AmeriScan: September 3, 2002

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Lawsuit Charges Government with Climate Crimes

WASHINGTON, DC, September 3, 2002 (ENS) - Conservation groups filed a first of its kind lawsuit last week charging two U.S. government agencies with illegally funding projects that contribute to global warming.

Friends of the Earth (FoE), Greenpeace and the city of Boulder, Colorado filed the suit in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco on behalf of members and citizens who they claim are victims of global warming. The suit was filed against the Export Import Bank (ExIm) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), two taxpayer funded agencies that provide financing and loans to U.S. corporations for overseas projects that commercial banks deem too risky.

The legal action alleges that OPIC and Ex-Im illegally provided more than $32 billion in financing and insurance for oil fields, pipelines and coal-fired power plants over the past 10 years without assessing their contribution to global warming and their impact on the U.S. environment as required under key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

NEPA requires all federal agencies to conduct an environmental assessment of programs and project specific decisions having a significant effect on the human environment. According to the lawsuit, OPIC and ExIm have refused to review their programs' and fossil fuel projects' contributions to global warming under NEPA.

FoE and Greenpeace members involved in the suit include a North Carolina couple who fear their retirement property will be lost to storm surges, erosion and the rising sea level; one of the largest maple syrup producers in Vermont who believes his business will be ruined as maple trees disappear from the area; and a marine biologist whose life's work is in jeopardy because coral reefs he has spent a lifetime studying and enjoying are disappearing at an alarming rate due to bleaching from rising ocean temperatures.

"We're nervous about climate change," said FoE/Greenpeace members Arthur and Anne Berndt. "If we have no maples, we have no farm income and the value of our land will be devastated."

Regarding the state of the coral reefs off the Florida Keys, FoE member Dr. Phillip Dustan said, "It's tantamount to visiting Sequoia National Forest and finding 90 percent of the trees either dead or on the ground."

FoE, Greenpeace, and the city of Boulder view their lawsuit as a critical first step toward compelling the Bush administration to take action against global warming, and to protect people from its dangerous effects.

After the Boulder city council voted to join the lawsuit, Boulder Mayor Will Toor said, "All of the work that the city of Boulder does to maintain the quality of life for our residents will be negatively impacted by the detrimental effects of climate change. We believe that this lawsuit is one way force the federal government to start paying attention to this critical issue."

For more information, including a complete list of plaintiffs, visit:

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Wildfire Forces Thousands of Campers to Flee

ASUZA, California, September 3, 2002 (ENS) - More than 7,000 people fled their homes and campsites Sunday as a wildfire swept through San Gabriel Canyon in Angeles National Forest.

The blaze, called the Curve fire, started just after noon Sunday in the area about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, covering 10,000 acres within a few hours. Five campgrounds were evacuated, with fleeing campers leaving behind tents, equipment and even clothing.

"They told us we had 10 seconds to get out, to run," Lisette Cardenas told KABC-TV in Los Angeles. "You could see the smoke right behind us."

By this morning, the fire had grown to 14,429 acres and destroyed at least 14 buildings. Thunderstorms over the fire produced gusty winds, sending the fire racing through mixed conifer forest and heavy brush.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but officials from the U.S. Forest Service said they believed it was sparked by human activities. More than 1,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, hoping to keep it from spreading into two private campgrounds that host year round residents.

The Curve fire was one of three large blazes burning in southern California this morning.

The Freeway fire near Santa Clarita caused Interstate 5 to close for a brief period on Sunday, and has now consumed 1,043 acres. Though the fire is still listed by the National Interagency Fire Center as threatening 100 homes, the Center estimated that firefighters from the Los Angeles County Fire Department would have the blaze contained by this evening.

In the San Bernardino National Forest, firefighters found a burned body in the 554 acre Lytle fire, which started last Thursday. Near the body, fire investigators found part of a mobile drug laboratory used to manufacture methamphetamines.

Investigators are still trying to determine whether sparks from the illegal drug lab could have started the blaze, which Forest Service personnel expected to have contained by Wednesday.

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U.S., Taiwan Partners in Worldwide Satellite System

BOULDER, Colorado, September 3, 2002 (ENS) - A new, worldwide satellite network will furnish round the clock weather data, monitor climate change, and improve space weather forecasts by intercepting signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Using atmosphere induced changes in the radio signals, scientists will infer the state of the atmosphere above some 3,000 locations every 24 hours, including vast stretches of ocean that are not well profiled by current satellites and other tools.

Almost 100 scientists from over a dozen countries met in Boulder in late August to help plan the use of data from this $100 million mission, which will begin operations in 2005.

Called COSMIC, the satellite network is now being developed through a U.S.-Taiwan partnership based on a system design provided by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, where the COSMIC Project Office is based. Taiwan's National Science Council and National Space Program Office (NSPO) and the U.S. National Science Foundation are providing primary support for COSMIC.

"The increased coverage will improve weather forecasts by providing data where there previously was none or not enough," said Ying-Hwa Kuo, project director for the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC), also called ROCSAT-3 in Taiwan.

With six satellite receivers, COSMIC will collect a global, three dimensional data set expected to improve analyses of both weather and climate change. By tracking temperature in the upper atmosphere up to 30 miles high, COSMIC could help clarify whether these regions are cooling due to heat trapping greenhouse gases closer to the surface.

COSMIC will also measure high altitude electron density, which could enhance forecasts of ionospheric activity and "space weather."

COSMIC's satellites will probe the atmosphere using radio occultation, a technique developed in the 1960s to study other planets but also now applied to Earth's atmosphere. Each satellite will intercept a GPS signal after it passes through the atmosphere close to the horizon.

Such a path brings the signal through a deep cross section of the atmosphere. Variations in electron density, air density, temperature and moisture bend the signal and change its speed. By measuring these shifts in the signal, scientists can determine the atmospheric conditions that produced them.

The result: profiles along thousands of angled, pencil like segments of atmosphere, each about 200 miles long and a few hundred feet wide.

COSMIC will be combined with other observing systems, filling in major gaps and enhancing computer forecast models.

The first spacecraft will be built at Orbital's facilities in Dulles, Virginia. The rest of the constellation will be built and tested in Taiwan, where the system's mission control will be based. NSPO and Taiwan industrial partners will join in satellite system development.

More information on the COSMIC system is available at:

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Microbes Could Clean Up Wastes, Produce Energy

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, September 3, 2002 (ENS) - Microbes could someday be used to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electricity generating plants, clean up hazardous wastes, and produce hydrogen for fuel cells.

These are some of the potential benefits of microbe research identified by a recent "Science & Government Report" from Technical Insights, a business unit of Frost & Sullivan.

Methanococcus jannaschii (M. jannaschii), discovered in the third genome sequenced by the Institute for Genomics Research, could have potential as a biological scrubber. Though the microbe produces methane, also a potent greenhouse gas, researchers at the nonprofit Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) say the methane could be turned into useful products like fertilizer or commercial chemicals.

The IBEA, established by scientist J. Craig Venter, plans to research the potential for the microbes to produce clean energy and reduce global warming.

Some scientists believe that hydrogen fuel cells could be the ultimate clean energy source, and efforts are underway to engineer a single organism that can both capture CO2 and produce hydrogen. M. Jannaschii can do both to some extent, and researchers are now trying to optimize the microbe's metabolic pathways for producing hydrogen.

Another possible source of hydrogen could be organisms that use their metabolic energy to split water into its component atoms. This process usually requires the use of electrical energy and is very expensive. The use of microbes is expected to make it more economical.

The Department of Energy's (DOE) Biological and Environmental Research (BER) unit has announced the award of five microbial genome research grants that could lead to clean energy and carbon sequestration, as well as to improvements in hazardous waste remediation. Totaling $103 million over five years, the grants are the first under BER's "Genomes to Life" program.

Former nuclear weapons production sites pose the greatest challenge to the DOE, which is also making efforts to promote new sources of energy. Recent BER projects explore the potential for microbes to sequester, or remove carbon from the atmosphere, helping to reduce global warming.

Commercial applications of these research results may not be far behind. One $8.9 million project focuses on a particular microbe family's trait of shedding electrons as it metabolizes organic matter. These electrons can then be transferred to an electrode.

While the electrical current cannot be scaled up for household current, it could be harnessed for so called trickle applications such as recharging batteries. This type of microbe may also be able to convert uranium in polluted soils to an inert form, preventing it from contaminating groundwater.

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Federal Grants Benefit Native Fish and Water Users

WASHINGTON, DC, September 3, 2002 (ENS) - The Pacific Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has awarded more than $1.5 million in grants to help water users in the Pacific Northwest make improvements that will benefit native fish such as salmon and bull trout.

The grants, awarded last month, will help water users install screens on irrigation canals, provide fish passage and conduct inventories in 11 watersheds in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The grants were made available through a cost share funding program created through the federal Fisheries Restoration and Irrigation Mitigation Act of 2000.

"Water diversions play an important role in our economy and have many benefits, but nearly 80 percent of the diversions in the Pacific Northwest are unscreened, posing a major risk to our region's fish," said Anne Badgley, USFWS Pacific regional director. "This program is a powerful new tool to reduce fish mortality and contribute to recovery."

Water diversions and dams redirect water from streams and rivers for crop irrigation, flood control, hydroelectric power, drinking water and other beneficial uses. But these diversions can block fish migration and divert fish into pumps, pipes, irrigation canals and fields, reducing fish survival. Projects funded by the USFWS help remove these obstacles to fish recovery.

"This is just the first of two rounds of grants that will be awarded this year under this program," Badgley said. "Another $2.2 million will be distributed later this fall."

The first round of grants will fund the installation of fish screens on the Little Lost and Pahsimeroi Rivers, and the Big, Falls, Panther, Paterson and Salmon Bear Creeks in Idaho. In Oregon, fish screens will be installed in the Santiam Water Control District and the South Fork Little Butte Creek, and a separate grant will fund a statewide fish screen and passage inventory by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In Washington state, USFWS grants will support modifications and a fish screen on the Touchet Project, and a fish barrier inventory by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on Ahtanum Creek.

The USFWS implements the program in cooperation with state, tribal and local partners for improvements at existing water diversions. The partners must provide at least 35 percent of the funding and assume responsibility for operating and maintaining the project.

In each state, the grants will be administered by the state fish and wildlife agencies in cooperation with local operators. The program is coordinated with complementary state screening programs and existing programs for habitat improvements within the Columbia Basin and adjacent areas of the Pacific Northwest.

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Tiny Silicon Chips Can Detect Toxins

SAN DIEGO, California, September 3, 2002 (ENS) - Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have developed tiny chips of silicon that can detect a variety of biological and chemical agents.

The dust sized chips could be used to detect substances that a terrorist might dissolve in drinking water or spray into the atmosphere.

The development, detailed in an advance online publication of the October 1 issue of the journal "Nature Materials," could also have wide commercial use in research and medical laboratories - in performing rapid biochemical assays, screening chemicals for potential new drugs and testing samples for toxic materials.


The colored crystals can be encoded to react to the presence of biological or chemical agents. (Photo by Frédérique Cunin, courtesy UCSD)
Because the technique permits rapid detection of the biological and chemical substances from a distance, using a laser similar to a grocery scanner, it also could be employed as an advanced warning system for biological and chemical attacks.

"The idea is that you can have something that's as small as a piece of dust with some intelligence built into it so that it could be inconspicuously stuck to paint on a wall or to the side of a truck or dispersed into cloud of gas to detect toxic chemicals or biological materials," explained Michael Sailor, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSD who headed the research effort.

"When the dust recognizes what kinds of chemicals or biological agents are present, that information can be read like a series of bar codes by a laser that's similar to a grocery store scanner to tell us if the cloud that's coming toward us is filled with anthrax bacteria or if the tank of drinking water into which we've sprinkled the smart dust is toxic," Sailor added.

The bar code on the silicon dust particles consists of a specific wavelength of light, reflected from their surfaces after thin films layered on the silicon chip react to a specific chemical or biological agent. Referred to as photonic crystals, these micron sized particles are able to reflect light of very precise colors, each one of which can be thought of as a single bar of a grocery store bar code.

"When you're looking for chemical or biological warfare agents, you're going to want to search for thousands of different chemicals," said Sailor. "Since the particles can be encoded for millions of possible reactions, it's possible to test for the presence of thousands of chemicals at the same time."

But unlike grocery store scanners, which must read bar codes just inches away, Sailor and his group have been able to get their laser to detect the color changes in the smart dust 20 meters away, the length of the hallway outside their research laboratory. With a more powerful laser, he adds, "we're planning to take this outside and see how far we can go. Our goal is one kilometer (or about .6 of a mile)."

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Homeowners Encouraged to Control Invasive Species

BLACKSBURG, Virginia, September 3, 2002 (ENS) - Homeowners and tourists can use some simple strategies to help control the exotic species invading America's ecosystems, says one Virginia professor.

Jim Parkhurst, associate professor of fisheries and wildlife in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech, has identified techniques of controlling invasive plants that do not rely on chemical treatment. The methods could be used by the average landowner to reduce and prevent the invasion.

The Federal Interagency Committee on Noxious and Exotic Weeds estimates that there are about 1,400 plants in this country that are not native to this continent, 94 of which are causing ecological and economic problems. By some estimates, about 4,600 acres per day nationwide fall victim to the effects of non-native species.

Besides threatening biodiversity, reducing habitat quality, and impairing ecosystem functioning, these invasives harm the nation's economy. Federal agencies now estimate that the loss in productivity among our primary agricultural commodities due to competition with exotic plants totals about $7.4 billion dollars a year, and an additional $3.6 to $5.4 billion is spent trying to control these pest species.

The Federal Interagency Committee has developed a national initiative that consists of a three pronged approach to deal with the exotics - prevent, control and restore.

"Begin the task of recognizing or distinguishing exotics from native species through identification guides and quality time on your land," Parkhurst said. "The first step in fighting any battle lies in knowing your enemy."

"Another way of ensuring the protection of our biodiversity and ecosystem health is by always trying to use native materials," explained Parkhurst. "Commercial nurseries and wholesale retailers make this step more difficult because native plants are often more expensive than most of the non-native stock; but as the demand for native stock increases, some nurseries will respond to that market and begin providing a greater supply and diversity of materials."

Some of the most noxious problem species are those that inhabit aquatic systems because these species can be transported from one system to another by the simple act of moving a water craft from pond to pond or dumping the remains of a bait bucket overboard. To prevent the collected seed, eggs, or other reproductive parts of an organism from spreading, Parkhurst suggests scrubbing down any boat or towing vehicle used to go boating or fishing, as well as flush out the motor, if using one.

Parkhurst also recommends taking a class or attending a workshop where integrated pest management will be described and demonstrated.

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Tips For An Eco-Conscious School Year

WASHINGTON, DC, September 3, 2002 (ENS) - As many students head back to school this week, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is offering tips for an eco-concious school year.

Educating children about the environment is not limited to science class, the group says. Encouraging them to reduce, reuse and recycle can be a part of their everyday lives.

WWF says that incorporating eco-awareness in the classroom and at the lunch table are good places to start. For example, parents can fill their children's binders with post-consumer, recycled paper, and help students understand where they fit into the cycle of use and reuse.

The environmental group also suggests that parents buy traditional cedar type pencils instead of mechanical pencils. Wooden pencils certified with the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC) "CedarMark" of approval ensures that pencils come from cedar forests that are grown, managed and harvested on a sustained yield basis according to forestry regulations.

By purchasing solar powered calculators and rechargeable batteries, parents can reduce waste and help protect the environment. Rechargeable batteries can be used for five to 10 years, and recharged up to 1,000 times. When thrown away, non-rechargeable batteries can deposit heavy metals like cadmium, mercury, and lead into water, food and air supplies.

Nylon book covers make an environmentally friendly alternative to paper book covers. These covers stretch and form to textbooks, and can be washed and reused every year, reducing waste.

Lunches can also be packed in reusable containers instead of paper lunch bags, plastic wrap or aluminum foil wrappings that are thrown away. By using refillable containers, parents can purchase food in bulk instead of purchasing the more expensive and wasteful single serving sizes.

If lunch items must be rewrapped, wax paper is a better choice than plastic wrap. The manufacturing process used to produce plastic wrap is harsher on the environment than the equally effective wax paper lunch wrapper.

Parents can also look for lunch totes with durable, reinforced edges and a nameplate for recognition. Purchasing reusable lunch totes that fall apart or are misplaced does little to help the environment.

WWF also encourages people to talk to their children about the importance of taking eco-conscious steps. Parents can also contact their children's schools and encourage an environmental education and recycling program complete with assemblies, class discussions and environmental awareness poster contests.