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

March 22, 1996

Air Date: March 22, 1996


Toxic Sludge: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You / Eric Westervelt

What's in a name? Whether you call it toxic sludge, or bio-solids, treated waste from America's drainpipes is being used as farm fertilizer these days and there continues to be debate on the benefits versus the possible health risks. Eric Westervelt of New Hampshire Public Radio has this report. (08:20)

Hospital Incinerators: They May Be Making People Sick / Julie Edelson-Halpert

The same hospitals that are working to heal people's poor health may be making them sick when they burn their medical waste in incinerators, thus releasing dioxin into the environment. Julie Edelson-Halpert reports on this still wide-spread practice and on what other options are possible. (06:10)

Dying From Dioxin!

Steve Curwood speaks with housewife and mother turned author and activist Lois Gibbs about her latest handbook, Dying From Dioxin: A Citizens Guide to Reclaiming Our Health. Gibbs got involved in fighting toxic waste while living in the now famous Love Canal neighborhood in upstate New York, where she began fighting for solutions to her family's constant poor health due to chemical dumping. (06:15)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about the vernal equinox and Easter, of eggs and bunnies. (01:00)

Endangered Species Act Update / Barbara Ferry

Barbara Ferry reports from Washington, D.C. on the most recent developments with the Endangered Species Act and its ability to protect dwindling species. (04:15)

In Search of: The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker / Brenda Tremblay

Despite the accepted belief among scientists that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct, avid bird enthusiasts continue to search for the species among southern U.S. swamps and bogs. In this documentary report produced by Brenda Tremblay, we visit with hopeful birdwatchers searching for their aviary Holy Grail. (22:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: George Hardeen, Eric Westervelt, Julie Edelson-Halpert,
Barbara Ferry, Brenda Tremblay
GUEST: Lois Gibbs

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Where does it all go when you flush the toilet? In many cases the treated solids wind up as fertilizer on farmers' fields. Some say sewage sludge is dangerous; others say not to worry.

RICHARD: People are afraid because of the name of the product. I think that's what they're afraid of. I think the sludge is as clean as anything you can put on the land.

CURWOOD: Also, Lois Gibbs has a new book. She led the fight against the toxic dump at Love Canal. Now she has a new cause: dioxin.

GIBBS: You know, we could run away from Love Canal. We could essentially get in our car and drive away. But where do you go to get away from dioxin?

CURWOOD: And medical waste incinerators come under fire from the EPA. We'll have that and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The Interior Department is preparing to raise the level of the Colorado River by 25 feet in what's being called the biggest hydro engineering experiment ever. From Arizona, George Hardeen reports.

HARDEEN: For more than 30 years, the Glen Canyon Dam was operated to control floods, delivering water to downstream users and generating hydropower electricity quickly. But scientists said raising and lowering the river at will was destroying sensitive habitat and ancient Indian ruins in the Grand Canyon. Last year, when the first environmental impact study on the dam was finished, it called for a controlled flood through the canyon to restore these values. Dave Wegner is director of Glen Canyon Environmental Studies.

WEGNER: Technically it's called the Beach Habitat Building Flow. That's what the Bureau of Reclamation parlance is for this event. But actually it's a controlled flood. It's a controlled release from Glen Canyon Dam that will allow us to mimic Mother Nature in a sense in what she would have historically done during this time of year pre-dam.

HARDEEN: After a week of flooding, more than 100 scientists will monitor the effects on dozens of resources throughout the Grand Canyon. For Living on Earth, I'm George Hardeen in Tuba City, Arizona.

NUNLEY: For the first time the British government has acknowledge that so-called "mad cow disease" can be transmitted to humans. In a report to Britain's Health Ministry, a committee of scientists and doctors said 10 people who died from the lethal brain condition probably had contracted it from beef infected before government safety measures were introduced in 1989. Until recently the British government refused to accept that the disease could be transmitted between species. Bovine spongeform encephalopathy, known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, is popularly called "mad cow disease" because of the odd way in which infected cattle behave. First confirmed in 1986, it is now on the wane, but hundreds of thousands of cattle are still infected each year. And in the wake of the latest reports, several European nations have banned imports of British beef.

The United States has pledged $10 million to aid victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher says the aid will be provided before the tenth anniversary of the disaster next month. Christopher spoke following a tour of a hospital that cares for children with illnesses linked to the nuclear disaster. He said the aid would include a mobile laboratory to monitor radiation. But senior Ukrainian officials complain the West isn't making good on offers to pay for closing down the nuclear power station. Last December Ukraine signed a memorandum with a group of 7 nations that was to have provided $2 billion in aid and credits.

Workers who say they were poisoned by toxic chemicals at a secret air base in Nevada plan to appeal the recent dismissal of their case. Earlier this month US District Judge Philip Pro ruled that a trial in the lawsuit brought against the base, known as Area 51, could endanger national security. The former workers claim they were poisoned by the illegal burning of hazardous waste at the military site. They say the government covered up evidence of environmental crimes. George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley, who represents the workers, says the judge's dismissal gives unprecedented power to the Executive Branch.

TURLEY: If the government can classify evidence of its own crimes, the Executive Branch becomes a government unto itself; it becomes a single branch of government that is able to operate independently from the other branches.

NUNLEY: Despite the dismissal, Turley can claim two important victories. The government was forced to admit the secret base exists, and it was compelled to allow the EPA to inspect the base, although the Agency's report is classified.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich has unveiled plans to blunt environmental criticism of the GOP. As part of that plan, Gingrich wants to swap government-owned inner city properties for environmentally sensitive land. Gingrich also wants Republican members of Congress to commemorate Earth Day. Gingrich is planning to name members of a House Task Force on the Environment. The Speaker wants the group to draft an environmental plank for the GOP's Presidential campaign platform. Republican pollsters have been warning party leaders that the public sees the GOP as anti-environment.

Stardust and smog may have a lot in common. Scientists from Stanford and Washington Universities say molecules from interstellar space consist of carbon compounds called poly-cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. But on Earth they're best known as smog. The interstellar molecules are most likely the oldest molecules ever studied in the laboratory, pre-dating the formation of our solar system. The fact that space molecules are no different from those made on Earth supports the scientists' conviction that billions of years ago things in the universe weren't all that different, chemically speaking, from what they are now.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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Toxic Sludge: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Some call it sludge. Others call it biosolids. It's what's left over from treated waste, mainly human excreta, industrial runoff, and anything else that gets dumped into the sewers. For the last 20 years, treated sludge has been spread on farmlands as a cheap, effective fertilizer. It seemed like a great way to deal with the millions of tons of municipal sewage sludge produced every year. Recycle the organic waste while helping farmers, city hall, and the taxpayer. But there's a problem. Human waste is a great fertilizer, but sludge may be contaminated with all kinds of dangerous substances. Poisonous heavy metals like lead and cadmium. Chlorine-resistant viruses. Industrial chemicals and byproducts like dioxin. As more and more sludge gets put on farm land, more and more citizens are asking about its safety. On the other hand, the biosolids industry and the US Environmental Protection Agency say there's no cause to worry. New Hampshire Public Radio's Eric Westervelt reports.

WESTERVELT: What's in a name? When it comes to the debate over using human waste as farm fertilizer, everything. Most call it by the more traditional name: sludge. But not EPA physical scientist John Walker.

WALKER: I call them biosolids. Because I think it emphasizes the fact that these materials are usable and have a great benefit.

WESTERVELT: The semantic struggle over sludge underscores an increasingly contentious debate across America. Is sludge or biosolids as safe, beneficial, and earth friendly as Walker and others say it is?

(A car engine starts)

WESTERVELT: The answer to George and Keith Richard after more than 10 years of using sludge fertilizer on their family farm is a resounding yes.

K. RICHARD: Well, it's been beneficial in part because it saves on our chemical fertilizer bill, puts more of a natural fertilizer into the soil, builds up our organic matter.

WESTERVELT: The Richards grow foraging grain crops on their 550-acre Greengold Farm in Pembrooke, New Hampshire. The snow is still thick on their field, so George and his son Richard work on their farm truck in their grease-scarred garage next to the barn.

(A motor runs, metal scrapes)

WESTERVELT: Some consumer and citizen groups have rung health and safety alarms about the growing use of municipal biosolids. But the Richards declare it good for the town and the earth, and because they get it for free, it's good for their bank account, too.

G. RICHARD: People are afraid because of the name of the product. I think that's what they're afraid of. And it's all tested, and it's all accepted by the EPA and everybody else. So I think the sludge is as clean as anything you can put on the land.

K. RICHARD: In a landfill or incineration, it can cost anywhere from $25 to $40 a ton. This way it's a lot cheaper for the towns, but people want it to be cheaper for themselves but they don't want it in their back yard. That's half the problem right there.

WESTERVELT: But for others, including some farmers, the problem goes much deeper.

WOMAN: Did anybody from disease control go to that meeting?

MAN: The Green Line meeting? I don't know

WOMAN: No. But they were there at the open meeting.

WESTERVELT: The sun cuts through the windows of the 200-year-old Owen farmhouse in Hopkinton, New Hampshire. Seated around a long pine table are 7 local anti-sludge activists. Organizer Mary Merzi says using waste as fertilizer is a laudable idea, but it's not so simple. Merzi notes that municipal sludge isn't just processed human waste. It's also industrial waste and household materials.

MERZI: Everything that anybody puts down their drain, whether it is a chemical to get rid of mildew, or you're cleaning your bathroom bowl, or you're using ammonia or you're using Clorox all goes into the system, and is also making a waste dump. They don't know the long term effect. What's it doing to our land? We're losing our agricultural land due to development, and now, you know, due to chemical fertilizers and sludge. And I think it's just short-term gain because they don't know what to do with it , and it's the cheapest way out. It comes down to the almighty dollar once again.

WESTERVELT: The group is agitated that sludge might be pumping high levels of toxic heavy metals onto farm fields and into our food. They also fear that human pathogens, or dangerous levels of chlorinated compounds such as dioxin, might also be present. Hillary Nelson is angry that the Agency won't address the potential problem of dioxin in sludge until the turn of the century. And until then --

NELSON: You don't have to test for dioxin. That's not required right now, period. Heavy metals you have to test for, and they do allow certain levels. Now there's a big debate about whether or not those levels are appropriate. Their argument right now is if you put it into good soil and farm land, the heavy metals are bound up in the soils and they don't cause problems. But if you don't keep the farm land in good shape, 10, 20 years from now those metals are going to become active in the soil, they're going to become mobile, and they're going to wind up in people.

WESTERVELT: There's no clear evidence of that so far, but soil scientists Dr. Murray McBride with Cornell University has beenstudying decades-old sludge sites to try to determine whether heavy metals from the fertilizer remain or diminish over time. So far, Dr. McBride's results are not encouraging.

McBRIDE: There seems to be a view within EPA that one could apply these waste materials almost indefinitely and that the cumulative effect would reach some maximum and you'd never go beyond that. And I don't see any evidence for that. The availability of cadmium remains relatively high, so we think at least for that metal there could be a serious problem, and this is again 15 to 20 years after the sludge has been applied. So this problem doesn't go away.

WESTERVELT: Dr. McBride is not convinced the EPA's 1993 regulations governing sludge are tough enough. The EPA's regulations raise the acceptable levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury, above the preliminary guidelines. Citizen groups are calling for a halt to sludge spreading until more studies are conducted. But Wheelabrator, Incorporated, the nation's largest user of treated sludge, disagrees. Jane Forste is a Vice President for Wheelabrator's Biosolids Division.

FORSTE: There have been thousands of research projects conducted. Most of the people who are involved in this type of research, in fact all of the people who have been directly involved in this type of research have concluded that the only things left to do are kind of fine tuning, and that in essence we know most of what we need to know right now in order to proceed with virtually zero risk.

WESTERVELT: And EPA soil scientist John Walker, a sludge expert, says public concerns are natural, but alarmist. Walker admits the Agency's current regulations don't yet include a rigorous examination of dioxin in sludge. Still, he isn't worried.

WALKER: I don't think it's fair to ask society to pay a lot more to manage a waste than it needs to be, particularly when you have a very low risk kind of material like biosolids. And I call it a resource because that's what the data shows it to be. But it's correct to be fearful of it and everything else; I understand that. But it's also correct to understand the science that went behind this rule to say that these numbers are safe. I'm satisfied that we know enough about dioxin and the other organic constituents in biosolids that we're following prudent practice today with the rules of the United States.

WESTERVELT: The alternatives to spreading sludge as fertilizer include incineration, which is costly; and ocean dumping of sludge was recently curbed by the EPA after a long battle by environmentalists. After that fight ended, most of the nation's large environmental groups have been largely silent about land-applied sludge. Groups have to pick their battles, and taking on the Clinton Administration over sludge would be politically risky, especially since the EPA is under fire from anti-regulatory Republicans in Congress. And the future of the EPA's Biosolids Program is seriously in doubt. Walker says the Agency, hurt by budget cuts, will likely rely more and more on outside groups of stakeholders from industry and local government to establish what constitutes good practices in spreading sludge. That only bolsters concerns by citizen groups that those who produce and market sludge might play too great a role in monitoring the product. For Living on Earth, this is Eric Westervelt reporting.

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CURWOOD: The woman who led the protests at Love Canal has a new book out on the dangers of dioxin. That's coming up on Living on Earth.

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Hospital Incinerators: They May Be Making People Sick

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The US Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules covering the emission of highly toxic dioxin from medical waste incinerators. The move is aimed at forcing hospitals to look for alternative methods to dispose of contaminated materials without poisoning the air. From Ann Arbor, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Julie Edelson Halpert has our story.

(A siren sounds. Man 1: "L5 hospital, how do you copy?" Man 2: "Loud and clear L5." Doctors speak.)

HALPERT: It is a busy evening in the emergency room of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Patients are being treated with traditional medical instruments: syringes, intravenous tubes, and blood pressure cuffs. To avoid contamination, these instruments of healing must be discarded in a safe manner, typically through incineration. But burning them can create a toxic cocktail. As the plastic is in incinerated, it forms dioxin, a pollutant implicated in human birth defects and reproductive problems. Medical waste incinerators are now one of the largest sources of dioxin in the United States.

EASTHOPE: Well it is ironic that our nation's hospitals, which are dedicated to the treatment of sick people, are also the largest contributors of one of the most toxic compounds that we yet know about.

HALPERT: That's Tracey Easthope of the Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor-based environmental group leading the grassroots fight against dioxin contamination. Because of growing concerns about these emissions, the EPA will soon require about 2,000 nationwide to install costly emission controls at about $200,000 each. That's substantially more expensive than the price of the original incinerator. Shari Marasola is a spokeswoman for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

MARASOLA: If people were to keep their medical waste incinerators, the added emission control requirements, the costs of smokestack testing, and the costs associated with the new administrative controls, you know it will force a lot of smaller and many larger institutions to close down their incinerators.

HALPERT: EPA predicts that the new requirements will force over two thirds of existing medical waste incinerators to shut down. As a result, hospitals nationwide have begun a search for more benign alternatives. Last fall, St. Joseph closed its incinerator and began sending its waste to a new kind of facility.

(Pounding sounds)

HALPERT: It's cooking time at Browning-Ferris's autoclaving facility in Toledo, Ohio. A pervasive odor, a mix of hospital antiseptic and cleaning fluid, wafts through the air. each month this facility treats 1.2 million pounds of waste through autoclaving, a simple process which uses steam to disinfect the waste before it's landfilled. Autoclaving has been commonly used to sterilize instruments in research labs and doctor's offices.

POLE: Okay, once it goes into the autoclave, the doors are sealed. That's when the steam is injected into the autoclave, so you elevate the temperature, you elevate the pressure, and you basically cook the waste. And the waste comes out and then it goes into a container and brought to a landfill.

HALPERT: BFI District Manager Rick Pole expects to say autoclaving overtake incineration, as more hospitals look for environmentally friendly and financially sensible alternatives. And autoclaving isn't just being pushed by those who stand to benefit from it. It won the support of waste management guru Dr. Barry Commoner of Queens College in New York City. In a soon to be released report, Dr. Commoner argues that autoclaving is better for the environment than incineration and says hospitals could construct and operate their own autoclave facilities economically. But skeptics like Shari Marasola of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association say Dr. Commoner's report underestimates the additional labor required by autoclaving.

MARASOLA: I think there's always going to be sort of an interest or that there's going to be a lingering interest in pure incineration just because of its economy and it really reduces mass to a very large degree. And when you're operating in a constant sort of backlog situation with waste, there's something appealing I think to that.

HALPERT: But hospitals and environmentalists agree that ultimately the best option is to avoid generating much of the waste in the first place. They say that a significant amount of hospital equipment could be recycled, and some of the more toxic materials could be reduced. The National Wildlife Federation recently launched a project with Michigan hospitals to find safer alternatives to mercury, a chemical pervasive in medical equipment that becomes extremely dangerous when incinerated. Guy Williams is the group's pollution prevention specialist.

WILLIAMS: We'll be looking at a range of issues, primarily ways to help hospitals become mercury-free to the extent that's feasible or possible economically. Alternatives to certain types of equipment that are typically used such as thermometers, blood pressure equipment, specialized batteries.

HALPERT: Other states, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, are launching similar programs to address their medcal waste predicament. States that haven't begun planning are likely to be spurred into action by the EPA's new regulations, expected this April. For Living on Earth, I'm Julie Edelson Halpert in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Dying From Dioxin!

CURWOOD: Since 1978, the name Lois Gibbs has been synonymous with upstate New York's Love Canal. The Niagara Falls community was built near a toxic waste dump. After years of lobbying and litigation, Ms. Gibbs was successful in forcing the polluter to pay to relocate the residents. The experience convinced Ms. Gibbs that America's toxic problem extended beyond her backyard, so she moved to the Washington, DC, area, and created the Citizens' Clearing House for Hazardous Waste, a national organization whose goal is to stop pollutants at their source. The group's latest focus is on dioxin, and Ms. Gibbs has recently published a book called Dying from Dioxin: A Citizen's Guide to Reclaiming Our Health. Lois Gibbs says she began this latest crusade after she read an EPA report which said there is literally no place in America that is dioxin free.

GIBBS: I thought I moved my family away from all toxics. I thought that they were healthy. And when I read that EPA report in September '94, and I realized that every time I was feeding my child a glass of milk I was feeding my child dioxin, I became angry again.

CURWOOD: I need a little chemistry lesson here, Lois Gibbs. Just what is dioxin?

GIBBS: Dioxin comes as a byproduct of burning products and containers and manufacturing of things with chlorine in it. And in the burning of solid waste, garbage, in an incinerator, dioxin is produced in the stack, and it travels out the stack and into the community. So it's not deliberately made; it's really a byproduct of burning plastics and other products that have chlorine in them.

CURWOOD: How did it get to be the major health problem that you see it is today?

GIBBS: What happened is that when the dioxin comes out and travels in the grass, cows eat this grass and they get a little dioxin in their body each time they eat. This dioxin in their body is stored in their body, and it bioaccumulates, and then when we drink the milk or we eat the cow's meat in our hamburgers, we as human beings get little bits of dioxin in our body, and it is stored in our body. And so over time what has happened is that the American public, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is at or near full of dioxin. And what that means is that everybody has enough dioxin in their bodies, or almost enough dioxin in their body, that any other exposure will put them over the edge for an adverse health effect.

CURWOOD: When you say adverse health effect, what are you talking about? What does dioxin do to us?

GIBBS: The EPA has said that dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals that affect the US population, and is a human cancer causing chemical. But more importantly, it also affects the immune system, and the reproductive system. So if you don't have an immune system, the cancer cells that are normally killed by your regular immune system are bypassed, because the immune system is not geared up to take care of it. And as a result, the cancer cells are allowed to move. And our reproductive, system especially the men, they have discovered that the men today have 50% less sperm count than their daddies, and that's a direct result of dioxin working as a hormone. And one of the things a hormone does is it feminizes men. It changes their hormone balance. It reduces their sperm count. It creates reduced testes size, reduced penis size, reduced sex drive. So it's not just about women and breast cancer and uterine cancer and our children, but it's really about fertility.

CURWOOD: Okay. So what can people do to reduce their exposure to dioxin, as individuals as well as in communities?

GIBBS: Well, as individuals one of the things that they can do, dioxin stays in the fat. So if you were to drink skim milk as opposed to whole milk, if you were to cut the fat off your meat before preparing it, all those things are healthful. The less fat in your diet, the less dioxin in your diet. It doesn't eliminate it all, but those are some little steps. But the more important thing that we need to do is really work in our communities. We need to find out where are the medical wastes, the solid wastes, and the hazardous waste incinerators in our neighborhoods and begin to figure out how can we stop them from producing dioxin. What else can we do with those waste streams? What other processes are out there to take care of our wastes so that we're not putting this in the air even in small amounts?

CURWOOD: Now, what's being done to reduce dioxin levels today? What progress do you feel is being made?

GIBBS: There's actually a small amount of progress. Many of the incinerators, especially the old ones that burned household trash in Columbus, Ohio, a couple in Illinois and Florida have been closed down. They've been closed down because they've been found to contaminate the neighborhoods so badly. And as a result of those being closed down, there's been a significant reduction in dioxin in those communities. But also, the solid wastes that they once burned, the household trash, is now being recycled and reused, so it's not going up in smoke and is actually being put back into society in a productive sort of way. So that's one of the things that is happening over there. Across the country people are working on medical waste incinerators to the same degree and trying to work with administrators to get the plastic out of the waste stream, and to shut down the incinerator if it's really, really, really old. And finally, there's a lot of work being done with the paper and pulp industry, who also contributes to dioxin. They contribute through bleaching paper with chlorine, and the paper and pulp industry is now looking at changing their process from chlorine bleaching to hydrogen peroxide and other methods which are totally closed loop. So the American public can have their white paper, we can still maintain our jobs, an we can have some balance in the whole picture. And we can protect human health and our environment at the same time.

CURWOOD: Well thank you for taking this time with us.

GIBBS: Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: Lois Gibbs is head of the Citizens' Clearing House for Hazardous Waste in Falls Church, Virginia.

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CURWOOD: We welcome your comments. Call Living on Earth at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or try our e-mail address: LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $12.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for reporting on science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Is it extinct or not? The search for the ivory-billed woodpecker is coming up in the second half of Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Which came first, Easter or the egg? What do rabbits have to do with it anyway? It's all descended from an ancient tradition of celebrations in honor of the arrival of Spring which we mark on the vernal equinox. That's the day when the sun is directly above the equator and the night and day are the same length. Today of course Christians celebrate the resurrection close to this time of year while Jews observe Passover. One of the ancient celebrations, by tribes in northern and central Europe, honored the goddess of Spring, Eostre. Her name is believed to be based on the word East, the direction of sunrise. And in turn may be the basis for our word Easter. As part of the celebration, people offered Eostre cakes similar to hot cross buns. The hare, a larger relative of the rabbit, was sacred to the goddess, and from that we get the Easter Bunny. Also, as part of the festival, people would place eggs, a symbol of fertility, in grass nests. Today we call them Easter baskets. And for this week that's the Living on Earth almanac.

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Endangered Species Act Update

CURWOOD: The Endangered Species Act, signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, is now in limbo. The law technically expired in 1993, and its re-enactment has been put off each year as Democrats try to hold off Republican attempts to reform the measure. Plants and animals currently on the list as endangered are being protected under temporary continuing resolutions, but under a Congressional provision passed last year, no new species can be added to the list until the Act is fully reauthorized. As Barbara Ferry reports from the nation's capitol, that may not happen soon, as the endangered species debate is caught up in election year politics.

FERRY: When Alaska Congressman Don Young and California Congressman Richard Pombo introduced their bill to reform the Endangered Species Act last fall, 126 of their House colleagues signed on to support the controversial legislation. The plan, which is opposed by the Clinton Administration and environmentalists would eliminate listing of subspecies, cut back on habitat protection, and compensate property owners whose lands was affected by species protection. Reform of the ESA was all part of the GOP plan to cut government regulation. But today, in the eyes of Melinda Pierce, who watches Capitol Hill for the Sierra Club, the Young-Pombo plan is going nowhere.

PIERCE: Those bills are dead in the water, and so I think that there is some reeling in of that extremist agenda.

FERRY: In an election year, Republicans may be reluctant to bring up for a vote legislations Democrats could label anti-environment. Recent opinion polls have noted voter distrust of the GOP on environmental issues. The surveys have forced the party to re-evaluate its political agenda and shift to the center.

GILCHRIST: That sort of set the stage for people thinking, well maybe I need an environmental vote, so where can I cast my environmental vote? Do Republicans look like they're trashing the environment?

FERRY: Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrist is a leader of a group of moderate Republicans who tried but failed to reach a compromise with Young and Pombo on ESA reform. But Gilchrist now says he has Speaker Newt Gingrich's blessing to introduce his own version of the bill. It would maintain key provisions of the existing law, as well as adding incentives for landowners to protect species on their property.

GILCHRIST: Newt has been a pretty solid ally in this whole process, particularly with the Endangered Species Act. He says he's not going to allow a bad Endangered Species bill to hit the House floor.

FERRY: But some Democrats are wary of Republican mellowing on the environment. California Representative George Miller, who co-chairs the party's environmental caucus, accuses GOP leaders of using budget cuts to gut the ESA, while they put off a vote on the Young-Pombo bill.

MILLER: This is just a back door attempt to repeal the Endangered Species Act because they don't have the courage to put that question out on the floor. Well, it simply would not pass the Congress, it would not pass the Senate, and the President wouldn't sign it. So they're trying to do this under the guise of budgeting.

FERRY: In the Senate, a recent attempt to lift a ban on adding new species to the Endangered list failed. And the moratorium continues until the end of September. Meanwhile, more than 240 plants and animals which were supposed to be added to the Endangered Species list remain in limbo. Without any money to run the program, Jamie Clark, Assistant Director of Ecological Services for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says the exact status of such creatures as red-legged frogs, Pacific Coho salmon, Bull trout, and Peninsula Bighorn sheep is unclear.

CLARK: The fear and the continuing concern is that we probably know more about what we don't know than what we do know about these species' status and whether or not they're continuing to decline.

FERRY: For Living on Earth, I'm Barbara Ferry in Washington.

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In Search of: The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

CURWOOD: For most ornithologists the book is closed on the ivory-billed woodpecker. The last of North America's largest woodpeckers are thought to have disappeared from the United States and Cuba during the 1980s, and this year the private rare species watchdog group, The Nature Conservancy, declared the bird extinct. But the ivory bill specter haunts hundreds of professional and amateur bird watchers. They refuse to give up hope that an isolated population of the pterodactyl-like birds with 3-foot wingspans might be hanging on deep in some Southern swamp. Driven by her own fascination with the woodpecker, producer Brenda Tremblay traveled to Mississippi's Delta National Forest to search for the ivory bill, and to explore the culture of those who've made it their holy grail.

(Water trickling. Cellos and double basses play, then a bird call.)

TREMBLAY: I hardly know where to begin this story, a story that's part fable, part science lesson, and part obsession. I suppose it began when I first saw a picture of a bird in a book. The picture got into my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I even dreamed about it. Months went by and I was still fixed by its image. Finally, I decided to drive to Mississippi to look for it.

ALEXANDER: Pelicans. Were there any pelicans in Mississippi?

HEYEN: I cannot find my daily bread for sale in this beribboned mall thronged with the polymer sound of generic birds on plastic limbs in plastic trees. I need to fathom what I'll need to buy.

JAMES: Like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered like the whooping crane, the largest crane; the trumpeter swan, the largest swan; the ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker.

BUDNEY: The ivory billed woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat.

TURCOTT: Well, you know what the Holy Grail is, don't you? It's when you go out seeking something that's maybe not possible or not there, but you still go out to see if it's possible (laughs).

(Music continues, followed by the whoosh of traffic)

TREMBLAY: Highway 82 passes by the fast food joints, cheap motels, and corrugated metal buildings of Greenville, Mississippi, and through the fertile cotton and soybean fields of the Mississippi Delta. It's another 20 miles to the Delta National Forest. Here I met Jerry Jackson, a professor of biological sciences at Mississippi State University. For years, Jackson has been searching the southeastern United States for what he and others call the Lord God bird.

JACKSON: And it's the Lord God bird I'm sure, because when people would see the woodpecker they would say, "Lord God, what a woodpecker!" And it's referring to its size; it's an incredibly large bird. It's a woodpecker with a 3-foot wingspan, the size of a crow or slightly larger.

TREMBLAY: The ivory-billed woodpecker is, or perhaps was, a magnificent bird. But not in the same way that a large hawk or eagle is magnificent. The ivory bill has a prehistoric aspect. It's pterodactyl shaped, otherworldly, with a stark color combination of red, black and white and light colored eyes. It is an unforgettable image that keeps people searching despite the odds.

JACKSON: There are some real fanatics out there that are really so, so anxious to find an ivory-billed woodpecker. There is a young doctor who is now stationed in Hawaii who came to my office and spent some time with me, who has all of the literature on ivory-billed woodpeckers, who knows everything there is to know about them, and who's continually looking for them. There's a lawyer in Texas who put up a bounty of $1,000 and plastered placards advertising his willingness to pay $1,000 for evidence that there are ivory-billed woodpeckers. There are people out there who are very serious in their intent to find ivory bills and who are very serious when they say that they think that they exist.

ALEXANDER: Okay, let's start the tally. Now what I'm going to do, I'm going to call out the species, and if the people in Mississippi saw the bird, I'm going to write it down. If we have some birds that were seen in Arkansas and not in Mississippi I would like to put an asterisk by the species.

TREMBLAY: The Mississippi Ornithological Society meets every few months to look for birds and commune over catfish dinner. The ivory-billed woodpecker was crossed off their lists a long time ago, but there are some old timers in the group who remember the days of rare sightings, and still tell stories of tantalizing encounters. Bill Turcott used to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

(A room full of people talking)

TURCOTT: The place was teeming with woodpeckers, a lot of pileateds in there. Of course we never saw anything we considered an ivory bill. But on the last day of the second trip that we made up there, I pulled out off of this road that borders the lower part of the bluff, at a little overlook overlooking the swamp out there, and I got out and played the ivory bill tape one more time. Well I was sitting there, you know, with my feet on the ground and the car door open, and Al was up behind me up here, and I swear I heard twice the ivory bill call. Twice, just as plain as day. Then I stood up and looked back and hear this barn owl that I called out of this big cottonwood there on the bluff, and of course there were 3 bluejays behind it. A bluejay can imitate just about anything he wants to imitate, and I heard what I consider to be bluejays making that call, because there was no possibility for an ivory bill on the other side. Because at the top of the bluff it was open pasture.

(A man's intro: "Ivory-billed woodpecker, Cornell catalogue, cut one." The ivory-billed woodpecker's call follows, on a scratchy tape recording.)

TREMBLAY: There is only one recording of the ivory-billed woodpecker, made in the 1930s. It was made in the Singer tract, an 80,000-acre tract of hardwood forest in north central Louisiana. Greg Budney is the curator of the Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

BUDNEY: They realized in 1935 that the ivory-billed woodpecker was likely to become extinct. That numbers of birds were very low and they wanted to make sure that its voice was documented. It was a joint expedition between Cornell and the American Museum, and I believe it was funded by the National Geographic Society.

(The bird call continues)

BUDNEY: I would just say how lucky they were that Arthur Allen, James Tanner, Peter Paul Kellogg had the foresight to record this animal, to go to the lengths that they went to, to record the ivory-billed woodpecker. What a great thing to be able to hear. For me, nothing like sound takes you back to a place or time. It's essentially unreduced in dimension; we're listening to what they listened to, and that's exciting and helps communicate to us what the loss of a creature like an ivory-billed woodpecker is, as we sit and listen to that recording and think that if we walk through the swamps of the South, we're not going to hear that again in all likelihood.

(The bird call continues, followed by a locomotive engine)

BUDNEY: Following the Civil War, much of the lands of the Southeast reverted to Federal ownership, simply because the people of the South were so poor that they couldn't afford to pay the taxes on the lands. And by the late 1870s, early 1880s, this had grown to crisis proportions and Southern senators and representatives were lobbying in Congress trying to get those Federal lands sold so the lands could go back on the tax base. So the lands were sold, and they went to the lumber companies of the North. Special railroads were built going out of Chicago, coming to the South to bring land buyers to the South. And the virgin pine forests of the Southeast sold for a dollar and a quarter an acre.

(Locomotive engine continues)

TREMBLAY: Nobody knows all the reasons why the bird has disappeared. By the time scientists began to study causes of its decline, there were hardly enough birds left to research.

(March music plays)

TREMBLAY: In 1935, ornithologist James Tanner began a study of the few ivory bills left in the Singer tract.

BUDNY: But then World War II broke out, and during the war, if something is being done in our national interest then it has to be okay. And we needed timber. we needed wood for pallets to put the shells on that were being shipped overseas. And the Singer tract in Louisiana, owned by the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, was a tract of forest that as far as those lumber men were concerned needed to be cut for the war effort. It was the patriotic thing to do. Unfortunately, that was where the last of the ivory-billed woodpeckers lived. But we couldn't be concerned about them; there was a war going on.

TREMBLAY: For more than 30 years after the war, people searched for and fantasized about finding the ivory-billed woodpecker in the remote swamps of the United States. In 1969, 2 amateur naturalists claimed to have seen ivory bills in central Florida. Ornithologists who investigated their claim found nothing. On March 14, 1971, a member of the Audubon Society played the tape recording of ivory-billed woodpeckers and heard a response in the Santee Swamp of South Carolina. No one saw the bird there, either. Six months later, Dr. George Lowry, Jr., a well-respected ornithologist, reported that a bird watcher in Louisiana had photographed ivory-billed woodpeckers in May of 1971. Lowry believed the photographs were authentic, but no birds were ever found. The latest sightings were reported in the 1980s in Cuba. Lured by the possibility of photographing the last ivory-bills left, the National Geographic Society hired Jerry Jackson to lead an expedition there.

JACKSON: Well I can tell you the minute. It was 9:32 AM on the morning of March 4th, 1988. How's that for being excited about it. I had spotted this place on the first day that I was there, that I could overlook and see some dead trees that looked like they had woodpecker work, and that's where we're going to see them. And I went back to that spot. That was about 3 weeks later. I was sitting there early in the morning, and this woodpecker -- I had my 400 millimeter lens focused on the dead trees about 300 feet in front of me, and this woodpecker, or what I believe was the ivory bill flew past 30 feet in front of me. And it was zip, right by. It was gone.

TREMBLAY: Jerry Jackson may well have been one of the last people to see an ivory-billed woodpecker, but he didn't get a picture. Intense surveys of Cuban forests in 1991 and 1993 proved fruitless. A few years ago, the US Fish and Wildlife Service called a meeting of 3 ornithologists: Lester Short, James Tanner, and Jerry Jackson. They sought their endorsement of the Service's decision to declare the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct.

JACKSON: I don't really know why, except that I think they just wanted to be able to cross it off their list and not have to worry about it any more. I guess I was the fly in the ointment of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and in response they decided that yeah, they really might look bad if they declared it extinct and someone found the birds. And so the Fish and Wildlife Service funded a one-year study to examine those areas in the Southeast that offered the best hope for there still being ivory-bills. And I was given the contract to spend a year looking for ivory-bills. Well, I stretched that amount of money; I got no more money but I stretched it into 2 years. And actually it's been many years, because I've continued to go back and go back and go back.

(The ivory bill call plays)

TREMBLAY: Jackson plays the same tape made in the Singer tract in the 1930s, hoping for a response and hearing only echoes, mimics, and phantoms.

(The call continues. The tape is turned off. A woman and child speak to Jackson. )

WOMAN: So then you would wait?

JACKSON: Yeah, we play it for -- that's a red belly responding to the red belly on the tape. See, the birds do respond. There's another red belly. (Speaking to Tremblay) We were in an area, in fact not very far from here. It's only about 5 miles from here. And we had been doing surveys, transects, through the forest, playing this recording of an ivory-billed woodpecker for 45 seconds and listening for 3 minutes and then moving 15 minutes and doing it again. And I came to a place where the trees were incredibly large. And I played the tape; I told my graduate student, "This is by far the best habitat I've seen anywhere." And no response. And so we started to move on, and my graduate student says, "Wait, there it is! There it is!" And I said, "I don't hear anything." He said, "No, it's coming closer. It's coming closer!" And we just stood there. And finally I heard it, and it was a bird repeating what we had just played about 3 minutes before on the tape. And it kept coming closer and closer and closer until it got about maybe 100 yards from us. And then it stopped where it was, but it called repeatedly from there for several minutes. And it wasn't coming closer, and so I said, "On three, we're just going to have to rush toward it and hope we can get a photo." And we did, we ran, and didn't see a thing.

(The bird call tape plays)

JACKSON: Everything in me that's a scientist says it's not at all likely that there are any ivory-bills left. But as a human being and as an individual that likes to think positive, I'd like to hope that maybe, just maybe out there, there is a pocket of ivory-bills still left.

SHORT: I think he's mistaken about it. I think he's an incurable optimist, I'll say that about Jerry, which is great. But I'm too much of a realist.

TREMBLAY: Lester Short is the Lamont Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. He's one of the world's leading experts on woodpeckers. Like Jackson, Short caught fleeting glimpses of ivory bills in Cuba in the late 1980s, but he thinks the birds he saw were part of a doomed population, and he's convinced there are none left in the United States.

SHORT: When you think of the mobility of the bird watchers in the United States and the terrific number of them, and the many people who've become interested in birds, hunters and others who go into the back country, and the fact that the birds need to have a place to breed, if they produce young the young have to move away from the parents. And these are big birds that are conspicuous. So I don't think that any place, you know, that can be so remote from people that they could be hanging on and not be seen over the years.

TREMBLAY: But is the ivory-billed woodpecker really extinct? Could there be an undiscovered pair in some deep Southern swamp, in the remote forests of South Carolina, or in the Florida panhandle?

JAMES: Hope springs eternal; sometimes you have to face reality. (Laughs)

TREMBLAY: Douglas James is a professor of biology and ornithologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, in the upper regions of the ivory bill's former habitat. Though he believes the ivory bill's demise was hastened by man's interference, James says its extinction may have been fated from the very beginning.

JAMES: And like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered. Like the whooping crane, the largest crane; the trumpeter swan, the largest swan; the ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker. And this has been going on for millions of years since Pleistocene age and geological age. I see it as sort of a continuation of a process that's been going on for several million years.

TREMBLAY: Greg Budney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology disagrees.

BUDNEY: The ivory-billed woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat. The loss of the ivory-billed woodpecker is an indication that something has changed in a substantial way in the environment. So it was an indicator, an indicator of the integrity of a habitat. and when you lose that, it's a signal, it's a sign that should direct our attention to look at what impacts, what pressures are occurring in this particular habitat to cause this animal to disappear.

(The ivory-billed woodpecker call on tape plays)

HEYEN: I don't know where I saw it first, maybe in a Petersons or maybe in some other bird book, a picture of the ivory bill and it's a sharp, vivid image in my mind, and of course representative of so much now that we've lost.

TREMBLAY: William Heyen is a poet and professor at the State University of New York in Brockport. In his collection of poems Pterodactyl Rose, Heyen wrote about endangered and extinct species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker.

HEYEN: But when I ate the dodo, I could not ingest its gentleness and trust. genes lost voyages ago, sometimes seem to snag in my human heart. Eidolons of Easters past. But passenger pigeons' eggs wink in a vanished series. And the ivory-billed cries in the vacuum of its skies not at all.

(The bird call continues)

HEYEN: You know, I was brought up on Long Island, and in the center of the island when my boyhood was all ponds and woods. And now I return and I see what has happened to the places where I once had my imagination and I had my being. And all of us have this story in us; I mean this is an American story.

(Cello and double bass music continues)

TREMBLAY: We don't want the story to be true. Jerry Jackson and the others who still search want this story to end differently.

JACKSON: Sometimes I'm looked at a little bit askance: hey, you're crazy, fella. Or with a little bit of disbelief that, you believe there might still be ivory-billed woodpeckers; how about the trolls under the bridge, too?

TREMBLAY: Do you doubt yourself sometimes?

JACKSON: No. I guess that's part of being successful and part of being a scientist. If I doubted myself I wouldn't be out here looking for them, wading through the chiggers and the ticks and the snakes in the water.

Back to top

(Orchestral music continues)

CURWOOD: The search for the ivory-billed woodpecker was written and produced by Brenda Tremblay. Technical producer was Dave Sluberski. Recordings of the ivory-billed woodpecker are used with the permission of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. And thanks to member station WXXI in Rochester, New York.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Senior producer for Living on Earth is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson.
We also had help from Mark Borrelli, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Michael Argue, and Emily Atkinson. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major support from the Ford Foundation for reporting on environmental and development issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; Jennifer and Ted Stanley, and the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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