• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

May 15, 1998

Air Date: May 15, 1998

SEGMENTS

Toxic Fertilizer? / Terry FitzPatrick

A new alarm is being sounded about some of the chemicals used to grow America's food. Toxic industrial waste is routinely used to make fertilizer. It's been happening for decades, but only now is coming to light after complaints by farmers in Quincy, Washington. Their allegations have prompted a nationwide effort to examine the safety of fertilizer derived from waste. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports. (15:15)

Berry Garden Spot

Advice on how listeners can grow their own berries at home from Living on Earth's garden expert, Michael Weishan. Mr. Weishan is also editor of Traditional Gardening magazine. (05:25)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about...18 years ago this week, Mount St. Helens erupted with the force of hundreds of atomic bombs, triggered by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter Scale. (01:30)

What's in Your Backyard?: EDF's New Toxins Website

Who are the major polluters in your community? As a citizen, you're entitled to know. The government requires most high- volume facilities to report how much of certain chemicals they're releasing into the environment. But these Toxic Release Inventory reports can be difficult to track down and even more difficult to understand. But a new site on the internet is changing all that. The Environmental Defense Fund has collected all the Toxic Release Inventory forms from around the country, entered them into a computer database, and added information about health effects. Steve Curwood logs on to www.scorecard.org. with David Roe from the Environmental Defense Fund. (05:30)

Conflict at Darby Creek / Joe Smith

In central Ohio, farmers and conservationists are debating the fate of a large tract of land that includes some of the most productive farmland in the country. The Columbus office of the Nature Conservancy is leading an effort to preserve a clean river system as a wildlife refuge. Farmers are protesting. They say that if plans for the refuge go through they'll be driven off the land. From Columbus, Joe Smith reports. (06:45)

Maverick Vermont College / Tatiana Schreiber

Marlboro College in Southern Vermont is a small liberal arts college with a big reputation in science and ecology. One of the founders of the school's science department was Rovery MacArthur, whose work helped establish the field of conservation biology. We sent reporter Tatiana Schreiber to find out what's different about environmental education at Marlboro. (09:00)

Throwaway Commentary / Josh Gerak

Commentator Josh Gerak sent us this account of his experiences in the consumer product marketplace. Mr. Gerak lives and writes in Seattle, where he also imports handmade products from Central America. (02:55)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Terry FitzPatrick, Joe Smith, Tatiana Schreiber
GUESTS: Michael Weishan, David Roe
COMMENTATOR: Josh Gerak

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Hundreds of factories are turning toxic waste into fertilizer. They claim its's safe, but many scientists say poisons don't belong on the farm.

LIEBHARDT: We don't know if they're staying in the soil. We don't know if they're moving up the food chain into animals and people. And we have no idea if they're leaching into rivers or groundwater or things like that. So it seems to me like in a sense we're kind of playing Russian Roulette with the food supply.

CURWOOD: And some good news. Our gardening expert says it's easy to grow many kinds of berries right in your own yard.

WEISHAN: The real glory is to come out here on a summer day and be able to pick your own, you know, quart or two of raspberries and bring them in, put them on cereal in the morning, or have them for dinner or after dessert. It's an amazing experience.

CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Toxic Fertilizer?

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A new alarm is being sounded about some of the chemicals used to grow America's food. Toxic industrial waste is routinely used to make fertilizer. It's been happening for decades, but only now is coming to light after complaints by farmers in Quincy, Washington. Their allegations have prompted a nationwide effort to examine the safety of fertilizer derived from waste. From our Northwest bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.

(Cows lowing)

WITTE: Good morning, girls. [inaudible]

(Lowing continues)

FITZPATRICK: As the sun sets along Washington's Columbia River Valley, Tom Witte is doing what thousands of farmers do each evening. Feeding and milking the cows.

WITTE: (whistles) Get on in here! There you go.

(Clanking sounds amidst more lowing)

FITZPATRICK: Several years ago, disaster struck the Witte farm. The hay and alfalfa harvests fell by half. Several cows died of cancer. Mr. Witte wondered if something was poisoning his fields.

(Knocking sounds; more lowing)

WITTE: Yeah here's the tank, here's, this is the old fertilizer tank right here.

FITZPATRICK: So the fertilizer from inside here went out on the land?

WITTE: Yeah. Yeah.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Witte decided to have his fertilizer checked. He sent residue from his tank to a lab, which discovered a smorgasbord of dangerous metals.

WITTE: There's lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium --

FITZPATRICK: Inside a fertilizer tank.

WITTE: Yeah. Yeah.

FITZPATRICK: It turns out that some fertilizers are made from industrial waste. The waste can be a cheap source of beneficial minerals like zinc and iron and copper. But often it also contains potentially toxic tag-alongs. In high enough concentrations these contaminants can cause birth defects, neurological problems, immune system disorders, and cancer. To Mr. Witte and a handful of neighbors, this discovery was a shock.

WITTE: The basic belief is there's nothing wrong with fertilizer. It's kind of an article of faith, you know: fertilizer is good.

FITZPATRICK: But now, Mr. Witte claims the impurities forced his farm into bankruptcy.

WITTE: Mostly it makes you mad, you know. Mostly it's disgust.

(A dog barks in the distance)

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Witte has no scientific proof to back up his claims. And so far there's no groundswell of farmers from other towns complaining of similar problems. But Tom Witte's story has sent shockwaves throughout the fertilizer industry, by shedding light on a little-known practice. It's prompted several states and Congress to look into the safety of waste-derived fertilizer.

(Large engines)

FITZPATRICK: The factory-to-farm connection begins at facilities like the Holnam Company in Seattle.

(Engines continue)

FITZPATRICK: A huge kiln is cooking limestone and sand to make cement mix. The kiln is fired by coal, used oil, and shredded tires. The process produces a gray, dusty waste that's loaded with lime, a beneficial element for farming. Plant manager Nick Stiren collects the dust from his smokestack filters and sells it to a fertilizer company.

(Loud fans)

STIREN: The dust is used in the Northwest to control the acidity of the soil. The material is good; it's a good material.

FITZPATRICK: Government agencies have encouraged using waste like this in fertilizer rather than throwing it away. Bill Chapman is the Holnam Company's attorney.

CHAPMAN: The early 80s was a period in which people searched for ways to recycle as many household and industrial products as they could. And I sat in meetings with environmental agencies saying isn't there some way to recycle more of this? So markets were opened and sold with people saying go, go, go.

(Fans continue)

FITZPATRICK: The cement kiln dust contains toxic substances like dioxin, lead, and arsenic. But it's not classified as hazardous because the level of contaminants are low. The company says it's safe to use directly on farms. But even waste legally classified as hazardous is allowed to be blended with other ingredients to make fertilizer. Hundreds of companies have recycled their waste this way, including steel foundries, paper mills, even a uranium processing plant. According to a study by the Environmental Working Group, industrial wastes containing 270 million pounds of potentially dangerous heavy metals were sent to farms or fertilizer factories between 1990 and 1995. Ken Cook, the group's director, says at least a third of the shipments had enough metals to qualify as hazardous.

COOK: This is an example where recycling is causing many more problems, probably, than it's solving. A factory that's producing the waste has two big choices. You can either spend a fair amount of money to deal with it as a hazardous waste, have it treated, have it disposed of in a landfill, or you can make a little money by shipping it to a fertilizer company because you've called it material for recycling or reuse.

FITZPATRICK: Under Federal rules, any kind of waste, no matter how toxic, can be used to make fertilizer, so long as the resulting product wouldn't be considered hazardous waste itself. Ken Cook complains the practice is loosely regulated. There is no Federal registration for fertilizers, or screening for contaminants. Companies do not have to disclose ingredients on the label.

COOK: So we really have sort of a situation that's custom-made for mischief. And the people who end up bearing the risk are the farmers who buy it and put it on their land.

(Engines)

FITZPATRICK: American farmers use 52 million tons of fertilizer every year.

(Engines continue)

FITZPATRICK: Each spring applicators as big as dump trucks spray the land with brightly-colored pellets.

(Engines and spraying)

FITZPATRICK: Industry officials say less than 4% of the fertilizer used in the US is made with industrial waste. They're the mineral supplement products, containing zinc and other micro-nutrients. There's no evidence this fertilizer is dangerous. In fact, says environmental toxicologist Allan Felsot at Washington State University, micro-nutrient fertilizer is used so sparingly that impurities are drastically watered down.

FELSOT: There's a tremendous dilution effect. So you may have in the product itself what looks like on paper high levels of cadmium or lead, but once you dilute this out, it's very, very tiny. In essence you've diluted it to essentially near background levels; that's what's naturally there anyway.

FITZPATRICK: Research has shown these tiny concentrations can be taken up by crops. But that doesn't necessarily make the crops unsafe to eat. One test showed you can even load the soil with drastic levels of cadmium and have only a tiny effect on how much ends up in the plants. Professor Felsot says that's's because for the most part these metals are in a form that won't dissolve in water, so plants can't absorb them.

FELSOT: We know that some of these metals are toxic, and we figure that oh, gee, if the metal's there, therefore it must be toxic. But that is not how toxicology works, and certainly that is not how risk assessment works. Therefore, if you're going to analyze what's in the soil and try to decide gee, is this a hazardous procedure or not, you better not only analyze the total metal but you better also analyze the amount of metal in solution. Because that is what's going to control the hazard.

FITZPATRICK: Other scientists, though, are alarmed industrial waste is finding its way to the farm, and feel there hasn't been enough research to prove the practice is safe. Only three crops have been tested for toxic effects, and soil scientist Bill Liebhardt from the University of California at Davis says a whole range of heavy metal risks has not been explored.

LIEBHARDT: We don't know if they're staying in the soil. We don't know if they're moving up the food chain into animals and people. And we have no idea if they're leaching into rivers or groundwater or things like that. So it seems to me like in a sense we're kind of playing Russian Roulette with the food supply.

FITZPATRICK: Dr. Liebhardt also complains no one has study whether repeated use could eventually cause metals to build up to a potentially dangerous level. The fertilizer industry insists this won't happen, but Dr. Liebhardt, who used to work for a fertilizer company, isn't convinced.

LIEBHARDT: I can understand what the fertilizer industry people are saying. They're trying to make people feel that there's no problem. But when you come right down to the bottom line, they don't know. They really don't know. And I don't, either. That's the bottom line in this whole thing.

FITZPATRICK: The unknowns are even greater for a fertilizer made with wastes containing dioxin. Research shows that people and animals can tolerate small doses of heavy metals, but it's an open question if a tiny dose of dioxin is safe. The EPA is currently reassessing dioxin hazards. Two other studies currently underway might answer some of the other questions about waste-derived fertilizer. One is funded by the industry and the other by the state of Washington.

(Horns and traffic sounds)

FITZPATRICK: The current scientific uncertainty has torn apart the town of Quincy, Washington. A few residents fear the effects of waste-derived fertilizer. But most folks do not.

(Man: "Kind of a bird's-eye view...")

FITZPATRICK: In a wooden barn at Quincy Farm Chemicals, owner Pete Romano shows me fertilizer made with tire ash and steel mill waste.

(Crackling sounds)

ROMANO: It's black and greenish brown. (Sniffing) Doesn't smell at all.

(Sounds continue)

FITZPATRICK: You're not concerned that what comes out this hopper here might be poisoning the land around town?

ROMANO: No, not at all. Not at all.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Romano says recycling benefits the environment rather than harming it. Reusing minerals reduces the need for mining. It cuts the cost of fertilizer and saves space in landfills.

ROMANO: What's buried, put it in one big hole? Or to process it and put it into a form that is usable and spread over many, many acres at very minute levels? What makes more sense?

(A milling crowd)

FITZPATRICK: Most of Mr. Romano's customers seem to agree. Recently, they gathered to hear from fertilizer makers and farmers like Murray Michael came away convinced recycling is safe.

MICHAEL: It's a lot of much ado, I believe, about very, very little in terms of the levels of heavy metals we're actually seeing in the fertilizer.

FITZPATRICK: Have you used these materials?

MICHAEL: Yes, I have.

FITZPATRICK: It hasn't hurt your land?

MICHAEL: It hasn't hurt my land that I'm aware of. No, it hasn't.

FITZPATRICK: Others aren't so sure. Patty Martin, who until recently was Quincy's mayor, is afraid that waste-derived fertilizer threatens both the town's economic base and the health of its residents. Quincy's schools are across the street from two fertilizer distribution companies.

MARTIN: I think it's wrong to unnecessarily expose populations of people to toxic chemicals without first proving that that exposure is safe. And children are the most vulnerable of those populations that are going to be exposed. And I think that's wrong.

FITZPATRICK: When she was mayor, Ms. Martin asked health officials to investigate Quincy for any unusual patterns of illness. They found nothing out of the ordinary. But the mayor's inquiries and subsequent press coverage prompted state officials to scrutinize the use of recycled waste. Environmentalists wanted the state to ban waste-derived fertilizer. Short of that they asked for explicit labels warning of any toxic tag-alongs. Ultimately, though the legislature adopted less stringent measures. All fertilizers sold in Washington will soon be screened for nine dangerous metals, and must meet new state standards. Labels will bear a general statement that the product has passed the test. These new rules make Washington the first state to regulate waste-derived fertilizer. But in Quincy, former mayor Patty Martin is disappointed. Dioxin screening will not be required, and it's not expected that any products will be taken off the market.

MARTIN: The fact that Washington State's putting their seal of approval on it and potentially setting a very weak example for the rest of the country, I don't feel good about that at all. I don't feel good about that at all.

(Cows lowing)

FITZPATRICK: Farmer Tom Witte is bitter, too. He's sworn off fertilizer and relies on manure instead. However, Mr. Witte says he hasn't been able to avoid heavy metals altogether. He still feeds bags of mineral supplement powder directly to his cows.

WITTE: I ran a test on this mineral about a year ago. It has a high level of arsenic in it. It's not listed on the label or anything, but the level of arsenic that was in it was high enough to cause the lab concern. It's a cumulative poison, see, and here I am feeding it.

(Cows keep lowing)

WITTE: There you go.

FITZPATRICK: For Living on Earth I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Quincy, Washington.

(Lowing continues)

CURWOOD: The concern over fertilizer is moving beyond the farm to the lawns and gardens of home owners. Washington State officials have just announced that a brand of home fertilizer called Ironite contains potentially dangerous levels of arsenic and lead. Ironite is made from mining residue. Its manufacturer claims the product is safe because the heavy metals are in a form that won't harm people or the environment. But Washington health officials say they are conducting a review and may soon ban Ironite.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Do you have a story, an opinion, or a comment you'd like to share with us? Call our listener line right now at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218- 9988. Or e-mail us at LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Or if you like to do things the old fashioned way, mail us a letter. Our address is Living on Earth, 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Once again, that's 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138.

Coming up: It's easy, says our green gardener, to grow fruit right at home. Find out how just head on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Strawberry Fields; fade to outdoors in the breeze)

Berry Garden Spot

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. At home we plant tomatoes, lettuce, basil, and lots of flowers. But now Michael Weishan wants me to start thinking about planting berries. Michael is Living on Earth's gardening expert as well as the editor of Traditional Gardening. Now Michael, why should I and other people consider berries?

WEISHAN: Well, there's a very good reason. How much did you pay for berries the last time you went to the store?

CURWOOD: Ooooooh, yeah, I suppose

WEISHAN: A lot of money.

CURWOOD: It was a lot of dough. Four bucks for this little thing of raspberries.

WEISHAN: Exactly. I think that's one of the principal reasons to grow berries. And the second reason to grow berries is that they're exceedingly easy to grow. Most of the berries can be fit into any part of the landscape and are pretty effortless to produce a fantastic crop.

CURWOOD: Hmm. Which berries are the best to plant?

WEISHAN: People should plant I think the berries they like most to eat. One of my favorites is strawberry and it's one of the easiest to grow. You go to the nursery in the early spring, or you can order through the various mail order catalogs, and buy these little dried-up root masses that you would never in a thousand years think were going to produce anything. And you plant them just under the surface of the soil with the roots pointing downward, and in a few weeks you have these beautiful little strawberry leaves popping up. And after a year, you have a carpet, essentially, of strawberries, which doesn't really need to be weeded or tended or done much to anything.

CURWOOD: And you have to wait a year, though, before you get something to eat.

WEISHAN: Well, no, you can actually harvest a few things hither and yon as you see them coming. But you're not going to get a lot of crop the first year. That's the one down side about berries is that they're one of the things that require a bit of patience in the garden, because you plant for one year and harvest in the second, third, and subsequent years. The good thing is that of course the harvest lasts for well, depending on the variety, can last for up to 20 years from a single plant.

(A cock crows)

CURWOOD: How hard are berries to keep growing?

WEISHAN: Actually very easy. There are some pests, of course, that do like to attack the different varieties. But by and large it's one of the easiest things to grow organically because generally the harvest is large enough that even if you lose a portion to something or another that you have plenty left over. We don't spray anything. We don't spray our strawberries or raspberries or blueberries or any of that stuff, and we have never had a problem.

CURWOOD: Now where should one put one's berry beds? Out in the full sun? They just need to get as much sun as they possibly can?

WEISHAN: Yeah. That's the one thing about berries is almost all of them require full sun. Full sun and fairly high fertility soil. We'd want to substantially improve the soil with compost or manure and till it down deeply, because this is the type of thing where you're going to be planting once and then it's going to roll forward for years and years at a time. So you really want to do it right the first time.

(Cock crows, mixed with wind and bird song)

CURWOOD: Well, what about other berries such as blueberries and blackberries and gooseberries and mulberries...

WEISHAN: All those wonderful berries. Now, some of those mulberries, or instance, are a tree, and were actually very popular in this country in the 1830s. They were going to use them for silk production but that whole industry did not take off. Some people consider them to be a nuisance because the birds absolutely adore eating them and once you get a mulberry tree you have about 20 mulberry trees everywhere, because the birds carry the seeds. I personally love mulberries. I remember a tree at my grandfather's house that we used to shimmy up and get the berries out before the birds could and it was absolutely wonderful. You mentioned blueberries. One of the easiest things to grow, and particularly easy if you have an acidic soil, which is very common in many parts of the country, because they do require an acidic soil. Raspberries are another one of my favorites and we have quite a line of them here.

(Footfalls on gravel)

WEISHAN: I planted this bed just last year, and as you can see they're essentially at this time of year it just sort of looks like sticks. But there are just a few leaves starting to come.

CURWOOD: Yeah. They kind of ouch you when you pick these raspberries, too.

WEISHAN: There are actually thornless varieties that you can choose. Some have better tastes than others. Personally, I like the old fashioned kind. If you have an area in the landscape where you need a hedge or you want to keep someone out, berries are absolutely, you know, raspberries are perfect. Because they form quite a dense hedge about 5 feet high and completely thick. You're certainly not going to want to go through them. But the real glory is to come out here on a summer day and be able to pick your own, you know, quart or 2 of raspberries and bring them in, put them on cereal in the morning or have them for dinner or for dessert. It's an amazing experience.

CURWOOD: Well, Michael, once again. Thank you, thank you berry much. (Weishan laughs)

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's garden expert Michael Weishan is also editor of Traditional Gardening. Now, if you have any questions you'd like to ask Michael, dial up the Living on Earth web site. The address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth all one word .org. Click on the picture of the watering can.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and Church and White, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Find out if there are any major industrial sources of pollution in your neighborhood by simply pointing and clicking. We'll tell you how, just ahead here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, makers of pure, all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream; 800-PROCOWS.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Eighteen years ago this week, Mt. St. Helens erupted with a force of hundreds of atomic bombs, triggered by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale. Before that, the mountain had lain dormant for over a century. The May 18, 1980 blast spewed ash 15 miles high over hundreds of square miles of forest in western Washington and Oregon. It also set off landslides and mud flows and killed 64 people. High winds blew the ash cloud to the eastern US in only a few days, and around the world in two weeks. The still-active volcano is now a national monument. Visitors can hike through lava tubes, caves that were created when molten lava flows drained away after a crust had formed over them. Mt. St. Helens is now one of the world's most climbed mountains, second only to Mt. Fuji. With its top blown off, it now stands at 8,400 feet. That means climbers have 1,300 fewer feet to trek to get to the summit. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

What's in Your Backyard?: EDF's New Toxins Website

CURWOOD: Do you know who the major polluters are in your community? Well, as a citizen, you're entitled to know. The government requires most large emitters to report how much of certain chemicals they're releasing into the environment, but these reports, called Toxic Release Inventory reports, can be difficult to track down and even more difficult to understand.

(A modem logging on)

CURWOOD: A new site on the Internet is changing all that. The Environmental Defense Fund has collected all the Toxic Release Inventory forms from around the country, entered them into a computer database, and added information about health effects. With David Roe from the Environmental Defense Fund on the line I called up the site: www.scorecard.org.

ROE: Probably the easiest way into this is just to put in your zip code and click the box that says GO.

CURWOOD: All right. Maybe I'll put in the zip code here for Living on Earth: 02138, and then I'll hit the GO button.

ROE: You see where it says "Rankings: Major Chemical Releases in Middlesex County"?

CURWOOD: Yes.

ROE: Give a click on that.

CURWOOD: All right-y.

ROE: And immediately what you see is this county ranked in the top 20% of all counties in terms of non-cancer hazards, air releases of recognized carcinogens, and a couple of other things.

CURWOOD: All right. Now here in Middlesex County, we have a number of important institutions of higher education. There's Brandeis University, there is Harvard University, there's MIT. So, let's look at neurotoxicants, see what's happening to the brains here in Middlesex County.

ROE: If you see there, there are 1 million, 600 thousand, 648 thousand etc. pounds.

CURWOOD: Whoa.

ROE: Click on that number.

CURWOOD: Okay.

ROE: And what you'll get is a listing of exactly which chemicals those are, in order. The top one is toluene. The next one is methyl ethyl ketone.

CURWOOD: Hmmm.

ROE: It says, "See a list of facilities."

CURWOOD: Mm hm.

ROE: If we were to click on that, you get the names of the companies, where they're located, and the amounts. The company at the top of the list is Polaroid. One thing I should point out, the information that's available and that we've put together here will tell you what's coming out of where, and it'll tell you what kind of health effects it might be causing. It can't tell you, are you safe or not? No database anywhere can tell you that. That depends on local information. Just because it's coming out of Polaroid doesn't mean it's necessarily getting to your nose, for example.

CURWOOD: What do you hope the people who visit your site will do with all this information?

ROE: Well, one thing is, which is built in, is a take-action feature. If you click on that you get a list of the companies responsible for the top-ranked pollution problems in Middlesex County.

CURWOOD: Okay.

ROE: And over in the right-hand column it says "Send a fax for free." And if let's just take the top one, which is Altron in Wilmington, click on the word "Send."

CURWOOD: Okay.

ROE: What you have here is a letter: "Dear Manager, I just reviewed a detailed on-line description of your environmental emissions." It tells you what they are, talks about, "I was surprised to learn that they're not government reporting levels for these, 100% of the chemicals released air by your facility in 1995 couldn't be assessed for safety." Again, information specific to the facility. If you give us your name and address, then your name and address go on the bottom of this letter, and you get a button that says, "Send." This letter will then go to the fax machine of the right person at that company. And our point here is to begin to open a dialogue between local citizens and local companies emitting these chemicals about the very issues that have to be resolved locally if we're going to get somewhere.

CURWOOD: But wait a second. If I type in my name and and and address there, it also asks me to join the Environmental Defense Fund.

ROE: No, you don't have to join. It says, "Do you want to?" And you do have to give us your e-mail, because that's our way of double-checking.

CURWOOD: This is a very well crafted site. There's a lot of information here from the Environmental Defense Fund, but there are a lot of people that don't have access to the Internet and many of them live in poor communities that tend to have a lot of these polluting facilities. I'm wondering, David Roe, is there any way for them to make use of these reports?

ROE: There are a couple of ways. One is that public libraries now tend to have Internet access, so that even if people don't own their own computers they can go to the library. Another is we're working closely, of course, with local community groups. But of course, one of the audiences for this information is the companies themselves. If they're looking themselves up and don't like what they see, they may well be improving their practices and reducing their pollution. What we've learned in the past ten years from the information that's already been out is that that's a powerful factor. We're just hoping that a better mirror and a brighter set of lights around it will have more of the same effect.

CURWOOD: David Roe, senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, thanks for taking this time to show us around the site.

ROE: Thank you, Steve, a pleasure.

CURWOOD: And if you'd like to find out about pollution in your community, go to www.scorecard.org. That's www.scorecard.org. And while you're on line, be sure to stop by the Living On Earth web site. We're at www.livingonearth.org. Www.livingonearth.org.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Conflict at Darby Creek

CURWOOD: In central Ohio, farmers and conservationists are debating the fate of a large tract of land that includes some of the most productive farm land in the country. The Columbus office of The Nature Conservancy is leading an effort to preserve a clean river system as a wildlife refuge. But farmers are protesting. They say if plans for the refuge go through, they'll be driven off the land. From Columbus, Joe Smith reports.

(Silverware clanks; background conversation)

SMITH: There are few things in life that will get people to a 6:30 breakfast meeting. Even for famously early risers like farmers, there better be a good reason.

SHANNON: You hate to see this land go out of production permanently.

SMITH: For corn and soybean grower Gary Shannon and about a half-dozen other farmers talking strategy over eggs and oatmeal, the reason is their land. Mr. Shannon says they feel their community and livelihoods are threatened by conservationists.

SHANNON: Being out there, working with the soil, that's my church. That's my religion. Nothing makes me feel any better than working with the soil or, in my case, I have some brood cows. When things are tough I go out and I lean on a fence and I watch my dozen young calves frolicking, I mean, carefree. That's a peace and a tranquility that so few of us know today.

SMITH: What worries these farmers is a proposal to establish a wildlife refuge in Ohio's Darby Creek watershed. Retiring farmland and replanting the tall grass prairies that blanketed this area 200 years ago. The plan is a joint effort by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and The Nature Conservancy. Initial reports put the refuge at 50,000 acres. Officials now say the final size hasn't been determined and it's likely to be much smaller than that. The coalition also is proposing a 120-foot protective corridor along the Big and Little Darby Creeks that would be off- limits to development and farming. Jim Stewart, whose farm is situated between the Darby streams, says he supports the proposed protective corridor but not the refuge because it would put him and his neighbors out of business.

STEWART: They're talking a little mosaic right now, where they can intersperse farming with the prairie. Their percentages were like 80% prairie and 20% farming ground. We think that's a little steep. We think maybe farming ground ought to be 80% and prairie 20%. We're not going to vote for it as proposed.

SMITH: Farmers and conservationists both value the Darby watershed for the same reason: it's some of the most pristine land and water in the country.

(Footfalls through tall grass)

SMITH: Walking toward the Big Darby Creek, you pass some old oak trees and huge maples. There are young saplings in an area that was once a farm field. Terry Devlin, Project Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, says protecting the 88 miles of the Darby Stream system is a top priority.

DEVLIN: As we walk down here and look at it, it's a very slow, meandering, kind of little creek. But in it is over 103 species of fish and 38 species of mussels, which most biologists will tell you is off the chart. So it's for some reason maintained the kind of diversity you'd usually only find in a rainforest.

SMITH: Darby organizers say they're not trying to run farmers off their land. Far from it. They say agriculture gets most of the credit for the environmental purity of the area. But with the Columbus suburbs fast approaching, farmers will be enticed by developers offering top dollar for this land. Organizers say they can't win a bidding war, but they can encourage land owners who are looking to sell to offer their property to the preserve. The result could be a checkerboard refuge where tall grass prairies would be interspersed with farms and developments They say that's not ideal, but Ms. Devlin says that with a biological gem like the Darby, preserving some is better than none.

DEVLIN: The Darby Plains was the easternmost edge of the tall grass prairies of the United States. It stopped here. And before the land was drained for farming, pipes put in the ground so that the water was drained out and cleared, we had probably the best tall grass prairie because it had the richest amount of species of anywhere else in the United States was right here at the Darby. So that the refuge area then becomes extremely historically important to restore.

SMITH: Even if much of the land is donated as organizers hope, the project could cost up to $90 million. The appeal for land donations worries John Wilson, who along with his wife farms over 2,500 acres, nearly all of it leased. If his landlord donates property to the refuge, Mr. Wilson says he could be put out of business.

WILSON: A lot of our landlords are older people, and if they don't have kids that are interested in the farm they would just as soon have it in a refuge as have it in houses. So yeah, that's a big fear of ours.

SMITH: While the refuge project is supposed to curb suburban sprawl from Columbus, it could have the opposite effect. One building industry official says if the conservation plans are finalized, developers will buy up choice lots adjacent to the protected green space and draw home buyers. This will compound the land affordability issue for farmers. Jack Fisher is the executive vice president for the Ohio Farm Bureau. He says rising land prices benefit farmers looking to retire, but not new farmers with few assets.

FISHER: If they don't particularly have the opportunity to work with their family, getting the start from mom and dad or an uncle or someone like that, it is extremely difficult to compete with all these outside forces and put together enough land to start a farming operation.

SMITH: Nature Conservancy officials suggest that they have learned from past mistakes. A similar proposal in central Ohio in the 1980s was withdrawn in the face of local opposition. They say it suffered from a top-down approach that excluded public comment. Organizers say they won't make that mistake here. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has okayed preliminary plans, but there will be many more public meetings and government studies before further action is taken. Even then, project organizers say it could take 20 to 30 years before the Darby Creek Wildlife Refuge is completed. For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Smith in Columbus.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: learning about the environment with passion and practical experience. The offbeat approach of Vermont's Marlboro College just ahead right here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Maverick Vermont College

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Marlboro College in southern Vermont is a small liberal arts college with a big reputation in science and ecology circles. More than 70% of science graduates at Marlboro go on to earn PhDs. One of the founders of the school's science department was Rovery MacArthur, whose work helped establish the field of conservation biology. We sent reporter Tatiana Schreiber to find out what's different about environmental education at Marlboro.

SCHREIBER: The buildings on the Marlboro College campus have a worn but comfortable field to them. The campus is an old Vermont hill farm. The white frame farm house and barn serve as classrooms and dorms. Walking toward the science building, there's an angular wood and wire mesh structure that seems to be growing from the building. It's the aviary.

(A door opens, shuts)

WOODS: This stuff, the little bird gets right in here.

(A bird chirps)

WOODS: Here's a Coke glass. Sorry it's kind of dirty in here. But this bird is from China.

(Chirping continues)

SCHREIBER: Kermit Woods, a junior here, studies the behavior of a family of Asian pheasants called galliforms.

WOODS: And she has a little bit of a cold, so we're giving her some yams and some garlic and some spicy tomato-y stuff thanks to the kitchen.

(Chirping continues. Door opens, shuts)

SCHREIBER: Kermit hadn't planned to go to college. He'd loved birds since he was a child and was working at the Bronx Zoo when his boss suggested he consider Marlboro. When he decided to attend, the faculty encouraged him to bring his own birds with him, and helped him fell trees and drag them from the woods to build this oddly graceful, 40-foot-high aviary.

WOODS: These kinds of birds, they eat a lot of really rough roots and things, so they need to eat a lot of grit, small rocks and things to grind up their food. So this is what we call a foraging area. And when we put choice items out like garlic, these are peeled garlic cloves.

(Cloves spill out)

WOODS: I put them over here, and then the Himalayan minals and the cheer pheasants come over and they consume them.

SCHREIBER: There are all kinds of birds in here, strutting around, preening their feathers, and pecking the ground around another bird's tail. Some look like quails or chickens, others like turkeys, and a few iridescent blue and green birds trail long, elaborate peacock trains.

WOODS: Julie, would you mind feeding?

JULIE: Sure.

SCHREIBER: Marlboro's a quirky place. By now, students are used to seeing peacocks fly by their dorm windows.

(Peacocks calls)

SCHREIBER: Despite limited resources, the school recently found money to send Kermit and biology teacher Bob Engel to Malaysia for an international conference on galliforms.

ENGEL: It was full of international people and a good third of them were devoutly interested in field research. The birds themselves are in extreme trouble in almost almost all the species in almost all of their former range.

(A bird calls)

ENGEL: Pretty good, huh?

SCHREIBER: Kermit made quite an impression at the conference because he's reproduced in the aviary an environment where the birds behave very much as they would in nature. He's been invited back to Malaysia once he graduates. He'll help reintroduce the green dragon bird to the wild, a species extinct in the area since the 1950s. Getting a job like this is unusual for an undergraduate, but it's a testament to his experience at Marlboro.

ENGEL: Kermit's mind is extremely fertile, and he challenges existing ideas all the time. But the most important thing that can happen to him at Marlboro College is to learn good, formal, rigorous hypothesis testing and experimentation.

SCHREIBER: Kermit's now on plan, the two-year period of concentration that all Marlboro's 280 students must complete before they graduate. He'll conduct experiments and write a thesis on galliform conservation and ecology that he hopes will become a book. He's already got a title for it: The Resplendent Hen. But as he shifts into the final phase, he is a bit anxious.

WOODS: I don't know if I'm ready yet. I mean, I'm just now, as a junior, I'm just now, I feel prepared to really get serious. I think most of the people who have known me for a number of years will be surprised that I was capable of (laughs) finishing such heady stuff.

SALAS: I think it's pretty impressive to have basically a book of research to just plot down on someone's table and say look, this is what I did, and give them something concrete.

SCHREIBER: Elissa Salis is a senior. Her thesis is due this spring. She's also very stressed.

SALIS: I can never live up to my own standards, but hopefully I can live up to my teachers'.

SCHREIBER: Students here are expected to meet high standards, probably more like those expected of masters students at other schools. All students must defend their thesis before an outside examiner. Elissa's focus is on the effects of pesticides on the immune system.

SALAS: What I wanted to do with my plan was incorporate all the things I find fascinating in life, down to the type of chemical bonds and cellular level all the way up to looking at entire ecosystems in the environment and how things cycle.

SCHREIBER: One of her teachers is John Hayes, a biochemist.

HAYES: This is a perfect thing, actually, for her to be doing, because she aspires to a career in veterinary medicine. And certainly, we really do not know enough about the immune system in these organisms and I know that most vets don't study that very intensively. So I think the work that the student is doing is particularly appropriate for where she's headed in the future.

SCHREIBER: Elissa grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Philadelphia. She excelled in school. But her family had no money to pay for college. Marlboro accepts students who really want to be here and gives financial aid to 85 or 90% of them. But the work is demanding and students have to be very self-directed. Some 40% drop out before they graduate.

SALIS: Oh, I need you to sign this. Could you, please?

SCHREIBER: Elissa and Professor Angel say for students who succeed at Marlboro, the close mentoring they get is very important. With a student-faculty ratio of 8 to 1, relationships are close. That inspires an enormous amount of devotion to the place among both students and faculty.

RAMSTETTER: If I remain in academics and if I remain teaching, I want to do it at Marlboro College.

SCHREIBER: Jenny Ramstetter's been teaching here nine years. The other faculty members I talked to had each been here more than twenty and claimed they couldn't be pried loose, even though salaries are about 30% lower than at many comparable institutions.

ENGEL: We have huge academic freedom. And as long as we act responsibly, that's all that one ever hears, we're encouraged to teach anything we want to teach. And that is wonderful.

SCHREIBER: Bob Engel has taught classes for just a few students on desert biology and animal ethics. Jenny Ramstetter's taught culture and ecology of the western US, ethno-botany, and conservation biology and policy, all with teachers from other disciplines.

RAMSTEADER: And those kinds of opportunities, I don't think typically exist at a larger university.

SCHREIBER: There are costs, though. Here, teachers give so much to their students they have little time to publish or keep up in their fields. But Jenny Ramstetter and Bob Engel both say they've learned a huge amount from their students, who are usually reading the latest literature.

(Bird chirps)

ENGEL: Because I'm a birder myself, I know ring-necked pheasant from this country. But I knew nothing about the pheasant family and the diversity within it until I met Kermit.

SCHREIBER: When Kermit Woods graduates, the aviary will probably come down unless another student happens to have the same passion. But Kermit hopes to rebuild a similar one for the Bronx Zoo. Meanwhile, Marlboro College suffers from what they've come to call "bird creep." Birds are everywhere.

WOODS: That's a Tibetan dragon bird up there...

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Marlboro, Vermont.

WOODS: And they're quite different than the Nepali ones.

SCHREIBER: How are they different?

WOODS: They're quite a bit taller, and each feather on their neck is an actual eye, like on the train of the familiar peacock. Also, they can't scream. It's a very different sounding call. And they take five years to mature, versus three years. And the male is...

(Music up and under)

GERAK: We live in a throwaway society, and it really makes me sick.

Back to top

 

Throwaway Commentary

CURWOOD: Commentator Josh Gerak sent us this account of his experiences in the consumer product marketplace.

GERAK: One day our telephone answering machine broke. The tape wouldn't wind. It was a fancy machine, so rather than sending it to a landfill I was determined to fix it. As I called repair shop after repair shop, I found to my dismay no one would touch it for less than $50. Panasonic, the manufacturer, wanted $69 plus parts, and I would have to wait several weeks for return shipping. I could buy a new machine for that. It seemed hopeless. On my final, desperate call, I asked the repairman, "Should I dump this in the trash or fix it?"

"That Panasonic is a good machine," he replied. "First generation digital tape combination, and in many ways superior to the junk sold today." Then he added, "It could be a belt, but we charge $50 to look."

I had nothing to lose now. I tried fixing the machine myself. Sure enough, flopping between two pulleys was a small broken rubber band. I tried replacing it. The tape wobbled slightly. It made my 14-year-old nephew sound like a street wino. On a hope, I visited the last shop that gave me the repair hint. "Can you sell me a replacement?" I asked.

"I'm sorry, we can't sell parts to customers." He remembered I had just called.

I begged. "My only alternative is to wait a week with no answering machine, or pay 50 bucks for someone to turn 4 screws and replace this rubber band," I said smugly, holding up the thin black belt. The repairman winced.

"It's not that I don't want to help you. I'm just following the rules."

He thought a few seconds, then said, "Let me see if I have one in stock." When he came back to the counter, he apologized. "I'll have to charge you $8. Business is not very good. It's not worth it for most people to fix their machines, and it's getting worse."

"Do all parts cost this much?" I was feeling a little sorry for him.

"You can't repair nothin' these days," he grumbled. "Companies would rather you buy a new answering machine than get an old one fixed. I see this everywhere with all kinds of goods: toasters, vacuums, you name it. We don't fix them any more because they're so cheap to replace. And the old ones end up in the dump."

I'd unleashed an ally but my victory seemed so hollow after talking to the disgruntled answering machine repairman. Maybe I could fix this one, but how about all those other broken answering machines?

CURWOOD: I don't know, Josh. Maybe it's all part of a plot to get us to use voice mail. Commentator Josh Gerak lives in Seattle where he imports handmade products from Central America and fixes answering machines.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff includes George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, Daniel Grossman, and Liz Lempert, along with Peter Christianson, Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. This week Joyce Hackel joins us as senior editor; welcome aboard, Joyce. We also had help from John Hoder, Jeremy Jurgens, Vanessa Melendez, and Miriam Landman, and from KPLU in Seattle. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. And thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.A. Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health: www.wajones.org; the Surdna Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

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.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

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.