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

February 3, 2012

Air Date: February 3, 2012



Planes, Trains, Automobiles; But Bicycles?

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The House transportation bill currently on the table cuts bicycling and walking infrastructure. Democrat Congressman Earl Blumenauer is an avid cyclist. He tells host Bruce Gellerman why he believes the bill is an assault on twenty years of progress. (06:40)

New Transportation Bill Proposes Big Changes

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The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has proposed a sweeping, new transportation bill. The legislation would encourage private companies to build their own toll roads and pay for infrastructure with money from oil companies. The author of the 800 page-long bill, Congressmen John Mica, highlights some of the bill’s biggest proposals with host Bruce Gellerman. (07:30)

Microbes Transform Wastewater to Energy / Glenn Zorpette

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At Penn State, engineers are creating a promising new energy technology. They’ve designed a microbial fuel cell, using bacteria to clean wastewater and produce electricity. From IEEE Spectrum, Glenn Zorpette reports on this new type of renewable energy. (06:30)

The World's Largest Environmental Cleanup has Problems

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The Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state is the largest, most complex and most expensive environmental cleanup effort in the world. USA Today’s investigative reporter, Peter Eisler, tells host Bruce Gellerman, the project is over-due, over-budget and still quite dangerous. (10:00)

Science Note: Tapeworms and Climate Change / Raphaella Bennin

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Global warming will affect one of the smallest, wriggliest creatures – tapeworms. Raphaella Bennin reports. (01:45)

Vanishing Tonewoods / Ann Murray

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For decades, several tree species have provided acoustic guitar players and makers of premium instruments with the perfect musical tone. But the world’s forests are in decline, including the trees that produce the best tonewoods. Now, as The Allegheny Front’s Ann Murray reports, some guitar manufacturers are finding ways to protect remaining tonewood forests and continue producing high-end wood instruments. (07:20)

Turning Tree Rings Into Music

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Media artist Bartholomaus Traubeck has figured out a way to create music from a cross section of a tree. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that he plays the tree’s rings like a record’s grooves. (05:45)

Earth Ear

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Earl Blumenauer, John Mica, Peter Eisler, Bartholomaus Traubeck
REPORTERS: Glenn Zorpette, Raphaella Bennin, Ann Murray


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. A proposal to cut federal funding for cycling and walking projects sets off a chain reaction in Congress. Here’s a Democrat:

BLUMENAUER: These bike and pedestrian projects actually create more jobs per million dollars than just dropping asphalt for roads. So I think that it’s more than a step backwards, I mean it is really an assault on 20 years of progress.

GELERMAN: But the Republican author of the bill says states should decide how to spend the money.

MICA: So sometimes bike trails were actually short changed in the process and people had to come to Washington on bended knees.

GELLERMAN: Also - guitar makers sing the blues:

DAVIS-WALLEN: If we want to make wooden guitars for another 178 years, we've gotta use the woods that are available to us and we've got to maintain those forests in a sustainable manner so that we can keep doing it. These stories and more, this week on Living on Earth - stick around!


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

Planes, Trains, Automobiles; But Bicycles?

Bike lanes have been historically funded by the federal transportation bill. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, nicomachus)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, MA, it’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: The “Hi Mom, hi Dad, hi Beaver,” era wasn’t all that long ago…


GELLERMAN: We recall it as a simpler time when kids on Schwinns rode their bikes to school and suburban sidewalks were actually used for walking. Federal statistics indicate as recently as 30 years ago two thirds of our kids biked or walked to school. Well, that has certainly changed.


GELLERMAN: Today, less than 13 percent of our kids use the old foot-mobile, or ride their two wheelers to class. Making children more mobile was what the Federal Safe Routes to School program was all about. It started in 2005 but could soon come to a screeching halt. It’s one of the programs on the chopping block as Congress considers a new federal transportation bill. Earl Blumenauer is a Democrat from Oregon, and a dedicated cyclist, Congressman, welcome to the show.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, Dan Brubaker Horst)

BLUMENAUER: Thank you very much.

GELLERMAN: Did you ride your bike to the office today?

BLUMENAUER: You know, I did, continuing a 15 year tradition here on Capitol Hill of bringing a bike instead of a car to Washington DC. It’s one of the best parts of my day.

GELLERMAN: What’s at stake in the proposed Republican-sponsored Transportation Bill in terms of biking and walking?

BLUMENAUER: Well, it is arguably the worst piece of transportation legislation I’ve seen that has been proposed. Not just in the 15 years I’ve been in Congress, but for many years before that. It would take away the transportation enhancement program option, which is the most popular program in the entire federal transportation arena where we had requirements to be spent on bike and ped - that’s stripped away.

It eliminates a requirement that states provide bike and pedestrian accommodation when there’s major bridge replacement. It repeals the Safe Routes to School program which has been so instrumental in trying to make sure that kids can get to school safely on their own - to make sure that there are bike lanes, that there are curb cuts, that there are sidewalks for heaven’s sakes - common sense steps that make our kids safer, and frankly give our families more choices so that people aren’t having to shuttle kids to school and have another traffic jam in the neighborhood every morning.

Most states have projects under the Safe Routes to School program. (Photo: NY State DOT)

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I guess that 20 percent of the traffic in the morning, during rush hour, is from parents dropping off their kids!

BLUMENAUER: It’s astounding. In so many communities now, you have kind of a double blip for the morning commute because there are people who are rushing around in the morning and before they go to work, they are congregating around schoolyards. The more we can do to make children safe getting places on their own, the better off everybody is going to be.

GELELRMAN: I was reading some statistics from the Federal Highway Administration. They said if all our kids walked to school or rode their bikes to school, we’d add 12 billion hours of exercise time, save 160 million gallons of gas.

BLUMENAUER: Yeah, it’s astounding when you think of the cumulative affect that would occur if children could travel safely, or just generally. A quarter of the trips in the United States, one quarter of the trips, are a mile or less. On trips like that, I beat my friends in a car. And again, I’m burning calories, instead of fossil fuel.

GELLERMAN: But you know, back when it first started in 1992, I guess it was, when the federal government first funded money through the transportation bill for biking and walking, it started off modestly enough at 23 million dollars, they had 50 projects back then. Now, it’s 1.2 billion dollars and three thousand projects.

BLUMENAUER: Absolutely, it’s just exploded. Now, those first projects twenty years ago were very important because they set the tone. Now over the course of the last six years, there were major projects in the Economic Recovery Act that the President had for big bike and trail projects. This has been something that has been building and it would be a shame to lose that federal underpinning that leverages so much more.

GELLERMAN: Supporters who want to continue federal funding for bicyclists and walkers, they say things like 12 percent of our trips are made by biking and walking, and yet 1.6 percent of federal money that is spent on transportation goes to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

BLUMENAUER: That’s a critical point, and even more of a disparity is the fact that 16 percent of the accidents are bike and pedestrians. So, it’s a significant portion of the mode split everyday, but it is more dangerous on average, and it gets a tenth of the resources that would be dictated if you were just trying to make people safer. It’s ironic when we’re looking at the health of the economy - these bike and pedestrian projects actually create more jobs per million dollars than just dropping asphalt for roads.

When we’re concerned about the health of the population, taking away resources that make it easier for family members to get out and be active - move - to be able to improve their individual health. And we’re concerned about the health of our communities, to take away essential investments that allow our transportation systems to work better for everybody, it is more than a step backwards, I mean it is really an assault on 20 years of progress.

GELLERMAN: What are the chances of this bill passing, of these programs getting gutted?

BLUMENAUER: Well, I think the bill is so outrageous, and there are other serious problems with it, for example - unrealistic funding, suspension of environmental protections and community involvement, that it is likely to make the bill dead on arrival. But I am concerned that we have these very destructive provisions that start working their way into the process.

The Safe Routes to School program encourages children to walk or bike. (Photo: California State DOT)

So I think it’s important for people to react quickly, firmly, indicate that it’s not acceptable. If everybody who cares about cycling makes their views heard, this assault will go away and we’ll get back to strengthening the partnership rather than trying to weaken it.

GELLERMAN: Well, Congressman Blumenauer thank you so very much. Have a safe ride from the House to your home!

BLUMENAUER: Thank you Bruce, I will.

GELLERMAN: Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon is founder of the Congressional Bicycle Caucus.

Related links:
- Congressman Earl Blumenauer
- National Center for Safe Routes to School

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New Transportation Bill Proposes Big Changes

Congressman John Mica(FL-R)(in shirt sleeves) chairs the House Transportation Committee.(Courtesy of the House Transportation Committee)

GELLERMAN: The bill he railed against was written by Congressman John Mica. The Florida Republican is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. His proposed legislation is 846 pages long and projects spending 260 billion dollars over the next five years. Congressman, welcome to Living on Earth!

MICA: Good to be with you. Good to talk about transportation!

GELLERMAN: Well, we just spoke with Congressman Blumenauer, and he wants to know why you want to zero out funding for bicycles and walking.

MICA: (Laughs.) Well, we aren’t doing that in the bill. What we are doing is eliminating a mandate for what’s called ‘enhancements,’ and actually devolving to states so that local communities and states don’t have to come to Washington and to ask for the money. So we think there will be even less red tape and states can do more or less according to what they desire.

GELLERMAN: So, if a state wants to build more bike paths they can, if they don't want to build any, they don't have to.

MICA: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I’m a strong supporter of the bike trail program. We’ve had a ten percent set aside of highway money for enhancements, and it went, actually, beyond just bike trails, it could be used for anything, for plantings, for whatever’s considered an enhancement. So sometimes bike trails were actually short-changed in the process, and people had to come to Washington on bended knees.

GELLERMAN: Well, most of the money in your bill would go to highways. It would link federal money for roads with drilling for oil. How does that work?

MICA: Well, right now you pay 18.4 cents per gallon, that comes into the federal highway trust fund - trucks pay more with diesel fuel - that goes into the trust fund and that’s used to support the national interstate system. Unfortunately, we’ve been spending in the neighborhood of 50 billion and we take in about 35 billion, so we’re short. And President Obama has opposed increasing the gas tax, Republicans are opposed to that - so you have to have another source of revenue.

So what the Republican leadership has agreed to, and Republicans, is let’s enhance some of our own energy production, and from actually the point of production, we get royalties and other fees that are set now, we’ll put that into the trust fund to make up the balance.

GELLERMAN: So, the revenue stream would be coming from drilling for oil- the fees that the companies would pay.

MICA: Yes, new energy, which does two things: it does allow more domestic production, so we’d become less dependant, we’ll have more supply, that should bring the cost down for consumers. So, we think it’s a win-win. Eventually, we’ll have to probably do away with the gasoline tax because we have the issue of electric cars who pay no fee, we’ve got gas cars, we’ve got fuel-cell cars coming on line. And the trust fund is actually depleting because cars are going further and paying less - that’s a problem.

GELLERMAN: So, would you want drilling off the coast of Florida, your state?

MICA: Well, it depends. I’ve always been a strong advocate of going after energy. We have an incredible natural gas supply off of Florida and I think you can relatively safely go after it, but you have to be concerned. If you’re doing deepwater drilling, you can’t issue a permit, like the Obama Administration did, without having the proper checks, without having the proper monitoring by inspectors.

GELLERMAN: But your bill calls for environmental streamlining, expediting permits by limiting environmental impact reports.

MICA: Well, first of all, that’s not correct. We don't limit any of the current environmental standards. What we do is two things: first, if you have an extensive period of time for the review, we try to consolidate that, so something that might have taken a year, we try to get it done in six months.

But some of these studies and reports go on forever, so we consolidate the amount of time. Again, not changing any requirements or lowering any standards, what we’re just trying to do is get a quicker review process, because almost all of these projects are projects that are in existing footprints. Now for a project that is going through the wilderness or some new uncharted area, it may take longer.

GELLERMAN: One section of your bill calls for private participation in public transportation. I’m reading it, maybe I’ve got this wrong, but you’d allow companies to build private express lanes attached to public highways.

MICA: Absolutely. And what we did in the bill is, we have thousands of miles of interstate and we said - you cannot toll any existing free lanes on the interstate, but what you can do is take some of that existing right-of-way, some of them have inside safety lanes, that can be converted with smaller safety lanes, but be just as safe, and you can turn that into a toll road, again keeping the free lanes free.

And the private sector can build these pretty quickly, they’re a lot more efficient than the public sector and they can return money to the state and to the project. So the free lane goes faster, and people who can pay get on the new lanes and they’re paying for that new capacity - pretty fair, isn’t it?

GELLERMAN: Well, philosophically, I’m wondering - you’re creating a two class society.

MICA: Absolutely not. You’re helping those that can’t pay, and allowing them to get to work and have their roads less congested, and you’re finding a way for those that can pay a little bit more to help pay for that. So we think it’s the most equitable way.

GELLERMAN: Last question.

Amtrak would face a 25% cut in Federal subsidies. (Photo: Wikipedia)

MICA: Yeah?

GELLERMAN: Am I reading your bill correctly, that you’re calling for federal funding for Amtrak to be cut by 25 percent?

MICA: Well, we are making some cutbacks. There have been huge increases on Amtrak. In addition, the administration and in the various stimulus bill, gave them another three billion dollars over a three-year period. If you add all this together, we’re subsidizing every single ticket on Amtrak close to 100 dollars. So we think that we shouldn’t be spending that much, and I’ve actually called for the private sector to start coming in to look at operating some of these lines because they can provide more efficient service, do it more cost effectively - they do it cheaper.

GELLERMAN: So privatize rail traffic.

MICA: Yes, I think there are good opportunities for that where it makes sense. We still want to support a national system, but the private sector can do some remarkable things if they’re given an opportunity to fairly compete. You don’t like these answers, but that’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). John Mica is Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Congressman Mica, thank you very much.

MICA: Great to be with you!

GELLERMAN: We checked Congressman Mica’s figures on Amtrak's subsidies. The issue is contentious…controversial and not easily answered. The statistics are old, and many variables aren’t taken into account, but according to the Department of Transportation, on a per passenger mile basis - back in 2002, the federal government subsidized rail traffic 21 cents a mile, public transit 16 cents and commercial planes got a penny.

Related link:
Summary of the “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act”

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[MUSIC: John Cale “Bicycle” from Hobosapiens (Or Music 2003)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: Cleaning up a Cold War mess; is the waste from nuclear weapons too hot to handle? Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Captain Beefheart: “Semi Multicoloured Caucasian from Ice Cream For Crow (Virgin records 2006 Reissue)]

Microbes Transform Wastewater to Energy

The wastewater treatment plant at Penn State. (Photo: Lisa Raffensperger)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. It's been said that ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ Well then, for researchers at Penn State University, our liquid trash may prove to be quite the trove. The scientists are developing “microbial fuel cells” - devices that harvest electricity when minute life forms feed on wastewater.

Glenn Zorpette of the Eye-Triple-E Spectrum, National Science Foundation program, "The Water-Energy Crunch: A Powerful Puzzle," has our story.


WATSON: This treatment plant collects the wastewater from the whole Penn State campus.

ZORPETTE: PhD student Valerie Watson stands on a bridge surveying a brown waterfall.

WATSON: Basically it’s just sewage, it’s what coming out of your toilets, it’s what going down your drains or your garbage disposals.

ZORPETTE: Watson uses a stick scooper to fill liter plastic jugs with the yellowish water. But, crucially, there’s more than just waste in wastewater—there are bacteria, feasting on it.

WATSON: We’re here to collect the bacteria that would normally be doing this process while exposed to oxygen. But we’re gonna take them out and we’re gonna put them in our own reactor.

ZORPETTE: Our “reactor” is a microbial fuel cell—a promising new energy technology, using bacteria, digesting wastewater, to produce electricity. And we’ll come back to these jars of sewage. See, wastewater of almost every variety contains organic matter. And that organic matter has energy, which bacteria are able to release in the form of electrons. Bruce Logan, who heads a Penn State environmental engineering lab, explains.

A demo fuel cell in the lab produces enough power to run a small fan. (Photo: Lisa Raffensperger)

LOGAN: They rip electrons out of the organic matter and they have to go somewhere, and in our body, we send those electrons to oxygen, but we don't give them oxygen in a microbial fuel cell. So the only way the electrons can get to react with oxygen is to flow through the circuit.

ZORPETTE: Electrons flowing through a circuit is electricity. But the irony is, we currently spend electricity to remove organic matter from water—to the tune of 1.5 percent of our nationwide use. It goes to aerators, pumps, and lights for the buildings. Logan says that someday, microbial fuel cells installed at wastewater treatment plants could generate that much electricity while cleaning the water.

LOGAN: We could look at not only not using that electrical energy, but actually being a net electricity producer. That would be a really good thing for society.

Each of these gadgets are test fuel cells. (Photo: Lisa Raffensperger)

ZORPETTE: For instance, that Penn State water treatment plant? Logan calculates its 2.6 million gallons of sewage daily could someday provide enough power to run 84 nearby houses.


ZORPETTE: So, back to that sewage. In the lab, Valerie starts assembling a microbial fuel cell. These test versions are clear plastic cubes small enough to hold in your hand. On one end: the anode, which looks like a bottle-cleaning brush. This is what the bacteria will grow on. On the other end, a circle of carbon cloth with platinum painted on. That’s the cathode. Valerie fills the cell with the sewage sample we collected at the plant. A wire connects anode to cathode, with a resistor put in between. And voila: a tiny bacteria battery.

Penn State PhD student Valerie Watson holds a wastewater sample. (Photo: Lisa Raffensperger)


WATSON: And so now here freestanding on its own we can have electron flow through the microbial fuel cell.

ZORPETTE: The bacteria continue doing what they were doing before, eating the waste. But the key difference is: that now they’re deprived of oxygen. In the absence of oxygen, some bacteria can pass electrons to a solid surface—the anode, in this case. In our test cell, electricity will begin to flow through the wires about 2 days later, as the electrons settle on the anode and begin their work.


ZORPETTE: If you imagine this on a large scale, water at a wastewater treatment plant would flow through these chambers on its way through the processing. Microbes would digest the sewage, clean the water and produce electricity. It would look almost identical to how water treatment looks now—just, instead of electricity going in, it’d be coming out.

On a smaller scale, the lab at Penn State still has lots to learn about the tiny critters that power their microbial fuel cells. PhD student Rachel Wagner is studying which microbes thrive in a fuel cell, and why. She looks at how they’ve adapted to better pass their electrons to the anode.

WAGNER: If we can figure out what genes are turned on when a microbe is in a microbial fuel cell and using the anode as a terminal electron acceptor, then we can manipulate those genes.

Rachel Wagner examines which microbes will work best in the fuel cells.
(Photo: Lisa Raffensperger)

ZORPETTE: But the secret to success probably lies on the other side of the cell—the cathode—says Bruce Logan.

LOGAN: I think right now the central challenge is designing these systems so that they're not really big and really expensive. And mostly, that boils down to designing an efficient cathode.

ZORPETTE: Today, the best cathodes are made of platinum, which is expensive. Other, less-efficient cathodes, have to be really big to produce substantial power.

LOGAN: We're really putting a lot of energy and effort into addressing that problem in a way that doesn't use precious metals and can be done with, you know, a reasonable amount of volume of reactor.

The wastewater treatment plant at Penn State. (Photo: Lisa Raffensperger)

ZORPETTE: If these engineering hurdles get worked out, the potential energy savings and versatility of microbial fuel cells could transform water treatment. They could provide energy to treat water off the grid, in developing countries or remote areas. They could use almost any kind of wastewater as fuel. In State College, Pennsylvania, they’re thinking: clean water at no net energy cost.

LOGAN: We're just trying to answer the question, can we guarantee society water? That's a pretty basic thing. You can argue about cars and buildings and heat and cooling or whatever, but you got to have water.

ZORPETTE: It’s a big guarantee—carried on the backs of the tiniest of workhorses. I’m Glenn Zorpette.

GELLERMAN: Our story is part of the Eye-Triple-EE Spectrum, National Science Foundation program, "The Water-Energy Crunch: A Powerful Puzzle."
For more information, go to our website loe.org.

Related links:
- IEEE Spectrum’s Engineers of the New Millennium: The Water-Energy Crunch: A Power Puzzle
- Penn State Microbial Fuel Cell research description (including a link to a demonstration webcam)

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[MUSIC: Al Kooper/Shuggie Otis “Lookin For A Home” from Kooper Session (With Shuggie Otis) (Columbia Legacy Records 2009)]

The World's Largest Environmental Cleanup has Problems

Reporter Peter Eisler, in front of Hanford's original B Reactor, which produced plutonium for U.S. atomic bombs, including the one dropped on Nagasaki during WWII. (Courtesy Peter Eisler)

GELLERMAN: The atomic age began July 16, 1945.


GELLERMAN: The first nuclear device that was detonated was nicknamed “The Gadget.”

The first atomic bomb test, known as, Trinity.

[AUDIO CLIP: The sound recorded…..miles away…]

GELLERMAN: Over the next half century the United States produced 60 thousand nuclear weapons. At the heart of each device: plutonium - difficult to make - even harder to clean up. Most of the nation’s supply of plutonium was produced in reactors in south central Washington state, at a restricted site known as Hanford - a 580 square mile complex along the Columbia River.

The production of plutonium at Hanford ended in 1989, and the massive task of cleaning up decades of radioactive pollution began.


GELLERMAN: This upbeat, but accurate video was produced by the Department of
Energy - which is in charge of the Hanford clean up.

[HANFORD VIDEO: The sheer magnitude of the impact on the environment is staggering, resulting in nearly incomprehensible numbers. Numbers like: 270 billion gallons of contaminated ground water and 53 million gallons of waste in 177 storage underground tanks. This waste is the legacy of more than 5 decades of plutonium production making it easy to see how Hanford became the largest, most complex, environmental clean-up effort in the world.]

GELLERMAN: And costly—over the years the cost to clean up Hanford has tripled to more than 12 billion dollars. It was supposed to be completed last year - but that didn’t happen, and some doubt that the project to deal with the deadly plutonium ever will be successfully finished.

Peter Eisler is an investigative reporter with USA Today. In his recent story: “Cleaning Up A Cold War Mess,” Eisler details the daunting technical challenges that are boosting costs and slowing progress at the Hanford weapons site.

EISLER: The government went in the early 1940s and secretly bought up all this property that they needed. And they did it in an out-of-the-way place, somewhere with a water supply and somewhere no one would notice a development of a massive top secret manufacturing operation. On one end of it, they have the reactors where they produced plutonium for the nuclear weapons production facility, and then over toward the other side of the site, they have this enormous production process to clean up all of the waste that is produced from that.

The waste is confined to an area where they have what they call tank farms, about 177 underground tanks, and there’s been a good deal of leakage in and around those tanks - about a million gallons of waste has escaped.

GELLERMAN: And these tanks contain something like 53, 55 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste?

EISLER: The latest estimate is 56 million gallons of high-level waste, yeah.

GELLERMAN: What happened to the stuff that leaked?

EISLER: Ah, well, it’s, you know, there is an environmental cleanup going on there - it’s in the ground, some of it is in the groundwater. The fear is that waste could migrate to the Columbia River, which is nearby, which borders one side of the site, and contaminate the aquifer there. And that provides drinking water to millions of the people stretching all the way down to Portland, Oregon.

GELLERMAN: Now, the plan is to take the liquid waste in these undergroung tanks, and pump it into a new facility, I guess what they call the pre-treatment facility - a vast, vast, vast building.

EISLER: Right, the pre-treatment facility is one of four giant buildings at this new treatment plant that they’re building. The treatment plant is actually a 65-acre complex, and there are these four buildings and the first building that the waste goes into is the pre-treatment building and that is the most complicated part of the operation and the part where they’re running into the most problems.

GELLERMAN: Your article in USA Today has video that accompanies it, and I want to play a clip from that. You interviewed a woman named Donna Busche?

EISLER: Yes, Donna is the site safety manger for the prime sub-contractor at the site, so she is in charge of making sure that all of the systems that are installed at the site meet the safety requirements that have been set.

[VIDEO CLIP: If controls are not properly installed in the design… hydrogen can detonate or explode in a pipe or in a vessel and release large quantities of radioactive material…]

GELLERMAN: That’s pretty dramatic.

EISLER: Well, that’s one of the big concerns that they’re facing here. When you’re handling this kind of material, you really have to plan for the worst-case scenario and be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and a hydrogen gas build-up is an inherent problem when you’re treating this waste, because the radioactive material reacts with water and splits the hydrogen and oxygen molecules and it creates hydrogen gas that bubbles up and it can get trapped in pipes, and it can get trapped in these big vessels that they use to control the waste. And if too much hydrogen gets trapped in those spaces, then you could have a combustible situation, and that would be a very big problem.

GELLERMAN: So, the plan is to take this waste and to turn it into glass right? These huge glass rods.

EISLER: Yes, ultimately, this is a process called vitrification and it has been done before on a much, much smaller scale with much less complex waste. And what they do is essentially blend the waste with glass-forming particles, in a molten mixture, and it makes a liquid glass which they pour into these giant steel canisters and the glass cools and solidifies in these canisters. And what you end up after 30 years of this processing is tens of thousands of these steel canisters with glass rods in them.

GELLERMAN: So, this waste treatment and immobilization plant - they’re designing it as they’re building it?

EISLER: Yes, it’s what they call a design-build project. And that has a lot of people very concerned. It is one of the biggest technical challenges that they’re facing.

GELLERMAN: In your video, you have one of the senior engineers from the Department of Energy, Don Alexander, and he is very skeptical of this plan.

[VIDEO CLIP: ALEXANDER: So, on the one hand while the issues are being discussed here on the side, the project is going full steam ahead and it’s getting us deeper and deeper in trouble.]

GELLERMAN: That’s from a Department of Energy scientist!

EISLER: Their concern is that there is such a push to finish this project, there’s a lot of time pressure to get it done, that they’re moving ahead with these designs without validating them, without testing them sufficiently to be sure that they will work.

The nuclear waste treatment facility should be operational by 2019. (Bechtel National.)

Once the plant begins operating, this material is so radioactive that much of the plant is sealed off. The moment they begin processing it, they essentially weld the doors shut, and it’s got to run for at least 30 years to do its job. So if there is a problem, a significant problem in one of these areas, it’s very difficult, if not impossible to go in and fix it. So, that leaves you with a plant that doesn’t work.

GELLERMAN: I understand they call these areas Black Cells.

EISLER: Yup, they’re Black Cells, and to sort of imagine the technical challenge - imagine building a car where you welded the hood shut and expected that car to run for 100,000 miles and could never get in and touch the engine - that’s essentially what you’re talking about with Black Cells.

GELLERMAN: What happens if you have one of these sealed areas, these Black Cells, and it doesn’t work as advertised, something does go wrong. What happens?

EISLER: Well, that’s the 12 billion dollar question. You know, they have some robotic options for trying to go in and deal with certain kinds of problems. But a major problem would cause them to have to go in and abandon the process in that area.

GELLERMAN: And then what happens to the waste?

EISLER: Well, then the waste is still there. And that’s the scenario that nobody wants to contemplate is investing all of this money and all of this effort and all of this time and having it not be able to complete its job. And if you’re still left will all of this liquid waste in these very old deteriorating underground tanks, then you’re right back to where we are now with the threat of an environmental disaster.

GELLERMAN: What does Bechtel National say - they’re the primary contractor.

EISLER: They are and they say that they will not put cost and schedule ahead of safety and operational success.

GELLERMAN: I guess that’s what the Department of Energy is saying. You also interviewed Dale Knutson. He’s the project director for the Department of Energy.

USA Today’s Cleaning up a Cold War Mess:

[VIDEO CLIP: As we learn things, we’ll adjust.As the technical issues provide new surprises to us, we’ll adjust. And as we bring the design to completion, we’ll ensure that the design has been validated against the safety criteria, and that we never allow the plant to be operated in a mode that doesn’t satisfy the safety requirement that we began with at our baseline.]

EISLER: That is certainly the Energy Department’s position, and the question now is - ok, if you’re going to go out and do more testing, and you’ve already built some of this stuff, are you really going to be willing to go back in and tear it out and redo it if the tests prove not to be successful.

GELLERMAN: So this thing is supposed to be up and running in, what, 2019 now, right?

EISLER: That is the legal deadline for getting what they call a hot start; for getting it up and running, yes.

Eight of the 177 radioactive waste holding tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Site. (Photo: Department of Energy, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

GELERMAN: So, let’s say it does go online in 2019, and they have this vitrified plutonium - the glass enclosed in these steel coffins - what happens then? What do they do with all of those coffins?

EISLER: Well, that’s another unanswered question. Originally they had planned to put those coffins at Yucca Mountain, where they were building a repository for nuclear waste, also from all of the commercial nuclear power plants around the country. Now that that project is not moving forward, there is no immediate plan for what to do with these tens of thousands of finished cylinders.

Mind you these cylinders remain enormously radioactive, in some cases, depending on which kind of waste has been vitrified in the glass, to the point where, you know, a human being couldn’t even go near them. So, they’re going to have to build an onsite storage facility to hold these things, until a permanent repository is built.

The Hanford Story: Overview

GELLERMAN: Peter Eisler is an investigative reporter with USA Today. A link to his story: “Cleaning Up A Cold War Mess” – and a lot more – can be found on our web site LOE dot ORG.

Related links:
- USA Today story: "Cleaning up a Cold War Mess"
- Trinity test
- The Department of Energy’s Hanford site

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[MUSIC: The Souljazz Orchestra “The Creator has A Master Plan” from Freedom No Go Die (Funk Manchu Records 2006)]

GELERMAN: Coming up – finding new timber to preserve the sonic timbre for fine guitars. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Sun Ra: “Fate In A Pleasant Mood” from Fate In A Pleasant Mood/When Sun Comes Out (ESP Discs 2003)]

Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation, for the protection of the environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world's most pressing environmental problems, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Gilman Ordway, for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

Science Note: Tapeworms and Climate Change

Stickleback fish with a large tapeworm. (Photo: Solveig Schjorring)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Just ahead, two stories – new woods for high end guitars and forget the hills, it's the trees that are alive with the sound of music. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Raphaella Benin.


BENNIN: There’s at least one species that may thrive on our warming planet: that’s the tapeworm that spends most of its life inside the stickleback fish.

The worms are a common parasite found all over the northern hemisphere; they live mostly in oceans and lakes. The temperature of these waters is usually comfortable for both the worms and their host fish, but researchers at the University of Leicester in England were curious how the creatures’ relationship might change as global warming heats up the planet.

The scientists put fish infected with the tapeworms in two seperate tanks: one heated to the water temperature of an average British summer's day -- 15 degrees Celsius -- and another five degrees warmer. The worms in the hotter waters grew faster and larger, and were ready to produce their eggs sooner. But the fish didn’t fare as well. Their growth was stunted and their reproductive abilities damaged. And even though they were suffering, the sickly stickleback fish sought out warmer spots in the tanks. And the worms not only appeared to fill the bodies of the fish but control their behaviors, too.

This study is among the first to look into the possible effects of climate change on the relationships between parasites and hosts. And while the future seems hot and bleak for some animals, including the stickleback fish, the tapeworms are looking forward to their day in the sun. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Raphaella Bennin.


Related link:
Article, “Some (worms) like it hot: fish parasites grow faster in warmer water, and alter host thermal preferences”

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Vanishing Tonewoods

John Bechtold, owner of Pittsburgh Guitars, says many customers want guitars made from traditional tonewoods, but many of these tree species are becoming rare. (Photo: Ann Murray)

GELLERMAN: The makers of high–end guitars are at a crossroads. After decades of using the wood from special hardwood trees to get that perfect tone, today - the oldest and best forests are rapidly vanishing. The situation has some who craft fine acoustic guitars searching for eco-friendly ways to keep their businesses, and the music going. Reporter Ann Murray from the environmental radio program Allegheny Front in western Pennsylvania has our story.

GUITAR STORE CLERK: Here, brother, have some picks.


MURRAY: Visit any music store that sells premium guitars and it’s like taking a virtual trip to forests all over the world. John Bechtold, the owner of Pittsburgh Guitars, pulls out a catalogue for a high-end acoustic guitar manufacturer.

BECHTOLD: This chart shows where their wood is procured from. Canada, Japan, Brazil, India.

MURRAY: Forests in these countries produce woods... mahogany, rosewood and spruce to name a few, that have been used by generations of guitar makers.

[MUSIC: Guitarist Laurence Juber playing a guitar made of Brazilian Rosewood.]

MURRAY: These traditional "tonewoods" have stood the test of time for a reason: they produce a clear resonant sound; they're durable and beautiful.


MURRAY: With just 20 percent of the world’s intact forests remaining, the oldest trees that produce the best tonewoods are vanishing fast.

PAUL: The cold truth is we're quite simply running out of a lot of the species that have been used for hundreds of years to make musical instruments.

MURRAY: That’s Scott Paul, forest campaign coordinator for Greenpeace. He says guitar makers aren’t the main reason for the depletion of tonewoods.

PAUL: The global consumption is just really reaching, to say the obvious, unprecedented levels.

MURRAY: Homebuilders, furniture companies and paper mills have been gobbling up these species for decades. By the 1940s, over-harvesting all but wiped out Adirondack spruce, the wood most commonly fashioned into guitar tops before World War II. Prized Brazilian rosewood became scarce by the mid 1960’s because of illegal logging.

In 1992, it was restricted from international trade. Charlie Redden, wood buyer with Taylor Guitar Company, thinks the loss of Brazilian rosewood was his industry’s wakeup call.

REDDEN: As an industry, we simply didn’t manage that the way we should have. So we’ve taken a really tough look at what role we play in using those materials.

MURRAY: Redden says guitar builders need to keep the remaining tonewood forests healthy. Taylor and other acoustic guitar makers have asked for help from groups like Greenpeace, the Environment Investigation Agency and Greenwood.

REDDEN: They have those resources to help communicate with the governments in each of those areas so we can work on the same page as far as forest inventory and sustainability to ensure those forests are managed properly.

MURRAY: Taylor is partnering with Greenwood in Honduras. They're teaching local people to manage and export mahogany.


MURRAY: This Greenwood video shows sustainably harvested trees in the Honduran rainforest. The trees that are being cut have been tagged with bar codes that are linked to their GPS location. Greenwood says this tracking process has stepped up compliance with local forest regulations.


MURRAY: Until 2008, wood importers in the United States didn't have to follow the timber laws of other countries and essentially could import illegally harvested wood. Greenpeace estimates that new federal regulations have helped to reduce the illegal timber trade by 40 percent. Redden thinks industry and government intervention have come just in time to save some of the forests that produce traditional tonewoods.

Martin guitars made with sustainable materials get a label from the Forest Stewardship Council. (Photo: Dennis Funk)

REDDEN: I'm hopeful that we will start to see better forest management plans so our industry can continue to make those guitars indefinitely.

MURRAY: Other guitar manufacturers aren't as hopeful. They point to the slow re-growth of forests and political instability in countries where many of the remaining tonewoods are located. Because of these limitations, Martin Guitar Company wants to go in another direction with its production of premium guitars.


MURRAY: At Martin's factory in Nazareth, PA, Brian Bailey's handsanding the cherry wood sides of a guitar body.

BAILEY: We file it down and go over it with a fine file to make it real smooth.

MURRAY: How is this wood to work with?

BAILEY: Good. It’s hardwood and it works very easily.

Martin Guitar's Brian Bailey sands the cherry wood sides of a guitar body. (Photo: Dennis Funk)

MURRAY: It's one of the sustainably certified guitars Martin makes with so called alternative tonewoods. Upstairs in the factory's offices, Linda Davis-Wallen says that Martin is trying to move musicians away from rare tonewoods that have been the mainstay of high-end guitar building.

DAVIS-WALLEN: Many musicians get very involved in many different movements and particularly environmental ones and yet they want the instrument they play to be very traditional which means it’s made out of all the wrong species. For instance, the ones that are most endangered, instead of helping us move forward with something that’s more sustainable and available.

MURRAY: Customers aren't beating down doors to buy Martin’s eco-friendly guitars. Of the 100,000 or so instruments the company makes each year, only 150 are made with nontraditional woods such as maple, koa and cherry.

DAVIS-WALLEN: If we want to make wooden guitars for another 178 years we’ve gotta use the woods that are available to us and we've got to maintain those forests in a sustainable manner so that we can keep doing it.

MURRAY: Martin is making an effort to get the word out. Dealers have to sign a contract saying they'll educate customers about alternative woods. Martin also has its tonewood ambassadors. Laurence Juber, once the lead guitarist with Paul McCartney's band Wings, and now a Grammy winning composer, has a signature line of Martin guitars. He designed his instrument with North American maples.

[MUSIC: Laurence Juber playing a guitar made of maple wood.]

JUBER: The maple guitars do not have the same appeal as a rosewood guitar does, but once the perception arises that you can actually get a great sound out of these instruments, then I think it will start to ease. But that doesn’t help Martin right now.

MURRAY: Juber and others think change will come slowly to the acoustic guitar world and that will have consequences for old growth forests around the globe.


MURRAY: For Living On Earth, I’m Ann Murray.

Related links:
- GreenWood
- The Allegheny Front
- Martin Guitar’s Commitment to the Environment
- Greenpeace blog on the politics of premium guitars
- Taylor Guitar Company
- Forest Stewardship Council
- Laurence Juber’s web site with info about his Martin guitars

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Turning Tree Rings Into Music

Bartholomaus Traubeck's special turn table device to play a cross section of tree. (Photo: Bartholomaus Traubeck)

GELLERMAN: You can tell a lot about an instrument made from wood by studying the pattern of annual tree rings - the instrument's age, where it came from. The study’s called dendromusicology. Well, Austrian artist Bartholomaus Traubeck takes tree rings one step further. He turns them into music – in a composition he calls "Years".

To make tree-ring music, Traubeck saws thin cross sections from trees, then, applying a mathematical formula, he plays the platters on a device that looks a lot like a turn-table.

TRAUBECK: The tree slice is turning like a disk and the tone arm is constantly being moved to the inside of the disk like on a regular record player. The difference is that basically it’s just a camera and this camera is a modified camera, a very fast one, and the camera has just moved in and it waits until there is a tree ring passing the camera's field of view and then it is translated into a sound. Sometimes it is a series of piano tones, sometimes it’s just one sound and the melody is defined, for instance, by the rate of growth. In essence, I play the tree’s year rings.

When the special tree ring reader hits a knot, it makes a loud chord. (Photo: Bartholomaus Traubeck)


GELLERMAN: This first piece that you recorded, what kind of tree did you use?


TRAUBECK: It’s a fir tree and it’s very minimalistic because it grows very fast and therefore it has big gaps in between the year rings.


GELLERMAN: It’s a very dark piece of music.

TRAUBECK: Yeah. I have an algorithm that defines what kind of tree gets what kind of mixture of scales, and this is by the color of the tree and the overall texture of the wood and stuff like that. So, whenever you put a fir tree on, you will get C minor, usually- that’s a little dark sounding.

It’s sort of a poetic translation into music. Every time you put the record on, even though it’s the same slab of tree, it will be slightly different, because I would have to start at the exact millimeter point of the record every time, which I can’t. If I would have to say what part of the music is coming from me and my decisions and what part is coming from the tree, then I would have to say, I guess 50/50.

GELLERMAN: So, different trees produce different music?

TRAUBECK: Yeah, sure. If I put on an ash tree, it produces some completely different piano music.


TRAUBECK: The ash tree is kind of… it has a very interesting texture, the year rings are very close together, it’s very compressed and it’s very complex. It has a lot of information in there and they grow really differently from something like a fir. And I think you can really hear that.


TRAUBECK: But you can really hear the structure. There are some rhythms, if you listen closely, that always repeat. For example, with this one, I really know that there is a part where the tree grew in a special direction a little bit more than another one, and you can really hear this with every revelation.


GELLEMAN: What happens when it goes by a knot or a crack in the wood?

TRAUBECK: It usually interprets that as a signal. It computes that the same way as it would do with year rings. And since there’s a lot of signal, there’s a lot of sounds at the same time - it’s like just hitting your fists on the piano.


GELLERMAN: So, why did you use a piano? Could you have used a guitar or a cello or an orchestra?

TRAUBECK: Yeah, I could have, but I felt that a piano is an instrument that always sounds a little pleasant any way you play it. It’s an instrument that people are really used to - to the sound and the feel that is associated with it.

GELLERMAN: We’re going to hear the walnut music, if you could just describe that for us.

Traubeck says he was inspired by Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Wood” album cover. (Photo: Jethro Tull)

TRAUBECK: That’s really stress-y and artsy (laughs)


TRAUBECK: There’s so much data in there, and at the same time there’s not. Because my machine reads a lot by brightness and contrast, and the walnut piece is very dark. There’s a lot going on without a lot of progression, actually.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, it’s got a nice beat, but I don’t know if I could dance to it.

TRAUBECK: (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: Do you like the music, the sound of this music?

TRAUBECK: The sound of this machine?


TRAUBECK: (Laughs.) I don’t like it anymore to be honest. I’ve worked on this quite awhile now. At first, I found it really fascinating, but like anything, I have to forget it for awhile to be able to listen to it again. So, right now, it’s a little too much for me. But, yes, I really do like it.


YEARS from Bartholomäus Traubeck on Vimeo.

Tree Ring Record Scratchin

GELLERMAN: Bartholomaus Traubeck, thank you very much.

TRAUBECK: Yeah, thank you for the interest. I’m looking forward to whatever you are doing with it.


GELLERMAN: Bartholomaus Traubeck is an Austrian media artist. This cut is from a slice of Common Spruce. The music goes round and round at our website LOE dot org.


Years - 'scratching' from Bartholomäus Traubeck on Vimeo.

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Earth Ear

Santa Cruz Island under a threatening storm. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender ©)


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with this riveting chorus…


GELLEMAN: Santa Cruz, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California, is a rugged landscape but a vast number of plants and animals call it home, including the Pacific Chorus Frog. And when the winter rains come, the frogs can be heard singing its praises. Mark Seth Lender got wet… and an earful…when he recorded the chorus.


Related link:
Mark Lender's website

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GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Mary Bates and Sophie Golden. 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 Living on Earth facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And you can follow us on Twitter - @livingonearth, that's one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

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