J.R. Pegg

Cleaning Up Factory Farms

The Bush administration's regulations to limit water pollution from factory farms violate the Clean Water Act and must be revised, a federal appeals court ruled Monday. The court found the regulations failed to ensure that factory farms would be held accountable for discharging animal wastes into the nation's waters.

The ruling, released Monday by a three judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, is a major victory for environmentalists who filed suit against the February 2003 rules. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance and an NRDC senior attorney, called the regulations the "product of a conspiracy between a lawless industry and compliant public officials in cahoots to steal the public trust."

"I am grateful that the court has taken the government and the barons of corporate agriculture to the woodshed for a well-earned rebuke," Kennedy said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which issued the rules, was not available for comment on the ruling.

The decision continues a long-running battle over how to regulate factory farms -- known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). CAFOs have emerged as the dominant force in the modern production of agricultural livestock as the size of livestock operations has grown over the past two decades. These operations produce some 500 million tons of animal waste annually -- disposal and storage of this waste presents serious risks to public health and the environment.

CAFOs often over-apply liquid waste on land, which runs off into surface water, killing fish, spreading disease, and contaminating drinking water supplies. Waste can leak onto the land and into groundwater and drinking water supplies from the massive waste storage units on the farms.

Three decades ago the U.S. Congress identified CAFOs as point sources of water pollution to be regulated under the Clean Water Act's water pollution permitting program. The 2003 rule aimed to implement that decision -- it applies to some 15,500 livestock operations across the country.

Large CAFOs are defined in the regulations as operations raising more than 1,000 cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs, 10,000 sheep, 125,000 chickens, 82,000 laying hens, or 55,000 turkeys in confinement.

The regulations require these operations to apply for discharge permits under the Clean Water Act every five years and develop nutrient management plans to manage and limit pollution -- or otherwise demonstrate that they have no potential for discharge.

The Bush administration said the rules balanced environmental protection with the concerns of a competitive and economically important industry. But the court described the regulations as "arbitrary and capricious" and said the Clean Water Act "demands regulation in fact, not only in principle."

The court determined the rules illegally allowed permitting authorities to issue permits without reviewing the terms of CAFO plans to manage and limit pollution.

"The CAFO rule does nothing to ensure that each large CAFO will comply with all applicable effluent limitations and standards," the panel wrote in its 65-page ruling.

The rule also "deprives the public of the opportunity for the sort of regulatory participation that the Act guarantees because the rule effectively shields the nutrient management plans from public scrutiny and comment," the judges wrote.

The panel agreed with environmentalists who argued that the regulations violate federal law because they do not ensure that permits contain specific limits on the amount of pollution CAFOs can discharge.

"To accept the EPA's contrary argument -- that requiring a nutrient management plan is itself a restriction on land application discharges -- is to allow semantics to torture logic," the court said.

The agency also failed to require factory farms to use the necessary technological controls to reduce bacteria and other pathogens from their pollution, according the ruling.

"The court agreed that there is a better way than the Bush administration's plan," said Eric Huber, a Sierra Club attorney. "When technology and existing law can keep animal waste out of our rivers, why should Americans have to settle for a plan that puts polluters before the public?"

Playing Politics With Mad Cows

The Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday unanimously approved the nomination of Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns as U.S. agriculture secretary, clearing the way for his likely confirmation by the full Senate. Committee members spent little time discussing Johanns' qualifications for the job and instead spent the majority of the hearing airing renewed concerns about the impact of mad cow disease on the U.S. beef industry.

The decision last week by the Bush administration to lift the 19-month ban on Canadian beef imports drew particular scrutiny from members on both sides of the aisle. The day after announcing the decision Canadian officials confirmed the discovery of a second native case of mad cow disease – the ban was put in place in May 2003 when Canada reported its first case of the disease.

"Ranchers across the country are concerned, as they should be," said Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, the incoming chair of the committee.

Democrats highlighted fresh evidence that suggests the Canadian feed ban is far from rigorous and is routinely allowing animal proteins into cattle feed.

Cattle are naturally vegetarian, but additives made from rendered animal byproducts can be part of their feed in commercial operations. As of 1997, by law, U.S. cattle cannot be fed byproducts from other ruminant animals such as other cattle, sheep or goats, as they may carry the misshapen proteins called prions that cause mad cow disease.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a series of import alerts, Canadian regulators have discovered problems with 10 feed mills, and more than 60 percent of recently tested samples of vegetarian animal feed manufactured in Canada contained "undeclared animal materials."

"That raises an enormous red flag for us in respect to what Canada is doing," said Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat. "I am far from convinced that Canada is effectively enforcing its own regulations."

Johanns, the son of an Iowa dairy farmer, declined to say if he would reconsider the decision to lift the Canadian ban, which will become effective March 7.

"As a nominee, I would not indicate any kind of decision to postpone," the 54-year-old Johanns told the committee. Johanns said he would focus on animal and food safety and ensure "we are doing the right things in those areas in terms of this rule and in terms of Canada."

Mad cow disease has emerged as a tricky, costly problem for the U.S. beef industry since it was first found in the United States in December 2003.

The disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), spreads from one animal to another by consumption of feed that has been contaminated by protein – such as blood or meat meal – from an infected animal. Humans come down with a parallel fatal brain wasting disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, by consuming beef from BSE-infected cattle.

The U.S. and Canadian governments banned the use of ruminant remains in feed for cattle, goats and sheep in August 1997.

In the wake of the December 2003 discovery that a U.S. cow, originally imported from Canada, was stricken with the disease, officials have struggled to assure some trading partners that the nation's testing and oversight are adequate.

At the top of the list is Japan, which imported more U.S. beef in 2003 – some $1.3 billion worth – than any other nation.

"We have got to get moving on this," said Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat. Baucus said the issue is largely one of trade politics, not food safety, and criticized outgoing Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman for not pressing the issue with the White House.

"This has to be bumped up to the presidential level," Baucus said. "Otherwise it is just going to be a lot of talk and not a lot is going to happen."

Although the U.S agriculture officials predict the nation's beef exports will increase 35 percent this year, lawmakers note this is below historical levels and contend that foreign bans on U.S. beef are harming the industry. Tyson Foods, the world's largest supplier of chicken, beef and pork, announced Thursday that it would temporarily cut operations at four beef plants because of low demand and tight cattle supplies.

"This is a real indication that the rubber has hit the road," said Senator Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat. "We have to move these discussions to another level – we are not getting anywhere in the current approach we are taking."

Johanns said reopening the Japanese market would be "priority number one" once he takes charge of the department.

"I will do everything I can to move aggressively on this," he said. "Trade is a very, very significant issue for me. Nothing more frustrating than working through a process that is not based on good science, but that is based on politics."

Johanns said increased testing of U.S. cattle could prompt a reversal of a ban on downer cattle, which are animals too sick or injured to walk.

"I supported Ann Veneman when she announced that – just to assure the public that we were aggressively on top of this issue," Johanns told the committee. "But gosh the testing that has been done and our animals have done well."

U.S. regulators have tested some 165,000 cattle over the past year for BSE, Johanns said, and the goal is "to test 250,000 or so and take a look at how we are doing."

"We have a body of information we did not have before," he said.

Global Fish Crisis Looms

Conservationists warn the world is facing a global fish crisis and reversing course will require strong action and difficult choices.

The race to feed the world's growing appetite for fish has pushed many commercial stocks to the brink of extinction and has put added pressure on millions of small scale fishers in Southeast Asia, according to a report released today by scientists with the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The study by the U.S. based research group says consumers, in particular those in the developed world, must be active agents for achieving sustainable fishing practices and healthy fish stocks.

"Most people have little idea of what the 'fisheries crisis' is, or what it means to them," said co-author Yumiko Kura. "From a consumer's point of view – at least in most developed nations – the sad condition of fish stocks is not obvious. There are still plenty of fish available in markets and restaurants, although the types may have changed and the prices may be higher."

Global consumption of seafood is at an all time high – in excess of 90 million metric tons – and is set to increase even as stock conditions continue to worsen, Kura said.

Demand for seafood products has doubled during the last 30 years and is projected to continue growing at 1.5 percent per year through 2020. Although it is difficult to determine the exact condition of all marine fish stocks, the researchers say there is ample cause for concern.

"As of 2002, 75 percent of the 441 fish stocks for which information was available are in urgent need of better management," said co-author Carmen Revenga. "Analysis reveals that of the 200 fish stocks that are commonly most valuable, 35 percent show declining yields, indicating that the state of these fisheries continues to deteriorate."

Fishing predates agriculture as a human activity, but "the nature of the fishing enterprise and the condition of the marine and freshwater resources it relies on could hardly have changed more radically in the last 100 years," according to the report.

Modern fishing techniques, population growth and economic pressures have brought a rapid expansion of commercial fishing and greatly increased the capacity to exploit fish stocks. New technologies allow for massive hauls from waters often far from the coasts and the result "has been a rapid depletion of key stocks, and serious disruption and degradation of the marine and freshwater ecosystems they live in."

WRI's report, "Fishing for Answers: Making Sense of the Global Fish Crisis," indicates that failure to sustainably manage fish stocks could have stark consequences and is already putting additional pressure on the world's poor.

Some one billion people, largely in developing countries, rely on fish as their primary animal protein source, and an estimated 35 million people are directly engaged in fishing and aquaculture.

Fishing is big business – the international fish trade was worth $55 billion in 2001 – and the developing world will play a vital role in the future of the world's fish stocks. Developing countries produce more than 70 percent of the fish consumed by humans and are taking an increasing interest in aquaculture – seen by many as a way to meet future demand for fish and mitigate the overexploitation of wild fish stocks. Fish farming has boomed in the past three decades and now supplies some 40 percent of the world's total food fish supply.

But there is concern that aquaculture is poorly regulated and is not the ultimate answer to the fish crisis.

"The heavy dependence of intensive systems on human inputs – water, energy, chemicals – and on wild fish for feed and seed, as well as the effects on ecosystems and species are major constraints to the sustainability and future growth of this industry," the report said.

The aquaculture challenges could prove in particular difficult within the developing world, where many nations are ill equipped to regulate fish farms. Some of these operations are already sparking conflicts between commercial fishing interests and local subsistence fishers.

The report details that in the rural provinces around Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, violent conflicts are increasingly becoming routine between small scale fishers and operators of large scale, commercial fish pens. The local fishers accuse the wealthy outsiders of having corrupt ties to the government and using destructive fishing methods. The commercial owners counter that the locals poach their stocks.

WRI's report says many small scale fishers in the developing world also face pressures from pressures from agriculture, dams and coastal development.

"Rights and responsibilities of resource users are not well defined, and the competition among the fishers intensifies as the resources become scarcer," Revenga said. "Even where clear laws and regulations defining rights exist, enforcement is a challenge for industrial nations and developing countries alike, often resulting in conflicts between different user groups."

Solving the fish crisis will require international cooperation, according to the report, but the primary responsibility for change lies with individual nations. Some 90 percent of commercial fish are harvested within coastal waters controlled by national governments. Commercial fishing is driven by demand and the authors contend that consumers need to be more conscious of which fish are sustainably harvested.

"People need to make the best of what is in season or abundant, and not focus on the top five fish in the market," said Kura. "For instance, consumers in the U.S. do not eat a lot of mackerel, but there are plenty of them. At the very least, consumers can be aware and start asking where the fish came from and whether they are farmed or wild."

Smog Gets In Your Lungs

Global warming is likely to cause hotter summer days and more smog for many cities in the eastern half of the United States, medical experts said in a study released last week.

The finding raises concerns that the nation's battle against smog could become increasingly difficult; more than 100 million Americans already live in counties with unhealthy smog levels.

Smog is formed when pollutants from vehicles, factories and other sources mix with sunlight and heat.

There is growing scientific evidence linking smog to asthma and other respiratory ailments, with children and the elderly at greatest risk of breathing problems from exposure to smog. More than 17 million Americans have asthma, including an estimated five million children.

"Hotter weather severely compounds a dangerous problem for millions of Americans," said Professor Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the report. "The unsettling news here is that global warming could offset some of the positive gains we have been making on air quality."

The analysis was prepared by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University, in collaboration with researchers at Yale University, University at Albany-State University of New York, and University of Wisconsin-Madison. Results of the study were published by the Natural Resources Defense Council and released in cooperation with Physicians for Social Responsibility.

By the end of this century, U.S. government scientists estimate that much of the eastern United States will see increases in the heat index – the combination of heat and humidity into effective temperature – in the range of five to 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

The study analyzed the effects of global warming on air quality in the following 15 cities in the eastern half of the United States: Atlanta, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; Buffalo, New York; Charleston, West Virginia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Cincinnati, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Indianapolis, Indiana; Little Rock, Arkansas; Louisville, Kentucky; Monroe, Louisiana; Nashville, Tennessee; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Researchers compared the 1990s concentration of ozone, the key ingredient in smog, with climate simulations for five year spans in the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s. The study found all cities in the study had more or the same number of unhealthy smog days.

By mid-century people living in these cities would see, on average, a 60 percent increase in the number of days – from 12 to nearly 20 – when ozone levels exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) air quality standard.

In addition, these cities are likely to see a 20 percent drop in the number of summer days that meet the EPA's good air quality standard, from the current average of 50 days per summer to 40 days per summer, as well as a doubling of red alert air quality days from two per summer today to four per summer. On red alert days, individuals are advised to limit outdoor activity.

The study noted that Nashville, for example, would see up to 14 more red alert summer days and Portsmouth would see two "purple alert" days per summer – the most severe, and rare, health advisory that advises individuals avoid outdoor activity.

The researchers found that global warming could deliver a dangerous double blow to people with asthma.

Smog pollution can increase sensitivity to allergens, and the elevated carbon dioxide levels responsible for global warming also stimulate increased pollen production in allergenic plants, such as common ragweed.

The deteriorations in air quality examined in the report are due solely to rising summer temperatures predicted by climate change models and do not take into account reductions in smog forming pollution.

Efforts to reduce smog have targeted the sources of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – these pollutants react in sunlight and heat to form ozone. Power plants, industrial facilities, cars and trucks are leading emitters of NOx and VOCs.

Kerry Promotes Energy Independence Plan

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry outlined a 10-year, $30 billion energy plan on Friday and said the proposal will "put America on the path to energy independence and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs at the same time."

Kerry's plan centers on increased support for renewable energy and for alternative motor fuels made from corn and soybeans, as well as incentives for clean coal technology and for more fuel efficient cars and trucks.

"We can control our own destiny, we can create the jobs of tomorrow and we can make sure that no young American in uniform will ever be held hostage to our dependence on oil from the Middle East," Kerry told supporters in Kansas City, Missouri.

Kerry's remarks came at the end of a week that saw oil prices soar to a near record high of almost $45 a barrel.

The Democratic presidential nominee blamed the Bush administration for making the nation more dependent on foreign oil and for not taking action to aid consumers and business feeling the pinch from rising oil prices. The nation's reliance on foreign oil has risen from 58.2 percent in 2000 to 61.7 percent today, according to the Kerry campaign, with roughly a quarter of America's oil supply coming from the Middle East.

"It does not have to be this way," Kerry said. "America will be safer and freer when the resources that fuel our economy are in our hands and when we develop new energy sources in our country."

The proposal calls for the creation of a $20 billion Energy Security and Conservation Trust fund, capitalized with existing federal offshore oil and gas revenues, in order to provide a guaranteed funding stream for energy. The trust fund would be used to meet dual goals, to be met by 2020, of ensuring 20 percent of the nation's motor fuel and electricity come from renewable energy sources.

The proposal earmarks $5 billion for a clean fuels partnership to research fuels from agricultural waste and includes support for increased production of ethanol, a fuel made from corn. It provides $10 billion to help U.S. automakers develop and manufacture more fuel efficient vehicles, as well as $5 billion in consumer tax credits, including $5,000 tax credits to buy cars and trucks that guzzle less gas.

"We will put in place the tax incentives and joint venture efforts that help us build an independent fuel base for America," Kerry said.

There is little doubt the plan is ambitious – the U.S. Energy Department says that today only 1.5 percent of the nation's motor fuel comes from alternative sources and some 6 percent of the nation's electricity comes from renewables.

It also mirrors several things the Bush administration has strongly supported, including increased natural gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the construction of a pipeline to bring natural gas from Canada and Alaska to the lower 48 states.

The Kerry plan also includes $10 billion for clean coal technology research and support for additional research into hydrogen energy – two things the Bush administration has touted and supported.

Kerry's proposal includes support for nuclear power, but not for the plan to build a federal nuclear waste repository in Nevada's Yucca Mountain – something the Bush administration strongly favors. The Democratic nominee recommends creating a National Academies advisory panel to determine how best to deal with the nation's nuclear waste.

Kerry opposes the aggressive domestic oil and gas drilling on public lands favored by the Bush administration, including the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Bush campaign says Kerry's plan differs little from what the White House has proposed or is already enacting.

Much of the plan, Bush supporters say, could be closer to reality if Kerry and his running mate John Edwards had voted for the energy bill that has stalled in the Senate.

Republicans have failed to muster the 60 votes needed to force a vote on the bill, which has passed the House of Representatives three times. The energy bill contains the mandatory electric transmission reliability standards Kerry supports, as well as provisions that increase ethanol production and extend renewable energy tax credits.

"John Kerry obstructed the President's comprehensive energy plan which had bipartisan support, including its provisions for renewable energy, conservation and energy development that would reduce our dependence on foreign oil," said Steve Schmidt, Bush-Cheney '04 spokesman. "Now he is proposing policies he worked to block."

But the energy bill contains billions of dollars of tax subsidies for the oil, gas and nuclear industries, as well as a controversial liability exemption for manufacturers of the fuel additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), an oxygenate that makes fuel burn cleaner. MTBE leaks into groundwater from fuel storage tanks, contaminating water supplies with a foul smell and taste.

Sarah Bianchi, the Kerry campaign's national policy director, told reporters Friday that the energy bill has been "held hostage" by the MTBE provision.

The Kerry campaign also said it has figured out how to pay for its $30 billion plan. Kerry said the proposal would be more than offset by some $16 billion in savings from increased energy efficiency use across the federal government and by $18 billion through the reauthorization of the Superfund polluter tax levied on industries to help clean up the nation's most hazardous waste sites.

Drilling For Influence

The oil and gas industry has pumped some $440 million into federal political campaigns and lobbying activities during the past six years, according to a new report released by the Center for Public Integrity.

The study gives added fuel to critics who believe the industry has bought undue influence throughout the federal government, in particular within the offices of Bush administration officials.

Republican candidates and organizations received more than 70 percent of the $67 million the industry has given in federal campaign contributions since 1998 – with President George W. Bush leading the way.

The former Texas oilman turned President received some $1.7 million in industry contributions, more than three times the amount given to any other beneficiary of the industry's support.

The study, "The Politics of Oil," is the first of a series by the nonprofit research group that aims to identify the size and scope of the international oil and gas industry and measure its influence in the halls of government worldwide.

Charles Lewis, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, said the group has no axe to grind with President Bush, but the close ties between the industry and the administration hardly came as a surprise.

"No industry in the history of the Republic has had former company executives sitting in the White House as President and Vice President, along with other very senior leadership positions," Lewis said.

Including Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, more than 40 members of the Bush administration have worked directly for or with the oil and gas industry.

The report does not hone in on specific policies that may have been affected by the oil and gas industry's influence, but Lewis told reporters "it is rather apparent what the influence has been able to achieve."

The administration has pushed a host of industry proposals, including an national energy policy laden with subsidies for oil and gas development and several regulations to relax federal rules for drilling on federal lands.

The White House has also resisted calls to raise fuel economy standards or to cut fossil fuel use in order to combat global warming.

The Bush campaign did not comment on the report.

Second and third on the list of politicians who have received the most support from the industry are Texas Republicans Joe Barton, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and House Majority Leader Tom Delay.

Barton has collected $574,000 from the oil and gas industry since 1998; Delay has received just under $500,000 in campaign cash from the industry.

The only Democrat in the top 10 is Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who has been given $343,924 in campaign contributions by oil and gas companies since 1998.

The report lists ChevronTexaco as the leading contributor to recent federal campaigns. The oil giant has given some $2 million to the Republican Party and $45,600 to the Bush campaign in the past six years, along with some $790,000 to the Democratic Party.

ExxonMobil is the industry's leader in lobbying expenditures, spending some $55 million, followed by ChevronTexaco at $32 million.

It is not hard to see why the industry is making such an investment – it has a clear case for wanting to sustain the nation's thirst for oil and gas. In 2003, the United States guzzled more than 25 percent of the world's total oil and gas production.

The Center for Public Integrity report says the industry exerts its influence in "other, less obvious ways" and cites the role of the National Petroleum Council and conservative, nonprofit organizations.

Formed by President Harry Truman after World War II, the National Petroleum Council was designed to provide the government with the industry's expertise on oil and gas issues.

The recommendations of the council during the past six years have closely mirrored the requests of industry lobbyists, according to the report, and at least 10 members of the council are Bush Pioneers – individuals who have raised more than $100,000 for the President's election campaigns.

Few oil companies can match the influence wielded by Koch Industries, according to the Center for Public Integrity. With $40 billion in annual revenues, the privately held conglomerate is the leading campaign contributor for 2004 and the fourth biggest oil and gas industry giver since 1998.

Koch's influence is reflected in its support of some of the nation's most prominent conservative and libertarian think tanks and advocacy groups. These organizations, including the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Federalist Society, have become Washington mainstays and vocal advocates for the deregulation and minimal regulation favored by oil and gas companies.

Lewis said one surprising finding in the report was the extent to which U.S. oil and gas companies have re-incorporated in tax haven countries. The study uncovered more than 882 subsidiaries of U.S. oil and gas companies located in tax havens including the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Panama, the British Virgin Islands and Liechtenstein.

"The entire rest of the world had just 311 such subsidiaries," Lewis said.

At present, about 84 percent of the Federal oil and gas revenues are produced from leases located on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Yucca Mountain Project Radioactive To Nevadans

The Bush administration will press forward with its plan to bury much of the nation's nuclear waste beneath Nevada's Yucca Mountain, a top Energy Department official told the Senate Energy Committee on Tuesday.

Opponents of the plan say a federal court ruling issued last week effectively derailed the project, but Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow hailed the court's decision as "an enormous victory."

The court found the federal government's 10,000-year federal safety requirement for the highly radioactive waste is illegal because it is inconsistent with the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences.

But the court also rejected Nevada's constitutional challenge to the repository and McSlarrow said this overshadows the concern about the safety standard.

"Everything regarding site selection and standards was upheld except for one thing," he said.

The project is "still on track" and the administration will submit a license application for the site by the end of the year," McSlarrow told Senators.

The Yucca Mountain site was first identified as a possible location for storage of the nation's nuclear waste in 1987, but the project has been beset with criticism and skepticism.

The facility is the intended destination for a total of 77,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste from Defense Department sites and spent nuclear fuel from the 103 operating nuclear reactors across the United States.

The Deputy Energy Secretary said he expects the facility will open and begin receiving shipments of nuclear waste in 2010.

But even some supporters of the project do not share McSlarrow's optimism.

"This is an ominous situation," Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, said of the court ruling.

The court did not specify how far out into the future the government must assure the safety of the site, but noted that the National Academy of Sciences report recommended a standard that would cover 300,000 years, when some project radioactive releases from the site to peak.

Critics of the project say this standard cannot be met and Domenici agrees.

He told colleagues it is impossible for scientists to determine the safety requirements for the site beyond 10,000 years.

"That is almost as far out as civilization has been in existence," Domenici said. "There was essentially nothing in the world 10,000 years ago that had to do with mankind."

A key concern for supporters is that the law that identified the Yucca Mountain site for the repository blocks consideration of any other site.

Sustained delay to or failure to proceed with the Yucca Mountain project would force state governments to deal with the waste.

And the nuclear waste problem is growing in scope and expense.

As of 2003, nuclear reactors in the United States had generated some 54,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and by the year 2035, the United States will have produced more than twice that amount.

Several court cases have ruled that the federal government is liable for the costs of storing the nuclear waste until the Yucca Mountain site is ready.

The industry says that total bill could be some $56 billion - the first of several cases that could determine that figure began this week.

States are in no position to oversee or regulate long-term waste storage, Domenici said, and this could cause some to begin to shut down nuclear power plants.

"It is terrifically important that we find a solution to this," said Domenici. "The entire nuclear power industry in the United States could stand or fall with this interpretation."

McSlarrow said the administration is still reviewing the court's ruling, but told the committee he could not see why the project could not proceed.

"It is unlikely that anything that might occur on a post 10,000-year standard would cause us to revise the 10,000 year standard," said McSlarrow, who noted that the ruling approved of the 10,000 year standard.

The court suggested two possible options for dealing with the 10,000 year compliance period: Either federal agencies could revise their regulations to extend the compliance period beyond 10,000 years, or Congress could intervene and pass legislation giving agencies permission to maintain the 10,000 year standard.

The ruling could also be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Changing the law fits the bill for Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who called the decision "a bump in the road."

"We will change the language so the judges can look at it again," said Craig, a Republican.

But changing the law would be far from easy - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is critical of the Yucca Mountain project, which is also opposed by both Nevada Senators.

Critics of the Yucca Mountain plan note that federal officials have raised an array of concerns about the project, including a finding that the manufactured storage containers in which the government plans to store nuclear waste at the facility will probably leak.

There are also funding concerns swirling around the project. In its latest budget request, the Bush administration proposed moving the majority of funding for the repository "off budget."

That funding proposal was "not well thought out," said Domenici, because the budget process does not permit the Bush request.

The problem is forcing the Congress to scramble to meet the $880 million funding request - the House budget only includes $131 million for Yucca Mountain.

McSlarrow acknowledged that funding below the administration's request could stall the project, but said "we are going to work with Congress to ensure we get the funding stream we need."

Kentucky Republican Senator Jim Bunning criticized the administration for requesting cuts in funding for research projects designed to restart the nation's commercial nuclear power industry.

Although nuclear power produces some 20 percent of the nation's electricity, the industry has not ordered a new plant since 1973.

"If we do not expend more dollars on research and development of nuclear power, we are never, ever going to open another nuclear power plant," Bunning said. "If this country is going to have a new nuclear power plant, the federal government is going to have to subsidize it."

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