterflies depend on an internal clock to help them navigate in relation to the sun.

By studying monarchs inside a specially designed flight simulator, the researchers have gathered what they believe is the first direct evidence of the essential role of the circadian clock in celestial navigation.

Monarch butterflies journey from central and eastern North America every fall to a small region in central Mexico. Only every fourth or fifth generation makes the trip, indicating that the urge to migrate is instinctive, rather than learned.

"Monarchs have a genetic program to undergo this marvelous long term flight in the fall," said author Steven Reppert of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "They are essentially hell bent on making it to their over-wintering grounds,"

Scientists are fairly certain that monarchs use the sun to navigate, but they know less about how the butterflies adjust their direction each day as the sun's position in the sky changes.

"When the clock is disrupted, monarchs are unable to orient toward Mexico," Reppert said. "Without proper navigation, their migration to the south wouldn't occur, and that generation of butterflies would not survive."

Reppert chose monarchs for the study in part because they do not learn their route, as honeybees foraging for nectar do, for example.

Understanding how the circadian clock assists the sun compass in the relatively simple navigation by monarchs could provide a model for studying navigation by other animals, Reppert said, citing both foragers such as honeybees and desert ants as well as long distance migrators such as songbirds.

Research in other animals has been turning up a number of genes that make up the circadian clock. The clock is "entrained" to the daily light cycle via specialized light sensitive cells, called photoreceptors.

Reppert and his colleagues studied the effects of manipulating the daily light and dark cycles on monarchs inside a specially designed flight simulator, with a video camera and computer that record the flight direction.

After being housed under a light/dark cycle in the laboratory that was close to the fall outdoor lighting cycle - light from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm -migrant butterflies exposed to outdoor sun oriented to the southwest, toward Mexico. Butterflies housed under an earlier cycle - light from 1:00 am to 1:00 pm - flew to the southeast.

When the butterflies were exposed to constant light, they flew directly toward the sun, presumably having lost their sense of time.

Reppert's team also found that, while UV light is required for sun compass navigation, some other wavelength of light was required for entraining the butterflies' clocks. This difference may provide a means for untangling the two biological processes.

"The light input pathways are quite distinct, so tracking those pathways in may eventually lead us to the cellular level where this clock-compass interaction is occurring," Reppert said.

The study appears in the journal "Science," published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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