John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt in Yosemite National Park (photo: Library of Congress)
In this week’s trip beyond the headlines, Peter Dykstra tells host Steve Curwood about a multi-billion dollar settlement with a major US energy company, concerns about a class of molecules in household cleaning products called quits, and some prescient words 107 years ago from Teddy Roosevelt.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. We check in now with Peter Dykstra, our guide to the land beyond the headlines. He's the publisher of Environmental Health News - that’s EHN.org and DailyClimate.org and joins us on the line from Conyers, Georgia. Hi there, Peter.
DYKSTRA: Hi Steve. I’m going to start you off this week with a blockbuster of a legal case involving two famous, or maybe infamous, names from environmental history. Steve, what do you think of when you hear the name Anardarko Petroleum?
CURWOOD: I think of part owners of the well that blew out in the Gulf of Mexico.
DYKSTRA: Correct. And how about Kerr-McGee?
CURWOOD: Oh yeah. That’s the company where Karen Silkwood worked and was possibly exposed to plutonium, and she died mysteriously on her way to meet some reporters.
DYKSTRA: Correct again. That was back in the 1970s, back in the 20th century. Anadarko bought out Kerr-McGee a few years ago, and when they did, they inherited a mess of toxic chemicals and radioactive matter that resulted in a record $5.1 billion dollar cleanup settlement with the Federal Government, with eleven states, and also with the Navajo Nation.
CURWOOD: That’s a lot of dough! And didn’t Anadarko pay out another big settlement for the Deepwater Horizon spill?
DYKSTRA: Yeah, that one was $4 billion, but it was paid to BP, not to the Feds. But there was one stunning detail to be found in both of these settlements: Anadarko and its shareholders apparently felt they got off easy. When they agreed to pay $4 billion to BP a few years ago, and again last week when they settled for over $5 billion with the Feds, both times, Anadarko’s stock price shot through the roof the same day.
CURWOOD: Peter, are we in the wrong business?
DYKSTRA: All depends on your point of view about money, and about journalism, and about the environment.
CURWOOD: What have you got for us next?
DYKSTRA: I’ve got some confusion about quats.
CURWOOD: I guess you’ll start un-confusing us by describing what “quats” are.
DYKSTRA: Quats are quaternary ammonia compounds, like benzalkonium chloride.
CURWOOD: Um gee, um, thanks for clearing that up.
DYKSTRA: Oh, my pleasure! Quats are the favored substitute for replacing a suspect ingredient in hand soaps and other personal care products called triclosan, and triclosan is suspected of having endocrine-disrupting properties. It’s fallen out of favor with many consumers, may soon face stricter FDA regulation, and some personal care giants like Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive have started to phase triclosan out of many products.
CURWOOD: And these quat compounds are a safe replacement?
DYKSTRA: In many cases, yes, but there’s also research suggesting that while quats are not endocrine disruptors, some can impact your respiratory system.
CURWOOD: So there’s a chance that instead of solving a potential problem, we’re swapping it out for a new risk?
DYKSTRA: Right. The latest consumer giant to commit to dropping triclosan is Avon, with its legendary door-to-door sales force. But Avon hasn’t said what they’ll use as a replacement for triclosan.
CURWOOD: Just as long as they don’t replace the Avon Ladies, Peter.
DYKSTRA: Well, here in the 21st Century there’s also the Avon internet, and probably, surely, some Avon men. But for the potentially risky chemicals in our personal care products, consumers just need to stay aware.
CURWOOD: What do you have for us on the anniversary calendar this week?
DYKSTRA: Well, I’ve got an antique for you. 107 years ago this week, President Teddy Roosevelt issued sort of a State of the Union speech for kids. He called it the “Message to the School-Children of the United States”, and it was mostly a pitch for kids to celebrate Arbor Day. So in 1907, before broadcasts, before there were podcasts, before there were webcasts, a Republican President said these word to our kids:
"We of an older generation can get along with what we have, though with growing hardship; but in your full manhood and womanhood you will want what nature once so bountifully supplied and man so thoughtlessly destroyed; and because of that want you will reproach us, not for what we have used, but for what we have wasted.”
CURWOOD: Wow, 100 years ago! What do you think Teddy Roosevelt would make of us today?
DYKSTRA: Well, I think Teddy Roosevelt would be a very angry 155 year old Republican, and he might also be upset that Arbor Day’s been lost a little in the shuffle. Arbor Day, by the way, is April 25 this year.
CURWOOD: And that’s just after Earth day. Hey, thanks, Peter.
DYKSTRA: Thanks a lot, Steve. Talk to you soon.
CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra is publisher of DailyClimate.org and Environmental Health news. For more information about these topics and many others, go to our website, LOE.org.
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