AmeriScan: October 31, 2002

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Court Blocks Oil Exploration Near Arches Park

WASHINGTON, DC, October 31, 2002 (ENS) - A federal court has blocked the Interior Department from allowing oil exploration in thousands of acres of public land on the eastern boundary of Utah's Arches National Park.

The court order, issued Wednesday, came in response to a lawsuit by three environmental organizations. The three groups, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The Wilderness Society, filed the suit to stop the project in late September, asking the court to issue a preliminary injunction.

"The court recognized the outstanding aesthetic, recreational and biological value of Utah's canyon lands and the damage the Interior Department's action would cause," said SUWA attorney Stephen Bloch.

The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had approved a request by the world's largest seismic exploration company, WesternGeco, to explore for oil and gas in the Dome Plateau region, also known as the Yellow Cat 2-D Swath project area. The project area encompasses more than 23,000 acres of scenic wildlands popular with hikers, mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

The region also provides habitat for several threatened or endangered species, including the black-footed ferret, the bald eagle and the Mexican spotted owl. Congress is now considering a bill, America's Redrock Wilderness Act, which would designate portions of the project area as wilderness.

The court agreed with the environmental groups that the proposed oil exploration would "irreparably harm" the Utah canyon lands. The court order halts the project until the judge has time to analyze the environmentalists' claims that the BLM's approval of the proposed energy exploration violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act.

Attorneys for the conservation groups maintained that BLM relied on an inadequate Environmental Assessment that failed to demonstrate there would be "no significant impact" on the human environment. They noted that WesternGeco would have used 60,000 pound thumper trucks, vibrating the ground at regular intervals to record seismic information about oil deposits.

Thumper trucks can cause damage to sensitive desert soil that can take as many as 300 years to recover.

"The Bush administration is willing to ignore the law to give oil companies open access to America's treasured public lands," said Sharon Buccino, an NRDC senior attorney. "Fortunately the court said no."

The Bush administration has been pushing federal land managers to fast track development on public lands across the West. Last year, the BLM released a blueprint memo outlining a strategy to open up public lands for oil and gas exploration and drilling. In another memo, released earlier this year, BLM told federal land managers in Utah that oil and gas lease applications coming into the agency should be considered "priority number one."

"Approving oil exploration and drilling in America's most scenic wilderness landscapes has become a pattern at the Interior Department," said Suzanne Jones, assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society, noting that BLM has also approved exploration by WesternGeco in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado.

"These breathtaking public lands should not be cavalierly handed over to the energy industry," Jones added.

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Boston Waste Hauler Settles Clean Air Case

BOSTON, Massachusetts, October 31, 2002 (ENS) - Allied Waste Systems, Inc. has agreed to pay a $782,550 civil penalty and spend $2.3 million on an environmental project to settle federal charges that the company violated the Clean Air Act.

The settlement between the Boston trash hauler, the Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is aimed at improving the air quality near Allied's Howard Transfer Station in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

The settlement stems from violations of provisions of the Clean Air Act that are intended to protect the stratospheric ozone layer from the harmful effects of certain chemicals, known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydro-chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). These chemicals, found in coolants, are known to deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects the earth's surface from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Under EPA regulations, waste haulers who dispose of household appliances which may contain CFCs or HCFCs, including refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners, must take steps to ensure that these chemicals are not released to the atmosphere.

"Today's agreement is indicative of EPA's strong commitment to improve environmental conditions in urban areas, especially communities such as Roxbury which has among the highest asthma rates in the State," said Robert Varney, regional administrator of EPA's New England office.

According to the civil complaint, between July 1997 and August 1998, Allied compacted or crushed discarded appliances collected under the trash pick up contract with the city of Boston, without either recovering any remaining refrigerant from the appliances, or verifying that the refrigerant was already evacuated from the appliances. Upon learning of EPA's inspections, Allied corrected the improper disposal practice.

U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan noted that a similar enforcement case against Waste Management of Massachusetts, Inc., also involving improper handling of CFCs and HCFCs, was settled and announced in April of this year.

"My office will continue aggressively to enforce the federal statutes that protect our environment," said Sullivan. "The Earth's ozone layer protects us all from harmful solar rays that can cause skin cancer, and the Clean Air Act is an essential tool in protecting the ozone layer. Waste haulers across the country must strictly comply with the federal ozone protection requirements."

In addition to paying a $782,550 fine, the consent decree requires Allied to spend at least $2.3 million to construct a new building at Allied's Roxbury transfer station and install state of the art emissions control technology capable of reducing dust, odors and volatile organic compounds. This will improve odor control and provide for more efficient waste transfer operations.

The company must also comply with all Clean Air Act provisions, train employees who are engaged in activities concerning the collection and disposal of appliances, and implement a tracking system for all appliances picked up by Allied in the city of Boston.

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Storage Tank Tester Fined $1 Million

WASHINGTON, DC, October 31, 2002 (ENS) - Tanknology-NDE, International, Inc. has been sentenced to pay a $1 million criminal fine and restitution of $1.29 million to the United States for false underground storage tank (UST) testing services performed by its employees.

Tanknology, the largest UST testing company in the U.S., pled guilty on August 29 to 10 felony counts of presenting false claims and making false statements to federal agencies. Tanknology admitted in its plea and at sentencing that from January 1997 until December 1999, company employees had performed false tests at federal installations across the country, including U.S. postal facilities, military bases and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility.

"Today's sentencing demonstrates that the United States will not hesitate to prosecute those who falsify reports that can result in injury to the environment and to the health of our citizens," said Tom Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's environment and natural resources division, after the sentencing on Wednesday.

Underground storage tanks contain petroleum products, including gasoline, and all UST owners and operators are required by law to have their tanks tested to ensure that their systems are not leaking any petroleum into the soil or groundwater. Leaking USTs can present other health and environmental risks, including the potential for fire and explosion.

"Accurate information is central to ensuring compliance with the underground storage tank requirements," said John Peter Suarez, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. "Falsifying reports can undermine the very purpose of these important regulations - to protect public health and the environment."

The pleas and sentence arose from an extensive investigation carried out by several federal criminal investigative agencies in which agents observed Tanknology testers at government facilities across the country. The false tests ranged from failing to follow required test protocols to "drive by" tests, where a Tanknology tester was videotaped driving up to a federal facility, driving away after a few minutes and then submitting false data.

In addition to paying the criminal fine and restitution, Tanknology will serve a term of probation for five years. Under the plea agreement, Tanknology also will implement a quality management system to ensure that false and improper testing practices do not occur again.

The EPA has extensive information on underground storage tanks and federal requirements at: http://www.epa.gov/compliance/newsroom and at: http://www.epa.gov/swerust1/overview.htm

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Changing Rain Patterns Could Ruin Crops

WASHINGTON, DC, October 31, 2002 (ENS) - Increased flooding, an expected outcome of climate change, may cause a doubling in losses of agricultural production over the next 30 years, a new report warns.

An increased frequency of extreme precipitation events has been observed over the last 100 years in the United States. Global climate models project that similar trends may continue and even strengthen over the coming decades, due to climate change.

Now, a study using computer climate and crop model simulations predicts that U.S. agricultural production losses due to excess rainfall may double in the next three decades, resulting in an estimated $3 billion per year in damages.

Cynthia Rosenzweig and Francesco Tubiello, researchers at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University, New York, and the other authors of this study, found that current assessments of the impacts of climate change on agriculture have not accounted for the negative impacts on crops from increased precipitation and floods.

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This aerial view of the Iowa River shows areas left inundated with water after a 1993 flood. The excess water drowns crops, increases the risk of plant diseases and insect infestation, and can delay planting and harvesting. (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
To close this information gap, the researchers modified an existing crop computer model to simulate the extent to which excess soil moisture from heavy rain might damage crop plants.

"The impacts of excess soil moisture due to increased precipitation need to be taken into account because of associated crop losses and potential financial damages," Rosenzweig said.

The researchers argue that while droughts receive the most attention when it comes to assessing the impacts of climate change on agriculture, excess precipitation should also be a major concern. The 1993 U.S. Midwest floods, for example, caused about $6 to 8 billion in damages to farmers, accounting for about half of the total overall losses from the flood, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"The Federal Crop Insurance Corporation paid out $21 billion between 1981 and 2000," said Evan Mills, a scientist in Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division, and a coauthor of the paper. "Unless greenhouse gas pollution is brought under control, damage to crops from flooding will probably escalate, raising payments from government insurance programs and lowering the reliability of the U.S. crop supply. Action taken to slow global warming will protect U.S. farmers and agriculture, as well as taxpayers."

The study modifies a standard crop model called CERES-Maize to simulate yields under projected future climate conditions of heavier rainfall and shows that damage due to excessive soil moisture alone will increase crop production losses compared to present levels.

Heavy downpours increase the risk of plant disease and insect infestation and cause delays in planting and harvesting. Additional negative effects, such as direct physical damage to crop plants from heavy rains and hail, were not estimated in this study.

"Extreme precipitation events and total annual precipitation in the U.S. have increased over the last 100 years, especially the last two decades," said Janine Bloomfield, an Environmental Defense senior scientist and coauthor of the report. "Aggressive action to slow climate change must be taken now to lessen the risk of increased flooding over agricultural areas in the United States and the significant increases in crop damage and economic losses that could result."

The study appears in the current issue of the journal "Global Environmental Change."

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West Nile Virus Blamed for Vanishing Chickadees

CHICAGO, Illinois, October 31, 2002 (ENS) - The West Nile virus has decimated populations of chickadees around Chicago, Illinois, a new study shows.

A team of 74 trained monitors throughout the six county Chicago region found that the black-capped chickadee, a once common bird, appears to have been extirpated from large areas. This is the first study that focuses attention on the effect of West Nile disease on songbirds, and it raises questions about the effects of chemicals used to control mosquitoes.

Previous reports have focused on crows, blue jays, hawks and owls, but experts fear that there could be many other bird species whose populations are also suffering.

In three areas of the Chicago region - parts of eastern Lake County, some south suburbs, and a large area of northern Chicago and nearby suburbs - chickadees were almost all gone. Thirty trained volunteer monitors spent 101 hours searching 31 sites with good chickadee habitat and found just two of the tiny, gregarious birds.

chickadee

The black capped chickadee may be declining in areas hit hard by West Nile virus. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
Judging from previous October data, more than 120 chickadee sightings would be expected for this level of effort at these sites.

In all other areas surveyed, chickadee numbers were reported as low or average, ranging between one and 23 birds found per survey. A map of the areas where chickadees are missing mirrors a map showing concentrations of human cases of West Nile virus.

"These are impressive and troubling results," said Bird Conservation Network (BCN) census coordinator Lee Ramsey. "We are encouraging trained monitors to check their areas frequently and report data on all bird species."

Many observers reported having seen dead or ill chickadees in early August, when thousands of dead crows were being picked up by municipalities in this area. Early August was also the date many gave of their last sightings of chickadees in the area.

Study participants also commented on low numbers of many other bird species. At least 124 species of native birds are known to have been affected by the virus.

"We still don't know the fate of many of the birds that breed here in summer and which were preparing to migrate when the disease hit," said Judy Pollock, Audubon's project manager. "For example, one observer commented on the disappearance of red-headed woodpeckers from her property. Another threat to this declining species really concerns me. Illinois is at the population center for this bird, and its numbers are plummeting due to habitat loss."

While the mosquito season is now waning, and West Nile concerns will not be in the forefront until spring 2003, the National Audubon Society recommends weighing the needs of birds in developing next year's pest control strategies.

"The populations of many bird species are already suffering. We should plan so that next year we don't add further stress by unwise or excessive spraying of pesticides," said Stephen Packard, Audubon director for the Chicago region. "The spray kills fish and many species of insects, disrupting the chain of life that birds and we ourselves depend on."

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Atrazine Exposure Alters Frog Sex

WASHINGTON, DC, October 31, 2002 (ENS) - Throughout the midwest, male leopard frogs are being feminized by exposure to the herbicide atrazine, a new study shows.

Atrazine is used to kill weeds on the country's leading export crops, corn and soybeans. Biologists from the University of California at Berkeley surveyed native leopard frogs in the field and found strong evidence that exposure to the herbicide is altering the frog's sexual development.

"These studies clearly indicate that atrazine is detrimental to amphibians," said study author Tyrone Hayes, associate professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley.

The scientists also showed that male leopard frogs raised in laboratory tanks contaminated with atrazine develop egg cells in their testes, and turn into hermaphrodites. These sexual abnormalities were observed at atrazine levels as low as 0.1 parts per billion (ppb), 30 times lower than the current allowable limit for atrazine in drinking water set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

These findings, added to earlier evidence that atrazine demasculinizes two other species of frog, suggest that the herbicide could be a factor in the decline of frogs and other amphibians in the United States and around the world, the biologists write in an article in today's issue of the journal "Nature." Atrazine has been used on crops since 1956 and is now the most widely used herbicide in the nation.

Atrazine may feminize male tadpoles and turn them into female frogs, Hayes said, or it may render some males infertile. Atrazine may also favor tadpoles that delay sexual differentiation until after they have turned into frogs and leave the contaminated water.

"Atrazine is potentially destroying biodiversity," said Hayes, now engaged in studies to determine the ultimate fate of these feminized tadpoles. "In my opinion, this is an unacceptable risk."

Hayes and his colleagues sampled leopard frog tadpoles in eight separate ponds, ditches, rivers and streams in the Midwest during the summer of 2001 and found feminized male frogs at every site with measurable levels of atrazine. The current laboratory detection limit is 0.1 ppb.

The sites were scattered through the Corn Belt and beyond, including in Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and near the Iowa-Illinois border. Several ponds chosen as controls because they are in nonagricultural areas also had measurable levels of atrazine and feminized frogs, while only one site, in Utah, had neither detectable atrazine nor affected frogs.

The site with the highest concentration of feminized frogs was along the North Platte River in Wyoming. There, 92 percent of male frogs showed sex reversal. This area of Wyoming reports little use of atrazine, but the river is fed by streams that carry runoff from Colorado farms, which do use the herbicide.

Atrazine is so widespread that it can be found far from agricultural areas and even in rainwater and snow. At one site in Nebraska, Hayes found that rain and tap water contained enough atrazine to disrupt normal male development in amphibians.

"The results of Dr. Tyrone Hayes' study provide further evidence that atrazine poses a serious threat to public health and the environment," said Jon Devine, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "In light of Dr. Hayes' most recent research, his previous findings in the laboratory, and other studies linking atrazine to cancer and hormone disruption, NRDC again calls on EPA to ban atrazine."

For more information about the dangers associated with atrazine, visit: http://www.nrdc.org/health/pesticides/natrazine.asp

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Rising Nitrogen in Soils May Signal Global Changes

BOULDER, Colorado, October 31, 2002 (ENS) - More nitrogen in Earth's soils could lead to an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, a new study suggests.

The rapid increase of nitrogen falling from the sky as a result of fossil fuel combustion and crop fertilization, combined with carbon stored in soils, could change the rate at which the greenhouse gas CO2 rises into the atmosphere, according to researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Scientists believe about 300 times more carbon is stored in soils than is being released into the atmosphere in the form of C02, said assistant biology professor Alan Townsend. Each year, soils release about 20 times more carbon than industrial activities through decomposition.

"Decomposition is primarily balanced by plant growth, but increasing nitrogen falling on ecosystems could change that balance," Townsend said. "The study shows tundra soils are unexpectedly sensitive to added nitrogen, bringing up the question of how increases in nitrogen throughout the world might affect C02 storage areas, or 'sinks,' on land."

A paper on the subject by Townsend and colleagues at CU-Boulder, the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver and Germany's Max Planck Institute appears in today's issue of the journal "Nature."

C02 in the atmosphere is believed to have risen by about one-third since the Industrial Revolution began around 1760, contributing to a warming climate.

"The nitrogen deposited on land might act like fertilizer and cause plants to grow more, at least for a while, which would suck up some carbon from the atmosphere," said Townsend. "But it also could cause soils to lose some of their carbon, which would add even more C02 to the atmosphere."

The researchers looked at a study area on Niwot Ridge, 35 miles west of Boulder, one of 20 long term ecological sites in North America funded by the National Science Foundation. The scientists were surprised to find how fast soils responded to changes in nitrogen, Townsend said.

"One of our big concerns now is that we know the world's soils have at least three times more carbon than plants, and that increasing the nitrogen hitting these soils could change the size of that huge pool," he said. "Since the pool is so large, even a small change could have a big effect on the atmosphere, and therefore future climate."

Scientists have documented increases in how much C02 is being produced by human activity, and concluded that only about half of that amount is reaching the atmosphere, said Townsend. So the carbon sinks on Earth taking up and storing the carbon molecules in the world's vegetation, soils and oceans must be immense, he explained.

"If these sinks slow down or turn off in the near future, we could see much larger increases in atmospheric C02," said Townsend. "If cold tundra soils are sensitive to nitrogen, it raises concerns about what might be happening in other, warmer parts of the world where things can change more rapidly."

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Federal Court Stops Cougar Kill

PORTLAND, Oregon, October 31, 2002 (ENS) - A federal court has halted an elk population study which would involve killing 50 percent or more of the cougars in two regions of Oregon.

Nine state and national conservation organizations and a hunter filed suit against the planned study in February 2002. The project would have cost $5.2 million dollars, 75 percent of which was from a federal tax on hunting equipment and ammunition.

Federal Magistrate Judge Dennis Hubel ruled that "there is the possibility of significant cumulative effects of the cougar harvest, there are substantial concerns regarding the impacts of the study and the study has uncertain environmental impacts." Judge Hubel enjoined the killing of any cougars until a full environmental impact study of the project is completed.

"This so called research project was nothing but predator control disguised as science," said Lori Cooper, staff attorney with the Siskiyou Regional Education Project, who along with Brenna Bell, staff attorney with the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, is representing the plaintiffs in the case.

"The judge agreed with us that the effects of killing so many cougars were uncertain and were not adequately assessed," by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Cooper added.

Although the ODFW called the project a scientific experiment, wildlife biologists argued that the project was not scientifically defensible.

"Many factors influence elk populations, and predation is least likely to be the root cause of decline," said Joseph Vaile, staff biologist for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

Oregonians have voted to protect cougars in 1994 and again in 1996, the plaintiffs noted.

"Twice, Oregon voters have affirmed that they want greater protections for cougars," said Mari Margill, conservation coordinator of the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club. "This killing plan was not only wrong headed, but reckless. Thank goodness the judge recognized that."

The title of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife proposal is "Evaluating the effects of predation and nutrition on recruitment of elk in Oregon." The proposal planned to kill half the cougars in each project area and then to continue killing new cougars that migrated into the area.

Since cougars stay with their mothers for up to two years, most female cougars are with young most of their lives. The proposal did not count the abandoned young of killed mother cougars in the death estimates.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit included the Siskiyou Regional Education Project, the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, the Animal Protection Institute, The Fund for Animals, the Humane Society of the U.S., the Sierra Club, Umpqua Watersheds, Cascadia Wildlands Project, Mountain Lion Foundation, and Al Thieme, an Oregon elk hunter and a conservationist.