March 23, 2012
Air Date: March 23, 2012
Southern Part of Keystone Pipeline Gets a Push
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Cushing, Oklahoma is known as “the pipeline crossroads of the world’ and now it’s poised to get part of the Keystone XL pipeline. Cushing Chamber of Commerce director Brent Thompson tells host Bruce Gellerman that the pipeline is needed to connect oil storage facilities in Oklahoma to refineries on the Gulf Coast. (06:25)
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The Obama Administration recently called for steep cuts to domestic fusion programs in order to offset money earmarked for an international research effort in France. Dr. Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, talks to host Bruce Gellerman about what this means for the future of fusion energy in the United States. (06:30)
Is Fracking Making People Sick?/ Reid Frazier
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Some Pennsylvania residents who live near Marcellus Shale gas wells believe natural gas drilling is contaminating their water and making them sick. But others point to the economic benefits of fracking and say there’s little scientific evidence that exposure to drilling activities causes illness. Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front reports. (10:00)
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Americans throw out 19 billion pounds of Styrofoam packing peanuts each year, which sit in landfills for half a millenium. One company in upstate New York is producing alternative packing material out of sustainable ingredients. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to Gavin McIntyre, chief scientist at Ecovative Design, about how to turn mushrooms and agricultural waste into earth-friendly packaging material. (07:00)
Cool Fix for a Hot Planet
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Listener Enrico Fin of Michigan calls in with an idea for planting tress in the city. (01:00)
ReThinking A Lot
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Parking lots cover huge swaths of our landscape, but are usually thought of as a necessary evil. A new book delves beneath the surface to show lots of uses for these ubiquitous spaces. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with author and MIT Urban Planning professor Eran Ben-Joseph. (08:30)
Note on Emerging Science – Fungi and Lead
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Researchers have found that adding fungus to lead-contaminated soil could be an efficient way to clean up polluted areas. Living on Earth’s Mary Bates reports on the power of fungus. (02:05)
Sandhill Cranes Prepare for Liftoff/ Mark Seth Lender
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The Bosque del Apache, a wildlife preserve in New Mexico, is the wintering grounds for thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Soon, the birds will take off to breed up north. Writer Mark Seth Lender watched them as they gathered in their resting place. (02:35)
Earth Ear - Frog Sing-along
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A frog symphony amongst the pine trees of Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest. (01:00)
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Brent Thompson, Stephen Dean, Gavin McIntyre, Eran Ben-Joseph
REPORTERS: Reid Frazier, Mark Seth Lender
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Fusion energy powers the sun, but it's money that makes the world go round, budget cuts threaten fusion research in the U.S. Also, the president pitches a pipeline in Cushing Oklahoma, oil storage capital of the world.
THOMPSON: I don't know that anybody ever really planned initially, woke up one morning and said you know, 'we want to store oil for the rest of our life' but that's the way it has evolved.
GELELRMAN: Plus, health concerns over fracking for natural gas:
CHAPPEL: I was exposed to these chemicals for over a year. We had our windows open. You know, we were breathing this stuff in.
GELLERMAN: And we love our cars a lot, but not parking lots.
BEN-JOSEPH: We actually think that cars are immobile about 95 percent of the time, and in terms of parking estimates, on average, we think that there are three spaces for one car in the United States.
GELLERMAN: This week on Living on Earth, stick around!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELELRMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. At last count there were 8,371 people living in Cushing, Oklahoma, but it wasn’t votes that brought President Obama to town. No, it was petroleum the President came to talk about. Cushing is home to 316 enormous oil storage tanks; it’s the biggest oil storage complex in the world. Crude from domestic producers and Canadian tar sands is pumped in but a lack of pipeline capacity makes it difficult to pump it out.
OBAMA: Right now a company called TransCanada has applied to build a new pipeline to speed more oil from Cushing to state of the art refineries down in the Gulf Coast. And today I'm directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority. To go ahead and get it done.
GELLERMAN: Brent Thompson wants it done. He's executive director of the Cushing Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Thompson, welcome to Living on Earth:
THOMPSON: Thank you!
GELLERMAN: Boy, big day for Cushing, how did you prepare for the President’s visit?
THOMPSON: Well, actually we haven’t had to do a lot, we’re trying to kinda make sure that the yards are mowed and get our welcome signs out and that kind of thing, so we get an opportunity to just, kind of, take advantage of the situation and get excited.
GELLERMAN: So, it’s a historic day, but the real history in Cushing is the pipelines there, they run really deep.
THOMPSON: Yes. I mean, of course Oklahoma as you know, and Cushing is no different, has a long and storied history with energy. One of the very first huge oil finds in the world was here in Cushing back in 1912, I think. When the old Wheeler well hit and they found a huge amount of oil. And we have been involved in the oil industry ever since. I don’t know that anyone ever really planned initially to, you know, woke up one morning and said ‘we want to store oil for the rest of our life.’ But that’s the way it has evolved.
GELLERMAN: How did they get the oil out of Cushing back then?
THOMPSON: Well, it was done actually by horse and wagon, and in barrels, and everything has kind of evolved from that to trains and to now pipelines.
GELLERMAN: As I understand it, Cushing sometimes has as much as ten percent of the nation’s oil inventory.
THOMPSON: Typically, we will store about three days worth of oil at any one time, in terms of what’s consumed in the United States. You know, it doesn’t sound like a lot, but we can typically store here, if we were ever at capacity, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 million barrels of oil. Typically, they don't like to stay at capacity, you know, they want to get it in and get it out, if they can.
GELLERMAN: Well, right now as I understand, you have a glut!
THOMPSON: We have never actually been at full capacity. But, compared to years past, yeah, we’ve got more oil here now than we normally have.
GELLERMAN: What does it look like to store this much oil?
THOMPSON: Well, huge tanks! (Laughs.) A typical tank that’s used for storage will hold about 250,000 barrels of oil. You know, on the north and south side of Cushing we have, we call them tank farms. We have 13 different companies in Cushing that actually make it their business to store and distribute oil.
GELLERMAN: How come you don’t have oil refineries right there? Why don’t you just take the oil that you store and just turn it into gasoline and use it there?
THOMPSON: (Laughs.) It’s funny you say that, back in the early days, we did have 13 refineries.
THOMPSON: As time has gone on, they’ve for some reason or another, went out of business. We lost our last refinery here back in the late 80s, I believe.
GELLERMAN: Well, you’re the head of the Chamber of Commerce there, do you ever put that to some of these oil companies that bring their oil to you to store?
THOMPSON: Oh yeah. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. They would agree, they would have no problem with that. The problem is the permitting process and the environmental regulations that we have. I mean, it’s the cost of doing that, particularly when you have refineries already built.
GELLERMAN: So, I have to ask you Mr. Thompson, with that, you know, ocean of oil that you’ve got in Cushing, what’s the price for a gallon of regular there?
THOMPSON: It’s running about $3.50.
GELLERMAN: Hmmm, cheap by today’s standards!
THOMPSON: In a lot of places, yes.
GELLERMAN: 'Cause it’s four, over four bucks in many a place…
THOMPSON: Is it four dollars in Boston?
GELLERMAN: Yeah, it’s not hard to find.
THOMPSON: I’ll be darned. You need to be in Oklahoma!
GELLERMAN: (Laughs). Well, that’s OK with me!
GELLERMAN: So what would the Keystone pipeline do for you, if they were to build it? I mean, do you need another pipeline?
THOMPSON: Oh yes we do. To get the oil out to here and down to south Texas, and it will help us do that. It will also provide more oil for domestic purposes, which hopefully would have somewhat of a bearing on the price at the tank.
GELLERMAN: As I understand it, if the pipeline is built, a lot of that oil that they’re going to bring through your town and ship down to the Gulf is not going to stay in the United States.
GELLERMAN: It could go to overseas markets.
THOMPSON: Uh huh. Some of it will.
GELLERMAN: So, how does that help us, I understand how it helps an oil company, but I’m not sure how it helps the United States, and you know, me.
THOMPSON: You know, TransCananda, and I’ve sat through several meetings with them, I have never heard them ever, one time, say that all the oil that’s pumped through here into south Texas will ever be 100 percent for domestic use. You know, the fact that they’re going to sell fuel, export fuel to other countries, I don’t know that anybody here has a problem with that.
GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Brent Thompson, I can hear why you’re the Executive Director of the Cushing, Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce.
GELLERMAN: You’re a good champion.
THOMPSON: Well, it’s been all my life in this state forever, and we think very highly of the energy industry and probably always will.
GELLERMAN: Well, thank you very much Mr. Thompson.
THOMPSON: And do me one favor -
THOMPSON: Make sure that from this year forward, that the Red Sox always beat the Yankees.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) WILL DO!
GELLERMAN: Bye bye!
THOMPSON: Bye bye!
[MUSIC: Captain Beefheart “When I See Mommy, I Fell Like A Mummy” from Shiny Beast (bat Shain Puller) (Warner Bros. 1978)]
GELLERMAN: Petroleum powered our past and fuels our present but many scientists and policy makers hope fusion will power our future. Half a dozen years ago I visited MIT to learn how scientists were trying to create and control the ultimate energy source. The Fusion Plasma lab looks like the control room for a lunar space launch:
COUNTDOWN: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six…
GELLERMAN: But physicists here are aiming higher than the moon…
COUNTDOWN: Three, two, one
GELLERMAN: They want to create the power of the stars.
COUNTDOWN: Entering pulse. Entering re-cool .
GELLERMAN: The Alcator C-Mod experimental fusion reactor at MIT is the most powerful of the three so-called Tokamak devices in the United States. They use giant magnets, shaped like donuts, to control the intense plasma energy inside. Earl Marmar, head of the MIT C-Mod reactor, says fusion promises unlimited clean energy free of greenhouse gases and fears of a meltdown.
MARMAR: Can’t happen. An uncontrolled reaction is not possible. It’s so hard to make fusion happen you don’t have to worry about that.
GELLERMAN: What physicists do worry about these days is making fusion happen at all in the United States. President Obama’s proposed budget for next year cuts funding for two of our test fusion reactors, and entirely guts the MIT C-Mod lab, laying off scores of scientists and grad students. Instead, the money would be used to fund ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor being built in France.
The U.S. is one of seven national parties committed to ITER, and physicist Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, says the escalating cost for ITER is the reason the U.S. fusion program is being cut.
DEAN: Originally, say ten years ago, it was supposed to cost like five billion dollars. Today, it’s around 20 billion, maybe a little bit more. It’s proposed by the President in fiscal 2013, which starts next October, to cut 50 million dollars out of the domestic program to help pay for ITER.
GELLERMAN: So, how does that affect what’s being done research-wise here in the United States in terms of fusion energy?
DEAN: Well, it’s going to be a disaster if it comes to pass. It’s a very severe cut, they’re already proposing to shut down one of our three major facilities at MIT, and it will keep us from being prepared to really utilitize ITER. It’s going to discourage students from getting into the field because they won’t see the prospects of working here in the United States, so it’s a very serious matter if it comes to pass.
GELLERMAN: As I understand it, there are a bunch of powerful Tokamaks, these doughnut-shaped magnetic confinement magnet experiments, going on around the world, but the one at MIT, the C-Mod, is the one that has the same kind of power that ITER will have.
DEAN: Magnet-wise it has the high field magnets and a high density, and so for a small machine it does have many of the features that ITER will have in the large machine.
GELLERMAN: So, by cutting the program at MIT, will that affect the program at ITER in France?
DEAN: It can. It can, because, you know, after the program gets running, you have to decide how to operate it and what physics' regimes to study and the MIT research results underpin the planning for the operational phase.
Of course there are other programs around the world that are also feeding into the physics of ITER, but MIT certainly had a unique plasma, most of the other Tokamaks are lower density plasmas, lower magnetic field plasmas, and so the MIT program sort of had staked out a niche of its own. So, you know, to lose that program, I think, is an important potential hole in the international physics development.
GELLERMAN: Were you surprised by the proposed budget cuts?
DEAN: Yes. Nobody expected this to happen because we thought we had a commitment from the administration that the domestic program would not be cut in order to pay for ITER. But what happened was, we had to meet this international commitment to ITER, and that’s what caused us to have this problem. The fact is, though, that this has become very political.
GELLERMAN: But if the funding for ITER is driving the budget crunch in our domestic fusion energy projects, should we kill it?
DEAN: You see, ITER is an international agreement amongst state department people, among science advisor people, among energy secretary people in these various countries, and this is something that's got, almost, like a treaty attached to it. And so the U.S. feels, at the very highest levels, like Holdren and Chu, that they have to keep their oar in.
GELLERMAN: That’s Stephen Chu, the Secretary of Energy, and John Holdren, the science advisor to the President.
DEAN: Yup, they are the keys here. I think what they’re hoping in the next few years is that they can just hold everything at a marginal rate in the next year, and then the election is over and then they can get lots of money in 2014. I think that’s their game plan, I don’t think they want to hurt the domestic program or ITER, but they’re stuck in 2013 with a real budget problem.
GELLERMAN: But by then these programs, these experiments at MIT, the other labs they’ll be mothballs!
DEAN: They’ll be gone, and ITER will have been delayed some more, and I have no reason to think that it won’t eventually be successful. But the question is, what are we going to be doing in the meantime if all of our facilities get cut back or shut down because the current generation of scientists will all be retired by the time ITER really is up and running at the rate we’re going.
GELLERMAN: So we won’t have U.S. physicists being able to run ITER?
DEAN: You know, if it takes the next generation and we don't train ‘em, that’s a possibility.
GELLERMAN: In terms of ITER’s promise, it doesn’t hope to produce energy on a commercial basis, it just wants to prove the concept.
DEAN: It’s an engineering test reactor so yes, it will not produce electricity, but it will produce 500 megawatts of thermal energy for long periods of time and so you’ll be able to test the liability and maintenance and operating procedures and all of this that will be required before you could build a commercial plant, so it’s a necessary step on the way to a commercial plant.
GELLERMAN: Technical success is not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination here, right?
DEAN: No, that’s right. It’s a very demanding engineering venture, it’s a huge project, nothing on this scale of this advanced technology has ever been built before and it’s still an experimental facility.
GELLERMAN: Do you think it’s going to work?
DEAN: Yeah, I’m hopeful that it will work, I don’t expect to be alive to see it, unfortunately, at the rate that it’s going! (laughs.)
GELLERMAN: I’m reminded of that old saying, you know: fusion is the energy source of the future, and always will be.
DEAN: Well, so far that still seems to be the adage, but there’s nothing’s been found in the last 50 years that would prevent it from eventually being successful. We get more sophisticated every year in terms of the accomplishments and the technologies and the physics that we’ve learned. The world scientific community is very confident that this will eventually work out, it’s just the schedule remains unsure, and part of the problem is that fusion is going to be expensive, even when it is successful and therefore it’s going to have to compete against other energy sources, so exactly when and how it’s going to be able to crack the market is also quite a bit uncertain.
GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Dean, thank you so very much!
DEAN: OK thank-you!
GELLERMAN: Physicist Stephen Dean is president of the non-profit organization, Fusion Power Associates.
- Listen to Bruce Gellerman’s previous Hot Fusion story
- Listen to Bruce Gellerman’s previous Cold Fusion story
- The ITER project in France
- Fusion Power Associates
- Plasma Science and Fusion Center at MIT
- Fusion Future
[MUSIC: Jeff Lorber Fusion “Live Wire” from Galaxy (Heads Up Records 2012).]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead, natural gas from hydraulic fracturing is cheap and plentiful, but some say it’s enough to make you sick. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: John Coltrane: “Equinox” from Coltrane’s Sound (Atlantic Records 1964).]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. A new study adds to the growing evidence, and controversy about the possible health effects from the natural gas drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing. Researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health monitored fracking wells in the state for three years and found many were emitting potentially toxic hydrocarbons into the air, including benzene, toluene and xylene.
The researchers say the emissions may contribute, to quote "acute and chronic health problems for those living near the sites.” The findings in Colorado would seem to support residents in Pennsylvania who live near fracking wells and claim the drilling process has made them sick. But as Reid Frazier of the public radio program The Allegheny Front reports, the evidence isn’t conclusive.
PARE: So, how’d you do?
PARE: Not too bad?
FRAZIER: Amy Paré is a plastic surgeon. She does lifts and tucks, and breast implants. Today she’s taking sutures out of a patient who had a mole removed.
PARE: I may put a little bit of peroxide in on there to dry it off a little bit.
FRAZIER: Cosmetic procedures like this patient’s are Paré’s specialty. So it’s remarkable that she finds herself in the middle of a public health debate. It started about two years ago. PARE: We started to have more patients that would have open areas or recalcitrant lesions, that bled, ulcerated, didn’t quite heal. And usually they’re on your face.
FRAZIER: Paré’s first concern was skin cancer. So she took biopsies of the patients.
PARE: And when we would send them off to a lab, they wouldn’t come back as a cancer but they wouldn’t come back normal.
FRAZIER: On top of the skin problems, the patients had headaches and were acting lethargic.
PARE: And then we thought, ‘Well, are these patients exposed to anything?’ So then we would ask the patients are they exposed to anything at work or at home?
FRAZIER: It turned out many of these patients had one thing in common, they all lived near Marcellus shale gas wells. Paré’s practice is in Washington County, south of Pittsburgh, where over 500 wells have been drilled so far. Paré asked her patients to take a urine test.
PARE: Unfortunately we did find quite a few people that did have urine that had methane in it, toluene, hippuric acid
FRAZIER: All of which could have come from natural gas drilling. What to do about these patients and discerning whether gas drilling is indeed the culprit, is a question doctors and public health scientists are grappling with. Ralph Schmeltz is with the Pennsylvania Medical Society. It represents 18,000 doctors in the state. The group thinks fracking for Marcellus shale could have public health impacts.
SCHMELTZ: But there’s a lot we don’t know, and a lot we need to learn about exactly what they are.
FRAZIER: What he means is there’s not much science yet that answers the question of whether fracking is safe. The industry says it is, and can point to reports by state governments in Texas and Pennsylvania that find no evidence that fracking pollutes groundwater. On the other hand, a growing number of case studies have documented people near gas wells getting sick.
FRAZIER: But these studies are hardly definitive, says Jean Finkel. She’s an epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
FINKEL: I am certainly not saying that these people don’t have something wrong with them, I’m sure they do.
FRAZIER: The problem, she says, is that good old statistical axiom: correlation does not imply causation. That means that a headache could come from toxic fumes, but it could just as easily come from stress or some other factor. What’s needed are long term studies that look at a variety of questions, Finkel says.
FINKEL: We have to look at biological plausibility, is the disease that we’re seeing biologically plausible based on what we know about the potential compounds that are in the drilling process--and how strong is the association between exposure to risk and development of disease?
FRAZIER: Many are calling for the creation of a health registry for Marcellus shale that would list people who say they’ve gotten sick from fracking. It would be used as a basis for future health risk studies. Last year state lawmakers earmarked two million dollars from the proposed Marcellus Shale impact fee to fund a registry. However, that money was stripped out of the bill before a final vote.
Even without impact fee funding, several shale-related health projects have sprouted in recent months. Among these efforts is the Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.
RIPPEL: This is our resource that’s going to be looking at gas drilling impacts.
FRAZIER: Raina Rippel runs the center. It’s funded by philanthropies, including the Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front. The center opened in February in a suburban medical office building just south of Pittsburgh.
The office isn’t much to look at, just a few plants and a TV in the waiting room. But the center is the first of its kind, a medical outreach program specifically designed to treat people near gas wells.
RIPPEL: We’re going to the people who we believe have probably been impacted. So, you know, are these people near a drilling site, or gas drilling activities? And are they experiencing significant health concerns? And we want to provide them with a response.
FRAZIER: Much of the response will be to refer patients to the appropriate physician. The center will compile patient information for scientists to study, but that’s not the project’s primary function.
RIPPEL: We’re serving this population. We are not studying, we are not researching. That’s not what we’re doing.
FRAZIER: What it is doing is helping people like June Chappel. Chappel and a group of her neighbors in Hopewell Township, in Washington County, leased their land for drilling. The company they leased to, Range Resources, built an impoundment behind Chappel’s house to store water produced from fracking. The water in ponds like this often contains chemicals used to break up the shale, as well as heavy metals and salts that it picks up underground. Chappel says when she came home, she could smell the pond even before she got to her house.
CHAPPEL: The only way I could explain it is, it smelled like if you were sitting inside your car with a gasonline can.
FRAZIER: At the time, Chappel’s husband, Dave, was suffering from cancer. He began to develop nosebleeds. She thought they were from his chemotherapy. Then she started getting nosebleeds too. Then, a ringing in her ears.
CHAPPEL: It almost sounds like when you go to, like, a real loud concert and you’re there and the next day your ears are just like (makes a whirring sound), that. That’s what it sounds like, but this just never stops.
FRAZIER: Chappel complained to Range Resources. The company removed the frack pond. Matt Pitzarella, a Range spokesman, says the company probably shouldn’t have put the impoundment so close to Chappel’s house. He also said that any odors were probably due to stagnant water, not pollution. And he disputed the claim that the wells could have made Chappel sick. Chappel’s husband, Dave, lost his fight with cancer two years ago. But she’s now worried for her own health.
CHAPPEL: And I don’t know what my health is going to be. You know, I was exposed to these chemicals for over a year. We had our windows open, I had like a blue film on my mirrors. You know, we were breathing this stuff in.
FRAZIER: In spite of reports from people like Chappel, some doctors think fracking is safe. Sean Porbin has a small practice in Avella, PA, in Washington County. The town is surrounded by wells.
PORBIN: I’ve been looking for it for the past three years and I haven’t seen a thing. I think the big story here is, so far is, with all the hype, there is no story.
FRAZIER: Porbin himself has leased gas rights to his property. He sees the gas rush as a boon to the old coal town. And he wonders if health complaints aren’t driven by a profit motive. Porbin’s also worried scientists looking for harmful impacts from fracking could find evidence of a problem where none actually exists.
Still, he says, he’ll keep his eyes open. He’s signed on to work with the newly opened environmental health center. PORBIN: The potential here is that everyone is supposed to win. The farmer’s getting the royalties, the subway shops that are full at lunch, the little gas station. Everyone’s winning here. And no one wants to see anyone get sick. You got to watch it, though. And we are.
FRAZIER: Among those who figure to be winning, and watching, are Kathy and Guy Avolio. On a recent day, they took me to see the well Chesapeake drilled on their property three years ago. It sits on a large pad behind their home, on what had been a rolling hillside.
[SOUNDS OF THE WELL PAD]
FRAZIER: The couple also live in Avella, on a 600-acre farm with a koi pond and chicken coop. They have three kids. It’s not a stretch to say the well has become almost another family member, complete with its own nickname.
KATHY AVOLIO: The kids call it ‘College!’ They do. Our kids’ll say, hey, that’s ‘College’ out there. FRAZIER: Guy Avolio is an urgent care physician. He’s heard and read reports of water contamination from fracking. But he’s convinced that drilling is the right thing to do. He’s very concerned about America’s energy independence. The Avolios don’t drink their well water, but they do have it tested every few months just in case. The water, says Kathy Avolio, is safe.
KATHY AVOLIO: I would never put my kids, no matter what price tag you put on it, would I ever put my kids in harm’s way. But I also feel like my husband does, we have to try, to get this. I mean, this is an incredible technology.
FRAZIER: Guy Avolio grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, where his dad was a steelworker. He remembers when the mills were booming.
GUY AVOLIO: He'd always says, you know, the cars were dirty, the streets were dirty, but at least everybody had a job.
FRAZIER: The scene they see now in front of their house is one of economic prosperity. And their family is healthy. For the Avolios the benefits of shale outweigh the risks, whatever they may be. For Living on Earth, I’m Reid Frazier.
GELLERMAN: Our story on the possible health effects of fracking comes to us by way of Pennsylvania public radio program The Allegheny Front.
[MUSIC: Derek Trucks “This Sky” from Songlines (Sony Music 2006).]
GELLERMAN: Here’s a familiar sound:
[BUBBLE WRAP POPPING]
GELLERMAN: Bubble wrap is fun to pop. And each year we use enough of it to protect stuff being shipped to stretch to the moon and back. That’s lot of crackle and pop…
GELELRMAN: and there’s a lot of snap from Styrofoam too.
GELLERMAN: We go through 19 billion pounds of Styrofoam a year, and that’s just from the peanut–shaped, packing stuff. Bubble wrap and Styrofoam are lightweight and cheap but both are made from petroleum, and once used, they often wind up in landfills forever. That’s where the company Ecovative Deisgn comes in. The firm, based in Green Island New York, has cooked up a unique product that gets to the root of the problem. Gavin McIntyre is the company co-founder, and chief scientist.
MCINTYRE: We've actually looked to nature to grow the next generation of materials using a living fungus, what’s called a fungal mycelium, which you can think of as mushroom roots, to bind the waste particles together and what you're left with is a material that feels and performs just like foam, but it's 100 percent compostable in your backyard.
GELLERMAN: So, what kind of mushrooms are you using?
MCINTYRE: We use some common medicinal mushrooms that you’d find in Asia, for example, but we only use the mushroom roots, we never actually use the mushroom itself. There are no spores ever in our process.
GELLERMAN: So how did you come up with the idea?
MCINTYRE: The observation came from just examining mycelium growing on woodchips, and these woodchips were bound together quite nicely, and the concept was, okay, you know, these are really growing into these materials, digesting them, but they’re also serving as an adhesive.
GELLERMAN: Well, you sent us a couple of samples here and…
[TAPS THE FOAM]
GELLERMAN: I’ve got one right here. Yeah, it feels like foam. It’s light.
GELLERMAN: It’s kind of brownish white, it’s got all these kinds of hairs growing on it (laughs) and it smells woodsy.
MCINTYRE: Yeah, that’s a really accurate description of the material because what you’ll see in there are that those little fibers, or particles, are actual agricultural waste. What we do is we source all of our raw materials from within 500 miles of our manufacturing facilities and these are waste streams that can’t be fed to animals, they can’t be burned for energy use, and they just lay fallow in the field.
GELLERMAN: So what’s that stuff that you get from the field?
MCINTYRE: So, today we use things such as seed hulls or seed husks. So, for example, if you were to go to a Chinese food restaurant, and order some rice, that rice when it’s grown is encapsulated in two little shells and those shells are made predominately of silica, so they can’t be burned easily and they don’t have any real nutritional value. What we can do is feed them to our fungus, so the fungus digests some of the particles, while binding others together, and what you are left with is a cohesive piece of material.
GELLERMAN: Mushrooms and rice, so add a little soy sauce and you’ve got a meal!
MCINTYRE: You could! You could eat it, we don't particularly recommend it though!
GELLERMAN: And it works just like polystyrene?
MCINTYRE: That’s exactly right. Today we provide the material as a protective packaging solution, so for heavy objects such as furniture, like tabletops or bookshelves, as well as electronics and home appliances. Any of those custom-made parts that you see fit around a computer monitor for example. So, now, when you get your monitor in the mail you can just pull of the end caps, that were previously made of foam, now they are made out of mushrooms and agricultural waste, and you can throw them right in your backyard, and they’re going to be 100 percent home compostable in just 30 days.
GELLERMAN: So, if I got a TV set, and your packaging was around it, I would just throw it around in the compost pile?
MCINTYRE: That’s right! The best way to dispose of our material is to break it up into some smaller pieces and you can throw it right in your backyard. It serves as a nice active soil amendment actually because it helps aerate the soil and it provides some nutrition to the soil. But the material is also anaerobically compostable, so if it ends up in your municipal landfill, it is of no burden to the environment, it will just passively break down but it takes a little bit more time.
GELLERMAN: Will it sprout mushrooms?
MCINTYRE: Oh, that’s a very good question and the answer is no. So after our growth process we inactivate or basically kill it off. And to do that we dry it out using some standard baking processes. Because if you were to come into our manufacturing facility today what you would see is racks upon racks of these growing materials. It’s not a traditional manufacturing facility, we’re really closer to a vertical farm.
GELLERMAN: What does your factory smell like?
MCINTYRE: If you would come into our factory today, what you would smell is fairly similar to a mushroom farm. Some of our fungi species that we work with have a very sweet smell, and others really have a very woody smell, like you described earlier. So, our material sort of smells like the cross between a bakery, or a bread factory, and a woodmill.
GELLERMAN: So I’ve got another sample you sent and this one is hard though - it’s got one side hard…
[KNOCKS ON HARD SIDE OF MATERIAL]
GELLERMAN: What would you use this for?
MCINTYRE: So, we’ve been developing a construction material over the last few years. And what’s interesting about this material is not only it is comparable in insulation characteristics to foam, but it’s inherently fire retardant to the point that if you were to hit our material with a blow torch, it won’t burn.
GELLERMAN: So you could use this to insulate your house.
MCINTYRE: That’s correct, and we’ve actually insulated a number of houses as well as a some commercial applications in the American Northeast.
GELLERMAN: Could you make blocks of this stuff and actually do construction with it?
MCINTYRE: Yeah, so construction materials are one of the avenues that we’re pursuing today. So it’s installed in places in New York as well as in Vermont. And some of the other interesting things that we’re working with is, things such as replacements for engineered wood, like the cores that are found in your tabletops. We’re also developing materials for the automotive market, so the same performance characteristics that we’re getting out of the protective packaging, where it’s absorbing and dissipating energy, we’re applying those same materials to door panels and bumpers.
GELLERMAN: So, the bottom line, what’s the bottom line in terms of cost, how does this stack up against Styrofoam?
MCINTYRE: We sell these materials at either cost parity or below the foam and synthetics that they were using previously.
GELLERMAN: They’re cheaper?
MCINTYRE: It’s either parity or cheaper today - for a number of reasons. First, we have an open-loop system. So we’re just using agricultural waste from anywhere, so if there were ever to be a price constraint on a rice hull, we could easily transition to oat hulls. The other side of this is that we’re not dependant upon finite resources, we’re not tied in to the petrol market. And finally, all of our manufacturing processes are housed by the organism. It’s literally self-assembling, in the dark, at room temperature. So we don't have to have the same kind of complex machinery that’s required for expanded foams.
GELLERMAN: Do you have to keep your factory in the dark?
MCINTYRE: We don’t have to keep it in the dark, we keep the lights on, but those are only for the humans.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs). Gosh, this is terrific! So what’s the downside? There’s gotta be a downside to this…
MCINTYRE: So, today, our materials are slightly more dense, so they’re a little heavier than your traditional foams. But we’ve made some significant strides to date in terms of reducing our density. A few years ago we were at a 12-pound per cubic foot density where your traditional foams are between one and three pounds per cubic foot and today we’ve got our materials down to two and a half pounds.
GELLERMAN: Well, Gavin, thanks so much - really good talking to you.
MCINTYRE: Oh it’s my pleasure, thank you.
GELLERMAN: Gavin McIntyre is founder and chief scientist with Ecovative Design in Green Island, upstate New York.
[MUSIC: Jenny Scheinman “Ali Farka Touche” from Mischief And Mayhem (Jenny Scheinman Music 2012).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up, thinking a lot about the parking lot and how to put the space to good use. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER ONE: 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.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: King Tubby: “Spring fever Dub” from Jackpot Presents The Late King Tubby (Jackpot Records 2011).]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. America’s urban forests are in trouble. That’s what David Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service told us in a recent interview. He should know, he counted them using satellite images, and found trees in virtually all the cities he studied are falling victim to insects, disease and development.
Nowak says that's a problem because the trees perform valuable eco-services.
NOWAK: They clean the air; they help clean the water by intercepting water and reducing run-off, they take in carbon dioxide, and they shade buildings and reduce air temperatures in cities and huge impacts on energy use.
GELLERMAN: But listener Enrico Fin didn't despair when he heard our interview on WUFM in Lake Orion, Michigan. Instead, Enrico came up with a Cool Fix for a Hot Planet. His idea, for every parking spot in a city or suburb you plant a tree:
FIN: Not only would this beautify those horrific parking lots, sequester CO2, create habit for birds, etc., it would save the country untold gallons of gasoline by allowing cars to be parked in the shade in the summer.
GELLERMAN: Thanks Enrico! And for your Cool Fix for a Hot Planet we’re sending you a cool-blue Living on Earth tire gauge. Keeping your tires properly inflated can save fuel, money, and the planet, by cutting climate changing emissions. So get pumped and send your ideas our way. Email coolfix at L-O-E dot org. That’s coolfix, just one word, at L-O-E dot O-R-G - or post your idea on our Facebook page - PRI’s Living on Earth.
[SOUND OF CAR STARTING]
GELLERMAN: You might not know this specific place, but you're definitely familiar with the scene. I’m at the parking lot in the Porter Square shopping area in north Cambridge, Massachusetts. Just down Mass Ave. is Harvard University and beyond that MIT, which is where Eran Ben-Joseph is a professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning and he joins me in the Porter Square lot to talk about his new book “Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking.” Professor, welcome to Living on Earth.
BEN-JOSEPH: Thank you very much, wonderful to be here, beautiful day!
GELLERMAN: Isn’t it ever? You know, I hadn’t thought of parking lots a lot until I read your book and then I realized how important they are and the role they play in American life.
BEN-JOSEPH: This was the reason I wrote the book. Hopefully, for people to pay more attention to these kinds of spaces.
GELLERMAN: You say in the book that there are 500 million parking spaces in the United States, these are just lot spaces not parking garage spaces, and that, what - over 120 million people drive to work everyday and they wind up parking in parking lots.
BEN-JOSEPH: That’s correct. We actually think that cars are immobile about 95 percent of the time. And in terms of parking estimates, I think that it’s very hard, some people say that there are even way more than 500 million spaces. On average, we think that there are three spaces per one car in the United States.
Some places we estimate, and again, it’s very hard to give a precise measurement - but by looking at aerial photographs, about 30 percent, sometimes, of the land could be devoted to parking lots, and there are some places it could be even higher than that, particularly where there are a lot of malls, places like Florida or even in some places in the Midwest.
GELLERMAN: So, this parking lot here you cite in your book as a being a good example of a good parking lot and it’s got kind of places we can sit, here’s the stores, it’s got a bunch of parking spaces there, some trees, some landscaping there, it’s not inhospitable..
BEN-JOSEPH: Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it’s definitely one of the better ones. First of all as you can see it’s almost like an urban square, it is very nicely surrounded by buildings that actually create a space, an open space. I especially like the front part, the part that is next to Mass Ave., because it is a little bit more narrow, there are wider sidewalks where we sit right now here in front of the café. There is a table, the cars actually kind of provide a buffer between us and the traffic. There is a lot of actual both movement of people, pedestrians, cars, bikers, and in a way I like it because it’s a big mix. You see like right now the biker is just:
BEN-JOSEPH: - riding in the middle of the parking lot with a car coming through. I think that the drivers feel somewhat inferior in this space here, and feel a little bit that they need to behave differently, that it’s not their space.
GELLERMAN: Well, that’s interesting, because parking lots are one of the few places where pedestrians and cars have to commingle, in a way they don’t do ordinarily on the streets.
BEN-JOSEPH: That’s correct. The idea that we share this space and there’s actually not a clear designation between a driver and a pedestrian, I think, again puts people in a different state of mind in terms of how they behave. It seems more unruly, but in a sense the behavior is very different compared to the street. In my opinion, it is much more of an exciting space.
GELLERMAN: What about parking lots at shopping malls or Walmart or something like that, you know Best Buy, where they’re just enormous. How would you make those more human?
BEN-JOSEPH: First of all, you could reduce part of the parking that is not used everyday on a regular basis. Often these large parking areas that are associated with department areas are designed to fit parking for the peak shopping day of the year, sometimes you know the after Thanksgiving day where everybody goes shopping.
So, if it is for example a third of the parking spaces, those areas could be designed differently, it could be done with grass, it could be done with gravel, so first of all the material could be much more appropriate than asphalt. Another approach would be to really treat it almost like an orchard where you could plant it heavily with a lot of trees and increase the green area, increase the vegetation. Another simple technique which would be quite appropriate is to deal with areas where the pedestrian can actually walk safely from the car to the entrance to the buildings.
So dealing with a parking lot is a part of the spatial sequence, and as people enter the shopping mall they don’t feel like they have entered a desolated place until they actually enter the store. There are other elements to the parking lot themselves that are very intriguing, how people use parking lots, how people behave in parking lots.
[MUSIC: Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi” from Ladies Of the Canyon (Warner Bros. 1970).]
GELLERMAN: You know, everybody talks about parking lots you talk music. Everybody thinks of the Joni Mitchell song they took down paradise, put up a parking lot.
GELLERMAN: But is there a favorite song that you have about parking lots?
BEN-JOSEPH: I don’t know if I have, I have one song, which is more of a parody on the Whole Food parking lots:
[MUSIC: Dj Dave: Whole Foods Parking Lot (2011).]
Whole Foods Parking Lot
BEN-JOSEPH: I don’t know how Whole Foods will like that.
BEN-JOSEPH: There’s also other songs which are related more, I think to the culture of rap and people partying in the parking lot, there are a few songs that are related to that:
[MUSIC: Sly & Robbie and The Taxi gang: Big Yellow taxi” from La Trenggae (VP Records ).]
BEN-JOSEPH: And then of course there is this whole element of the teenagers, their behavior in parking lots. Parking lots are often these kinds of left over spaces where they can do things that maybe are not as supervised, and that’s also important in terms of our urban environment.
[MUSIC: Ocoee, FL Parking Lot Bluegrass Jam (2011).]
GELLERMAN: You know, this would be a great place to have like a concert, right?
Friday night's Parking Lot Jam at in Ocoee, FL.
BEN-JOSEPH: Especially if you set it at night-time - nobody is here. An interesting with the Parking Lot pickers are bluegrass players that like to hang in parking lots and they actually come to play, they bring their instruments and they come to play and it’s an old tradition, apparently.
GELLERMAN: Where is this?
BEN-JOSEPH: Most of the south and many other places that play bluegrass music.
GELLERMAN: So, professor, what’s the most unusual use of a parking lot that you’ve found besides parking cars?
BEN-JOSEPH: There’s a couple of interesting examples, one that I can think of is a burial ground in the middle of a parking lot -
GELLERMAN: Where’s that?
BEN-JOSEPH: Mary Ellis Graveyard in New Brunswick in New Jersey. Apparently they built a parking lot and a shopping mall around her grave. It was so important for the shopping mall to have a parking lot, yet they couldn’t move her grave, so in the center of this parking lot, she lays to rest.
GELLERMAN: Ultimately parked.
BEN-JOSEPH: Yeah, ultimately parked, maybe my next book would be “rethinking the plot.”
[MUSIC: Waka Flocka Flame: Kill The Parkin Lot Feat. Blar & P Smurf (Prod. By Southside)- from Benjamin Flocka (Mixtape 2011).]
GELLERMAN: Well, professor, thank you very much.
BEN-JOSEPH: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
GELLERMAN: Professor Eran Ben-Joseph’s book is “Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking.”
ReThinking a Lot is available from MIT Press
GELLERMAN: Coming up, an ode to sandhill cranes in New Mexico. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Mary Bates.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
BATES: Lead pollution is a serious problem around the world. Now scientists believe having a fungus among us may cut down on lead contamination. Soil gets contaminated with lead from many sources, including industrial waste and lead from firearms. One way to neutralize lead in contaminated soils is to add phosphorous, an element that interacts with lead to form a stable and nontoxic mineral called pyromorphite. But this makes the soil more acidic, which can cause leaching of toxic heavy metals. And sometimes the process isn’t very efficient.
Researchers from the University of Dundee in Scotland may have a better solution. They found some types of fungus can transform lead into its most stable mineral form. What’s more, they say this interaction between fungi and lead may be occurring naturally anywhere the two are found together.
Researchers tested how lead shot broke down with and without help from fungi. When fungi were added, they saw the formation of pyromorphite within one month. And the amount of lead converted to pyromorphite kept increasing over time. Without fungi, the lead shot corroded into less stable, and more toxic, forms.
This is the first report of fungi transforming metallic lead into pyromorphite. It’s also the first demonstration that the change from lead to pyromorphite can result from a biological process rather than a purely chemical and physical one.
The discovery that some fungi can transform toxic lead into a nontoxic mineral points to a new method of bioremediation. Introducing fungi to lead polluted sites could be a safe and efficient way to get the lead out. That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Mary Bates.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME ENDS]
Abstract in Current Biology
GELELRMAN: As winter turns to spring, sandhill cranes in New Mexico prepare for their annual migration from the Bosque del Apache wildlife preserve to the western shore of Hudson Bay, in Canada. Writer Mark Seth Lender traveled to the Bosque to observe this timely and timeless scene.
(SOUNDS OF BIRD CALLS AT THE BOSQUE DEL APACHE)
LENDER: Patient, elegant, sandhill cranes linger upon the flooded plain. Patient and austere. Here by night for the shallow safety this boundary of water provides, they stop to rest a while. For the sake of the food they found nearby, they linger, and pay homage, a temporary domicile, a temporary feast. Turning toward the East they form a long and upright line, and prepare their Salutation to the Sun.
They are in shadow, below the worn down mountain that looms, and like the landscape though weathered and tread upon by boundless heat, by bottomless cold, cranes persevere. Waiting. Then walking one by one they arrange by reference to the low steady wind. Barely ruffling, they slowly bend, like stalks of wheat heavy with seed. Watching. Stillness heavy in the air they breathe. Then comes the golden scimitar of sun. And catapult themselves into the glare - and they are gone.
Two remain. Only two. They lean as if their muscles are spring steel. The ice in bracelets crackling at their feet, stepping high they break clean away, loping slow they gain ground and speed, wing beats so deep they kiss the crystal clear beneath, until at last they rise. The long turn down the lake, a shadow play in tandem not a meter below their elegant forms. These two, among all others, truly mated pair.
GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender is author of “Salt Marsh Diary – A Year on the Connecticut Coast.” To see a slideshow of sandhill cranes in flight, migrate to our website LOE dot org.
- Back Story: Listen to a short interview with Mark Seth Lender about his trip to The Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge to view Sandhill Cranes.
- Mark Lender’s website
- Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
[MUSIC: Hiroshima “A Thousand Cranes” from Departure (Hiroshima 2011).]
[SFX PINE WOODS TREEFROG]
GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with a ribetting chorus.
[VOICES OF THE SWAMP, TRACK 3, by Lang Elliott and Ted Mack.]
GELLERMAN: The Apalachicola National Forest is the largest forest in Florida.
And it’s there, in a boggy spot, that these pine woods treefrogs lift their froggy voices in song. Listen closely and you’ll also hear occasional notes from southern cricket frogs and green treefrogs. Lang Elliot and Ted Mack recorded this amphibian sing-along for their CD “Voices of the Swamp.”
[ VOICES OF THE SWAMP TRACK 3 CONTINUES]
GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth - a wall of trees across Africa could help stop the sands of the Sahara from spreading, and quench a region’s thirst.
[ALFACA SPEAKING IN WOLOF]
VOICEOVER: Planting trees is good for us. Those trees can bring water and water is our future. Water can solve our problem. We are praying for this project to continue.
GELLERMAN: Seedlings of hope, the Great Green Wall, next time on Living on Earth.
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, Meghan Miner, 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. Also - don't forget our Facebook page - it's PRI's Living on Earth - and you can follow us on Twitter - at livingonearth, that's just one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic dot com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund, and Pax World Mutual and Exchange Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social and governance factors into investment analysis and decision-making. On the web at paxworld dot com. Pax World for Tomorrow.
ANNOUNCER TWO: PRI, Public Radio International.
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