August 18, 2006

In This Issue

UN PLEDGES FUNDS TO CLEAN UP MEDITERRANEAN OIL SPILL

The United Nations (UN) Environment Program pledged 50 million euros, about $64 million, to help clean up and contain a major Mediterranean oil spill caused by the conflict in Lebanon.

The 87-mile-long slick, described by experts as the worst environmental disaster in Lebanese history, stained Lebanon’s shores after Israeli warplanes bombed an oil storage depot at Jiyeh, about 19 miles south of Beirut, in July.

The continuing hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah barred marine experts from inspecting the most severely affected areas. But the recent cease-fire cleared the way for the start of an international effort to clean up and contain the spill, said United Nations, European and maritime officials.

“Now that the bombs have stopped and the guns have silenced,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, “we have a chance to rapidly assess the true magnitude of the problem and finally mobilize the support for an oil cleanup and restoration of the coastline.”

Up to 15,000 tons of heavy fuel poured into the Mediterranean after the Jiyeh bombings, also polluting the Syrian coast and threatening other countries. The spillage could total 35,000 tons, close to the 1989 spill from the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska, officials said.

Environmental organizations say that endangered Mediterranean wildlife, like the green turtle, whose eggs hatch on Lebanese and Syrian beaches in July, faces an imminent threat. They say the spill – a cocktail of highly toxic substances – could damage tourism, rob fishermen of their livelihood and endanger human health, with a heightened risk of cancer because the fuel that spilled contained carcinogens like benzene.

Under the United Nations-sponsored plan, a number of Mediterranean countries will contribute personnel, training and equipment for the cleanup. Kuwait and Norway have already sent chemicals and equipment to clean up the oil, while the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has promised $200,000 for the effort, which also includes aerial surveys to assess the extent of the spill.

KANSAS VOTERS OUST CRITICS OF EVOLUTION FROM SCHOOL BOARD

Proponents of intelligent design (ID), who brought international attention to Kansas by approving state academic standards calling evolution into question, lost control of the state school board in primaries.

As a result of the vote, board members and candidates who believe evolution is well-supported by evidence will have a 6-4 majority. Evolution skeptics had entered the election with a 6-4 majority.

Critics of Kansas’s science standards worried that if ID proponents had retained the board’s majority, it would have led to attempts in other states to copy the Kansas standards.

A suburban Atlanta school district is locked in a legal dispute over its putting stickers in 35,000 biology textbooks declaring evolution “a theory, not a fact.”

In 2005, in Dover, PA, voters ousted school-board members who had required the biology curriculum to include mention of intelligent design. A federal judge struck down the policy, declaring intelligent design is a form of religion.

A poll by six news organizations in 2005 suggested about half of Kansans thought evolution should be taught alongside intelligent design.

Control of the school board has slipped into, out of and back into conservative Republicans’ hands since 1998, resulting in anti-evolution standards in 1999, evolution-friendly ones in 2001 and anti-evolution ones again in 2005.

ARMY CORPS RE-EXAMINES ITS DITCH REGULATIONS

The Army Corps of Engineers will re-examine its regulation of ditches in light of the Supreme Court’s fractured decision on two key wetland cases.

The corps withdrew its “Philadelphia Ditch Rule” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Rapanos v. United States and Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The rule asserted the Corps’ jurisdiction over ditches as “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act in Delaware, southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) hailed the withdrawal of the ditch rule as a victory for housing affordability. The group contends that excessive regulatory costs — which include the cost of complying with rules regarding wetlands — often top $40,000 per house. The group said that it supports protecting water quality, but takes issue with the Corps’ interpretation of its jurisdiction.

The Army Corps says the rule was withdrawn pending guidance from Washington on how to proceed after Rapanos.

The joint Supreme Court cases yielded five opinions totaling more than 100 pages that resulted in little consensus regarding the central question of whether the Clean Water Act protects wetlands adjacent to small tributaries that flow into larger water bodies.

A plurality of justices agreed in principle that the Army Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency misinterpreted the law when they denied permits to two Michigan landowners on wetlands that are not connected to “navigable waters.” But Justice Kennedy disagreed in a concurring opinion that called on the Corps to consider in each case whether the wetlands at issue possess “a significant nexus” with navigable waters.

Justice Scalia wrote that the phrase “waters of the United States,” as written in the Clean Water Act, was not intended to include ditches, canals and other channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally.

BUSH APPROVES TAX BREAKS FOR EASEMENT DONATIONS

President Bush signed pension legislation that includes a major new tax break for landowners who donate conservation easements.

The language was included in the Pension Protection Act, passed by Congress before the August recess. The Act will allow landowners who donate easements to deduct 50 percent of their income, up from the current 30 percent. Qualifying farmers and ranchers will be allowed to deduct 100 percent of their income.

The Bush administration says the language will help further the goals of cooperative conservation.

“It helps fulfill the president’s commitment to landowners, sportsmen and conservationists to provide substantial new incentives to landowners who want to commit their land to open space while keeping our nation’s working farms and ranches working,” said Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

EPA PROPOSAL TIES MERCURY STANDARDS TO FISH TISSUE

States regulating mercury discharges to lakes and streams would base water quality criteria on concentrations of the toxic metal detected in fish tissue instead of in the water itself under a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal.

The draft guidance is aimed at reconciling what for many states has been a two-tiered system for regulating mercury — with a set of water samples to assess a water body’s health and tissue samples to set human health standards for fish consumption.

The draft comes five years after EPA set new water quality criteria for methylmercury, the poisonous form of elemental mercury that accumulates in water and aquatic organisms. The draft “marks EPA’s first issuance of a water quality criterion expressed as a fish and shellfish tissue value rather than as an ambient water quality value,” the agency said. The proposal is open for public comment until Oct. 11, 2006.

John Wathen, Assistant Chief of standards and health protection for EPA’s water office, said the guidance should help states overcome the problem of measuring tiny concentrations of mercury in water.

“In many places, you have mercury appearing in fish tissue that’s many, many times higher than what is occurring in the water column,” Walten said in an interview. “This is an attempt to cut to the chase and get the meaningful number that relates to human health, and that is methylmercury.”

High concentrations of mercury can lead to a waterway being designated “impaired” for fishing, swimming or other human contact. Under the Clean Water Act, waters designated as impaired are subject to “total maximum daily load” requirements, which target pollutants from both point and non-point sources.

HAWAII BIOPHARMING PERMITS ILLEGAL, JUDGE RULES

The Agriculture Department (USDA) illegally approved permits for four companies to grow hundreds of acres of biopharmaceutical crops in Hawaii, a federal judge ruled.

Judge Michael Seabright of the U.S. District Court for Hawaii said USDA’s decision to issue the permits in 2001 without conducting environmental studies was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Even if USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, which issued the permits, was correct in its assertion that no habitats or species listed as endangered were harmed by the plantings, then the agency’s actions are still “tainted” because they failed to comply with a mandatory procedural requirement, Seabright said.

The environmental group Earthjustice sued the agency shortly after the permits were issued to ProdiGene, Monsanto, the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center and Garst Seed to carry out biopharming until 2003 on 800 acres of controlled sites using sugar cane.

Between 1991 and 2005, the government has issued more than 90 permits for biopharming nationwide, according to USDA.

COLOMBIA SPRAYS HERBICIDES IN NATIONAL PARK

Despite environmental concerns, Colombian authorities for the first time used U.S.-supplied planes to spray a pristine national park where leftist rebels have grown coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine.

Anti-narcotics police said they chemically fumigated the Sierra Macarena National Park, clearing its entire 11,370 acres of coca. The spraying destroyed coca capable of producing 17.5 tons of high-grade cocaine.

Colombian authorities had previously instituted a manual eradication drive in the Sierra Macarena National Park, but President Alvaro Uribe announced the park would be fumigated by air after a bomb planted by leftist rebels exploded on Aug. 2, killing six peasants hired by the government to uproot the coca by hand. In addition to those killed by the bomb, 26 other works have been killed in the park since December 2005.

Uribe said he wants to double aerial spraying, and his top military advisers want to expand the practice to the 11 other parks known to have coca.

Washington has long urged Uribe to extend spraying to parks and provided the glyphosate herbicide, as well as Black Hawk helicopters used for protection, during the missions.

But the chemical fumigation of a park in one of the world’s most biodiverse countries drew sharp criticism from those who contend that the spraying of herbicides harms the environment and causes health problems for those living in the area.

“Those who think fumigating La Macarena, and perhaps other parks, will wipe out coca production are wrong,” the normally pro-government Colombian newspaper El Tiempo said. “Instead, there will be more coca, and less park, as rebels destroy more forests, deeper inside the park, to continue planting.”


Sources: Energy and Environment Daily; Globe and Mail; Greenwire; L.A. Times; New York Times

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