Air Date: November 20, 1998
Anti-Cocaine Herbicides Impact Colombian's Health/ Quil Lawrence
The war on drugs against coca plants and cocaine production includes the use of aerial sprayed herbicides on areas where plants can grow. Quil Lawrence reports from Colombia on the adverse health effects impacting some resident Colombians who come into contact with the chemicals used to kill the coca plants. (09:15)
Maine Woods National Park Proposed/ Susan Chisolm
There is a proposal for the protection of as much as ten percent of the forests in Maine for public land use. As Susan Chisolm reports, the idea of a Maine Woods National Forest is getting some attention, and a mixed reaction. (06:35)
Headwaters Forest: Logging Under Fire
Protests at the Redwood forest in California known as the Headwaters have made their share of news headlines. The recent death of an anti-logging protester has had the unanticipated result of the Pacific Lumber Company, who owns the land, having their logging license revoked by the State. Steve Curwood speaks with Boston Globe's west coast correspondent Yvonne Daley about local reaction to the latest conflict. (04:10)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about... Polar Bears. (01:30)
West Virginia Mountain Top Mining Controversy/ John Gregory
John Gregory reports from Logan County, West Virginia where the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has approved a request for Arch Coal to mine over three-thousand acres of land in the mountain top mining extraction technique. The method may be easier for the company, but some citizens say the potential environmental damage outweighs both the energy wrought and the local coal jobs. Federal agencies must also give their approval before the excavation in this controversial mining method can proceed. (15:55)
Exotic Plant and Animal Invaders
Plants and animals which get imported from other locations, known as "exotics," can sometimes dominate new ecosystems that do not have the necessary predators, or other checks and balances, in place to protect against them. Invader species can threaten biodiversity by killing off the other species in their path. Chris Bright of the World Watch Institute, has written a new book called "Life Out of Bounds: Bioinvasion in a Borderless World." Steve Curwood speaks with Mr. Bright about how contemporary travel and technology have increased the odds of such exchange and contact. (05:45)
New England Loons: Poisoned from Lead/ Robert Braile
New England's loon are dying from swallowing fishing line sinkers made from the metal lead. Commentator Robert Braile ponders the demise of these birds in the broader context of simple problem solving. Commentator Robert Braile writes on environmental issues for the Boston Globe. (02:25)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Quil Lawrence, Susan Chisolm, John Gregory
GUESTS: Yvonne Daley, Chris Bright
COMMENTATOR: Robert Braile
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
California yanks the logging license of the firm that's cutting down the last old growth redwoods in Headwaters Forest, where a falling tree recently killed a protester. Also, in Maine, the purchase of big timberlands by big timber companies is prompting a call for big preservation efforts.
POPE: I am really proud to call myself a tremendous fan of America's next great national park, the Maine Woods National Park.
CURWOOD: But others say the preservationists are going too far.
ADAMS: They'd like to have this whole place turned into a kind of an aboriginal park, and we probably could be native specimens for tourists from somewhere else to come and look at.
CURWOOD: And Colombia combats drugs. The environment pays the price. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first the news.
(NPR News follows)
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The illegal cocaine trade leaves plenty of human wreckage in its wake. In North America, cocaine cases clog the courts while the promise of easy cash corrupts officials and spawns inner city violence. In South America, cocaine holds entire nations hostage, especially Colombia, the world's biggest source of the drug. The US has pressured Colombia to cut cocaine production and destroy coca crops. Congress recently approved millions of dollars to spray the coca fields with herbicides. But as Quil Lawrence reports, the air war on the illicit crop is taking a toll on the Colombian countryside. And it's having some unintended consequences for its people.
LAWRENCE: San Jose Del Guaviare, south east of Bogota, is one of Colombia's jungle capitols. The dusty river port city is also the world's coca capitol. The waxy leaf shrub is not naturally abundant here, but in the last decade a growing number of small peasant farmers, many displaced by Colombia's civil strife, have begun to cultivate it.
(Motors and crickets)
LAWRENCE: About 15 miles out of San Jose Del Guaviare used to be coca country: vast fields of coca plants, often mixed in with corn and planting crops, towered 6 feet high in view of the rough dirt roads. Now the coca crop has moved elsewhere, but other crops aren't doing much better. That's because both the drug plants and the legal crops here were dusted with glyphosate, an herbicide which enters a plant through its foliage and disrupts its production of certain amino acids.
(An engine revs up; people speak in the distance)
LAWRENCE: In the blazing equatorial sun, Victor Vanegas and a few other farmers are using rented weed cutters to raze the brush in what used to be his pasture.
VANEGAS: [Speaks in Spanish]
LAWRENCE: Vanegas says that he never had any coca on his land here, just cows he husbands for a large rancher. But a few months ago, when government planes flew over, they sprayed his crops anyway. All of the grass he had seeded died within a few days, and he says 3 of his cows perished. Since then, he says, the brush has taken over.
(Footfalls through brush)
LAWRENCE: Vanegas's devastated pasture is evidence of how Colombia's drug problem has become an environmental problem. Maybe the spraying of his pasture was accidental, or maybe there was indeed coca growing here. But complaints like Vanegas's are frequent. Glyphosate is commonly used in the US, where it is known as Round-Up. Although it's considered to be one of the least toxic herbicides on the market, it is indiscriminate. It attacks any plant it's sprayed on, not just coca. Colombia is the only country that is currently using aerial eradication to fight drugs. The US-funded program has this year alone already dusted 120,000 acres of illegal crops. Nonetheless, the area under coca cultivation in Colombia has doubled in size despite 4 years of record spraying. Much of the new coca crops are planted in the rainforest cut down as growers push further into remote jungles, where they hope their crops won't be sprayed. Victor Vanegas's wife Ernestina explains.
E. VANEGAS: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: No one can plant coca so close to the town. They are doing it far, far away in the mountains.
LAWRENCE: The turbo thresh planes and helicopters land next to huge metal tanks of glyphosate on the runway at the anti-narcotics police base in San Jose Del Guaviare. Spraying the coca crops is not as simple as barnstorming over the jungle and letting the dust go. Armed helicopters escort the planes, mostly because the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerilla army of nearly 15,000 soldiers, control the south of Colombia, including almost all the coca-growing regions. One grower gave his name only as Antonio. He comes from Miraflores, a coca center where the rebels recently destroyed a narcotics police base.
ANTONIO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The rebels came in and started to tell the coca growers that they shouldn't depend on coca. That they also had to grow enough food to live on.
LAWRENCE: While the rebels publicly advocate alternative development and environmentalism, they finance their insurgency with the help of coca production. They tax coca paste about $15 per kilo. At the same time, they limit the number of acres a peasant can grow, and forbid the disposal of waste chemicals in watersheds. They also sometimes shoot at the crop dusting planes as they fly by.
MAN: I thought we were using cotter pins.
MAN 2: Yeah, cotter pins is what we're using.
LAWRENCE: The American advisors, technicians, and pilots who work at the base are even more at risk, as the guerillas have declared them a military target. In the last year right-wing death squads have arrived, working with the tolerance of the Colombian Army. They have also gotten in on the coca act, taxing the precursor chemicals which pass through San Jose.
ANTONIO: [Speaks in Spanish]
LAWRENCE: Antonio says that despite the taxes from all the armed groups, the violence of the drug trade, and the risk of losing their crops, peasants in Colombia continue to grow coca because they have no alternative.
ANTONIO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Many people have left for the urban center of the country, but by the end of 6 or 8 months they come back to the jungle. Despite the crossfire, they say it's better to be in Miraflores, where at least we can earn enough for food.
LAWRENCE: Making coca paste isn't cheap. Antonio says that in Miraflores, a 60-gallon drum of gasoline, one of the most important processing agents, can cost up to $800, a bag of cement up to $50. Many of the small growers who have lost their crops to spraying have found themselves with no better option than joining the ranks of the guerillas or paramilitaries. Antonio says that Colombian farmers are at a crossroads.
ANTONIO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The idea thing would be to take advantage of this moment. Now that coca isn't so easy, it would be a good time to present alternatives to substitute for coca.
LAWRENCE: But without alternatives, many of the growers follow the large coca plantations as they relocate further into the jungle, beyond the range of the crop-dusting plains, cutting down more of the Amazon rainforest as they go.
ZULETA: [Speaks in Spanish]
LAWRENCE: Claudia Zuleta, Colombia's Vice Minister of the Environment, says that for every acre of coca the growers want to plant, they cut down at least twice that to let light in through the high jungle canopy. She estimates that 100,000 acres of rainforest have been cut down for coca cultivation, and that that number is rising.
ZULETA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: When the government tries to eradicate their crops, the farmers don't stop growing them. What they do is they simply move. And so, they become the front line of the colonization, which in the end destroys the forest.
LAWRENCE: Colombia's new president, Andres Pastrana, says more must be done to protect the country's environment. While he stops short of calling for an end to aerial eradication, he has strongly criticized it and has put more emphasis on crop substitution. In one of Colombia's first acts of defiance of US drug policy, Pastrana's government has tabled a plan to begin using a more powerful herbicide called tebuthieron. US officials had argued that the environmental damage of coca production was worse than the damage the new herbicide would cause. Colombia's new Environmental Minister, Juan Meyer, disagrees.
MEYER: It takes time to disappear in the environment. And in this time, it runs to the watersheds and it's a high-toxic product. So, it has great implications on human health, and on other kinds of life forms.
LAWRENCE: The product's manufacturer, Dow Agrichemical, opposed tebuthieron's use in southern Colombia, and it appears US officials have stopped pushing the new herbicide. However, Pastrana's crop substitution plan is facing immense challenges. United Nations estimates suggest that it could cost up to $1 billion to implement alternative development. And right now, no other harvest can give so many of the country's impoverished farmers a living wage.
(Footfalls through brush)
LAWRENCE: Few Colombians have learned that lesson as well as Victor Vanegas, as he mows down the weeds in the pasture that was once his livelihood.
VANEGAS: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: With a kilo of coca anybody can make a million pesos, but the poor farmer who brings a load of yucca or rice to San Jose won't even make back his costs.
LAWRENCE: Colombian peasants call coca "the blessed plant." It's not just that coca is so resilient, or that the leaves can be harvested once a month. There are few roads to get other products to market, and the coca growers know that once they get their kilo of paste, the buyers will come deep into the jungle to find them. For Living on Earth, this is Quil Lawrence in San Jose Del Guaviare.
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CURWOOD: Coming up, the state of California suspends the license of the biggest company cutting down old growth redwoods. But the fight over the timber is far from over. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Large land management companies own much of the vast forest of northern Maine. And in October, several corporations sold 2-1/2 million acres to 3 rival timber firms. In the huge land deal, ownership of 10% of Maine changed hands. It was a reminder that the vast area of wilderness regrown from the last century is a private resource that could be cut at any time. Some say the public should acquire a portion of the land, perhaps even create a Maine woods national park, and others say the private sector is able to protect the forest. Susan Chisolm has our story.
(Running stream water)
CHISOLM: It would be the second largest national park in the lower 48 states: 3.2 million acres encompassing hundreds of remote lakes and ponds. The headwaters of Maine's major rivers. Part of the Appalachian Trail. And miles and miles of red spruce, white pine, and birch. The largest remaining expanse of wilderness east of the Mississippi. The same place made famous by Henry David Thoreau when he explored the Maine woods 150 years ago.
ST. PIERRE: We're just trying to focus people's attention on a place that is big enough so that it would provide the kind of landscape-scale protection that conservation biology says that we need. And it would be big enough so that we could spread people out. We could have something for everybody.
CHISOLM: Jym St. Pierre heads the Maine chapter of Restore the North Woods, a Massachusetts-based environmental group that first proposed creation of the Maine Woods National Park and Preserve in 1994. From the top of Big Spencer Mountain, St. Pierre surveys several of Maine's most pristine lakes.
ST. PIERRE: It does remind me of Thoreau's description when he climbed the shoulder of Katahdin and looked out on the landscape, and described the scene as if it were a mirror that had been broken into a thousand fragments, glittering in the sun on the grass.
CHISOLM: Historically, this vast frontier has been owned by a handful of paper companies who have used it to feed their mills and offered free access to the public. Under Restore's plan, clear-cuts and logging roads would be allowed to grow wild. Commercial development would be restricted. And the entire area would remain open to hiking, fishing, and camping. A preserve would also be established to allow other popular kinds of recreation, like hunting, trapping, and snowmobiling.
CANDELORO: How are we doin'?
(A man's voice answers on a speaker)
CHISOLM: Fred Candeloro runs a trading post near Moose Head Lake, where he caters to outdoor enthusiasts.
CANDELORO: No, I'm not crazy about a national park. Right now, we have the best use of this land in the country. We have free access to pretty much whatever you want to do on it short of damaging the property, okay? And with the National Park, because you're going to be buying the land, to limit access for what the individual wants to do on it.
(A bird chirps)
CHISOLM: Ultimately, it will be up to the public to decide whether the proposed park becomes more than the notion of a few wilderness romantics. While most of this region is undeveloped, a place where moose and bear easily outnumber people, it is also the heart of Maine's working forest. St. Pierre argues that jobs in the forest products industry are on the decline in Maine, and that the state needs to diversify its economy. Such talk infuriates property rights activists like Mary Adams.
ADAMS: What is happening, really, is we're being invaded by environmentalists up in Maine. They'd like to have this whole place turned into a kind of an aboriginal park, and we probably could be native specimens for tourists from somewhere else to come and look at.
CHISOLM: Recently, the Maine Forest Service published a report that shows logging is not being done on a sustainable basis in Maine. Over cutting is estimated at between 7 and 14% every year. The report suggested that more trees need to be grown to make up for the gap. That typically means using clear-cutting and herbicide spraying to help softwood trees grow faster. And Jeff Toorish of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association says, plunking down a park in the middle of the Maine woods will only increase forest management pressures.
TOORISH: It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you take millions of acres out of the productive forest, stop having them for that use, that you're going to put a great deal more pressure on the rest of the woods.
CHISOLM: But supporters say the proposed park would represent only a fifth of Maine's commercial forest land. Although they agree that the park's potential economic impact is largely unknown. And with the recent sale of 900,000 acres of Maine woods to Plum Creek, a Seattle-based timber company with a reputation for selling land to real estate developers, there has also been a loud cry from editorial writers, business people, and environmental activists, who argue that parts of this landscape should be preserved. Ruth McLaughlin and her husband Dan run the Blair Hill Inn in Greenville.
R. McLAUGHLIN: I think our primary concern is that somebody be in a little more control and a little more aware of what's going to happen with this land. That it doesn't just all go to private companies that then can do whatever they want with it. That there is some state and national funding that might be able to purchase part of the land and keep it in its natural format.
CHISOLM: There is also increasing interest from outside of Maine to do something to prevent the Maine woods from being converted into a giant subdivision.
POPE: I am really proud to call myself a tremendous fan of America's next great national park, the Maine Woods National Park.
CHISOLM: Carl Pope is the national director of the Sierra Club.
POPE: This is not going to happen all at once, and it's not going to happen next year. It'll probably take a decade or more. And it's going to be put together, I imagine, in pieces. The state will buy some pieces. Private individuals and conservancies will buy some pieces.
CHISOLM: Pope says the Sierra Club will become a major player in Maine and in Washington to build national support for the park. But the proposed park and preserve has already provoked a few northern Maine residents to threaten to secede from the rest of the state. And many opponents say if the park idea advances, the rest of Maine should be prepared for a political rebellion from those who consider the Maine woods their own backyard. For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Chisolm.
CURWOOD: Disputes over timber continue in another well-known forest. In an unprecedented move, California officials have suspended the logging license of the Pacific Lumber Company. The firm owns the old growth redwood forest in northern California called Headwaters. For more than a decade environmental activists have been protesting logging of Headwaters, often using extreme tactics such as chaining themselves to trees and sabotaging logging equipment. In September, those tactics turned deadly, when an Earth First activist was struck and killed by a tree felled by a Pacific Lumber employee. As Boston Globe correspondent Yvonne Daley tells us, the incident has opened the door for many area residents to voice their growing concerns over the company's logging practices.
DALEY: The general population who lives there have been more sympathetic with Pacific Lumber and have held the Earth First demonstrators in disdain, and have not approved of their tactics. But this death seems to have changed things and it seems to have also occurred with another change, in that so many private landowners say that their land has been impacted by the actions of Pacific Lumber in the last couple of years. So that these 2 things have happened simultaneously and people seem to be much more sympathetic to the protesters than they have been in the long history of this debate.
CURWOOD: I wonder if you can explain how that local opposition is changing in terms of the impact on the land. What is it that folks in the area are concerned about exactly?
DALEY: Well, a number of things have happened. There was a town that was actually pretty much washed out in erosion during the last 2 winters, and there's a lawsuit involving the landowners, who own property there. They say that logging uphill from them on steep slopes contributed to the erosion and a lot of silt buried their properties. Another thing is that there's 2 major industries up there. There's logging, and there's fishing. And as many people know, the cohoe salmon, the numbers have decreased dramatically. There's growing sentiment among the average people and among fishermen up there that the siltation that's coming into the streams as a result of upslope timber harvesting is destroying some of the salmon habitat. So it's not just this radical group of protesters, the Earth Firsters, who are concerned about Pacific Lumber. There is growing concern among the average population.
CURWOOD: Back in 1996, California and the Federal Government and Pacific Lumber concluded a deal. I think it's almost a half a billion dollars in exchange for not logging some of the redwood forest there. Now, is that deal going to go through?
DALEY: I think that the general feeling is that the deal is going to go through. But some people hope that a new governor, Davis, will step in now and renegotiate it.
CURWOOD: Now, you've been up there as a reporter. How do they handle you? The protesters and the loggers and the community folks?
DALEY: Well, at the Earth First encampment, where I went and spent quite a bit of time, they feel that the local press has been very sympathetic to Pacific Lumber, so there's some anger against the press in general. I found the more I talked to the loggers that they were quite angry with the media and they were quite angry with me, as a matter of fact. I was punched by a logger who took my notebook away temporarily; I managed to get it back when some other loggers came to my rescue. But the whole incident showed me how emotional this whole thing is. The general person seems to fall into 1 of 3 categories. There are a lot of people who want more press coverage of this, who want people to know what's going on in this county. That it is like a war zone, that it's a very emotional issue, and who are growing more sympathetic with the cause of the environmentalists. There are other people who are very concerned about their livelihood. The loggers, people who run stores that depend on logging income. And they want the press to go away. The third group is really kind of watching this as if it is a play that's out there and is very detached from it. And just wishes the whole thing would go away. But it's not going to, of course.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today. Yvonne Daley is the Boston Globe's correspondent in San Francisco, California.
DALEY: Thank you very much.
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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.
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CURWOOD: Just ahead: stripping off the mountain tops of West Virginia in search of coal. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, profits for the planet, supporting initiatives that protect the Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: Fifteen years ago this week, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States signed a pack to protect polar bears and their habitat. So far the treaty has failed to stem habitat loss, although a hunting ban has helped to increase the bear population to about 30,000. By this time of year, pregnant polar bears have finished digging their dens, getting ready for cubs to be born. Tiny, blind, and hairless, the young will suckle their hibernating mothers until spring. Researchers in Norway recently found alarming levels of polychloride biphenyls, or PCBs, in polar bears. They also discovered some female polar bears had developed vestigial male sex organs, which may be a response to exposure to PCBs. Even though PCBs were banned in 1970, these chemicals persist in the environment. Over the years they have migrated thousands of miles to the Arctic from industrial sources Scientists are now studying the chemical's effect on the bears' immune and reproductive systems. One thing they do know: the PCBs tend to concentrate in mother's milk. So next spring, polar bear cubs will probably start life with heavy doses of the stuff. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: The mountains of southern West Virginia have been the site of intense conflicts over the years. Take for example the infamous Hatfield and McCoy feuds, or the battles were coal miners fought to establish unions. Well, now coal is at the heart of a new conflict in West Virginia. The fight is over mountain top removal. That's a strip mining operation that levels mountains and digs away vast expanses of dirt and rock to expose the underlying seams of coal. The method is generally easier and cheaper than pit mining. Coal executives say mountain top removal provides thousands of jobs and millions of tax dollars. It is also, they say, an economical way of meeting the nation's energy needs, as more than half the electricity generated in the US comes from coal. But other folks say mountain top removal comes at too high a cost to the landscape, water, and quality of rural life. John Gregory reports.
(A water stream)
GREGORY: Pigeon Roost Branch flows through a narrow mountain valley of Logan County, West Virginia. Its banks are lined with the lush vegetation of the hardwood forest that makes even this hot, dry fall afternoon seem cool and pleasant. Retired coal miner James Weekly was born and raised in this valley, or holler, as he calls it. He's fished in the creek, hunted deer, grouse, and wild hog in the woods, and dug for ginseng along the hillsides.
WEEKLY: My dad give me this property here. I was 11 years old and he said, "Son, which property do you want here?" I said, "I want the old home pipes down there, Dad." He said, "It's yours."
GREGORY: Mr. Weekly eventually built his home along Pigeon Roost Branch. From his front porch he can admire his wife's rose garden and listen to the stream and the whippoorwills. He can also hear and feel the blasting at the massive Dal-tex Mountain Top Removal Coal Mine about a mile away. James Weekly claims the explosions have cracked the walls in his 10-year-old house.
WEEKLY: Looky here. Above the door, over there. Over there all the way down. There. Over beyond in that corner. Over across. Over that door. It's every room like this.
GREGORY: Mr. Weekly, along with several neighbors and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, have sued state and Federal regulators over mountain top removal. They say the practice destroys mountain and forest land and ruins water quality in streams. While the blasting, noise, and dust from the mines forces neighboring residents from their homes. James Weekly points to his own community of Blair, which is located adjacent to the Dal-tex mine. He says it once had several hundred houses. Now all that remains is about 70 homes among a landscape of empty lots.
WEEKLY: Once these communities are gone, they're gone. They're not going to come back. And that's exactly what's happened to Blair, Drum Creek, Island Creek up there. That's not right.
GREGORY: Surface mines, including mountain top removal sites, aren't new to West Virginia, but they are increasing. This region has abundant reserves of the low-sulfur coal prized by electric utilities trying to meet the pollution standards of the Clean Air Act. That demand, coupled with new equipment, has seen coal recovered by surface mining in West Virginia double in the last 5 years.
GREGORY: At the entrance to the Hobet-21 Mine in Boone County, 2 trains rattle past the coal-loading facility there, one filled with coal heading north to a power plant, the second waiting to be loaded with the black rock. The Hobet complex covers some 35,000 acres with a series of surface and deep mines. In mountain top removal the mining process begins when the trees and vegetation are cut from the mountain slopes. Then the first layer of rock is blasted with a mixture of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel. That loose rock, or spoil, is scraped away to reveal the first seam of coal. The coal is removed and the process is repeated, continuing down as much as 300-400 feet through the mountainside. With each new layer the scale of the equipment gets bigger. At the Hobet Mine the heaviest lifting is done by a drag line so large it has its own nickname.
This is Big John, a massive piece of earth-moving machinery. The body housing the mechanical parts of the drag line is 80 feet high. The boom arm supporting the bucket is 300 feet long, the length of a football field. That arm has the bucket that scoops up the rock. The entire machine turns 90 degrees and the rock is dumped onto an adjoining hillside of overburden.
GREGORY: The drag line uncovers the horizontal seams of coal that are buried in the ridge lines. For every 15 tons of rock the drag line removes, the company hopes to recover 1 ton of coal. Steve Stone is the operator of Big John on this shift. Sitting at the controls of the $24 million machine, it takes Mr. Stone less than a minute to pick up 100 tons of rock and deposit it off to the side.
STONE: I'm just reforming the land a little bit, making it better for people to use. Plus in the meantime, we're getting energy out of it to keep us warm in the winter time.
GREGORY: As expensive and expansive as the process is, company officials say mountain top removal is crucial to mining in Appalachia. David Todd is Vice President for St. Louis-based Arch Coal Company, which owns the Hobet Mine. Arch is just one of several companies doing mountain top removal in the region. The native West Virginian says much of this coal could not be recovered using other forms of surface mining or traditional deep mines.
TODD: Over time the easiest and thicker seams have already been mined, so as the recovery techniques progress, we find ourselves requiring larger equipment to economically develop the coal.
GREGORY: Throughout the mining process, the excess rock is distributed along adjacent ridges, dumped into nearby valleys, or kept at the site to approximate the original contour. Holding ponds are built to regulate water runoff and provide wetlands habitat, while the land is planted with grasses and trees. At the Hobet Mine, General Manager John Low points to the gentle terracing of the landscape that was created on the mine land.
LOW: And in the initial reclamation process, we try to break the terrain up for the wildlife, to give the wildlife an area to get into the heart [word?], until the rest of the reclamation, the rest of the trees and the shrubs starts growing up.
GREGORY: While the Hobet reclamation has been praised by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the grassy savannahs stand in stark contrast to the verdant mountain ridges in the distance. Arch Coal's David Todd acknowledges that mining does dramatically change the landscape. But he says the coal is dug in compliance with the law.
TODD: Ultimately, the test is: is the environment being protected? The test is not: do I like coal mining? Do I like a particular technique of coal mining? So by objective standards, one can only conclude that this kind of mining does result in the protection of the environment and does result in the extraction of a resource that is vital to the nation and to the competitiveness of this nation.
TIBBETT: When you're on the ground, you're surrounded by a landscape that's totally different from anything you've ever seen.
GREGORY: United States Fish and Wildlife Service specialist Cindy Tibbett has inspected mountain top removal sites in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. She says scientists are only now beginning to study the potential long-term environmental effects of the mining and reclamation practices.
TIBBETT: As a biologist, you are struck with the contrast between what is left after reclamation, which is usually a herbaceous grass-like community, to the hardwood forest that was there before. And it strikes you that we've really made quite a tradeoff in terms of wildlife species that we're supporting in those 2 different kinds of habitat.
GREGORY: Cindy Tibbett says an estimated 470 miles of streams in West Virginia have been covered with spoil from mining operations. An exact number is hard to determine because of the state's disorganized record keeping. She says covering a few miles of streams here and there may not seem like a problem, but the cumulative effects of deforestation, mining, and filling valleys could be devastating.
TIBBETT: Every stream, especially in the headwater reaches, is a product of the landscape around it. The vegetation, the geology. Once you erase all of that, the biota, even in the downstream areas, will change dramatically in response to the loss of all of that productive watershed.
GREGORY: Facing increased criticism, West Virginia Governor Cecil Underwood formed a task force earlier this year to get public input on potential changes to mining regulations.
MAN(through a microphone): Could I have your attention please?
GREGORY: At a recent meeting of the group, miners, environmentalists, industry officials, and local citizens crammed into the auditorium of the Chambersburg Middle School. All under the watchful eye of several state police officers. Changing the industry is a sensitive issue in the mountain state. Coal companies pay more than $180 million in severance taxes in West Virginia, and the 21,000 people they employ receive an average salary of $49,000, which is more than double the average salary earned in this state.
MAN: Coal is king in Logan County, and if we don't fight for coal, there's going to be a problem down the road when there's no money to fund these schools and other services that this county provides.
MAN 2: I've already paid $34,000 deductions out of my payday this year. If we shut down, I will leave the state of West Virginia. I will go where I can make some money. Is that what Logan County wants? Do you want to run us out?
MAN 3: Everybody seems to want to talk about money tonight. I want to talk about the effects of these huge operations on communities. Is it worth it to you now to give up your homes, to have your families afraid to walk down the road, afraid that a coal truck's going to run over them? To me it's not worth it.
GREGORY: Fear seems to be a part of life in the coal fields these days. Fear of the environmental and cultural damage the mines bring, and fear of losing the few good-paying jobs that exist in these rural communities, like Logan, population 2,200.
(A motor revs)
GREGORY: The narrow streets of the town are laid out in a tight valley along the Guyandot River. Businesses here have lived and died on the black rock ever since the coal boom in the 1920s, when 120,000 men worked in the mines. Even though coal employs far fewer people today, the regional economy still depends on those incomes.
PRICE: Probably about 40% of our business is related to the coal industry.
GREGORY: Randall Price manages the Helig-Meyers Furniture Store in Logan. The son of a retired coal miner, Mr. Price says the community may eventually have to deal with changes to the coal industry.
PRICE: There is fear, because, you know, they've relied on it for hundreds of years, you know, in the coal industry. And you know, you have a major coal company shutdown or a layoff people, then people do panic somewhat.
GREGORY: Just down the street, in the Company Store Antiques Shop, Sharon Hopkins has stopped in to talk with a friend. Ms. Hopkins worked for a coal company in the 1970s and now sells real estate. She says business is slow because many people have already left Logan and few people move in because there are so few jobs. Aside from the mines, the only other major employer in town is the hospital, which has about 1,000 workers.
HOPKINS: And we do need mountain top removal, especially here in this area, because our life depends on it. I mean, if this discontinues and the mines are shut down, then, I mean, this town here, you might as well just close everybody's doors and forget business, because there will be no business here. It'll be a ghost town.
GREGORY: Many local citizens criticize state officials for not bringing more industrial development to the area. A new 4-lane highway does connect the region to the state capitol of Charleston, and some local entrepreneurs are trying to foster tourism based on a network of all-terrain vehicle trails, many of them on reclaimed mine lands.
HECHLER: We've got to diversify and not depend on this most destructive form of mining that hurts human beings, that pollutes the air and the water and the politics of West Virginia.
GREGORY: Former Congressman and current West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler is one of the few government officials to publicly oppose mountain top removal. He blames Governor Cecil Underwood for many of the current problems caused by mining. The governor is a former coal industry executive, and he recently signed controversial legislation making it easier for coal companies to cover streams and fill valleys with excess rock. Governor Underwood also appointed another former coal executive to head the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Secretary of State Hechler has taken his crusade against the mines to rallies and public hearings where he likes to sing his own version of an old John Denver song.
HECKLER (singing): Almost level, West Virginia, sheared-off mountains dumped into our rivers...
GREGORY: The perception that the industry is leveling the state has been pushed by activists and popularized by the media. It's an image that draws fire from company officials like Arch Coal's David Todd.
TODD: That is simply pejorative, misleading kind of commentary. Less than 1% of the land in West Virginia has been affected by large-scale surface mining.
HECKLER (singing): Please help save what is left.
GREGORY: Some regulators, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, are slowing or even suspending approval of new mining permits until they can do further study on the effects of mountain top removal. Todd fears these delays could severely damage the coal industry in the state. He says Arch Coal and the other companies mining in West Virginia, along with their investors and employees, depend on operations being able to continue without interruption.
MAN: We've got to go up this big rock here, don't miscue.
GREGORY: Back on Pigeon Roost Branch, James Weekly drives his 4-wheel all- terrain vehicle up the steep mountainside behind his house, his thin frame bouncing on the seat of the bike as it careens about. At the top of the ridge, Mr. Weekly kills the motor and walks over to a sandstone rock outcropping under a huge oak tree.
WEEKLY: This is what I call my meditating rock. I get disgusted, this is where I come to.
GREGORY: The spot offers a breathtaking view of the entire Spruce River Valley. To the east and south the forested ridges ripple to the horizon. To the north and west is the massive Dal-tex Mine with its giant machinery digging coal and reshaping the landscape.
GREGORY: During his own years in mining and in logging, James Weekly admits he didn't think much about the environment. It's only when he saw the effects of mountain top removal on his own community, the noise, the blasting, the dust, that he started to take notice.
WEEKLY: I've listened to this continuously, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. And I'll be out there as long as God gives me the breath to open my mouth, I'm fighting this.
GREGORY: Mr. Weekly may not find peace at his meditation spot too much longer, though. Dal-tex has applied for a permit to expand its mountain top removal operation to this ridge and the others surrounding James Weekly's home. If approved, the 3,100-acre mine would be the largest single mine ever permitted in the state. And just a taste of things to come. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in Logan County, West Virginia.
CURWOOD: The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has approved Arch Coal's request for a 3,100-acre mining permit. The state's environmental chief said he felt compelled to issue the permit in the wake of Arch Coal's threat to lay off 400 miners if the permit action continued to be delayed. But the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers must still give their approval before mining on the site can begin.
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CURWOOD: Coming up: unwanted immigration by plants and animals. The invasion of exotic species is next here on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. From acacia trees to zebra mussels, plant and animal species are turning up far from home, often with disastrous effects for the local ecology. Known as exotics, these immigrant species can invade and dominate their new environments. Among the current threats to the planet's biodiversity, exotics are second only to habitat loss. And they cost US farmers alone about $4 billion a year. The spread of exotics has long been ignored, but efforts to control them now are gaining momentum. The White House is expected to issue an Executive Order soon to coordinate control efforts. Chris Bright of the World Watch Institute has written a new book called Life Out of Bounds: Bioinvasion in a Borderless World. He says our global economy is a big part of the problem. In particular, the 29,000 cargo ships that cris-cross the oceans every day.
BRIGHT: When a ship fills its ballast tanks in one port, it tends to suck in all sorts of organisms that might be swimming in the water nearby or in the sediment and mud and so forth. and then when it moves to another port, it may pump a lot of the water out. And it obviously injects those organisms back out into this new realm. And it's almost as if we have a set of artificial currents that now encircle the globe and that overlay the natural currents, but these artificial currents are much more efficient at moving small creatures around than are the natural currents.
CURWOOD: Now, Chris, you call the invasion of exotic species "smart pollution." What do you mean by that?
BRIGHT: The distinction I'm aiming at is, it's got to do with the difference between chemical pollution and the way living things behave. You know, chemicals are just, they're basically inert. You put them out there and they just sit there. Living things don't do that. They can multiply. They do multiply. And they can adapt. They can get better at exploiting a new range, the resources in a new range, and at suppressing the native occupants of that range.
CURWOOD: Are there certain characteristics that make for a good exotic? I mean, rapid reproduction, you know, weediness, whether it's a plant or if it's something that, you know, insects or certain rodents can do, would obviously give an organism a leg up in any environment, right?
BRIGHT: Right. But weediness doesn't predict categorically. The sea lamprey in the Great Lakes, for instance, is a highly-specialized kind of predator. I call it a fish vampire, you know, it attaches itself to the side of other fish and drinks their blood. It's a very dangerous exotic in the Great Lakes, but it's not really a weed.
CURWOOD: I have a list here of just a few examples of exotics in this country.
BRIGHT: Uh huh.
CURWOOD: It's amazing. Some of these are obvious. But tell us about some of the non-native species here in North America that people might be surprised to find out are exotic.
BRIGHT: Where I lived in northern Virginia, the biome that I know best, the sort of mid-Atlantic broad-leaf forest is just clogged with exotic plants. And I think a lot of people don't realize when they look at it, that they're not looking at something that's really natural. We've got Japanese honeysuckle, which is a highly invasive vine. We've got kudzu, which is another aggressive East Asian vine. White mulberry, Norway maple, barberry and so on and so on.
CURWOOD: Well, look, okay. Bioinvasions have been happening ever since the wind started blowing, right? I mean, one seed would blow to another spot. What's the problem now? Why so much attention on this issue?
BRIGHT: Well, the rates of invasion are now so far beyond what we would regard as the sort of normal background rate, that for all practical purposes we're looking at a phenomenon that is really qualitatively different from what would occur under a purely natural regime.
CURWOOD: What about those exotic species which are introduced on purpose? I mean, how do you make people aware of the fact that they might well be disrupting their own local ecosystem?
BRIGHT: One very peculiar aspect of this problem is that there are a number of industries that are actually very small in terms of their economic size, but that are having an enormous ecological effect through their role in promoting invasions. And gardening is a good example of this. More than 60%, I believe it is, of this country's -- the worst weeds of natural areas are still being sold and planted by the nursery industry. Purple loosestrife, for example, is a good example of that. Purple loosestrife dominates something like 1.5 million acres of North American wetland, and suppresses the native cover. Basically just converts it to the equivalent of a parking lot in terms of its forage value, you know, for wildlife.
CURWOOD: Really. It's so pretty, the purple loosestrife is so lovely.
BRIGHT: Yes, it's beautiful. That's -- one of the difficulties of dealing with invasion is that the results aren't necessarily ugly. Some invasions are really very beautiful, and purple loosestrife is a good example of that.
CURWOOD: Okay. So now we know what the problem is and where it's coming from. But how do we deal with this? I mean, what about ordinary individuals?
BRIGHT: The single most important thing, I think, that ordinary people can do, is to get familiar with the landscapes that matter to them, whatever the landscape or seascape is. And to try to understand what is native to it, what belongs in it and what does not. I call that the development of ecological literacy. I think that as people become more ecologically literate, they're much less likely to tolerate disturbance, whether it's an invasion or other forms of environmental degradation in the landscape.
CURWOOD: Chris Bright is a research associate at the World Watch Institute in Washington. His new book is called Life Out of Bounds: Bioinvasion in a Borderless World. Thanks for taking this time with us.
BRIGHT: Thank you for having me.
CURWOOD: The loons of New England are dying. The cause of death: lead poisoning. The elegant birds with the ethereal call are swallowing lead fishing sinkers, mistaking them for the pebbles they need to digest food. Commentator Robert Braile says the number of birds poisoned each year is a tragedy. But he says the failure to save loons raises a bigger and more troubling question.
BRAILE: Loons are cherished in northern New England. The graceful birds slice through cool mountain lakes from the first whisper of spring to the first blush of autumn. They mark the seasons with the same primordial constancy they did for Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond, a film shot on New Hampshire's Squam Lake.
Loons occupy the New England imagination. It is ironic, then, that a bird so cherished is so imperiled and by a threat so frivolous. Lead fishing sinkers and jigs are killing loons, and the efforts to get rid of the weights have fallen short. Bills to ban them have languished for years in Maine and New York. All Vermont has done is ask anglers to use safer weights. New Hampshire did enact America's first ban this year, but it doesn't take effect until the year 2000, it covers only some weights, and it bans their use, not sale, making it easy for anglers to keep using them by accident or intent.
Even the US Fish and Wildlife Service is dallying. In 1992, environmentalists petitioned the Agency to ban lead weights in America's national wildlife refuges and parks, hoping to save loons and trumpeter swans, which are also in danger. The Agency said in 1995 that it would. It never has.
Critics say such bans would be unenforceable and that anglers should be educated rather than regulated. They say bans would hurt retailers and that the science of lead toxicity is unclear. Yet bans would be no more or less enforceable than many other laws we abide by every day. Removing a 39-cent item from the shelves of bait and tackle shops won't bankrupt anyone. And America decided decades ago about the toxicity of lead, banning the metal in paint and gasoline.
American environmentalism seems mired these days. Maybe its because problems like climate change, ozone depletion, and desertification seem too large and complex to resolve. But this is not climate change. Banning lead fishing weights to save loons is doable. So doable it begs the question: if we cannot solve this environmental problem, what environmental problem can we solve?
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CURWOOD: Commentator Robert Braile writes on environmental issues for the Boston Globe.
(Music continues (Paul Winter Consort); a loon calls)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff is Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, and Julia Madeson. And they had help this week from David Winickoff, Alexandra Davidson, and Laura Colbert. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director, Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.
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