No. 251, Nov. 6-12, 2003



To read an article, click on the headline.

Warm seas melting ice shelf
the size of Scotland

Canadian top court protects
‘polluter pays’ principle

‘Healthy Forests’ logging
bill threatens communities
and national forests



Warm seas melting ice shelf the size of Scotland

By Steve Connor

Oct. 31— An ice shelf in Antarctica the size of Scotland is rapidly disintegrating because of warmer seas, scientists said yesterday. They believe that the Larsen ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula may disappear within 70 years.

Scientists say that its loss may trigger a release of ice from the peninsula’s mainland, causing global sea levels to rise by 3ft, 3in.

Researchers led by Dr. Andrew Shepherd, a glaciologist from Cambridge University, found that the Larsen ice shelf had thinned by as much as 59 feet in the past 10 years. That can only be explained by a warmer ocean, he said.

The study is published in the journal Science a day after a study revealed that the ice in the Arctic was melting rapidly due to a rise in temperatures, threatening the natural habitat of the polar bear.

Both studies used radar measurements taken by the European Space Agency’s ERS-1 and ERS-2 satellites. This enabled the scientists to monitor the loss of ice over huge areas of sea at opposite ends of the Earth for 10 years.

Dr. Shepherd said, “We’ve discovered that the Larsen ice shelf is thinning due to warmer oceans around it.”

The radar measurements of the ice shelf’s average height above the sea, which are accurate to within 8 inches, revealed a pattern of thinning since measurements began in 1992, Dr. Shepherd said.

The amount of melting freshwater running off the ice shelf into the surrounding sea was equivalent to eight times the flow of the River Thames. This could disturb the local sea currents that were part of a much wider global ocean circulation, he said. Dr. Shepherd said that it was not possible to say with certainty whether global warming was directly responsible for the melting. However, he said that it was indisputable that the sea around the Antarctic Peninsula was getting warmer — although other parts of the Antarctic continent were getting colder.

Dr. Shepherd said the Larsen ice shelf was about 984 feet thick. When two previous sections of the shelf thinned to about 656 feet they quickly disintegrated.

Current estimates suggested that the Larsen ice shelf would begin to disintegrate rapidly by about 2070, although that was likely to happen sooner if current warming trends continued, Dr. Shepherd said.

The disappearance of the ice shelf might also affect the local ice sheets, large bodies of ice trapped on land by the ice shelf. “This is a really important indicator of how grounded ice behind will respond to this disintegration,” Dr. Shepherd said.

Much bigger ice shelves in Antarctica are also being monitored. The Ronne and the Ross ice shelves are about 10 times the size of the Larsen ice shelf and their disintegration would be a far more serious event. Scientists estimate that the Larsen ice shelf has been in existence for 2,000 years and took many centuries to form.

Source: Independent (UK)

Canadian top court protects
‘polluter pays’ principle

By Kirk Makin

Oct. 30 — Polluters must be prepared to pay for damage they cause, the Supreme Court of Canada said in a 9—0 ruling Thursday.

The court rejected arguments from Imperial Oil Ltd. that the Quebec government was caught in a conflict of interest when it ordered the company to clean up a large amount of polluted soil.

“ There was no conflict of interest such as would warrant judicial intervention —let alone any abuse or misuse of power,” Mr. Justice Louis LeBel wrote for the majority.

The case stems from a 1998 order from the Quebec Ministry of the Environment to Imperial Oil to clean up oil and grease contamination from decades old storage tanks that had leaked deep into the soil on which 20 homes have been built in a subdivision near the city of Levis.

“This decision is one of the great environmental law victories in Canadian history,” Sierra Legal Defence Fund managing lawyer Jerry DeMarco said following the decision. “Kudos to the Supreme Court of Canada for again recognizing the importance of environmental protection in safeguarding the well being of Canadians. There are tens of thousands of contaminated sites in Canada, from the Sydney tar ponds, to Levis, Quebec, Hamilton, Calgary, and so on. Toxic messes have been left behind by polluters and now polluters must pay for the environmental harm they have caused.”

Company lawyers had claimed the ministry order was illegal on account of several lawsuits it faces from homeowners over botched attempts to clean up the problem.

The lawsuits accuse the ministry of inadequately supervising the previous cleanup operations.

The company maintained that any moves the province made since the lawsuits were launched could be seen as motivated by their desire to reduce the province’s civil liability — a clear conflict of interest.

The Supreme Court disagreed.

“The only interests the Minister was representing were the public interest in protecting the environment and the interest of the State, which is responsible for preserving the environment,” Judge LeBel said.

“In the circumstances of this case, it was difficult to separate those interests,” he said. “In exercising his discretion, the Minister could properly consider a solution that would save some public money.”

Environmentalists have been on tenterhooks ever since a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled in favor of Imperial Oil’s arguments in 2000. The Quebec Court of Appeal later reversed that ruling, setting up an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General sided with environmentalists during oral arguments, warning that polluters could skip away from thousands of contaminated sites across the country unless the Supreme Court put a stop to Imperial’s challenge.

An adverse ruling would prevent governments from issuing cleanup orders and “be disastrous for environmental regulation across Canada,” Ontario said.

Lawyers for the province also warned that heightened public awareness of environmental issues is likely to multiply the number of lawsuits authorities face in future.

According to Friends of the Earth, another environmental group, about 30,000 sites in Canada are contaminated. It maintained polluters could have effectively abandoned them had the Supreme Court ruling gone the other way.

The contaminated land in Levis was sold by Imperial Oil in 1979. About 32,808 cubic feet of contaminated soil from the Quebec site were removed soon afterward, and approximately 20 homes were built on the site.

In 1995, worried homeowners asked the ministry to order Imperial Oil to deal with continuing pollution problems. After three years of investigation, the ministry issued the contentious order.

Source: Globe and Mail (Toronto)

‘Healthy Forests’ logging bill threatens
communities and national forests

Washington, DC, Nov. 1 — Thursday night, on Eve of Halloween, the US Senate passed the Bush Administration’s “Healthy Forest” logging initiative by a vote of 80-14. This misguided piece of wildfire legislation does virtually nothing to protect homeowners from wildfire. Instead, the bill limits citizen participation, undermines key environmental laws, and allows logging companies to cut down 20 million acres (31,250 square miles) of America’s national forests under the guise of “fuel reduction.”

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) predicted during Thursday’s Senate debate that White House sponsored “Healthy Forests” logging legislation would be a “Halloween trick on communities threatened by wildfires.” Leahy, with thirteen other Senators, voted against final passage of the “Healthy Forests” legislation.

Andrew George, campaign coordinator with the National Forest Protection Alliance, a national network of over 130 grassroots conservation groups, explained: “The Bush administration is exploiting the California wildfire disaster for political gain. Like other reckless White House policies, this is sure to backfire when more communities burn in the future as the logging industry cuts down the biggest, fire-resistant old growth trees.” George continued, “Our grassroots alliance will use whatever rights we still have to expose the Bush Administration’s scam for the pro-logging agenda it is.”

On Halloween, activists held over 40 separate demonstrations across the country during a Day of Action against the Bush administration’s national forest logging plan.

The legislation is seriously flawed, and falls far short of achieving what is supposed to be its primary goal: improving the safety of homeowners and communities across the country from the threat of wildfires. The bill also contains provisions that will make it far more difficult for citizens to challenge ill-conceived timber projects disguised as fuel-reduction, and no meaningful protection for the last remaining stands of old growth trees on America’s national forests.

“The real tragedy of today’s vote is that communities like those around Los Angeles will remain unprotected, while old growth and roadless areas will now be handed over to the logging companies,” said Mike Petersen with the Lands Council in Spokane, WA.

The entire premise of the “Healthy Forest Initiative” continues to be seriously undermined by repeated reports from the General Accounting Office. On October 24th, 2003 the GAO report found that 95% of the 818 Forest Service fuels reduction projects it reviewed were ready for implementation within the standard 90-day review period and 97% of the projects went forward without litigation.

Source: National Forest Protection Alliance