April 8, 2011
Air Date: April 8, 2011
EPA in Congressional Crosshairs
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The Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases came under attack in Congress. The House voted to strip EPA of its authority to control emissions of CO2, but the Senate went the other way. Host Bruce Gellerman gets analysis from Politico reporter Darren Samuelsohn, who says the EPA might have survived this round, but the issue will soon be back on the Congressional calendar. (05:30)
Deficit Woes Trim Support for Ethanol/ Mitra Taj
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Conservatives seeking deep cuts to the deficit have found a five billion-dollar target in the ethanol tax credit. As they work with environmentalists to defeat it, the corn ethanol industry pushes for compromise. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports from Washington on the politics of biofuels policy. (06:25)
LOE Retrospective/ Cancer Alley
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Southern Louisiana, where the Mississippi River flows between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, is home to over 100 petrochemical plants and much of the nation’s petrochemical industry. The area, dubbed Cancer Alley, also has some of the highest rates of lung cancer and mortality with African Americans disproportionately affected. As part of Living on Earth’s 20th anniversary, we’re looking back to some of the stories we covered in our early years. This week LOE’s Steve Curwood talks with Paul Templet, who was head of the Department of Environmental Quality in Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 90s, about how the state reduced toxic pollution at that time and what the situation is along the lower Mississippi region now. (10:00)
Cockroach, Robot, Astronaut/ Wynn Tucker
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Cockroaches have long been models for robots- their structure enhances both speed and stability. Now, researchers designing robots for outer space exploration are looking to the insect’s nervous system for inspiration. Wynn Tucker reports. (01:45)
Operation Ice Bridge
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With NASA’s satellites down, scientists have to travel low and slow over Greenland’s glaciers to measure melting ice. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with science reporter Dan Grossman who hitched a ride on the science plane and also talks with NASA scientist Lora Koenig. (06:15)
BirdNote® How Brown Pelicans Dive/ Mary McCann
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Evolution has helped these seabirds dive through water at just the right angle to efficiently capture their next meal. Mary McCann has this BirdNote® about the brown pelican. (02:05)
Los Angeles Suburbs Try Neighborhood Electric Cars/ Ingrid Lobet
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Climate change laws in California mean cities have to reduce carbon. Increasing mass transit and high density housing are some options. But Redondo Beach and surrounding towns say they’re already dense so they’ve decided to try an experiment. As Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, they’re taking to the streets with electric cars. (07:25)
Turning Waste to Fertilizer -- Humanure
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After last year’s earthquake in Haiti more than a million people were left homeless and without access to proper sewage facilities. A new pilot project is bringing composting toilets to Haiti’s camps, and turning human waste into fertilizer. (05:45)
Migrating mallards make a pit stop for breakfast at a front yard bird feeder along Long Island Sound.
HOST: Bruce Gellerman.
GUESTS: Darren Samuelsohn, Matt Hartwig, Paul Templet, Dan Grossman, Laura Koenig, Alisa Keesey.
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Ingrid Lobet, Mary McCann, Wynn Tucker.
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. A sacred cow could get gored in Congress, as a Republican from Oklahoma leads the charge to kill the ethanol tax credit.
COBURN: What we've done is Congress has picked a winner - we picked ethanol. It was a bad pick. And what we ought to do is let markets work, so it's a win-win-win for everybody - politically, for the debt, and for the environment.
GELLERMAN: Ethanol risks running out of gas in Congress. Also - a driving force for change on roadways. Some give up their gas-guzzlers for small cars powered by batteries.
ARSENAULT. I drove my car, this electric vehicle, so much that one day I got in my minivan and it was dead! That is a real testimonial to that you don't need a big car.
GELLERMAN: And did we mention…that’s in California - Car State, USA. We'll have those stories and a lot more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!
[MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000).]
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. President Obama can put away his veto pen, at least for now. The White House had threatened to veto legislation that would have stripped the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
The measure passed overwhelmingly in the Republican-controlled House but similar bills were defeated in the Senate. Darren Samuelsohn is Senior Energy and Environment reporter with POLITICO. Hi Darren, welcome!
SAMUELSOHN: Thanks for having me back.
GELLERMAN: So I want you to listen to this from Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton. Here he’s warning that the EPA could end up regulating not just large industry but some small emitters of greenhouse gases - very small.
BARTON: As I stand here, Madame Speaker, and I am creating, as I breathe in and out, CO2. So under the dictates of today’s EPA, I am a mobile source polluter because I am breathing.
GELLERMAN: So Darren, clarify what Congressman Barton is suggesting here - that the EPA would be regulating…you know, as the old Police song went, ‘every breath you take.’ Is that what he’s saying?
SAMUELSOHN: (Laughs). That’s what he’s saying. It’s not necessarily, accurately, what EPA is planning to do. EPA has time and again said that their focus is on major, large, industrial sources of greenhouse gas pollutants, and so Joe Barton here is, you know, using one of the big scare tactics that you hear from Republican opponents of these regulations. And, you know, this is one of the regular ones that you often hear.
GELLERMAN: So what would the EPA be regulating?
SAMUELSOHN: Well, they’re…you know, they’ve already regulated for cars, and that was a big agreement that the Obama administration and the auto industry reached - and a pretty big first-ever greenhouse gas agreement that folds in fuel economy here for the next five years - and then on top of that where we’re going next is stationary sources. We’re talking about your big power plants and your petroleum refineries and your other major, large, industrial stationary sources of pollutants. And, you know, those regulations are coming out here over the next year and a half.
GELLERMAN: It’s no surprise that the Republican-controlled House voted for a bill that would stop the EPA from enforcing the Clean Air Act in regards to greenhouse gases.
SAMUELSOHN: It’s absolutely not a surprise. No, they have such a big majority that any bill that they want to move is going to pass, and that’s the case that happened this week. The Democrats really were powerless. They tried a couple of message amendments - tried to change the name of the bill a couple of times to make it called the “Head-in-the-Sand Bill” or the “Koch Brothers Bill,” but, you know, those were all just for show and ultimately went nowhere.
And yeah, with the House Republicans in control - and yeah, this was one of their top legislative priorities was to do this, to spank EPA, to make it clear that the Republicans don’t agree and also to put some Democrats in a tough spot with some tough votes.
I mean, they were able probably to get, you know,15, 20 industry state Democrats to go along with them and then they got all these other Democrats to vote with EPA and you’re likely to see campaign commercials, especially if the economy isn’t picking up. You’re going to see commercials in campaigns around the country, you know, trying to connect Democrats who supported the EPA with raising gas prices and raising energy prices and, you know, the connections might be a little bit tough to really make, but that’s what happens in the land of campaign commercials.
GELLERMAN: Now on the other side of the Capitol, the Senate was voting on similar items - what happened there?
SAMUELSOHN: What happened was completely the opposite. There were a number of amendments, four in all, that were brought up on the floor, and one would have just completely wiped out EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases - and that one managed to get 50 votes. The vote was 50 to 50, with four Democrats joining 46 Republicans.
The only Republican who didn’t vote for that was Susan Collins from Maine. So, you know, it was a pretty clear vote - 50/50, almost a majority of the Senate, saying, you know, ‘EPA, stop!’ And so, you know, in one sense they were able to show that there is some angst amongst the Senate ranks.
And there were a number of other votes - there were three other votes pushed by Democrats to try and at least slow down EPA for two years. But what’s interesting is that in those three votes, they were able to smoke out 17 Democrats to take a stand against EPA.
GELLERMAN: So, legislatively, is this the end of the issue, or might it rear its head again in ongoing budget talks?
SAMUELSOHN: It will rear its head again, I guarantee it. I mean, it’s going on in the budget talks right now because here you have some language that the Republicans passed in the short term spending bill that would stop EPA from being able to fund their greenhouse gas work.
And even if that got stripped out of the budget negotiations, you can bet that the Republicans in the House will write the EPA spending bill for the next fiscal year and include it again. And so that debate continues.
GELLERMAN: Any indication that President Obama would make the EPA’s authority to control greenhouse gases a bargaining chip in future budget negotiations?
SAMUELSOHN: That’s certainly something the environmentalists will probably be losing a lot of sleep over. Yes, the Republicans are forcing the EPA into these budget negotiations and President Obama has been pretty clear that he will veto a stand-alone measure to stop EPA, but he hasn’t specifically said what he would do if the big budget got balled up with EPA in it.
And he said a couple of times dancing around that he doesn’t like some of these riders, but he hasn’t gotten into the specifics and that has environmentalists very nervous and fearful that they might ultimately be thrown under the bus because, you know, they, in some respects, don’t have tons of political power and don’t have a lot of political capital - they’re certainly part of Obama’s base, but, you know, if Obama wants to win re-elect in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, he’s got to be concerned about what industry feels and what industry thinks.
GELLERMAN: Darren Samuelsohn is senior energy and environment reporter with Politico. Darren, thanks.
SAMUELSOHN: Thank you.
[MUSIC: Brian Auger “Brain Damage” from Auger Rhythms (Ghost Town records 2003).]
GELLERMAN: The nation’s corn-ethanol industry has long enjoyed deep-rooted political support in Washington that’s paid off handsomely. Pull up at the pump and federal law requires corn ethanol be mixed into the gas and blenders of the biofuel also get a boost from tax-credits - so do farmers - and a federal tariff on imports protects the industry from foreign competition.
But with Congress tightening its belt and fiscal conservatives flexing their muscles, support for corn-ethanol may be running out of gas. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports from Capitol Hill.
TAJ: Opponents of ethanol say the time is ripe to stop subsidizing the biofuel. Getting rid of ethanol tax credits might sound like a long shot - they’ve been a part of the federal tax code since 1978 - until you hear the industry itself.
HARTWIG: I think it will be challenging to extend it as is, and it may very well cease to exist in the form it does today.
TAJ: Matt Hartwig is spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, an organization that, until recently, had been fighting to preserve the credit that pays 45 cents for every gallon of ethanol blended into gasoline. But times have changed.
HARTWIG: We understand that there are problems with the federal balance sheet, and we are engaged in discussions with the administration, with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, to figure out a way to reduce costs while still ensuring the industry can grow and evolve.
TAJ: Many environmental groups have fought the subsidy for years - they point to studies that show farming corn for fuel contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, higher food prices, and soil and water contamination.
But it’s fiscal conservatives who are giving that effort momentum. They cite studies too, like a recent Government Accountability Office report that says the ethanol tax credit is redundant because the EPA already mandates a minimum amount of ethanol production. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma says that makes selling his bipartisan effort to repeal the credit simple.
COBURN: We’re gonna spend five billion dollars more this year to pay large oil companies to blend gasoline with ethanol, which they're already required under the law - under the renewable fuels standards - to do.
TAJ: The ethanol tax credit is set to expire at the end of this year, but Coburn says Congress can’t afford to wait that long. He’s drawing on a coalition of more than 90 organizations, including a group of refiners that can benefit from the credit to push against the solid support of farm-state lawmakers. Coburn says he’ll file a motion to suspend the rules - a bold step that needs a two-thirds majority, or 67 Senators, for passage. He says he’s almost there.
COBURN: I wouldn't talk about my private conversations but I think…look, you cannot go home when we're running a 1.6 trillion dollar deficit and say I voted against saving five billion dollars through a tax credit that the people who are getting the tax credit don’t want and have sent a letter to Congress saying they don’t want - how do you defend that? Especially when we're borrowing the money to do it.
TAJ: The House is sending its own anti-ethanol signals. Two amendments to restrict federal spending on ethanol programs found a majority support there, and while the legislation they’re a part of has undergone negotiation, the executive branch has also hinted at change. In his recent energy security speech, President Obama touted the role of biofuels…
OBAMA: Not just ethanol but biofuels made from things like switchgrass.
TAJ: …in reducing imports of foreign oil.
OBAMA: And going forward, we should look for ways to reform biofuels incentives to make sure that they’re meeting today’s challenges and that they’re also saving taxpayers money.
TAJ: “Reform” is the wrong verb, says industry spokesman Matt Hartwig. He prefers “transform” and wants to see the current tax credit switched out for a variable credit, which would only kick in when ethanol struggles to compete with oil - like when oil prices are down.
HARTWIG: You know, when oil is at 100 dollars a barrel, you actually don't need a whole lot of extra incentive for companies to invest in alternative energy technologies and things like that - the market is doing that for them. But if OPEC decides, ‘Oh, we don't like this oil price, we're going to flood the market,’ well then here the price comes down and the will to move forward with alternatives sometimes begins to wane.
TAJ: Together with investments in service station blender pumps and flex-fuel vehicles that run on higher blends of ethanol, Hartwig says the industry can keep growing. And that's important, he says, because ethanol is the bridge to better biofuels - fuels made from switchgrass or garbage that are considered more sustainable.
But an advanced biofuels lobbyist says investments in ethanol infrastructure won’t do much for the newer fuels, which can replace gasoline with no new cars or pumps needed.
MCADAMS: The corn ethanol industry has made it very difficult for many of the advanced biofuels to have a fair hearing in the political marketplace.
TAJ: Michael McAdams, the president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, says the ethanol industry hasn’t shown an interest in helping.
MCADAMS: For them to draw over six billion dollars from American taxpayers and not even have a fair conversation with their colleagues in the advanced industry to suggest we might reallocate some of those resources to expedite commercial building of advanced facilities is a lot like the oil industry used to treat them. And they ought to know better.
TAJ: Policy analyst Sasha Lyutse with the environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council says one solution might be a performance-based tax credit that welcomes any biofuel, whether its feedstock is switchgrass, corn, or algae.
LYUTSE: The greener biofuels tax credit that we've proposed is actually technology-neutral. It basically just sets performance standards, both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental variables that we care a lot about - water use, biodiversity, things like that. So the point is that we have to be tying incentives to real, delivered, measurable, verifiable, environmental performance.
TAJ: Lyutse recommends immediately repealing the current tax credit as a first step. But today’s fiscally conservative fervor might not be enough to topple longtime ethanol supporters like Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa. The Republican has managed to keep Tom Coburn’s amendment from the Senate floor so far and vows to round up enough Republicans to vote it down. For Living on Earth, I'm Mitra Taj in Washington.
[MUSIC: Jimmy Page & The All Stars “Down In The Boots” from The Blues Anthology Vol. 2 (Charly Records 2006).]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead - the Living on Earth time machine takes us back to 1991 and our story about Cancer Alley, Louisiana. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUT-AWAY MUSIC: Reuben Rogers: The Things I Am” from The Things I Am (Renwick Entertainment 2008).]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. This week we continue our look back 20 years to when our show first began. Steve Curwood founded Living on Earth back then, and he and the show are still going strong today. Hi Steve.
CURWOOD: Hi there, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: We should remind long-time listeners that when you first began the show, it was just a half-hour long and each program focused on a single specific issue.
CURWOOD: Yeah, Bruce, and for one of those first shows that aired in May of 1991, producer George Homsey and I took a trip down south to Louisiana - to where the Mississippi River flows between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Now this area is called Cancer Alley, and it’s home to more than 130 petrochemical plants.
And back then, it made Louisiana industry second only to Texas as a source of toxic chemicals. The people who lived there had some of the nation’s highest cancer rates, and some said African-Americans bore an unfair share of the cancer burden. George and I were given a tour of the lower Mississippi by Pat Bryant, an environmental justice activist with the Gulf Coast Tenant Organization. Here’s an excerpt:
[CAR, DRIVING SOUNDS]
CURWOOD: Driving with Bryant along the Mississippi out of New Orleans, it’s not very long before the air turns sour.
CURWOOD: Hmm. What’s that smell?
BRYANT: That’s ethylene oxide.
CURWOOD: So what are we passing here?
BRYANT: That’s coming from Union Carbide. That’s their contribution to this toxic stew. And this was the smell that got us involved in the environmental movement. We just waged a successful campaign here, and people were concerned that their health was endangered and wanted an organization to look into it, and we began - that’s how we began. That smell - ethylene oxide.
CURWOOD: It’s nauseating. It’s overpowering.
BRYANT: Oh yeah. Very. You know, ethylene is very bad on the respiratory system…the body in general.
CURWOOD: Now the smell that we smell - is this chemical…is this a carcinogenic chemical? Does it cause cancer?
BRYANT: Oh yeah. Ethylene oxide, yeah - it’s said to cause cancer. They say they control it. And they release very little to the atmosphere. But chemists who work along with us - we have chemists in our organization - they’ve brought us out and helped us identify certain smells, and they said that one is ethylene oxide.
CURWOOD: Ethylene oxide is used in making anti-freeze, laundry detergents, and polyester fabrics. It’s also a known carcinogen. The 2,000-acre Union Carbide plant in Taft, Louisiana, can make over a billion pounds a year of this stuff - more than a fifth of the total U.S. production capacity.
The plant also churns out two dozen other chemicals, a half a dozen of which are known or suspected carcinogens as well. In 1987, the plant discharged more than one and half million pounds of pollutants into the air of St. Charles Parish, including more than a hundred thousand pounds of ethylene oxide. Union Carbide says emissions have been cut in half since then, and that the company plans to reduce ethylene oxide emissions further still - to less than five percent of 1987 levels.
There’s no hard science proving that the plant causes sickness in nearby residents, but Pat Bryant believes those who live in the village of Killona, just a few thousand yards away, have had their health compromised. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the cancer death rate for females in St. Charles Parish is rising 18 times faster than the national average.
BRYANT: These are poor people who struggle to buy a little piece of property - some of them rent from the plantation owner who sold to Union Carbide and to the other companies - the chemical companies.
[CAR SOUNDS FADE]
CURWOOD: Among the people we interviewed for that program was Paul Templet. He took a leave from teaching environmental science at Louisiana State University to run the state’s Department of Environmental Quality in the late 1980’s when Buddy Roemer became governor.
TEMPLET: Previous governors have said we have to sacrifice the environment to get jobs - we now know that was a Faustian bargain, and we don’t want to do that anymore. In fact, now we know that you’ve got to have a good environment to have a good business climate.
CURWOOD: What kind of man is Pat Bryant?
TEMPLET: He wants to shake the system up. Nothing wrong with that - that’s a part of the American scene also, part of democracy - I have no problem with that. I think his major premise is that there are more toxic dumps, there are more industries locating in black communities than elsewhere. That’s probably true. I can’t - I don’t think it’s directly related to racism, although it’s hard to discount. I think it has to do with economic levels, and the fact that property values in the black community are lower than they are in white communities. And when industry looks for a piece of property, they find the lowest price.
[MUSIC: Eddie Bo “I Got The Blues” from New Orleans Solo Piano (Night Train International 2006).]
CURWOOD: These days, Paul Templet is retired from LSU. He joins us from his home in Baton Rouge. Hi, Paul.
TEMPLET: Hey, how’s it going, Steve! Good to hear from you.
CURWOOD: So that was the situation back in 1991. So what were you able to do about toxic pollution when you were Secretary of the Louisiana DEQ?
TEMPLET: Well when the numbers first came out that you mentioned in '88 - '87 or '88 - showing Louisiana had the highest toxic releases in the entire country, and we’re a small state, it told us pretty quickly what we had to do.
So we set out to reduce those emissions - releases to the atmosphere, and to water and to land - and at the end of four years, using a number of different approaches, we managed to cut them in half. That’s a start. It’s not the end, but it’s a good start because no other state has ever done that. So that’s good, but unfortunately it hasn’t come down much since - the agencies seem kind of dead in the water.
CURWOOD: So things got better back then but they’re, what, just about the same on the lower Mississippi?
TEMPLET: Yeah, I have looked at the numbers in the past and the reductions have sort of ceased. The state’s back in the mode of saying, ‘Oh, we can’t crack down on pollution because we’re going to run jobs off,’ which, to me, is not correct - it’s a bad bargain. Turns out - and this is the research I did when I went back to LSU after I left the DEQ - I was looking into the connections between economy and environment, and what you find is that states with good environmental programs have better economies, not worse.
Yet, in spite of that, every time we tried to put in new regulations or new laws to lower pollution levels or even increase the enforcement - all of which we did - we kept hearing from industries, ‘Oh, you’re going to run jobs off, it’s going to be bad for the economy.’ Well it’s not true. It may cause them to spend more money, and they do, but the economy in general gets better.
And the upshot, and kind of the curious circular path I followed, was that when I finished the research - it took me about ten years to do it - what it showed was that if you do the things that will make the lives of your people better - that is, cut pollution, improve services, and so on - you make the economy better because if you’re requiring industry, say, to reduce their pollution levels, they’re going to have to spend money and they did spend more money.
The spending in Louisiana went from about 200 million a year on pollution control in '88 all the way up to about 1.1 billion by '91 or '92 - so a factor of five increase. Now industry doesn’t like doing that, but as they do it, they have to buy equipment, they have to hire people, and indeed hiring in the chemical industry went up by about 25,000 jobs in those four years when it was declining all over the United States.
So cleaning up the environment means you’re gonna have a better economy, and as Buddy Roemer used to say, ‘Clean environment is good for business.’ I don’t know how he knew that, but he certainly did, and he acted on it - he let me do those things. That had never been done before in Louisiana.
CURWOOD: Now when we talked back in 1991, you said you thought that class and poverty played a bigger role than race in determining where polluting industry is located - how do you feel about that today?
TEMPLET: Well, as I was listening to that, I was thinking, ‘Yeah, but poverty is due to racism.’ So it may be one step removed from racism, but it looks to me like…I mean, there is obviously a race basis to the fact that our poorest segment are minorities in Louisiana because there was institutional racism.
Industry does seek the cheapest property, and they also seek rural property because they want acreage - they want large acreages. And that’s the place where minorities have settled in Louisiana, partly because that’s also the place where the plantations were. So there was a racism component, of course.
CURWOOD: In Louisiana you have all these petrochemical plants along the Mississippi that pollute. And then, of course, you’ve had Hurricane Katrina, not to mention the oil spill last year - what needs to be done to protect the environment in Louisiana?
TEMPLET: Well, a number of things - obviously you have to have regulatory agencies that are serious about protecting the people of Louisiana and the United States in general. But the state itself has to be more proactive - it has to do those things which are good for the people of Louisiana. And if you do those things, you will improve both the economy and the environment.
We’ve got a lot of chemical plants here, as you know, up and down the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and those certainly could lower their pollution levels, but it takes political will. It takes the courage of somebody like Buddy Roemer, the governor I worked for, to stand up to the oil industry - and very few of our governors have ever been willing to do that.
CURWOOD: Paul Templet is an emeritus professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University. Thank you so much!
TEMPLET: Sure, my pleasure!
GELLERMAN: Coming up - we get close and personal with Greenland’s glaciers.
But, first, here’s Wynn Tucker with this Note on Emerging Science.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
TUCKER: Cockroaches move with lightning speed and are masters of agility. Now scientists at Tel Aviv University are looking to the pesky insects to build robots for space exploration. Cockroaches keep three of their six legs on the ground when they walk to maximize stability. They’re also known for moving quickly on all kinds of terrain.
Robots have been built before that emulate the insect’s structure, but now researchers are focusing on the nervous system of the cockroach to find out more about its movement. The scientists want to know how sensory input from the environment affects the insect's walking patterns. So when a cockroach meets a bump in the road, what changes in its brain as it senses the obstacle, reacts, and moves on. This research will be used to develop robots that can adjust to the rugged surface of an asteroid, the Moon, or Mars.
And cockroaches aren’t the only insects whose inner workings are being used as a model for robotic designs. Scientists are also examining how locusts manage their energy, as the tiny insects are incredibly efficient fliers. So next time you see an insect scurrying around your cupboard, you might think twice before squishing it - it could be the model for the next Mars Rover. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Wynn Tucker.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
GELLERMAN: Greenland is a remote, beautiful, brutal place - a land of rock and ice, and quite possibly a lot of oil and gas buried below that could become available as global warming melts the island. Ironically, it’s the burning of fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect that is causing Greenland’s icy mountains to melt. The question is: just how fast are Greenland’s glaciers melting?
GELLERMAN: Science journalist Dan Grossman traveled to Greenland to find out.
There he hitched a ride with NASA scientists on a special P 3 B turboprop and recorded this sound as they flew over the icy island. Dan is a colleague, friend and neighbor, and he joins us from somewhere in Greenland - where are you exactly, Dan?
GROSSMAN: Well I'm in Kagerlussuag, Greenland, which is on the west coast of Greenland, and it’s basically pretty much in the middle of the coast - sort of halfway from the top to the bottom.
GELLERMAN: So what do you do there, when you’re in Greenland? What are you observing? What are you watching?
GROSSMAN: Well, NASA has a mission here called Operation IceBridge, which is a series of flights that go up and down the ice sheet measuring different aspects of the ice sheet with various electronic instruments. They’re actually doing the same thing with the same airplane in Antarctica. The flight lasts eight hours, and I sit there watching the scientists at work, making video recordings out the window - they have one special window, which is for photography.
GELLERMAN: So what does it look like, Dan? Is it boring? I mean, you’re on a plane for, like, eight hours a day, right?
GROSSMAN: Well, you’re probably - in your mind - you’re imagining that the ice sheet is just a smooth cake of ice. And near the middle of the Greenland ice sheet, it is fairly smooth, although it has undulations. But at the edges, it’s not like that at all - it’s full of crevasses, there are mountains sticking up out of it, there are folds in the ice that you can see.
And there are all sorts of deep ripples in the ice. The plane actually has to go up and down to take into account the topography of the ice. So it’s not just a smooth flight over a featureless white surface by any stretch of the imagination.
GELLERMAN: Hey, Dan, is there a scientist nearby that I can talk to?
GROSSMAN: Yeah, just hold on one sec, I’ll go get her. I’m gonna get Laura Koenig, who is the deputy chief scientist of Operation IceBridge, and she’s a cryospheric scientist.
GROSSMAN: I’m gonna put her on.
[GROSSMAN TALKING TO KOENIG: Okay, just hang on a second - his name is Bruce Gellerman. KOENIG: Bruce Gellerman…]
KOENIG: Okay, hi Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Hi, Dr. Koenig!
KOENIG: How are you?
GELLERMAN: I’m good! What’s a cryospheric scientist?
KOENIG: A cryospheric scientist is actually a very lucky job that I have. I get to study the frozen areas of the earth. So I actually focus on the ice sheets, both Greenland and Antarctica. Other scientists that study the cryosphere also study sea ice, as well as snow and mountain glaciers.
GELLERMAN: Now why do you have to fly over Greenland? It sounds so old-fashioned. Why don’t you just use satellites and do your surveys that way?
KOENIG: Well from 2003 to 2009, we were using a satellite - ICESat was the name of the satellite. In 2009, ICESat started to fail. We knew that the laser was losing power; it was a laser altimeter - measured the height of the ice sheet. ICESat had outlived its life. It was scheduled to be a satellite for five years, and it was up for six, almost seven years.
What we can do with the aircraft, and cannot do with satellite, is we can add additional instruments. So we fill up the aircraft - we have a suite of instruments that gives us a three-dimensional view of the ice sheet. We have radars that look deep into the ice sheet, even measuring the bed. We have gravimeters that measure gravity anomalies - those allow us to see through ice shelves, especially in Antarctica, and see what the water cavities below the ice look like. So we have an entire suite of instruments.
GELLERMAN: I know that you’re gathering data, but have you found evidence that the ice sheet is melting?
KOENIG: What we are seeing is a lowering of the ice sheet in most areas. So the ice sheet is indeed losing mass.
GELLERMAN: Is this unusual or is this what you would expect?
KOENIG: This is what we would expect as we’ve seen increasing temperatures over both the Arctic and Antarctic - we would expect the ice sheets to lose mass and begin melting.
GELLERMAN: Now Greenland is enormous, right, it’s massive. And most of it is ice. What percentage of that ice can we expect to melt in, say, fifty years?
KOENIG: I don’t know what the projections are in fifty years. I will say that the ice sheet of Greenland contains about seven meters of sea level rise if it were all to melt. We don’t expect it all to melt.
Some of the projections right now are between a half-meter and a meter of sea level rise, so about a foot and a half to three feet of sea level rise by 2100. There is certainly reason to be concerned - much of the world’s population lives near the oceans, and as those oceans rise, we’ll continue to see problems associated with the higher sea level.
GELLERMAN: Well Dr. Laura Koenig, thank you so very much, I really appreciate it.
KOENIG: Great, thank you for having me, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Laura Koenig is a cryospheric scientist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center - she’s a Deputy Head of Science at Operation IceBridge. Can I speak to Dan again?
GELLERMAN: So Dan…
GROSSMAN: Yeah! Hi!
GELLERMAN: Boy, thanks a lot, I really appreciate it - what’s next for you?
GROSSMAN: Well, you know, I’m…after I collect material up here in Greenland, I’m going down to Peru to do some reporting on melting of mountain glaciers in the Andes, so that’s my next project.
GELERMAN: Well, Dan, thank you very much!
GROSSMAN: Well thank you for having me on, Bruce!
GELLERMAN: Science journalist Dan Grossman, talking to us from Kagerlussuag, Greenland.
[BIRD NOTE THEME]
GELLERMAN: We’re in debt to poet Dixon Lanier Merritt for this little ditty:
A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.
GELLERMAN: And that's not the only thing to remark about this remarkable bird, as Mary McCann reveals in this week's BirdNote®.
[SOUNDS OF WAVES AND SURF]
MCCANN: Imagine a line of Brown Pelicans flying just above the breaking surf of the coast. Perhaps you’ve watched - and heard - these large, long-billed birds fishing. They circle high, then dive head-first, plunging underwater to catch fish.
MCCANN: But doesn’t that hurt? Anyone who’s taken a belly flop off a diving board knows the powerful force of hitting the water. Several adaptations protect brown pelicans as they dive, sometimes from as high as 60 feet. Air sacs beneath the skin on their breasts act like cushions. Also, while diving, a pelican rotates its body ever so slightly to the left. This rotation helps avoid injury to the esophagus and trachea, which are located on the right side of the bird’s neck. Pelicans have also learned that a steep dive angle, between 60 and 90 degrees, reduces aiming errors caused by surface water refraction. We know that pelicans learn this behavior because adults are better marksmen than young birds.
MCCANN: Upon impact, the Brown Pelican opens its bill and expands its pouch, trapping small fish inside. Then the bird pops to the surface, spills out the water, and gulps down dinner.
GELLERMAN: That’s Mary McCann of BirdNote®. And for an eyeful of brown pelicans, dive into the photos on our website - LOE dot ORG.
- Splash of the Brown Pelican Call provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by W.W.H. Gunn.
- BirdNote® - How Pelicans Dive was written by Frances Wood.
- See a video of Brown Pelicans Diving
[MUSIC: Gabor Szabo “Breezin” from High Contrast (Blue Thumb Records 1970).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up - a wise use for human waste. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And, from Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[#2 CUTAWAY MUSIC : Ronnie Laws: Every Generation” from Capitol Rare: Funky Notes From the West Coast (Blue Note Records 1999)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Many American cities and communities are trying to reduce their carbon footprints. In California, it’s the law. To help cut carbon, some places in the state are turning to mass transit in high-density neighborhoods. But several towns south of Los Angeles say so-called “smart growth” isn’t for them. They’re taking a different road - and as Living On Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, that could make all the difference.
LOBET: The cool ocean breeze and the sun are major draws for the 120,000 people who live in the desirable beach towns south of LAX airport.
[COMMUNITY SOUNDS, CAR HONK]
BACHARACH: Well I think this is a typical neighborhood community, or suburban community - low strip malls and there is a lot of single family housing that is very close together.
LOBET: That’s Jackie Bacharach, executive director of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments. She’s standing outside Redondo Beach’s city hall, a one-story building lined by beautiful native landscaping. She explains why residents here are not going to embrace higher density.
BACHARACH: Politically, it’s…I mean, you’re not going to build a four-story building here in Redondo Beach. It’s not going to happen. People around here - not only do they love the low suburban feel, but there’s also views. There’s a lot of view impacts here along the beach. And so people aren’t…they’re just anti-density.
LOBET: Actually these cities are dense, in their own California way.
BACHARACH: There are a lot of apartments, there are really a lot of condos, and our streets are congested. So there’s no place else to go.
LOBET: About five years ago, Bacharach and her colleagues began researching the way people commute and do errands in these South Bay cities. And they found that, except for work, people usually travel less than two miles.
BACHARACH: We found out that people are actually even driving for half-mile trips. So we talk - you know, everybody talks about, ‘Let’s walk, let’s do all these things.’ They’re not doing that - they’re driving.
LOBET: Then California lawmakers passed a bill that requires communities to cut carbon emissions from miles traveled. Officials here had an idea: what if you targeted two-car households and lent people small electric cars for these short trips? Let them hold on to them for a few months. That’s how Nancy Arsenault, who normally drives a minivan, ended up with an electric car.
ARSENAULT: I’m a stay-at-home mom with two kids. And my job is just to drive errands all morning, all day.
LOBET: Arsenault would leave her gasoline minivan parked in the garage.
ARSENAULT: I drove my car, this electric vehicle, so much that one day I had to go to UCLA and I got in my minivan, and it was dead! (Laughs.) That’s how long it was! I mean, can you believe that? That is a real testimonial to that you don’t need a big car.
LOBET: The cars lent to people in this pilot study were not regular highway vehicles, but several models of small, low-speed, limited-range cars. So people had to use different roads to get to familiar places.
ARSENAULT: There is no place in the South Bay that I can’t go in this car.
You can go through neighborhoods, you can get there. And it’s great! It’s great. You feel like your footprint is so light on the earth.
LOBET: Standing next to Arsenault and several of the small electrics is John Conrad. He’s a father of three and a Lutheran pastor who also got one of the cars.
CONRAD: My gas consumption went down by about 50%, I think. I really found that in this particular area, most everything I needed to get to - I could get to doctor’s appointments, grocery store, work, and…
LOBET: I think a lot of people listening would think, ‘Oh, three kids? No way, they couldn’t be candidates for this.’
CONRAD: I love the idea of it being for a kid. Although my oldest one, who drives, she’s like, ‘Well…it’s not as sexy as a car that I -’ (Laughs) she wanted to be seen in public with! (Laughs) But in my opinion, I’d love to have my kids restricted to that only because you know they wouldn’t go too fast.
LOBET: Conrad says his electric bill increased only $10 a month charging the car. Arsenault says hers was closer to $50 a month. The pilot project was small - just 10 households and two businesses. But it generated a load of data about where people go and how long they spend in places where they might recharge. South Bay officials could even determine how many grams of carbon were emitted per person per mile based on the electricity mix in this region. Now the South Bay Council of Government’s David Magarian is working on a larger grant-funded pilot - it’s aimed at more of the 250,000 second and third vehicles in this area.
MAGARIAN: Generally, most people in our country will be driving a large vehicle that could take them to Florida and back, even if they’re just going to their neighborhood grocery store. And what we’re saying is, ‘Sure you might want to own that just in case you do want to drive to Florida and back, but you don’t need to own two of those.’ Your second vehicle should be a neighborhood electric vehicle or some other locally serving vehicle.
SIEMBAB: What this is saying is, ‘Start thinking about what you’re really doing.’ Because right now you don’t think in terms of: where am I going and what do I need? That’s kind of the big turnover in the mind that has to happen.
LOBET: That’s Wally Siembab, research director for the Council of Governments and the idea guy behind several of the experiments here.
SIEMBAB: It’s like buying a computer. You know, you don’t buy a supercomputer to do email. This whole business of finding out the right tool - figuring out - is new in the American motive mind, American consumers’ minds.
LOBET: But Margaret King is skeptical that many people will use a slow, distance-limited car. She directs Cultural Studies and Analysis, a think tank in Philadelphia, and studies how people make choices.
KING: The way we make decisions every day - the first thing that we look at is the loss proposition: not what I have to gain, but what do I have to lose? You have to look at what people are going to give up. And Americans are very tied into their cars because the car is freedom, the car is mobility…
LOBET: …and the car is status, King says. So why did officials opt to use less appealing golf-cart style electric cars in their experiments, rather than, say, fast Nissan Leafs or Chevy Volts that go much farther? In a word, cost. They hope to use more powerful, long-range cars in future efforts. Again, Wally Siembab:
SIEMBAB: Hey, we don’t know, what if we’re wrong? So what? I think the astonishing finding from our research, and from this, is that you really don’t go very far most of the time. In terms of your normal trips, the journey to work is the longest - everything else is really short.
LOBET: Remember, officials here say, they’re at the beginning of their efforts, not the end - not making prescriptions for others. David Magarian:
MAGARIAN: We do know that there are drivers that this wouldn’t be suited for. But for a vast majority of people in the beach cities of the South Bay, this is really a strong strategy that works for many people.
LOBET: Besides the electric cars, local officials’ near-term plans call for reducing the number of suburban car trips by encouraging better retail and services even closer to people’s homes. They say the public cost is almost nil, much less than mass transit - a good fit for an era when government is in the red. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet, in Redondo Beach, California.
- South Bay Cities Council of Governments electric car program
- Enterprise Fleet Management helped South Bay COG equip its electric cars
- Miles Low Speed Electric Vehicles
- Wheego Low Speed Electric Vehicles
- GEM Low Speed Electric Vehicles
- Vantage Electric Low Speed Vehicles
- Columbia ParCar Low speed electric Vehicles
[MUSIC: Nicky Hopkins “Sundown In Mexico” from The Tin Man Was Dreamer (Sony Music 1972).]
GELLERMAN: When you gotta go, you gotta go. But to avoid embarrassment, we use all kinds of euphemisms. We visit the porcelain palace, do number two, and powder our noses, then it’s down the sewer, out of sight, and out of mind - at least for most of us. But 40 percent of the people on the planet lack a sanitary method for disposing of their own waste.
Poverty is a large part of the problem and it’s made worse when natural disaster strikes. In Haiti, where more than a million people are still homeless after last year’s earthquake, euphemisms don’t help. The waste from people is literally piling up, leading to death and disease. So for the past year, the organization Give Love has been running a pilot program in Haiti to turn human waste into “humanure.” Alisa Keesey is the group’s program director there.
KEESEY: Even before the earthquake, 50 percent of city dwellers did not have access to a proper toilet. People were what’s known in the business as open-defecators, or using plastic bags to dispose of their waste, or sometimes poorly maintained pit latrines. So it wasn’t a very pleasant thing to do, and it’s a situation everyone has to deal with everyday. And there really weren’t a lot of options for people.
Humanure Compost Training in Haiti
GELLERMAN: There was no processing of human waste at all?
KEESEY: They’re using pit latrines, so there is the sludging of pit latrines, and then that waste is de-sludged and dumped into open wetland areas, it’s minimally treated - it’s quite an ecological disaster there, actually, because there hasn’t really been a long term solution figured out. You know, affordable sanitation systems for the poor.
GELLERMAN: Well you’ve got an old problem, and as I understand it, you’ve got a pilot program to use an old technology to solve it.
KEESEY: Yes. A very simple, low-tech solution is thermophilic composting. We collect excreta in compost toilets and then we build a very large compost pile and we layer the waste with…we are, in Haiti, using sugar cane bagasse - it’s a byproduct of rum and sugarcane production. We mix in market waste, which is just food scraps from, you know, banana peels, to, you know, mango peels, whatever is in the market, and we, you know, layer it with more carbon cover material - the sugar cane bagasse - to control odor and flies, and then we monitor the piles to make sure our temperatures are very high.
And then the second phase is just the composting phase - the maturation phase where you’re just basically converting the organic material into a usable compost for agricultural use.
GELLERMAN: Well, let me ask an obvious, but unsavory question - does it smell?
KEESEY: I was surprised that we could take such large volume excreta from a camp in Haiti and have no smell at all. I tell people you could picnic on top of our compost pile - it’s actually so pleasant compared to other areas that have pit latrines because there’s no smell at all.
GELLERMAN: So what do you do with the ‘humanure’ once you’ve, you know, collected it and it’s fully decomposed?
KEESEY: As part of our pilot project, we’re going to do extensive testing on our compost to show that it is a safe method to sanitize toilet contents, and our plans are to use it on tree crops, nurseries, and in small gardens.
GELLERMAN: I thought you couldn’t use human waste on crops, food crops.
KEESEY: That’s not correct at all. You can use it on food crops. We’re actually following World Health Organization standards. As long as the compost pile reaches high temperature, and we do monitor this - our temperatures on our test pilot were very, very high, about 160 degrees. You sanitize the potential pathogens in the pile through high-heat temperatures - kill off any dangerous organisms in the pile. Six to eight months, nine months later, it can be used on agricultural crops safely.
GELLERMAN: Why haven’t they been using this technology in Haiti and other places?
KEESEY: I think the number one reason why people haven’t explored this technology to its full potential is fecophobia. We’re just afraid of this product - it’s an organic product, but there’s a lot of stigma attached to working in sanitation. And the second big challenge is no one has really workable, scalable models developed yet. No one really knows how to scale it up. So that’s one of the goals of our program is to promote this technology and give tangible know-how skills - teach Haitian groups how to do it themselves.
GELLERMAN: So, Ms. Keesey, I guess you’ve been doing this, what, a year, right?
KEESEY: One year, this month. Yes.
GELLERMAN: So how have the Haitian people reacted to this method?
KEESEY: Well, we have a line out the door of primary schools and small groups that want us to do trainings for them. We’re building about one or two projects a month, and we hope to train more people so we can, obviously, build as many “humanure” compost sites as people want. Seeing is believing, or smelling is believing, as I say, because once you smell a compost pile and see it transformed into a high-value fertilizer, it’s hard to, you know, think about wasting human waste. We don’t call it human waste, but this is a natural, organic product that’s rich in nutrients, and it should be put back into the soil.
GELLERMAN: Alisa Keesey is the program director at Give Love in Haiti. Ms. Keesey, thanks a lot.
KEESEY: Thank you for having me today.
Give Love Home Page
[MUSIC: Harlem River Drive “Broken Home” from Harlem River Drive (Roulette Records 1971).]
[DUCKS QUACKING WHILE THEY FEED]
GELLERMAN: We leave you this week in a front yard on Long Island Sound.
GELLERMAN: Migrating mallards usually find their meals during stopovers in coastal marshes. But all across the country, marshes are vanishing. In Connecticut, one flock found a substitute. Twice a year, they take over the bird feeding station in author Mark Seth Lender’s front yard. There are photos at our website, LOE dot org.
[DUCKS QUACK, WAVE SOUNDS]
[Mark Seth Lender “Mallards on Long Island Sound” Salt Marsh Diarie ©.]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mitra Taj, and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Sean Faulk and Wynn Tucker. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org - and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the LOE facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
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