AmeriScan: December 17, 2004

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Nation's Capital Gets $1.4 Billion Sewage Control Project

WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2004 (ENS) - Massive overflows of sewage-contaminated stormwater into the waterways of the nation’s capital, will be more than 95 percent eliminated under a legal agreement filed in federal district court for the District of Columbia Thursday.

Calling it a "milestone" agreement, the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the proposed settlement would protect the Anacostia River, the Potomac River and Rock Creek from contamination.

The settlement would resolve a lawsuit by the Justice Department and the EPA against the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) and the District of Columbia government.

The DC government and WASA have agreed on a 20 year schedule, with enforceable deadlines, to complete needed controls. By taking this step, the federal agencies said WASA and the District "have demonstrated their commitment to clean rivers and safe sewage disposal."

"The controls contained in today's consent decree will significantly improve the District's waters and protect its citizens for decades to come,” said Thomas Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "This is a good resolution for District residents."

“Sewer overflows are a nationwide problem that have real local impacts,” said Thomas Skinner, EPA acting assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. “This plan stands out because it brings all the tools to bear on the problem. This is a major victory for the environment.”

Each year, an estimated 3.2 billion gallons of untreated sewage flows into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and Rock Creek, making these waters unsafe for swimming and fishing. Currently, the annual sewage overflow into DC waters is an amount that would fill the U.S. Capitol rotunda and dome every day for 11 months, the federal officials said.

During big storms and sudden snow melts, so much runoff water mixes with sewage in the District’s combined sewer system that the flow usually exceeds the capacity of sewers and overflows into creeks and rivers, especially the Anacostia River.

In an average rainfall year, District sewers overflow into the Anacostia River over 80 times. Today’s Clean Water Act settlement will virtually eliminate overflows into the river.

Under the settlement, 96 percent of the District’s sewage laden storm runoff would be captured in three tunnels deep underground for processing later at the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant.

These tunnels are the equivalent of a 10 mile long subway 25 feet wide, capable of holding 193 million gallons of combined sewage and storm runoff. This system will eliminate a major source of fecal coliform bacteria in the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek.

The estimated $1.4 billion sewage control project, which will take 20 years to completely build, will mark the biggest environmental milestone in the district since the Blue Plains treatment plant opened in 1938. Significant sections of the new system will be placed in operation along the way to obtain greater levels of sewage treatment and control even before all work is completed.

Since the mid-1990s, EPA has supported WASA’s development of a long-term control plan to correct the problem. That plan is now included in today’s consent decree.

Congress has appropriated $84 million to control sewer overflows in the District and EPA has provided $7 million in direct support for the development of and stakeholder input into the long-term control plan.

In a companion action today, the EPA issued a major modification of WASA’s Clean Water Act permit to require immediate implementation of a long-term sewage reduction plan.

Today’s settlement resolves the sewage control issues remaining after a partial consent decree entered by the federal court on October 10, 2003.

That partial consent decree, done in conjunction with the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Kingman Park Civic Association, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, and Mary Stuart Bick Ferguson, required WASA to implement an estimated $140 million in interim sewage overflow controls, including upgrades and repairs to the Blue Plains treatment plant and combined sewers.

WASA also agreed to pay $250,000 civil penalty for past permit violations, undertake $1.7 million in stormwater pollution prevention projects and fund a $300,000 "green roof " demonstration project by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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Minor Violations Found in Vermont Yankee Engineering Inspection

BRATTLEBORO, Vermont, December 17, 2004 (ENS) - During a special engineering inspection at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) found eight violations which the Commission said are of "very low safety significance." Still, all of them must be addressed by the plant's owner and operator, a Commission official told a packed meeting of the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel in Brattleboro last night.

More than 500 people jammed the auditorium of Brattleboro Union High School to ask questions and get information about the NRC's engineering inspection of Vermont Yankee and the fuel reported missing from the plant in April.

NRC official Wayne Lanning told the crowd that the eight findings in the special inspection would not affect plant safety.

Vermont Yankee’s owner and operator, Entergy, has asked the NRC to permit it to increase the power output of the plant by 20 percent, to 1,912 megawatts thermal. The engineering inspection was conducted in connection with that uprate.

"Both teams found problems and issues, and because we insist on stringent safety standards, these problems must be corrected," said Lanning, director of the Reactor Safety Division in the NRC’s Region I office in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

The NRC expects to decide on the uprate request sometime next year, and the special inspection was conducted in response to a request from Vermont’s Public Service Board for an independent engineering assessment.

Speaking of the eight findings in the 1,000 hour hands-on inspection, Lanning said they were "very important because the utility should have identified and corrected them, particularly the ones related to the power uprate. Vermont Yankee must now ascertain why they did not identify the problem, evaluate the reason for the problem, correct it, and then determine if a similar issue exists elsewhere in the plant."

Lanning said this effort was "not an inspection to determine whether the NRC should approve Entergy’s power uprate application."

He described it as "a comprehensive evaluation of the most risk-significant components and systems in the plant and, when taken in combination with other NRC evaluations, helped determine that sufficient margin exists in the design and operation of the Vermont Yankee facility to ensure public health and safety."

Representatives from anti-nuclear groups had just 20 minutes to offer information and ask questions. Among the groups present were the New England Coalition, Nuclear-Free Vermont and Citizens Awareness Network.

Members of the public suggested that a broader inspection would turn up significantly more violations at the 33 year old plant.

Lanning said, "I do not agree with that. Our experience shows there is some correlation between the number of inspectors, the scope of the inspection and the number of areas of non-compliance that are found. But we do not believe there are hundreds of violations at Vermont Yankee waiting to be found. Even larger design inspections at troubled plants like Maine Yankee and Millstone did not turn up hundreds of violations."

The next step for the NRC is to inspect Entergy’s corrective actions and there will be additional review of the application for a power uprate.

On the missing spent fuel, the NRC found that poor recordkeeping and inventories dating back to 1980 was responsible for the belief that two pieces of fuel were missing. They were found in the plant's spent fuel pool. The penalty for Entergy could result in increased NRC oversight, a violation without a fine or a violation and a fine.

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States Move Toward Energy Saving Appliances, Feds Stall

WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2004 (ENS) - The states of California and New Jersey advanced the adoption of new energy saving appliance standards this week. But in Washington, U.S. Department of Energy announced that new national standards for natural gas furnaces and other products would be delayed by two years.

In New Jersey, the State Senate on Monday approved legislation passed by the Assembly last spring that will establish standards for eight products including commercial refrigerators, exit signs, and commercial clothes washers. Final passage and approval by the Acting Governor Richard Codey is expected in January. Earlier this year, Maryland and Connecticut passed laws establishing energy-saving standards for nine and eight products, respectively.

On Wednesday, the California Energy Commission set new energy efficiency standards for 17 products ranging from light bulbs to swimming pool pumps to large air conditioners. According to the Commission, the new standards will reduce energy costs for California businesses and consumers by more than $3 billion over 15 years and will eliminate the need for three new power plants within 10 years.

"At their full effectiveness, these standards will save enough energy to power all the homes in San Francisco and eliminate global warming carbon pollution equivalent to taking 320,000 cars off the road," said Noah Horowitz, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"The states are leading the way," said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the coalition group Appliance Standards Awareness Project. "California's and New Jersey's new standards will cut energy waste, save consumers and businesses money, and reduce pollution starting as soon as 2006."

On the federal level the Energy Department termed upgrades to the 1987 home furnace standard and the 1992 commercial air conditioner standard "high priorities" in 2001, but each year announces a new delay. The latest delay means the federal agency will not finish new standards until late 2007. They would not go into effect until 2010 to 2016.

By law, the watchdog groups say, a new national furnace standard was due in 1994.

According to a September report published by deLaski's and Nadel's groups, each year of delay in these three national standards locks in $7.1 billion in higher energy costs for consumers and businesses.

The new standards established by California, Maryland, and Connecticut and pending final approval in New Jersey all address products not covered by federal standards.

But a special waiver from the federal Energy Department is needed for states to establish their own standards for products covered by federal standards - no matter how outdated these standards have become.

"If the Feds can't or won't act on these common sense solutions to our energy woes, then at least they should get out of the way," said Rob Sargent, senior energy policy analyst for the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups.

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Fourth Atlantic Right Whale Found Dead

GLOUCESTER, Massachusetts, December 17, 2004 (ENS) - A fourth North Atlantic right whale has been found dead this season in U.S. Atlantic waters. With only some 300 members of the species left alive, these are among the world’s most endangered large whales.

Trained whale observers on U.S. Coast Guard flights located the carcass of a North Atlantic right whale southeast of Nantucket Island on Saturday. Bad weather prevented a scientific team on the water from examining the remains and taking samples and to determine the cause of death. The carcass was first sighted and reported December 9 by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel. Scientists hope to relocate and sample the animal this week.

The carcass is the fourth confirmed North Atlantic right whale death this year. Earlier this year, a calf beached and died of unknown causes and two pregnant females were killed by ship strikes.

In response to this series of whale deaths, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's NOAA Fisheries is organizing a summit among federal agencies to seek immediate voluntary actions that will make East Coast waters safer for migrating and calving North Atlantic right whales.

“The losses of two pregnant females during 2004 is extremely damaging to this national living treasure,” said NOAA Fisheries Director Dr. William Hogarth. “NOAA is pursuing a vigorous strategy to reduce human-caused deaths and turn this population around, but that takes time.”

“What we can do right now is to ask federal ships that operate in the vicinity of right whales to consider additional ways to avoid them.”

Hogarth said federal ships are a small percentage of overall shipping traffic, but that “a strengthened leadership commitment from federal agencies sends a powerful message on the critical need to reduce the risk of ship strikes.”

NOAA Fisheries is the federal agency charged with recovering and protecting marine life listed under the Endangered Species Act, including large whales. NOAA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The summit will be organized as a meeting of the NOAA hosted Interagency Ship Strike Reduction Working Group and include representation from those agencies operating sea going vessels, including the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Interior, Homeland Security, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The State Department will be included given the international distribution of right whales and ship strike events, and the Marine Mammal Commission included owing to their role oversight role in development of federal marine mammal conservation policies and programs, Hogarth said.

The U.S. Navy announced that it will issue amplified guidance to its vessels operating in the Mid-Atlantic migration corridor.

“We have reviewed NOAA’s draft ship strike strategy, and are committed to working cooperatively with NOAA and others to protect and conserve the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale population,” said Aileen Smith, Natural Resources Manager for the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command.

"The Navy is a full participant in NOAA’s ship strike reduction implementation teams in both the southeast and the northeast, where there are existing protective measures for right whales," Smith said.

The NOAA draft ship strike reduction strategy covers the whole East Coast. In the Mid-Atlantic region, nine ports were identified where right whales are likely to be present seasonally, and the strategy recommends speed restrictions within 20 to 30 nautical miles of each port during those times.

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Yellowstone Trails Lead Bison to Slaughter, Lawsuit Claims

WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2004 (ENS) - The snowmobile season is beginning in Yellowstone National Park, and the National Park Service (NPS) is using heavy equipment to groom the snowy trails for snowmobile users - a practice conservationists say is deadly for the park's resident bison population.

Conservation groups filed suit Thursday in federal district court in Washington, DC challenging the park service's practice of grooming snowy roads that make it easy for bison to leave Yellowstone in search of food and then participating in their slaughter just outside the park boundaries.

“It is time for NPS to stop leading Yellowstone bison to their slaughter, by grooming the very trails that help bison find their way out of the park each winter,” said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals. “If NPS is not going to heed the judge’s call for closing some of these trails, we have no choice but to ask the Court to order NPS to do so.”

Just a year ago, a federal judge found that the park service was ignoring “studies indicating that winter park use, and especially trail grooming, has lead to major changes in bison migration patterns,” and ruled that, in light of these studies, it is “damning that the NPS has failed to close a single road to trail grooming” or take other steps to deal with this problem.

Although the judge ordered the agency to finally deal with this issue, instead the NPS has decided to maintain the status quo for the next three winter seasons, grooming the entire 180 miles of winter snow-packed system through the heart of Yellowstone.

Since 1985, more than 3,200 Yellowstone bison that have left the park have been shot or trucked to slaughterhouses.

“NPS must stop its duplicitous treatment of the bison,” said D.J. Schubert, wildlife biologist for The Fund for Animals. “The agency can’t keep taking the very actions that facilitate bison migration - trail grooming - and at the same time be part of a coalition that kills the bison when they leave the park. If they just lined them up and shot them everyone would be outraged, but these misguided policies are tantamount to the same thing, and must come to an end.”

The Fund for Animals and others originally sued the government over this issue in 1997, and in a settlement the park service agreed to study the issue. More than seven years later the agency has still not addressed the issue, and bison continue to die.

Although the present suit does not seek to enjoin any trail grooming this winter season, The Fund for Animals intends to seek trail closures when the case is resolved on the merits later this year.

Other plaintiffs are: Bluewater Network, the Ecology Center, and four individuals from Montana, Oregon and Wyoming. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) will become a plaintiff in the suit on January 1, 2005, when The HSUS and the Fund join forces to create the world’s largest animal protection organization.

A copy of the complaint is available on-line at http://www.fund.org/uploads/YellowstoneTrailGroomingComplaint.pdf.

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Logging, Conservation Plans Compete in Black Hills Forest

LARAMIE, Wyoming, December 17, 2004 (ENS) - The Black Hills National Forest is an island of trees on the Great Plains in northeastern Wyoming and western South Dakota that supports a diversity of unique plants and animals.

Despite its special values, the Black Hills is one of the most heavily exploited National Forests in the country. The forest is managed for multiple use, with mining, logging, cattle grazing, and summer homes within its borders.

Recently the Forest has experienced prolonged drought conditions, several large fires, and a bark beetle epidemic.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages most of the Black Hills, is now proposing to increase logging to reduce the risk of forest fires and mountain pine beetle infestations and to supply local mills with wood. The proposal known as the “Phase II Amendment,” to the forest's management plan, is open for public comment until January 14, 2005.

The Phase II Amendment offers five alternative management proposals. The Biodiversity Conservation Alliance is seeking public support for Alternative 3, which it calls the Conservation Alternative.

Under this alternative, there would be increased protection of old growth through enforceable standards; strong, science-based standards for protecting rare and imperiled wildlife, fish, and plants; as well as science-based standards for protecting important wildlife habitats, like streamside willows, burned areas, wetlands, caves, standing dead trees, and white spruce.

There would be an emphasis on natural processes in remote areas; protection for all roadless areas as recommended wilderness; protection of key plant communities through Research Natural Area designation; the protection of rare and imperiled wildlife, fish, and plants through “survey and manage” designation; and increased monitoring.

Nearly every acre of the Black Hills has been logged since the late 1800s, with most areas cut over numerous times, the conservation group says. Less than one percent of the entire forest is considered old growth and the once common giant, yellow-bark ponderosa pines are now rare. Extensive mining has left a legacy of toxic waste. Overgrazing of domestic livestock has polluted water and destroyed vital streamside habitats. Over 8,500 miles of roads crisscross the forest and have splintered forest habitats critical for wildlife.

The Forest Service has identified Alternative 6 as the preferred alternative, which is not a final decision but designed to help the reviewer comment on the issues.

The Service says Alternative 6 maintains species viability for all emphasis species, best reduces fire and insect hazards, and recommends five research natural areas (RNAs) to provide for more species conservation.

But the Service says Alternative 6 "would favor early-successional species over late-successional species." Late-successional species are commonly called old growth.

The Service writes in its analysis of the alternatives that the selection of Alternative 6 was made in part because of the need to keep local sawmills economically viable.

"Under current operating procedures for local sawmills, the Forest would need to supply 60 percent of the wood fiber that local mills process (estimated at 101 million board feet annually +/-15 percent) for all mills to remain viable. Only Alternative 6 is expected to produce wood fiber near this level."

"Three timber mills make up 90 percent of local wood fiber production, and one or more of these mills are at risk if the expected harvest levels of Alternatives 1, 2, 3, or 4 occur," the Service writes.

Click here to read the Phase II Amendment to the 1997 Land and Resource Management Plan Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Black Hills National Forest.

Comment by email to: bhnf-phase2@saic.com

Send a letter to: BHNF Phase II Amendment, PO Box 270990, Littleton, CO 80127

Visit the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance at: http://www.voiceforthewild.org/bhnf/alerts/a6dec04.asp

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Global Warming Could Shut Down Atlantic Circulation

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 17, 2004 (ENS) - If global warming shuts down a crucial circulation pattern in the North Atlantic Ocean, the result could be catastrophic climate change, a University of Illinois researcher told colleagues at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco this week.

The thermohaline circulation is driven by differences in seawater density, caused by temperature and salinity.

Like an enormous conveyor belt, the circulation pattern moves warm surface water from the southern hemisphere toward the North Pole. Between Greenland and Norway, the water cools, sinks into the deep ocean, and begins flowing back to the south.

"If the thermohaline shutdown is irreversible, we would have to work much harder to get it to restart," said Michael Schlesinger, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of the report.

"This movement carries a tremendous amount of heat northward, and plays a vital role in maintaining the current climate," Schlesinger said. "While shutting it down due to global warming would not cause an ice age, as was depicted in a recent blockbuster movie, 'The Day After Tomorrow,' eastern North America and western Europe would nevertheless experience a shift in climate."

Schlesinger and his team believe that a shutdown is possible since the system has previously shut down by itself.

"It is not unlikely that it will do so again, especially with our help in pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere," Schlesinger said.

"Higher temperatures due to global warming could add fresh water to the northern North Atlantic by increasing the precipitation and by melting nearby sea ice, mountain glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet. This influx of fresh water could reduce the surface salinity and density, leading to a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation.

Schlesinger and his team simulated the potential effects with an uncoupled ocean general circulation model and with it coupled to an atmosphere general circulation model. They found that the thermohaline circulation shut down irreversibly in the uncoupled model simulation, but reversibly in the coupled model simulation.

The environmental effects of a shutdown, the computer models indicated, depend upon whether it is reversible or irreversible.

Even if reversible, such a reversal would require enormous effort. "Not only would we have the very difficult task of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," he said, "we also would have the virtually impossible task of removing fresh water from the North Atlantic Ocean."

Because the possibility of an irreversible shutdown cannot be excluded, suitable policy options should continue to be explored, Schlesinger advised. "Doing nothing to abate global warming would be foolhardy if the thermohaline circulation shutdown is irreversible."

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NASA Scientists Link Greenhouse Gases to Trees, Insects

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 17, 2004 (ENS) - Planting trees is good for the global climate. We knew that, but now scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have confirmed it.

And insects that devour plants are bad for the global climate, a fact that NASA scientists have also confirmed.

The scientists presented their findings Monday during the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in the San Francisco. The meeting winds up today.

The NASA research showed how human control of insects, tree planting and other factors could affect Earth's greenhouse gases, which trap the heat of the Sun's ray's close to the planet.

"Planting trees on marginal agricultural lands could sequester carbon and offset at least one-fifth of the annual fossil fuel emission of carbon in the United States," said Christopher Potter, a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California.

"Scientists also have found outbreaks of plant-eating insects may be linked with periodic droughts and heat waves in North America, which can trigger large seasonal losses of carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere," Potter said.

The scientists report that a satellite driven computer model that predicts forest regrowth projects that 0.3 billion metric tons of carbon could be stored annually in trees growing on relatively low-production crop or rangeland areas in the United States.

A second study involved large-scale disturbances to greenhouse gases detected using global satellite data. "A historical picture is emerging of periodic droughts and heat waves, possibly coupled with herbivorous insect outbreaks, as among the most important causes of ecosystem disturbances in North America," Potter said.

The reason insects affect the planet's carbon dioxide level is that they eat and kill trees and other vegetation, Potter says. When the amount of greenery is reduced on Earth, the remaining plants take in less carbon dioxide. As a result, say scientists, more of this greenhouse gas remains in the air, instead of being trapped in wood, fiber, leaves and other foliage parts.

The findings about tree planting and insect control were the subjects of two peer-reviewed technical papers Potter co-authored.