AmeriScan: December 14, 2000

CURRENT LEVELS OF PARTICULATE POLLUTION CAN KILL

WASHINGTON, DC, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - A new study shows that breathing current levels of particulate air pollution increases the risk of premature death from respiratory and cardiovascular illness. The American Lung Association says the study provides additional scientific support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 1997 decision to establish health based air quality standards for fine particles. "Dozens of studies from around the world have linked particulate air pollution to death and disease, but this is the most definitive study to date," said John Garrison, CEO of the American Lung Association. The study by Jonathan Samet, M.D., and colleagues from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health examined the effects of five of the most widespread outdoor air pollutants - particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide - in 20 of the largest cities in the U.S. The study was designed to address many of the criticisms of earlier single city studies.

The study found consistent evidence that small daily increases in particulate pollution were followed by daily increases in death rates, particularly deaths from heart and lung related causes. Study authors noted that other analyses have demonstrated that increase in lives lost due to particulate pollution goes beyond just a few days. The study investigators also reported an association between summertime ozone levels and mortality. The article, published in today's issue of the "New England Journal of Medicine," concludes that "there is consistent evidence that the levels of fine particulate matter in the air are associated with the risk of death from all causes and from cardiovascular and respiratory illness. These findings strengthen the rationale for controlling the levels of respirable particles in outdoor air." In 1997, the EPA established new standards for fine particles, but these standards were overturned in a court case brought by the American Trucking Association and other industry groups. An appeals court reversed that decision, saying the standards are constitutional and science based. The U.S. Supreme Court is the case, and a decision is expected in the spring.

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EXCESS MANGANESE COULD MAKE PARKINSON'S WORSE

SANTA CRUZ, California, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - A new study suggests that too much manganese, an essential element required by the body in tiny amounts but toxic at elevated levels, may contribute to the early development of Parkinson's disease symptoms in susceptible people. Recent studies have suggested an association between Parkinson's disease and elevated exposure to manganese. The new study in animals shows that exposure to low levels of manganese does not cause the disease, but affects a different part of the brain in a way that worsens the effects of Parkinson's. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, evaluated the effects of low level exposure to manganese using rats with a condition that mimics pre-Parkinsonism, an early stage of the disease in which no symptoms are apparent. Their findings were published in the current issue of the journal "Neurotoxicology and Teratology."

The study shows the importance of looking at the effects of toxic substances on sensitive parts of the population who may be most vulnerable, said Donald Smith, an associate professor of environmental toxicology at UC Santa Cruz and a coauthor of the paper. "We are concerned about how chronic low level exposures to toxic substances may accelerate the emergence of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's," Smith said. The possibility that people in the early stages of Parkinsonism could be sensitive to moderate levels of manganese is disturbing for several reasons, he said. Manganese is everywhere in the environment, and its increasing use in industrial processes may cause some people to take in greater amounts from water, food, and airborne sources. Increased exposure to airborne manganese could result from the use of the manganese compound MMT as a gasoline additive. MMT gained approval for use in the U.S. after its manufacturer, Ethyl Corporation, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and won. None of the major oil refineries are using MMT now, but that could change, Smith noted. "We need better information about the potential risk to sensitive populations when we make decisions about things like MMT," Smith said.

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REPTILE SMUGGLER PLEADS GUILTY TO MULTIPLE FELONY CHARGES

WASHINGTON, DC, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - Keng Liang "Anson" Wong, a well known international wildlife dealer, pleaded guilty Wednesday to 40 felony charges stemming from 1992 and 1998 federal indictiments for trafficking in some of the most rare and endangered reptile species on earth. Wong spent almost two years in a Mexican prison fighting extradition to the U.S. The charges against Wong include money laundering, conspiracy, smuggling and violations of the Lacey Act, a U.S. wildlife protection law that prohibits trade in animals protected under federal, state or international law and the making of false statements concerning wildlife shipments. The maximum penalty for money laundering is 20 years imprisonment and a $500,000 fine; the remaining charges each carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Wong is scheduled to be sentenced in March 2001.

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Wong smuggled endangered species like the plowshare tortoise, a Madagascar native that is on the brink of extinction. The plowshare, also known as the Madagascan spurred tortoise, fetched up to $30,000 in the illegal market (Photo courtesy Honolulu Zoo)

Some of Wong's black market dealings, which involved the illegal import and sale of more than 300 protected reptiles native to Asia and Africa between 1996 and 1998, were documented by an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) investigation that infiltrated the illegal reptile trade. That investigation revealed that Wong spearheaded an international wildlife smuggling ring that imported exotic reptiles by concealing them in express delivery packages, airline baggage and large, legal commercial shipments of animals. A number of the species involved, such as Komodo dragons and plowshare tortoises, are already on the brink of extinction and occur in very limited, isolated habitats. "Reptile trafficking is a high profit criminal enterprise, and the United States is one of its largest markets," said USFWS Director Jamie Rappaport Clark. "Plundering the world's rare reptiles takes a toll that cannot be measured in dollars. Such trafficking robs countries of their natural heritage, disrupts ecosystems and shortchanges future generations."

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BABBITT VISITS ARIZONA TO CONTEMPLATE SONORAN NATIONAL MONUMENT

CASA GRANDE, Arizona, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is in Arizona today to discuss designating 500,000 acres of public land as the Sonoran Desert National Monument. "I promised that I would return and continue our dialogue on the future management of this pristine and unique area," said Babbitt. "I had an informative eye opening tour of this amazing area during my last visit and look forward to a productive meeting and discussion on Thursday." The Sonoran Desert is one of the largest and most pristine desert ecosystems in North America. Yet fragile area, rich in biodiversity, is under siege from a variety of threats, including development, off road vehicles and mining. Responding to pleas from conservationists, Babbitt is now considering recommending that President Bill Clinton use his executive powers to protect about 500,000 acres of public land as the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

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Towering sahuaro cacti are among the species found in the proposed Sonoran Desert National Monument (Photo by Ted Zukoski, courtesy The Wilderness Society)

The area under consideration for the proposed monument includes three designated wilderness areas - the North and South Maricopa Mountains and Table Top Mountains. A portion of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, including the Sand Tank Mountains, and the Vekol Valley Grassland Area of Critical Environmental Concern, along with public land between these areas, would also be included in the monument. About 100,000 acres of the area are at imminent risk. Sometime next year, Congress or the Interior Department will decide whether the lands of the Sand Tank Mountains and Sentinel Plain - which have been closed to livestock grazing, mining and indiscriminate off road driving for more than a half century - will be opened to development.

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SECOND NUCLEAR REACTOR TO RESTART AT DC COOK

BRIDGMAN, Michigan, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has determined that the performance improvements and plant modifications at the DC Cook Nuclear Power Station are sufficient for Unit 1 at the plant to resume operations and operate safely. The two reactor facility is operated by American Electric Power Company. The utility is completing its final preparations for restart of Unit 1. NRC inspectors will monitor the startup around the clock until the plant is operating routinely. Both units at the plant were shut down in September 1997 as a result of NRC inspection findings which questioned the capabilities of key plant emergency systems to meet their design requirements. Since then, the utility has completed major reviews of plant safety systems and corrected the identified problems, NRC officials said. Unit 2 at the plant resumed operations in June and has operated continuously since startup.

Since the September 1997 shutdown, numerous inspections have been performed by the NRC resident, regional and national inspectors. These inspections have focused on the improvements being made at the plant and on the readiness of plant safety systems and the plant staff to resume operation. An NRC Restart Oversight Panel, composed of managers and staff members from the regional and headquarters offices, will continue to monitor the performance of Unit 1 as it resumes operations. This panel has held periodic public meetings to review the status of activities at the plant. The letter from NRC regional administrator Jim Dyer to American Electric Power on the NRC's restart determination is on the NRC's web site at: http://www.nrc.gov/OPA/reports

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IDAHO TAKES LEGAL ACTION AGAINST GRIZZLY REINTRODUCTION

BOISE, Idaho, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - Idaho officials have hired outside counsel to oppose the reintroduction of grizzly bears into Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains. In a unanimous decision on Tuesday, the Constitutional Defense Council - which includes Governor Dirk Kempthorne, state attorney general Al Lance, House speaker Bruce Newcomb and Senate president pro tem Robert Geddes - voted to employ an independent lawfirm to take the case. The Council was created to defend the state's legal rights. "We oppose the introduction of this flesh eating, antisocial animal," Kempthorne said. "This is probably the first federal policy that knowingly can and will lead to the death of citizens. We must do everything possible to make sure this does not happen."

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Two grizzly bears in the Bitterroot Valley (Photo by Dr. Christopher Servheen courtesy USFWS)

In November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) finalized its strategy for reintroducing grizzly bears into the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana and central Idaho. Under the agency's reintroduction strategy, a minimum of 25 bears will be released over the next five years into a 20,800 square mile tract of public land in and around the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church River of No Return wilderness areas. The bears will be released in groups of five or fewer, beginning in 2002. The reintroduced bears will be designated as a "nonessential, experimental population" under a special rule of the Endangered Species Act. The special designation will allow for more "flexibility" in the management of the bears, USFWS officials said. A 15 member citizen management committee will established to insure that the grizzly bear reintroduction effort does not override the needs of the public, the agency said.

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BIG ISLANDS GET MORE LIZARD SPECIES

ST. LOUIS, Missouri, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - Lizard species on large Caribbean islands are more numerous than those on smaller islands because there is more evolution going on, a Washington University professor has found. The larger the island, the faster species proliferate and diversify, says Jonathan Losos, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology in Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Losos discovered the relationship between number of species and island area during a study of 143 species of Caribbean Anolis lizards on 147 islands. Focusing on the four largest islands, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, known together as the Greater Antilles, Losos showed that the diversity of lizard species is a result of the evolutionary process of speciation, rather than the ecological processes of colonization by new species and extinction of existing species.

Losos, and co-author Dolph Schluter, Ph.D., professor of biology at the University of British Columbia, published their results in today's issue of the journal "Nature." The study is a novel extension of a 33 year old theory on the genesis of biological diversity. "When you focus on the larger islands, the rate of speciation is a function of island area," said Losos. "A large island equals more speciation events. At some level this is intuitive, but it has never been demonstrated before that differences in the rate of speciation, of evolution, can produce the species area relationship." The classic explanation of how speciation occurs is that one species gets separated into two or more isolated groups, between which there is no genetic contact. Because they are separated, they are not interbreeding. Over time, the groups diverge so that even if the geographic barrier that caused the isolation was removed, they are now separate species and cannot interbreed. Losos and Schluter provide an explanation for why larger islands have more speciation events. "There is simply more opportunity for isolation to occur and for species to diverge on larger islands," said Losos.

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225 COMPANIES EXCEL IN ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

WASHINGTON, DC, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has selected 225 businesses and facilities as charter members in the National Environmental Achievement Track. The program recognizes and rewards businesses for exceeding environmental protection requirements. "A new era of environmental protection has been launched over the last decade by growing numbers of American businesses," said EPA Administrator Carol Browner. "These businesses recognize that environmental protection can go hand in hand with economic growth. We are especially appreciative of those companies willing to do more than is required by law to protect public health and insure greater protection of our air, water and land."

Achievement Track companies and facilities have cut air and water pollution, and opted to recycle more wastes, than required by law. These companies, which include small businesses and large corporations, have reduced their energy consumption by millions of kilowatts per year, and are committing to an average of 22 percent improved energy efficiency in the future. Their commitments for future water use reductions average 31 percent. Some companies have almost eliminated discharges to surface water, while others are reducing discharges to groundwater to protect underground drinking water supplies. Waste reduction at these facilities is projected to average 44 percent per year, representing millions of pounds of saved resources as process and packaging materials are recycled or reused. Others are reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to help protect the ozone layer, and some will cut their output of toxic air pollutants in half. The charter members represent the automotive, pharmaceutical, sports equipment, food processing, chemical and petroleum industries, among others. More information is available at: http://www.epa.gov/performancetrack

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FEDERAL AGENCIES TEAM UP TO FIGHT NATURAL DISASTERS

WASHINGTON, DC, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are joining forces to reduce the effects of natural disasters in the U.S. The two agencies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to partner on FEMA's Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities, a national disaster prevention initiative. The partnership will promote federal efforts to improve disaster recovery and mitigation in communities throughout the nation. Under the new agreement signed by FEMA associate director of mitigation Michael Armstrong and USGS Director Chip Groat, FEMA and USGS will apply science to better prepare for events that cause natural disasters. "This partnership will enhance and increase the innovative means Project Impact partners have developed over the years to make communities across America more disaster resistant," said Armstrong.

"This agreement formalizes the strong working relationship that has existed between USGS and FEMA since FEMA was created, more than 20 years ago," said Groat. "The USGS will provide FEMA with critical earth science information on natural hazards including earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, wildland fires, landslides, and other geologic and hydrologic hazards that is needed to reduce the nation's vulnerability to natural disasters." Reducing the nation's disaster losses requires a coordinated approach among federal agencies, the partners said. For example, a recent FEMA report combined USGS seismic hazard data with data from the National Institute of Building Sciences to create a national picture of earthquake risk. Using this information, communities are developing land use plans and strengthening building codes that will save lives and money. More information is available at: http://www.fema.gov/impact.

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NATIONAL ATLAS RECEIVES VICE PRESIDENT'S HAMMER AWARD

WASHINGTON, DC, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - The National Atlas of the United States® has received the Hammer Award for putting digital data on soils, county boundaries, volcanoes and watersheds together with information such as crime patterns, population distribution and incidence of disease. Using this information, children and adults can better understand the complex relationships between the places and people of the U.S. The Hammer Award is Vice President Al Gore's special recognition for teams who have made significant contributions toward improving government's service to the American people. Norma Campbell, director of the White House Office of Planning and Performance Management recognized the National Atlas team for "serving as a model for electronic government by providing Americans electronic access to a wealth of government information."

The web based National Atlas (http://www.nationalatlas.gov/) provides a comprehensive, map-like view into the enormous wealth of data collected by the federal government. It provides a complete range of traditional maps, and allows citizens to create their own maps to explore the social, environmental, and historical dimensions of American life. Led by the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Atlas is a collaboration between private sector business and more than twenty federal agencies. Begun in 1997, the National Atlas makes authoritative, reliable geographic information more accessible to the public. The original bound volume characterized the America of the mid-1960's through hundreds of unchanging paper maps. These maps were out of date before they were even printed. The new National Atlas harnesses digital mapping technologies such as desktop mapping, multimedia, geographic information systems and the World Wide Web.