Bird Markets Pose Possible Risk for Avian Flu/ Jeff Young
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Government officials and the poultry industry are stepping up efforts to stop bird flu. Critics say there are some weak links in that defense. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.
Wild birds are transmitters of the H5N1 virus. The federal government has recently launched a program to monitor migratory birds coming into the US and detect whether they are bringing bird flu with them. Host Jeff Young speaks with Hon Ip of the US Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center. (12:00)
Whither the Waterways
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On Tuesday the Supreme Court will hear two clean water cases. Protection for more than half the country's wetlands is the issue. Host Jeff Young speaks with David Savage, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times about what’s at stake. (05:30)
Got Organic?/ Ashley Ahearn
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As the organic market grows, large-scale farming and production practices are stretching the traditional standards for organic foods. But some in the industry are trying to protect the purity of the organic label. Living on Earth's Ashley Ahearn reports. (05:00)
Space Survival/ Tony Ganzer
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In the sunny state of Arizona two men have designed a no-heat light bulb to allow astronauts to grow their own fresh produce in space. Sounds unlikely, but it's the same team that brought vegetables to ice-bound researchers in Antarctica. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Tony Ganzer reports. (05:30)
Emerging Science Note/Coral Cornucopia/ Bobby Bascomb
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Bobby Bascomb reports that more than 150 new species of marine life have been discovered on the Saba Bank Atoll, located about 150 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. (01:30)
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Author Erik Reece chronicles a year in the life of a mountain, destroyed by mountaintop removal strip mining. Reece tells Living on Earth host Jeff Young that the price we pay for inexpensive electricity powered by coal is offset by the cost of environmental degradation and injury to the lives of people who live and work in Appalachian coal country. (08:30)
Working in a Strip Mine/ Autumn Campbell
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Autumn Campbell interviews her father about working in a strip mine in Kentucky. He suffers from "rock lung" or silicosis of the lung, but says mining's a good living. (06:30)
Going for the gold, at a toboggan competition in Maine.
HOST: Jeff Young
GUESTS: Dr. Hon Ip, David Savage, Erik Reece
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Ashley Ahearn, Tony Ganzer, Autumn Campbell
NOTE: Bobby Bascomb
YOUNG: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.
YOUNG: I’m Jeff Young. The deadly strain of avian flu has now hit three continents. Can we keep it out of North America? The poultry industry says yes, but critics aren’t so sure.
BARNARD: Americans eat 1 million chickens per hour. You don’t get that enormous scale of poultry production without huge interactions between poultry workers and birds. And that is the problem.
YOUNG: From markets to migratory routes, we’ll visit the weak links in the bird flu defense line. Also a personal account of the true costs of mountain top coal mining.
REECE: So, I would just hike around the streams and the flanks and just sort of watch firsthand as this 300 million year old mountain was taken apart in one year.
YOUNG: Making a molehill out of a mountain. Those stories and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
The deadly strain of avian flu that first arose in East Asia is on the move. Wild birds in Europe and poultry in Africa have tested positive for the H5N1 strain. That virus has killed at least 91 people who apparently caught it from poultry. Scientists fear the virus could mutate and pass from person to person, perhaps bringing a pandemic flu.
The virus has not been detected in North America, and US wildlife and agriculture officials want to keep it that way. With help from the poultry industry, state and federal agencies have stepped up efforts to detect and stop avian flu strains that might infect livestock or people. It’s an enormous undertaking, stretching from bird breeding grounds in Alaska to southern poultry farms, and even this simple market in New York city’s Spanish Harlem.
YOUNG: Dozens of stacked metal cages line the hall of Manhattan Live Chicken Market, filled with red soup birds, white broilers, turkeys and ducks, pheasants and pigeons. Employee Nabil Mohsen carries by the feet two chickens a customer hand-picked. At a blood splattered counter, he bends back a bird’s neck and draws a long knife along its throat.
MOHSEN: Yeah, real quick.
YOUNG: He puts the bird upside down in a tube built into the counter to let its blood drain. A machine plucks the feathers, then Mohsen guts the carcass.
MOHSEN: It’s a little bit messy, but whenever we get rid of the customers we start cleaning the whole store.
YOUNG: He’ll chop the bird and bag it.
MOHSEN: Most of the customers here are old fashioned. They’re from different parts of the world, not born and raised in America. So usually that’s how they buy their chickens. I heard it makes you healthy, more healthy, and you live longer. That’s what they say.
YOUNG: But live bird markets can also pose health risks. Public health officials are concerned that the 90 or so markets in New York, and others around the country, could be weak links in the defense against bird flu. Nine years ago, in Hong Kong, the H5N1 strain killed six people; some of whom had visited live bird markets.
In the US, other strains of bird flu are common. They do not threaten people, but can be disastrous to poultry. And several farm outbreaks have been linked to live markets. Ron DeHaven directs the US Department of Agriculture’s animal and plant health inspection service. DeHaven says live markets let viruses move around.
DEHAVEN: Indeed, that is a pathway when you have birds coming into those markets from a variety of sources and equipment and people accompanying those birds, then leaving those markets and going back home, you have a perfect pathway to spread disease.
YOUNG: This is not a new concern. DeHaven says there is a yearly flu season for poultry just as there is for people. What’s new is the scale of the effort and the sense of urgency. In New York, for example, they’ve increased market inspections and testing at farms. Delivery trucks must wash cages between each stop. And markets must close briefly every three months to thoroughly disinfect. DeHaven says it’s starting to pay off.
DEHAVEN: We’ve seen the remarkable decrease in the number of those samples that actually find some virus present. So, we’re making progress, but we’re not entirely there yet.
YOUNG: Major US poultry producers have no connection to live markets – the risk of infection is too great. The industry, too, is increasing safeguards. National Chicken Council spokesperson Richard Lobb says last month poultry companies enhanced their testing for the more dangerous flu strains.
LOBB: So the upshot is that no broiler flock in the country will go to market, will enter the food chain, without a clean test for avian influenza. So we will be able to assure our customers that all the products we are selling them are made from flocks that have tested clear for avian influenza.
YOUNG: About 23,000 young chickens will spend most of their lives in this sealed, climate-controlled birdhouse. Valley Pike Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley has four of these houses, and produces nearly 600,000 broilers in a year. Father and son farmers Gary and Matt Lohr let my recorder in the chicken house, but not me. Gary says tight bio-security prohibits visitors.
G. LOHR: You don’t let anybody in on your farm. You always disinfect feet and everything before you go in a house, and try to be as careful as you can.
YOUNG: Despite all that care, the Lohr farm was among 200 in the valley hit by avian flu four years ago.
YOUNG: The Lohrs’ entire flock was destroyed
YOUNG: The outbreak cost farms and companies around $150 million. The government paid about half that to bail out poultry growers. The Lohrs still don’t know the source of the infection. And they worry about what might happen if there is another amid the heightened public concern about the deadly H5N1 strain.
M. LOHR: The fear that I have is that when people hear about bird flu, if we were to ever have another outbreak of our bird flu, it would just be hysteria. People would automatically think that this is the Asian bird flu that is going to wipe out all of civilization. So, I think that we have to do a good job of educating people that there are different strands.
G. LOHR: And we hope people don’t stop eating chicken because of this. It’s healthy, it’s good for ya, it doesn’t hurt you. So don’t panic and stop eating chicken. That’s our livelihood.
YOUNG: Public health officials stress that even if the H5N1 strain arrives, consumers could still safely eat chicken, so long as they safely handle and cook the birds. But some critics question whether an industry with so many birds so sensitive to flu can be protected.
BARNARD: Americans eat a million chickens per hour. You don’t get that enormous scale of poultry production without huge interactions between poultry workers and birds. And that is the problem.
YOUNG: That’s Dr. Neal Barnard of the group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Barnard says the live markets are an unacceptable risk.
BARNARD: Live bird markets should have been shut down a long time ago.
YOUNG: So far, federal and state officials say there’s no need for that.
[LIVE BIRD MARKET SOUNDS]
YOUNG: The folks at Manhattan Live Chicken Market say they’ve lost a few customers since bird flu hit the headlines. But even on the day of a record snowstorm there’s steady business. Frances Torres has come for three red hens for soup.
TORRES: I’m not afraid. When I come to this place I know they’re gonna care for our health and they not gonna give us chickens that are sick.
YOUNG: Torres grew up on a farm in Puerto Rico’s mountains. For her, buying live birds is a link to home, and an important part of her traditional cooking.
TORRES: You don’t put tomato sauce, you just put the Spanish vegetables, the onion, and you just eat it fresh. A drop of salt, garlic. That’s the way I grew up. I wouldn’t change it. Some people forget their culture when they come here, some of us. But I’m very, very the old fashioned way.
YOUNG: You’re making me hungry.
TORRES: Stop by later on, maybe by 6 o’clock and have some soup. (Laughs)
YOUNG: Markets and farms aren’t the only places under increased scrutiny. Immigration and customs officers watch ports and boarders for illegal poultry trafficking. And wildlife scientists recently launched a nation-wide system to monitor migrating birds. Scientists don’t know exactly how the H5N91 virus moves. Dr. Hon Ip hopes to find out and stop it.
Ip is a virologist with the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Center. And he joins us now from Madison, Wisconsin. Dr. Ip, welcome to Living On Earth.
IP: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: What is the possible scenario by which this deadly strain of the virus might come to North America?
IP: We think that there’s going to be three possible routes. And they are potentially a sick person traveling to an infected area and coming back from it; the legal and illegal import of poultry and poultry products; and then, thirdly, you know, possibility from migratory birds being infected and then flying back to North America.
YOUNG: Which route of migration are we most interested in here? I think Alaska is getting a lot of focus. Why Alaska?
IP: The major group of birds that are current suspects are birds that are wintering in the area where H5N1 currently is, and possibly flying directly back to North America up towards Alaska. And then there are other birds that are sort of like intermediary relay groups, where birds from the Asian continent will move up to Siberia and the Russian Far East, mingle with other birds that can possibly bring it over to North America.
YOUNG: So how do we find out if it has reached North America?
IP: Well, the US Geological Survey, along with other federal and state government agencies, have put together this national plan for early surveillance in order to detect H5N1 coming to North America. What we’ve done is to look through the species of birds that are known to have this contact between the two continents; look at where they are, when they come back, where they come to when they come back. And we have plans to go out and sample a significant number of them in order to look for the presence of H5N1 virus.
YOUNG: If you find this deadly strain of the virus in wild birds, is there any sort of contingency plan to eliminate the threat by eliminating those birds?
IP: Eliminating wild birds is not a practice that is recommended. Wild birds play a role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. You can’t go out and willy-nilly, you know, abate whole species; that causes other ecological problems. So culling wild birds, you might actually, if you don’t do it right, you might actually disperse the birds into a wider area – just the opposite of what you’re trying to do.
YOUNG: You know, not to be unnecessarily scary about this, but is this an issue that causes you concern? Is this one you’ve maybe had some sleepless nights about?
IP: It is a concern in terms of what the virus does to birds. I would say that the number of human cases, although very sad, is actually very surprisingly low. And so at the current time this Asian H5N1, it’s threat to humans are really incidental. However, the virus is highly lethal certainly to domestic poultry, especially chickens, and it has had dramatic die-offs of Bar Headed Geese in Quinghai, maybe a lot of swans in Europe. And so what that virus might do to North American birds? It’s a worry.
YOUNG: Dr. Hon Ip is a virologist with the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center. Thanks very much for talking with us.
IP: Thank you.
[MUSIC: David Rothenberg “The Lyrebird Suite” from ‘Why Birds Sing?’ (Terra Nova – 2005)]
YOUNG: Coming up: clean water and the constitution, the high court hears a case with high stakes for wetlands. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC; Land Of Loops “Help For Your Aching Back” from ‘Bundle of Joy’ (Up Records – 1997)]
YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. On February 21 the US Supreme court will hear the first arguments on an environmental case since swearing in justices Sam Alito and John Roberts. And protection for more than half the country's wetlands could be at stake. The court combines two cases from Michigan, Carabell vs. United States and US vs Rapanos. Both concern whether the Clean Water Act applies to wetlands and small streams. Reporter David Savage covers the Supreme Court for the Los Angeles Times and he’s with us now to talk about these cases. David, welcome.
SAVAGE: Good to be with you.
YOUNG: Tell me a little about the history of this case. Who is Mr. Rapanos? What’s he like? And what’s his beef here?
SAVAGE: Well Mr. Rapanos is a landowner and developer who had a series of pieces of land in Michigan that he wanted to sell off for building shopping centers and whatnot. Some of that land was low-lying wetlands. The federal law basically says you need to get a permit before you fill in a wetland; Mr. Rapanos said, no way, this is my land. He went ahead and filled in the wetlands on his own. He was then charged with a violation of the law and fined, and that incidence sent this case on the way to the Supreme Court.
YOUNG: So as things are now, how is it that the Clean Water Act applies to places like his property there? These wetlands and other small waterways.
SAVAGE: In 1972, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act, it essentially said it is illegal to discharge pollutants into the navigable waters of the United States. And since water flows downhill, federal regulators have taken the views that any river, stream, tributary, wetland or any other wet area that sends water down towards – in this case, the Great Lakes – can be regulated. You can’t put pollutants into some tiny stream, because eventually that pollutant is gonna run into the Great Lakes or Mississippi River. So the federal government has maintained that its jurisdiction extends to all these inland wetlands and streams.
YOUNG: So if Mr. Rapanos and his allies here are successful, what might change?
SAVAGE: Well I suppose the broadest challenge is one that says the law only applies to the navigable water bodies. That is, you may not put pollutants into the Great Lakes, but the law doesn’t extend 20 miles or 30 miles inland to parts of Michigan. That would be a huge change in the law because that would mean about 95 percent of the tributaries and streams are not protected by the Clean Water Act.
Another possibility is that they may say something like a wetland is not covered unless there’s evidence that polluting it, or filling it, would have some substantial impact on a navigable body of water. And if the Supreme Court were to say that, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands that would no longer be protected by the EPA or the Army Corps of Engineers.
YOUNG: This is the first big environmental case that these new justices on the court – Justice Roberts, Justice Alito – will be hearing. Are you hearing any scuttlebutt about how they might likely decide on this?
SAVAGE: There’s two ways to read that. One is that both Alito and Roberts, as lower court judges, did have this view that the federal jurisdiction is not unlimited; we ought to put limits on how far the federal government can go. Leaning the other way is that the Bush administration is arguing on the side of the environmentalists. So depending on which way they lean – that is, you know, I could imagine them having the view that this may be the time to put a limit on federal power. On the other had, they’ve got the Bush administration saying here’s why you shouldn’t limit the law.
YOUNG: Who’s arguing for Mr. Rapanos?
SAVAGE: Well he’s being represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is in Sacramento. It’s a property rights group. The Pacific Legal Foundation, for 15 or 20 years, has been arguing for limits on federal regulatory laws, and sort of a revival of the property rights movement. And they’ve had sort of a mixed record. They’ve won on some counts and they’ve lost on a lot of others.
YOUNG: So the property rights movement has a lot riding on this. The environmental movement has a lot riding on this. How important do you think these arguments, this case, might end up being?
SAVAGE: I think it’ll be enormously important if the property rights movement wins on the broadest argument. That is, if the court were to say, we’re going to go back and read this law by its literal words, that is, you can’t put pollutants into a navigable body of water, and that’s all, then it’s an enormous change in the law. But the likelihood is that the Supreme Court wouldn’t go that far, but they may well say something that would greatly limit the federal authority to protect interior wetlands.
And then the question will be, well, what will the states do? You know, states could step in and impose the same kinds of very strict regulations. And my sense is some states are as vigilant as the federal authorities in protecting their wetlands, but some aren’t. And so it will play out differently in different states and different parts of the country.
YOUNG: Well, we’ve been talking with David Savage of the Los Angeles Times. Thanks very much for your time.
SAVAGE: Glad to be with you.
MUSIC: The French “Watery for…” from ‘Songs To Break God’s Heart, Vol. 1’ (Accuarela Compilation– 2005)
YOUNG: Organic food is a booming business these days. We’re talking 20% annual growth rates in recent years. So, it may come as a bit of a surprise that the organic foods industry is in the midst of an identity crisis. Just what should that label, organic, mean? Those who want a more flexible definition face fierce opposition from purists who want to keep that standard high.
Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn reports the organic food fight isn’t over yet.
AHEARN: According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports, 85 percent of people who buy organic foods were unaware of one important fact: the products labeled USDA “organic” are actually 95 percent organic. The other 5 percent can be, well, a lot of different things. That news surprised Mike Anastario, a biostatistician from Boston.
ANASTARIO: You know, we go out of our way to spend a lot of money on organics for that reason alone, because we think we're getting pure food, and so we wouldn't be doing that if we knew that any of it was synthetic. So I kind of almost feel like I’m scammed.
AHEARN: There are currently 38 synthetic substances that the National Organic Standards Board has approved as ingredients in organic food. They're mainly leavening agents such as baking soda, thickeners like pectin and cornstarch, and vitamins.
Current USDA guidelines allow for continued use of these 38 synthetic substances, and also permits use of emergency non-organic substitute ingredients if organic ones aren't commercially available.
MARGOLIS: Let me give you an example of when you might have a situation like that where that could come up.
AHEARN: That's Phil Margolis. He's president of the board of directors of the Organic Trade Association.
MARGOLIS: So most of the vanilla in the world comes from Madagascar and that area. And periodically they have hurricanes down there that kind of wipe out the entire crop. That would be the kind of emergency where the secretary of agriculture might decide to do something.
AHEARN: So food producers can use emergency substitutes, such as artificial vanilla, and still call their products USDA Organic, as long as the substitute makes up less than 5 percent of the product's weight. The USDA has yet to approve any emergency substitutes, so the criteria for what constitutes a quote "emergency" is still to be determined.
MARGOLIS: The way that most people within the policy world on organics anticipate this would occur is through some kind of regulations.
AHEARN: Until the details get hammered out, people in the organic food industry are worried. Among them, Mark Kastel. He’s the senior policy analyst for the Cornucopia Institute, a progressive farm policy research group.
KASTEL: There's that old adage, the devil's in the details. The laws that pass in Congress are generally quite broad.
AHEARN: Kastel acknowledges that some synthetics are necessary in today’s growing organic market. But he says that allowing for emergency substitutes will throw the door open for the introduction of even more non-organic substances in foods that should be 100 percent organic. Kastel says it’s part of a trend to weaken organic standards across the board.
Take the organic dairy industry, he says. Increasingly its products come from farms with thousands of cows kept in feed lots, not pastures, as organic standards require.
KASTEL: Part of organic agriculture is requiring pasture. Part of organic agriculture is carefully managing the animals from birth until the day they start to produce. And we found that these large corporations were gaming the system. It wasn’t really organic milk, it was faux organic.
AHEARN: The Cornucopia Institute will soon release a report rating organic dairy producers based on their farming practices. Horizon organic milk, which is the largest organic producer in the US refused to take part in the survey. A spokeswoman said the questions were biased and subjective. Phil Margolis of the Organic Trade Association agrees.
MARGOLIS: A certain agenda is trying to be furthered by a small group of individuals that have a particular opinion. So there are no non-organic producers in this survey to kind of compare organic practices versus other livestock farming practices. It’d kind of be like doing a survey on mid-sized cars, but only 10 of them, instead of 100 of them if there are 100 of them.
AHEARN: As the market grows a division is developing within the organic industry. Some producers say it’s time to start comparing their products with main stream food processors. Others, like the Cornucopia institute's Mark Kastel, fear the industry is lowering its standards for the sake of market competition. He wants the organic industry to get back to its original mission, which at its core, means informing consumers about what goes into their food, from the pasture to the grocery store shelf.
KASTEL: It is appears that the Organic Trade Association is more interested in protecting the market share of their major corporate members then protecting the integrity of the organic label.
AHEARN: For Living on Earth, I'm Ashley Ahearn.
[MUSIC: Four Tet “You Were There With Me” from ‘Everything Ecstatic’ (Domino – 2005)]
YOUNG: The Mars rover Spirit recently reached a spot scientists hope will give clues into the planet’s past, including whether water laid down it’s layers of rock. Some at NASA hope a human mission to Mars will follow the rover’s success. And a few scientists are already planning for ways to feed those explorers.
Tony Ganzer of member station KJZZ in Phoenix reports on breakthroughs that could provide fresh greens on the red planet.
[MISSION TO MARS TRAILER]
GANZER: The movie “Mission to Mars” was not a box office-breaker when it was released in 2000. But some of the film’s concepts really jived with the interests of University of Arizona professor Gene Giacomelli.
In the movie, a team of scientists creates a greenhouse that provides everything you would need to survive in space. Plants provide oxygen, reuse carbon dioxide, reuse wastewater, and offer fresh foods for a weary space team.
Giacomelli’s hopes are to build a self-sustaining greenhouse…on Mars.
GIACOMELLI: The thing about that movie is that it may have awoken a lot of people about the potential of what could be done. But the concept of recycling has been around for a long time, of course.
[WATER IN MARS ROOM]
GANZER: The greenhouse looks like it should be on Mars. The tent’s white outer fabric glows with ultra-bright light. Tomato and potato plants hang from the ceiling, held in place by a piece of string. But there is no soil here. This is another benefit of the hydroponic science. Because the plastic tubing system gives the plants exactly what they need, soil isn’t needed. Instead, Giacomelli uses two alternatives. For tomato plants he uses a neutral substance to simply hold the roots in place. This substance could be either the outer substance of a coconut shell, or anything else inert. For potatoes, he uses a small pouch that the potatoes will grow right into.
GIACOMELLI: The plants know what to do. You give them a sufficient amount of light energy and they take it away. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s trivial. What you’re seeing here with these artificial lights is a very unique one, and this is a design of Phil Sadler, which uses a water jacket with cooling water that surrounds the bulb.
GANZER: The water-encased light bulb was a breakthrough for the Sadler-Giacomelli team. It allowed thousands of watts to rest only inches from the tops of plants, without scorching the fragile foliage. The bulbs look almost like a fluorescent light. They are visually brilliant and encased by plastic, and have allowed the greenhouse to remain relatively small, self-contained and portable.
Phil Sadler is an Arizona machinist who builds all the parts for the artificial greenhouses. His work pioneered the efforts to bring fresh produce to Antarctic communities.
SADLER: After I graduated from college, I went to Antarctica and worked as a heavy equipment operator there. And the winter-over people were complaining, they’re isolated, there’s no planes in or out for half the year, they started complaining about “no freshies,” so I organized a volunteer crew and built a greenhouse at McMurto, and later another one at South Pole station.
GANZER: Sadler and Giacomelli teamed up and won the bid to build a new station at the South Pole. But it didn’t take long for thoughts to drift to NASA…and to
Mars. Professor Giacomelli says his system would allow space travelers to grow their own food, instead of having to bring it along on a voyage, making them much more self-sufficient.
GIACOMELLI: NASA has the interest to get off the Earth and produce food for people, and that’s what we’re trying to do, both on the Earth and off the Earth, using controlled environments and using hydroponics. So, they know who we are, we talk to them as much as we can, we make friends.
GANZER: NASA tapped Giacomelli and Sadler earlier this month to create the system for Mars growing. So far they’ve received $30,000 for production of the water-encased light bulb, and have signed a multi-year contract for further research. So it’s looking up from here…
GANZER: For Living on Earth, I’m Tony Ganzer.
YOUNG: Just ahead: Eulogy for a lost mountain. First, this note on emerging science from Bobby Bascomb.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
BASCOMB: In January, scientists from Conservation International began a study of the sea life at Saba Bank Atoll, the world’s third largest coral atoll, located about 150 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. The cornucopia of diversity discovered there came as shock to everyone involved, including the scientists.
Prior to the expedition, 50 species of fish were known to inhabit the atoll. After just two weeks of research that number jumped to more than 200 fish species. Scientists literally found new varieties of fish every day they went into the water. But, the abundance of life in these corals is not limited to fish. Among the coral dwellers are several commercially valuable species of seaweed that have the potential to bring new economic vitality to the region.
The Smithsonian Institute has declared the Saba Bank Atoll the richest area in the Caribbean basin for seaweed. The unprecedented richness of marine life, and vulnerability of the coral beds, conservationists say, make the Saba Bank Atoll a perfect candidate for protection as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area under the International Maritime Organization.
Granted that designation, the corals would become a “no anchor zone” and large ships – including Trans-Atlantic super tankers - would have to use alternative shipping routes to avoid damaging corals with their anchors and chains.
That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Bobby Bascomb.
YOUNG: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for N-P-R comes from N-P-R stations, and: Kashi, maker of all natural foods, founded on the belief that everyone has the power to make healthful changes. Kashi. Seven whole grains on a mission; The Kresge Foundation, investing in nonprofits to help them catalyze growth, connect to stakeholders, and challenge greater support. On the web at Kresge dot org; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; The W-K Kellogg Foundation. 'From Vision to Innovative Impact: 75 Years of Philanthropy' This is N-P-R -- National Public Radio.
[MUSIC: The Bad Plus “Let Our Garden Grow” from ` Suspicious Activity?’ (Sony-BMG - 2005)]
YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. When we flip on lights or a radio, most of us give little thought to what powers them. In the US there’s about a 50-50 chance the power comes from coal – coal generates roughly half the country’s electricity. And Erik Reece has been giving a lot of thought to where all that coal comes from.
Reece grew up in Kentucky, where he’s watched the Appalachian landscape radically change as mountains are removed to mine coal. In particular, Reece watched one mountain – the aptly named Lost Mountain in eastern Kentucky. It gave the title to his book, “Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness.”
Erik, Welcome to Living on Earth.
REECE: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
YOUNG: Most people who are not from that area hear coal mining and they think of a hole down in the earth, underground mining. But this, what you’re writing about, mountaintop removal, this is different, right?
And if you think about an Appalachian mountain as a layer cake, you have thick seams of sandstone and very narrow seams of coal. And so they will blast the sandstone and then bulldoze that down into the valleys below, burying thousands of miles of streams and polluting thousands of more miles of streams, until they get down to the coal seam.
YOUNG: Tell me about Lost Mountain as it was before it was truly lost, when you first visited, first started walking its slopes. What is this place like?
REECE: Well, the thing about central Appalachia is it’s the most diverse ecosystem in North America. There’s 70 species of trees, 250 species of songbirds, there’s deer, there’s elk, there’s foxes, there’s wild turkey, grouse – I mean, it’s just a teaming watershed. And that’s what I found when I first got there: a very intact, forested watershed, with very clean water.
And I would drive my truck up an old logging road to the top of it and park and hike around. And then it got to the point where there really wasn’t any top to drive up to, and so I would just hike around the streams and the flanks and just sort of watch firsthand as this 300-million-year-old mountain was taken apart in one year.
YOUNG: I’d like you to read a little of your description from, I guess this is fairly early in the mining process. This falls on page 31, if you don’t mind reading that for us.
Stumps line the road. Down below, all of the ground cover and topsoil has been churned under by the eleven bulldozers. Nothing but mud, rock, and fallen trees remain. I park my truck out of sight of the workers below and sit down on one of the stumps. “Scalped” is the word that keeps repeating itself in my notebook. This mountain has been scalped.
YOUNG: Hmm. So, the trees here, they don’t even necessarily go to good use, do they?
REECE: No. Usually the coal operators are so ready to get to the coal they don’t even want to bother doing the logging. They just go straight for the seams.
YOUNG: So if you were to visit now, what does Lost Mountain look like now?
REECE: Well, it’s flat. It is a quote-unquote “pasture” now. They have gone in and hydro-seeded it with an exotic grass called lespedeza that the wildlife won’t even eat. And this is one of the real problems with quote-unquote “reclamation.” These companies do the bare minimum under the law to reclaim a site, and that usually means just spraying these grasses. And so where you used to have a forest that would hold back erosion and hold back flooding, now you have just these huge valley-fills.
YOUNG: You spent a lot of time with people who are fighting this, who are trying to organize. You also heard a lot from people who are closely tied to this industry who depend on it. And from that side of the argument, something that I guess you heard a lot of was, well, what good are these mountains anyway, if we’re not mining them?
YOUNG: Is that a prevailing attitude there? Minority attitude? What do you think?
REECE: I think it’s a minority attitude, but I think it’s one of those things, you know, when you’ve lived in a place all your life, sometimes you don’t see it? You don’t see the beauty of it. So I think some people just feel like the mountains are in some sense in their way. And that’s sort of a depressing thing to come across when you realize how biologically diverse these mountains really are.
And then there’s this other idea that – somebody was holding up a sign at a coal rally that said, “If it can’t be grown, it must be mined.” And, you know, I asked myself, well, what do they think is going on up there if a forest isn’t growing? And if it isn’t providing amazing habitat for wildlife? And if it isn’t purifying the water in a natural way for the people living down below? So I think there’s kind of a disconnect where people don’t understand that a healthy forest is directly connected to human health.
YOUNG: Now, part of what you’re addressing here clearly is this notion that coal is cheap energy, which is the strong selling point for coal. We can afford it. It’s why half of our electricity, more or less, comes from coal. But I guess the point you’re getting at here is that it’s not so much cheap energy as incompletely priced; that the full price is just shuffled off. Why is it so easily ignored, do you think?
YOUNG: So how do you propose that we bring those externalized, those ignored costs, back into the equation for coal?
REECE: I think the easiest thing would probably be a carbon tax that would actually be a tax on the use of carbon. I think another thing would be to raise the severance tax on the coal so that much more money would be returned to the region to really help these people get better jobs, repair their homes, repair their roads.
YOUNG: And then if that happens, and if mining decreases, moves elsewhere, what becomes of eastern Kentucky’s people and economy?
REECE: My feeling about this is that if we really raised the severance tax to an appropriate level, we could have something akin to a New Deal for Appalachia, where we could have a major reforestation initiative. There are hundreds of thousands of mine sites that are sitting empty, and the technology exists to reforest these mine sites. And if we did that, with the trees that were there, the hardwood trees, we could have a whole generation of foresters, of wood products industries, that would be a real sustainable clean economy for the region. That’s my hope.
YOUNG: You quote Aldo Leopold in here. He’s the great naturalist and writer who encouraged us to think like a mountain. He said something about getting an ecological education. Is that what you got here?
REECE: Yeah. And he goes on to say, to get an ecological education is to learn that you live in a world of wounds. And we do. We do live in a world of wounds. The land is dying all around us. But one other thing Leopold said that I take inspiration from is that if you – that people won’t destroy what they love. And if through writing, and through other things, we can sort of encourage people to develop affection for these landscapes, then maybe we’ll stop the destruction.
YOUNG: Erik Reece teaches at the University of Kentucky and is the author of “Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness.” Erik, thanks very much for talking with me.
REECE: Alright. Thanks for having me.
YOUNG: Another thing Erik Reece captures in his book is how this issue splits the region’s people. Someone against mountaintop removal mines probably knows someone who works at one.
They might even live under the same roof.
Autumn Campbell knows something about this. She interviewed her father, Danny, who works at a Kentucky strip mine. Danny Hoot says it’s a good living. Autumn sees the toll it’s taking on her father and wonders if it’s any way to live.
D. CAMPBELL: Well, my name is Danny Campbell, and most everybody in this area knows me as Hoot Campbell. I am a retired surface miner right now. I worked for 25 years as a rotary drill operator. I was the one who drilled the drill holes. So the explosives man would come by and put in the powder and the shot, and would break up the rock so the dozers and the loaders and everything could move it. I was the one that done all the drilling, and the patterns and everything, for that work.
A. CAMPBELL: That man is my father. He is 56 years old. I remember him working. I remember him a few times doing things with the family. But I mostly remember him being gone. If you listen close enough, you can hear he has a problem breathing and talking for a long period of time.
D. CAMPBELL: I provided a good living for the family, provided everything we needed to function at that time. It made the payments, bought the groceries, bought the Christmas gifts. And it was just our way of, or my way of, living at that time.
A. CAMPBELL: He wanted to provide for his family. The hours were long; not everyone could work them, but my father could.
D. CAMPBELL: We worked six, seven days a week. And the high wall driller, he would work ten, 12, 14 hours a day. Sometimes it would be two, three days before I would go home to see the family. A lot of times the family would come up and visit me. At that time I had two boys, and they would come up on the hill and they would visit me. It was just a lot of hours, a lot of long hours spending at that time. That was when the coal boom was really on and everybody was working.
A. CAMPBELL: I can recall one time playing softball together when I was in middle school. A few years after this, I can remember him having to quit, but I didn’t know why.
D. CAMPBELL: I had to take, I was retired, from medical. I found out that I had what they call rock lung, from running a rotary drill. And I had to…I got where I couldn’t work in the dust anymore and I had to get out. And I took a medical retirement. For a high wall driller it is something like what the deep miners have as rock dust, except when a high wall driller drills on the outside he drills the rock, the sand rock. And in the sand rock is a little shiny particle called silica. When you breath it, you take in the silica, and it will stick to your lung and you’ll have…sometimes, if you have a moist lung, it will stick more in the moist lung than it will in a dry lung. And it will compact and get hard and cause you to have difficulty in breathing.
A. CAMPBELL: At first, I didn’t understand what was going on. Not being able to go on walks with me, and play softball with me, any more. Eventually it escalated to where he couldn’t even walk up the steps without getting winded. Now he can’t even walk across the kitchen. As I grow older, I came to better understand his illness and what he can and cannot do.
D. CAMPBELL: Well, when you get that, after it gets so bad, you can’t take the air, the volume of air in that you need to function, and your activities all just about come to an end. There’s very few things that you can do when you get rock lung. After a while you’ll get to the point that you’ll have to have oxygen, you’ll have to carry an oxygen container around with you to get enough oxygen to breath. You won’t be able to breathe in the normal air.
A. CAMPBELL: Rock lung is often mistaken for black lung, but trust me, it’s not the same. Black lung you can cough up. Rock lung, you can’t. Rock lung is like having cement in your lungs.
D. CAMPBELL: Today, the surface mining is so much better. In the ‘70s you’d bring a new piece of machinery up on the hill, it didn’t have to have a cab on it at that time. But now the federal has stepped in. My first three or four years I run drill a that didn’t even have a cab on it; I walked behind it out in the weather and out in the cold and heat and rain and the dust. You can’t do that nowadays. It’s a whole lot safer.
A. CAMPBELL: Even though mining has improved, it still may not be the best option.
D. CAMPBELL: I would recommend it. If anybody likes to fool with the old heavy equipment, I think I would recommend them working on a strip job. Right at the present there is not a whole lot unless they go to college, get a degree in something they’ll fall back on, either working on a strip job or working in the deep mines. The pay is good, but the dangers are terrible, you know. I recommend, highly recommend it for the kids to stay in school as long as they can and get a degree in something. They may have to leave home, but they can always come back. You can always come back home when you can’t go nowhere else.
CAMPBELL: Even after all he has went through with mining he still recommends it. I do not understand why, and I probably never will. The only thing I know, if you have family in the mining profession, you better let them know that you love them and enjoy every minute you have with them while you can. Or while they still can.
YOUNG: Autumn Campbell’s portrait of her father Danny is part of the Appalachian Media Institute’s series “Living with Coal in Eastern Kentucky” and comes to us via PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
Appalachian Media Institute
[MUSIC: David Torn “Tiny Burns A Bridge’ from ‘What Means Solid, Traveler?’ (Creative Music – 1996)]
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MAN: [YELLING] 265 with a time of 9.39
YOUNG: We leave you this week with sounds of Olympic proportions.
MAN: From Naples, Maine Nolan, Nick Trevor and Zack. 231 also known as The Idiots.
YOUNG: Okay, so it’s not the Winter Games from Turin, Italy. But the couple of hundred people who show up in Camden, Maine, each year for the U.S. National Toboggan Championship take their race seriously.
MAN: And maybe we’ll train a little harder. We’ll pack on some pounds so we can compete with that 1000 pound team, that could be good strategy
YOUNG: Well, at least some of them do.
YOUNG: Our own Bobby Bascomb recorded the action.
MAN: Go!… race sounds
BOY: Oh, my god
MAN: How are you doing?
BOY: Not so good, dad
YOUNG: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Rachel Gotbaum, Ingrid Lobet and Susan Shepherd - with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, James Curwood and Michelle Kweder. Emily Taylor is our intern. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE dot org. Steve Curwood’s away. I’m Jeff Young.
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