AmeriScan: September 13, 2000

NICOR GAS ORDERED TO SPEED UP MERCURY CLEANUP

CHICAGO, Illinois, September 13, 2000 (ENS) - A county judge has ordered Nicor Gas and the company’s two contractors to begin a comprehensive cleanup in houses contaminated with mercury from gas regulators. Shoddy replacement of gas regulators in 200,000 homes in northern Illinois left many homes contaminated with toxic mercury. Illinois state and county attorneys filed suit against Nicor Gas last week, charging the company with violating environmental laws and endangering the public through inadequate cleanup efforts. Nicor and its cleanup contractors have now signed an agreement with Circuit Judge Paul Biebel Jr. requiring a quick cleanup at homes, four junkyards and seven Nicor service centers where mercury contamination has been confirmed.

Nicor has until Friday to produce a list of homes where outdated mercury filled gas regulators were removed in the early 1990s. Residents could be notified that their homes are affected by October 26. Within five days, Nicor must provide a list of all individuals or companies that transported the replaced regulators and the locations where the regulators may have been discarded. Within one week, the company must produce a plan to screen all homes where regulators were removed and a final cleanup plan for those homes. Homes where children, pregnant women or other high risk people live will be first to be cleaned up, the order says. Failure to comply with any of the court order requirements could cost Nicor $5,000 a day. "With this injunction's order, we continue to hold Nicor's feet to the fire," said Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan. "This is a first step. It doesn't conclude the inquiry. Nicor unfortunately created this mess and they are going to have to pay for the cleanup."

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BANGLADESH GETS DEBT RELIEF, FOREST CONSERVATION FUNDS

WASHINGTON, DC, September 13, 2000 (ENS) - The U.S. is canceling part of Bangladesh’s debt, and future interest payments on the remaining debt will be donated to a fund for tropical forest conservation, the Treasury Department announced Tuesday. This is the first foreign debt forgiven under a law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, which allows countries to reduce their debt to the U.S. by creating forest conservation programs. The program is part of the U.S. "commitment to protect biodiversity and tropical forests around the world," said Treasury Department Deputy Secretary Stuart Eizenstat.

Over the next 18 years, Bangladesh’s interest payments to the U.S. will be deposited into the country’s new tropical forest fund, producing an estimated $8.5 million for conservation, the agency said. "Most of the countries that possess many of the world's fragile rain forests are under heavy financial pressure to turn their rain forests into quick cash to meet their immediate domestic needs," said Senator Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat who helped write the law. To ensure that the funds are used for conservation, the fund will be overseen by a board made up of U.S. and Bangladesh government representatives and Bangladeshi citizens, including environmentalists and forestry experts. Bangladesh has about 3.7 million acres of tropical forests, including most of the intact habitat for the rare Bengal tiger. Similar debt forgiveness agreements are in the works for Central American countries including Belize and El Salvador.

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LAWSUITS CHALLENGE NEW PACIFIC SALMON RULES

SEATTLE, Washington, September 13, 2000 (ENS) - Two lawsuits were filed Tuesday by environmentalists and commercial fishers to force additional protections for salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. The suits charge that new federal rules designed to protect more than 20 threatened and endangered fish stocks could instead send those fish closer to extinction. In June, after 14 salmon and steelhead populations were given protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued rules affecting activities that could impact the fish in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The regulations, known as "4(d) rules," from the section of the ESA that authorizes their use, offers exemptions to a range of activities from scientific research to commercial and sport fishing, and including some logging, roadbuilding and other development plans.

"Salmon are in serious trouble, yet the federal government is not doing what the law requires to ensure salmon survive and recover," said Patti Goldman, lead attorney on the suit filed by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "Instead they propose to continue to allow the harm and claim to have recovery at the same time. That won't work, and it's illegal." NMFS says the rules will promote local conservation efforts, because conservation programs created by developers that meet NMFS guidelines will receive exemptions from lawsuits or enforcement actions over ESA violations. The NMFS was joined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Washington Governor Gary Locke in condemning the lawsuits. "Is the agreement perfect? Probably not. That's why we have a process in place to monitor results and make changes if necessary," said EPA regional administrator Chuck Findley in a release. "I fear that litigation about the Forest and Fish agreement has the very real potential of the pursuit of perfection being the enemy of the excellent." Locke released a statement saying, "This is a good agreement, the scientists support it and I feel confident it will be upheld in court."

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NEW JERSEY POSTPONES BEAR HUNT

TRENTON, New Jersey, September 13, 2000 (ENS) - The New Jersey Fish and Game Council voted Tuesday to suspend a proposed bear hunt - the state’s first in more than 30 years. The council voted six to four to postpone the hunt until next year after Governor Christie Whitman, a Republican, wrote a letter condemning the hunt and proposing an alternate management plan aimed at reducing conflicts between black bears and humans. "I am very pleased that the Council has agreed to suspend the proposed limited bear hunt," said Whitman. "While I am in agreement that we must take appropriate measures to protect the public, I believe that we should undertake the management strategy that Speaker Collins and I announced last week."

Whitman’s strategy "will provide for increased public education about proper bear management techniques, bear management training for local law enforcement agencies, relocation of bears who pose only a nuisance to humans, authorization of local law enforcement to euthanize bears that pose a real threat and continued research and bear tagging," she said. Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president for The Humane Society of the United States, said, "This is a much deserved stay of execution for New Jersey's black bears, who have done nothing to warrant being killed for trophies. We thank Governor Whitman and the Fish and Game Council for making this humane decision. The citizens of New Jersey have made it known that they are willing to live in peace with the 500-1000 bears sharing their state with them."

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$113 MILLION IN AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH GRANTS AWARDED

WASHINGTON, DC, September 13, 2000 (ENS) - The Department of Agriculture (USDA) today awarded $113 million in research grants in fields such as genomics, biotechnology, and natural resource management. The grants were provided under the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems to more than 500 scientists and educators, said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. "This initiative represents a new approach to funding the most critical research projects that affect not only the safety of the food supply but also the integrity of the environment and the future of the farm economy in a growing world population," said Glickman. "These 86 research projects will help make possible new uses for agricultural products; better natural resources management; and improved farm efficiency and profitability, particularly for small farms."

The University of Arizona received a $740,627, three year grant to examine the sustainability of using Bt cotton in the American Southwest. Bt cotton is genetically engineered to produce Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium. The bacterium produces a toxin that acts as a pesticide when a Bt gene is inserted into selected cotton genes. The University of Idaho will get a $916,396, four year grant to look a strategies for preventing altered genes from bioengineered wheat from affecting traditional wheat crops. Mississippi State University and the University of Reading, United Kingdom, will use a $782,789, four year grant to examine measures of consumer acceptance of and willingness to pay for genetically modified foods in the U.S. and the European Union. A complete listing of funded projects is available at www.reeusda.gov/ifafs/

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$8.4 MILLION IN GRANTS BOOSTS ENERGY EFFICIENCY RESEARCH

WASHINGTON, DC, September 13, 2000 (ENS) - The Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded $8.4 million in research grants to improve energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings. The funding supports the first phase of 18 research and development projects aimed at reducing electricity consumption and pollution from heating and cooling systems. "By making these buildings more energy efficient, we are saving money, preventing power supply shortages and keeping the environment cleaner," said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. "Residential and commercial buildings account for approximately 65 percent of the electricity and 40 percent of the natural gas used in the United States."

The research and development agreements will fund projects that target research and development activities in three broad areas:

The projects will last from one to three years and have a potential total federal cost of about $18 million. The research will help develop technologies such as electricity producing fuel cells, electrically tinted windows, light emitting diode lamps, innovative heating and cooling concepts, and remote monitoring of building energy management systems. Project recipients will provide from 20 percent to more than 50 percent in additional funding through cost sharing agreements. The DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory will manage the projects. More information on the DOE’s energy efficient buildings programs can be found at: www.eren.doe.gov/buildings/

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ILLINOIS GRANTS $14.5 MILLION FOR FARMLAND CONSERVATION

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois, September 13, 2000 (ENS) - Illinois is dedicating $14.5 million in grants to conservation programs that preserve the state’s farmland. The grants are awarded to the state's 98 county Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the projects they administer. This fiscal year's appropriation represents a 13 percent increase over the $12.8 million spent on the programs by the state in FY 2000. "The responsible use of natural resources has enabled Illinois farmers to become world leaders in the production of food and agricultural products," said Governor George Ryan. "This funding increase not only demonstrates the state's commitment to protect the environment, but also ensures the state's rich, fertile soils will remain productive for future generations of farmers."

$5.8 million of the funding will pay the operating expenses to keep open SWCD offices and employ local staff to help farmers reduce soil erosion, protect water supplies, control flooding, preserve wetlands, and improve wildlife habitat. SWCD staff also work with urban planners to promote smart community growth and avoid destroying farmland. SWCD offices will share $8.7 million in Conservation 2000 funds, the majority of which will provide grants to farmers for the implementation of conservation practices. Funded programs promote soil conservation, erosion prevention along streams, and research into sustainable crop production methods.

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FEWER WOLVES = FEWER ASPEN TREES

CORVALLIS, Oregon, September 13, 2000 (ENS) - A new study suggests that the decline of aspen groves in Yellowstone National Park during much of the past century may be due in part to the absence of wolves. Native aspen groves in Yellowstone and other areas of the Rocky Mountains have declined as much as 50 to 90 percent in certain areas. Scientists from Oregon State University (OSU) have linked those declines to the loss of wolves, a key predator species, and their interactions with elk and bear populations. "This hypothesis is not yet proven, and we're working closely now with National Park Service biologists in more than 115 permanent research plots to test the theory," said Eric Larsen of OSU’s Department of Geosciences. "What is clear is that the wolves disappeared during the same era that the successful development of mature aspen stands ground to a halt."

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A withering stand of aspen in Yellowstone National Park bears testimony to the decline of these native trees around much of the Rocky Mountains (Photo courtesy Oregon State University)

Using historic documents, aerial photographs, and tree ring dating techniques, Larsen and OSU forestry professor William Ripple determined that Yellowstone Park aspen have been declining since 1928, due in part to browsing by elk. "During winter, elk browse off the aspen suckers, preventing them from growing to a full tree height," Larsen said. Wolves reduce the elk population down and also reduce the time the elk spend in aspen thickets, a favorite hiding place of wolf packs. "The difference between the effect of elk on aspen now, compared to periods prior to 1900, may be a reflection of both their population levels and their behavior," Ripple said. "Foraging behavior of elk may be influenced by the risk of predation on them." The study is published in the current issue of the journal "Biological Conservation."