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

August 20, 1993

Air Date: August 20, 1993


No Till, Less Toil, More Soil / Mark Moran

Mark Moran from member station WOI reports on a farming technique that helps prevent erosion and is also cost-effective. Many farmers in Iowa are switching to no-till farming, which helps reduce erosion and costs less in labor and equipment. Others are developing alternative techniques which they say are even more efficient. (06:54)

River Engineering

Host Steve Curwood talks with Kevin Coyle, president of American Rivers, about the ways in which human engineering and nature combined to worsen the impact of this summer's Midwest floods. (05:32)

Yannacone 2-Way / Jon Kalish

John Kalish profiles New York lawyer Victor Yannacone, one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund and a pioneer in the field of environmental litigation. From lawsuits over DDT in the 1960's to Agent Orange battles to disputes over incinerator ash, Yannacone is acknowledged as one of the most thorough — and abrasive — figures in environmental law. (08:18)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Dick Hinchliffe, Betsy Bayha, Doug Phillips, Mark Moran, Jon Kalish
GUEST: Kevin Coyle

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

When you think of a farmer, you naturally think of a plow. But should you? To combat soil erosion, some large growers are switching to what they call the no-till method.

GOODHUGH: We traded quite a number of machinery that we just wouldn't be using any more. But, ah, really, the plow is the thing of the past and your big discs are, too.

CURWOOD: Also, the ecology of the great Mississippi flood. And we meet Victor Yannacone, a pioneer in environmental law, who helped found the Environmental Defense Fund. His first big win was the fight against DDT.

YANNACONE: I was there in 1966 when everyone had given up hope, when Rachel Carson had been Stalinized out of science and 'better living through chemistry' was the watchword of industry.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

Congressional hearings will begin next month on a Clinton Administration plan to revamp some key pesticide laws. Among the reforms, the Administration wants to drop a 35-year-old ban on cancer-causing pesticide residues in processed foods. The controversial proposal would allow minute traces of carcinogenic pesticides in food, as long as the health risk is minimal. The new rules would also prohibit the export of pesticides which are banned in the US, and ease the removal of dangerous pesticides from the market.

Brazilian police are blaming pirate gold miners for the massacre of dozens of Yanomami Indians in an Amazon village. The murders are the latest episode in a bitter and long-running land dispute between the Yanomami and outsiders who want to exploit the region's vast mineral wealth. Gold prospectors have defied repeated attempts by the Brazilian government to remove them from the area. Thousands of Yanomami have died since miners first invaded the region in the 1970's, bringing with them disease, violence and environmental destruction.

In an effort to boost the weak market for recycled paper, five major companies and one university have agreed to convert to recycled paper by the end of the decade. The group was organized by the Environmental Defense Fund. Together they buy more than a billion dollars' worth of paper a year. Dick Hinchliffe of member station WNYC reports.

HINCHLIFFE: The alliance includes McDonald's Corporation, which teamed up previously with the Defense Fund to announce a switch from plastic to paper packaging. Also on board are Prudential Insurance, Time-Warner Publishing, Johnson & Johnson, NationsBank, and Duke University. The task force will study whether big consumers increasing demand will help lower the price and improve the quality of recycled paper. The joint effort comes a month before the Clinton Administration is expected to announce an executive order telling Federal agencies they must step up their use of paper with recycled content. Currently of the 22 million tons of paper produced in the US each year, only 6% is recycled from trash. For Living on Earth, I'm Dick Hinchliffe in New York.

NUNLEY: A sailor who jumped ship to protest the US Navy's practice of dumping trash overboard has been given a relatively light sentence by a military judge. Betsy Bayha of member station KQED reports.

BAYHA: Aaron Ahearn says he left the ship after refusing to throw plastic garbage, broken equipment, and even toxic waste into the sea. Ahearn, a surfing enthusiast from Santa Cruz, California, originally hoped to apply for conscientious-objector status on the grounds that polluting the ocean violated everything he believed in. But ultimately Ahearn pleaded guilty to charges of unauthorized absence from the ship and was sentenced to 35 days in the brig, demoted, and docked $500 in pay. A decision whether or not to discharge Ahearn from the service is still pending. Ahearn's attorney says his client got a fair sentence and that the maximum penalties could have been much worse. Meanwhile the Navy plans to ask Congress for permission to continue dumping garbage overboard for several more years. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

There's more evidence that the fragile ecosystem surrounding the Florida Keys is in trouble. For the first time scientists have discovered large patches of dead seagrass on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Keys. Doug Phillips reports from Miami.

PHILLIPS: Researchers have long known about dead seagrass in waters on the western bay side of the Florida Keys, and this latest discovery of the same problems in ocean waters to the east has heightened concerns about spreading pollution. Seagrass supports marine life vital to the ecosystem and important to commercial fishing interests. Scientists worry that algae blooms and other types of pollution which have killed huge swaths of seagrass in Florida Bay are moving east into the ocean, further threatening the coral reefs offshore. Researchers aren't certain what's causing the ocean seagrass to die, but some suggest the problem is linked to water pollution which begins much further north in the Florida Everglades and flows south to the bay and into the ocean. For Living on Earth, I'm Doug Phillips in Miami.

NUNLEY: Global warming could harm tropical rainforests along with polar ice caps, according to a new report by the World Wide Fund for Nature. The report says the threat to the forests would come not from higher tropical temperatures but from changes in rainfall patterns and stronger and more frequent hurricanes. WWF calls its report the first comprehensive review of global warming's threat to species survival. The group says the ecosystems most at risk would be coral reefs and mangrove swamps, which are highly sensitive to slight changes in sea levels. The study was released at a Geneva conference on the UN's global warming treaty.

On the other hand, global warming may be a boon for some penguins. Researchers from New Zealand report the waters around Antarctica are warming up. They say that means more fish and other aquatic life, and more prey for Antarctic penguins. Scientists from New Zealand and the US plan to install specially-designed scales at penguin rookeries to see whether the birds are indeed putting on the pounds. Changes in the penguins' status could be indicators of larger changes in the Antarctic region.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Music up and under)

No Till, Less Toil, More Soil

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

The deluge that's flooded the Midwest this summer has washed a lot of things downstream: homes, hopes . . . and vast amounts of precious topsoil. Even in dry years soil losses are running dangerously high. And the problem is aggravated by unusually heavy rains and floods. One of the chief culprits in erosion is actually one of the oldest and most basic of agricultural tools, the plow. By turning over the topsoil, plows make this vital layer vulnerable to the forces of wind and rain. But in Iowa and other parts of the country, many farmers are finding that they can reduce erosion and save work by abandoning the plow in favor of what's called "no-till" agriculture. Mark Moran of member station WOI reports.

(Sound of tractor)

MORAN: Just outside Carlisle, Iowa, Jim Goodhugh and his sons farm about 2,000 acres mostly of corn and soybeans.

J. GOODHUGH: Okay, this right here is a gravity-flow wagon we bought that's 250 bushel . . . (fade under)

MORAN: Inside a huge aluminum machine shed, huge pieces of red and green farm equipment spread their arms like tentacles through the dusty air - some of it old, some of it new. When spring rolls around and it's tlme to plant corn and soybeans, they don't drag out huge earth tillers and plows. On this farm, son Mark Goodhugh pulls this huge high-tech drill behind the tractor.

M. GOODHUGH: And it opens a little trench an inch wide or so and then it comes through and your seed drops in, and then you've got your seed firming wheel, and then you've got a little cast wheel behind that's your press wheel.

MORAN: The seed is planted at exactly the right depth, and unlike conventional ways of planting, it does virtually no damage to the topsoil. With conventional farming, the earth is turned over and exposed to wind and rain. It is the rain that does most of the damage by causing topsoil to erode, washing it into streams and rivers. No-till farming can help put an end to that kind of erosion, which soil conservationist Dale Faulkner says is a major problem on American farms.

FAULKNER: You only have so much topsoil to start with and you know some generations have almost lost all the topsoil they had to start with in the small amount of years, a hundred years or so, the land's been farmed in Iowa. Productivity's lost, takes more fertilizer and nutrients, inputs to produce a crop once you lose that topsoil.

MORAN: In fact, Faulkner says this method of farming can save up to 90 percent of the soil that could be lost using conventional methods of planting. Hundreds of farmers in Iowa have made the switch to no-till farming, in part because they are concerned about erosion, but also because the Federal government is concerned. Recent legislation mandated that farmers in highly erodable areas must come up with a soil conservation plan by next year if they want to be eligible for subsidies from Washington. But while farmers are being persuaded by the government to try no-till, the ones that are doing it are finding it more profitable than conventional farming. That's because it takes less time to plant crops this way. So in some cases they can farm more land. Jim Goodhugh says he saves money on machinery too, because he needs less of it to do the work.

J. GOODHUGH: We traded off quite a number of the machinery that we just wouldn't be using any more. But, ah, really, the plow is a thing of the past and your big discs are, too.

MORAN: In fact, the Goodhughs traded enough of their old equipment to pay for half of the new drill. For all the benefits of no-till farming, there is what some consider a substantial drawback. Rick Exner is an Iowa State University agronomist.

EXNER: If you're strictly no-till, you've put aside the other options for weed control, specifically mechanical options, cultivating the soil to remove weeds, and you're relying only on the chemical option.

MORAN: No-till farmers do have to use a lot more chemical herbicides to control weeds than conventional farmers do. Researchers are working on ways to reduce the amount. But some think even at current levels, no-till is worth the tradeoff. Rick Exner says while erosion from traditional farming claims about 15 tons of topsoil per acre per year, no-till can cut that to less than five tons.

(Sound of machine shed doors sliding open)

MORAN: Not every farmer in Iowa that is trying to save topsoil is using no-till agriculture to do it. Dick Thompson farms 300 acres near Boone, Iowa. He uses as system of rotating crops, alternating corn, soybeans, oats and hay. He lets some of his fields lie fallow, and his rotation leaves others unplowed for six years at a time. When he does plow, he uses a method called ridge-till farming. He plows the soil into high ridges, leaving trenches between them. He farms the ridges and the trenches catch the topsoil that would otherwise be washed away by rain.

THOMPSON: I know we're doing well, and the USDA at the National Tills Lab here in Ames is comparing our system with a neighbor's corn and bean in a convention system. And there's no question, on soil loss, infiltration, soil structure and mat that with the alternative system our soil health, our soil quality, is better.

MORAN: Thompson says he has reduced topsoil erosion to between one and four tons per acre per year - less than no-till - and significantly less than conventional farming. And he says that, by occasionally turning over the soil to make his ridges, he plows the weeds under and avoids the need for chemical herbicides. In fact, he says he hasn't used an herbicide in about 25 years. But there is a drawback to this kind of farming, too. It is a lot more work than no-till. It is a year-round job to tend the fields. Still, Thompson does not do this because the government, or anyone else, is telling him to - although he is part of an agricultural research project.

THOMPSON: There's nobody breathing down my neck to do these things, I'm doing these because I think there's economically and environmentally sound reasons for what we're doing. And that, it's through research and education approach rather than regulation that I would like to see things happen, but if they don't regulations will come.

MORAN: Probably nothing that people like Jim Goodhugh and Dick Thompson have done could prevent erosion that happened in a flood like the one that hit Iowa this year. But as the waters recede, researchers and farmers will be evaluating these kinds of farms to see how they stood up. Farmers are not primarily interested in trying to stop erosion under conditions like they faced this year. But their efforts to control erosion under more normal circumstances seem to be bearing fruit here in the fields of Iowa. For Living on Earth, this is Mark Moran in Des Moines.

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River Engineering

CURWOOD: As the worst flooding in a century continues along the Mississippi and its tributaries, we thought we'd take a look at how the ecology of the nation's biggest watershed is being affected. Since the last monster floods, millions of people have settled in the floodplain, and a system of levees, dams and navigation channels has substantially altered the natural run of the river. Kevin Coyle is president of American Rivers in Washington. While the flooding is disastrous for people, he says it's having a mixed effect on the river's ecology.

COYLE: One analysis is that the natural areas along the Mississippi River will actually be enhanced by the flooding because soils, sediment and so forth will be able to spread out over the natural floodplain, for the first time probably in many years, and that vegetation and wildlife and so forth in the long run will be enhanced, although in the short run much of this will be destroyed.

CURWOOD: What's been the danger from this flood? Is it agricultural chemicals, is it raw sewage, is it petroleum products, is it Superfund sites? What's the pollution danger from the flood?

COYLE: For the most part it's not agricultural chemicals, because these will be so diluted by the massive amounts of water flowing down the river that we really won't see that as a major factor. The short term problem with pollution is that a lot of raw sewage is going into the river as a result of the breakdown of sewage treatment plants. But that's a short-term problem. Ultimately the river itself will clean itself up. The longer term question, and the real unknown, has to do with all of the landfills, the dumps, the underground storage tanks and so forth that exist up and down the river, that are suddenly under water. Many of these areas will wash out, and what that can do is create what we call a witches' brew of chemicals. Not only will chemicals and hazardous material get into the river but it will combine and recombine once it gets into the river. We think that the sediment, the bathtub ring, if you will, that will exist up and down the river as the flood waters recede will need to be constantly checked, because it's likely that there will be pockets of toxicity up and down the river.

CURWOOD: Now we hear that the levees have made this flood worse. What else have people done to the Mississippi that altering the river's natural functions - I'm thinking of dredging, diking, straightening, destroying wetlands. What role have those actions played in this flood?

COYLE: Well, first and foremost there is the concern about the levees trying to hold the river in rather than to have the floodwaters spread out over the natural floodplain. And what the levees do is they hold the water in and that increases the level of flooding, the cresting levels; moreover it increases the velocity of the river moving downstream, and that can cause downstream flooding problems. The Mississippi, in addition to being a major river, is also a major artery for commerce and industry, and one of the engineering problems with the Mississippi is that this navigation system has never really been reconciled with the flood control mission of the levees. So the navigation system tries to hold the levees close to the river; the flood control mission would want to put the levees farther away from the river, and this has really never been resolved in public policy. In addition to that, the Mississippi River has a number of so-called 'meanders', and in order to cut time down that it would take a barge or a ship to move upriver the US Army Corps of Engineers will literally cut off these oxbows and cut off these meanders, and in the course of doing that, what that does is it increases the velocity of the water moving downstream, so that it literally moves with more fury and in the process can break down the levees and erode the stream banks and so forth. I guess the final part of the navigation system and its effects on the river has to do with the dams and locks. What that has done is change the hydrology of the river, the way that the water flows, so that as the mud and soil and sediment that traditionally moved all the way down from the headwaters of the river to the Gulf of Mexico, that's all been cut off by these dams. And to the extent that there's no sediment, no mud in the Mississippi River, or it's cut off by these dams, that causes the water to be more erosive, and that also can cause the levees and the river bank to break down.

CURWOOD: Is it possible to live near rivers and not pollute them or do we not belong as human beings living in the flood plain?

COYLE: I think it's unrealistic to think that we somehow can avoid living near or around rivers. I think basically that we need to better protect the communities, because the taxpayer ends up paying for these communities, because the levee system did not protect them. Now that's to be distinguished with the levee system protecting farm land and we basically think there that when a monster flood occurs, that farming areas and undeveloped areas along the river ought to be flooded in lieu of communities, and we also think that the farmers should be compensated for this. But if there has to be damage that it fan out over the natural floodplain and the river be reconnected with the natural floodplain. And then finally to, really to reexamine the whole system to figure out where it is that the river is pinched too tight by the levee system.

CURWOOD: Kevin Coyle is president of American Rivers. He spoke to us from his office in Washington.

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(Music up and under)

Yannacone 2-Way

CURWOOD: Few things have helped turn old "conservation" activism into the modern environmental movement more than litigation. Lawsuits forced a halt to massive logging in the nation's old-growth forests, and the cleanup of waterways, including Boston Harbor. And there are few people who have been more instrumental in the history of environmental law than Victor Yannacone. Yannacone is a feisty - some might say abrasive - lawyer from Long Island, who fought a groundbreaking crusade against the pesticide DDT in the 1960's, and helped start the Environmental Defense Fund. He found himself back in the spotlight in the '80's when he led a major lawsuit for Vietnam veterans exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange. Reporter Jon Kalish has followed Yannacone's career, and has this profile.

KALISH: In the spring of 1966, Victor Yannacone was working in the family law practice when his wife Carol, who taught science in a parochial school, saw a fish kill in a lake on Long Island caused by the pesticide DDT. She asked her husband to sue the local mosquito control commission, which was responsible for the DDT contamination of the lake. He did, and won a local ban of the pesticide. For the next three years, Yannacone waged a courtroom war against DDT until it was banned across the country. It was Victor Yannacone's first splash in environmental law, and the national spotlight.

YANNACONE: I was there in 1966 when everyone had given up hope, when Rachel Carson had been Stalinized out of science and 'better living through chemistry' was the watchword of industry. As a result of the fortuitous confluence of propitious circumstances I was able to make a substantial contribution to arousing a political awareness of the value of environmental considerations.

KALISH: Yannacone brought an awesome grasp of science and medicine into the legal battle. During one DDT trial in Wisconsin in 1968, Yannacone stunned a biologist who came to testify on DDT's effect on the entomophagous wasp. The biologist had sent Yannacone a list of more than 160 scientific papers about the insect, and was flabbergasted to learn than Yannacone had read every one. Such thorough preparation appears to be inherited: Yannacone's father, a legendary worker's comp lawyer, won a number of landmark cases by reading everything in the scientific literature about a chemical or disease. Yannacone's father also taught him how to use his opponents' expert testimony to build his own case.

YANNACONE: In certain areas of the law the only real experts are the individuals usually employed by the manufacturer or the principal user of the product. And all we did was ask questions which any honest scientist would answer fairly and built the case literally out of the information supplied by experts for our adversaries. And that's been the policy of my practice ever since my father taught it to me back in 1959.

MORAN: Victor Yannacone and his wife Carol helped found the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967. It was the dawning of a new era of environmental consciousness. For the first time, ecological activists started taking their cases to court, following the example of the civil rights movement. As EDF's staff counsel, Yannacone won several major environmental victories, including the first air pollution case brought in an American court. But his victories came at a high price. Yannacone was deemed a poor team player and some saw him as an abrasive egomaniac. He was fired after just one year at the EDF. Shortly after he left, Yannacone won what he still considers his crowning legal achievement: the public right to stop private development that threatens natural resources, a right he won by invoking 16th-century British legal doctrine to save fossil beds in Montana. For most of the 1970's Yannacone was out of the national spotlight . But in 1979 he was asked to file a lawsuit against the chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange. Vietnam veterans who suffered from skin rashes, liver disorders, and soft tissue cancers claimed that their ailments resulted from exposure to the defoliant, which was used to deprive enemy troops of jungle cover. Agent Orange was contaminated with dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals under the sun. Yannacone barnstormed the country for five years, and aggressively attacked the chemical companies for allegedly covering up the effects of dioxin. In 1980 he produced what he called the "smoking gun" in the Agent Orange case: 20-year-old studies on chickens that consumed dioxin-tainted feed.

YANNACONE: You can't look at testicle shrunken by 80% and say gee, that's a harmless substance. You can't look at a liver completely destroyed at the intracellular level and say that this is a harmless substance. This is the kind of toxicity that you would see only if you had exposed those chickens to lethal doses of radiation. I'm convinced that there is no way that those chemical companies can now say they didn't have enough evidence to put them on notice that this stuff was damn dangerous.

MORAN: The Agent Orange suit was settled in 1984, when the chemical companies agreed to establish a $180 million dollar compensation fund. But Yannacone and many veterans blasted the settlement as a sellout. Because the case never went to trial, they say they were denied the opportunity to prove that dioxin caused the medical problems alleged. The temperament that alienated Yannacone's allies at the EDF created similar tensions with his colleagues in the Agent Orange case. Chicago lawyer Steven Schlegel, who worked with Yannacone on the Agent Orange litigation, says that although Yannacone's scientific knowledge and forceful personality are important assets in the courtroom, the man does not work well with others.

SCHLEGEL: He is a zealot when it comes to taking the stage, he is an evangelist when it comes to analyzing what he is saying, he's telling you that you must do things his way as he says because God and science are on his side.
MORAN: He can be abrasive at times.
SCHLEGEL: He's a very abrasive personality, if you don't do what Victor wants you to do you are on his list, and he will yell and scream and kick like a child whose lollipop has been taken away from him to a greater degree than any other lawyer I have ever seen in court.

MORAN: Yannacone is no longer a dominant figure in the environmental movement, and he criticizes its major players as "wimps" afraid to attack tough cases head on.

YANNACONE: You haven't seen many environmental lawsuits since I left the Environmental Defense Fund against an industry. You see lawsuits against the government. The days of frontal assault, attacking a problem because it's a problem, seem to be over.

MORAN: These days Victor Yannacone is still fighting environmental battles, although on a smaller stage. He's currently representing homeowners on Long Island opposing the burial of incinerator ash in a town landfill. He has spent a good deal of time in Hawaii recently, successfully intervening in state land-use proceedings on behalf of a bison rancher and other residents of the Honole River Valley. A class action Yannacone filed on behalf of New York City schoolchildren who may have been exposed to asbestos is still pending in a Federal court. Yannacone is currently preparing an updated edition of his landmark legal treatise, Environmental Rights and Remedies, for publication as an electronic data base. For Living on Earth, this is Jon Kalish in New York.

CURWOOD: That report was prepared with help from Susan Jaffee.

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(Music up and under)

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Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Coxe, Reyna Lounsbury and Jessika Bellameera. Our engineer is Laurie Azaria, with help this week from Rita Sand and Monica Spain. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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