AmeriScan: November 8, 2002

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Groups Challenge Missouri River Dam Operations

WASHINGTON, DC, November 8, 2002 (ENS) - A coalition of conservation groups is planning a lawsuit to secure new operations for six dams that the coalition says are causing the Missouri Rivers' continued ecological decline and imposing economic hardships on some riverfront communities.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Army Secretary Thomas White, the organizations served notice Thursday that they plan to file a suit over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act, the Flood Control Act of 1942, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

The letter was signed by former Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, and supplements and updates a notice of intent first filed by American Rivers on March 30, 2000. Hayes will represent the plaintiff organizations American Rivers, the Izaak Walton League of America, the National Wildlife Federation, the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, and the Iowa Wildlife Federation.

"The Army Corps is clinging to the status quo in defiance of the law, clear science, and sound economics," said Hayes, now a partner at the Washington, DC office of the law firm Latham & Watkins.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now releases water from its dams on a schedule intended to maximize the length of the commercial shipping season for a barge industry on the lower third of the river. These unnatural flows have driven three species - the pallid sturgeon, piping plover, and interior least tern - to the brink of extinction, the groups charge.

The flow scheduled also undercuts the economic benefits associated with "nearly one million recreation based days of hunting, fishing, sightseeing and boating annually," on the upper Missouri River, according to one Army Corps study.

According to a biological opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in November 2000, the Army Corps was required to modify operations beginning in the spring of 2003 to recreate more natural seasonal water levels. But the Corps has secured an extension to this deadline from the Bush Administration, an action the conservation organizations say violates the Endangered Species Act.

"It's unfortunate that when the Lewis and Clark bicentennial kicks off next January at Monticello, the fate of the river will be in the hands of judges because of an astounding lack of leadership on the part of the Corps of Engineers," said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers.

The plaintiffs also charge that the Army Corps violates the Flood Control Act of 1942 by prioritizing the barge industry, worth at best $7 million a year, over the recreation industry, worth at least $90 million a year. That law stipulates that "to the extent that the several functions of water control and utilization are conflicting, preference should be given to those which make the greatest contribution to the well-being of the people and to the areas of greatest need."

The alleged violations of the Administrative Procedures Act stem from the delay in modernizing its dam operations schedule, originally drafted more than 40 years ago.

Despite dramatic changes in the ecological, economic, and social conditions along the river, but the Corps has delayed issuing new regulations for more than a decade, leading the plaintiffs to charge that the agency is violating the prohibition against "unreasonable delay" in the Act.

"While the administration recognizes that the Missouri River is an important part of America's history, it is doing nothing to ensure it is part of its future," said Chris Hesla, executive director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation. "Without leadership from the White House, we must use every option available to protect this treasured river, including litigation."

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Army Corps Approves Raising California Dam

WASHINGTON, DC, November 8, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given its stamp of approval to a plan to raise the height of the Folsom Dam on the American River in California.

The Corp's Chief of Engineers, Lieutenant General Robert Flowers, signed a Corps report that recommends a seven foot raise in the height of Folsom Dam to reduce flood damages and restore ecosystem functions and values along the lower American River.

The report endorses the recommendations of the Corps' division and district commanders in California and has been forwarded to the Secretary of the Army for transmission to Congress.

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The Folsom Dam as it appeared in 2000. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
The recommendation says raising the dam's height would strengthen the dam and reduce the annual probability of flooding in Sacramento. It also includes environmental restoration features for wildlife habitat along the lower American River parkway.

Temperature control shutters at Folsom Dam would be mechanized to improve the regulation of water temperature to increase native salmon and steelhead populations, the report says.

The estimated cost of the plan that the Sacramento District Engineer recommended is $219 million. The cost with the modifications to increase public safety and protect wildlife and habitat is $249 million.

"The team concluded that some modifications to the dam will be needed," Flowers said. "Their analysis contributed to my recommendation. This project will help save lives and property from flood damage."

Funding to raise the dam was withheld from a water projects bill approved by a House committee in September due to concerns about the risks of the project, and the fact that the Chief of Engineers had not endorsed it. The Sacramento District's report had noted the need for further analysis about the interface between the foundation of the dam and the bedrock during post-authorization design work.

"The team's analysis has refined the basis for design," Flowers said, "and the final design solution will improve the stability of the dam in a cost effective manner."

Flowers noted that further technical analysis will be necessary during the post-authorization design phase of the project.

More information about the Folsom Dam is available at: http://www.spk.usace.army.mil/civ/folsom/

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Alaska Earthquake Ruptured Miles of Landscape

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, November 8, 2002 (ENS) - Sunday's magnitude 7.9 earthquake in central Alaska created a scar across the landscape for more than 145 miles (233 kilometers).

Helicopter surveys conducted this week by geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Survey showed that the earthquake caused the ground to slip by as much as 22 feet in some areas.

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Researchers examine a fault scarp near the Augustana Creek, where the earth slipped about 16 feet along the Denali fault. Some cracks in this region were up to nine feet deep. (Two photos by Peter Haeussler, courtesy USGS)
This earthquake, one of the largest ever recorded on U.S. soil, occurred on the Denali fault system, one of the longest strike slip fault systems in the world, rivaling in size California's famed San Andreas strike slip fault system.

Overall, the geologists found that measurable ruptures show that the north side of the Denali fault moved to the east and vertically up relative to the south. Maximum offsets on the Denali fault were 22 feet at the Tok Highway cutoff and 6.5 feet on the Totschunda fault. The largest offsets were in the region between the Richardson Highway and the Tok Cutoff Highway.

Peter Haeussler, the USGS scientist helping lead the surveys, noted that when the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was constructed, no clear surface features existed that revealed the exact position of the Denali fault where it crosses the pipeline corridor. New surface ruptures after Sunday's quake demonstrate that even though it is now clear that the structures engineered to accommodate fault movement lie north of the fault trace, the pipeline engineering design functioned well, and resulted in minimal earthquake damage.

The survey also revealed other visible evidence of the earthquake, including scarps and cracks where the faults pass beneath glaciers. Geologists have long noted that glaciers follow fault zones. Rocks in the faults have been ground up by sliding past each other, and the glaciers follow those lines of weakness.

glacier

These two rockslides flowed a mile northward over the Black Rapids Glacier.
"But this is the second recorded earthquake beneath a glacier, and it's amazing how clear the details of the fault traces show up," said Haeussler. "Some cracks are easily large enough to fit a bus, where the fault pulled ice blocks away from each other."

Along the valley slopes near the fault trace, there were large rock and snow slides involved blocks as big as houses, with some slides traveling large distances. On the Black Rapids glacier, rock slides released from south facing slopes crossed the one and a half mile-wide valley and flowed part way up the opposite slope. In a few areas, rock and snow slides dammed creeks, creating small lakes.

Near Mentasta Lake, a village that experienced some of the worst damage in the quake, scientists discovered that the surface scar turned from the Denali fault to the adjacent Totschunda fault, which trends down toward the Canadian border.

The massive quake's effects were felt thousands of miles away, and by Monday morning, about 17 hours after the Alaskan quake, more than 200 small earthquakes had been detected occurring in clusters throughout the Yellowstone National Park area. There also are preliminary reports the Alaska quake may have triggered smaller tremors at The Geysers geothermal area in northern California.

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Cornell Ordered to Release Biotech Documents

ITHACA, New York, November 8, 2002 (ENS) - The New York Supreme Court has ruled that Cornell University must turn over documents about its biotechnology research to a former talk show host who is seeking the material through the state's Freedom of Information law.

A panel of five judges in the New York State Appellate Division Third Department ruled unanimously that Cornell University is subject to the Freedom Of Information Law, and must turn over documents pertaining to its biotech research.

"We still have another round to go, and no one can predict what the final outcome will be, but we're getting closer to the day when we may get a look inside the academic-industrial complex," said Jeremy Alderson, who brought the suit against Cornell.

Alderson, a former public radio talk show host, filed suit in December 2000 against Cornell, its New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.

He asked for a variety of documents, including financial information, corporate contracts and risk assessments on biotech research conducted at the university. He is also seeking information on field tests of genetically engineered crops, and potential tenants of a new agriculture and technology park.

Alderson says he fears that biotechnology research and field tests conducted by Cornell have not undergone stringent risk assessments, and could threaten the local environment, agriculture and public health.

Cornell's attorneys have argued that Cornell's four contract colleges, including the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Agricultural Experiment Station, are private institutions, not subject to the state's Freedom of Information Law, which provides public access to most public records and meetings.

But Alderson's lawyers say that because the contract colleges receive state funds, they should be covered by the law. So far, New York's courts have agreed.

"Notably, Cornell, the private institution legislatively charged with the operation of the statutory colleges on behalf of SUNY, is authorized to publicly disseminate the results of any scientific investigation or experiments conducted by the Ag station," said Justice Carl Mugglin, who wrote Thursday's court decision.

Cornell officials say they will not release the records to Alderson until all appeals are exhausted.

"Cornell has put out PR saying that they know their work is safe because they've conducted risk assessments," Alderson said. "But when you ask to see them, they say no. Makes you wonder what they're hiding, doesn't it?"

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Researchers Question Risks of Nuclear Fuel

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico, November 8, 2002 (ENS) - Spent nuclear fuel - uranium that has been used as fuel at a nuclear power plant - is less reactive than the original fresh fuel, argue researchers at by Sandia National Laboratories.

A new reactor built at the lab could mean savings in the eventual safe transport, storage, disposal of nuclear waste, the researchers said.

"The conservative view has always been to treat spent fuel like it just came out of the factory with its full reactivity," said researcher Gary Harms, the project lead. "This results in the numbers of canisters required in the handling of spent nuclear fuel to be conservatively high, driving up shipping and storage costs."

reactor

Sandia researcher Gary Harms conducts experiments with a research reactor to determine whether spent nuclear fuel is less reactive than fresh fuel. (Photo by Randy Montoya, courtesy Sandia)
The more realistic view is that as nuclear fuel is burned, the reactivity of the fuel decreases due to the consumption of some of the uranium and to the accumulation of fission products, the ash left from burning the nuclear fuel. Accounting for this reactivity decrease, called burnup credit, would allow for the spent nuclear fuel to be safely packed in more dense arrays for transportation, storage and disposal than would be possible if the composition changes were ignored, the team argues.

"Allowing such burnup credit would result in significant cost savings in the handling of spent nuclear fuel," Harms added.

But in the ultraconservative world of nuclear criticality safety, an effect must be proven before it is accepted. Before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would agree to reduce safety requirements for spent nuclear fuel, its relative safety would have to be proven in actual experiments and compared to computer models showing the same effects.

In 1999, Harms obtained a three year grant from the Department of Energy's (DOE) Nuclear Energy Research Initiative to make benchmark measurements of the reactivity effects that fission products have on a nuclear reactor. The project was called the Burnup Credit Critical Experiment (BUCCX). Rhodium, an important fission product absorber, was chosen for the first measurements.

The BUCCX team designed and built a small reactor, called a critical assembly, which uses low enriched fuel. The control system and some of the assembly hardware for the reactor came from the 1980s era Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (SNTP) Critical Experiment project, designed to simulate the behavior of a nuclear rocket reactor.

The reactor, which operated during the experiments at a lower power than a household light bulb, was subjected to several layers of safety reviews. During the experiments, it performed safely as predicted.

"It took us most of the three years to build the reactor and get authorization to use it. Only in the last few months have we begun actual experiments," Harms said.

The experiments were designed to show how much the presence of fission products - in this case, rhodium, would increase the amount of uranium required to cause a critical nuclear reaction in the lab system. The results showed that the presence of rhodium indeed made it harder for the same amount of uranium to go critical.

"In essence Sandia is helping pave the way for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to address the safe and cost efficient transport and storage of nuclear waste," Harms said.

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Two Oregon Plants Listed as Endangered

PORTLAND, Oregon, November 8, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has added two rare southwestern Oregon plants - Cook's lomatium and large-flowered woolly meadowfoam - to the federal list of endangered species.

Cook's lomatium, a member of the carrot family, is a small, perennial plant with pale yellow flowers. Meadowfoam, a member of the false mermaid family, is a small annual plant with whitish petals and fuzzy leaves. More common relatives of this meadowfoam are grown as a seed oil crop.

Both plants grow in a type of seasonal wetland known as a vernal pool in the Agate Desert in Jackson County, Oregon. Biologists estimate that as much as 90 percent of this habitat type has disappeared because of urbanization, residential and industrial development, changes in water usage, road construction and maintenance, livestock grazing, agricultural development, and unauthorized offroad vehicle use.

Cook's lomatium and large-flowered woolly meadowfoam have disappeared along with their habitat. Cook's lomatium sites to the west in Josephine County are also threatened by habitat alteration associated with gold mining and timber harvest as well as non-native plants moving in because of fire suppression.

"These rare plants face extinction because they are entirely dependent on a very fragile habitat," said Anne Badgley, USFWS Pacific regional director. "As this habitat has been lost over time, they have declined to the point where they must be protected."

Biologists have identified about 15 populations of each plant in the Agate Desert. Cook's lomatium is also known to occur at 21 sites in Josephine County, Oregon. Several populations of Cook's lomatium grow on Bureau of Land Management lands, but the meadowfoam is known to exist on only private property. The largest populations of meadowfoam grow on land owned by The Nature Conservancy, which manages its land to benefit native species.

The vernal pool fairy shrimp, already listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, has also been discovered in some of the vernal pools that are home to the two plants. The USFWS is working with local landowners on voluntary efforts to conserve habitat for these threatened and endangered species, while federal, state and local partners are developing a wetlands conservation plan for vernal pools in the Agate Desert.

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Trails Symposium Offers Talks, Walks

ORLANDO, Florida, November 8, 2002 (ENS) - Outdoor enthusiasts are headed to Florida this weekend for the 16th National Trails Symposium, where leading experts will share their experience and knowledge about trails across the country

Sponsored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Office of Greenways and Trails and American Trails, the four day event provides an opportunity for resource managers, planners, businesses and users to share ideas on the recreational, environmental and economic benefits of the nation's trails.

"Trails and river adventures are defining the future for Florida's tourist economy," said DEP secretary David Struhs. "Whether experiencing an inland gem like the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail or canoeing the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, greenways and trails offer visitors a world class international ecotourism destination."

The 16th National Trails Symposium takes place November 10-13, 2002 at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The theme of this year's symposium is "Greenways and Trails ~ Crossing the American Landscape."

The symposium features cutting edge sessions by respected national experts, an array of informative workshops and exhibits, events and field trips, outstanding recreational opportunities, and much more. Vendors will demonstrate equipment, tools and materials used in the construction, maintenance and signing of trails as well as recreation equipment.

Outings will showcase many of Florida's best trails and natural lands, including the 110 mile Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway and America's first land bridge, the Central Florida Loop, the Florida National Scenic Trail, the Great Florida Birding Trail, and motorized trails in the Withlacoochee State Forest.

"Hosting this year's largest trails partnership event is an honor," said DEP Greenways and Trails director Jena Brooks. "With over 600,000 acres designated as part of the statewide greenways and trails system, Florida has much to share with the rest of the nation."

For more information on the National Trails Symposium, visit: http://www.americantrails.org/02symposium/index.asp

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Satellite Images Show Artistic Side of Earth

WASHINGTON, DC, November 8, 2002 (ENS) - A new online exhibit of satellite imagery explores how natural landscapes create abstract art.

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The tongue of the Malaspina Glacier, the largest glacier in Alaska, fills most of this image taken in August 2000. (Photo courtesy Earth as Art)
The website displays some of the astonishing patterns, vivid abstractions, and fantastic shapes now being exhibited in the collection of satellite imagery being displayed as "Landsat: Earth as Art." The collection is currently on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but anyone can take a virtual tour through a web version of the exhibit at: http://landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov/earthasart/

The exhibit is a joint project by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Satellite images from the collections of both agencies show 41 images of Earth taken by the Landsat 7 satellite from more than 400 miles above the Earth's surface.

The only human intervention in creating these portraits of Earth was the color processing - the rest is nature in its most beautiful, intriguing and illuminating aspect. The images are also education, offering insights into the geological and atmospheric processes that create the startling beauty of the images.

At the website, visitors can download an Earth as Art screensaver, and order prints of some of the images from the USGS/EROS Data Center.