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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

February 16, 2001

Air Date: February 16, 2001


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Hog Waste

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Last Harvest

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Consumer Update

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Yunnan River

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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NYC Gardens

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Health Update

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School Buses

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Ocean Health

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Fish Songs

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

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Hog Waste

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you ate bacon this morning, chances are it came from a pig who was raised on a giant factory farm. Such farms can put out as much waste as a small city, but pig farms usually don't have sewage systems. Instead it gets dumped into open air waste lagoons and sprayed on fields. The stench makes life miserable for folks who live near big hog farms, and overflows pollute waterways. Recently a coalition of attorneys launched a major class action suit in North Carolina against the nation's largest hog corporation, Smithfield Foods. Leda Hartman reports.

HARTMAN: One day last summer 68-year-old Charlotte Savage stepped outdoors to hang her laundry and the stench from the big hog farm next door nearly knocked her down. She says she had to call her granddaughter to help her back in the house.

C. SAVAGE: I don't know if anything else smells like it. It's just a stinking rotten smell. The buzzards even come to it.

HARTMAN: Charlotte Savage says it's like this whenever her neighbors spray the liquid from the farm's hog waste lagoon onto the field across the road from her house. Browns of Carolina, a Smithfield subsidiary, opened the farm in 1994. Mrs. Savage says the smell sometimes makes her family prisoners in their own home, a modest ranch house in the southeastern part of North Carolina. And her 72-year-old husband Julian says the bad air has left him short of breath to the point where he can't work outdoors.

J. SAVAGE: See all them buildings that fell down? I can't get up there and tend to them no more.

HARTMAN: Julian Savage stands near the remains of what used to be his hog farm. The three decaying wooden outbuildings with their rusting tin roofs contrast sharply with the ten large metal hog houses in the next field over. So does his way of farming. In his day Julian Savage raised about 300 pigs twice a year. Next door, they raise 30,000 pigs three times a year.

J. SAVAGE: We had them out on the open ground. Of course, we had a place up yonder could feed them, but they could go and come.

HARTMAN: And the waste?

J. SAVAGE: The waste stayed out there in the field. It didn't come down this road and it didn't go to the Cape Fear River.

HARTMAN: When the Savages found out about the class action lawsuit filed by the Water Keepers Alliance, they added their names as plaintiffs. The Savages, the Water Keepers Alliance, and other plaintiffs are being represented by a legal team that includes Doug Abrams, a Raleigh lawyer. The lawsuit filed in state superior court charges Smithfield with being a public nuisance. Not only do the waste lagoons stink and pollute the waterways, the plaintiffs argue, they also carry airborne pathogens that can make people sick. Abrams says the lawsuit is based on the notion of common-law, going back to Colonial times.

ABRAMS: And there was this concept that you had the right to do anything you wanted to on your property as long as you didn't harm somebody else. You have to have air to breathe. You have to have water to drink. And you can't ruin somebody else's property or laws with what you do on your own property.

HARTMAN: The plaintiffs want to make Smithfield do two things. First, to replace the lagoons with a more environmentally sound waste disposal method, and second, to pay for cleaning up eastern North Carolina's rivers. That could cost more than $15 billion, Abrams says. And the North Carolina suit is just one of several that are in the works against Smithfield and other corporate hog producers in other states. This national campaign is a watershed event. In the past, an environmental group would file suit against a single corporate hog farm, but the group wouldn't have the resources to sustain that fight.

PAPANTONIO: First of all, for every one lawyer we could hire, they could hire 20.

HARTMAN: That's Michael Papantonio , another lawyer on the legal team suing Smithfield.

PAPANTONIO: That's not the case any more, ladies and gentlemen. For every one dollar we would spend, they would spend 100. That is not the case any more if you are in the hog industry listening to what I have to say. (Applause)

HARTMAN: Papantonio , who is a veteran of the legal wars against asbestos, was speaking at a conference in Newbern, North Carolina, held to publicize the litigation effort. A coalition of 11 powerful law firms have joined the lawsuits and contributed $50,000 each, giving them the staying power to go against a big industry. And the plaintiffs' leader, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., promised a tough fight. In a speech to several hundred supporters, Kennedy said that corporate hog producers have not only hurt the environment, they've also monopolized the industry to the point where most small independent hog farmers have gone out of business. He said the corporations make profits not because they're more efficient than family farmers but because they aren't paying for proper waste disposal. Kennedy says he doesn't mean to make the big producers go bankrupt, he just wants to level the playing field so that family farms can compete once again.


KENNEDY: Because if Smithfield had to pay the true costs of producing a pig, it would have to build a sewage treatment plant on every one of these little factories it's operating. And those sewage treatment plants would cost them tens of millions of dollars to construct and maintain. And at that point the playing field is made equal. And the family farmer can get back on the land and compete equally against them.

(Milling voices)

HARTMAN: Kennedy leaves most of his listeners impressed, but not Bundy Lane. Lane is an eighth generation farmer who raises hogs under contract for one of Smithfield's subsidiaries. Lane says he doesn't mind the fact that even though Smithfield owns the hogs he raises, he owns the waste. He says the lagoon on his farm is nothing more than a liquid compost pile.

LANE: So for me it's a source of organic fertilizer. I created a source of nutrient-rich water in the form of the manure that's in that water that I then apply to my crops. So not only do I get a steady source of income with reduced risk by being in the contract hog farming business, but for me it's been a complete win-win situation. I don't see where the demonization that has attacked the hog industry comes into play.

HARTMAN: Lane worries that he'll find it harder to make a living if the waste disposal regulations get more strict or more expensive. Meanwhile the legal tug of war has just begun. One of the lawyers representing Smithfield is Phil Carlton, a Raleigh attorney who helped the nation's big five tobacco companies negotiate their settlement with the states. Carlton says he has filed a motion to dismiss the case against Smithfield, arguing that the issue of hog waste is best addressed through state regulations, not lawsuits.

CARLTON: What this is about is trying to punish these companies for what they perceive is wrong, and to change the law and make new regulations based on what they think is right. They are trying to substitute themselves for elected officials and do things that they know they can't get through the legitimate process.

HARTMAN: If the case does go to trial, Carlton says, Smithfield has no intention of sitting back and taking the blame for a problem that's shared by the rest of society. He says the courtroom won't be big enough to fit all the defendants Smithfield will call into court.

CARLTON: Those who raise chickens, those who raise cows, those who raise turkeys, along with humans, all contribute to any pollution that exists in these roles . They just single out the one that they think they can paint in that corner and get a big sum of money from.

HARTMAN: Carlton says a better approach would be to negotiate rather than litigate. He points to an agreement made last year between the state attorney general's office and Smithfield, in which the company agreed to invest $15 million for state researchers to come up with alternatives to the open air lagoon. The research is due out next summer. Smithfield has three years to convert its own farms to the new technologies, and also is obliged to help its contract farmers do the same.

(Banging on metal)

J. SAVAGE: Now this, this sprinkler here...

HARTMAN: But for some people who live next door to industrial hog farms, it may be too late to negotiate. Julian Savage for one wants the lawsuit to go ahead. He says if it's successful, he's got plans.

J. SAVAGE: We're going to come and we're going to celebrate. I'm not a drinking man, but we're going to have a good time.

HARTMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Leda Hartman reporting.

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Last Harvest

CURWOOD: As winter moves into its final stretch, the first thaw is not far off. Nor is the work it will bring for commentator Wallace Kaufman.

KAUFMAN: On the day my daughter Sylvan arrived for a visit last November, the garden succumbed to the first hard freeze sweeping into this part of North Carolina. As we stood in the kitchen, seeding and cutting the last pile of peppers, half of them terminated in the bloom of youth, I said, "Well, this is the last chore the garden will give us this year."

Yet a few days before her arrival, I had broken down the eight-foot-high, dry stalks of artichokes, and I knew their tubers were waiting to be dug and cleaned. The fact is, I couldn't wait to get the year's food-making business over, and settle into winter pursuits: writing, reading, carving and wood-turning. I pushed the artichokes out of my mind. I also pushed into a dim corner of memory other waiting duties.

How do I avoid reality? Let me count the ways. I must replace posts in the deer fence around the garden. The roof leaks around the chimney. The black walnuts should be cracked and picked clean of meats. I have three jars of grape and berry cordial that have to be strained and re-bottled, and I have several days of cutting, splitting, and stacking if I'm going to get through till April without burning fossil fuel. Believe me, I have just begun to count.

I'll do these things. I have to. Would Henry David Thoreau say of me what he said of his farmer neighbors? "How few ever get beyond feeding, clothing, sheltering, and warming themselves in this world, and begin to treat themselves as human beings?" Thoreau says a laborer like me should do the minimum and then move on, to adventure on life now.

I suspect that despite his warnings about work, Thoreau knew as well as I do that one's work and one's adventure can be the same. Back in November, as I stood next to Sylvan cutting into each pepper, I was reminded as I always am that no fruit or vegetable has such a great variety of shapes and fine curves and concaves as the simple bell pepper.

When my duties drive me into the woods to find a red cedar from which I can cut a fencepost, I stop for the thousandth time to smell the fresh-cut end and to note the bishop's purple of wood that has never been exposed to air. When I dig the post holes, what comes out is not mere soil and red clay. Many lives come out: grubs and worms and sometimes a ring-necked snake. Down the six-inch shaft of a single post hole, I can travel to stranger places than I imagined when I was a five-year-old boy digging a hole to China.

Touch the work of evolution in a single grub or read the movement of continents in a chip of rock. I would tell anyone who looks on this kind of labor, do not assume that the laborer is not also an adventurer. Someone somewhere today is paying hundreds of dollars for the adventure of whitewater rafting on a boat of fine and tough synthetic cloth. I am content that I must now take my old shovel to the garden and dig artichoke tubers and wash the red clay from their pink skins, and have a first taste of the crisper than apple white flesh. I have never seen two alike. Nor have I ever known two laborers alike.

(Music up and under: Felt, "Evergreen Dazed")

CURWOOD: Wallace Kaufman is the author of Coming Out of the Woods: The Solitary Life of a Maverick Naturalist. Coming up: conservation politics reach new peaks in the mountains of western China. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this consumer update with Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

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Consumer Update

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The U.S. government is moving to ban the sale of candles whose wicks contain lead. Lead is used in some candles to hold wicks upright. Now studies have found that more than enough lead is emitted during burning to cause elevated blood lead levels in children. Children can be exposed to the lead by inhaling fumes from the candle, or by touching surfaces where the lead has settled, then touching their mouths. Many U.S. candle makers use metal to stiffen their wicks, but it's usually tin or zinc. Most candles with lead are foreign imports. The government warns that without testing, you can't tell if your wick contains lead. And it suggests that until the ban is in place, which may not happen until early 2002, consumers with young children should throw candles with metal wicks away. That's this week's consumer update. I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Mark Isham, "Range and Altitude")

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Yunnan River

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For centuries the western reach of Chinese culture has been the ragged edge of the Tibetan plateau. There are mountains that have never been scaled. In villages ethnic Tibetans cling to ancient traditions. And some of Asia's greatest rivers originate there. China wants a series of huge parks and reserves in the region, and to help plan them they've turned to a team of Americans. With their Chinese colleagues, they have discovered a unique place where landscape and culture are inseparable. In this NPR National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Christopher Joyce joins the Yunnan Great Rivers Project.

JOYCE: You don't have to go to Tibet to be in Tibet.

(Sound of bells ringing; chanting)

JOYCE: This is China, Yunnan Province, on the eastern edge of the Himalayas. The town is Dechen, in the deep valley near the Meili Snow Mountains. At the marketplace, women sell cabbages and live chickens. Monks sit and chant thousand-year-old prayers. This is the true face of Western China, according to Rose Neyu (phonetic spelling). She grew up near here and now works for the Great Rivers Project.

NEYU: This local culture are very colorful, very interesting. They have a lot of philosophies and religion beliefs between the relationship between human beings and nature. Most of the minority religions believe that human beings are part of nature and they're brothers and sisters with the nature.

(sound of bells ringing; chanting)

JOYCE: This region has past from Mongol to Muslim to Buddhist to Communist Chinese. In Yunnan Province alone, 25 ethnic groups have endured the march of armies. This place is Tibetan. The government banned logging here because of erosion. Now it wants parks, wildlife and tourists.

NORTON: My name is Edward Norton and I'm the senior adviser to the Yunnan Great Rivers Project.

JOYCE: Ed Norton works for the Nature Conservancy, the American partner in the project.

NORTON: The landscape of northwest Yunnan is characterized by these four great rivers that plunge off the Tibetan Plateau running north and south and are separated by five high mountain ranges. You have the great variation in elevation and also the other climatic factors. Those combine to create an area of extraordinary biodiversity.

(Sound of automobile horns)

JOYCE: The Yunnan government envisions its own Yellowstone here. Officials convened a conference in Dechen to talk about conservation. Scientists describe the endangered golden monkey and the black-necked crane. Bureaucrats talked about roads and hotels, and Tibetan farmers came with barley seeds still clinging to the cuffs of their woolen trousers. 'Make your maps,' they told the scientists, 'but look beyond what you can see and touch.'

MAH: (Singing in Chinese)

JOYCE: It's time to leave Dechen on a mapping expedition. Our driver, Ni Mah (phonetic spelling) is like most Tibetans. He has a song for every occasion.

MAH: (Singing in Chinese)

JOYCE: In this case, it's a drive on a narrow dirt road with unbelievable 5,000-foot cliffs over the side.

(Sound of singing)

JOYCE: We cross the Mekong River, a roiling tube of muddy water, and more cliffs and eventually, blissfully, the road ends in a simple trail. It's the path pilgrims take to the sacred mountain called Kuwagabo (phonetic spelling).

(Sound of bell ringing)

JOYCE: Expedition leader Bob Mosley (phonetic spelling) of the Nature Conservancy traces our journey on a map.

MOSLEY: We're on the east slope of the Meili snow range. We drove from Dechen this morning around the corner, down into the Mekong Valley.

JOYCE: We follow pack horses up into the mountains. Mosley and his Chinese colleagues will catalog the vegetation and the wildlife here for a conservation plan. Evergreens swarm with parakeets feeding on pine cones the size of pineapples.

(Sound of parakeets)

JOYCE: We struggle up to a 12,000-feet pass, breathless. Giant rhododendrons are draped in lime-green lichen and mist. The trees look almost like wax.

MOSLEY: This is the center of diversity for rhododendrons. This is where --- there is more rhododendrons species in this part of the world than anywhere else.

(Sound of bell ringing)

JOYCE: A century ago, Western botanists were amazed by plants here they'd never seen before. Their stories led to a book and a modern myth about a place called Shangri-La.

(Sound of bells ringing)

JOYCE: We descend, finally, to the village of Yubong (phonetic spelling). Cattle and long-haired yak graze beside the white-washed farmhouses. You can stand here and stare up a valley past the glacier and into the flanks of two 20,000-foot peaks. Mosley and his colleagues set up a table in the middle of a corral and sit with the village leaders.

MOSLEY: Going out into the villagers that ---- (unintelligible) on Kuwagabo to collect more information from the villagers and also from the landscape itself.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Chinese spoken)

JOYCE: Mosley tells the villagers tourists might come. Village leader Su Ra Nubu (phonetic spelling) likes that idea, but even simple things here can be complicated. Tourists would want toilets, but where to build them.

MOSLEY: So it can't be within view of the Holy Mountain and it can't be near the water.

(Sound of singing in foreign language)

JOYCE: Pilgrims who make the holy trek around these sacred mountains may earn a better life after rebirth. Those who die trying are guaranteed one. That's an appealing prospect. We follow the village leader upward. Bob Mosley is a scientist. He knows plants and animals, ecosystems. This world is more complicated. Here a spring isn't just a spring, it's a cure for infertility. Two caves are entraces to heaven and hell. Religion and science merge.

(Sound of water)

JOYCE: The trail passes beneath a massive rock wall. There's a glacier just over the top. Two streams fall from the precipice, a 300-foot drop that spins the water into mist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (through translator) Buddhists have come to pray here, to read their Buddhist books. This is a very holy place. People come here when their health is bad and they let the water wash them.

JOYCE: Su Ra Nubu walks straight into the mist and emerges into the frigid air cleansed.

(Sound of birds)

JOYCE: Some planners want to put a cable car here for tourists. They tak of scenic values. But for these Tibetans, this place isn't scenery, it's the vessel of their faith. Biologist Craig Kirkpatrick.

KIRKPATRICK: The country itself is mind-boggling, if you will; these really tall mountains covered in snow, these really thick forests. But the real true story is the fact that we have a conservation community growing in China and it's indigenous community that's fighting really tremendous odds.

(Sound of teenagers dancing and chanting)

JOYCE: At the end of our visit, the village puts on a show, a dance in scarlet robes and head wraps. The dancers are local teenagers. So far, few of them have been lured to the outside world. Soon, though, the outside world will start coming to them. For Radio Expeditions, this is Christopher Joyce in Yunnan Province, China.

CURWOOD: Next week the scientific team uncovers the spiritual network that lies hidden within this unique wilderness. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR News and the National Geographic Society.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: It's public gardens versus affordable housing in New York City. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Ego Plum, "Ebola Music")


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

(Music up and under: River City Brass Band, "Men of Harlech")

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: A hundred and twenty five years ago the French and Prussians went to war, and thanks to them and fish tycoon Julius Wolf, Americans learned to love sardines. The war cut off the supply of French sardines, so Mr. Wolf built a cannery in Eastport, Maine, to package those small, silvery fish that belong to the herring family. Commercial fishing towns sprang up along coastal Maine and even spread to California, where John Steinbeck immortalized them in his classic Cannery Row. At its peak in 1950, Maine alone boasted 75 canneries and produced more than three million tins of sardines packed in oil with those neat little keys on the bottom. But with no catch limits, the hunger for sardines soon emptied the bays. Today only five Maine canneries remain. In recent years, though, the fish have begun to recover. That's thanks in part to a 1997 federal law which prohibits large-scale sardine fishing until there are studies that show it would be sustainable. This is one industry that's learned the hard way, there aren't always more fish in the sea. And for this week that's the Living on Earth almanac.

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NYC Gardens

CURWOOD: Over the past three decades about 700 vacant lots in New York City blossomed into community gardens. Recently, though, New York's development boom has made these urban oases desirable building lots. City officials are now quietly moving to convert hundreds of these gardens into sites for affordable homes, pitting the demand for housing against the equally vital need for open space. From member station WNYC in New York, Amy Eddings reports on nine gardens in the Bronx that could be approved for development before spring.

(Bird song)

EDDINGS: When 82-year-old Verna Lee Judge and her neighbors decided to clean up an abandoned lot near her home in the Bronx, they had their work cut out for them.

JUDGE: It had old Frigidaires, wash basin, old toilet. You name it, everything was here.

EDDINGS: That was in 1967 when the physical fabric of the Bronx was coming apart due to arson, abandonment, and tax foreclosure. Community gardens have helped stitch these neighborhoods back together, providing safe havens for children and residents to meet, to learn about gardening and to benefit from bountiful harvests. Judge's garden is the oldest in the Bronx, with a grape arbor and cement block-lined beds of okra, tomatoes, tulips, and roses.

(To Judge) Did people think you were crazy? I mean, the Bronx was all burned out, it was a shell, and here you are trying to plant a few flowers on an abandoned lot?

JUDGE: No, they didn't think we were crazy. They'd thought it was a wonderful thing we were doing. And they would say, "Are you cleaning that? That's the city problem." I said, "Oh, but we live here. We have a vested interest here."

EDDINGS: The city once encouraged gardeners to become stewards of these lots, with the understanding that some day they would be reclaimed for affordable housing. Decades later gardeners never expected that day to come. But it has. Some garden advocates estimate roughly 100 gardens have been bulldozed and developed since the mid-1990s. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD, is now eyeing Judge's Franklin Memorial Garden and eight others for the construction of 66 homes for moderate-income families. Last year Gilda Norris and her two teenage sons bought a city-sponsored townhouse built several blocks away from Judge's garden.

NORRIS: I've never owned anything. I've never had a car or any major property, but I wanted a house. I wanted a house since I was little. I just feel a sense of accomplishment, you know? I breathe easier, actually. I just -- I don't know, I feel light-hearted about being here.

ABRAMS: We'd like to give moderate-income families the opportunity to become homeowners, many for the first time.

EDDINGS: HPD spokeswoman Carol Abrams.

ABRAMS: Homeowners are more invested in their neighborhoods than renters sometimes are. They'll lobby for sanitation, lobby for better schools, to keep crime down. There is higher educational achievement for kids. There is actually lower rates of teen pregnancy.

EDDINGS: Since 1994 the city has built or renovated about 70,000 units of rental and homeownership housing, including more than 16,000 units in the Bronx. An economic rebirth of the borough has followed. Still, the Bronx has the lowest rate of homeownership in the city, and a third of its renters pay more than half of their income in rent, much more than the one-third suggested by federal housing authorities. For his last year in office, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wants to allocate $600 million of the budget for affordable housing. But city council member Ken Fisher does not think this initiative has to come at the expense of open space.

FISHER: I don't think anybody would suggest that we ought to solve the city's housing problem by building in Prospect Park or Central Park. And while these gardens may not have the legal status that a park does, in many communities they're the only viable open space.

EDDINGS: Fisher is co-sponsoring a bill that would assess the role and importance of a community garden before the city could develop it. And state attorney general Eliot Spitzer has taken the city to court, saying it must prove it will not do irreparable harm to the environment when it builds on a garden. Until an environmental impact study is approved, a court injunction keeps the city from doing anything to any of its community gardens. Urban planner Jocelyn Chait coauthored a study on housing and open space in one of the poorest areas of the Bronx, for two open space advocacy groups. She says the city lacks development strategies that take all of a neighborhood's needs and goals into account.

CHAIT: There has to be some kind of an assessment of, you know, where are these lots? You know, what are the needs of those communities where these lots are located, you know? What is the appropriate kind of development here? Are there alternatives that communities can use? And how are the communities best served?

(Traffic and bird song)

EDDINGS: Housing officials say they try to incorporate open space into every development project. And they're currently negotiating with Bronx community gardeners to provide them with another site. But Verna Lee Judge doesn't want it. She says the plot, a half a mile away, will not serve her or the children in her neighborhood.

JUDGE: You know, it has always been that. They take everything away from you and give you the crumb. And I'm just fed up with that with the city of New York. I've been fighting for things since 1959. If it wasn't my work it was for a raise. Life is just one struggle. You have to fight, fight, fight. I'm tired of fighting, period. (Laughs)

EDDINGS: The city's development plan for the nine Bronx gardens must be approved by the city council. A vote on it has been stalled as council members negotiate with the city on ways to save these gardens and others while also building affordable housing. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings in New York.

(Bird song up and under)

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Big, yellow, and potentially hazardous to your child's health. A new study says diesel school buses can add to the risk of cancer and asthma. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: The first free samples of a genetically-modified strain of rice are on their way to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Called Golden Rice because of its pale yellow color, the grain contains genes from daffodils and bacteria. The resulting transgenic plant produces beta carotene, which can be converted to Vitamin A in humans. Proponents of Golden Rice say it will help alleviate Vitamin A deficiency, the single most common cause of childhood blindness. But critics claim it's a public relations ploy for the biotechnology industry. A child, they say, would have to eat impossibly large amounts of the rice to benefit from it. The Golden Rice will now undergo safety testing, and scientists at the Research Institute say they'll also work to boost the efficiency of its beta carotene production. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

(Music up and under: Ego Plum, "The Startled Monkey")

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School Buses

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Millions of children ride diesel-powered buses to and from school. Now a new study has found that the trips may expose kids to high levels of diesel fumes and increase their vulnerability to cancer and asthma. The Natural Resources Defense Council tested the air inside moving school buses in Los Angeles, in part because other studies have shown that children are more susceptible to toxic fumes than adults. Gina Solomon is a physician with the NRDC, who authored the study.

SOLOMON: The levels of diesel exhaust were consistently about four times higher inside the school buses than they were in the streets of L.A. or in the cars driving in the streets ahead of the buses.

CURWOOD: How is the diesel exhaust getting into the bus?

SOLOMON: Our theory is that the exhaust systems of these buses would over time develop some cracks. The particles that we were measuring are very, very small, and would tend to just sort of ooze their way through the exhaust system up into the bus, and then they would get trapped in there. And we found that when the windows were closed, the levels would continue to rise, whereas when the windows were open it would sort of flush out the air and the levels would drop again.

CURWOOD: What kind of recommendation would you make to deal with these buses?

SOLOMON: I would ask school districts in the short term to consider trying to keep windows slightly cracked on the buses when the weather permits. Older diesel buses can be equipped with particle traps or filters. And those decrease the emissions out the end of the tailpipe, though we're not sure what affect they would have on the levels inside the bus. The third and most definite fix would be switching to cleaner fuel buses, like natural gas buses, propane buses, or electric. In addition, I would ask school districts to seat children toward the front of the bus before they seat children in the back of the bus.


SOLOMON: We found higher levels of diesel exhaust in the back than in the front of the buses. The differences were not huge but they were certainly worth making the effort to sit toward the front if there was a choice.

CURWOOD: Well, that's kind of hard, because in school bus culture, the cool kids sit at the back.

SOLOMON: Hmm. Isn't that interesting. (Curwood laughs) I actually was one of those cool kids for a while. And I remember that smell of diesel exhaust in the back of the bus. Part of why we did this study was that we were hearing from parents and even from kids that they noticed a strong smell of diesel, particularly in the backs of the buses. And there were folks who knew that we had done some work measuring diesel exhaust. And indeed, the levels are higher in the back than in the front.

CURWOOD: One thing that strikes me, it's a very small study. You folks looked at four buses, just four buses. How can you draw such strong results from looking at just four buses?

SOLOMON: This study is certainly not comprehensive or complete. It's basically a first look. No one had really tried to look at the insides of school buses before. If we had had the resources, the money, and the ability to do many more buses, we would have done so. For example, we were only able to look at a relatively narrow age range of buses, buses from the late 1980s. Now, about one-third of the buses that are on the roads are older than the buses we sampled. You know, nearly two-thirds of the buses on the road are newer. We don't know how those would compare with the buses we tested.

CURWOOD: In my town, in front of the school, they'll line up, oh, seven, eight, nine, ten of these buses all at once, idling. The kids line up and then the air is really pretty foul. Have you looked at this as a risk to kids?

SOLOMON: That's probably our next step. We have done some observations at school bus stops. We've observed also what you've observed, that the buses line up, the kids stand there on the sidewalk, and you can notice the smell of diesel in the air. We've counted the buses, counted the idling time, but we haven't yet actually done the monitoring. And we're planning as a next step to add in the time that children spend at bus stops to the time that they already are spending on the buses.

CURWOOD: Dr. Gina Solomon is a physician and senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thanks for joining us today.

SOLOMON: Thank you.

(Music up and under: The Who, "The Magic Bus")

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Ocean Health

CURWOOD: A few months before leaving office, Bill Clinton created the new Federal Oceans Commission. Its mandate: Take a comprehensive look at improving America's marine and coastal policies. Commentator David Helvarg wonders how far it will get.

HELVARG: In 1890 the Census Bureau declared the American frontier closed. Almost 100 years later Ronald Reagan, in a significant but little-noted act, gave us a new frontier, declaring a 200-mile exclusive economic zone around America's coastlines. The zone is six times the size of the Louisiana Purchase, 30 percent larger than the continental United States. The new Federal Oceans Commission could help us better manage and protect this blue frontier, but the signs aren't hopeful.

Big oil, along with the Navy, oppose the very idea of this new commission. After three years of delay Congress reached a compromise. This will allow the Bush White House and the Republican majority on the hill to name 12 of the 16 commissioners. Whoever sits on the commission, set to be finalized this April, will face huge challenges. Our oceans are seeing the collapse of coral reefs, sea grass meadows, mangroves, and estuaries. About half our commercial fish species are being caught faster than they can reproduce. Harmful algal blooms and dead zones are being fed by nutrient runoff from factory farms and cities. Storm damage linked to climate change is increasing. And shorefront development is booming.

Today 17 of the nation's 20 fastest growing counties are coastal, and climatologists I've talked to are literally betting when the big one, a $100 billion city buster, will hit. We've seen this madness before on our last frontier. Instead of buffalo hunters emptying the plains, we now have giant factory trawlers over-harvesting our seas. In place of the seventh cavalry seizing Indian lands for gold miners, we have the Army Corps of Engineers allowing developers to fill in coastal wetlands in order to build more high-priced gold coasts. And where once a corrupt Congress sold off the public lands to the railroad trusts for pennies on the dollar, today's federal government holds fire sales for offshore oil and gas leases.

Fortunately, along with the slow biological collapse of our seas, there are also signs and centers of hope. The American people have begun not a grassroots but a seaweed rebellion, restoring coastal communities and taking on greater responsibility for maintaining our offshore waters and marine sanctuaries. We can also make sure the new Oceans Commission does right by our living seas, or else gets the sharp end of the gaffe.

Those of us drawn to the sea know that our blue frontier remains full of strange wonders that may thrill generations yet unborn, with waves that call to be ridden, winds made to snap a sail, shells newly tossed upon the shore, sunsets not to be believed. Despite all the problems and challenges we face, this is still enough to give one hope. After all, it's not every great nation, forged by its earliest frontier experiences, that gets a second chance on a wild new frontier.

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Fish Songs

CURWOOD: Commentator David Helvarg's book Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas, is to be published in April. Now, you may have heard the songs of the humpback whales and the energetic clicks of dolphins. But if you think those are the only voices of the sea, think again. Grant Gilmore studies fish by eavesdropping on their chatter. Mr. Gilmore does his listening at the Canaveral National Seashore, a wildlife refuge that's part of the NASA complex in southern Florida. Angela Swafford reports.

(Water against boat hull)

SWAFFORD: There's a full moon tonight over Mosquito Lagoon, a 45-mile-long estuary surrounded by a thick mangrove forest. Look to the south and you'll see that the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center is also in full glow. At daybreak tomorrow, the shuttle Atlantis will blast off. In the meantime, marine biologist Grant Gilmore is preparing his own mission.

GILMORE: Thank you. We're in the basin opposite marker 19, and the time is 7:55.

SWAFFORD: A towering man with striking white hair and beard, Dr. Gilmore is collecting some last-minute data from the deck of an 18-foot skiff. He and his team prepare to launch an underwater microphone. The three-inch device is already on as it hits the water, so it records the sounds as it plunges down.

(Scraping, various sounds)

GILMORE: That pupupupupupupuk sound is a silver perch. Sounds like chickens cackling. The boom, boom is a black drum. The ruur, ruur, ruur is a spotted sea trout. So we have three species of scianidaes, drums and croakers produce these sounds at the same location here.

SWAFFORD: These are the voices of the nocturnal sea. And Dr. Gilmore is one of the few scientists in the world who studies their meaning.

GILMORE: This is one very large black drum.

(More booms)

SWAFFORD: More than two decades ago, Dr. Gilmore discovered this cacophony is actually the sounds of spawning. Males do most of the serenading. It's their way of convincing the females to release their eggs. These sounds reach full crescendo on full moon nights. That's when the high tide is likely to prevent the eggs from being carried out to sea, where they would have little chance of surviving.

(An engine starts up)

SWAFFORD: Dr. Gilmore and his assistants are making their monthly rounds tonight. Twenty metal markers scattered throughout the lagoon identify the sites where they'll hunt for sound. The team stops at one.

(Engine cuts)

GILMORE: We're about 200 meters from the bridge. Time's about 6:20 PM.

(Microphone plunks into water; crackling)

GILMORE: You hear the crackling sound. Those are snapping shrimp; they're only about an inch long. And they have one enlarged claw. It sounds like frying bacon in a pan.

SWAFFORD: They produce this frying bacon sound by snapping that claw. The humming in the distance comes from toad fish that like most fish produce sound by vibrating an air bladder in their body. It is played like a drum by a set of strong muscles. Dr. Gilmore calls them sonic muscles, and he found that females almost never have them. But that doesn't mean Dr. Gilmore is not interested in female fish. He's trying to find a way to figure out how they react to these love calls.

GILMORE: That male could be calling for three hours and no one will pay any attention to him. We wouldn't know that because we don't know which sounds the female, or how the female's reacting, because she's not producing sound.

SWAFFORD: Dr. Gilmore's fascination with fish sounds began with a little bit of professional jealousy.

GILMORE: Well, I had a friend who studied birds. And he could walk through a forest and tell me which birds were in that forest. And I was impressed with that. I had another colleague who stuck a hydrophone in the water one day at my laboratory, listening to large-mouthed bass, and I put it all together. I wanted to see if there was anything producing sound out here that you could identify like the birds.

(Sounds fade to chimes)

SWAFFORD: Dr. Gilmore's passion for fish even influences his home decorating scheme. A fish chime hangs from his front door. Fish swim on his kitchen dishes and over his bathroom towels. And while his study is crammed with a quarter century's worth of fish recordings, Grant Gilmore does appreciate their non-auditory qualities.


SWAFFORD: He also sketches the fish he studies

GILMORE: When you preserve a fish in chemicals, which fix the fish for hundreds of years, first things that go are the reds and the yellows. You never can get those colors back again. So, these are the very important colors for me and my work. Quite often these fish are new species, or at least the first time we've seen this color pattern. So we try to record those colors.

(Sketching, fading to water sounds)

SWAFFORD: Back on the lagoon, a drama is about to unfold.

GILMORE: There you go. Here you go, that's a dolphin.


SWAFFORD: Under the tapping sound coming from the perch, you can faintly hear what sounds like a creaking door or something like a fishing rod being reeled in. Let's listen again.

(Dolphin sounds)

GILMORE: Here you go. So when the dolphin produces that sonar, the fish pick it up apparently, detect it, and they're quiet. Right now we don't hear the bardial right now. The dolphin is probably right in the middle of this group of silver perch underneath our boat. And it's very possible the dolphin took a fish down there; we can't tell. Everything's quiet and serene up here. (Laughs) But there's a big drama going on down there. The fish are being terrorized and eaten by this dolphin.

SWAFFORD: Dr. Gilmore and his team are thinking of heading home.

GILMORE: See, everything's quiet right now.

SWAFFORD: It's midnight, and the only creature still sounding off is a toad fish. Well, almost the only one.

GILMORE: Ah, there's one last silver perch. (Laughs) Now, that's the last male silver perch calling. Why do you think he's calling now?

MAN: The last guy left in the bar at the end of the night.

GILMORE: (Laughs) Yeah. He's still trying. (Laughs) Maybe he'll have more luck tomorrow night.

SWAFFORD: Ever since he first plopped a hydrophone in the water, Grant Gilmore has been convinced of the power of sound as a tool to study marine life. He plans to install an array of permanent hydrophones in this lagoon so he can monitor the fish from his lab. Dr. Gilmore believes that hydrophones can also be used to protect marine sanctuaries from trespassers, alerting patrols when fishing boats are in the area. The 54-year-old also hopes to rig a submarine with hydrophones, to listen to the sounds of the deep ocean. He's logged over 300 dives in submersibles all over the world and identified a dozen species of fish, including one named for his wife. But Gilmore says the water still holds mystery for him.

GILMORE: Here I am where they launch rockets to deep space. Just a few miles from here man went to the moon. Left Earth right here and went to the moon. More men walked on the surface of the moon than went to the deepest point of the ocean. We have not explored the ocean yet.

SWAFFORD: Even NASA is now working with sound. The agency is collaborating with Dr. Gilmore to develop more sophisticated listening equipment. Initially it will be used to explore the Earth's oceans, but one day NASA might use this equipment on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Researchers believe that polar ice caps there could harbor a hidden ocean. If this idea pans out, NASA will have Grant Gilmore and his fascination with the sounds of fish to thank. For Living on Earth, I'm Angela Swafford on Mosquito Lagoon.

CURWOOD: Thanks to Esther San Pedro for her help with the underwater recordings used in our story.

(Music up and under: Ego Plum, "Ice Waltz")

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: Move over you cardinals, chickadees, and junkos. There's a new kid on the backyard feeder. Monk parakeets from South America are taking up residence in the U.S. of A.

WOMAN: I find it sort of interesting that people are coming to look at them with binoculars and saying oh, aren't they great. And then I want to say, hey, five o'clock in the morning, they're not so great. (Laughs)

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CURWOOD: The invasion of the monk parakeet next week on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. We had help this week from Steven Belter. Our interns are Merav Bushlin, Dawn Robinson, and Evie Stone. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)


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