AmeriScan: January 14, 2000


WASHINGTON, DC, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the rights of citizens to enforce federal environmental laws in court. In a 7-2 decision in the case, Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, the Supreme Court resolved legal questions on standing and mootness - traditional stumbling blocks in environmental enforcement citizen suits. "This decision protects citizens' legal right to enforce the Clean Water Act and other pollution-control laws," said Dr. Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth (FOE). "The U.S. Supreme Court rightly moved to preserve one of America's most effective tools for combating water pollution." On the legal question of standing, FOE argued that civil penalties paid to the U.S. Treasury deter future pollution violations. The deterrent effect of those payments satisfy the remedy element of the standing requirement in Article III of the U.S. Constitution, the court decided. On the legal question of mootness, the Court found that a company will not escape court review of environmental law violations by coming into compliance with its pollution permit after legal action has begun.

In many respects, the decision represents a major legal blow for Laidlaw and other companies found to have violated federal environmental laws. Laidlaw operated a hazardous waste incinerator that had been illegally dumping mercury and other pollutants toxic to humans and animals into a South Carolina river. Since 1970, Congress has empowered citizens to sue to stop polluters, enabling them to serve as independent watchdogs and to supplement state and federal enforcement. These "citizen suits" have required violators to pay billions of dollars in fines, mitigation, compliance and clean-up costs to compensate for damage done to our nation's waters and the citizens who use them. "Citizen's rights to sue polluters need to be expanded, not restricted because pollution is still serious and widespread," said Blackwelder. "Without citizen enforcement, we will never achieve clean water, clean air, and other environmental protection goals."

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OMAHA, Nebraska, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - The Justice Department, on behalf of the U.S. EPA, has filed a lawsuit Wednesday against IBP, Inc., alleging that the meat packer violated numerous environmental laws at its facilities. The complaint charges that IBP, the world's largest producer of fresh beef, pork and related products, violated the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and hazardous waste management and reporting laws by at its slaughter and tannery operations in Dakota City, Nebraska. As a result, the company's six uncovered waste lagoons have emitted uncontrolled amounts of hydrogen sulfide into the air. IBP also has discharged ammonia into the Missouri River in quantities toxic to aquatic life. "The public cares about clean air and clean water," said Assistant Attorney General Lois Schiffer. "Companies that take short cuts in controlling pollution threaten our environment. We will hold them accountable."

The U.S. will seek significant civil penalties from IBP. Each statute that IBP allegedly violated authorizes a court to impose civil penalties of up to $25,000 for each day of violation prior to January 31, 1997, and $27,500 for each day thereafter. These fines can be collected for continuous violations for a period of up to five years, although the complaint asserts that IBP has been violating the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act for far longer. "We will not allow companies to disregard our environmental laws and put American citizens at risk," said Steve Herman of EPA. "We will take the legal action necessary to protect our most precious resources." In a three page rebuttal to the government's suit, IBP spokesman Gary Mickelson said, "This lawsuit will benefit no one. ... It only further delays the environmental improvements we have been trying to make at Dakota City since 1997."

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - Very quietly, the Department of Energy (DOE) shipped a small quantity of mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel to Canada this week. The DOE announced today it has completed its one-time shipment of MOX for the Parallex Project. The shipment was part of a U.S. non-proliferation effort to ensure that former Russian surplus weapons plutonium is put in a form that would make it difficult to use in a weapon. The Parallex experiment will provide technical information on the performance of Canadian Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactors to burn MOX fuel. "Close cooperation between the United States and Canada was a major factor to ensuring this shipment was planned and carried out in a safe and secure manner," said Deputy Secretary of Energy T.J. Glauthier. "This project has important international benefits that could only be achieved through this type of professional cooperation between our countries."

Earlier this week, nine fuel rods containing a total of less than 120 grams of plutonium were shipped without incident from the DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to the Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd, test reactor in Chalk River, Ontario. The material crossed into Canada at Sault Saint Marie, Michigan. The test fuel rods were shipped in a special transportation container which conforms to strict safety standards set by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Canadian Atomic Energy Control Board. For security reasons, the details on the timing and route of the shipment were not disclosed. Many nuclear activists fear that burning MOX fuel in reactors not designed for that purpose could be unsafe.

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has announced plans to develop a national strategy for ensuring environmentally responsible Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) use on BLM managed public lands. The BLM manages more land - 264 million surface acres - than any other Federal agency, mostly in Western states including Alaska. BLM acting director Tom Fry said, "The strategy we will develop is aimed at recognizing the interests of OHV users while protecting environmentally sensitive areas on the public lands. The strategy will also enable the BLM to spend scarce funding resources on managing OHV use rather than on OHV-related litigation, protests, appeals, and Freedom of Information Act requests."


Riding off-road in the Little Sahara Recreation Area (Photo courtesy BLM)

Fry added, "Our agency is developing this strategy at a time when Westerners recognize the crucial role that BLM lands play in maintaining the appeal and lifestyle of their fast growing, fast changing region. Now more than ever, the public is turning to BLM managed land as the final frontier for wide open space, as an outdoor recreational playground, and as a sanctuary from the stresses of urban life. The OHV management strategy will recognize the importance of each of those values." Henri Bisson, the BLM’s assistant director for planning and renewable resources, will lead the agency in crafting the national OHV strategy. "The strategy to be developed will reflect substantial input from OHV user groups, environmental organizations, State and local agencies, and the general public," Bisson said. More information is available at:

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - An analysis by Friends of the Earth (FOE) finds that tax breaks for special interests are growing, adding urgency to proposals to cut these subsidies announced by several Presidential candidates. Using information from the non-partisan Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, FOE shows that tax breaks for polluting industries will grow to $20.1 billion over the next five years. Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Bradley called for the elimination of a variety of tax breaks and special subsidies for polluting industries, including chemical companies. Bradley targeted tax breaks and subsidies for oil and gas, mining, and agribusiness industries. On January 11, Senator John McCain, a Republican candidate for President, proposed eliminating special interest loopholes in the tax code, targeting specific provisions for energy, oil, gas, and mining industries.

"We are pleased that some Presidential candidates are tackling special-interest giveaways," said Gawain Kripke, FOE economics campaigns director. "Tax breaks for pollution are growing more expensive and are damaging to the environment." FOE’s analysis shows that cost estimates for oil and gas subsidies have grown from $10.4 billion to more than $13 billion. Estimated tax subsidies for the mining industry grow from $1.9 billion to $2.0 billion over the next five years. Friends of the Earth's analysis is based on information in the Joint Committee’s report "Estimates of Federal Tax Expenditures for Fiscal Years 2000-2004." "Tax loopholes continue to reward corporations that pollute the air and water, drill for oil and gas, and cut down forests," said Brian Dunkiel, FOE’s director of tax policy. "It is time to put an end to these unnecessary and harmful subsidies." FOE’s report "Dirty Little Secrets" identifies the 15 worst tax breaks for the environment. The report is available at: Next week, FOE, Taxpayers for Common Sense Action, and U.S. PIRG will release "A Green Scissors Tally for 1999," identifying the amount of taxpayer money wasted or saved by individual Members of Congress with their votes on environmentally harmful federal subsidies.

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CONCORD, New Hampshire, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - New Hampshire is proposing to adopt California’s standard for the gasoline additive MTBE in drinking water - the strictest standard in the nation. The new standard would set the maximum allowable MTBE level at 13 parts per billion (ppb). The current state standard is 70 ppb. "This new standard is designed to strengthen our state’s safeguards for protecting public and private water supplies," said Department of Environmental Services (DES) commissioner Robert Varney. "An extensive effort was conducted by state health risk assessment officials at DHHS to carefully develop a scientifically based standard that will be extremely protective." DES has begun the rulemaking process to adopt this standard into the state’s water quality requirements.

MTBE is added to meet federal reformulated gasoline (RFG) requirements. "RFG helps make engines burn cleaner which reduces smog causing air pollutants. The concern, however, stems from MTBE’s high solubility in water," said Varney. "When a gasoline spill occurs, MTBE tends to spread more quickly through the ground than other gasoline constituents, increasing the possibility of contaminating drinking water wells." MTBE has been shown to cause tumors in laboratory animals at high doses. The contaminant has appeared in a number of New Hampshire wells in recent years. No municipal wide public drinking water supplies now have levels that exceed the state’s health standard, even the proposed stricter standard of 13 ppb. However, it has found its way into some non-municipal supplies at levels exceeding the health standards. "This is clearly not acceptable," said Varney.

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LINCOLN, Nebraska, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - Missouri River dam reforms proposed today by the Northwest Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ignore the needs of river wildlife and recreation, environmentalists say. The Corps' Northwest Division released their proposal Thursday for a revised Missouri River Master Manual, the guide the federal agency uses to set dams releases for six dams in eastern Montana and the Dakotas. The Northwest Division's proposal would continue to manage the Missouri's dams to benefit barge traffic - at the expense of recreation and river wildlife, says Chad Smith of American Rivers. "The Northwest Division's proposal ignores the needs of recreation and puts three species in jeopardy of extinction," said Smith. "Even though recreation produces ten times as many economic benefits as barges, the Corps continues to bow to a handful of barge boosters." The proposal does not increase spring dam releases or lower summer dam releases to aid endangered fish and birds.

More than 20 recreation and conservation groups - including six Iowa conservation groups - urged Vice President Al Gore last month to reform Missouri River dam operations to support the "split season" alternative. Under the alternative, the Corps would increase dam releases from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota from 35,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 50,000 cfs between May 1 and June 15, and then reduce dam releases to 18,000 cfs during the summer, temporarily suspending barge traffic between July 1 and August 20. Barge traffic would continue in the spring and fall, when more than 80 percent of the river's cargo moves. Corps studies show the higher spring flows would not harm floodplain farmers.

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EL PASO, Texas, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has charged the City of El Paso, Texas, doing business as the El Paso Zoo, with multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act. "We believe that the El Paso Zoo has broken the letter and the spirit of the Animal Welfare Act," said Michael Dunn, under secretary for USDA's marketing and regulatory programs. "In November of 1998 zoo personnel attempted to 'train' an elephant named Sissy. The methods used were unacceptable by any standards and can only be characterized as mistreatment." APHIS inspectors found that in November of 1998, the El Paso Zoo failed to handle Sissy in a manner that avoided trauma, behavioral stress, unnecessary discomfort, and physical harm.

The elephant was chained and beaten by her handlers with wooden bats shortly after she was acquired by the zoo. While previously at the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainsville, Texas, Sissy had killed a handler by "pressing" the employee, Dave Zucconi, director of the El Paso Zoo told ENS. "It is the zoo's policy to ensure the welfare of its employees as well as the welfare of the elephants," Zucconi said. "That policy calls for zookeepers to be on top of the elephants’ pecking order, and "occasionally, to maintain zookeepers on top in the pecking order, they must beat an elephant like this," he said. Zucconi said he has no idea how Cissy was treated at the Frank Buck Zoo, or whether her treatment there might have led to the fatal incident. "It is a shame," Dunn said, "that in this modern day trainers continue to resort to harmful, outdated, training techniques."

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TUCSON, Arizona, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - The first pack of reintroduced Mexican wolves to migrate into the Gila National Forest is losing its freedom. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began trapping the Gavilan Pack of Mexican wolves yesterday, and has announced that the alpha male will never be rereleased, and perhaps none of the pack will ever be freed. Last fall, the Gavilan Pack - which consists of a mated pair, a yearling male, and five pups - preyed on cattle that were being illegally grazed by rancher, Carlyle Cathcart, in the Apache National Forest. Later, the pack migrated into the western boundary of the Gila National Forest, which is now free of cattle. However, on both the Apache and the Gila National Forests, severe overgrazing has reduced the number of natural prey available for the wolves.

The decision to remove the Gavilan Pack jeopardizes the recovery of the most endangered mammal in North America, says the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity. There may be as few as 19 Mexican wolves left in the wild today, and removing the Gavilan Pack will leave just eleven. USFWS has already captured the entire Pipestem Pack, the first Mexican wolves to reproduce in the wild in the U.S. in over 70 years. After first indicating the Pipestem Pack would be freed in the Gila Wilderness, the agency has instead kept them in pens for over six months.

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MONTICELLO, Minnesota, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - Wintering trumpeter swans will temporarily lose one of their favorite swimming holes in Minnesota this month. The swans need open water, and in the northern U.S., that can be hard to come by in winter. Hundreds of swans have adopted the Mississippi River downstream of a Monticello power plant as their wintering ground, attracted by the warm water released from the Northern States Power facility. But the power plant will be shut down for 35 to 39 days, starting January 6, for scheduled refueling and maintenance. If the river freezes, it could mean a dispersal of the wintering trumpeter swans, causing a unique mid-winter migration, says Steve Kittelson of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "It's unknown what effect the loss of open water will have on these swans," Kittelson said, "but it is believed the swans might disperse into small family groups."

Prior to the plant shutdown, the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program will be doing a statewide count of trumpeter swans. Biologists and volunteers will survey the major wintering sites, including an aerial survey flown by the DNR Enforcement Division aircraft. "The Mississippi River at Monticello is not a natural wintering site for trumpeter swans," said Kittelson, the DNR's Nongame Wildlife Swan Restoration Project leader. "The combination of open water and available food supplies has caused the development of this swan wintering site over the past 12 years." This winter more than 400 swans have been observed wintering along the Mississippi River in the Monticello area.