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

January 21, 2005

Air Date: January 21, 2005



Houston, There's a Problem

View the page for this story

The air over Houston, Texas is known as some of the worst in the nation. But an investigation by the Houston Chronicle finds there's a lot Texans don't know about their air or the risks it may pose. Guest host Bruce Gellerman speaks with lead reporter Dina Capiello and resident Terry Nuñez. (12:15)

A River Comes Home / Ilsa Setziol

View the page for this story

A century ago, the then small city of Los Angeles was running out of water so it appropriated an entire river 200 miles to the north. Now, after decades of confrontation, the Owens River could regain some of its former life. Ilsa Setziol of member station KPCC reports. (05:15)

Trawling for Adventure / Redmond O’Hanlon

View the page for this story

Travel writer Redmond O’Hanlon climbed aboard a deep-sea trawler hoping to ride headlong into a Force 12 hurricane. In the two weeks he spent on the Norlantean, he battled sea-sickness, sleep deprivation and ridicule from the ship’s crew, who thought him mad for even volunteering to sample their way of life. In the end, O’Hanlon got his story and his storm. He recounts the claustrophobic and very dangerous life of a trawlerman in his new book, “Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic.” (11:00)

Emerging Science Note/A Bed Unmade / Jenn Goodman

View the page for this story

Living on Earth’s Jenn Goodman reports that an unmade bed is a healthy bed. (01:20)

Carbon Black / Vicki Monks

View the page for this story

Ever wonder what makes tires black? It's fine pieces of black carbon. But producer Vicki Monks reports that Oklahomans who live near a plant that manufactures the product say they've been left unprotected and it may be time to give an Indian reservation control over environmental regulation. (15:15)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce GellermanGUESTS: Dina Capiello, Terry Nuñez, Redmond O'HanlonREPORTERS: Ilsa Setziol, Vicki MonksNOTE: Jenn Goodman


GELLERMAN: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I'm Bruce Gellerman. When Continental Carbon wanted to build a factory near an Indian reservation in Oklahoma they promised people living nearby there'd be no pollution.

THELMA: I said, “Will it get everything black when I move?” “No, no, no, it'll be all right,” he said.

GELLERMAN: But, decades later, parts of the reservation are covered with a layer of carbon - the ingredient that gives car tires their unique color. It's left the air and the water tainted black and residents seeing red.

THURMAN: Eeooshishta – that's what lying means. Eeooshista. But they don't care, they don't care. They going to still lie and lie and lie and lie and that's why we're in trouble, yeah, we're in trouble today.

GELLERMAN: Trouble with a capital T in Ponca City, Oklahoma – this week on Living on Earth. Also, bringing the Owens River back to life and why an unmade bed is “bedder” for you. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.


Back to top


Houston, There's a Problem

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman sitting in for Steve Curwood.

If you've ever visited the Ship Channel, a manmade waterway leading from the Gulf of Mexico into Houston, Texas, you know - and there's no polite way to put this, but - it stinks. Some people say it's just the smell of money - the corridor stretching along Ship Channel is lined with refineries and chemical plants. In fact, it's the second largest petroleum complex in the world.

The area also has the dubious distinction of competing with Los Angeles for the worst air in the nation. How bad is it? Well, last summer the Houston Chronicle began sniffing around the region - planting a hundred monitoring devices to find out what people are breathing. The paper's five-part series ‘In Harm's Way' just hit the newsstands.

Reporter Dina Capiello is part of the Chronicle's investigative team. She joins us from Houston. Hi Dina.

CAPIELLO: Hello, how are you?

GELLERMAN: I'm well, thank you. Also joining us from Houston is Terry Nuñez. She's a resident from the area. And I understand, Terry, that you had one of the paper's air sampling devices planted near your home.

NUNEZ: Yes sir, I did.

GELLERMAN: Where exactly do you live?

NUNEZ: I live kind of behind the Ship Channel on a dead end street, and the water's right behind me.

Chronicle study volunteer Debra Prophet of Baytown sits on her back porch facing the Exxon Mobil plant and comforts her grandson Alonzo Mosley, 3. They both have asthma, and on bad, smelly days, Alonzo has to stop playing in the back yard and get on his breathing machine. (Credit: Carlos Antonio Rios/Houston Chronicle)

GELLERMAN: Well, didn't you smell the air?

NUNEZ: Oh, definitely, you can definitely smell it.

GELLERMAN: Didn't you think something was wrong?

NUNEZ: Well, we've asked a lot of questions and they just say it's a burn off that comes off and it's not harmful. And we just kind of left it at that until Dina came by and talked to us.

GELLERMAN: But why now? Why did the Chronicle take a closer look now? I mean, everybody knows if you live near a chemical plant you're going to be breathing in something you shouldn't.

CAPIELLO: Well, it was really generated by me. As a reporter I was doing a lot of stories on these flaring events, where a fireball goes off and it smells and there's black smoke, and people call me quite a lot. So I would talk to these residents and they'd be like, oh my God, the smell is just unbelievable, you know? My dishes rattle, my windows rattle, there's this film I can't get off my car -

GELLERMAN: You mean the dishes rattle because of these flaring events?

CAPIELLO: Because of, yeah, because they generate a lot of energy and basically, you know, the ground, you can feel the ground vibrate. At Terry's house her sliding glass doors vibrate. And I would hear this from residents, and then you would call up the company, or the county pollution control, and they'd be like, “well, we went out there and did these tests and it came back fine.” And I was like, “okay, something, something's going on here.”

GELLERMAN: But the state was monitoring the air, right?

CAPIELLO: Yeah, the state does monitor the air. But, you know, although we have a lot of monitors in and around Texas, the problem is most of them only monitor once every six days. And, as Terry will tell you, the two monitors near her house aren't really that near her house. Very few of these monitors that the state runs are really kind of up against the fence. You know, right near Terry's house along a street called Gober Street - I mean, the backyard ends at the chemical company's fence.

GELLERMAN: So, Terry, what's it like to live there?

NUNEZ: In the beginning we really didn't think about it. And then we started seeing, you know, different colors of dust on our vehicles. Our glass shattered a couple times, we had to have it fixed. And then we started wondering but we still didn't pursue anything. And the smells, obviously, most definitely. And until Dina approached us I guess we really just didn't know. We just kept living day by day not knowing.

GELLERMAN: I understand you kept a diary during the sampling, yeah?

NUNEZ: Yes, sir, I did. When Dina contacted me I decided to do that, you know, for her and for me just so I would know, and let my family know what was going on. And I did keep a diary of things happening.

GELLERMAN: Well, can you remember something from your diary?

NUNEZ: Yes, sir. I work a lot of weird hours ‘cause I work with the railroad, and I was getting up like three, four o'clock in the morning. And usually in between two and four they'd have really high flares and that's when the house was shaking. Sometimes it would shake so hard it would wake you up. And I noticed that and I started documenting it, and because of my weird hours I did catch a lot of things that normal people didn't catch.

GELLERMAN: So, what did you find? What are these monitors show?

CAPIELLO: We found basically three chemicals of concern in most of the areas. And those chemicals were 1,3-Butadiene, which is primarily used to make rubber. Terry's house was one of the houses that we actually measured butadiene.

This is pretty rare for a couple of reasons. One, these monitors actually degrade butadiene. So, typically, you don't see it even when it's there - which says that it was probably very high when we were sampling. Well, it just so happens that Terry lives next door to the third-largest emitter of butadiene in the state of Texas, which is Texas Petrochemicals. They make butadiene, which they sell to Goodyear next door to make tires.

Besides butadiene, we also saw benzene in two neighborhoods that a scientist said would be like sitting in traffic 24/7. The levels that we found, particularly in Terry's neighborhood, would definitely increase, you know, your cancer risks there. Typically, an acceptable risk level in a community is about one additional cancer case in a million people. In Terry's neighborhood, some of the levels were between 100 to 400 cases in a million people.

GELLERMAN: And what's the third chemical?

CAPIELLO: The third was chloroform, and chloroform's kind of a funny one because it has a variety of sources. And we saw it most prevalently in Terry's neighborhood again. Terry's neighborhood was a kind of ground zero for our study. I mean, she definitely lives on the most polluted block, based on our research. And that was actually just born out by the state who released some data from 2003 that showed butadiene in the Manchester area of Houston would cause - you know, if inhaled over 70 years at that concentration, 24 hours a day - 200 additional cases of cancer in a million people. That's a very heavy risk.

But chloroform can come from chlorinating wastewater. And it just so happens that Terry has the unique distinction of having the house with one of the highest chloroform levels. And shocker, she lives right next to one of the state's - excuse me, one of the city of Houston's - wastewater treatment plants. So that is probably the source there.

Gary Wood, an emissions evaluator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, sits in a mobile monitoring van last summer. The vans were measuring pollution in the vicinity for a week. "I'm fortunate because when we finish our trip, we go home," he said. "We don't have to live here." (Credit: Carlos Antonio Rios/Houston Chronicle)

GELLERMAN: So, Terry, this is the stuff you and your family are breathing in.

NUNEZ: Yes, it's very scary.

GELLERMAN: You got kids?

NUNEZ: I have five children. That's why we have a totally new view now.

GELLERMAN: Well, do you let them play outdoors? Are you planning to move?

NUNEZ: Yes, we are planning to move now. We just bought this house five years ago with no clue. We just thought it was harmful stuff because that's what the chemical plants always tell us - harmless, I'm sorry, they always said it was harmless. And now that we know different we are planning on moving.

GELLERMAN: Dina, I understand that some of these chemical companies and petroleum companies are actually buying up the private houses around their plants.

CAPIELLO: Yeah, this was really, you know, something I didn't expect, but one of the things I saw in county after county was just neighborhoods of foundations. No houses there, you know, weeds coming up where driveways used to be. And it's a trend throughout southeast Texas where these companies have just started buying what they call “buffer zones,” is what they call them, or “green zones” is another term. They start, typically, at the houses closest in. They typically get an appraiser and they go out there and they offer people money for their home and property. In some cases, they sell the home back to the person so they can move it. And, I mean, whole neighborhoods have disappeared.

And for some people it's a great solution - ‘get me out of here, I can, you know, afford a new mortgage.' But for some people - and a lot of them are elderly - they're kind of stuck. And so you see people that, you know, don't have anybody to play dominoes with. Or in this area called Worcester - which is just west of Exxon-Mobile's refinery, which is the largest in the U.S., actually - the city has to come out and let out the fire hydrants twice a month because there's so few people there, the drinking water backs up in the pipes, and the chlorine and all the other things concentrate.

When we started looking into it and started probing into it more, we talked to a lawyer in Houston. And, basically, we got some internal memos from a company in the Houston area that show - well, they call it “buffer zones.” It's really more for liability reasons, to reduce the risk of liability. It's much harder to prove somebody has a health effect or their property is encroached upon when they're farther away from a plant. And it's also to kind of shut down the complaints. You know, the people that are left behind, one of them says in the article, you know, there's nobody else to gripe out here anymore. There are so few voices to kind of stir up trouble and get things changed.

GELLERMAN: Terry, it's enough to make you sick - I mean, literally. Has it?

NUNEZ: We have noticed a lot of changes. We aren't sick people. We were constantly busy running and doing stuff, and we hardly ever get sick. And when we did move there, my husband started getting runny noses, I did, and my child did and my older children. And I have animals, and my horses' eyes would be draining, they'd constantly have draining from their noses. And we just couldn't understand it. And we thought, well, maybe it's change, or - we just didn't know.

GELLERMAN: Dina, what does the state say? And what about the chemical companies now, in light of your report?

CAPIELLO: Well, the state has already started to change some things. You know, it's been kind of ten years in the making. Some of the articles criticizing how the state deals with air toxics go back ten years. But there are no federal standards for air toxics, so one of the things that they're going to do is make every level set at the same level of risk.

Currently, in the state of Texas, you can have one chemical that's set at a level that's equal to one cancer case in a million people. And, then, another carcinogen could be set at a level that's 100 additional cancer cases in a million people. So there's just kind of no rhyme or reason about how these standards were set. And the state can't even tell you how they were set. You ask them, show me the data. How'd you get this number? And they can't really defend themselves. So they're going to actually step back and start doing that. And just recently they began to look at their air pollution data and, in a larger scale, look at it in terms of cancer risk.

But you know, again, Bruce, you have to remember, we're in Texas. The industry is very powerful, and the industry is very clear, in my story, and they do not want these to be standards. They do not want this to be, “you go above this, you're in trouble.” So it's going to be interesting. It's going to be interesting to see, you know, as the state kind of opens it up for debate, whose voice is heard.

GELLERMAN: Well Dina, thank you very much.

CAPIELLO: Thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: And Terry, thank you.

NUNEZ: Thank ya'll for inviting me.

GELLERMAN: Terry Nuñez is from Southeast Houston, Texas, and Dina Capiello is a reporter with the Houston Chronicle. To read the Chronicle's entire five part series, “In Harm's Way” visit our website at Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot O-R-G.

[MUSIC: Hank Williams III “Blue Devil” Risin' Outlaw (Curb) 1999]

GELLERMAN: Coming up: a river runs through it - again - Owens Valley, California, that is. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Duane Eddy “Ghost Riders in the Sky” Best of (Curb) 1997]

Related link:
"In Harm’s Way" A Houston Chronicle Special Report

Back to top


A River Comes Home

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Coming up: One landlubber's quest to become a salty dog. But first: A century ago, Los Angeles, then just a small city, was running out of water. So, LA officials, in a move that would be hard to imagine today, used under the table payments, arm-twisting persuasion and outright fraud to seize control over a river that ran through ranching country, 200 miles to the north. The Owens River was diverted out of its valley and into a pipeline, quenching the growing city's thirst but leaving the Owens Valley high and dry. Now, decades later, Valley residents have scored a major legal victory that, as Ilsa Setziol reports, will have water flowing through the old river bed once again.


SETZIOL: In the Owens Valley, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, there's a sharp turn in the Owens River. The river flowed here for tens of thousands of years, digging down deep into the earth, cutting an 800-foot gorge. But it hit a patch of granite and had to yield, creating the bend. In more recent history, the river has bent to human needs and desires. Power plants and LA's water diversions dried up the Owens River.


SETZIOL: But today it has returned, at least along nine miles of the gorge. Brian Tillemans with the LA Department of Water and Power looks down at a green ribbon of willows and cottonwood trees at the bottom of the rocky canyon.

TILLEMANS: We went from a desert environment to a riparian corridor in about three to four years. These trees weren't here 13 years ago and are now 25 to 49 feet high.

SETZIOL: Tillemans oversees environmental restoration for the Department of Water and Power, or DWP. He says the gorge is a model for restoring 62 miles of the river that runs south of here. It's the largest project of its kind ever undertaken in the West. Tillemans says they're planning to take water that now flows into an aqueduct bound for LA and send it back into the original riverbed.

TILLEMANS: We're also going to send down what's called seasonal habitat flows. And those are flows that come down to mimic the snowmelt. Those will be the higher flows that will provide the ability to put the sediments up on the bank and recharge that flood plain aquifer and get the seeds of the woody species established in the outer perimeters of the flood plain.

SETZIOL: Behind Tillemans, white-throated swifts dart out of nests in the cliff. He says reestablishing the river, and the plants and animals that rely on it, is partly a matter of timing. For example, they didn't have to plant trees in the gorge.

TILLEMANS: Down below here we have cottonwoods and willows below this one site. And there's little seeps that have persisted. If you come up here during the springtime and the trees are putting out seeds, the thermals will take those seeds and you can just see the seeds drifting up canyon. Those were the trees that we were watching, those seed sources and when they were pumping out the most seeds, that's when we were timing our flows to come down.

SETZIOL: Just to get the Lower Owens River Restoration started could cost LA's Water Authority more than $20 million, and enough water for 30,000 LA homes. But DWP, as some folks here point out, isn't doing all this because it's kind-hearted. The water agency's hand was forced by lawsuits. Still, water will flow into the lower river, beginning in the fall of 2006. Local environmentalists, like Mike Prather, are enthusiastic but wary.

PRATHER: If you look at the Lower Owens River management plan, it's very general. There's very little detail in it. And that is one of the concerns. It's kind of like the Department of Water and Power wants us to just trust them and yet we've gone through 100 years of trust not being a good thing to do.

SETZIOL: Prather is with the Owens Valley Committee. He's strolling along another stretch of the river that gets a little water now, but will get a lot more with the new project. Lesser goldfinches are harvesting seeds from small sunflowers. A Bewick's wren sings, and an osprey circles over the tops of tall willows.


PRATHER: That's the osprey. He's wishing he could find something to eat. The river's not quite a great place for fish right now but, hopefully, that will be changing.

SETZIOL: Prather hopes the project will create habitat for species that have either disappeared or become rare. That includes birds such as the Least Bell's vireo and the Yellow-billed cuckoo. But he's not sure there'll be enough water to do it.

PRATHER: And the flows that they're proposing may not bring water and nutrients up onto the oxbows where we want these gallery forests of willows and cottonwoods.

SETZIOL: Some ranchers worry the flows will be too high, flooding pastureland they lease from the Department of Water and Power. And, while the project will promote habitat for bass—bass aren't indigenous to the river but they're popular with fishermen—it's unclear if native fish will ever return to the river. And it won't be the wild, sometimes tempestuous river it once was.

TILLEMANS: People always think you have to get it back to the exact pristine conditions, but man's part of the environment, part of the ecosystem, there are social needs for water and for electricity, etc.

SETZIOL: Tillemans says DWP can control the Owens River in a way that's beneficial to humans and creates a healthy river. In the Owens Valley, I'm Ilsa Setziol.

[MUSIC: Jolimont Project “Eileen” Lingo (Music Helvetica) 1997]

Back to top


Trawling for Adventure

GELLERMAN: To call Redmond O'Hanlon a travel writer would be like calling Evel Knievel a guy who rides motorcycles. O'Hanlon's adventures and misadventures have taken him to the underside of natural history - on treks through jungles and swamps, hot on the trail of a rare rhino in Borneo and Africa's version of the Loch Ness monster.

On his latest journey, he takes passage on the trawler Norlantean to see if he can hold his own as it sets sail for the deep sea, headlong into a Force 12 storm. He lived to tell the tale. His new book is called “Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic.” Redmond, hello.

O'HANLON: Hi, it's wonderful to be here.

GELLERMAN: You know, in your book we quickly learn that you can't hold your own. You're not even out of the harbor and you're praying to the god of porcelain.

O'HANLON: Absolutely right. The idea for this book - it seemed wonderful at the time. And in that presumptuous way I thought, “Well, I'll go out at the worst time of year.” And I knew a young man who eventually found me a trawler that had to go out even if there was a hurricane coming in - as there was - because the young skipper, of 32, owed two million pounds to the bank, so he couldn't afford to stay in harbor.

GELLERMAN: But you had a choice. I mean, you're not a seafaring guy. Why leave a loving wife, two young kids and tierra firma for a trawler full of fish and some very, very strange men?

O'HANLON: Well, I think the real answer to that question - I mean in part, of course, you want a wonderful adventure story. But the real answer is that when I was eight years old, I was brought up in a vicarage so we had no money for holidays. But my dad, he could swap his parish with a minister in the Church of Scotland, so we'd go on our holidays to Scotland. Now, this particular afternoon, I remember, was on an island in Orkney and looking out over the sea. It was August, but there was a big swell running. And there was a trawler out there.

But I could see that to my father this was a solemn moment, and he actually handed his binoculars down to me, which before then I hadn't been allowed to touch, they were sacred objects. And he said to me, “Those men on that boat, they don't know it but they're brave. That's what courage is. I admire trawler men almost as much as I admire the spitfire and hurricane pilots at Bigan Hill.” He'd been the padre right through the Battle of Britain and nothing had ever lived up to that in his life from that moment on.

But the seriousness with which he talked about these trawler men, he said, “I want you to remember this.” And I looked through the binoculars and this little blue trawler spookily close, but one moment she was on top of a wave and the next, even the masts had disappeared. And so instead of taking away from that afternoon an image of courage - I mean, of course, it was abject fear - I thought, “That's what fear really is.” And it took me until I was well over 50 to confront it. I knew I'd have to go out on a trawler sometime.

GELLERMAN: But you head right into a storm. I mean, that's your goal, to head into this Force 12 storm.

O'HANLON: Yes. And I very soon realized that, well, I couldn't stand up. Not just that, but I never got the hang of how you sleep in a bunk. They sleep with their hands clenched, you know, like the feet of a bird on a bough. They somehow or other stay where they're put. And I wasn't prepared for the quality of the fear that comes at you.

See, in the Amazon, even if you see an (inaudible) with an eight foot long arrow, and you're looking up the shaft, and his face is impassive - part of you is thinking, “My god, these are the real people!” And another part of you is thinking, “How flattering. This is man to man. He's actually going to take the trouble to kill me! How classy to be lifted up with the kinetic energy of this thing, pinned to the bark of a tree. What a great way to die!” And of course, well, then you shake with fear, but it's all romantic and personalized.

But out there, this vast ocean that really couldn't give a damn about anybody, that sort of fear, well, it's intolerable, or I thought it was. I was only on this boat for two weeks but all the same, I've never had such a vivid, packed experience.

GELLERMAN: What is a Force 12 storm?

O'HANLON: Well, that was really what I was looking for. Now I have to admit, it's a baby hurricane - that's the first time you're allowed to call a storm a hurricane, when it hits Force 12. And they're actually quite common in the northeast Atlantic in January and February off the UK coast.

GELLERMAN: Let me ask you to read something. At the bottom of page 126, that says, “It was black night.”

O'HANLON: I've got you. This is just as the storm is building up.

(READING) “It was black night, but the Norlantean's main stern searchlight was on, and the black night was a white-out of spray, a chaos of whirling streaks of foam—in patches so thick that at first the lines and spirals seemed almost stationary in the inverted cone of the fierce rays of light. And then, as I withdrew my mesmerized gaze from the furthest penetration of the beam (which was not far—just enough to give me a glimpse of the Norlantean's starboard gunwhale, now rolling down, down, digging in to the waves I couldn't see, and would she come up? How could she come up? And why did she have to move her whole stern like that, a fast side-to-side rear-end waggle like a cat about to pounce, and then wallow deep down in, and slew obscenely left-to-right in a movement I'd certainly not felt before..as I focused on the very brightest patch of spray and bunched foam a yard or two out from the searchlight, I realized that all this torn-up water was moving so very shockingly fast, and I felt sick, but it was not seasickness—no, it was far worse, it was entirely personal, hidden, the steely stomach-squeeze of genuine all-out fear, that sharp warning you get before you panic and disgrace yourself to yourself forever…”

GELLERMAN: You have these periods of sheer terror that are punctuated by these long periods of boredom when you're gutting fish. How did you get through those periods of terror?

O'HANLON: I think—well, of course it's all perverted if you know you're going to write about it afterwards, but it was more difficult to get through those periods of terror than anything I've ever experienced in the jungle. And sobering, and humiliating, and humbling, really. I mean, to think that that's how these young men earn their living. They have a week or two weeks rest, and they go straight out again. I don't understand how they do it, really.

GELLERMAN: Redmond, how would you describe the relationship of these men on the ship as opposed to when they're on land? Different?

O'HANLON: Oh, utterly different. They can't help it, but as you have no sleep—it's just part of the brain mechanism—tremendous talking goes on. The minute you're ashore, conversely, you are really silent and you don't talk to your wife about your inner feelings. Indeed, I was told the only reason that they weren't fooled by me pretending to be a scientist—they knew I was going to write about it, I told them—the point, why they wanted me there, was that even if my book was, well, a piece of shite is actually what they said, but even if it was nonsense, maybe I would be able to describe their lives so they could give this book to the women they loved, who would then understand that they hadn't been away having fun with their friends. She'd understand what the conditions were. She'd let them get home, sleep for 36 hours, and then they'd go shopping, and then they could have sex. (LAUGHS)

GELLERMAN: Well, they say you can trust a trawler man if he's got a wife. Why is that?

O'HANLON: If he's got a wife at home. I mean, so many things surprised me on board this boat, but they just want one woman who'll be there to meet them. And as they said, “It did not matter what she looks like as long as she's there for ya! And there for ya when you're away and no bracknin' the bed with the strongest gravedigger!” The strongest gravedigger must be some macho horror, I think.

GELLERMAN: Well, your book is really driven by dialogue, and sailors are, well, pretty salty.

O'HANLON: Yes, but it was strange. First thing nobody tells you, you don't about, is the sleep depravation. So you have blocks of sleep of one hour which is not even enough for one normal 90-minute sleep cycle so the brain never has time to dream itself back into some kind of sanity. So I think it tries to organize itself by talking instead of dreaming. You talk incessantly. Your subconscious is suddenly right out there for everybody to see. So you come ashore, all you think is “If I could have a drink, I could stop my brain racing in this terrible way.” I could restore myself to myself. So, they go, this particular crew, go to a little bar in Stromness in Orkney called the Flattie, where you have your first drink. Then you go have a minivan, you go into the capital Kirkwall, a little town on the island, and there's a bar there that has enough space for scrapping. Then you go fighting, and it's all in pursuit of you just want your brain to stop. But these guys, none of them had their own front teeth. Not just that, but they had a spare dental plate in the oilskin pocket. They knew they were going to have their next set of teeth buckle. (LAUGHS)

GELLERMAN: Redmond, how much can a trawler man make on a voyage? A two week voyage?

O'HANLON: The value of this catch—now you have to remember, it's a new fishery, and they're deep-sea fish, and their eyes are starting out of their head and a lot of them look horrible, and their English housewife won't touch it, she wouldn't even go into the fish markets if these things were on display. So they all go off to Madrid and Paris and Berlin, they go off to Europe in these big transports. Naturally, the Scottish driver, as one of them said, “I wouldn't feed it to the cat! It's for the foreigners!” (LAUGHS). But it goes into fish soup and it goes into paella, so it doesn't matter. But the value of the whole of this catch was 75,000 pounds.

GELLERMAN: So, about $110,000, something like that.

O'HANLON: Yeah, yeah. So in terms of their communities on these little islands in the far far north of the UK, they're rich; trawler men are rich. But it doesn't seem to me to be worth it for a moment—facing that kind of injury rate, that sort of death rate, those conditions, having no sleep. I'm full of admiration. A fat old landlubber I shall remain, I think. (LAUGHS)

GELLERMAN: Redmond O'Hanlon is author of the new book, “Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic.” Redmond, thank you very much. I do appreciate it.

O'HANLON: Well, thank you, that was fun.

[MUSIC: Sharon Shannon “The Mighty Sparrow” A Celtic Collection (Putomayo) 1996]

Back to top


Emerging Science Note/A Bed Unmade

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: baa, baa black sheep in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Yes sir, yes sir…and that's the problem. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jenn Goodman.


GOODMAN: We've all heard the saying that “if you make your bed, you must lie in it.” But scientists now believe that literally making your bed in the morning may be an unhealthy choice.

Researchers at Kingston University recently discovered that house dust mites, which are thought to cause asthma and other allergies, cannot survive in the warm, dry conditions found in an unmade bed. Results from their study suggests that something as simple as leaving a bed unmade can remove moisture from the sheets and mattress so mites will dehydrate and eventually die.

Beds are prime habitat for mites. A typical mattress may be home to anywhere from 100,000 to 10 million mites, which also live on sheets and pillows. In fact, ten percent of the weight of a two-year-old pillow may be composed of dead mites and their droppings. This dust mite allergen is a factor in an estimated 50 to 80 percent of asthmatics, as well as in countless cases of eczema, hay fever and other allergic ailments.

In the next stage of research, the team of British scientists will use a computer model they developed to track how changes in the home can reduce the numbers of dust mites in beds. Heating, ventilation and insulation features within the studied homes will be altered to monitor how the mites cope with these changes. Findings from their research could help building designers create healthier homes with reduced mite concentrations and encourage asthma and allergy sufferers to control the dust mite levels by simply leaving their beds - unmade.

That's this week's Note on Emerging Science, I'm Jenn Goodman.

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

ANNOUNCER: Support for N-P-R comes from N-P-R stations, and: The Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund, supporting the creation, performance and recording of new music; The Kresge Foundation. Building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at k-r-e-s-g-e dot org; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The W-K Kellogg Foundation. ‘From Vision to Innovative Impact: 75 Years of Philanthropy'; This is N-P-R -- National Public Radio.

[Music: The Chieftains "The Fiddling Ladies" Tears of Stone (BMG) 1999]

Back to top


Carbon Black

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

Under a new Environmental Protection Agency standard more than one-third of Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of soot or small particles in the air they breath. Scientists only recently have begun to understand the dangers of these microscopic particles. They are easily inhaled and can contribute to a host of diseases.

In Oklahoma, near the border of Ponca Indian land, community members say one industrial plant has dumped so much carbon soot into the air their farm animals are changing color. Ponca tribal leaders accuse state and federal officials of ignoring the problem. It's one reason the Poncas and a dozen other Oklahoma tribes have decided that maybe it's time they had more authority over their air and water. Vicki Monks has the story.


MONKS: On a small acreage just south of Ponca City, Oklahoma, John Hough runs a herd of white-faced sheep, a breed prized for pure white wool. Problem is, these sheep appear closer to black - an oily, sooty black.

HOUGH: That one right there in the middle, look at her nose, around her nose nostrils, look how black it is. And up past her eyes, see them streaks up past her eyes? That all should be white. It's a pathetic thing to see some kind of an animal like that.

John Hough's white sheep changed color from the
carbon dust.
(Credit: Vicki Monks)

MONKS: Mr. Hough blames the condition of his sheep on smokestacks at a factory just up the road. It produces what's called carbon black. The plant super-heats waste oil from a nearby refinery to produce ultra-fine carbon particles. They're used primarily to strengthen the rubber in tires; it's the ingredient that makes tires black.


MONKS: A stubborn black film covers just about everything on the Hough property - from the tractor to the trees. A short walk across the grass, and I notice that my shoes and pants have collected black dust halfway up to my knees.

HOUGH: We are inhaling it. Everything around us is inhaling it because it's a real fine powdery dust and we're breathing it just as much as them sheep are.

MONKS: Carbon black itself might not seem to be harmful - it's pure carbon, the basic building block of nature - but frequently, other toxic chemicals are attached. The particles can contribute to heart disease, chronic bronchitis and asthma. California last year listed carbon black as a cancer-causing agent.

UCLA Toxicology Professor John Froines is chairman of California's Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants.

According to Professor Froines, it's generally accepted that particles may inflame the lungs, leading to mutations that can develop into cancer. And, new research is finding that ultra-fine particles may damage other parts of the body.

FROINES: It's not just the issue of penetration deeply into the lung. You get them in your nose, as well, and they end up in your brain, and so you have a potential for inflammatory effects in the brain, central nervous system and you have a potential for carcinogenesis, as well.

MONKS: Professor Froines explains that carbon particles lodged inside the body can actually produce other toxic compounds--in a sense, becoming engines that continuously manufacture substances with the potential to cause cancer.

FROINES: So the particles themselves can produce more damage to DNA than you might anticipate.


Continental Carbon plant near Ponca City, Oklahoma.
(Credit: Richard Ray Whitman)

MONKS: Continental Carbon's original owner, Continental Oil, Conoco, built this carbon black plant in 1953 on former Ponca Indian reservation land. Back then, Thurman and Thelma Buffalohead lived next door. Thelma says the top man at Continental Carbon assured the family that the company would build a state of the art plant that would never pollute.

THELMA: I said, “Will it get everything black?” “No, no, no, it'll be all right,” he said.

THURMAN: I hate to say it, but that's a lie, telling people that and then it's dirty. I tell you it's dirty, still that way.

MONKS: Thurman Buffalohead has a Ponca word for that.

THURMAN: Eeooshishta - that's what liar means, lying means. Eeooshista and eegah moneeteday. Even that north side of carbon black, there was a stream of clear water. We used to go down there and sit in that creek. But after that you couldn't do that, you'd get yourself black, you know, touching everything down that creek.

MONKS: The Buffaloheads say the land around the creek turned black soon after the plant was up and running, and it wasn't long before the carbon black had gotten into everything.

THELMA: I had some chickens that were white and before I knew it they were black chickens. And you'd wake up with our nose, just all black soot in the nose.

THURMAN: Oh, sister, it's just that smell! It goes into your nostril and I mean you sleep with it, yeah. That's all I could tell you. It gets on your clothes and makes everything black. Eeooshista cha ah, ehdah a gah a la bashi. But they don't care, they still going to lie and lie and lie and lie and that's why we're in trouble, yeah, we're in trouble today.

MONKS: The Buffalohead family lived on part of an Indian allotment that once belonged to Harriet Rush in The Battle. The land had stayed in the family since 1895. But by the 1960s, Mrs. Rush in The Battle's descendants wanted to get away from the plant. They tried to sell the property, but no one wanted it. It was already too contaminated, and documents show the government was aware of the problem.

Richard Ray Whitman reads from a 1969 memo written by the local Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent:

WHITMAN: “Regarding Ponca allotment 435, Harriet Rush in the Battle. The subject allotment has been offered for public sale on several occasions without success because of heavy contamination from the carbon plant operated by Continental Oil. The owners have demanded some action be taken by the Bureau, therefore, it is requested that an investigation be conducted. James D. Hale, Superintendent”

MONKS: Four years after this memo was written, the BIA signed off on the sale of this contaminated land to the Ponca Tribal Housing Authority for the purpose of building low-income Indian homes. Because the Rush in the Battle property was classified as restricted Indian land, the sale could not have taken place without BIA approval. According to BIA Spokeswoman Nedra Darling, no one currently at the agency remembers the case. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development constructed 11 homes on the property - directly downwind of the plant.


SIMPSON: They don't care about us Indians out here. And they knew that this land was contaminated but they put us here anyway just to sell the land, and that was wrong.

MONKS: Scotty Simpson lives in one of the Ponca homes. He discovered the BIA memo when he went digging through old government records to find out how he and his family ended up in this mess.

SIMPSON: I got two little granddaughters, and sometimes they come in and look like they rolled in charcoal it's so bad. Is this harming our health? Nobody knows. Or nobody cares.

MONKS: Thurman and Thelma Buffalohead say they still haven't escaped the effects of the plant, even though they now live more than a mile from Continental Carbon.

THELMA: And I smell the fumes early in the morning, about four or five o'clock they turn it loose. I smell it a lot of times and it just makes me sick and I told my husband, [SPEAKING PONCA] “Ongooli di blati dee wheena.” (LAUGHS)

THURMAN: She said whatever we smell it stinks, she said.

When her family lived near the Continental Carbon
plant, seven year old Angela Howe was never allowed outdoors to play.
(Credit: Richard Ray Whitman)

THELMA: He got sick a while back, he just got weak you know, and he had a lesion in his lungs. It could be cause from the carbon black, that's what I think.

MONKS: It's likely the Buffaloheads are smelling carbon disulfide, a waste gas that smells like rotting radishes. According to EPA, it's one of several toxic compounds released from the plant. Since the 1950s, Continental Carbon has been sold several times and now is owned by China Synthetic Rubber and the powerful Koo family of Taiwan. Through its public relations epresentative Blake Lewis, the company said there's no link between carbon black and any health problems in the community. In fact, the company claims that the pervasive black dust is not carbon black at all, and it denies responsibility for Mr. Hough's blackened sheep.

LEWIS: The company has always operated within the standards or expectations, and in those rare instances where there's been a problem we've addressed it. We've made repairs to the plant when repairs were warranted. And I struggle a little bit with people that are making allegations that run against what I understand to be the facts in the matter.

MONKS: Mr. Lewis blames most of the complaints about carbon black on disgruntled labor union members and Ponca Indian activists.

LEWIS: We know that there's been some individuals in the past who have raised environmental questions, basically as a corporate campaign to smear the company. But the fact of the matter is we have never had to stop operations because of an environmental problem. My view is that this plant is operating in a responsible fashion and will continue to do so in the future.

MONKS: But complaints have been rolling in for decades, sometimes at the rate of more than 100 a month. DEQ, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, is the agency responsible for controlling pollutants in the state. Every time someone complains, DEQ sends an inspector to take samples of the black dust. But, in nearly every instance, lab results indicate no carbon black. Spokeswoman Monty Elder now concedes the lab test was never valid.

ELDER: We didn't think the test was giving us reliable results but there was no other test to have done. Truly, the test was useless.

MONKS: In order to be considered carbon black, the lab looks for particles that are perfectly smooth and round and tiny, smaller than one four-millionth of an inch.

ELDER: Here's the problem. We believe that as soon as carbon black, basically, leaves the stack or leaves the facility, it starts to stick together. It starts to stick to mold particles. It sticks to dust particles. It sticks to dog hair. You send it to the lab and they look at it with the electron microscope, it's no longer round, and it's no longer that very small size. So, therefore, it cannot be considered, by this test, as carbon black.

MONKS: Until recently, the state also insisted that inspectors must actually see dust particles crossing over the factory fence before taking any action.

ELDER: If people called and said there's dust coming off the plant, we would have to send someone to the facility and they would have to physically see the dust coming off the facility. And, depending on weather conditions or depending on how close the local DEQ office was to that facility to get there, we may or may not have seen dust coming off.

MONKS: With inspectors almost never present to witness blowing dust, and with the lab tests coming back negative, DEQ rarely took action in response to complaints. Nevertheless, spokeswoman Elder says she believes the agency was doing the best it could to prevent pollution.

ELDER: I absolutely do, and EPA agrees with us. We have taken all appropriate actions.

MONKS: That response doesn't satisfy community members who've formed an unusual coalition of Indians, factory workers and conservative white farmers. Under escalating criticism from these groups, DEQ changed its approach and, a few months ago, stepped up its inspections inside the plant.

Inspectors found piles of carbon black, drifting and exposed to the air, and carbon-laden waste gas escaping through corroded pipes. The plant was pumping nearly twice its legal limit of carbon dust into the air - an average of 89 pounds every hour.


MONKS: At the Ponca headquarters in White Eagle, Oklahoma, a few miles south of the carbon black plant, a group of tribal leaders have gathered to talk. They say they don't trust the DEQ to follow through with sanctions.

CAMP: We have turned to them for help for the last several years and instead they turn around and help the polluters. Of course, we cannot trust the state of Oklahoma.

MONKS: Carter Camp advises the tribal council. As a long-time national leader of the American Indian Movement, Mr. Camp says he sees similar pollution problems on reservations all over the country.

CAMP: We think this has to be stopped, and the only way this is going to be stopped is for Indian tribes to be able to regulate their own environmental quality of the people.

MONKS: It's a complicated process but under Federal law, Indian tribes can win the right to set and enforce their own environmental standards. The Navajo Nation and the Pawnee tribe of Oklahoma did so recently.

The Poncas say tribal regulation couldn't help but improve on the DEQ's record. For its part, the Oklahoma agency does, at last, appear to be cracking down on the carbon black pollution. In December, the DEQ for the first time cited Continental Carbon for excess emissions, and the company agreed to spend $1.6 million to repair leaks and clean up drifting carbon dust.

Throughout most of the last century, America's Indian tribes had little power to prevent environmental degradation of their lands. But Carter Camp believes that increasing scientific and legal expertise within the tribes is gradually changing that dynamic.

CAMP: We're still here and we're going to be here in the future and we're going to clean up our land and we're going to ask the American people to ally themselves with us and help us to clean up this land and then finally maybe we'll clean up American. Ya-ooh!

MONKS: In January, Continental Carbon paid a $5,000 fine, the first in its 50-year history.


MONKS: For Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Monks.


GELLERMAN: We'd like to thank Richard Ray Whitman and John McGuinness for their help on this story.

[MUSIC: “Ponca War Dance” All the Best From the American Indian (Madacy)]

Back to top


GELLERMAN: Every week, Living on Earth brings you stories about the environment. Now, it's your turn. We invite you to send us your stories. Just visit, Living on Earth dot org for complete details. We'll tell you how to make a recording, which could be as simple as picking up the telephone - or sitting down with a friend and talking into a tape recorder. Maybe it's a story about a close encounter with a wild animal. Like this listener who “thinks” she saw an endangered and elusive cougar run in front of her car on route 390 near Rochester, New York.

WOMAN: A lot of different opinions as to whether or not this really happened. I'm pretty sure it did. Yup, because I was there. A cougar. A mountain lion. Right there. Its ears flattened back he was going so fast. It made an otherwise crummy Rochester March day very interesting.

GELLERMAN: I'd say. So what's your story? We'll chose from some of your recordings and post them online. We might even put them on the air. This is not a contest. There are no winners, no losers. It's simply a call for self-expression. Visit Living on Earth dot org for directions, sample submissions and a chance to tell your story.


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with a concert from a Canadian forest.


GELLERMAN: Bernard Fort employed a few studio techniques and effects to create this composition based on a recording he made of a single wood thrush near Mont Saint-Hilaire in Quebec.


GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Jennifer Chu, Steve Gregory, Ingrid Lobet and Jeff Young - with help from Kelly Cronin. Our interns are the Kates…Katie Oliveri and Katie Zemtseff. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. Steve Curwood's on vacation. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt, smoothies and cultured soy. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Town Creek Foundation.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

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

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth