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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March 10, 2000

Air Date: March 10, 2000


News Roundup: Political Observer Mark Hertsgaard

Host Steve Curwood talks to Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about the latest news on the political and corporate fronts. They discuss Bill Bradley’s withdrawal from the presidential race, Texaco’s departure from the industry-funded Global Climate Coalition and Mistubishi’s decision to cancel plans for a salt factory next to a habitat of the endangered gray whale. (07:30)

Battle Over Puerto Rico Bombing Range / Leda Hartman

Leda Hartman reports from Vieques (vee-EH-kuhs), Puerto Rico, on the protests against the U.S. Navy’s continued use of the island for a practice bombing range. Protesters are occupying the bombing range and demanding that the military leave the island, citing damage to both the environment and human health. (12:27)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about solar storms. The sun’s 11-year storm cycle is peaking and increases in solar flares could bring events ranging from spectacular northern lights to disruptions in wireless communications. (01:54)

Revenge of the Car / Tom Banse

Tom Banse (BAHN-see) reports on the pitched battle over automobile taxes and public transportation funding in Washington state. Seattle's bus and ferry system is one of the most heavily-used public transit operations in the U.S., but one voter initiative has already slashed transit funding, and another would require that ninety percent of all transportation funding be spent on roads. (06:51)

Better Busses / Alan Durning

Commentator Alan Durning says that if buses were given "special powers" to avoid being trapped in rush-hour gridlock with cars, more people would choose to ride the bus. (02:25)

New Guinea Mine Mess

Living On Earth’s Laura Knoy (kuh-NOY) speaks with anthropologist Stuart Kirsch about the controversial Ok Tedi (AWK TED-dy) copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea. Dr. Kirsch has worked with indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea since 1986. He says the mine has been a significant source of income -- and pollution -- for the country. (06:20)

Community Garden Bulldozed / Jose Torres

Manhattan teenager Jose Torres’ audio diary of the battle over a community garden in his East Village neighborhood. The garden was recently razed by a city work crew to make way for a high-rent apartment building. This segment was produced by Joe Richman for NPR’s Teen Diaries series. (09:10)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Leda Hartman, Tom Banse, Jose Torres
GUESTS: Mark Hertsgaard, Stuart Kirsch

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Colonial politics, the environment and human health are all embroiled in the controversy over Vieques, a small island off Puerto Rico used by the U.S. military for land, sea and air maneuvers. The U.S. Navy and residents are going head to head.

TORRES: For people here, it's a guarantee, like a human shield, to prevent the Navy from bombing the area.

GRANUZZO:We have to be good neighbors with the people of Vieques. We want to re-engage them and try to demonstrate to them that we are good neighbors. That's what we're going to have to do during this period.

CURWOOD: Also, the environment and presidential electoral politics. Now the Democrats, Republicans, are looking ahead to the fall elections. We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

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(NPR News follows)

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News Roundup: Political Observer Mark Hertsgaard

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As the Democrats and Republicans look ahead to the fall elections, it's not clear where environmental questions will fit on their agendas, even though Al Gore and George W. Bush both took some heat on the issue during the primaries. Joining us to discuss the latest twists and turns in the world of national and global politics is our political observer, Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Well, it's still a political season. And I have to say, though, that I'm going to miss the sparring that was going on between Bill Bradley and Al Gore over the environment. And I have to wonder if we're going to hear much about the environment from this point out.

HERTSGAARD: Good question. I think had Bill Bradley not entered the race on the Democratic side, Gore may never have mentioned it except in passing. Certainly, when Friends of the Earth endorsed Bradley back in the fall, that was a big wake-up call to Al Gore, saying you cannot take the environmental vote for granted. And Bradley made a good run at him there in the early primaries. But at some point, you know, his message never quite caught fire. And I think part of that is because of his tone. His tone was oftentimes very sharp, but the substance of what he was criticizing Gore on, you know, votes that took place 10, 20 years ago, seemed kind of odd. There is a lot to criticize about Al Gore's environmental performance in the White House years, and that would have seemed to have been a bit more relevant. In any case, at least, Bradley did force Gore to start talking about this a little bit. Now the question, as we look toward the rest of the political year: Will Gore start to talk about this more?

CURWOOD: It's ironic, though, that as the primaries were coming together, the Republicans ended up talking even more about the environment than the Dems. I'm thinking of that $2 million television ad campaign that ran in, what, California and New York and Ohio that praised Mr. Bush for cleaning up the air and criticized Mr. McCain for voting against renewable energy. What was going on there, do you think?

HERTSGAARD: Ironic is really the word there, Steve, that in the days leading up to the Super Tuesday primaries you had all of this talk about the environment. Important to note, though, that neither candidate was doing that talking. It was an outsider who put those ads on, so far as we know, a gentleman named Sam Wyly under the rubric of a group called Republicans for Clean Air. And you know, it now has come out that Mr. Wyly is a big contributor to George Bush, and yet I think his ads backfired on Bush because they've gotten him talking about an issue, air pollution, that is not a winning issue for George Bush. You know, Houston has the worst air pollution in the country, and Bush's program to fight air pollution in Texas was purely voluntary, written by the polluting companies as we talked about on the air a couple of months ago. This is not an issue that George W. Bush wants brought up, so not exactly a politically astute maneuver on the part of Mr. Wyly.

CURWOOD: Well, Mr. Wyly, who is Mr. Wyly?

HERTSGAARD: Mr. Wyly is a billionaire, made his money in the computer software business over about 20 years. Big contributor to George Bush, as I said. And also, the Sierra Club quickly revealed, a contributor to some of the most anti-environmental politicians in Congress. Just since 1997, Mr. Wyly and his family have given some $200,000 to a collection of representatives in Congress whose combined voting record was only eight percent pro-environment, eight percent according to the League of Conservation Voters. That's on a scale of zero to 100.

CURWOOD: I want to change topics here for a moment and go to Texas to the big oil company Texaco that recently pulled out of the Global Climate Coalition. This is an industry-funded group that has been pretty strident in its efforts to try and convince Congress and the public that climate change isn't a problem, and that the Kyoto Protocol should not be ratified. That's a pretty big step for Texaco to get out of this group. What do you think it means?

HERTSGAARD: I think it's interesting. Texaco, of course, is joining BP, Shell, Ford, Toyota -- these are some of the firms that have already left the Global Climate Coalition. And for pretty much the same reasons. They say that, look, we think that climate change is a serious concern. They want to differentiate themselves from the Neanderthals who are remaining in the Climate Coalition, companies like Exxon and Chevron, and to try and do a little good corporate PR. You know, when the Climate Coalition was formed in 1991, their internal memo said that they wanted to, quote, "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact," unquote. But now, nine years later, the scientific consensus is so overwhelming that it simply doesn't pass the laugh test any more to say that climate change is a joke, that it's not real. And so, these companies are trying to move off in that direction to keep their environmental image safe with the public. Now, it's important to note that this has not really changed their actual corporate behavior. BP, for example, is planing to spend $5 billion in the next five years exploring for oil in Alaska. So, it's important to put these moves into context. I think essentially this was a PR move on the part of Texaco to get away from being tagged as anti-environmental.

CURWOOD: Mitsubishi has also been under pressure, not for being in the Global Climate Coalition, but for having plans to build a giant salt plant down in Baja California, in the Sea of Cortez. But they've backed off of that because of pressure from activists. Do I have that right?

HERTSGAARD: Definitely. Mitsubishi admitted as much when they called off the deal. They said, "Look, we still think this is safe. Our environmental impact statements say there's no danger to the breeding grounds of the gray whale. But we were not able to convince the public of that." And that is a tribute to a rather extraordinary organizing campaign that was mounted by a coalition that brought together local and then national groups from within Mexico and international groups, pressuring, using all different kinds of tactics, and bringing in a rather extraordinary array of people, from very top scientists warning about the danger to the whales, to people like the Nobel laureate Jose Santamago, the great novelist from Portugal, opposing this. And I think in the end, Mitsubishi just realized that, you know, they could not win this battle.

CURWOOD: Mitsubishi's been in the sights of activists for years. Does this mean now that the activists will find another target?

HERTSGAARD: I'd be surprised, Steve. Mitsubishi is still very much in their sights. I just finished reading Peter Matheson's wonderful new book, "Tigers in the Snow," which talks about the efforts to preserve the tiger, the Siberian tiger, from impending extinction in the Russian Far East. And one of the major threats there is the clear-cutting of forests that Mitsubishi, along with Hyundai, the Korean conglomerate, is undertaking. And so, with that kind of activity, I think Mitsubishi is pretty likely to stay on the environmental hit list for quite a while to come.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead: The social, environmental, and health consequences of a Navy target range in Puerto Rico. The politics of Vieques is next on Living on Earth.

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Battle Over Puerto Rico Bombing Range

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Just off Puerto Rico there's a small island about the size of Martha's Vineyard named Vieques. In many respects it's like the old Caribbean, with wild horses, lots of open space, and miles of spectacular and uninhabited beaches. Few people live there because the west end of the island is a massive ammunition depot for the United States Navy, and the eastern end is used for military maneuvers, including land, sea and air assaults. A half-century of almost constant bombing has sparked protests by local residents. Last April a bomb went astray, killing a civilian guard and reinvigorating the protests, which also have an anti-colonial flavor. The head of the Puerto Rican Independence Party has been camping out on the bombing range, and more than 80,000 people recently demonstrated on the streets of San Juan. There have been no war games since the guard was killed, but Puerto Rico's governor, Pedro Rosello, and President Clinton recently agreed the maneuvers would resume with dummy bombs. The deal would also let the island's residents vote on the future of the area. Leda Hartman has our report.


HARTMAN: Vieques is a Caribbean jewel, home to rare tropical birds, a plethora of fish, coral reefs and mangrove trees. But the island's star feature, says Richard Barone, a nature guide, is its bioluminescent bay, filled with microorganisms that glow in the dark.

BARONE: On a slightly windy night, the little wave chops all light up. Any fish that take off, they light up like rockets going off. It's unforgettable, it's incredible, it's for almost everybody somehow a spiritually moving experience to see it. It makes you love it.

HARTMAN: As Mr. Barone speaks, the sun sinks lower over Puerto Real, the southernmost town on Vieques. Streaks of gold, turquoise, and magenta appear over the white sandy beach of Sun Bay and the distant green hills of Pirate Mountain.

BARONE: If this doesn't inspire you, forget it, you're dead, you're totally, totally dead, you don't even deserve to be in your body.

HARTMAN: Mr. Barone himself embodies the island's history. His father was American, a Navy man. His mother was a native islander whose family lost their land through eminent domain when the Navy took hold of two-thirds of Vieques during World War II. For almost 60 years the military has conducted training exercises on the island's eastern shore from the air, land and sea. The Navy says this is the only place in the Atlantic where these crucial, three-pronged war games can be carried out. But last April, the long-simmering resentment of many Viequenses toward the Navy came to a full boil when a bomb went astray and killed a civilian guard.

(Music, clapping and singing)

HARTMAN: Since then, hundreds of people have illegally occupied the bombing range and have also come to the front gates of the Navy base to stage a nonstop protest.

(Music continues)

HARTMAN: Danny Rivera, one of Puerto Rico's most popular singers, is a regular visitor. He says the Navy hasn't been a good neighbor.

RIVERA: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: No neighbor that disturbs the peace, the health, the spiritual and psychological well-being of our community, is a good neighbor.

HARTMAN: Worries about the island's ecological well-being are what bring 38-year-old Carlos Ventura here. Mr. Ventura's family has been fishing for generations, and he heads the local fisherman's union. He says the bombing exercises have upset the food chain and disturbed the fish habitat.

VENTURA: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: All of these military activities affect the species. In some cases, it's the noise. In others, it's the direct effect of the bombs on the habitat and on the species. Because on many occasions, when the bombs fall in the water, you see fish of all kinds leaving the area.

HARTMAN: In recent years, Mr. Ventura adds, he has had to go farther and farther out to find fish. What's more, he says, he has seen unusual numbers of dead fish. Some of these have inflamed lungs. Other sea creatures, he says, have mutations.

VENTURA: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: For example, we found crabs that, instead of having two mouths, have three mouths. We found other species of fish that don't have the colors they are supposed to have. And we found lobsters that should have four antennas, but instead they have eight.

HARTMAN: The Navy claims to have no knowledge of these deformities. Isabel Segunda is the capital of Vieques, a town of faded colonial elegance where Dr. Rafael Rivera-Castano was born and raised. Dr. Rivera is a retired epidemiologist from the University of Puerto Rico. Sitting on his front porch, he explains that he came back to Vieques to live out the rest of his life.

RIVERA: At my age, whatever I am going to die from, my cancer is already in progress. So, if I come back or not come back, I'm going to die anyway. So I don't have to. If I had any children I wouldn't have come here.

HARTMAN: That's because cancer rates on Vieques may be unusually high. A review of cancer statistics spanning 35 years by the Puerto Rican Health Department shows cancer rates on Vieques to be an average of 27 percent higher than those on the Puerto Rican mainland. That average is higher still from 1985 to 1994, the most recent period studied. These results were confirmed by epidemiologists at the University of Puerto Rico, and Dr. Rivera says there's only one way to account for the numbers.

RIVERA: In the 60s, the cancer rate in Vieques was lower than Puerto Rico, actually was going down from 1960 to 1974. It is in 1974 that it started rising. So it's reasonable to think that this is the effect of the bombing in Vieques.

HARTMAN: Dr. Rivera cites another recent study by the University of Puerto Rico, which has found unusually high levels of skin allergies and pulmonary problems in children who live closest to the bombing range. He says soil samples taken by protesters on the range show elevated levels of toxic substances, including lead, cadmium, mercury, and nitrites, some of which are carcinogenic. All are residue of the bombing.

RIVERA: They're there in the bombing area. There's no reason to believe that this is not coming to the civilian population. The wind blows form the camp area into the town to the west. There's no reason to believe we are not breathing all these things that are going there.

HARTMAN: Dr. Rivera believes some parts of the bombing range, particularly the eastern tip, may be too contaminated to ever clean up. The pollution on Vieques will soon get some attention from the federal government. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, based in Atlanta, will test the soil and the sea water around Vieques. The ATSDR also wants to test the air to determine where the debris from the bombing goes, but it can't do that until the Navy uses live bombs again -- something that's on hold for the foreseeable future. The study's preliminary results are due out this summer, and Rear Admiral Andrew Granuzzo is looking forward to them. As the Navy's Director of Environmental Protection, Safety and Occupational Health, Granuzzo says he expects the ATSDR to validate his contention that the bombing has had no adverse effects on the island.

GRANUZZO:We think that Vieques is as unique and beautiful as it is today because of our stewardship.

HARTMAN: Admiral Granuzzo adds that the bombing range comprises only three percent of the island, and is separated from populated areas by a buffer zone of at least eight miles -- too far away, he says, to receive any contamination. He says the wind blows from the bombing range toward the towns less than half the time, and breaks up any pollutants into quantities too small to hurt anyone.

GRANUZZO: I would also say that we've tested the water in the wells, and we've tested the air, and we can find no evidence of any carcinogens that could have been caused from Navy activities.

HARTMAN: One known human carcinogen, however, has been used on Vieques. In February of last year, the Navy mistakenly and illegally fired 263 rounds of depleted uranium bullets at the bombing range. That's not the same as dropping a nuclear bomb, but the material is still radioactive. Admiral Granuzzo says this was an isolated case of human error.

GRANUZZO:We went out to the island and started the clean-up, and we suspended the clean-up because a lot of the rounds went into heavy vegetation where there was a risk of unexploded ordnance. And we were going to wait until we could clear that vegetation and then go back in again. Subsequent to that, the trespassers came on the range and have been camped out there since. And we haven't had a chance to go back.


HARTMAN: The trespassers get to the Navy's bombing range by talking an hour-long boat ride around the island's coast, to arrive at its eastern shore.

(Men speak with each other)

HARTMAN: Despite the lack of amenities, the protesters have managed to settle in comfortably. One camp even has a solar collector, a wind turbine, and a nursery for seedlings. Alejandro Torres, an activist with the Puerto Rican Independence Party, explains why he and hundreds of others have camped here, on and off, since last April.

TORRES: For people here, it's a guarantee, like a human shield, to prevent the Navy from bombing the area.

HARTMAN: Mr. Torres says that before the Navy came, the bombing range was farm land, mostly sugar cane fields. Now it's pockmarked and cratered, littered with shot-up tanks and aircraft, and ordnance, some of which is still unexploded.

TORRES: Look, that's all the bombs.

HARTMAN: That blue thing with the little tail at the end.

TORRES: Yeah, it's like a fish.

HARTMAN: Yet amid the barrenness, the land is reviving: a result, Mr. Torres says, of staving off the bombing since last April.

TORRES: Now you see the grass, and many young-born trees. Before that, this was like a desert.

HARTMAN: Even some animals have started to return.

TORRES: This lagoon -- seven months ago it was empty. Look, the ducks, look, the ducks. Mira los patos alli, los patos alli. A new life.

HARTMAN: Despite these signs, the protesters on the bombing range are unhappy about one thing. The Clinton Administration agreement allows the Navy to resume its bombing exercises for three years, till May 2003, albeit with dummy bombs filled with concrete. Independence Party President Ruben Berrios has been living at the range since last May. He says he'll stay until the Navy leaves or he's arrested, something neither the Puerto Rican government nor federal authorities seem anxious to do, so far.

BERRIOS: Vieques is imperative, it's the priority of every Puerto Rican that feels proud of being a Puerto Rican. This is the priority, and all my energies are going to be dedicated to this.

HARTMAN: The ultimate fate of the Navy, however, will rest with the people of Vieques. The White House order provides for a referendum which gives the Viequenses a choice: to either accept a $90 million aid package and let the Navy resume live bombing, or to kick the military out entirely. Rear Admiral Andrew Granuzzo acknowledges the Navy has a challenge ahead.

GRANUZZO:We have to be good neighbors with the people of Vieques. We want to re-engage them and try to demonstrate to them that we are good neighbors. That's what we're going to have to do during this period.

HARTMAN: Still, Admiral Granuzzo says the Navy has not only been a good neighbor, it has also been a good caretaker. He points to the pristine beaches the Navy maintains, its thriving pelican rookery, its efforts against erosion in the mangrove swamps, and its well-kept turtle hatchery.

GRANUZZO:In fact, in a "Conde Nast Traveler" magazine last April, the article is quoted as saying that Vieques has benefitted from Uncle Sam's restraint.


HARTMAN: Meanwhile, back at the beach at Puerto Real, nature guide Richard Barone says he knows how the island itself would vote if it could.

BARONE: This island was incredible 150 years ago. Incredible. It was rainforest from one end to the other. It had colonies of flamingos. There were Puerto Rican parrots from one end of this island to the other. There was so much animal life on this island. And do you think this island that loves life so much doesn't have any memory of that?

HARTMAN: The people of Vieques are scheduled to vote on the Navy's fate in May of next year. For Living on Earth, I'm Leda Hartman in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

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CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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 W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity; www.wajones.org; and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead, Washington State drivers rebel against paying for public transit. They want 90 percent of state transportation money to go for roads. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: The weather's expected to be hot and stormy in the next few weeks, at least on the giant fireball 93 million miles away. The sun's 11-year storm cycle is nearing another peak. And an increase in solar flares is likely to follow. Solar flares are huge explosions, which can spew gases, particles and radiation hundreds of millions of miles into space. The Earth is largely insulated from the effects of all of this by its atmosphere and magnetic field, but not completely. Eleven years ago this month, magnetic interference from solar flares triggered a blackout that left six million North Americans without power. The same solar storms affected more than a thousand satellites. And today, with the boom in wireless communications, we're even more vulnerable to magnetic interference. Cell phones, pagers, and Internet service all could go down. And TV and radio communications could be disrupted. If that happens, though, some people left with nothing to do for a few minutes might be able to wander outside at night and catch a glimpse of a spectacular light show caused by the very same solar flares. The aurora borealis, or northern lights. These illuminated waves of charged solar particle are usually seen only in the polar regions. But during the 1989 solar storms, Floridians and Cubans enjoyed a rare display. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Revenge of the Car

CURWOOD: Ridership on public transportation in the U.S. is the highest it's been in decades. But in many places, mass transit is under fire from taxpayers and car owners, who want government planners to do more for the larger number of people who commute by automobile. As Tom Banse reports from Seattle, something of a car owner's revolt seems to be brewing in the state of Washington.


BANSE: It's rush hour in Seattle, and the city is living up to its dubious honor as third most congested in the nation. Bus stops downtown are swarming with riders. Many are angry about recent cutbacks in service.

WOMAN: You know, the biggest problem I think that Seattle has is just getting people around town and cutting back on mass transit certainly isn't helping any.

WOMAN 2: You get on and they're crowded. You have to stand, and we took a bus the other day that actually passed several stops because they were too full.

BANSE: The Seattle area has enjoyed some of the best bus service in the country, twice voted tops by the American Public Transit Association. And the fleet of commuter ferry boats here is the largest in the U.S.

(Boat horns)

BANSE: But the system is in the midst of drastic budget cuts brought on by a citizen tax revolt. Seattle's looking at scaling back bus service by one third. Some suburbs have stopped weekend service altogether, including van pickups for the disabled. One quarter of the ferry fleet could wind up in mothballs. Many riders see the cuts as short-sighted.

WOMAN 3: I think if you cut back on bus transportation, people will get in their cars, and everybody will have more congestion, and our air pollution will go up.

MAN: I think that, you know, we're in just this kind of mean-spirited times right now, where people don't give a rat's ass about anything except their own money in their pocket.

BANSE: Passenger fares cover less than 25 percent of the budget for Seattle's buses. Here, as elsewhere, transit receives massive taxpayer subsidies. Angry voters recently knocked out one source of that subsidy. A suburban mail-order entrepreneur, Tim Eyman, drafted a ballot proposition to whack Washington state's rather steep car license tax. It passed handily in November. This year, Mr. Eyman's back for more.

EYMAN: We're filing today the Traffic Improvement Initiative, which does, one, mandates that 90 percent of all transportation monies goes to road construction, road improvements...

BANSE: The new ballot proposition would open freeway carpool lanes to all drivers. It would also require government officials to spend nine tenths of every transportation dollar on road construction and maintenance.

EYMAN: They can spend the other 10 percent of the money any way they want. They can use it for mass transit. They can use it for rail. They can use it for any of their various programs of social engineering, where they want to force people out of their vehicles. Knock yourself out. But when 90 percent of the people are just trying to get from Point A to Point B, 90 percent of the money ought to be spent on that.

BANSE: Mr. Eyman is backed by a network of anti-tax activists he calls his kamikazes. They hope to tap into a vein of frustration with traffic, congestion so bad that it's not unusual for the radio traffic alerts to go on and on.

(Radio voice: "Southbound 95 is still slowing at Linwood off and on through Shoreline due to some earlier problems that are cleared. Southbound 405 still pretty solid. That's the Slumfrieg Interchange...")

BANSE: Urban planners view mass transit as the answer to congestion, but many taxpayers feel transit systems are riven with waste and consider new commuter rail lines a boondoggle. Enough people feel this way that they are becoming a force to be reckoned with. Retired liquor store owner Bob Burmeister is one of those helping distribute the petitions needed to get the road-building proposition on the Washington state ballot.

BURMEISTER: I just see what's not working, and what hasn't been working, and that's the empty buses running around all hours of the day and night. Just can't quite fathom how they justify running all these empty buses, but I'm sure they have adequate tax dollars to squander on that, too.

BANSE: Is Mr. Burmeister in the vanguard of a new movement? Is this the revenge of the car owners? National experts say the situation in Seattle is more extreme than elsewhere because it combines three movements at once. There's anti-tax activists mixed in with critics of light rail, plus you have people who covet the carpool lanes. Mark Hallenbeck is a transportation expert at the University of Washington.

HALLENBECK: It's not necessarily an anti-transit backlash. I think it's a "me first" attitude.

BANSE: Mr. Hallenbeck says congestion is getting worse just about everywhere, yet Americans show no sign of breaking their love affair with the car.

HALLENBECK: There are forces that say, "I want to drive my car when I want to drive my car whenever I want to drive my car," and we like to drive our cars. I like to drive my car. The problem is, it's almost impossible to find something that does work. So, people who haven't tried to come up with solutions that actually work tend to look for the next thing they can take.

MAN: Madame Speaker, a quorum is present.

(A gavel sounds)

MADAME SPEAKER: House will be in order. Members will take their seats, please...

BANSE: In Washington state, the legislature is on the spot to patch the holes from November's car tax cut and put out emerging brush fires. Republican Representative Maryann Mitchell states flatly the carpool lanes will stay, because they're working. But finding new ways to subsidize transit proves more perplexing.

MITCHELL: Our rural folks really are not interested in paying for transit, even though they have limited transit service. They don't think they ought to be paying for Seattle's transit system.

BANSE: In the future, Representative Mitchell says towns and cities that want good bus service will have to raise the money locally. Washington state is also looking at raising fares on ferries and even privatizing parts of the system to make ends meet.

(A crowd chants: "Save our ferries. Keep the promise! Save our ferries. Keep the promise! Save our ferries. Keep the promise! ... ")

BANSE: Puget Sound bus and ferry riders are keeping the pressure on to save what they have. At one of the frequent rallies held at the state capital, businessman Mike Stohmeyer from the San Juan islands said higher ferry fares and reduced service could spell trouble for his beach resort.

STOHMEYER: Now we're talking about cutbacks during the most prosperous time Washington state has ever had, and it's a ridiculous situation.

CROWD: "Save our ferries! Save our ferries!"

BANSE: Around the country voters are sending mixed signals about what they want. In November, Colorado and New Jersey approved massive borrowing for a combination of highways and transit. But people in Kansas City, Virginia Beach, and Columbus, Ohio, rejected tax increases to build light rail lines. President Clinton's new budget calls for record spending on transportation, but most of the new money goes to construction of road and rail projects and to research. It would not provide new operating subsidies to replace money lost through tax revolts. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Banse in Seattle.

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Better Busses

CURWOOD: Commentator Alan Durning says no form of public transit gets less respect in America's car culture than the city bus. So he's been thinking about ways to update its image.


DURNING: I'm a bus rider. I've been one all my life. My grandmother showed me the ropes when I was seven and I roamed the city freely before I was a teen. But for most people these days, the bus is synonymous with inconvenience, not freedom. And I must confess, my time on Seattle's number 16 has grown frustrating.

(Coin machine, followed by a diesel engine revving up)

DURNING: Every day this bus carries dozens of commuters, but it gets stuck behind lines of solo drivers. What we need is a better way for buses to compete with cars. So imagine if we treated buses like fire trucks, installing sirens and requiring everyone else to get out of the way. All those SUVs and minivans out there would have to scramble to the curb.
Okay, sirens might be too much. But you get the idea. We ought to yield to public transportation. Imagine this: bus drivers pointing remote controls at traffic lights and turning them green instantly. No more red lights, ever.

Or how about city buses with fold-out stop signs, like school buses have? Cars would have to brake when buses merged into traffic. Or, buses with wide doors and low ground clearance: no stairs to climb, no lines to wait in, no need for wheelchair lifts. We could even try whole networks of streets just for transit, to get buses out of gridlock. Or maybe even cyber-buses linked to your phone. You get a call when it's time to stroll to the stop. No more standing out there on the corner, waiting, miserably watching the cars roll by.

This may all sound like pie in the sky, but almost all these ideas have been tested. And combined, they'd make buses faster and more popular. That's the bottom line. Experts say that time truly is money when it comes to transit. They call it the currency of transportation. If buses save people time, more people will become bus riders. It's that simple. When we arm buses with special powers, they'll be symbols of freedom for everyone.

I suppose, though, if that happens, I'll have a harder time getting a seat.

(A bell dings, signaling a stop)

CURWOOD: Alan Durning rides the bus to his job as director of Northwest Environment Watch in Seattle.

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(Traffic up and under)

CURWOOD: It's bulldozers one, neighborhood residents nothing, in the latest skirmish over community gardens on city property in New York. That's coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

New Guinea Mine Mess

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Earlier this year an accident at a gold mine in Romania released a flood of cyanide-laced water into the Danube, poisoning one of Europe's most important waterways. The incident was a high-profile example of what can happen when things go wrong at a big mine. Less in the news but no less important to residents in the region is the story of the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, north of Australia. Ok Tedi produces copper and gold, and is among the biggest sources of income in Papua New Guinea. But over more than 15 years it's also released poisonous heavy metals and other pollutants into nearby rivers and caused floods which have destroyed forests and farms. The mine's owner, an Australian company called Broken Hill Proprietary, has agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to help compensate for the damage, but has said it can't clean it up. Now the Papua New Guinea government is trying to decide whether to allow the mine to continue to operate. Recently, Living on Earth's Laura Knoy spoke about the mine with Stuart Kirsch, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Michigan who's worked in the area since 1986. Professor Kirsch described the impact of the mine on the local environment.

KIRSCH: I used to travel by canoe along the rivers, and you'd have a towering wall of green on either side of you as you traveled along the river. You'd see hornbills, flocks of hornbills. And you'd also see kingfishers along the river and herons and egrets. In the forest itself you could find lots of wild animals. And now if you walk along the Ok Tedi River, it's like a ghost forest. All you have are trees with no leaves on them. All the birds have gone away. There are no fish left in the rivers or the streams. It's like a winter landscape in the tropics. It's something that people can hardly imagine.

KNOY: How has the mine changed the lives of people in the region, then?

KIRSCH: It's very difficult for people to produce enough food to feed themselves. I have with me something that somebody said to me, a woman called Duri Kemyat. She said to me, "Before, the river was not like this. It makes me feel like crying. These days this place is ruined, so I feel like crying. Where I used to make gardens, the mud banks have built up. Where I used to catch prawns and fish there is an empty pool. Before, it wasn't like this. We had no difficulty finding garden food and wild game. Now we are suffering, and I wonder why."

KNOY: Besides the environmental impact, has the company tried to be a good corporate citizen, you know, supporting local health initiatives, or local schools.

KIRSCH: It has in fact provided a lot of benefits to the local communities. All over Papua New Guinea you find that life expectancy has increased over the last 20 years, as Western health care and medicine have been provided to local communities. There have been education initiatives throughout Papua New Guinea, and the mine has been very important in terms providing transportation infrastructure that allows people to get to hospitals, allows school teachers to get into remote villages. But there have also been dramatic tradeoffs. The mine provides, for example, water tanks to all the villages along the river. So whereas they used to get water from the river, now they can't because it's polluted. The company provides them water tanks. But in effect, it's a wash. It's no real development, because the mine has just provided a substitute for what they used to get from the environment themselves.

KNOY: The environmental damage was so bad that the locals sued and won a settlement in 1996. After that, why didn't BHP clean up its act?

KIRSCH: What BHP says is it's not practical. Basically BHP has concluded that it's not possible to fix the mine.

KNOY: What is the World Bank involvement?

KIRSCH: The World Bank was brought in by the prime minister of Papua New Guinea to provide a neutral, external point of view on the studies that BHP themselves had carried out. And there were two main questions that The World Bank was asked to consider. First of all, was the science that BHP did, was it accurate? Was it good science? And secondly, were the studies adequate to make a decision about the future of the mine? Right now the burning question is, should the mine be allowed to stay open for another 10 years? The concern of the Papua New Guinea government, the concern of the local communities as well, is that the mine provides a lot of export earnings: the taxes on wages, royalties paid to the national government, and also a sort of downstream effect of economic development. So people are concerned that if the mine packs up, they'll be left with people who were dependent on the cash economy, when the cash economy no longer exists in that region.

KNOY: What did The World Bank recommend?

KIRSCH: The results of that report have not been made public yet, although I understand that it's been given to the Papua New Guinea government.

KNOY: You mention the BHP report, BHP being the mining company. What did that report say?

KIRSCH: Their reports were pretty disastrous, in fact. They admitted for the first time the full extent of the problems. The primary conclusion was that even if the mine stops tomorrow, the impacts will continue for another 40 years.

KNOY: Professor Kirsch, what do you think the best resolution to this situation would be?

KIRSCH: There really is no easy outcome. I think one of the things that I've been calling for is an independent environmental audit. There were some limitations to The World Bank study. It relied entirely on data that BHP themselves produced. Also, commitments from the mine to rehabilitation: My view is, if the damage is going to continue for 40 years, BHP ought to be thinking about a 40-year relationship with the communities downstream from the mine.

KNOY: Do you think what happens with this mine will have repercussions for the international mining community?

KIRSCH: I think in terms of the international community, mining companies have traditionally not been subject to public scrutiny. You don't know whether the gold that you buy comes from Ok Tedi or from a South African mine. Whereas a petroleum company like Exxon sells directly to the consumers, and if they have an oil spill in Alaska, for example, we can hold them directly accountable for that. So I think Ok Tedi signals that the public community needs to pay more attention to what goes on in mines.

CURWOOD: Stuart Kirsch is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan. He spoke with Living on Earth's Laura Knoy.

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(Music up and under)

Community Garden Bulldozed

CURWOOD: Every spring, for more than 20 years, a small lot on Seventh Street in Manhattan's East Village would come to life with sprouts of flowers and vegetables. But this year, what's known as the Esperanza Garden is a vacant lot, surrounded by plywood, waiting for something else to rise from the earth: a high-priced apartment building. The garden was bulldozed by a city work crew last month and protesters were arrested. It was the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle between New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani and community garden advocates over the use of vacant city-owned property. It was also the likely end of a story that began more than two decades ago. That was when Jose Torres helped his mother Alicia and neighborhood volunteers turn a rubble-filled lot into a community garden. Radio producer Joe Richman lives in that neighborhood. He gave a tape recorder to Jose Torres to keep an audio diary of the fight to save Esperanza Garden.

(Voices in the background)

TORRES: My name is Jose Torres and I'm in the middle of the Esperanza Garden. My mother's area is in this corner, this is her plot. I don't know really what she grows, but she grows some big stuff here, because she loves it. (Calls) Ma! Look right here! Look right in there! I thought it was a few beans. These are green peppers and these are jalapenos, right?

WOMAN: She got hot peppers. I got green peppers.

TORRES: You can eat these. These are good.

WOMAN: She has the small little tomatoes.

TORRES: She's got tomatoes, lettuce. We've got grapes that grow here, a grapevine. This grows real big, this starts from right here all the way to over there. These grow beautiful in the summer. And you know what's so beautiful about it? That people will be passing by, and when we're cooking here they see the smoke going up and they can smell the hot dogs, the chicken burning, you know, the cooking. And rice, they can smell the rice. And people passing by hear the music and you see them, they look in and they want to come in. And we say come on in, come in. They walk in, they go, this is beautiful. We love this. We do Hallowe’en parties. And for Christmas we do, we do Easter egg hunts. The children love it.

(Children shout)

CHILD: Look at that big one! See it moving?

TORRES: I guess when we first started here it was like, wow, I don't know -- about '75, '76. Because there was no fence and everybody used to come in here and shoot up, you know, it was open lot. And then the whole back was just full of bricks and junk and everything, you know how I mean? Those sinks, a lot of piping, boiler parts here and everything. There was a lot of junk here. And from there we started moving, little by little. It took us a while, it took us a long time. And since then it's become this big place. (Calls) There you go, Johnny! I'll follow you. More this way, toward me.

CAPOSHA: My name's Donald Caposha, principal in BFC Partners. And I told them that I was going to be building a building on their garden. That's all I said to them: I'm going to build a building there. It's a seven-story building, cast stone base and some sort of a brick veneer facade, setbacks with some balconies. Should be a very beautiful building.

TORRES: My mom's reaction was that she was just scared. First time she heard it, I guess she was crying, you know. And she's been crying for the longest. You know, we're going to fight to the end.

MAN: (Voice echoing on mike) Hearings will be conducted and testimony will be heard in the order of the printed calendar. Speakers opposed to resolution shall be heard first, and then speakers in favor thereof.

TORRES: My name is Jose Torres. I represent Esperanza Garden...

(Away from hearing) For politicians to do this, you know, we're not rich people. Donald Caposha has a lot of money and a lot of power. He probably got his own house out on Long Island or something, has his own little garden. And I bet you he goes out there and sits in the back and relaxes. We struggled here for years because this place was the worst for a long time. Now that it's changing everybody wants to come in and just drive us out.
(At hearing) I feel that you've got to hear us and help us out and protect our garden. Thank you.


WOMAN: Hearing adjourned.

(A gavel strikes)

TORRES: We had to get more people involved, to try to save Esperanza.

(A crowd shouts: "More Fridays!" Drumming starts)

TORRES: There were hundreds and hundreds of people supporting me. College students, a lot of law students coming from all over, hanging out, saying look, we'll give you the support, whatever you need we're here. And that's what we did, you know?

(Drumming continues up and under)

TORRES: (Grunts) Try to move it this way. This way, this way. All right, right there. Okay, I'm going up the stairway. Up here is the big cookie. It's like a frog. It stands for Puerto Rico. It looks out to the front of the garden, and you've got to go up a ladder to the back. You've got to go up to the tail of the cookie. I think cookies have a tail, I'm not sure. It's like a security house. People sleep inside. They've got sleeping bags in there. We have a phone in here so in case the bulldozers do come in they can start making calls. We'll keep two people at a time a night here to always watch.

(Music is played in the garden)

TORRES: I tell you, like 10 people fit. It looks like an apartment in there. I know it's like a little mess, but you've got to see it just to believe it.

(Music continues, up and under)

TORRES: It's real quiet here at night, especially, you know, the other night I was here with Mario. He's staying here. He's staying inside the cookie. And me and him, we're sitting here, the lights were on, we're just talking here for a long time, and it was quiet. Felt like we were in the woods. I was like, wow, I don't know. Felt so good.REPORTER: Twenty-two years ago it was a vacant lot, a hangout for junkies. Two decades later it's known as el haldines esperanza, the garden of hope. This morning there was almost a party-like atmosphere as residents tried to delay what the city had told them was inevitable. The lot had been sold, and bulldozers would soon raze the land.

CROWD: Save Esperanza! Save Esperanza! Save Esperanza!

MAN ON BULLHORN: Leave now. If you stay you will be placed under arrest.

CROWD: Save Esperanza! Save Esperanza! Save Esperanza!

MAN: Hey! Five seconds and you're going to be arrested.

WOMAN: What -- I'm going in the house.

MAN: Get inside, ma'am. Get inside...

SHEEHAN: East Seventh Street between Avenues B and C remains closed. Police moved in this morning armed with power tools to cut through the chains. A large frog had to be dissected by cops so that two protesters could be removed.

(Heavy machinery)

WOMAN: Oh my God! Look how fast it came down! Oh my ....

TORRES: This is sad, you know? This is like the day my mother's going to always remember.

WOMAN: Oh my God. (Sniffles)

SHEEHAN: Recently the city sold the lot to a developer, who now plans to build a 75-unit luxury apartment house on the site. But as you can see, the city wasted absolutely no time. The bulldozers are already in there, they're clearing the land. Reporting live from the East Village, I'm Mike Sheehan. Mario, back to you.

(Heavy machinery)

CAPOSHA: This is not for me to decide. This is not for gardeners to decide. This is really for lawmakers to legislate. I'm simply a builder, and I go forward with the work that I've been made responsible to do.

GIULIANI: You know, there's competing demands. We have a city in which people can't find a place to live. We have a city in which people can't find affordable housing. And if you live in the unrealistic world, well, then you can say, well, everything should be a garden. A mayor has to live in a real world.


TORRES: Well, this is the Esperanza Garden. They got like plywood running across, blocking the whole entire front. You can't even see it. I always thought we were going to be there forever, you know. It's like a story, it's like a story that you would -- see, a rich man comes out of nowhere with a lot of money and just gets rid of the poor people, and it's like, I still don't believe it. I still can't believe it. It's just -- I don't know how to get over it, you know? It's like a bomb, like they threw a bomb, right in the middle of the garden. Boom. And it was gone.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our story was narrated by Jose Torres and produced by Joe Richman for the NPR series Radio Diaries. Special thanks to the Torres family.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Living on Earth is a production of the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our show was produced this week by Peter Thomson, with help from Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, and Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, and interns Hannah Day-Woodruff, Steven Belter, and Emily Sadigh. Our administrative staff includes Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert heads up our Western Bureau. And our science editor is Diane Toomey. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. 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 Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; the Surdna Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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