Harsh weather blamed for avian cholera outbreak

An outbreak of avian cholera that had killed an estimated 100,000 waterfowl in the Chesapeake Bay region showed no signs of letting up by mid-March, largely because of continuing cold temperatures.

What we really need is some warm fronts out of the south or southwest to begin to move these birds northward,” said Glen Askins, regional wildlife manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “As long as it's cold, they're just not going to leave.”

Most of the avian cholera victims have been oldsquaw and scoter sea ducks. Since the outbreak was first detected almost a month ago, 14,000 dead birds have been found in Virginia, mostly along the Eastern Shore. Maryland has accounted for about 7,000 deaths; 1,000 dead birds were collected along North Carolina beaches.

Officials though, said the actual number of dead birds was several times the number of bodies actaully collected. After collection, the bodies were burned to minimize spread of the disease. Avian cholera is a highly infectious disease that spreads rapidly though waterfowl and other migratory bird populations.

Officials believe the problem started when a single sea duck in a huge flock became ill after ingesting the bacteria, which is not uncommon in the usual food supply of the birds — snails, clams and mussels.

Other birds weakened by the cold weather and feeding and drinking around the dying bird then became infected, and the illness spread. Askins said the cholera can kill a bird in six to 12 hours.

“What starts as one dead bird in a flock of 30,000 to 50,000 can kill thousands in a few days,” he said. The outbreak will end when healthy birds migrate through the region to points north, bypassing infected areas, he said.

There were major outbreaks of cholera in 1978, when more than 100,000 birds died, and 1970, when the death toll was estimated as 60,000 to 70,000. Most of the dead ducks were oldsquaws.

The species recovered quickly and numbers were back to normal in two or three years, said Larry Hindman, manager of the the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ migratory bird program.

The disease is typically a winter and spring phenomenon and is often associated with stress factors such as crowding and severe weather.

The risk of human infection from the disease is extremely low.

EPA orders chemical plants to reduce air emissions

Chemical plants will have to sharply reduce the release of toxic pollutants into the air under regulations issued March 1 by the EPA.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner called the new rules “a landmark for public health” that will reduce the amount of toxic air releases from chemical plants by 88 percent from 1990 levels.

Anticipating the new requirement, which stems from the 1990 Clean Air Act, major companies already have moved toward the reduction goals. The companies have three years to meet the requirements.

“This is the most far-reaching effort ever taken to reduce air toxics,” said Browner, because it attacks “the single biggest industrial source of toxic air pollution in America — emissions from chemical plants.”

The regulations call on the industry to install the best available pollution-control equipment at 370 chemical plants. The companies also have to better monitor equipment leaks and take other precautions to reduce air releases during production, storage, and transportation.

“Virtually every chemical facility will have at least some processes affected by this,” said Ted Cromwell of the Chemical Manufacturers Association.

The EPA estimates the tighter emission controls will capture 506,000 tons of toxic chemicals once fully installed, based on 1990 chemical release estimates. The new requirements will affect chemical plants in 38 states, but the greatest impact will be in Louisiana, Texas and New Jersey where chemical manufacturing facilities are concentrated.

The new equipment also will cut smog-causing volatile organic compounds released from the chemical plants. These pollutants will be cut by about 80 percent — the equivalent of removing 38 million cars from the nation's highways, said Browner.

Farmland protection urged in Disney development

Thousands of acres of productive Virginia farmland will be turned into urban sprawl by the proposed Disney's America park unless specific plans are developed to prevent it, an agricultural preservationist group.

“The Disney theme park is a national test case of our ability to recognize the significance of our fast disappearing farmland and take the steps necessary to protect it,” Edward Thompson Jr., director of public policy for American Farmland Trust, said at a news conference.

Mary Anne Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Disney, said “Disney, Prince William County and the farmland trust all want responsible growth. But it's unreasonable that Prince William County's responsible development of Disney's America be held hostage to decisions outside its borders.”

She said Disney has “already identified a number of environmental initiatives for Disney's America that will benefit adjacent farmlands.” For example, she said, “we're restoring some forest areas and reconstructing 28 acres of wetlands destroyed by agriculture years ago.”

Thompson and AFT President Ralph Grossi said the park should not receive governmental approval unless measures are adopted to protect the best farmland in the area.

Those measures should include the designation of special agricultural reserves in master plans and ``right-to-farm'' protection for agricultural operations, they said.

VA may buy old cars to help clear the air

Virginia is taking steps to sweep its roads of those smoke-belching, four-wheel clunkers that emit plumes of foul-smelling exhaust from rusted tailpipes.

If it can come up with the money, the state Department of Environmental Quality soon may offer as much as $800 to owners of pre-1982 rust buckets to get the worst motor vehicle pollution offenders off streets and highways.

Acting on the direction of the General Assembly, the department has started developing an old-car buyout program. But before the program actually gets rolling, the agency must find $1 million to begin funding it, said David J. Kinsey, a policy analyst working on the proposal.

“Make sure people understand this a voluntary program,” he said. “Nobody is going to come and take anybody's car.”

The intent is to offer an incentive to owners that will help rid Virginia roads of vehicles that exceed pollution emission levels. The program could benefit urban areas like northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads that don't meet federal air quality standards.

Cars and trucks built before 1982 make up about 20 percent of the 4 million vehicles registered in Virginia. Yet they produce about half of the total automobile air pollution.

Exactly how the buyout program will work has not been determined. But probably, owners of qualifying vehicles would have the option of surrendering them to auto dealers or salvage yards. In exchange, the owner would receive a voucher that could be applied toward the purchase of a newer vehicle.

Not every older car would be eligible for the voucher. Kinsey said only registered vehicles are being targeted.

Maryland promotes pesticide container recycling

Pesticide producers are trying to tidy up their operation, and they're asking Maryland farmers to help out by turning in empty plastic pesticide containers for recycling, agriculture officials said.

In the second year of a new recycling program, pesticide companies and the Maryland Department of Agriculture are trying to spread participation from the Eastern Shore to other parts of the state.

More than 12,000 plastic pesticide containers were collected at landfills in Kent, Talbot and Wicomico counties last summer, Secretary of Agriculture Robert L. Walker said.

The state is working on possible sites in Frederick, Montgomery, Carroll, and Harford counties for this year, and officials hope to eventually make the program available everywhere, said Harold Kanarek, a spokesman for the agriculture department.

The cooperative effort among county recycling programs, the Department of Agriculture, and a national association of agricultural chemical manufacturers aims to cut down on the amount of plastic thrown out.

The nonprofit Agriculture Container Resource Council was formed by 35 companies that produce agricultural chemicals or their packaging — including Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Co. The ACRC coordinates the collection and tries to recycle the plastic.

So far it has had to pay utility companies to take most of the shredded containers to use as fuel, said Robert Denny, a consultant contracted to operate the ACRC. Only about 10 percent has been recycled into new pesticide containers, he said.

The pesticide containers must be recycled separately from other plastic because their contents are hazardous. Because ACRC doesn't have buyers for the plastic, the program is costing the chemical companies about $2.5 million a year.

“I don't think that is an unreasonable price for the industry to bear,” Denny said. The council's cost for dealing with the plastic works out to about 20 cents a container, he said.