Air Date: September 27, 1996
Paul Wellstone: Unabashed Liberal/ Mary Stucky
Minnesota Congressman Paul Wellstone is well known for his environmental protectionist voting record, but that's just what's upsetting some citizens in his district who feel protections are too often restrictive and imposed on the federal level. Mary Stucky reports from St. Paul on how Wellstone's strong pro-environmental voting record may affect his re-election bid this November. (09:35)
Home to the River/ Susan Carol Hauser
Susan Carol Hauser comments on a canoe trip she took on the Mississippi River and how it relates to her daily life. (03:10)
Disturbing the Peace/ Neal Rauch
Car alarms daily rouse hundreds of sleep-deprived New Yorkers from their needed rest. Some egg-toting vigilantes are giving car owners a piece of their yolk, while others are working to have car alarms banned altogether. Neal Rauch reports from New York City on this sticky controversy. (06:30)
The Living on Earth Almanac
Facts about... the Hoover Dam. (01:30)
Superspud!/ Dan Grossman
Aroostook County, Maine is responsible for producing billions of pounds of potatoes each year. Potato Beetles have been known to decimate potato plants, but a new hybrid superspud has been genetically engineered to create its own pesticide to try and outsmart the adaptable beetle pests once and for all. Dan Grossman has this spud report. (09:55)
Chilly Waters for Salmon/ William Drummond
At 40 thousand dollars per salmon, the new 80 million dollar water project at the Shasta Dam in California will provide a chilled waterway to help restore the Chinook salmon which once thrived there in the days before the dam was built. William Drummond reports from northern California. (06:57)
Steve Curwood talks with Pierre Beland who is a senior research scientist at the St. Lawrence National Institution of Eco-Toxicology in Montreal, Canada. Mr. Beland worries about the decline of large mammals, noting that the St. Lawrence River, now home to the surviving 500 Beluga whales, supported 10,000 whales less than a century ago. Some of these whales were actually bombed and killed by the Canadian government to keep the river's fish for humans. Beland's book is Beluga: A Farewell to Whales. (07:12)
Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.
HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Bill Gillespie, Kelly Griffin, Mary Stucky, Neal Rauch, Dan Grossman, William Drummond
GUEST: Pierre Beland
COMMENTATOR: Susan Carol Hauser
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. If there's one man that the Republicans would like to unseat from the Senate, it's Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. As a freshman he led a crucial fight to block oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
BELLAIRS: Had Wellstone not been in the Senate, we would be seeing oil exploration going on in that last million-acre wilderness up there.
CURWOOD: Now Paul Wellstone is in a tight race to keep his seat. Also, in New York...
(A car alarm sounds)
CURWOOD: Some folks say car alarms are nothing more than noxious noise polluters and should be banned.
EVANS: If one person were standing on the corner with a horn making that kind of noise, they would be arrested. They would be disturbing the peace.
CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this summary of the news.
NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. There has been a limited chain reaction inside the damaged reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. According to Ukraine's Environment Minister, meters inside the concrete and steel covering over the reactor showed neutron radiation levels dozens of times higher than normal. Ukrainian officials say that while this is nothing to worry about, it does point to ongoing problems at the reactor. A group of 7 countries have pledged more than $3 billion to help close Chernobyl's 2 working reactors by the year 2000, but there's been no progress in the Ukrainian government's attempt to lobby the G7 nations to build a new sarcophagus over the damaged reactor.
The government of Ontario has approved logging in one of North America's last old growth pine forests. This marks a major setback for environmental activists who fought for a decade to stop the logging. Bill Gillespie of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports from Ontario.
GILLESPIE: So far environmental activists have chained themselves to bridges, locked themselves to logging equipment, and blocked roads. There have been 40 arrests, but it hasn't stopped the loggers. Working with police protection, the Temagami Woods are alive with the sounds of chain saws. Hundreds of the 900-foot, 100-year-old pines fall each day. The environmentalists claim we are witnessing the destruction of an ecological heritage site. Less than 1% of the white and red pine that stood in North America when the first Europeans arrived are left standing today. A third are in Temagami. The Ontario government says it's just trying to balance everyone's interests. After 5 years of public consultation it's granted cutting rights to half the old growth pine to loggers. It's reserved the other half for tourism, a compromise that satisfies almost no one, least of all the environmentalists. Having failed to stop logging with civil disobedience in the woods, they're asking a judge in Toronto to stop it. They're arguing the government's decision to allow logging in an old growth forest violates the province's own Forestry Act. For Living on Earth, this is Bill Gillespie in Temagami.
NUNLEY: Environmental factors may play a role in the development of Alzheimer's Disease. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association says Alzheimer's Disease among men of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii is twice as common as it is in Japan. The researchers can't say exactly why that is, but they point to pesticide use on Hawaiian plantations and the stress of moving from Japan to Hawaii as possible causes. The study found that more than 5% of the subjects living in Hawaii had Alzheimer's, while the rate was just over 1% for those living in Japan. Previous research has linked Alzheimer's with low education levels, excess zinc, and serious head injuries, although some researchers have challenged those results.
The US Army is testing whether minks can survive exposure to a toxic chemical found at the polluted Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver. The Army hopes the $5 million experiment will convince regulators to ease clean-up rules for the Superfund site. Kelley Griffin reports from Denver.
GRIFFIN: The Army is feeding minks one of the toxic chemicals slated for clean-up at the arsenal, where nerve gas was produced during the 1950s. If the minks survive, the Army says it would prove the rare chemical, known as DIMP, is not as toxic as Colorado regulators think. Minks have been used before to study the effects of the chemical. In the 1970s a study showed a slightly higher death rate among female minks exposed to it. The state used that study to insist on much tougher clean-up standards than the Federal Government. The Army says it could trim more than $7 million from the clean-up costs if the standards were eased. The Army also hopes the mink study will held defend it against a $50 lawsuit the state has said it will file on behalf of residents near the arsenal whose wells were contaminated with the chemical. DIMP is just one of dozens of substances polluting the arsenal. The clean-up is expected to take more than 15 years. For Living on Earth, I'm Kelley Griffin in Denver.
NUNLEY: It may be the largest fine ever levied for an environmental crime. Three corporations have been ordered to pay $25 million each for spilling 750,000 gallons of oil off the coast of Puerto Rico. The 1994 spill on a reef 300 yards off San Juan coated miles of coastline with heavy black oil and permanently damaged the area's ecosystem. The spill happened after a cable broke while the tugboat Emily S. was towing a tank barge from San Juan to the island of Antigua. The US Justice Department says all 3 corporations have a lengthy history of environmental violations.
A South African beauty queen has been asked not to attend an animal rights charity event after she revealed plans to sacrifice a goat to her ancestors. Peggy Sue Khumalo planned the sacrifice to thank the spirits for her Miss South Africa title. Khumalo also said if she won the Miss World contest she would slaughter a cow and 10 oxen. Khumalo says she grew up on a farm and would never abuse animals.
That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In their fight to keep control of the US Senate, Republicans have picked a large if not easy target in Minnesota. Freshman Democrat and former college professor Paul Wellstone is an unabashed Liberal, friend of the environment, and a vocal defender of Welfare and abortion rights. His opponent, the man he unseated 6 years ago, is moderate Republican Rudy Boschwitz. And while the stakes may be national, perhaps the most intense issue is local: how much protection is enough protection of a popular wilderness area in the northern part of the state? Mary Stucky has our story.
(Cowbells amidst a cheering crowd)
STUCKY: At the Minnesota State Fair this year, there were the usual booths selling hot dogs and cotton candy. But next to these were some selling a commodity of a different sort. Political candidates. The 2 men running for US Senate stood in front of their campaign booths at the fair: the perfect opportunity to meet and greet the voters.
WELLSTONE: Hi! Nice to meet you, Paul, and your first name?
WOMAN #1: Sandra.
WELLSTONE: From where?
WOMAN #1: Minneapolis.
WELLSTONE: Thank you for -- thanks for waiting in line.
WOMAN #1: Certainly.
WELLSTONE: I appreciate your being here.
WOMAN #2: We're from Columbia Heights, we just want to say keep up your good work. You have our vote.
WELLSTONE: Thanks, you guys, it means a lot.
STUCKY: Incumbent Paul Wellstone is running his first campaign to hold onto his US Senate seat. Wellstone is one of the most liberal members of Congress and Republicans have targeted him in a high-stakes, high-profile race against the man he upset in 1990: former 2-term Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz.
BOSCHWITZ: What's your name?
WICK: Gunnar Wick. Gunnar Wick. Swedish name.
BOSCHWITZ: Is that right? G-U-N-N-A-R, nice to meet you, Gunnar.
WICK: Nice to see ya.
BOSCHWITZ: What's your name?
LORUS: Jim Lorus.
BOSCHWITZ: Hello, Jim, nice to meet you.
STUCKY: The issues range in this race from Welfare reform to taxes, but at the state fair Minnesotans also expressed strong opinions about the environment.
WOMAN #3: I come from a background where I feel it's entirely important to protect whatever we have environmentally. And I feel the candidates that we vote for have to encompass those beliefs.
(Cowbells and shouting fade out)
STUCKY: The candidate for this voter is Paul Wellstone. Wellstone has come to embody an environmental agenda as represented by the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters. Organizations that have given him a nearly perfect voting record. Wellstone serves on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He's worked on many environmental issues, but is best known for his fight against opening up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
BELLAIRS: I think had Wellstone not been in the Senate we would be seeing oil exploration going on in that last million-acre wilderness up there.
STUCKY: Keith Bellairs, who's chair of the Sierra Club's Minnesota Political Committee, says Wellstone was one of the most reliable opponents of the Conservative environmental agenda.
BELLAIRS: From the very beginning the very first regulatory reform so-called bills, which proposed stealth attacks on the EPA and other environmental protections, he held firmly to his position. As I say, in the last couple of years, he has had a 100% rating in key environmental votes.
STUCKY: Wellstone is fast becoming a Congressional leader on environmental issues. During an interview on a late summer day in the back yard of his St. Paul home, Wellstone recalled what he and a small group of Liberals told their fellow Democrats in the early days of the 104th Congress.
WELLSTONE: You know, to be silent about this agenda, which is so extreme, silence would be betrayal. And I remember we were talking about environmental protection, and we were saying look, people didn't vote for a dirty water bill, they didn't vote to gut wetlands protection. This is what they voted for. And if you stop this now, if you're worried about re-election, so help us. Come 1996 you will be on the right side. I think the first evidence of the people in the country turning away from Speaker Gingrich and others actually was on environmental protection.
STUCKY: But Wellstone's environmental activism in Washington managed to make a good number of enemies back home in Minnesota. People like Todd Indehar, President of Conservationists with Common Sense. Indehar says regulations are much too concentrated in Federal hands.
INDEHAR: Our position is, is that the best way is not simply command and control, central Federal Government management. And the reason we don't feel that's the best is because first of all, it's not worked very well in our area. It limits public involvement to the people who have access to the policy makers in Washington. There's no question that, you know, as I get stopped on the street in my role in this issue, you know, I get a lot of feedback from a lot of people. And it tends to be running strongly anti-Paul Wellstone.
STUCKY: And indeed, that anti-Wellstone sentiment is expressed by some voters, including this couple, hovering around Boschwitz's campaign booth at the State Fair.
(Cowbells and background cheers)
MAN: The environmental issues matter, but I think they've gone overboard, you know. When you have the government taking away a guy's farm because he killed some kangaroo rat I think it's time to rewrite some of the environmental --
WOMAN: Or you wait 3 days to save a young man that's out in the wilderness because they don't want to disturb with the helicopter the foliage. Yeah, that's too far.
STUCKY: These are the voters republican Rudy Boschwitz is out to attract. Boschwitz is something of an environmental moderate. As a US Senator in the 80s, Boschwitz had about a 50% rating from environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters. He says environmental safeguards are necessary only up to a point.
BOSCHWITZ: There's an enormous amount of duplication. If you are a property owner you have to deal with 3 or 4 state agencies, 3 or 4 Federal agencies, often don't have use of the land that you have owned, often for generations. It's very hard to cope with particularly for property owners, and their rights are really being trampled upon in many cases.
STUCKY: One environmental issue, perhaps the most divisive in Minnesota history, has resurfaced this year. It involves a boundary water's canoe area wilderness, an area of roughly a million acres along the Minnesota-Ontario border. It is the only lakeland wilderness in the nation, and in 1978 legislation imposed restrictions on recreational activities in the area, especially involving the use of motorized vehicles. Environmentalists support the measure as a way to protect a pristine wilderness, but it has long rankled resort owners and sportsmen, who rely on the wilderness for their living. They're supporting a new bill, which would loosen the restrictions on motorized vehicles. Rudy Boschwitz supports the bill. Paul Wellstone is against it. Wellstone is in something of a political bind over the issue, which pits 2 of his biggest supporters against each other: environmentalists and northern Minnesota Democrats. In an attempt to find a middleground, Wellstone has proposed mediation.
WELLSTONE: Around the country, a lot's changed since 1978, when we had this pitched battle in the state of unbelievable bitterness. There's been some very good alternative dispute resolution, including on land use issues, on environmental disputes, where people come together. They think they hate each other's guts, they've never talked to each other, and they see whether or not there are any places that they can find agreement. We're doing that now.
STUCKY: Wellstone's mediation process is expected to continue through the election and neither side is happy with the plan. Republicans call it a dodge and are taking advantage of that especially up north. That's where the Republican Senatorial Committee has targeted its attack ads on Wellstone.
(Music background with man's voice-over: "Paul Wellstone won't listen to us. Bureaucrats from Washington telling us what to do? That's unbelievably liberal. But sadly, that's Paul Wellstone. Call. Telephone your...")
STUCKY: Of course, liberal environmental groups aren't going to let Republicans control the airwaves. They're expected to spend considerable sums for their own ads attacking Boschwitz. In fact, in 1990 national environmental groups helped the underdog Wellstone at a time when he needed it most, and according to Steven Shier, chair of the political science department at Minnesota's Carlton College, 1996 won't be any different.
SHIER: This fall you're going to see so much outside money coming into this state, 'cause this is a hotly competitive race. You'll see environmental groups. I think you'll see labor. I'm sure you'll see a number of business organizations running ads for and against Wellstone and Boschwitz. It will be competitive, it will be a very cluttered environment and a very negative environment. I think the public will probably get fed up with it.
STUCKY: So far it's difficult to gauge the effect of the media campaigns on voters. Polls show a tight race. According to the latest numbers just one percentage point separates the 2 candidates. And in the remaining weeks, both sides expect a bitter fight, with considerable national attention focused on Minnesota. By electing Rudy Boschwitz, Republicans hope to maintain their edge in the Senate, and knock out Paul Wellstone, who is emerging as one of the clearest environmental voices on Capitol Hill. A second term would only enhance his position, especially if Democrats recapture Congress and re-elect the President. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Stucky in St. Paul.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: The race for any elected seat can be a whirlwind venture. But in the midst of attack ads and stump speeches about Minnesota's wilderness, you wonder if the raison d'etre of the state's open space is getting lost in all the political wrangling. At least one Minnesotan is getting the message: hectic lives need a break. And commentator Susan Carol Hauser knows just where to find one.
HAUSER: Just east of Bemidji, Minnesota, my friend Helen and I put our canoe into the Mississippi River and let ourselves into the current. In about 4 hours we will arrive at Wolf Lake. We'll paddle across the bay to the resort where we left our car and we'll climb back into the stream of our busy lives. But for this fine morning we belong to the river. Our families and our other friends are held away from us by tangles of poison ivy, hazelnut, high bush cranberry, pines, maples, oaks, and willows.
The river, too, colludes with us. Its water burbles over rocks and stones, silencing memory, and glitters in the midmorning sun. Human desire pales in comparison. Ducks and great blue herons move systematically ahead of us as though to shield us from intruders. Only the kingfishers complain. They watch us from their dead branch perches, then dart ahead of us or behind us or right past us and brazenly dive into the water, splashing like neighborhood bullies.
We don't mind. We make our own noise as we move along, speaking softly at first, then louder, until finally we are singing at high lung capacity, acting like bullies ourselves, scaring turtles off logs and sandpipers off their sandbars.
In between those Bursets of song we talk to each other. Here on the Mississippi, it seems safe to wonder if our lives will move along the way the river does to an inevitable delta. Seems right to hope for our children to ache at their sorrows. Seems possible to learn how to read water.
Back where we started, the river was shallow and its banks high. As we near Wolf Lake the water deepens and the land flattens out. Canary grass sways over our heads. Above in the blissfully clear sky, a bald eagle plies thermals. When we enter the lake and cross the bay, the current of the river goes its own way, carrying out its mission in secret. As we dig with our paddles into the windy waters, our voices fail us but our will returns. We are weary, yet refreshed. Like the river, we cannot help but find our way home.
CURWOOD: Commentator Susan Carol Hauser is author of Full Moon: Reflections on Turning Fifty, published by Papier Mache Press. She comes to us via Minnesota Public Radio's KMBJ in Bimidge.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Sleepless in the noisy city? Some New Yorkers are fighting for their zees. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Modern life is full of nasty noises, especially in the cities. Sirens can shatter serenity at any moment and jackhammers, loud music, and useless mufflers can all send us over the edge. For many people in New York City, there's one form of sonic pollution at the top of the list. They're calling for its banning, even though some nervous New Yorkers savor the sound for security reasons. And as Neal Rauch reports, even as the controversy prompts loud debate, some aren't waiting for laws to be passed.
(Crickets in silence)
RAUCH (whispering): It's late. You're tired. Finally, after an exhausting day, you're ready to surrender to the world of dreams. (Dreamy music) Your head sinks into your pillow. Then...
EVANS: After being awakened at night many times so that awful feeling, you know, you've just gotten to sleep and then the alarm goes off.
(Car alarm continues)
RAUCH: Each night hundreds of people like Judy Evans, a scenic designer and artist who lives in Brooklyn, are jolted out of their sleep by the nagging wail of a car alarm.
EVANS: You just wait it out but you don't know if that's going to happen again. You don't know when you're going to be reawakened for a second or third time even.
RAUCH: Often she is, and sometimes a defective alarm will go on for hours.
EVANS: If one person were standing on the corner with a horn making that kind of noise they would be arrested. They would be disturbing the peace.
MAN: It slowly gets under your skin and eventually drives you nuts (laughs).
RAUCH: A music producer and composer, this resident of Manhattan's Upper West Side got fed up with car alarms disturbing his sleep and his work. He got together with some similarly frazzled neighbors and formed a posse of sorts.
MAN: We start off with a note saying fix your car alarm, it's disturbed hundreds of people last night. If that doesn't help we quite often use some minor retaliatory step like breaking an egg on their windshield or on the front hood, which doesn't hurt anything but it's a little bit of a mess to clean up.
RAUCH: The "egg man," who prefers to remain anonymous, says some vigilantes take even more drastic action. Like smearing axle grease on door handles.
MAN: Another classic is to smear vaseline all over the windshield, which is incredibly hard to get off. (Laughs) So -- I think in other neighborhoods there might be even broken windshields and things like that.
RAUCH: Lucille DiMaggio was a target of vigilante retribution. It happened one night when, unbeknownst to her, the car alarm malfunctioned.
DIMAGGIO: I noticed something on the passenger front door. There were a lot of dent marks. It appeared to me that it looked like the heel of someone's shoe, as if someone had kicked my innocent car because the alarm hadn't even been going off all night.
RAUCH: The repairs cost her a couple of hundred dollars.
(Car alarm goes off)
RAUCH: To test the theory, Lucille Dimaggio set off her alarm for me in a restaurant parking lot. Not a single person bothered to see if a car was being broken into. Which begs the question: are car alarms really effective? Judy Evans says absolutely not, not even when she's called the police.
EVANS: One night, there was a real incredible racket, and a little MG was being mutilated to death. The alarm was going off. So I called 911. Well about 40 minutes later, the police drove up.
RAUCH: Little remained of the car by then. Ms. Evans, who's taken to sleeping with earplugs and the windows closed, says car alarms should be banned in densely populated and already noisy neighborhoods.
(Noise: motors, car horns honking)
ABATE: The streets are much noisier than they were 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago.
RAUCH: New York State Senator Catherine Abate represents Manhattan.
ABATE: The noise affects not only their ability to sleep at night, but for most part their ability to work during the day. And even parents have come to me and said what is the impact on children? And there are more and more studies that show that young people in particular, that are exposed to a sustained amount of loud noise, have hearing loss. So it's a health issue, it's a quality of life issue.
RAUCH: Senator Abate has worked on bills dealing with noise pollution but doesn't favor banning car alarms outright. Despite the anecdotal evidence, she says they do prevent some thefts. And, she adds, there are already stringent penalties imposed for those with wayward alarms.
ABATE: The first infraction is $210. It's $315 for the second offense. When someone buys a car alarm, should their discounts on their insurance policies be reduced? Should people receive points on their licenses so their insurance premiums would go up? I'm not sure that alone will create a difference. I want to look at education and compliance, because I think that's really where the remedy will lie in the future.
RAUCH: Enforcement of existing laws, along with new regulations, may be cutting down noise in some neighborhoods. It's now illegal for alarms to run for more than 3 minutes. After that police can break into a car to disable the alarm, or even tow away a wailing vehicle. It's hoped these actions will motivate car owners to adjust their alarms, making them less sensitive so vibrations from passing trucks and the like don't set them off.
(Music from the "egg man")
RAUCH: Even the egg man admits the car alarm situation has improved, at least in his neighborhood. By the way, the egg man has a sidekick: his wife.
MAN: When something happens outside she'll say, "Do you think that's eggworthy?" And I say, "That sounds like an egg candidate to me."
RAUCH: For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.
(Egg man's music up and under)
CURWOOD: What do you think? Should car alarms be banned or restricted in places where people sleep? Give us a call on our listener line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. And the postal address: Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $12.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
(Music up and under)
ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living On Earth include all natural Stonyfield Yogurt, whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; and Jennifer and Ted Stanley.
(Music up and under)
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: New hope for some of northern California's salmon. That story is just ahead on Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Sixty-five years ago engineers working along the Colorado River in Nevada began constructing what was called the Eighth Wonder of the World. When it was completed 5 years later, Hoover Dam stood 736 feet high and nearly 1,200 feet long, the largest dam in the world at the time. Behind the dam now sits Lake Mead; it's the largest reservoir in the US today. But it's threatening to become the nation's largest mudhole. That's because silt from the Colorado River is getting trapped behind the dam and building up in Lake Mead. It's a common phenomenon, and typically large dams have a lifespan of about 100 years before their impoundments fill with silt. It's unclear what the life span of the Hoover Dam will be, but when its turbines shut down it will certainly be missed from the nation's power grid. Last year Hoover Dam produced nearly 4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: For decades biotechnology boosters have promised a second green revolution in agriculture. They pledged new, more efficient crops, heartier strains of plants, and resistance to pests. Biotech companies are now beginning to make good on their promise. This year the first crop of potatoes, genetically altered to produce its own pesticide, was put on the market, and will soon be in food stores. Monsanto, the company which created this super-spud, says it eliminates the need for many chemical sprays. But many organic farmers, who usually welcome reductions in pesticide use, say this new potato is a bad idea. We sent Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman to northern Maine to find out why.
(A dog barks; footfalls and crickets)
GROSSMAN: Aroostook County, Maine, is potato country. Nearly 2 billion pounds of spuds, 4% of the nation's appetite for chips, fries, and baked potatoes, is grown here by farmers like Jim Gerritsen.
GERRITSEN: Meg, why don't you take the first 2 and I'll take the second 2 rows?
GERRITSEN: Peter, why don't you go with mom and her two rows?
(Dry brush crackling underfoot)
GROSSMAN: There's dirt under Jim Gerritsen's fingernails. He works 10 acres of potatoes with his wife Megan and 2 young sons. Today they're scouting their field for diseased plants and pests.
GROSSMAN: What's that?
GERRITSEN: The striped guy on top next to the big larva, that's the adult Colorado potato beetle. He's a hard shell --
GROSSMAN: What are you doing?
GERRITSEN: Oh, I'm just squishing them. They don't come back after that.
GROSSMAN: The potato beetle doesn't look menacing. It's small, about the size of a pinto bean. But it has a big appetite.
GERRITSEN: I've seen fields where the potato bugs have completely denuded all the leaves off the plant down to the stems so that there is no green matter. Potato bugs have the capability of bringing near total crop failure.
GROSSMAN: The Gerritsens are organic farmers, so they can't rely on synthetic sprays for protection. Instead they use a variety of tricks to control pests.
GERRITSEN: The first and foremost action that we have is common to all organic farmers, and that's crop rotation.
GROSSMAN: But often, that's not enough.
GERRITSEN: Then if we have need in a common year, we would be spraying the BT.
GROSSMAN: BT stands for bacillus theringiensus, a natural insecticide made from a bacterium found in soil. BT is the only insecticide Jim Gerritsen uses, and some years it's critical.
GERRITSEN: It is the single most effective way of controlling the potato bug.
GROSSMAN: But he says this natural safeguard may soon become ineffective, the victim of work going on at a laboratory about 40 miles away, in Island Falls, Maine.
(Fans, a door closes)
FELDMAN: This is a test tube containing a russet Burbank new leaf.
GROSSMAN: Jennifer Feldman, a manager at the Nature Mark Company, holds a plastic vial in the palm of her hand. Inside is a spindly green plant cutting suspended in a clear nutrient solution. It's an immature russet Burbank, the most popular potato in America. But this is no ordinary russet Burbank. This cutting has been genetically altered to fight the potato's nemesis.
FELDMAN: And it's had a gene introduced that makes it resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, so that the Colorado potato beetle can no longer feed on this plant, and growers don't have to apply pesticides to control it.
GROSSMAN: Scientists at Nature Mark, a division of the chemical giant Monsanto, splice the toxic producing gene of the BT bacterium into the russet Burbank plant, so this new type of potato called New Leaf produces the same potato beetle poison that farmer would otherwise have to spray on. Technicians here produce seed stock for growers across North America. This year is the first the New Leaf potato was commercially marketed, and so far growers say they're pleased with the results.
BURSE: I think this technology's just fabulous. It's really going to help our operation.
GROSSMAN: Farmer Ned Burse has about 50 acres of New Leaf potatoes on his land. He says this high tech crop is an environmental blessing.
BURSE: I've got 5 kids at home and we have ponds and they like to go out and fish and swim and if I can get away from spraying pesticides that's my goal.
GROSSMAN: When it comes to insecticides, potatoes are among agriculture's most intensively sprayed products, and such poisons often pose an environmental threat. Farmers sometimes apply insecticide the day seed is planted and don't stop until the end of the season. On the east coast, where the potato beetle is one of the major pests, the New Leaf potato could significantly reduce the use of chemicals. But some insect specialists are worried. Professor Fred Gould, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, says the genetically altered potato could be a threat to organic farmers.
GOULD: If I were an organic farmer, and I was using BT and being very careful with it and using it only once or twice a year and trying not to use it at all, I would have a concern.
GROSSMAN: Professor Gould says beetles exposed to the New Leaf potatoes could quickly become immune to the BT toxin. That would make Nature Mark's potato obsolete, and would also doom the BT spray so important to organic farmers. Researchers have discovered that no matter what poison you spray, sooner or later a strain of insects will evolve that's immune. It's a major problem in agriculture.
GOULD: There are now over 500 reported cases where an insect is resistant to an insecticide.
GROSSMAN: Professor Gould says the same problem occurs when bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics used in medicine. In the case of insects, the Colorado potato beetle develops resistance faster than just about any bug.
GOULD: There's a chart that is famous in entomology, of Colorado potato beetle versus insecticides. And you see this war going on, with the chemical companies constantly coming out with new classes of insecticides, and then a few years later the Colorado potato beetle beating out that pesticide.
GROSSMAN: But the makers of New Leaf say they have the situation under control.
FELDMAN: Nature Mark, from very early on, has had the goal of developing a resistance prevention and management plan before the product ever got to the marketplace.
GROSSMAN: Nature Mark manager Jennifer Feldman says the concentration of BT toxin in the genetically altered New Leaf potato is so high it kills every potato beetle wherever it's planted. So there are no survivors to breed and produce a resistant strain. Just in case a rare mutant beetle does survive, the company has a plan. It's a way to prevent the bug from meeting up with the mutant mate and producing BT-resistant offspring.
FELDMAN: And the way you do that is by ensuring that there are some potatoes out there that can produce insects that are never exposed to BT, and that's called a refuge area. It's more or less a safe haven for susceptible insects.
GROSSMAN: Nature Mark asks New Leaf growers to plant at least 20% of their potato crop with varieties that don't contain the BT gene. The theory is that if BT tolerant mutants appear in the New Leaf patches, they will be more likely to mate only with normal beetles living in the refuge plots. But Fred Gould and other entomologists say the plan can easily go awry.
GOULD: If the farmer says oh, I'll plant the 20% susceptible fields, the ones that don't have BT in them, and then over-sprays that with a harsh insecticide, well, the strategy's fallen apart.
GROSSMAN: The problem is, most farmers won't leave the plots of regular potatoes open to beetle infestation. So they'll spray the patch with chemicals, killing most of the insects inside and destroying the refuge. Dr. Lynn Goldman is head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Substances and Pesticides Office. She says preventing BT-resistant Colorado potato beetles from appearing was a major goal when EPA approved the genetically altered russet Burbank potato. And she says the Agency is keeping close tabs on the situation.
GOLDMAN: We have made it a priority to make sure that there is monitoring for resistance and the development of resistance in association with these new BT crops, and that action is taken if resistance is found.
(Dry brush crunching underfoot)
GERRITSEN: Go ahead and put that wire on across the road, Meg.
(Metal being extended)
GROSSMAN: Organic farmer Jim Gerritsen is done scouting his potato patch. He says by the time resistant bugs are spotted, it may be too late. This year, there were few potato beetles and he didn't spray at all. Next year could be different.
GERRITSEN: The concern for me is that we're going to lose a material which frees us from having to use the hard chemicals that most of our neighbors use. It will take away from us the most effective means we have of controlling one of the most destructive insects in American agriculture.
GROSSMAN: The likelihood that a strain of BT-resistant potato beetles will arise increases as the acreage planted in altered crops grows. This year, New Leaf russet Burbanks were planted on 10,000 acres, a tiny fraction of the nation's crop. But next spring, Nature Mark hopes to quadruple the acreage sowed, and it's introducing other varieties with the BT gene as well. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman reporting from Aroostook County, Maine.
(Footfalls. Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Why the Beluga whales in the St. Lawrence are losing their smiles, coming up on Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. By December, workers in northern California will put the finishing touches on a major facelift of the Shasta Dam. They've built a huge system of steel doors that will divert cooling waters into the Sacramento River, so that downstream endangered Chinook salmon can spawn. The project has cost the Federal Government more than $80 million. It has been welcomed by wildlife conservationists, but they also warn that this is only a down payment. There's a lot more to be done, they say, to rescue salmon from the hazards created when the Shasta Dam was built more than 50 years ago. William Drummond explains.
(Diver conversing by radio with the surface)
DRUMMOND: A diver talks by radio as he works underwater in Shasta Lake at the north base of California's Shasta Dam. He's putting into place a part of a latticework of steel that engineers have modestly dubbed "the temperature control device". But it's grander than its name implies. It's taller than the Statue of Liberty and weighs 500 tons. It looks like a gigantic submerged ice tray standing on end. When the last of this network of steel louvers is finally bolted in place by the end of the year, it will correct a 50-year-old flaw in the dam's design. Environmentalists like John Mertz, chairman of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, says it's high time.
MERTZ: That frankly should have been done to begin with. It was done at Lake Orville, Orville Dam, and when they built the dam and somebody was thinking ahead there and they missed the boat during World War II, for some reason, on Shasta.
DRUMMOND: Ten years in the making from 1936 to 1946, Shasta Dam at the headwaters of the Sacramento River is one of the great hydroelectric projects of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Its purpose was simple: to get people back to work during the depths of the Depression and to generate electric power. But its creators overlooked some important environmental consequences of this dam.
DRUMMOND: Shasta Dam produces enough electricity to light San Francisco. But the original water intakes for hydroelectric power were set so high up in the structure's face they sucked in warm currents from the lake's surface. Salmon eggs below the plant died when the warm waters flowed downstream after leaving the dam's power plant. The new temperature control device will use a system of steel doors to divert chilly waters from the depths of Shasta Lake to the intake opening in the power plant. Joe Wadsworth, project manager for Oceaneering, one of the contractors here, says once the device is completed, dam operators will be able to adjust the intake water as though they had a thermostat.
WADSWORTH: What they would do is close some gates here and open some ones that draw the water from a deeper part, and that will bring in deeper water which is colder. And it will come through the turbines...
DRUMMOND: In the past, the passage of warm water down the stream over prime salmon spawning grounds was devastating. Salmon eggs cannot tolerate temperatures much above 56 degrees. But in the midst of a prolonged drought in the winter of 1976 to 77, the temperature rose to 64 degrees and thousands of salmon died. The deadly temperature rise came on top of an assortment of threats to the salmon population such as pollution, degradation of habitat, and water diversions for agriculture.
MERTZ: What we were having here was, as the winter run dropped in population it became very obvious that we needed cold water to maintain basically their existence, and of course what added impetus to this was the drought cycle that we were in at the time as well.
DRUMMOND: John Mertz's Sacramento River Preservation Trust has worked since 1984 to protect salmon on the 350-mile Sacramento River. But at first its efforts had little impact. In the late 1980s California entered another prolonged drought and the salmon population fell to the point that the fish was declared an endangered species. The Bureau of Reclamation responded by shutting down the power plant in hot weather, and instead spilling cold water into the river through a tunnel. It was a good move for the fish but costly for the government.
MERTZ: When you're letting the water out of that lowest outlet you're bypassing the turbines, so no power's being generated. And so therefore no revenue as a consequence of that power generation is being generated. It's that simple.
DRUMMOND: The government lost an estimated $35 million in revenue in the next 8 years due to the loss of electricity sales. When losses reached that scale, the government began thinking about a big hardware solution to the salmon issue. That's when it came up with the temperature control device.
(Metallic sounds, echoes, turbines)
DRUMMOND: At about $80 million, the makeover will cost taxpayers roughly $40,000 per Chinook salmon in the river. Construction manager Joe Wadsworth says the government's action to protect the salmon was expensive, but he says it will prove cost effective.
WADSWORTH: The fish were declared an endangered species. They have to take measures to protect it and they've been doing that for 8 years, and they've been losing power revenues in the process of that. This project pays itself off in a very reasonable amount of time.
DRUMMOND: At Shasta Dam the Federal Bureau of Reclamation's guide is Jerry Kuzmansky, who expresses the government's official view that the temperature control device will permanently protect the salmon, and it will keep the power plant humming.
KUZMANSKY: The water coming out of the power plants will be cold. The Chinook salmon, when they spawn, they'll benefit from the cold water, and the people will benefit from electricity. It's a win-win situation; man wins and the environment wins.
DRUMMOND: Ten years ago the Sacramento River Preservation Trust called for a 20-part program to restore the health of the salmon fishery in the river. The ambitious plan called for such measures as improvements to the fish hatchery on the river, placing fish screens over the irrigation stations that pump huge amounts of water out of the river, and halting the practice of dumping toxins and pollutants from mining operations. Cold water was a very big demand, and Trust chairman John Mertz says the temperature control device is a welcome first step by the government.
MERTZ: I think it's added impetus to all those other things that we identified. It's not going to just be one element but a mix of elements that will bring back the salmon on the Sacramento River.
DRUMMOND: The temperature control device is expected to go on line in December, but it won't be until next spring at the earliest before biologists will know if the Chinook salmon have benefited from the project. For Living on Earth, I'm William Drummond.
CURWOOD: These are songs of Beluga whales recorded on Canada's St. Lawrence River.
(Whale songs continue)
CURWOOD: As whales go, your average Beluga is small, even though it weighs in at about a ton and is 15 feet long. Beluga's have several easily identifiable traits: they're white, they have a large bulb on the top of their heads. They're very inquisitive. And they have a wonderful smile. A hundred years ago there were between 5,000 and 10,000 Beluga whales living in what's now called the St. Lawrence Seaway. Today only about 500 survive. We know a lot about Beluga's largely because of the work of Pierre Beland. A senior research scientist at the St. Lawrence National Institution of Ecotoxicology, Mr. Beland has been studying the mammals for more than 15 years. In his new book Beluga: A Farewell to Whales, Mr. Beland explains that the Canadian government had a direct hand in the decline of the Beluga population. Earlier in this century, the fishing industry blamed whales for declines in fish stocks, and so, he says, the government actually declared war on the Belugas.
BELAND: Well it was, it was a war, because the first thing the government did was to give a bounty to anybody who would bring back the flukes of a Beluga whale, he would get $15. But that was not enough, and then someone had a very good idea, to convince the government that the way to go about killing Belugas was to bomb them from the air.
CURWOOD: Bomb Belugas from the air?
BELAND: Bomb the whales from the air. And so this person convinced the government to give him money so he could fly with airplanes, and they would manufacture their own bombs. It was really amazing. They would have canisters, they would load dynamite in the canisters, and put a fuse, a kind of mesh that would extend that and light that in the last minute and drop it o a pod of Belugas.
CURWOOD: Ohhh. And so how many Belugas survived all of this?
BELAND: It's hard to tell how many were killed. During the year of the bounties, they paid bounties and the, for the equivalent of about 25,000 whales. Obviously they were not all killed at the same time. They were killed over a number of years at the rate of sometimes up to 700 a year. But the total number of whales that you could find in the river in a year was estimated to be, at the turn of the century, 5,000 to 10,000. And it's from that stock of whales that bounties were collected. But it turned out that by 1980 or so, when we started working on the Beluga whales, we could only estimate that there were 500 animals left. So something happened in between. Obviously the bounty and the bombing and all that reduced the population. But something else must have happened also after the second World War.
CURWOOD: Let's talk about what has happened to the whales after the second World War. They've been the subject of a lot of research involving industrial chemicals and pollution. Correct?
BELAND: Exactly. And that stems from exactly this first observation we made back in 1982. Daniel Marcineau and I, when we were called to that first carcass of a Beluga by the shore of the St. Lawrence, we collected tissues from the animal at the time. We sent those to the lab, and the results came back showing that the animal was loaded with chemicals. Pesticides like DDT, for example, and industrial chemicals like PCBs. Very high levels. Now, these chemicals did not exist in the 1920s. These chemicals were introduced in the late 30s, and DDT, for example, was introduced into Canada and the St. Lawrence in 1948. So the accumulation of what we were finding in 1982 must have started after the second World War. And those chemicals are known for their effects on health and their effects on reproduction. So our hypothesis was that those chemicals were responsible for the second wave of drastic reduction in the Beluga population in the St. Lawrence.
CURWOOD: Now, how does the health of the Belugas in the St. Lawrence compare to Belugas elsewhere in the world?
BELAND: If you look at cancer, the Beluga whale of the St. Lawrence has the highest rate of cancer of any animal that lives on this planet, even higher a rate of cancer than in humans.
CURWOOD: Wow, what's that rate?
BELAND: One third of the dead Belugas that we have autopsied have a tumor, and the majority of those tumors are cancer. And if you look at all the whales autopsied by various researchers around the world, from all the oceans, from all countries, about one half of all the cancers identified come from those 85 Belugas we've looked at. So out of hundreds and hundreds of whales, half of the cancers come from the Belugas. So it's a very, very striking result.
CURWOOD: I'm wondering, what's being done to clean up the St. Lawrence?
BELAND: Many efforts have been started some years ago. You have to understand that the St. Lawrence is the exit for the Great Lakes, and most of the chemicals that we found in our whales came from the Great Lakes. In 1972 Canada and the US signed an agreement, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This was a major effort at cleaning up the Great Lakes, getting rid of toxic chemicals, and this has improved the whole basin. First the Great Lakes and then the St. Lawrence. And later on there was another equivalent program started up for the St. Lawrence itself. And presently the levels of chemicals, like PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals in the fish, in the birds and all the biota in the lakes, and in the river, has decreased compared to what it was in the 60s. And we -- the only thing we can hope is that the same decrease will occur in Beluga whales in time.
CURWOOD: Do you think it will come soon enough? Your book is called Beluga: A Farewell to Whales. It seems that you don't think they'll be around.
BELAND: The meaning of that title is, there are several meanings to it. One of them is that I think Belugas in the St. Lawrence will survive me. I will die before the last one disappears unless, you know, something really drastic occurs. But I'm thinking of this problem in terms of wildlife in general, of large animals trying to exist as wildlife on this planet. While the human population is increasing, while our main preoccupation is about ourselves, is about finding jobs, is about developing resources, is about cutting down forests, exploiting mines, without really thinking about what will happen to all this wildlife. So in that sense I think if we do not change our way of doing things on the long term, large animals on this planet do not have much of a future.
CURWOOD: Pierre Beland is a senior research scientist at the St. Lawrence National Institution of Ecotoxicology in Montreal. His book is called Beluga: A Farewell to Whales.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Our editor this week is Dan Grossman, and our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Liz Lempert, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Susan Shepherd, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Michael Giammusso and Jason Kral. Our engineers are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin at WBUR, Jeff Martini at Harvard University, and Antonio Oleart at WGBH. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
(Music up and under)
ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living On Earth comes from the Geraldine R. Dodge foundation, the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting, The Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues, and the National Science Foundation for the coverage of science in the environment.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
This Week's Books
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.
Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.