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

October 7, 2005

Air Date: October 7, 2005



In Louisiana Oil Town, Residents Ponder Their Future / Jeff Young

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Some Louisiana residents trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina found more than mud and debris in their houses: they also found an oil spill from a nearby refinery. Living on Earth's Jeff Young visits Chalmette, La., a town uncertain of its future and uneasy with the big oil companies next door. (07:30)

Energy Conservation

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To address the energy crunch following the hurricanes, President Bush has asked Americans to cut down on their energy consumption. Living on Earth takes to the streets to hear how people are heeding the call. Host Steve Curwood also talks with New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller about what the White House is doing to curb its own energy use. (04:30)

Driving Habits

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With the average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline hovering at nearly $3 dollars a gallon nationwide, people are doing what they can to save money. Steve Curwood talks to Danny Hakim, the Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times about how surging gas prices are changing people’s behavior. (06:00)

Plugging Plug-in Vehicles / Ingrid Lobet

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A new and somewhat unusual coalition is advocating hybrid vehicles that can also run on plug-in electricity and alternative fuels like ethanol. Owners could fill up with whatever was cheaper or more available. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports. (07:00)

Out of the Car / Bonnie Auslander

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Living back in the U.S. again, commentator Bonnie Auslander tries to keep a habit she developed while living in Germany: leaving the car in the driveway and hopping on her bike. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Brainwashed Grasshoppers / Emily Torgrimson

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Living on Earth's Emily Togrimson reports on the hairworm, a parasite worthy of a grasshopper's worst nightmare. (01:20)

Listener Letters

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This week we dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. (02:30)

Dead Zones / Mhari Saito

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Dead zones--large areas of water with little oxygen--occur when excess fertilizer and untreated sewage seep into the waters. The dead zones are usually seasonal and they cause fish and other bottom-dwelling animals to move outside the area to avoid being suffocated. Much underwater life also dies. Since the 1960s the number of dead zones worldwide has doubled with each passing decade. In Lake Erie, a massive multiyear study is underway to study how the lake’s ecosystem is affected by its dead zone. Producer Mhari Saito has our report. (06:00)

Cautionary Fish Tale

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The 1980s fight to bring back the striped bass is considered one of the greatest environmental success stories. But, today the species faces a new and potentially devastating threat: the omega-3 market. Author Dick Russell talks with host Steve Curwood about what it will take to save a species that's already been saved. (07:30)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Lend an ear to a chorus of frogs in Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Elisabeth Bumiller, Danny Hakim, Dick Russell
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Ingrid Lobet, Mhari Saito
COMMENTATOR:Bonnie Auslander
NOTE: Emily Torgrimson


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. The oil refining business has meant good jobs for many folks in Southern Louisiana, but now with massive oil spills in the wake of the hurricanes, some residents are recalculating the costs and benefits.

MUSTACHIO:I felt like they generated money for this parish, sustained life while taking it away from us, in a sense, because it polluted so badly. All I can hope they can do is buy my property and have me move on, you know, because I don’t want to be here.

CURWOOD: And, with short supplies and spiraling fuel prices, the Bush administration calls for conservation. Will people respond?

WOMAN ON STREET: They should conserve and sacrifice. Remember years ago what people had to go through in the Great Depression and everything. It could happen to us again.

CURWOOD: We’ll have that and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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

In Louisiana Oil Town, Residents Ponder Their Future

The high water mark is visible as a line of oil on Charles Licciardi's house in Chalmette, Louisiana. (Photo: Jeff Young)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

As people in southern Louisiana start moving down the long road to recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, some places have to contend with more than muck, mold and debris. There are also massive oil spills. Officials say eight million gallons leaked at more than 50 sites in the region. That’s more than two-thirds of what spilled in the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska in 1989.

The town of Chalmette, just outside of New Orleans, was hit particularly hard. More than a million gallons of crude oil from a nearby refinery spilled into neighborhoods. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young visited Chalmette and found a community uncertain of its future and uneasy with the oil companies in its backyard.


YOUNG: This is Charles Licciardi's first trip back to his home and office in Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish, since his family fled Hurricane Katrina.

The high water mark is visible as a line of oil on Charles Licciardi’s house in Chalmette, Lousiana. (Photo: Jeff Young)

LICCIARDI: And it's not looking too good at all. I see a lot of oil all over everything. I really don't even want to go in. (SIGHS)


YOUNG: Licciardi is Justice of the Peace, and a lot of couples started new lives together in his home office.

LICCIARDI: This is where I used to marry people. Some of my Mardi Gras posters all over the place. Pretty much looks like somebody grabbed this building, shook it up, and turned it upside down.

YOUNG: Licciardi officiated the wedding for the young couple next door. They've just returned to salvage a few things. Mike Jurisich says his 76-year-old father rode out the storm in the house and was rescued from the rooftop.

Michael Jurisich shows the baby shoes he salvaged from his family home, as his wife uses bleach to wash oil from Michael’s grandmother’s jewelery. (Photo: Jeff Young)


JURISICH: He just didn't want to leave his house. I guess I should have been more forceful but if you knew my dad, and just the way he is. He's an old oyster fisherman.

YOUNG: Jurisich finds a few things he can save: his grandmother's jewelry, his first pair of shoes from childhood. Families in Chalmette go back generations; neighbors know each other and value their connections. The main industry was once fishing, then more people took jobs with the oil refineries that grew up against the neighborhood's fences and yards. Now the oil that brought jobs threatens more than a thousand homes.

LICCIARDI: I think the oil pretty much did us in.


YOUNG: Licciardi points to the dark brown line about head high on his house, and others, like bathtub rings, down to the mucky floor. It's crude oil from the nearby Murphy refinery.

LICCIARD: If we just had the water we could probably rebuild, but with the oil I think that’s gonna eliminate that possibility – which I lived here my whole life, so I need another home. Huh!


YOUNG: A few blocks away, Murphy Oil construction manager Kevin Roussel inspects the giant tanks that each hold up to 250 thousand barrels of oil – tanks that stood in the path of the massive storm surge from Hurricane Katrina.

ROUSSEL: That’s the tank that moved over. Moved over about 30 feet and it actually, it floated, came over and dented the bottom of it, and where the dent is is where the oil started leaking out.

YOUNG: Roussel says 35,000 barrels spilled. That's about one and a half million gallons. A little more than half of it ended up in the surrounding neighborhood, marsh and canals.


YOUNG: In a canal near the levee, dozens of workers try to move oil toward the vacuum hose of a tanker truck.

ROUSSEL: They have those rollers over there that actually skim the oil on top. And it goes into those rollers and those vacuum trucks pick it up out of the rollers.


An oil-filled canal in Chalmette near the Murphy Oil refinery. (Photo: Jeff Young)

YOUNG: Murphy Oil pledged five million dollars in donations to St. Bernard Parish to aid storm recovery and hired about 150 workers to clean up the oil. The Coast Guard is keeping watch and says work in canals and a marsh is progressing well. But cleaning an oil spill in a residential area is new and tricky terrain. So far, the company has removed oily sediment only from Parish property and city streets. Roussel says government officials must determine the extent of damage before the company can do much about private homes.

ROUSsELL: Murphy will do the right thing by these people. It’s our community, too. All our people live here just like they do. We’ve been here 50 years and we gonna be here 50 more.

YOUNG: Several lawsuits are pending. Attorney Val Exnicios says the company did not take adequate safeguards against predictable storm damage. But that's not the only suit Exnicios has filed against the oil companies. Another one – far more ambitious – would hold the oil and gas industry in Louisiana largely responsible for Hurricane Katrina's multi-billion dollar damage.

EXNICIOS: We're out for any and all damages sustained by the people of the state of Louisiana directly attributable to oil and gas operations in Southern Louisiana that destroyed natural protection mother nature provided the city of New Orleans and further inland communities.

YOUNG: The argument goes like this: wetlands and coastline once stretched many miles between the cities and the Gulf. But canals for pipelines and drills contributed to coastal erosion, which cost Louisiana more than twenty square miles of wetland a year over the past decade.

EXNICIOS: The oil and gas industry destroyed that terra firma. Had that ecosystem existed it would have absorbed the hurricane force winds and storm surge.

YOUNG: The suit draws a predictably angry response from the industry. Mike Lyons manages legal and environmental affairs for the Louisiana Mid Continent Oil and Gas Association. Lyons says levees, navigation channels and urban development also share blame for wetlands loss. And he says the oil industry is working with the state to mitigate further damage.

LYONS: And that's what's going to succeed. It's not going to be about blame. It's not going to be about the critics. It's not going to be about the trial lawyers. It's going to be about fixing a very sensitive environmental area.


MUSTACHIO: There's fish in here, too. Believe it or not, as you step you see ‘em swimming around.

YOUNG: Back in Chalmette, Joseph Mustachio retrieves a few things from what's left of his lawn care business. Small fish flop in the oily slime coating tools and equipment. Like other businesspeople here, Mustachio had mixed feelings about Murphy Oil and the other refineries. There were the occasional accidents that forced midnight evacuations, and persistent questions about air quality. But then, there were also the jobs.

MUSTACHIO: They generated money for this Parish. And generated sustained life while taking it away from us, in a sense, because it polluted so badly. But we depended on it. Right now, I can't see them doing anything for us, but we’ll see. I don't know. All I can hope they can do is buy my property and have me move on, you know, because I don't want to be here. And I think a lot of people are the same way now.

YOUNG: Mustachio and his neighbors guess Murphy Oil will buy their homes, then use the land to expand the refinery. They hope for a settlement that can replace what's been lost, but they know the thing they most treasured in Chalmette can never be replaced. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

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Energy Conservation

CURWOOD: The leaks and destruction in much of the Gulf Coast oil industry has led to such sharp price hikes and shortages that, for the first time since the 1970s, an American president has issued a general call for energy conservation.

BUSH: We can all pitch in by using…by being better conservers of energy. I mean, people just need to recognize that these storms have caused disruption and that if they're able to maybe not drive on a trip that’s non-essential, that would be helpful.

CURWOOD: We took to the streets of Boston to hear how people are heeding the president's conservation call.

MAN 1: I’m always trying to conserve anyway. That’s a new kind of policy with the administration.Seems kind of obvious, too. It seems that in 2005 it’s kind of late to suggest this.

MAN 2: I feel offended, you know, in some ways. I feel like – it seems like he’s using this as a way to show that he’s being energy conscious and not…without really being energy conscious. You know, “well, see, I’m doing it for the storm victims, and I’m doing it when we really need it and when it’s an emergency.” But we’ve got an existing emergency for the last, you know, 100 years. (LAUGHS)

MAN 3: I actually saw a statistic – I think the majority of car trips are under a mile or something? It’s just an outrageous number. And so I use a bicycle whenever I can. I’m fortunate, I use public transportation, and just look myself in the mirror every day and just say, you know, you’re responsible.

WOMAN 1: They should conserve and sacrifice. Remember years ago what people had to go through in the Great Depression and everything? These young kids don’t understand this. It could happen to us again.

MAN 4: Well, I bike, mostly anyway, I take public trains – I’m not sure what more I could do. I mean, my car’s been sitting there with a full tank of gas for about a month and a half, so, you know. But it’s not because of him, of course. It’s ‘cause of the gas prices. But, no, I don’t think I’ll change in response to President Bush.

MAN 5: Most likely I won’t change, ‘cause I’m geared to a lifestyle. We live in America. So, no, I can’t. If I try to save gas, what, am I not gonna go to work? Not make any money?

WOMAN 2:We are trying to cut down a little bit.I own a three family house and we’ve talked about it and we are going to try… none of us are gonna put our heater on until we absolutely have to and we’ll try and conserve in whatever way we can.

WOMAN 3: I guess I could not run the water while I brush my teeth, and little things like that. Like, I don’t have to drive to school. I can bike or take the bus or walk, and stuff like that. So, little things.

MAN 7: Let me know if he shuts the bathroom light off at his house. (LAUGHS). All right? Let’s see how he does things.Then maybe we’ll think about doing things our way.

CURWOOD: That's the talk on the street. To hear the chatter within the West Wing, we turn to Elisabeth Bumiller, who covers the White House for the New York Times. Elisabeth, hello.


CURWOOD: Now, we’ve heard the president’s call for conservation. What kind of changes have you seen at the White House in the way of conservation measures?

BUMILLER: Well, the most noticeable is that the temperature throughout the West Wing is up two degrees, to an average of about 72. And there’s also a program underway that White House staffers who turn in their coveted White House parking passes get free fare on the Washington Metro subway system.

CURWOOD: Now, you’ve been talking to some of the White House senior staffers about their habits, as I understand it, and I’m wondering what they’ve told you. What did Karl Rove, the White House Deputy Chief of Staff, tell you when you asked him –

BUMILLER: Well, he didn’t actually respond. I asked him how he was conserving and he sent me an email back asking me how I was conserving . So, actually, the Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings, said that she works so hard she never goes anywhere for personal reasons anyway.


BUMILLER: Now, the Treasury Secretary, John Snow, did take the train last week to New York on Wednesday. And his spokesman told me that we actually discussed it, he said, he and the Treasury Secretary, and they thought well, if there’s a week to take the train, this is it.

CURWOOD: A week. How long do you think this is going to persist in the White House folks’ minds?

BUMILLER: I have absolutely no idea. I can tell you that one thing the president did when he traveled is that – this is a very small thing – but he reduced the size of his motorcade,down by about two cars or so, or two vans. Again, I don’t know how much difference that makes, but is a very long motorcade, and it’s something, right? On the other hand, this is the same motorcade that, because of security reasons, he has to get into and travel, you know, several hundred yards. So, here he could be walking but because of security he has to get this 15-car caravan.

CURWOOD: Elisabeth Bumiller is the White House reporter for the New York Times. Elisabeth, thanks for speaking with me today.

BUMILLER: Well, thank you for having me. I enjoyed it.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: taking the already popular hybrid motor vehicles to the next generation. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Laura Veirs “Magnetized” from ‘Year Of Meteors’ (Nonesuch - 2005)]

Driving Habits

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Here in the U.S. gasoline is running about a dollar a gallon higher than it was a year ago, and diesel has a seen a similar increase. Few analysts expect prices to go down anytime soon, and some say they could stay the same or even go higher. So, how are we as consumers reacting? I put that question to Danny Hakim, who covers the auto industry for the New York Times.

HAKIM: Well, certainly people are a lot more conscious of gas prices. Most car dealers you talk to, and automakers, say that, you know, a couple years ago, two, three years ago, nobody really cared about fuel economy when they were shopping for a car. It was just way down on the list of what people were thinking about. Now it’s a top concern. Now it’s one of the first things people ask about, is what kind of mileage does this vehicle get.

You already see people changing their purchase decisions. You know, you definitely see a movement to passenger cars again. And the passenger car market has been in decline for years, and this is the first year we’ve seen a resurgence. We’ve also had four straight weeks of lower gas consumption so that’s a sign that people are doing things like carpooling, or just cutting back on the number of trips they’re taking.

CURWOOD: What signs are there that people are going more, say, to public transportation?

HAKIM: Well, there’s just some numbers that came out a few weeks ago that showed cities across the country are really seeing record levels of public transit being used.

CURWOOD: How much does gas have to cost for us to really change our habits? To do things like, you know, move closer to work, or own fewer, or different, kinds of cars?

HAKIM: Well, that’s the big question, especially in Detroit. That’s almost a philosophical question here. When I first started covering the auto industry four years ago, what I always heard from auto executives was gas has to get to three dollars a gallon and stay there for a while to really change behavior. Now that gas, you know, has been at three dollars a gallon, it’s been balancing around three dollars a gallon –


HAKIM: – I more often hear that gas has to get to five or six dollars a gallon, like it is in Europe, to really change behavior (LAUGHS). So, I think we’ve got a moving target there.

CURWOOD: So, give me a scorecard of the position of the various vehicle makers, how they are situated for this change. You know, who’s ready for this and who, in your opinion, is not quite as ready?

HAKIM: If gas prices remain high going forward I think Honda is in a pretty good position because they’ve, sort of, they’ve made their bet on, you know, a lighter weight, more fuel-efficient lineup. I think the companies that are going to be hurting are clearly going to be Ford and General Motors. They have the most to lose here because they’ve been very dependent on the largest SUVs and pickup trucks. On October 3rd, when the two companies announced their sales results, Standard & Poor’s put them both on negative credit watch, which means they both could be downgraded further into junk bond territory.

CURWOOD: What do companies like General Motors and Ford say in the face of these declining sales and the price of gas going up?

HAKIM: Ford has been saying for months that gas prices do matter, that it’s a concern, and that they’re moving to reposition their lineup. More recently, GM has been saying the same thing.

Ford right now is launching a crop of new midsize cars from their Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands, and these will compete with vehicles like the Toyota Camry. And they’ve put a lot of effort in these vehicles. The new Ford model’s called the Fusion. It’s got some pretty good reviews so far, and I think it will be a more credible competitor in the car segment than the company’s had in some time.

The problem for GM, though, is the next thing they’re going to release is the new generation of their largest SUVs and pickup trucks. You know, things like the Suburban and the Tahoe are going to start to arrive in showrooms at the beginning of next year and this might not be a real hospitable climate to start selling a new Tahoe and a new Suburban and a new Escalade.

CURWOOD: Some of the American carmakers say, “look, one reason that things are difficult is that the Japanese are playing on a different playing field, particularly when it comes to the workforce and the large part of the workforce that’s retired.” For example, in Japan there is widespread health insurance that’s made available through the government rather than through employers whereas, here in the United States, there’s a sizable commitment to take care of health insurance for the people who used to work at the big American carmakers, and that this really has them at a disadvantage. How important is this factor, do you think, in their present troubles?

HAKIM: I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s a big factor. I don’t think it’s the only factor, but there’s no doubt that rising healthcare costs are just a real terrible burden for just almost any old line industrial company you can think of in the United States.

For General Motors, they spend about $1,500 per vehicle produced in the United States on healthcare. Toyota spends about $300, I think. I mean, it’s a fraction of what GM spends. That’s a real big gap per vehicle, that’s more than a thousand dollar gap per vehicle just on healthcare. GM spends more on healthcare than they do on steel.

So what happens to GM, you know, has a lot of ramifications for the country. GM provides healthcare benefits to more than a million Americans. It’s the largest private provider of healthcare. So it means a lot to the country’s economy.

CURWOOD: With me has been Danny Hakim. He’s the Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times. Danny, thanks for coming on the show again.

HAKIM: Well, thank you.

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Plugging Plug-in Vehicles

CURWOOD: With oil now being seen as both risky for pocketbooks and national security, the popular gasoline electric hybrids have inspired calls for a new generation of these vehicles that could use all kinds of fuels and be plugged in, as well. This vision is finding resonance among a diverse group of car watchers who say the technology has already been proven and just needs to be deployed. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.

LOBET: Every car technology that squeezes more miles out of a gallon of gas has its own passionate devotees – those for clean diesel, for battery cars, hybrids and ethanol. Chelsea Sexton is one who was – still is, really – in love with electric cars. The quiet glide, the fast torque.So when her employer, General Motors, canceledits EV1, a hip little two-seater that went on the highway, saying there was no demand, Sexton's electric car fan club went to the lot to keep watch over them.

SEXTON: And then we simply didn't leave. For almost a month, 24 hours a day, we had someone there keeping vigil over these little cars.

LOBET: When GM sent in a semi-truck to haul the electric vehicles to Arizona for crushing, the protesters blocked the truck. The police came.

[KABC news broadcast: Two people were arrested today in a stormy protest over the demise of GM's EV1, all electric car...]

LOBET: Those cars were flattened, but Sexton's group, Dontcrush.com, got plenty of press and claims credit for rescuing about one thousand of the cars. But now, they say, they've taken that tactic about as far as they can.

SEXTON: At this point we feel we're out of cars that are left to save on the road. So we're done saving cars. We want more cars built.

LOBET: So, recognizing the increasing acceptance of hybrid vehicles, the electric car fan club has morphed into Plug In America, a group that advocates hybrid cars that come with a plug.A plug-in hybrid has a gas tank, but can go 20 or 30 miles in electric mode before the gas engine kicks in.If you have an average commute you might only have to fill the tank or use gas to go out of town.

Plug In America also represents an increasingly visible alliance between foreign policy experts, some of them conservative, and environmentalists. The policy hawks see American dollars fueling militant Islamists. They believe Americans should use less fuel, import less fuel and produce more fuel at home.

LUFT: We’re facing today a perfect storm of strategic, economic and environmental problem that make it really an urgent issue.

Gal Luft is a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli military, now economics and strategic studies scholar. He co-directs an energy security think tank in Washington.

LUFT: This country does not have a lot of oil. We consume 25 percent of the world’s oil.We have only three percent of the reserves. So there’s not a lot of future with oil in this country, particularly in the transportation sector.

LOBET: And so the car that Luft and others now envision is a plug-in hybrid that you could fill with gas or ethanol. Many gas cars already run on ethanol, and building them to be ethanol-ready, carmakers agree, is a minor matter.

LUFT: What a flex fuel car does, it allows you to use gasoline and alcohol in any combination, any ratio. Could be ethanol from corn, from sugarcane or any cellulosic material. Or it can be methanol, which can be made from coal or natural gas or biomass.

LOBET: Flex fuel cars have been discussed before by some foreign policy experts in recent years, but marrying the idea of flex-fuel to hybrid technology – that's new.

LOBET: James Woolsey is a former director of the CIA and a vp at Booz Allen Hamilton, the management consulting firm. But his avocation is Set America Free, a coalition that includes prominent conservatives and environmentalists. And with that hat on, he's been making the rounds with electric car fan Chelsea Sextonbecause he's convinced, he says, plug-in battery technology is ready.

WOOLSEY: You could be driving, let’s say, a 125-mpg plug-in hybrid Prius and using 85 percent ethanaol, E85.That's about a 500-mpg-of-petroleum car.

LOBET: The city of Austin, Texas, has reached the same conclusion. The Austin City Council recently voted one million dollars in rebates to encourage city residents to purchase plug-in hybrids – even though they can't buy them anywhere yet. Brewster McCracken is an attorney and City Council member.

McCRACKEN: The city of Austin through Austin Energy will offer a rebate of $1,000 per car for every plug-in hybrid that is purchased that’d be on top of any federal rebates or tax credits

LOBET: The chief of Austin Energy, the city's utility, is currently on a national tour trying to persuade other city governments to sign pledges to purchase plug-in hybrids.

McCRACKEN: The aim is to create such a big national pre-order that it would make it economically inevitable to start selling plug-in hybrids faster than would happen otherwise.

LOBET: So, will this car get built? The likely builders are circumspect.Daimler Chrysler is already building 40 plug-in hybrid work vans, but doesn't want to talk much about it. Many eyes are on Toyota.

REINERT: Of course, if there was a market for these cars we would address that market. The problem is a lot of times people want there to be a market and in reality there’s truly not.

LOBET: Bill Reinert is Toyota National Alternate Fuel Vehicle manager.Reinert says any combustion engine can be made flex-fuel, so he agrees with the environmentalists and policy hawks that these cars can be built without too much trouble. But, he says, what no one yet knows is whether people would buy a plug-in flex fuel Camry or Highlander.

REINERT: And while you see a lot of unsold SUVs on the lots, that doesn't necessarily mean that people are just going right to Priuses or flexible fuels. You could make a big miscalculation in assuming that’s the case.

LOBET: Where Toyota also differs with the policy hawks is on whether flex fuel vehicles are necessarily greener than a plain old gas Prius.

REINERT: If you are burning coal in an antiquated coal-fired power plant to produce the electricity, you are really going backwards from an environmental point of view. And really, what you’re doing is you are trading off petroleum for coal, and there’s a lot of attendant problems with that in Appalachia and areas like that.

LOBET: The flex fuel plug-in advocates would beg to differ. Austin, Texas, for example, plans to run it’s new plug in vehicles , should they materialize, off west Texas wind energy.They don't believe it's necessary to make environmental tradeoffs for energy security. But it's revealing that war and weather, along with advances in hybrid car design, have driven the national energy discussion to this edge. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.

Related links:
- Plug In America
- Set America Free

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Out of the Car

AUSLANDER: It took two years of living in Germany to break a lifelong habit: using my car too much.

CURWOOD: Commentator Bonnie Auslander.

AUSLANDER: When I lived in the States I found it easy to drive somewhere to run a quick errand that could just as well have been taken care of on foot or by bike. I also used the car as a sleep aid for my nap-resistant toddler. Sometimes I would drive miles past my destination hoping the motion of the car would lull her to sleep. I would even put her in the car with no actual destination in mind other than the Land of Nod.

But living in Germany changed everything.Biking was easy, with respectful drivers, bike routes everywhere, and, above all, plenty of evidence that biking is just what people do. Every morning I would see dozens of cyclists. Some were commuters in suits and skirts, some were watchful parents riding next to their kids who were also on bikes, and still others were old men and women with bouquets of sunflowers or bunches of leeks sticking out from their bike baskets.

Now that I've moved back to the U.S., I'm trying hard to hold on to the new habits I acquired. Certainly, the high price of gas helps. But mostly, it goes back to this: I simply got out of the habit of using the car all the time and got into the habit of getting places some other way.

So now, we live in suburban Washington, D.C.For the new baby I’ve decided it’s nap in the stroller or bust.And I don't drive my kindergartner to school.Instead, we bike together down a bumpy sidewalk next to a busy and noisy six-lane road.The going can be tough, sometimes the half mile trip to school takes half an hour because my daughter wants to stop to look at some weeds up close, or the grit from the road gets in her eyes, or the wizzing cars make us both tense up.That’s when I think of a different suburban school where the kids are officially forbidden to walk or bike to get there because the place is surrounded by four lane roads and there are no sidewalks and I find myself understanding why a rule like that could have come to pass.

But where we live we do have sidewalks and when my daughter and I pull our bikes into the driveway after returning from school or when I push my sleeping son around the bend and see our car just sitting there idle, but not idling, I feel satisfaction.I feel satisfaction because I’m not running to the gas pump twice a week, because my family and I can use our legs to get somewhere, because I’m spreading a little bit less pollution.Then a little voice inside me points out: “It took two years living in Germany to erase the habits of a lifetime.Now that you’re back in the States how many months will it take before they return and you find yourself again behind the wheel for no good reason.And that’s when I say back to the little voice, “Now that I’ve seen it can be done, I’m not giving up so easily.”

CURWOOD: Commentator Bonnie Auslander is a former resident of Bonn, Germany. She now lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

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[MUSIC: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah “Heavy Metal” from ‘Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’ (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Music– 2005)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: a cautionary fish tale. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Emily Torgrimson.


Emerging Science Note/Brainwashed Grasshoppers

TORGRIMSON: An army of parasitic worms invades the bodies of grasshoppers, eats out their insides, and, like alien masterminds, brainwashes its hosts into mass suicide. Add a screaming blonde and green slime, and you’ve got a scene straight out of a B-grade sci-fi movie. But it’s also what a team of French scientists found when they studied the behavior of grasshoppers infected by parasitic hairworms.

Hairworms live inside grasshoppers, and they eat away at the grasshopper’s organs until only its head, legs, and body shell remain. The hairworm grows to three to four times the length of its grasshopper host. When it’s fully grown and ready to mate, it has just one problem – water. Hairworms must breed in water, so they ask – actually, they command – their host for one last favor.

The worms release proteins that affect chemical signals to the grasshopper’s brains. These proteins trigger a chemical reaction in the grasshopper’s central nervous system that makes the grasshopper turn zombie and plunge into the water. The worm exits the grasshopper’s drowning body through its rear and swims away to continue its life cycle.

This study suggests that bizarre behavior of parasite-infected animals is not just a coincidence of infection, but has an intentional effect. Scientists say further study of relationships between parasite and host might help researchers in the search for new drugs and vaccines. Until then, grasshoppers - watch your back. That's this week's Note on Emerging Science. I'm Emily Torgrimson.

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

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[MUSIC:King Tet “Recuerdos de Alabama” from ‘The Man In The Can’ (King Tet Productions- 2005)]

Listener Letters

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Coming up: Diving into Lake Erie’s dead zone, but first, time now for comments from you, our listeners.

Listener response to our recent interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson led to an illuminating off-air lesson on astronomy’s etymology. Mr. Tyson, a frequent contributor to our program on all things celestial, talked with us about a new planet recently discovered in our solar system. Currently known by its catalogue name, 2003UB3313, astronomers are now entertaining suggestions for a permanent name for the planet. Its discoverer, Tyson noted, wants to name it “Xena” after the fictional warrior princess of television fame.

“Perhaps the name Xena was ‘made up’ for the television series you refer to,” writes Terry Potter of Washington, DC, “but this name is definitely an Arabic name that remains popular for women today. I hope that you will recognize this fact if the opportunity presents itself. Giving serious consideration to this name or others of Middle Eastern heritage could go some distance in recognizing the ancient heritage of astronomy as practiced by regions of astronomers.”

Mr. Tyson responded to Mr. Potter with a brief historical primer on the subject of star-naming. “Planet and moon names, with the exception of the moons of Uranus, by convention, trace to Roman and Greek gods,” Neil writes. “Xena is neither, although it sounds Greek. And the TV character of this name is neither Muslim nor from the Middle East. That being said, you perhaps know that the Middle Eastern influence on astronomy is manifest. More than two-thirds of all stars that have names have Arabic names, not to mention the astrolabes and other instruments of celestial navigation pioneered by the culture.”

Response to our recent story on cold fusion technology left one listener well, cold.

“I am dismayed that Living on Earth would devote such a disproportionate fraction of its air time to the pathology of ‘cold fusion,’” writes retired physicist Don Groom of California. “In addition to cold fusion and its ilk, the nonsense out there includes claims that ‘intelligent design’ is a science, that cell phones and /or power lines cause cancer and that aliens have visited Earth.”

Oh well, some like their fusion hot.

Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88. Or write to 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144. Our e-mail address is letters at loe dot org. Once again, letters at loe dot org. And visit our web page at Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot org. CD's and transcripts are fifteen dollars.

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Dead Zones

(Courtesy of NOAA-GLERL)

CURWOOD: Nearly every summer, the bottom waters of Lake Erie’s central and western basins lose so much oxygen that fish can’t survive. While Lake Erie’s so-called “dead zone” is expected to disappear this year as the weather cools, around the world low oxygen waters are a growing problem, killing fish and changing local ecosystems. This year government scientists from the U.S. and Canada have launched one of the largest probes ever of Lake Erie’s dead zone. Mhari Saito reports.


SAITO: Joe Herr and his crew haul crates of iced yellow perch from the deck of his boat and onto the back of his son’s SUV. Lake Erie has been the source of his family’s livelihood for decades. This grey-bearded fisherman has had to find ways to catch fish in Lake Erie through good times and bad.

HERR: When I started fishing in it, it looked like coffee with cream in it. Back in the 50s and 60s it was really bad, but now it’s blue, clear.

SAITO: Almost too clear. On this Indian summer day, the lower layer of Lake Erie’s central basin is hypoxic. That means the bottom few meters of water in much of the lake have extremely low levels of oxygen.

HERR: It’s strictly when the weather gets hot, the water gets trapped down below. It stays ice cold, loses its oxygen. Fish just swim away from it.

SAITO: Lake Erie’s dead zone has been around for decades. But accumulations of agricultural runoff and excess sewage made the Lake’s hypoxia so dramatic, in the 1970s the U.S. and Canada signed agreements to try to end it. Reductions of phosphates in laundry detergents and municipal water treatment plants have cut the amount of phosphorous going into Lake Erie by more than half. The dead zone seemed to improve. But recently scientists have found disturbing signs.

The oxygen levels of Lake Erie during the dead zone season. (Courtesy of NOAA-GLERL)

MATISOFF: In the western part of the lake we have these toxic and harmful algal blooms occurring more frequently, much like they did in the 60s and 70s.

SAITO: Gerald Matisoff heads Case Western Reserve University’s Geology Department.

MATISOFF: In the central basin we have low oxygen,much like we had in 60s and 70s, and then in the eastern part in the last few years – though not this year - we’ve had significant outbreaks of avian botulism. Now, what we don’t know is whether or not these are all related or they’re all independent and the result of simultaneous events that happen to be dominant in certain parts of the lake at the same time.


SAITO: Fifteen miles north of Cleveland, government scientists look for clues in Lake Erie’s waters. They hoist a small metal crane onto the deck of their boat. The crane drops a couple of handfuls of mud from the lake bottom into a gray plastic tub. Two scientists dig through it, looking for life.

LUDSIN: Do you see anything?

SCOTT: arnomids…little red larvae…

LUDSIN: So, the oxygen, Scott, was a half milligramper liter…

SAITO: Oxygen saturation of a half milligram per liter of water is very low. Most fish can’t survive at anything below two milligrams. Stuart Ludsin is an ecologist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

LUDSIN: Part of what we’re looking at is how does insect larvae vary in areas of high and low oxygen. The expectation would be that in severe hypoxic events these organisms would die and be unavailable for food.


SAITO: Ludsin believes studying the lake’s food web may reveal clues. Researchers started to find low oxygen spots in Lake Erie in late June. Ludsin says the dead zone forced fish off the bottom, home to most of their prey.

LUDSIN: They now are cut off from access to their necessary food and might be forced to live up in the water column and feed on sub-optimal prey like zooplankton. And that, in turn, might lead to reduced growth. So those are the kinds of things we are going to try and get at.

(Courtesy of NOAA-GLERL)

SAITO: Ludsin and his team use sonar and underwater sensors to analyze the lake’s waters – but the best way to find out what’s avoiding Lake Erie’s low oxygen depths is to cast a fishing net and see what comes up.

LOUDSPEAKER: We’re good to fish. Okay!


SAITO: After 10 minutes of trawling a large net, the scientists pull in their catch. They shake the flopping fish into a plastic bucket.


SCIENTISTS: Ooooh! Four, gross underestimate!

Scientists trawl a large net to see what lives in Lake Erie. (Courtesy of NOAA-GLERL)

SAITO: The fish will be measured, their stomach contents analyzed. Scientists hope all this research will help them understand the dead zone well enough to be able to forecast it, reduce it and, ultimately, make predictions of its impact to Lake Erie’s booming fishing industry.

LUDSIN: White perch, yellow perch….three perch, four perch.


LUDSIN: Oh, a little goby…


SAITO: The goby fish and zebra mussel are among 170 types of invasive species in the Great Lakes. Shipping vessels are blamed for bringing transplants into these waters at a rate of more than one per year. Scientists are eager to understand how these new residents are impacting Lake Erie’s dead zone. But answers to the lake’s quandaries could mean new challenges.Researchersadmit stopping the influx of invasive species and finding new places to cut pollution flow into Lake Erie would be difficult.


SAITO: Back at the dock, Joe Herr and his crew laugh when they hear people worrying about Lake Erie’s dead zone. Lake Erie’s fisheries are more productive than all the other Great Lakes combined and Herr has lasted nearly 50 years on Lake Erie because he has adapted to its changes. These days, he uses a depth finder to look for Lake Erie’s dead zone, and plans accordingly.

HERR: We know where it should be so we go set our nets ahead of time and wait for it and herd the fish to us.

SAITO: While the dead zone may help an old fisherman learn new tricks, Herr is carefully watching to make sure Lake Erie’s ongoing changes don’t negatively impact his daily catch. For Living on Earth, I’m Mhari Saito at the southeastern edge of Lake Erie.

Related links:
- Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab
- Lake Erie Dead Zone (EPA)
- "Dead Zones Spreading in World Oceans" BioScience, July 2005

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Cautionary Fish Tale

CURWOOD: Fishermen all along the eastern seaboard won't soon forget the 1980s, a time when lines came up empty for striped bass. The species had been fished to near-extinction, and the fight to bring it back has gone down as one of the greatest environmental success stories. Dick Russell was on the frontlines of that effort and now anticipates a second conflict on the horizon that fishermen might not be ready for. He's an environmental journalist and author of “Striper Wars: An American Fish Story.” I went out on the water with Dick Russell near Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and asked him what it took to bring the fish back.

RUSSELL:Eventually, it took pretty much a complete shutting down of all the fishing along the Atlantic Coast. Striped bass migrates from North Carolina all the way to Maine and sometimes even to Nova Scotia. And, eventually, the state of Maryland, which is where most of the stripers on the Chesapeake Bay – excuse me, on the Atlantic Coast – come from, declared a five-year moratorium. And when they shut down the fishery in the spawning grounds I knew that that was gonna do it. I didn’t know the fish would ever come back to the extent they have today, but it took a near total shutdown of the entire Atlantic Coast fishery to do it.

CURWOOD: Now, one of the people that was involved in the bass recovery effort is what, a postman? His name is Jim White. And I understand he has a whale of a tale?

RUSSELL:He really does. It’s one of those magical stories that kinda has no explanation.

He had become bitter enemies with a sports fisherman who owned a bait and tackle shop named Joe Mollica. And they’d become enemies because they took different sides on the moratorium question, whether Rhode Island needed to shut down fishing or not for a period of time, and Mollica didn’t think so.

One day, Jim was out fishing and his reel broke. This was after the moratorium had been declared in Rhode Island, Maryland and elsewhere. So he needed to get it fixed and the closest place he could do that was this bait and tackle shop that Mollica owned. So he went there, and he saw this beautiful fishing rod on the wall. And he asks Mollica about it, and Mollica said, “you want one, I’ll make it for you.” Jim thought, “oh, jeez, I don’t know if I can do that, we’re enemies.” But anyway, he said, “okay, I just love this rod. I gotta have this rod.”

So Mollica made it for him. He came back, he got it, he went striped bass fishing I think that same day – this is a time when there are very few striped bass around – and on every cast he made he hooked into an incredible bass with this rod. And he was shaking. I mean, he said looked up at the heavens at one point and said, “Lord, if you’re going to take me, take me now.” He just hadn’t had an experience like this in lord knows how long.

So he caught all these fish and finally he went running back to Mollica’s tackle shop and he says, “what did you do to this rod? Is it haunted? I can’t believe what’s happening!” And Mollica says, “I think it’s just a lucky rod for you.” Well, he went on catching striped bass when nobody else could with this rod, all kinds of great adventures, for 79 consecutive trips. And on the 80th trip the spell was broken somehow. He didn’t catch a bass.

And he happened to look up in his log book, he kept a log book of all the meetings he’d attended, and, you know, kind of everything he’d been doing in fishing for a period of years, and for some reason he just started counting up the meetings that he and Mollica had attended. And they had gone together to precisely 79 meetings, and there had never been an 80th. And that’s exactly the number of trips with that magic rod that Joe Mollica made for him. That’s how many stripers he caught. Now, they became friends again, and they remain fast friends to this day.

CURWOOD: And that has to be a fish story.

RUSSELL: (LAUGHS) I think it’s a wonderful fish story.

CURWOOD: What’s the trick to catching one of these fish?

RUSSELL: Well, it’s kind of like being in the right place at the right time. Plus, you just never know what they’re gonna do, they’ll confound you at any moment. If you hook into one they’ll wrap around a rock and, you know, just do everything they can to shake loose and shake you up. At the same time, it’s this very special feeling inside about a striped bass. I think it’s a soulful feeling. And that’s what made them worth fighting for long ago, and still today.

CURWOOD: Dick, I understand that maybe the striped bass is headed for another crash?

RUSSELL: Well, we hope not, but there’s a big, big problem happening again today in the Chesapeake Bay and it’s ecosystem related. Almost 70 percent of the striped bass are suffering from a bacterial infection, and it’s sort of a chronic wasting disease that gives them lesions and also impacts their internal organs. It’s being studied extensively by scientists from all along the coast. And it appears to be stress-related.

That stress appears to be coming from the fact that they’re not getting enough to eat. A lot of the fish that you’re seeing in the Chesapeake today, and even along the Atlantic Coast as they migrate, are very emaciated. And they’re turning to things like lobsters and blue crabs and things that aren’t as nutritious for them as this little bony, oily, inedible fish called a menhaden, which has always been the preferred food of choice for striped bass. And there aren’t as many menhaden around and now it appears that they are being overfished in the Chesapeake.

Menhaden are used – they’re brought back and they’re ground up into fish meal, which is used to feed chickens and hogs and also for aquaculture. And then they’re also being used increasingly for the oil, fish oil. Because they’re very oily fish, and it’s being used for omega 3 vitamin supplements.

CURWOOD: So the person who buys that capsule containing omega 3 vitamin maybe is helping hasten the demise of the striped bass?

RUSSELL: I’m afraid that’s true, or could be true. I’m just afraid if they continue to fish menhaden at the levels they have been – which is taking like literally millions of fish, millions of pounds of fish every summer – that not only are the menhaden going to perhaps disappear, but all the striped bass may go to.

CURWOOD: I want to read a bit from your book. Quote: “Everybody was so happy to have plenty of striped bass it makes it very difficult for people to let go of the success story. That’s what’s going on today. They can’t afford to believe it might not go on forever.”

Dick, is there a mental block against the idea that bass might again be in danger? Who has that block?

RUSSELL: Oh, I think a lot of fishermen have it, you know, especially because there’s so many striped bass in the last ten years and they’ve been going up every year. You know, the regulations have been getting more and more lax because there are a lot of fish out there to catch. You know, my book I believe is a cautionary tale because we’d all like to – I would too, you know – like to sort of rest on what happened 20 years ago, and the fact that that worked and the fish have come back.

And yet, today we got a whole ‘nother new set of problems, and I think it’s a slowly dawning awareness. I think that, you know, the necessity is for constant vigilance, and that’s the message I’m trying to get out there.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Dick. Your book is called “Striper Wars: An American Fish Story.” Dick Russell, thanks so much.

RUSSELL: Thanks, Steve. So good to be with you today.

Related link:
Dick Russell's Website

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[MUSIC: Leo Kottke “The Fisherman” from ‘6 & 12 Stringed Guitar’(Takoma Records- 1996)]

CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth: "Under a spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands." Well, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that opening line to his famous poem in 1839 there were plenty of chestnut trees in North America. But no more. About a century ago, a lethal fungus nearly wiped them out. But a Connecticut researcher is working to bring them back, and she may be on the verge of success.

ANAGNOSTAKIS: I keep telling people that no, chestnuts are not extinct. And they are not all gone. They’re just much shorter than they used to be! (LAUGHING)

CURWOOD: Conserving the chestnut - next time on Living on Earth.

[‘Symphony of Frogs (Apalachicola NF, Florida)’ recorded by Lang Elliott& Ted Mack (NatureSound Studio- 1996)]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week along the Gulf Coast with a symphony of frogs. Lang Elliot and Ted Mack recorded these audiophonic amphibians in a large pond in Florida's Apalachicola National Forest.

[‘Symphony of Frogs (Apalachicola NF, Florida)’ recorded by Lang Elliott& Ted Mack (NatureSound Studio- 1996)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, and Susan Shepherd - with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin , James Curwood and Michelle Kweder.

Today we bid a fond farewell to Jennifer Chu, who is off to seek her fortune in, should we say, “brainer realms.”Jennifer has an eye for the offbeat and has brought this show a lot of its more interesting moments. You’ll be missed, Jen.

Our interns are Ashley Ahearn, Brianna Asbury and Emily Torgrimson. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at loe dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. 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 milk. 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, and the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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