Vermont auto emissions ruling could have broad implications

A ruling by a Vermont judge in September against the auto industry over tough rules curbing greenhouse gas emissions could have national ramifications, from government agencies developing new regulations to Congress.

The decision, the latest setback for the auto industry, could stifle similar litigation pursued by car makers while placing more pressure on Congress to implement strict fuel economy rules in an energy bill expected to be negotiated this fall.

Environmental groups said Judge William Sessions III's decision bolstered the attempt by California and its allies to receive a waiver from the EPA to set up more stringent vehicle anti-pollution standards than those used by the federal government.

"This, I think, turns up the heat on the EPA on the question of the waiver, which is the key step here," said Phil Sharp, a former Indiana congressman who serves as president of Resources for the Future, an environmental group. The EPA has said it will decide on the waiver by the end of the year.

Under the Clean Air Act, California has permission to implement its own pollution rules if it receives a federal waiver. Vermont is among a dozen states, which also include Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York in the Bay watershed, that have adopted California's standards.

In Vermont, auto makers challenged the limits developed by California that would require a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks by 2016. The industry said that would require average fuel economy standards to surpass 43 miles per gallon, well above the current requirement of 27.5 mpg for passenger cars. Those standards were unattainable, the industry said during the April trial, arguing it would create a patchwork of regulations across the nation and cause financial hardships for the manufacturers.

But Sessions was unconvinced, writing that "history suggests that the ingenuity of the industry, once put in gear, responds admirably to most technological challenges."

The judge reached his decision after listening to hours of expert testimony and analysis put forth by the auto industry during the 16-day trial.

Brendan Bell, a Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Sessions' swift rejection of their arguments could lead judges considering similar disputes in California and Rhode Island to dismiss the cases.

Sessions' ruling built upon the momentum for stronger emissions requirements created by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in April that said the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas pollution. As a result, the EPA has dozens of scientists and researchers developing regulations that are slated to be released by the end of the year. The rules are expected to incorporate President Bush's "20 in 10" proposal to reduce gasoline use by 20 percent by 2017.

The Vermont case will also be part of the backdrop in the negotiations expected to begin this fall on an energy bill. The Senate approved tougher fuel economy regulations in June that would require auto makers to reach 35 mpg by 2020. A similar House bill was silent on the issue and lawmakers from both chambers will need to resolve the differences.

Stiff fine sought for Omega Protein

Virginia regulators want to more than double a fine against one of Virginia's biggest fish processors for environmental violations.

The State Water Control Board is seeking a $27,900 fine against Omega Protein Incorporated because of violations at its Reedville plant.

An enforcement officer for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality says the Water Control Board wants to "send a message" to the Texas-based company.

Omega Protein's factory on the Bay has been in trouble six times in the past eight years for environmental problems at the Reedville plant.

A company spokesman says the plant's wastewater system has been improved.

The regulatory board was to consider the stiffer fine in late September.

Groups seek VA funds to curb farm pollution

Ten Virginia agricultural and environmental groups are urging Gov. Tim Kaine to include $100 million a year in the state budget to fully fund state cost-share programs that help farmers reduce runoff pollution to Virginia rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

"We the undersigned organizations join as one to urge your leadership in reaffirming the Commonwealth's commitment for clean water, and we offer a consensus recommendation for realizing those commitments," the coalition wrote Kaine in an Aug. 29 letter. "Restoring Virginia's waters will require a significant public-private investment and, we believe, a dedication of state revenues."

The groups proposed an annual budget payment financed by one-tenth of one cent of the state sales tax. Payments would be made each year for 10 years into the Water Quality Improvement Fund to support cost-share programs that assist farmers across Virginia in implementing critical farm practices that reduce runoff pollution.

Farmers would contribute an additional $646 million over 10 years as their share. This funding could fully implement the top priority agricultural practices called for in the Chesapeake cleanup as well as make significant progress in restoring the 400 polluted rivers and streams outside the Bay watershed.

The agricultural groups signing onto the consensus plan include the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, Virginia Agribusiness Council, Virginia Poultry Federation, Virginia State Dairymen's Association and Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. The conservation groups include the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, James River Association, Friends of the Rappahannock, Potomac Conservancy and Virginiaforever.

Environmental sensitivity maps for Bay released

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partners have developed quick-reference maps that provide federal, state and local resource managers and incident responders with vital information about the vulnerability of coastal areas in Maryland and Virginia to hazardous spills.

The new environmental sensitivity index maps identify critical habitats, beach access points and other areas that could be affected by a spill incident. The maps also include data on the distribution of key animal species.

The release of ESI maps for Maryland, coupled with the ESI data for Virginia published in 2005, now provide complete coverage for the Chesapeake Bay area, according to NOAA, which worked with other federal, state and private entities to identify and collect data for the maps.

"These new ESI maps are a significant improvement over the original ones completed for the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1980s," said Peyton Robertson, director of the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office, which provided major support for the mapping project. "Traditionally used for spill response, these products now have a much broader application for use in coastal habitat characterization, shoreline classification and land-use applications."

Hard copies may be ordered at PDF and digital ESI data may be downloaded free of charge from NOAA's NOS Data Explorer site,

Asian oysters rounded up after anchor hits cage

Scientists successfully collected Asian oysters that were accidentally released in the Severn River this summer after a boat anchor struck the cage holding about 100 nonnative oysters that were part of a University of Maryland experiment.

"They feel that none are left in the river," said Chris Conner, a spokesperson for the university's Center for Environmental Science. "They did a thorough sweep with divers."

The release took place in July, when a boat pilot dropped an anchor and struck the steel cage that held several hundred oysters, inadvertently dragging it several feet and shaking up the trays holding native and nonnative oysters.

The oysters were part of an experiment to see if Maryland and Virginia can safely introduce a nonnative oyster species into the Chesapeake.

Chesapeake Bay Trust exceeds $4 million in grant giving

The Chesapeake Bay Trust announced that it has surpassed the $4 million mark in single-year grant giving, making 2007 a milestone for the organization.

That was a 50 percent increase over last year, according to the trust, which is supported by purchases of the Maryland Treasure the Chesapeake license plates, the Chesapeake Bay and Endangered Species Fund tax check-off option on the Maryland State income tax form, and donations from individuals and corporations.

Since its inception in 1985, the trust, a private, non-profit organization, has awarded more than $24 million dollars to approximately 7,200 grantees across the state to support on-the-ground restoration and hands-on education programs that help to raise awareness and restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.

For five years running, the Trust has received a 4-Star rating from Charity Navigator-the highest rating offered for charities.