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Tiny culprit eyed in San Bruno disaster

SAN BRUNO, Calif., Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Microbes inside a gas line are a suspect in the explosion and fire in San Bruno, Calif., that killed seven people and destroyed 37 homes, officials say.

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In a similar incident in New Mexico a decade ago, 12 people were killed when microbes in stagnant water inside a gas pipeline released gases that eventually broke down the wall of a 50-year-old, 30-inch gas line, a phenomenon known as microbiologically influenced corrosion, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Friday.

The phenomenon is considered a possible cause of the disaster in San Bruno in which another 5-decade-old, 30-inch gas transmission line ruptured, the newspaper said.

The San Bruno pipeline's owner, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., said in a filing with state regulators last year there was "ongoing concern" about the potential for internal corrosion on the 46-mile line running from San Francisco to Milpitas, which included the portion that eventually ruptured.

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This week, the utility acknowledged a "small amount" of water -- the key ingredient necessary for microbiologically influenced corrosion -- had shown up in tests of the line and as many as four others, the Chronicle said.

Pipe-corrosion experts say once present, destructive microbes can lie dormant for years before springing to life and going to work on the metal. All it takes is a pool of water at the bottom of a pipe.

Any pipe as old as the one in San Bruno, installed in 1956, would be likely to have corrosion-causing microbes hiding inside it, Laura Kentala, an environmental microbiologist who has studied the phenomenon, says.

"There is a really high chance," Kentala said. "It is anywhere and everywhere."


Last elephant leaves Chicago zoos

CHICAGO, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Elephants, staple attractions at Chicago zoos since the 1880s, have disappeared with the shipping of the last one to a park in New Jersey, officials said.

On Wednesday Brookfield Zoo shipped a 27-year-old female African elephant named Joyce to a Six Flags park in New Jersey, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Six Flags loaned Joyce to Brookfield a year ago as a companion to Christy, a 28-year-old female elephant at the zoo, but when Christy died last December Six Flags decided it wanted Joyce back in its herd of elephants at Six Flags Great Adventure and Wild Safari in New Jersey, the newspaper said.

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Elephants have been in Chicago zoos since the late 19th century. Until this week Brookfield has had elephants continuously since opening 76 years ago. Lincoln Park obtained its first elephants in 1889 but ended its program after its three elderly African females, Tatima, Peaches and Wankie, died in a seven-month span in 2004 and 2005.

Brookfield officials say they plan to renovate an indoor elephant exhibit and bring back the giant animals at some point.

"We are committed to having elephants, and they will be back here in the future," William Ziegler, Brookfield's senior vice president for animal care, said.


Conservationists oppose Laos dam plans

VIENTIANE, Laos, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Laos says it rejects calls for a dam moratorium on the Mekong River because it wants cheap power to develop its economy despite threats to fish habitats.

The Southeast Asian nation moved this week to secure regional approval for the first major hydropower plant on its stretch of the lower Mekong in the face of protests from international conservation groups, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported Friday.

The country's proposed hydropower plant threatens the habitat of the giant Mekong catfish, which can weigh up to 650 pounds, the newspaper said.

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Catfish as long as small cars and stingrays that weigh more than tigers are threatened by the proposed 2,600-foot dam, but the government said the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks.

"We don't want to be poor anymore," Viraphone Viravong, director general of the country's energy and mines department, said. "If we want to grow, we need this dam."

In a submission to the Mekong River Commission, Laos said it wants to build a hydropower plant at Sayabouly in northern Laos to generate foreign exchange income.

If approved, about 90 percent of the electricity would be sold to neighbors Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Sayabouly is the first of 11 proposed dams on the lower reaches of the Mekong, a river already heavily dammed upstream in China, the Guardian said.


Miami moves ahead with science museum plan

MIAMI, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Miami says it has cleared a major hurdle in its plans to create a major science museum downtown intended as a magnet for tourists.

The City Commission approved a sleekly contemporary, environmentally friendly design Thursday for the Miami Science Museum that supporters say will transform a bleak corner of Biscayne Boulevard into a tourist destination, the Miami Herald reported.

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In a 4-1 vote, the commission set aside objections from activists who claimed violates city rules limiting development on flood-prone coastal land and who threatened a lawsuit to stop it, the newspaper said.

City planners and lawyers assured commissioners the rules do not apply to the government-sponsored museum project.

"Sometimes you have to dream," Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff said.

The $275 million science museum -- along with the adjacent new Miami Art Museum -- would help transform near-derelict Bicentennial Park into "Miami's Central Park," he said.

The five-level museum will incorporate an aquarium, a high-tech planetarium, science exhibits focusing on technology and the environment, as well as wildlife exhibits and educational facilities, officials said.

"It will make downtown a destination in the way that great cities like Baltimore and Sydney are grouped around the harbor," science museum Director Gillian Thomas said.

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