Health Hazards at Yucca Mountain/ Jeff Young
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Workers building the country's proposed nuclear waste storage site say Yucca Mountain is already a danger even before any radioactive waste arrives. The workers say they were exposed to hazardous silica dust during years of tunnel digging. Jeff Young's investigation finds evidence that energy officials took little action although they knew the dust exposures were well above safety limits. (12:47)
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Former Department of Energy advisor Bob Alvarez worked at DOE when workers were exposed to silica at Yucca Mountain. Alvarez talks with host Steve Curwood about why DOE's contracting system is outdated, and how its worker safety practices would not be tolerated in the private sector, or even other sectors of government. (16:00)
Emerging Science Note/Face Like a Dog/ Cynthia Graber
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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on a new study that shows that people and their purebred dogs do tend to resemble one another. (01:20)
Migrant Jaguars/ Barbara Ferry
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Jaguars, the animal, not the car, used to inhabit the southwestern U.S. And sometimes a few of the big cats that live in Mexico cross the border into the States. The crossings have sparked a debate about whether to re-introduce jaguars to the U.S. From Tucson, Barbara Ferry reports. (12:30)
Hen Hunter/ Sy Montgomery
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When commentator Sy Montgomery found two of her chickens dead, their throats slit, she went after the murderer with a vengeance. But finding the culprit didn't give her the satisfaction she thought it would. (03:30)
HOST: Steve CurwoodGUEST: Bob AlvarezREPORTERS: Jeff Young, Barbara FerryCOMMENTARY: Sy MontgomeryNOTE: Cynthia Graber
CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. The U.S. Department of Energy is looking to protect public health and safety by storing waste from nuclear power plants inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But even before it’s accepting any radioactive material, the Yucca Mountain repository is proving to be a health hazard. At risk: tunnel construction workers exposed to silica dust – a potent cause of lung disease.
GRIEGO: I’m thinking, I’m a dead man. That’s when I decided, looking at all the proof, that DOE and its contractors intentionally exposed us to these carcinogenic substances just to meet their milestones. I think everyone involved in this criminal act should go to jail. But before they’re marched off to jail they ought to line us all up -- all the people they’ve injured -- look us in the face and ask for our forgiveness.
CURWOOD: Health crisis at Yucca Mountain, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is one of the nation’s largest and most controversial public works projects. There’s $800 million in the White House budget request for this year to keep Yucca Mountain on target to begin operations in 2010, although there’s also a federal lawsuit pending that seeks to prevent it from ever opening.
The Department of Energy facility is designed to store waste from nuclear power plants for millennia in safety. But construction workers claim Yucca Mountain is already a hazard even without radioactive waste. They say they’ve been exposed to an old-fashioned but often deadly hazard: silica dust. Now the workers, their lawyers, and some members of Congress want to know if worker safety and health were intentionally compromised to build the Yucca Mountain tunnels. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.
[SOUND OF TRAM HORN AND ENGINE]
YOUNG: This tram carries scientists, workers and visitors through a 25 foot wide tunnel some five miles into the rock of Yucca Mountain. The tunnel was the first visible progress on what the Department of Energy and the majority of Congress hope will become a final resting place for the country’s radioactive waste.
The tunnel’s construction in the early to mid 90s employed some 1,200 people eager for good paying jobs. Jeff Dean worked the swing shift when a massive tunnel-boring machine – nicknamed “the Yucca mucker” – would hit its peak performance. Dean says the crew was under pressure to keep it running.
DEAN: The attitude was let’s get this machine going. And these people that we had, they’d crack the whip and you’d go.
YOUNG: And they did keep it going, at one point breaking a world record by excavating more than 700 feet of tunnel in just a few days. As the pace increased, so did the dust. Gene Griego worked behind the machine in support of the project’s scientists. Griego says the dust brought complaints but little change in the workplace.
GRIEGO: You can’t see 25 yards down the tunnel. It’s like a mist. You go home at night and blow your nose and the tissue turns brown. Right after the complaints started coming in, DOE and the constructors started issuing painters masks for respiratory protection.
YOUNG: Griego says the masks were not the high-efficiency filters miners wear, but cloth held to the face with a rubber band. Their use was voluntary, not required. Miners are known for their hardiness, more likely to put up with some dust than complain and risk losing a paycheck. And besides, Dean says, the companies in charge of the mining had their own specialists in industrial hygiene – or IH – looking out for worker safety.
DEAN: I felt that the IH people are doing the monitoring, and I put my trust that if there was high levels that we would be shut down. So, we kind of had to put our trust in them.
YOUNG: Now Dean and Griego wonder if that trust was misplaced. Griego recently discovered DOE documents – many dating to well before the tunnel’s construction – showing that the department and some companies it contracted knew something the workers did not: the dust they worked in and breathed was dangerous.
He read that Yucca’s rocks could produce silica dust, which can scar lung tissue and cause the sometimes-fatal disease silicosis. He read that early core drillings at Yucca also showed large veins of the fibrous mineral erionite, a carcinogen similar to asbestos, only more potent.
Workers were exposed to silica dust during the construction of this tunnel at Yucca Mountain. (Photo: Jon Christensen)
GRIEGO: I’m thinking, I’m a dead man. And that’s when I decided, looking at all the proof, that DOE and it’s contractors intentionally exposed us to these carcinogenic substances, just to meet their milestones. And, of course, collect their hefty bonuses.
YOUNG: DOE’s first admission of a dust problem at Yucca came this year with the start of a silicosis-screening program for Yucca’s workers. On the second page of a press release, the department notes, "in early years, use of respiratory protection was not consistently applied." That’s a bit of an understatement, according to some industrial hygiene professionals who worked there. Mike Taylor has 20 years of experience in workplace safety. His most frustrating years were those at Yucca Mountain in the mid-90s when he tried to change work safety programs.
TAYLOR: It was a joke. Back then if you stopped work you risked getting fired. You risked losing your job.
YOUNG: Taylor says when he first approached a subcontractor about taking dust samples they had no equipment to even perform them. When he finally did take samples – with borrowed equipment – they showed elevated levels of silica dust. But managers were still reluctant to act.
TAYLOR: You’re in their office and you’re telling them that they have a very serious problem here, and that it’s not just regular silica dust, this is respirable crystalline silica dust. And oh, by the way, it has these other possibly hazardous zeolites in it and you need to do something. They were just not equipped to handle what you were telling them.
YOUNG: Taylor says it took six months to get workers masks with high efficiency air filters. But by then, he estimates, they had mined a mile and half of tunnel. Department of Energy officials declined to be interviewed for this story. Agency officials told Congress an internal investigation of the project and the contracting companies is underway.
Half a dozen prominent companies were involved with the tunnel, including Bechtel and TRW. One most directly involved with the drilling was Peter Kiewit Sons company of Omaha. Kiewit officials also declined an interview, but a company spokesman read from a prepared statement:
JANSEN: We began an internal review of our project records that document the significant air quality testing and employee safety program in place during our work at Yucca Mountain. We have already started to provide those records to the Department of Energy. We will continue to work with the Department of Energy as their investigation continues.
YOUNG: DOE isn’t the only body investigating. Workers have filed suit against the contracting companies at Yucca. Attorney Joe Egan says the suit charges that companies knew of the hazards but did little to prevent them. And Egan says a Kiewit safety employee says she was forced to alter records on silica dust samples.
EGAN: The whole operation was now, admittedly, very pathetic.
YOUNG: Egan says basic worker protections were ignored. For example, mining operations often use a fine mist of water to cut down dust. But Yucca’s scientists were studying hydrology, or the flow of water through rocks, and they did not want large amounts of water introduced to the work site.
EGAN: That’s fine and dandy but what they should have done is what their scientists also warned them, that if they were going to do dry drilling they would have to take extreme precautions to protect the workers. And all the things that they were recommended to do, they simply didn’t do.
YOUNG: Egan’s suit seeks class action status for workers and visitors who spent more than two hours in the tunnel. He predicts as many as 2,000 people may have been exposed, a number that draws comparison to the country’s worst silicosis event: the Hawk’s Nest tunnel disaster of the 1930s.
CHERNIACK: It was probably the greatest loss of life and greatest catastrophe caused at an industrial site in the United States in our history, really on the level of something like Bhopal in India.
YOUNG: That’s occupational health physician Martin Cherniack, who wrote a history of the event, “The Hawks Nest Incident.” Union Carbide had thousands of men tunnel through a mountain at Hawk’s Nest, West Virginia, for a hydroelectric power project. The workers were not told they would dig through silica, nor were they protected from the dust.
This newsreel footage from the 30s records a visit to the workers camp, known as the “town of the living dead” due to the scores of men sick and dying from silicosis.
MAN: I worked in Hawk’s Nest tunnel for four months. And each and every day that I worked in that tunnel I had to carry off 10 to 14 men who was overcome by the dust,…
WOMAN: My husband Cecil Jones died of working in the Hawk’s Nest tunnel, contracted silicosis…
YOUNG: Cherniack estimates 700 died; a painful lesson about the need to prevent silica exposure. Today, silicosis is considered completely preventable. And yet, 60 years after Hawk’s Nest, workers were exposed to silica dust at another tunnel for another energy project at Yucca Mountain.
CHERNIACK: The fact that some of these reported exposures occurred is actually alarming. And in this sense it really does suggest that on the corporate and the governmental level there was a real neglect on part of executives and officials.
YOUNG: The Department of Energy largely polices itself on matters of worker health and safety, and some point to the Yucca exposure as evidence that the self-regulation is not working.
Davitt McAteer was in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, through much of the 90s. McAteer says DOE was warned about silica at Yucca years before the work started. MSHA had an agreement with DOE to sample the air and recommend changes – but no authority to order them. MSHA records from ‘96 show silica dust levels far above the enforcement level – two, three or even four times the allowable threshold. One sample was twenty times the threshold. But when MSHA asked for changes, McAteer says, DOE did not want to hear it.
MCATEER: We sent the notices of noncompliance. We asked them to take action. And, in effect, they were taking the position that the letters of noncompliance were, in effect, a nuisance to them and were causing them to have to stop work or to correct and to remedy this. And they, in fact, attempted to tell us to go away, yes.
YOUNG: Rather than make changes, McAteer says, DOE attempted to terminate the agreement. He managed to negotiate a new one, and DOE later temporarily halted the tunnel work to address safety issues. But the incident showed how difficult it was to get DOE to accept outside regulation. Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, says DOE’s contracting practices are at the root of the problem.
REID: We have a situation where there is no oversight. We have a situation where the Department of Energy is actually led around by the contractor, rather than vice versa.
YOUNG: Reid called a Congressional hearing to express his outrage about the safety problems. Like most political leaders in Nevada, he opposes the Yucca Mountain project, and he sees the dust exposure as one more reason to doubt DOE claims that the nuclear waste site will be safe.
REID: There is a mad dash to dig this tunnel. They don’t care how much it costs and who it hurts. And I think this is just an example of why we need to slow down.
YOUNG: Reid also sits on a Congressional committee with oversight on DOE’s budget, where he confronted Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. Abraham told the committee that dust problems at Yucca came well before his tenure and have since been resolved.
ABRAHAM: The issues that took place in the mid-1990s came to our attention in ‘03. We are moving aggressively to provide a program for workers for screening to determine the nature of any illnesses that may have emanated from that exposure. And we take this very seriously.
YOUNG: Abraham urged former Yucca workers worried about their health to join the silicosis-screening program. But workers like Gene Griego say that’s not enough. Griego’s a fit 52-year-old non-smoker who has already been diagnosed with a lung ailment. He fears that will later become silicosis and he wants his family taken care of if that happens. He also wants some sense of justice.
GRIEGO: I think everyone involved in this criminal act should go to jail. But before they’re marched off to jail they ought to line us all up -- all the people they’ve injured -- look us in the face and ask for our forgiveness.
YOUNG: It’s too early to say with certainty what illnesses the Yucca exposure might have caused. Griego’s been doing his own informal health survey of former workmates. Of 50 letters he sent out, 20 workers have responded, saying they’ve been diagnosed with silicosis or have similar symptoms. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
[MUSIC: Howlin’ Wolf “Rockin’ the Blues” KILLING FLOOR (Magnum – 1996)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: worker safety issues at Yucca Mountain may be just the tip of an iceberg. A former Energy Department insider says worker health and safety problems at DOE facilities are widespread and have their roots in Cold War politics. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: The Dresden Dolls “Missed Me” DRESDEN DOLLS (Eight Foot Records – 2003)]
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
On our program today we’ve been hearing about tunnel workers at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. They say they’re suffering health problems from breathing in silica dust at the nuclear power plant waste repository being constructed there by the Department of Energy.
But this is not the only Energy Department site where workers have been exposed to hazardous materials. At the Hanford nuclear weapons facility in eastern Washington state, men working atop massive tanks of polluted sludge have complained that DOE contractors said no respirators -- even after they complained of noxious odors.
The watchdog group Government Accountability Project says at least 90 of these Hanford workers have sought medical attention for exposure to those vapors during the past two years. Meanwhile, an internal DOE investigation is looking into whether medical charts of some workers were altered at a DOE-funded health clinic to read “non work-related” after they were examined.
Bob Alvarez investigated the Energy Department for the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs for five years, and then worked inside DOE as an advisor during both Clinton administrations. Thanks for coming in today.
ALVAREZ: Thank you for having me here.
CURWOOD: Now, you haven’t just been an outsider but, in fact, you worked inside the Department of Energy as an employee. And I guess I ought to ask you, since you were working at the Department of Energy during the time that some of the problems happened at Yucca Mountain regarding silicosis – tell me, how did that happen?
ALVAREZ: Well, I was quite dismayed to learn about what happened very recently because people like myself and several of my colleagues who worked in the Department prided ourselves in trying to turn this agency around, especially with respect to protection of workers. And, in this case, we all failed.
What was going on was that there was tremendous pressure being put on the program in the Department, the office of Radioactive Waste Management, to build a tunnel as quickly as possible. Because there was a lot of concern that a lot of money was just being spent on generating paper and there was nothing real going on at Yucca Mountain. And, as I’ve learned in recent weeks, we created a terrible legacy in doing this because we let contractors have a free reign in terms of getting the job done at the expense of the workers.
CURWOOD: Let me ask you to go to another place. If I went to the Hanford nuclear weapons facility in Washington State, what would I see there?
ALVAREZ: Hanford occupies about 560 square miles in southeastern Washington, and the Columbia River runs through the site. And what you would see if you would go there is a large expanse in the steppe-shrub desert of eastern Washington that has, right now, nine defunct reactors along the river, three or four radiochemical plants that are closed. And then, beneath the ground towards the middle of the site, there are buried 177 what are called high level radioactive waste tanks. These are the tanks that received some of the most dangerous byproducts of the nuclear arms race, from the protection of plutonium, and…
CURWOOD: 177 tanks?
ALVAREZ: Yes, and these are tanks that typically in size would occupy essentially the entire court of an NBA basketball court, and be about 75 feet in height, as a dome.
CURWOOD: What’s in those tanks?
ALVAREZ: What’s in those tanks is a complicated mix of chemicals and radioactivity. They contain nearly every element on the periodic chart, and are quite dangerous both in terms of the radiation that they give off – external penetrating radiation which is quite lethal – as well as the wastes give off a tremendous amount of gasses which are explosive, flammable, toxic, and carcinogenic.
CURWOOD: Now, you say that the Columbia River runs right through this area. How secure are these tanks to keep this water from running into the river?
ALVAREZ: Well, more than a third of the tanks have leaked over a million gallons, and some of these wastes have entered the groundwater that enters the Columbia River.
CURWOOD: In recent months, a number of workers have complained about conditions at the Hanford nuclear reservation, and I gather these are the tanks that some of these workers have been complaining about.
ALVAREZ: That’s correct.
CURWOOD: And I gather that they feel that they haven’t been adequately protected in trying to work with this waste material. What are workers complaining about here?
ALVAREZ: Workers are complaining about breathing in gasses that cause things like – and then are reporting symptoms to the site health care providers that indicate that they are breathing in materials that are causing some sort of injuries. They have been complaining about things like nosebleeds, impaired breathing, skin rashes, headaches, kidney problems – a host of symptoms that you really have to follow up on, because we’re talking about some of the most dangerous materials in the world. And you should be providing the utmost protection. But what’s going on here, I think, is a similar pattern that occurred, unfortunately, at Yucca Mountain – it’s that we have to speed this up, get this job done. And what’s happening is that protection of workers, in my opinion, is being shortchanged.
CURWOOD: Bob, when we were first talking among ourselves about these problems at the Department of Energy sites, somebody raised the question that this is mainly a problem with contractor turnover, that these large, complicated, technical contracts tend to go to the same companies over and over again. But what’s your analysis? Where do you think the links are broken when it comes to workplace safety at the Department of Energy?
ALVAREZ: Well, I think that the contractor turnover is really not the issue here. It’s the outdated Cold War contracting system that the Department of Energy still clings to. Energy Department contractors are the only contractors in the U.S. government who enjoy the extraordinary privilege of being held immune from legal liability for acts of gross negligence and willful misconduct.
CURWOOD: And even somebody working for the Defense Department?
ALVAREZ: No. There are no contractors outside the Energy Department who enjoy such privilege. And so they are virtually immune from criminal acts, and if they are accused of criminal acts the government has to come in and protect them. And so this culture that is embedded in this contract system continues to put production over safety. Now, instead of cranking out nuclear warheads, the job that they’ve imposed upon these contractors is to clean up this mess as fast as possible.
The Department of Energy is also self-regulating in terms of protection of workers. And its regulations are not really, technically, legally binding other than in contract clauses, which can be changed without public knowledge. And compliance with these contract safety requirements has to be paid for by the Energy Department no matter how much they cost. And then violation of these safety contract clauses don’t necessarily mean there are any penalties, because these are “cost plus” contracts. They may reduce their bonuses, but there really are no serious consequences if you compare this to the rest of the world.
In the United States, in terms of the commercial nuclear industry, the nuclear Navy of the Defense Department – there are consequences. I’m unaware of any situation since I’ve been studying the Department, and worked in Congress, and worked in the Department, where the Department of Energy demanded its money back for gross negligence and willful misconduct and acts that involved knowing endangerment of workers.
CURWOOD: Now, some of the companies involved here, these are major firms that also operate in the private sector with strong safety programs for their workers -- companies like Bechtel, Flora Daniel, CH2M Hill. My impression is that these companies wouldn’t be in business if they didn’t have strong worker safety programs. Is there a different standard when these companies are working for the Department of Energy?
ALVAREZ: Absolutely. It’s like stepping into another planet. The rules are suspended in terms of meeting certain requirements, because the department does not have adequate regulation, and does not have legally binding standards to protect these workers.
CURWOOD: So, no rules from the Department of Occupational Health and Safety?
ALVAREZ: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not regulate the workplace in the Department of Energy; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not regulate worker safety in the Energy Department. The Energy Department regulates itself, and it regulates itself through a contract system that literally goes back to World War II where all these responsibilities are bestowed directly on the contractor in a form of an honor system.
CURWOOD: Now, you tell me that…
ALVAREZ: And on top of that, the contractor is basically told that if we see any increases in worker exposures or injuries, we’re going to cut back on your bonuses.
CURWOOD: There are no federal safety laws that are being applied here. So if I were out on the job – say, working at Hanford Nuclear Reservation or the Yucca Mountain – and I go to my supervisor, ask for a safety mask and don’t get one, I have no right to go and complain, say, to OSHA.
ALVAREZ: That’s correct. And if you do, you do it at your own peril because they can find a reason to basically take away your badge and take you out the gate and say “adios.”
CURWOOD: And you say these are “cost plus” contracts – that is, whatever the cost is to the contractor, plus a margin for profit, that’s the way these things work. Tell me, are such comfy contracts common in the federal government?
ALVAREZ: These are very unique to the Department of Energy because of the enormous amount of protection that’s provided to the contractor as it carries out its work, and the lack of accountability of the contractors. I would compare DOE’s contracting system to what the military contracting system looked like shortly after World War II.
CURWOOD: Let’s look ahead now for a moment, Bob. Of course, the mission of the Department of Energy at these sites now is cleanup, and I understand that the desire is to get out of this cleanup business ahead of schedule over this next decade. What do you know about what that might mean for worker safety?
ALVAREZ: Well, first of all, the business of the Department of Energy being primarily clean-up is not exactly correct. The Department of Energy under this administration is now seeking to reconstitute the nuclear weapons production complex in order to make a new generation of nuclear weapons. And that costs a lot of money, of course. And how do you free up money to do that? Well, one way to do that is to save money on the cleanup. And this is what I think is going on.
CURWOOD: How many people work at Department of Energy sites right now, do you think?
ALVAREZ: Well there are over 100,000 -- 100 to 110,000 contractor employees who work at Department of Energy sites. How many of those are involved in dangerous activities, I would say, are perhaps a third.
CURWOOD: What would it take to turn around the situation you’ve described for us, Bob?
ALVAREZ: I think we need a fundamental legislative overhaul of the contracting system. This is a system that really hasn’t changed much since World War II. And while the Defense Department is not necessarily an exemplary model for financial accountability and the like, it does have certain safeguards. I mean, for example, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the contract with Haliburton, with the U.S. Army. And recently, the Defense Department is asking for Haliburton to return 315 million dollars in expenses the felt were not justified. This, to my knowledge and my experience in the Department, has never happened. And because these contract clauses really make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the government to recover money for shabby work, for violating the rules, or just simply waste, fraud, and abuse.
CURWOOD: So optimist/pessimist about this situation, Bob?
ALVAREZ: Well, I think that we can do these jobs safely, we can get them done in a cost effective and responsible manner. But this is a system that’s broken; it can’t be fixed by reforming and tweaking. We need to bring in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to regulate safety of the workplace. We need to bring in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to regulate nuclear safety of these operations. We are not engaged in a life and death struggle with the Soviet Union anymore. And we shouldn’t have a contract system that was designed to do that to carry out our cleanup.
CURWOOD: What are the odds of that happening, Bob?
ALVAREZ: I think they’re very slim at this stage because of the enormous power of these contractors, who find it very convenient to have this business, because it’s quite lucrative and it’s risk-free. So there has to be some sort of countervailing force to this and, unfortunately, changes tend to occur when accidents happen. And I’m hoping that we can come to our senses before those kinds of tragedies occur.
CURWOOD: Bob Alvarez is a former investigator for the Senate Committee on Government Affairs and a former advisor to the Department of Energy during the Clinton Administration. Thanks so much, sir.
ALVAREZ: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Joe Davis, the spokesperson for the Department of Energy, declined our invitation to be interviewed for this story. But he did send us the following statement in response to the allegations made by Mr. Alvarez.
“Mr. Alvarez,” writes Joe Davis, “was a senior policy advisor to former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary. Many of his critical comments have focused on DOE's cleanup activities which he was in charge of for a number of years and, at that time, lacked a focused and coherent strategy to address the cleanup of former DOE sites. I simply chose not to debate former political staff members of a previous administration whose comments bring no added value to DOE's ongoing and new efforts to cleanup our sites.
The Department of Energy is engaged in a smart and comprehensive effort to work with states and regulatory agencies to ensure that we make actual progress in cleaning up former Cold War weapon sites. Our accelerated cleanup plans have resulted in multi-million dollar reduction in government and taxpayer liability, while reducing risks to the environment surrounding our sites.
This accelerated cleanup effort has been endorsed by both Republican and Democratic administrations on the state level. We have specific measures in place to ensure that contractors meet every federal, state and local regulatory requirement, as well as fee structures that allow DOE to assess a contractor’s performance and award them for good work and penalize them for unacceptable work.”
Those words from Joe Davis, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy.
[MUSIC: Howlin’ Wolf “Highway 49” KILLING FLOOR (Magnum – 1996)]
- Department of Energy Division of Environmental Management
- Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Office of Compensation Analysis and Support
- Government Accountability Project
CURWOOD: Just ahead: crossing into controversy, the jaguar heads north and stirs calls for its reintroduction to the U.S. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
GRABER: It’s been noted that dog owners and their dogs often look alike. And now, according to a study published in Psychology Review, that observation just may be accurate – if the dog’s a purebred.
Researchers at the University of California at San Diego took photos of 45 dog owners and their pets at three different locations. In the group were 25 purebreds and 20 mutts. The owners were photographed facing forward from the waist up, and their pooches’ pictures were whole-dog views, also facing forward. Then, 28 judges were given photos of one owner and two dogs and asked to match the owner with his or her canine companion. The judges were also given six traits for rating both humans and animals, including hairiness, size, attractiveness, and perceived friendliness.
If more than half the judges selected the correct dog and owner pair, it was considered a match. The judges were able to match only seven of the 20 mutts with their owners. But when it came to the purebreds, judges got it right for 16 out of 25 dogs. The judges were able to choose the correct matches, even when the owners and their dogs’ physical attributes didn’t fully coincide.
Also, length of ownership was not a factor in matches, possibly dispelling the myth that people and their pets grow to resemble one another over time. In the end, researchers think that because humans are able to be very specific when it comes to choosing purebreds, they simply tend to choose ones that somehow look like them. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Cynthia Graber.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Aveda - an Earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda.com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.
[MUSIC: Bjorgulv Straume “The Devil’s Tune” DEVIL’S TUNE (Northside Records – 1999)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
When you think of jaguars in the wild, you may imagine a big yellow cat with black spots roaming the tropical jungles of Latin America. But many zoologists believe jaguars’ range used to extend into the southwestern United States. Though they no longer inhabit the U.S., jaguars from Mexico sometimes cross the border into Southern Arizona where, on rare occasions, a human will spot one.
These sightings are sparking new research and efforts to conserve jaguars in Mexico. They’ve also led to a debate over whether jaguars could or should ever be reintroduced into the United States. From Tucson, Arizona, Barbara Ferry reports.
[SOUNDS OF CARS]
FERRY: It’s easy to see a jaguar in Arizona. You just go down to the dealership here in Tucson…
SALESMAN: The XK8 is by far one of the most gorgeous vehicles on the road…
FERRY: If you want to take one home, bring about $40,000.
FERRY: But if you want to see a real jaguar— a sleek, beautiful predator whose name means “the cat that kills with a one leap,” the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere, an animal feared and revered by Olmecs, the Maya, and the Aztecs— if you want to see that kind of jaguar in Arizona, well then, you’ve got to be patient.
CHILDS: All right, we’re at jaguar camera site number 10. It’s located in a rugged mountain range, southeast Arizona.
FERRY: Jack Childs is a patient man.
CHILDS: Well, everything looks in order here.
[SOUND OF CAMERA REWINDING]
All right, I’ve got the film rewound. Now I’ll open it up, pull the old film out, put in the new.
FERRY: Childs has been trying to capture jaguars on film for the past seven years. Given how elusive and rare the cats are, it’s a full-time and, some say, impossible job. Childs hunts mountain lions for a hobby and has tramped these rugged ranges all his life. Using his knowledge of the land and of large cats, he has set up an elaborate system of automatic cameras in the mountains south of Tucson. To attract the felines Childs rubs his special potion— a foul-smelling substance containing skunk urine— on a rock about 10 feet in front of the camera.
CHILD: Hopefully any predators that come by will smell this and come over and investigate it, therefore posing for the camera (cough).
FERRY: Childs is a researcher for the Jaguar Conservation Team, an organization set up by Arizona’s Game and Fish Department to study cross-border jaguars. But he fell into jaguar research by accident. In August 1996, Childs, his wife Anna and group of hunters were out exercising their hounds in the Baboquiviri Mountains south of Tucson. There they had an encounter that would change Child’s life.
CHILDS: Pretty soon the dogs got way up high on the slope of a big, bluffy, steep, brushy mountain. We heard them jump this animal and bring it to bay….
FERRY: Childs recently told his story to a captivated audience of ranchers and other locals in a one-room schoolhouse in the tiny village of Arivaca, close to where the encounter happened.
CHILDS: Well, Matt and this other boy were nice and young, and my wife and I decided, well, we’ve seen mountain lions before, we’re going to sit here on the mules and you guys climb that mountain and take some pictures and bring the dogs back.
FERRY: But, as time passed, Childs’ curiosity got the best of him and he went to investigate.
CHILDS: About halfway up the mountain I meet this young fella coming back down and he says, Matt sent me down to get ya. And I say, what’s up? And he’s says we’ve got a jaguar. I said “my goodness.”
FERRY: Childs ran up the mountain and spent the next half-hour looking at the jaguar. He was intrigued and moved by the experience. He retired from his job as a land surveyor and began to spend more and more time in the mountains trying to find another jaguar. Despite predictions that the scheme would fail, in December of 2001, one of Child’s 15 automatic cameras snapped a photo of a young male jaguar. It was the 60th documented sighting of jaguar in the United States in the last 100 years. The jaguar’s photo appeared on the nightly news, and the feline became a sort of wildlife celebrity in the Southwest.
Jaguar photo, taken at night, December 2001 in Arizona near the Mexican border. (Photo: Jack Childs)
NEWS ANCHOR 1: Arizona could be home to another big cat…
NEWS ANCHOR 2: Well, it’s official, southern Arizona has at least one jaguar.
NEWS ANCHOR 3: This is a picture of a jaguar in a remote location somewhere south of Tucson…
FERRY: Soon the state Game and Fish Department was flooded with calls of none-too-credible sightings. Excitable Arizonans were apparently mistaking everything from coyotes to Labrador Retrievers for jaguars.
GLENN: When something like that’s looking at ya, a big old cat like that, it’s surprising how fast you can back up.
FERRY: In a ranch house about 100 miles east of Tucson, Warner Glenn folds his tall, thin cowboy’s frame into an armchair and talks about the memorable spring day in 1996 when he ran into a jaguar. Glenn was leading a lion hunt in the Peloncillo Mountains near his ranch. He thought he was on the trail of a large tom lion. But when his dogs cornered the cat, he got the shock of his life. The animal made such a surprising sound, it confused Glenn for a moment.
GLENN: It was deep-chested roar. It wasn’t a growl like a mountain lion growls. It wasn’t a [growl], like that, it was more of a [growl], like that type of a sound. Right there. And that’s why I was a little confused in what that was…
FERRY: Glenn quickly moved closer to pull his hounds away from the jaguar. At that moment, the jaguar locked eyes with Glenn and prepared to charge.
GLENN: And when he started to come, he jumped up on a ledge there and the next jump he would have darn sure been right in the middle of me. But I was already starting to run backwards.
FERRY: Glenn got away from the jaguar. The cat also retreated. At the end of the confrontation, Glenn had a hound with a broken leg and 17 photos on his tiny point-and -shoot camera. To his and his wife Wendy’s surprise, the photos came out. At that point, Wendy Glenn realized they had to make a big decision.
W. GLENN: We had we had to make the decision of whether we would go public or not.
FERRY: Overshadowing that decision was the history of distrust between ranchers and the federal government. Much of the Glenn's ranch, like most ranches in the West, is made up of leased federal land. Many ranchers fear that if the government declares that land critical habitat for endangered species, then cattle grazing would be banned. Wendy Glenn.
W. GLENN: There were a couple of ranchers that said he should have killed the jaguar and just said nothing. But his answer back was, for what reason? It was most beautiful animal he ever saw, and why kill it?
FERRY: One result of the Glenns’ decision to go public was that an environmental advocacy group, the Center for Biological Diversity, sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to have the jaguar listed as an endangered species. The Service put the jaguar on the list in 1997. And that started the political debate of what, if anything, to do about the wandering jaguars.
SUCKLING: The ranchers in southern Arizona are famous for declaring that the sky is falling down on virtually a monthly basis.
FERRY: Kieran Suckling is director of the Center for Biological Diversity, the group that sued to get the jaguar listed. He believes that ranchers’ concerns about losing grazing privileges are exaggerated. To date, no critical habitat designation in Arizona has resulted in cattle being removed from federal land— though Suckling says that’s a failure of the system.
SUCKLING: There are many millions of acres of federal land in Arizona and New Mexico that should be managed for endangered species such as jaguars. And this is federal land owned by the American people. It’s not too much to say that that land should be managed in the interests of all Americans, not six or seven ranchers who hold leases on that land.
FERRY: At the crux of the political debate over jaguars in the United States is a biological question. Most everyone agrees that the visitors are coming from a remote area in the Mexican Sierras, about 130 miles south of the border. But they disagree about whether any territory within the United States was ever true habitat for jaguars. David Brown is a wildlife biology professor at Arizona State University and author of a book on jaguars
BROWN: It’s always been a peripheral animal. The actual occurrence of this animal as a breeding population in Arizona or New Mexico is very much in doubt. I mean, it’s not definite one way or another.
FERRY: Brown insists all the fuss and hullabaloo over wandering jaguars is politics and nothing more. Since he believes the U.S. is marginal habitat for them, he says jaguars are unlikely to set up full time residency in this country no matter what anyone tries to do to protect them.
But Kieran Suckling argues that if jaguars had not been shot, trapped, and poisoned in the United States, they would be thriving here. He points out that in the 1800s, jaguars were seen as far north as Los Angeles and Colorado. In those days, and even until recently, a jaguar encountered by a human usually ended up as a trophy on a wall.
SUCKLING: It doesn’t breed here now, that’s correct. But the only reason it doesn’t breed here now is because the livestock industry gunned down every jaguar they could find and drive it out of the state. So I think it would be a grave error to say it doesn’t breed here now, therefore it shouldn’t be endangered, when the only reason it doesn’t breed here is because we killed it.
FERRY: Now that jaguars are legally protected, Suckling envisions a day when they colonize the United States – either on their own or by an active reintroduction program. At this point, reintroducing the jaguar isn’t on any government agency’s agenda. Tucson writer Chuck Bowden, author of books on the natural environment of Arizona, says that although jaguars are not of biological importance in the U.S., we should be working to restore them here.
BOWDEN: So, basically, to bring them back is like bringing back the wolf in the Southwest, of which there were at most probably 2,000 before settlement. It’s a gesture towards restoring a kind of wild world that makes humans feel better. It is not a case of ecological management to make an ecosystem healthier.
FERRY: While Arizonans argue over what should be done for jaguars in the United States, just about everyone seems to agree on one thing. Support is needed to protect jaguars in their home base in Mexico where they are often still killed by ranchers seeking to protect their cattle. Both ranching and environmental advocacy groups support a research project led by Mexican scientists trying to determine whether the Sonoran jaguar population is stable or in decline. The researchers are also seeking money to buy out cattle ranchers in the area in order to create a jaguar preserve. Biologist Carlos Lopez of the University of Queretero in Mexico leads the project.
Photo taken in the mountains of northeastern Sonora, Mexico. (Photo:© Northern Jaguar Project/Carlos Lope)
LOPEZ: The reason we are trying to maintain this population in Mexico, and try to get all the support we can from the U.S., is because if people want to see the sporadic jaguar crossing the border they have to maintain this population. They have to help us conserve it in Mexico. Otherwise, these sighting are just going to be a thing of history, a thing of the past.
FERRY: Though the border between the United States and Mexico may be meaningless to a wandering jaguar, by crossing it and getting captured on film these rare cats may have done something to help save their own species.
For Living on Earth, I’m Barbara Ferry in Tucson, Arizona.
[MUSIC: Jimi Hendrix “Changes” BAND OF GYPSYS (Capitol – 1970)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery loves her chickens so much that on cold mornings she will sometimes bring them a bowl of hot popcorn for breakfast. But when she went to the hen house bearing that treat on one recent day – she was in for a shock.
MONTGOMERY: I found one of my hens dead on the chicken coop floor. I had hand-raised all of them from day-old chicks. They’d lived in my office for six weeks, a baby bird or two sitting in my lap or napping in my sweater as I wrote. I loved them all. This death was not just upsetting – this was a crisis. Because somebody had killed her – a killer who might come back. How had it gotten in?
My husband and I spent most of that day cementing even the tiniest holes in the barn’s foundation. But the next morning, I found another beloved hen slain. I bent over to pick her up by her feet—and found that someone had a hold of the other end of the chicken! Her head had been wedged down a hole in the dirt floor. Whoever had killed her had dug its way in. I pulled the hen free, and then out of the hole popped a tiny, pure white head. It stared at me with fearless black eyes. It was an ermine.
Ermine is the name by which we call all three of our tiny New England weasel species when they’re dressed in their white winter coats. Few of us ever get to see an ermine. They are tiny, solitary animals, only a few inches long and exactly the color of snow. Without backing down, the ermine looked at me, square in the eye, for perhaps 30 seconds. I have never seen a gaze so fierce, so intense, so filled with the moment. The ermine had just killed someone I loved. Yet I could not have felt more amazed – or more blessed – if an angel had materialized in front of me. My sorrow vanished instantly. This thing was as fearless as God.
Ermines stop at nothing to kill their prey. They snake down tunnels after rats, hunt beneath the snow for voles. Ermines will even leap into the air to catch birds as they take flight. A biologist once found an eagle with a weasel skull clamped to its skin – even after death, the predator didn’t let go. With their little hearts pounding 360 times a minute, ermines must eat five to ten meals a day. They’re fierce because they have to be. And their ferocity is a thing as pure, and as beautiful, as their snow-white coats.
Holding the still-warm body of my hen in my arms, I glimpsed for the first time the nature of pure forgiveness. When you can see the beauty and perfection of the enemy so starkly and clearly that its glory just floods your heart – then there is no room for blame. Later that day, I set Have-A-Heart traps all over the barn, baited with liver. Ten days later, I caught the ermine. I found her body limp in the no-kill trap. She had died overnight, exhausting her life trying to escape. My hens were safe, but my heart was heavy. I picked up the tiny, perfect, pure white body, kissed her fur, and wept.
CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of nine books, including: “The Wild Out Your Window: Exploring Nature Near at Hand.”
[MUSIC: Jay Ungar & Molly Mason “Cows on the Hill” WALTZING WITH YOU (Angel Records – 1998)]
CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week – the Gross Domestic Product is often held up as a yardstick of the nation’s economic health. But the numbers economists bandy about can be misleading growth indicators.
DAVIS: Every time we mine a ton of coal, GDP goes up by $17 a ton. But that doesn't take into account the fact that we've harvested one ton of coal from the Earth and that ton of coal is no longer there.
CURWOOD: Add in that depletion and the picture changes.
DAVIS: The value to society of that ton of coal in GDP terms would be about $17 for West Virginia coal. In green income terms, it would be about $5.50.
CURWOOD: A lesson in green accounting – next time on Living on Earth. And between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.
[ARCADE SOUNDS – BEEPS AND ZAPS, CHEERS OF SIMULATED CROWD, FRENETIC BUTTON-PUSHING]
CURWOOD: We leave you in the land of the modern pinball wizards. Sara Peebles caught the action at a video arcade at Tokyo’s Akihabara train station.
[EARTHEAR – “Three Active Serves (video arcade, Yotsuya)” 108 WALKING THROUGH TOKYO (Post-Concrete – 2002)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. You can find us at livingonearthorg. Our staff includes: Nathan Marcy, Susan Shepherd, and Tom Simon. Nal Terro engineered this program with help from Paul Wabrek, and Al Avery – who also runs our website. Our intern is Christopher Bolick. We had help this week from West Virginia Public Broadcasting and KNPR in Las Vegas. Special thanks to Ernie Silver and Carl Lindemann. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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