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Sen. Feinstein May Ask Obama To Bypass Congress To Protect Mojave Sites

By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein threatened Monday to ask President Barack Obama to create two national monuments in the Mojave Desert, without approval of Congress, if lawmakers again fail to pass legislation protecting the land.

The California Democrat said Monday she wants to break a logjam of interests that stalled two previous bills to create the two protected zones, the largest of which is Mojave Trails National Monument on 921,000 acres of federal land and former railroad company property along a 105-mile stretch of old Route 66, between Ludlow and Needles.

The smaller Sand to Snow National Monument, about 45 miles east of Riverside, would cover about 134,000 acres of federal land between Joshua Tree National Park and the San Bernardino National Forest in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

The bills, introduced by Feinstein, have been held up by Republicans and by conflicts among environmentalists, off-roaders, hunters and renewable-energy interests.

Feinstein said she would ask Obama to use his authority to create monuments without congressional approval “if we find that by this time next year we cannot find momentum on our bill. That is exactly what we will do.”

Her comments came on the heels of Obama’s designation last month of much of the Angeles National Forest as a national monument. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., had urged Obama to act after Congress appeared unwilling to approve her legislation to create a national recreation area to address problems in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Presidents dating back to Theodore Roosevelt have invoked the Antiquities Act to sidestep Congress to protect areas of historic or scientific interest. Such action is nearly always controversial, with critics saying the designations unreasonably limit logging, grazing, mining and other activities on wide swaths of the West.

Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled House failed in an attempt to scale back presidential authority to invoke the act.

The proposed Mojave monuments, about a four-hour drive from Los Angeles, would protect overlapping biological zones ranging from desert scrub to yellow pine forests, and diverse terrain and historic features including year-round streams, rugged mountains, extinct volcanoes, sand dunes and ancient petroglyphs.

The regions are habitat for mountain lions, bighorn sheep, California desert tortoises, arroyo toads and rosy boa constrictors.

If approved, Mojave Trails would be managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and Sand to Snow would be managed jointly by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, a spokesman for Feinstein said. The legislation does not include authorization for funding the monuments.

If Obama creates the national monuments, his action will not include a number of other protective measures that are found in the legislation, which Feinstein expects to introduce in January. Those include establishing an 18,600-acre Alabama Hills National Scenic Area on the east side of the Sierra Nevada and designating as wild and scenic rivers a total of 77 miles of waterways, including White Water Creek and Deep Creek in the San Bernardino Mountains.

The legislation also would designate about 250,000 acres near the Army’s training center at Fort Irwin as wilderness and make permanent four existing off-highway vehicle areas covering 135,000 acres. There are about 90,000 off-highway vehicles in the area, and they need a place to do that, or else they’ll tear up the desert,” Feinstein said.

Obama administration officials did not respond to request for comment about Feinstein’s remarks.

Tom Mentzer, a spokesman for Feinstein, said, “She has not specifically discussed the use of the Antiquities Act with the White House, but the White House knows this bill is a priority of hers.”

The language in Feinstein’s bill to protect the Alabama Hills was taken from a separate bill introduced in the House earlier this year by U.S. Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., and she said she hoped the congressman would back her legislation.

Cook would not go that far.

“I’m happy that Sen. Feinstein also recognizes the tremendous importance of the Alabama Hills, particularly to residents of Inyo County,” he said. “Her involvement with my legislative proposal is likely to increase bi-partisan support and improve its chances for passage.”

As for Feinstein’s threat to seek a monument designation from Obama, he said, “I’m not supportive of the president using executive orders as a means of protecting public lands.”

AFP Photo/Mark Wilson

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Great White Shark Population Is Healthy And Growing, New Census Shows

By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A new census study shows there are more than 2,400 white sharks off California and suggests that existing protective measures should be maintained because they are increasing the size and health of the population.

The study by a 10-member team led by George H. Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, bolsters a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determination that the eastern Pacific Ocean population of great white sharks does not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act.

“That we found these sharks are doing OK, better than OK, is a real positive in light of the fact that other shark populations are not necessarily doing as well,” Burgess said. “We hope others can take our results and use them as a positive starting point for additional investigation.”

The team, like NOAA, began researching the status of the great white shark population in 2013, after the environmental groups Oceana, Shark Stewards, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition calling for endangered species protection.

The environmental groups were reacting to the first census of great whites ever attempted. Conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Stanford University, and published in the journal Biology Letters in 2011, the census estimated that only 219 adult and sub-adult great whites lived off the Central California coast, and perhaps double that many were in the entire northeastern Pacific Ocean, including Southern California.

The great white shark, which can reach 21 feet, weigh 3 tons and hunts waters shared by surfers, scuba divers, and swimmers, feeds at the top of the food chain, and the status of its population can have cascading effects on species from sea lions to anchovies.

The surprisingly low estimate prompted environmentalists to launch fundraising campaigns to “save the great white shark from extinction,” and file the petitions that made Carcharodon carcharias the first candidate for listing as an endangered species in California ocean waters.

The UC Davis/Stanford University census also drew sneers from shark experts who claimed it was based on faulty assumptions. The actual white shark population, critics said, was likely 10 times larger — a result of state and federal laws curbing pollution, banning near-shore gill netting, protecting sharks, and halting the slaughter of marine mammals they prey on.

Caught in the middle were state and federal wildlife authorities who accepted the petitions for consideration because the census study was, at the time, the only available science on the subject that had been published in an internationally recognized scientific journal.
Earlier this year, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife both determined that listing was not warranted.

“In this case, the environmental groups were too quick on the draw,” Burgess said in an interview. “Their hearts were in the right place, but their petitions cost taxpayers a heck of a lot of money and diverted resources away from species genuinely at risk.”

Photo via WikiCommons

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Company Agrees To Record Environmental Settlement

By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday announced that Anadarko Petroleum Corp. had agreed to pay $5.15 billion to clean up hazardous substances dumped nationwide — including radioactive uranium waste across the Navajo Nation — in the largest settlement ever for environmental contamination.

The operations of Kerr-McGee Corp. — which was acquired by Anadarko in 2006 — also left behind radioactive thorium in Chicago and West Chicago, Il; creosote waste in the Northeast, the Midwest and the South; and perchlorate waste in Nevada, according to U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

“Kerr-McGee’s businesses all over this country left significant, lasting environmental damage in their wake,” Cole said. “It tried to shed its responsibility for this environmental damage and stick the United States taxpayers with the huge cleanup bill.”

Last year, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Allan L. Gropper found that before the acquisition, Kerr-McGee had fraudulently conveyed its liability for cleanup at contaminated sites to Tronox Inc., a spinoff entity, while retaining its valuable oil and gas exploration assets.

As a result, Tronox was declared insolvent in 2009 and left unable to address environmental liabilities.

Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, described Kerr-McGee’s efforts to “keep its rewards and shed its responsibilities” as a “corporate shell game.”

In a statement, Anadarko Chief Executive Al Walker said the settlement “eliminates the uncertainty this dispute has created, and the proceeds will fund the remediation and cleanup of the legacy environmental liabilities and tort claims.”

Justice Department officials said $1.1 billion of the total would go to a trust charged with cleaning up two dozen sites, including the Kerr-McGee Superfund site in Columbus, Miss.

Another $1.1 billion will be paid to a trust responsible for cleaning up a former chemical manufacturing site that polluted Nevada’s Lake Mead with rocket fuel. Lake Mead feeds into the Colorado River, a major source of drinking water in the Southwest.

About $985 million will go toward the cleanup of roughly 50 abandoned uranium mines in and around the Navajo Nation.

In addition, the Navajo Nation will receive more than $43 million to address radioactive waste left at a former uranium mill in Shiprock, NM.

About $224 million will cover thorium contamination at the Welsbach Superfund site in Gloucester, NJ, and about $217 million will go to the federal Superfund in repayment of costs previously incurred by the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup of the Federal Creosote Superfund site in Manville, NJ.

After a public comment period, the agreement announced Thursday must be approved by Gropper and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, hailed the settlement as a “huge win for public health and the environment.”

Photo: John Hark via Flickr

Company Agrees To Record Environmental Settlement

By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday announced that Anadarko Petroleum Corp. had agreed to pay $5.15 billion to clean up hazardous substances dumped nationwide — including radioactive uranium waste across the Navajo Nation — in the largest settlement ever for environmental contamination.

The operations of Kerr-McGee Corp. — which was acquired by Anadarko in 2006 — also left behind radioactive thorium in Chicago and West Chicago, Ill.; creosote waste in the Northeast, the Midwest and the South; and perchlorate waste in Nevada, according to U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

“Kerr-McGee’s businesses all over this country left significant, lasting environmental damage in their wake,” Cole said. “It tried to shed its responsibility for this environmental damage and stick the United States taxpayers with the huge cleanup bill.”

Last year, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Allan L. Gropper found that before the acquisition, Kerr-McGee had fraudulently conveyed its liability for cleanup at contaminated sites to Tronox Inc., a spinoff entity, while retaining its valuable oil and gas exploration assets.

As a result, Tronox was declared insolvent in 2009 and left unable to address environmental liabilities.

Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, described Kerr-McGee’s efforts to “keep its rewards and shed its responsibilities” as a “corporate shell game.”

In a statement, Anadarko Chief Executive Al Walker said the settlement “eliminates the uncertainty this dispute has created, and the proceeds will fund the remediation and cleanup of the legacy environmental liabilities and tort claims.”

Justice Department officials said $1.1 billion of the total would go to a trust charged with cleaning up two dozen sites, including the Kerr-McGee Superfund site in Columbus, Miss.

Another $1.1 billion will be paid to a trust responsible for cleaning up a former chemical manufacturing site that polluted Nevada’s Lake Mead with rocket fuel. Lake Mead feeds into the Colorado River, a major source of drinking water in the Southwest.

About $985 million will go toward the cleanup of roughly 50 abandoned uranium mines in and around the Navajo Nation.

In addition, the Navajo Nation will receive more than $43 million to address radioactive waste left at a former uranium mill in Shiprock, N.M.

About $224 million will cover thorium contamination at the Welsbach Superfund site in Gloucester, N.J., and about $217 million will go to the federal Superfund in repayment of costs previously incurred by the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup of the Federal Creosote Superfund site in Manville, N.J.

After a public comment period, the agreement announced Thursday must be approved by Gropper and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, hailed the settlement as a “huge win for public health and the environment.”

Karen Bleier via AFP

Oil Spilled In Gulf Of Mexico Causes Heart Problems In Developing Tuna

By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — There’s more bad news about the effects of oil spills on warm-water predators, including Atlantic bluefin tuna, already one of the most threatened fish in the seas.

Oil spills such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico may cause serious heart defects in developing fish embryos, according to a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The release of more than 4 million barrels of oil between April and July 2010 coincided with the spawning window for commercially and ecologically important species such as bluefin and yellowfin tunas, mahi mahi, Spanish mackerels and blue marlin.

Much of that oil rose from the wellhead on the ocean floor to the surface, potentially exposing buoyant and rapidly developing fish embryos and larvae to toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

In the laboratory, the researchers found that embryos of bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and amberjack exposed to field-collected Deepwater Horizon oil samples suffered defects in heart development resulting in irregular heartbeat, circulatory disruption and pericardial fluid accumulation.

The defects occurred in the fish at PAH concentrations of one to 15 parts per billion — lower than those measured in samples collected from the upper water column of the northern Gulf of Mexico during the spill.

“Losses of early life stages were therefore likely for Gulf populations of tunas, amberjack, swordfish, billfish and other large predators that spawned in oiled surface habitats,” the study says.

Exposure to low levels of crude oil was shown to produce abnormal heart rhythms even in fish larvae that otherwise appeared to be normal, study leader John P. Incardona, an ecotoxicologist at NOAA, said in an interview.

“Larvae exposed to high levels were dead within a week,” Incardona added. “But we still don’t know how long they lived after exposure to lower levels, or how much spawning area may have been impacted.”

The BP spill, which was caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, was the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The blast killed 11 workers and unleashed nearly 5 million barrels of crude into the environment.

The study was conducted by researchers at NOAA, Stanford University, the University of Miami and the University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore, Australia.

In a response, Jason Ryan, a spokesman for BP America Inc., said, “The paper provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact on tuna, amberjack or other pelagic fish species in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Photo: Aziz T. Saltik via Flickr

Biologists Move 500 Red-Legged Frog Eggs To Mountain Wetlands

By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES—Federal biologists clad in waders and armed with long-handled nets this week moved hundreds of red-legged frog eggs from a San Fernando Valley stream to carefully selected wetlands 10 miles away in the first attempt to expand the threatened species’ range in Southern California.

Five hundred eggs transported from the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve to the Santa Monica Mountains are expected to hatch any day. When they do, they will reintroduce red-legged frog tadpoles to historic haunts that are free of predatory fish, snails and crayfish that could tear them apart.

About two years from now, if all goes according to plan, the mating calls of the largest native frog west of the Mississippi will rejoin the natural sounds in remote mountainous terrain where the species has not been seen in nearly half a century.

The biologists were led by Katy Delaney of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. She waded into a deep rocky pool shortly after sunrise Tuesday and used her fingers to gently coax portions of two submerged egg masses attached to willow branches into plastic containers.

“Ooh! They’re wily little things!” she said with a nervous laugh, while trying to retrieve a couple of eggs that had slipped through her fingers and were floating downstream. “You’re going to love your new home. Promise.”

The collaborative effort involving the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority aims to return the species, known to scientists as Rana draytonii, to some of the waterways where it thrived for hundreds of thousands of years.

Since the 1960s, the frog has been decimated by fires, mudslides, pesticides, fungal infections and loss of habitat, as well as the appetites of raccoons and nonnative fish, bullfrogs and crayfish. Today, it exists in about 30 percent of its historic range.

With skin as permeable as a sponge, the species is susceptible to a skin fungus that has wiped out amphibian populations around the world. The fungus swept through California in the 1960s and 1970s, killing millions of frogs and fragmenting survivors into isolated groups.

“The few frog populations that survived — including these red-legged frogs — have somehow persisted with the disease,” Adam Backlin, a USGS field biologist, said. “They seem to have figured out how to deal with it.”

“So if this translocation effort works, we’ll dispatch them to additional sites in Southern California,” Backlin said.

Moving frogs to conserve them in California has already re-established thriving populations in the Central Valley’s Pinnacles National Park and the Bay Area’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Petersnm via Flickr

Climate Change Brings More Crime, Study Says

By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

A new study broadens a notion held by the earliest criminologists: Periods of higher temperatures — on an hour-by-hour or week-to-week basis — are likely to produce more crime.

The study by Matthew Ranson of Abt Associates, a research and consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., suggests global warming will trigger more U.S. crimes including murders and rapes over the next century, with social costs estimated to run as high as $115 billion.

Between 2010 and 2099, climate change can be expected to cause an additional 22,000 murders, 180,000 cases of rape, 1.2 million aggravated assaults, 2.3 million simple assaults, 260,000 robberies, 1.3 million burglaries, 2.2 million cases of larceny and 580,000 cases of vehicle theft, the study published this week in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management says.

Compared with the number of crimes expected to occur during this period in the absence of climate change, these figures represent a 2.2 percent increase in murders, a 3.1 percent increase in cases of rape, a 2.3 percent increase in aggravated assaults, a 1.2 percent increase in simple assaults, a 1 percent increase in robberies, a 0.9 percent increase in burglaries, a 0.5 percent increase in cases of larceny and a 0.8 percent increase in cases of vehicle theft, the study says.

The social costs of these increases would be roughly $38 billion to $115 billion, based on dollar values of per-offense losses established by earlier research.

“A 1 percent to 3 percent increase in a particular crime may seem modest,” Ranson said in an interview. “But for victims, survivors and law enforcement, the burden of those numbers can be very substantial.

“The broader context here is that climate change will influence our lives in a variety of ways beyond how much water we can spare for such things as farming,” he added. “Now, there is reason to believe it will also impact social connections in our neighborhoods, the amount of time we allow our children to spend outside and how much we are willing to spend on law enforcement.”

Overall, crime rates for most offenses by 2090 will be 1.5 percent to 5.5 percent higher because of climate change, according to the study of crime statistics and weather data for each of the nation’s nearly 3,000 counties.

“To put these numbers in perspective,” the study says, “recent research suggests that a 1 percent increase in the size of a city’s police force results in an approximate 0.3 percent decrease in violent crimes, and a 0.2 percent decrease in property crimes, with some variation across types of offenses.”

Therefore, it adds, “an immediate and permanent 4 percent increase in the size of the U.S. police force would be required to offset the aggregate climate-related increases in murder, manslaughter, robbery, burglary and vehicle theft likely to occur over the next century.”

The study merged monthly reports on criminal activity from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting files with temperature and precipitation records for 2997 counties from the U.S. National Climatic Data Center’s Global Historical Climatology Network Daily and projections of future climate drawn from 15 global circulation models.

The data set covers a 30-year period and contains 891,000 unique county-by-year-by-month observations.

Photo: Mikael Miettinen via Flickr