Air Date: January 8, 1999
Republican Environmental Roundtable
Republicans have a new Speaker and a slimmer majority in the House of this Congress. To discuss how these changes may affect the majority's agenda for the environment, host Steve Curwood is joined by Republican Representatives Wayne Gilchrest, of Maryland, and Jerry Weller, of Illinois. (07:00)
Old Oil Still Haunts: Exxon Valdez Revisited/ Jody Seitz
Nearly ten years after one of the worst oil spills in history, new research shows that oil still hidden in beach gravel and sediment may still be affecting the health of the environment. (08:05)
LOE Garden Spot: Holiday Leftovers
Host Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth Gardening Expert Michael Weishan about long-term care of all those poinsettias you got over the holidays. (05:00)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about... Teddy Roosevelt, who loved the land but not the people who lived in it. (01:30)
Nuclear Shutdown: Vermont Yankee Next?/ Tatiana Schrieber
With electric-industry restructuring well underway, many states are taking a second look at the costs and benefits of operating their aging nuclear power plants. The 26-year old Vermont Yankee plant is licensed to run until 2012. But state officials and company owners are considering shutting it down early. Tatiana Schrieber has the story. (09:02)
Listeners respond to recent stories about American Indian environmentalism, migratory songbirds, and pesticide testing on humans. (01:50)
Earth Odyssey Q&A: Mark Hertsgaard
Host Steve Curwood speaks with journalist Mark Hertsgaard, who took a six-year journey around the world to write his latest book, on our environmental future. (11:58)
Obituary: "Iron Eyes" Cody
Living On Earth remembers an early icon of the environmental movement. (01:10)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jody Seitz, Tatiana Schreiber
GUESTS: Wayne Gilchrest, Jerry Weller, Michael Weishan, Mark Hertsgaard
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
As the 106th Congress gets underway in Washington, all eyes may be on the fate of President Clinton, but there's plenty of action planned for the politics of the environment. We'll hear about the priorities of 2 key house republicans.
GILCHREST: Number one is, is understanding the nature of what this thing is, global climate change.
WELLER: The top priority, I believe, going into this year, is the reauthorization of Superfund.
GILCHREST: I think the Endangered Species Act is an issue that we ought to deal with in this session of Congress.
WELLER: I sense, with the narrow majority in the House, that there will be a desire to minimize the number of so-called riders.
CURWOOD: And nearly 10 years after the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, new research suggests that as the oil weathers, it can continue to inflict damage for many years. We'll have that and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We could be forgiven for not noticing, but the fate of President Clinton is not the only issue Washington lawmakers face these days. In fact, before impeachment took center stage, environmental concerns, including climate change and riders, had Republicans and Democrats yelling at each other across the aisle. Republicans have a new speaker and a slimmer majority in the house of the new Congress. To discuss how these changes may affect the majority's agenda for the environment, we brought together Republican representatives Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Jerry Weller of Illinois. Gentlemen, welcome and thanks for your time today.
GILCHREST: Thank you.
WELLER: Well, thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: All right, let me ask you both, And perhaps I'll start with you, Congressman Jerry Weller. What are the environmental priorities for Republicans this session?
WELLER: Well clearly, the top priority, I believe, going into this year is the reauthorization of Superfund. You know, unfortunately, over the 15 years of Superfund's existence, we've only seen about 20% of the sites out of -- there's 1,200 identified Superfund sites; only about 25% of them have been actually cleaned up. It takes about, on average, 12 years to complete the cleanup; on average about $25 million a particular site. The costs are way too high, And if you see the actual way the dollars have been spent, the dollars on Superfund, which is a program that has earned bipartisan support, is that the dollars, the majority of them, get spent on lawyers' fees. And I believe the taxpayers back home are anxious to see those dollars spent on actual cleanup. So, Superfund must be a priority.
CURWOOD: Yeah, everybody says that about it, that Superfund just wastes money on lawyers. But it seems like deal after deal has come to the brink, And then nothing has passed. Why do you suppose that happens?
WELLER: Well, it's my hope, And of course Sheri Boehlert and Mike Oxley both have done yeoman's work. They chair respective subcommittees with jurisdiction over Superfund. And they've tried, I think, worked well with a number of Democrats in the House and tried to reach out to the Administration to come up with a bipartisan way of reducing the money that goes to lawyers and put in more money into actual environmental cleanup.
CURWOOD: Let me turn to Wayne, now, Wayne Gilchrest from Maryland. What do you see as the top environmental priorities for Republicans in this session of Congress?
GILCHREST: Number one is understanding the nature of what this thing is, global climate change. What the heck is that? I think there's very little information in each of our heads about exactly what that is. Seems the further you get away from the original research, the more misinformation you get. So I think we need to make the effort to understand the nature of climate on planet Earth and how dynamic it is, And how human activity changes it. And then, you know, we're talking about the Endangered Species Act. I think if we approach that the right way, that's probably one of the most polarizing issues in the House. But I think if we deal with that in a comprehensive ecosystem regionalized approach, I think the Endangered Species Act is an issue that we ought to deal with in this session of Congress.
CURWOOD: Let me follow up on the climate change part of this. The White House has said that one of its top environmental priorities this year is going to be climate change. And in particular this credit for early action bill, which would essentially reward US corporations who voluntarily reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. How realistic is it to think that that bill or some version of it would get through? First, Wayne, you might want to respond.
GILCHREST: Part of the process to change human activity, to reduce emissions, to make things better, still exists in our tax structure. I'm pretty confident that if we work hard enough, if we develop a cadre of members from both sides of the aisle, And we develop an action plan, if you will, we can get some of these things passed.
CURWOOD: Jerry Weller?
WELLER: I think such as most Republicans in Congress, our general philosophy is, people respond better to sugar than they do to vinegar. And if you change the approach from punishment to reward and incentive, you're going to find much greater interest in supporting initiatives, whether they're clean air or clean water, that reward good behavior.
CURWOOD: One of the prerogatives of the House of Representatives, of course, is to initiate those money bills, right? Especially those taxation bills. How much do you think the budget is going to play a role in environmental questions in this term, And what will we see in the way of budgetary riders, do you think, this time around? Congressman Gilchrest?
GILCHREST: I would hope that the authorizing committees can work and get their legislation done in a timely fashion, And that the appropriations process has a limited number of riders on it.
WELLER: Yeah, I agree with Wayne. You know, when the Democrats were in the majority in Congress, they put riders in the appropriation bills, And now that the Republicans are in the majority we've done the same. And some riders are more controversial than others. But I sense with the narrow majority in the House that there will be the desire to minimize the number of so-called riders.
CURWOOD: Jerry Weller, let me ask you what sense you have of where the environment falls on the new Speaker's list of priorities.
WELLER: Well, of course, you know, with Dennis Hastert, Denny Hastert, I believe, is one who has personally shown a lot of interest in the environment. He has 2 hobbies. One is, he likes to work on old cars, And then the second hobby is he likes to go fishing. So he's an outdoorsman. And you know, for him and his family, personally, that's important to him. But second is, in West Chicago, near the St. Charles area in northern King County, he had a major environmental cleanup issue where there was radioactive materials that had been buried over the years and disposed of essentially in a landfill process. And he led the effort in working with the US EPA and Superfund to make that a top priority and obtain the funding. So that was a long time ago, which started back when he was actually in the state legislature.
CURWOOD: What would you say, Wayne Gilchrest? Where do you see that the environment falls on the new Speaker's list of priorities?
GILCHREST: I think where it falls on the Speaker's list of priority is the responsibility of myself and people like Jerry. That if we make it a priority and we feel that it's important, then we need, like many other members are going to be talking to Denny in the next couple of weeks to make their issue a priority. So you'll be able to know that if Denny Hastert does not make the environment his priority, then it's because Jerry Weller or Wayne Gilchrest or Sheri Boehlert or John Porter did not do their job.
CURWOOD: Representatives Jerry Weller of Illinois and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland are both Republicans. Gentlemen, thank you both for taking this time with us.
WELLER: Well, thank you, Steve.
GILCHREST: Thank you, Steve.
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CURWOOD: Coming up: reexamining the effects of pollution from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, nearly 10 years later. Details ahead right here on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It was nearly 10 years ago, in March of 1989, that the Exxon Valdez oil tanker smashed into a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound and spewed more than 10 million gallons of crude oil onto waterways and beaches. Over the last decade, the region's wildlife and economy have seemed to have slowly been recovering. But there have also been mysterious fluctuations in the populations of many animals, And concerns that oil may still be having an impact. Now researchers have found what they say is convincing evidence that old oil hidden in beach gravel in sediment in the Prince William Sound area affected the health of wildlife years after the spill. Jody Seitz has our story.
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SEITZ: This is the sound of high-powered air knives blasting crude oil and asphalt off beaches in Prince William Sound 8 years after it was deposited by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Experts had long argued that the oil remaining in beach sediments was no longer harmful to wildlife. But residents of the nearby community of Chaneka Bay, who live by hunting and fishing, were never convinced, And they finally won this long-delayed cleanup. Now, the combined results of both laboratory and field studies have shown their instincts were right. Scientists have discovered that weathered oil gives off compounds which are toxic to fish.
HEINTZ: As the oil weathers, basically what you get are these heavier and less mobile compounds remaining in the oil that's deposited. And as it turns out, those compounds are the ones that unit per unit are the most toxic compounds.
SEITZ: That's Ron Heintz. He and other scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service Ocbay Lab found that the old spilled oil is more toxic than anyone ever imagined. Weathered oil in the environment never got much attention in the past. But Heintz and other government researchers started to get suspicious in the early 1990s. Most of Prince William Sound's wild pink salmon spawn in the intertidal areas of streams, many of which had been contaminated by crude oil in 1989. Scientists weren't surprised to see dead salmon eggs in these areas in 1989 or even 1990, but they found many more dead salmon eggs than usual all the way through 1993, long after most of the light aromatic compounds had dissipated. They began to wonder whether the problem was being caused by the heavier compounds, which persist as the oil slowly decomposes.
HEINTZ: Okay, so this is our latest iteration of the pink salmon exposure system. Thirty incubators operating right here, And there's about 8,000 eggs in each incubator.
SEITZ: At the remote little Port Walter Research Facility in a pristine area of southeast Alaska, Heintz and his colleagues begin exposing salmon eggs to controlled amounts of weathered north slope crude oil.
HEINTZ: Water percolates up through this column of oil gravel and flows out the top of this chamber, falls down into this second chamber, where it percolates up through another column of clean gravel that's seeded with developing pink salmon eggs. So the pink salmon are exposed to the water that's been contaminated by percolating through the oil gravel.
SEITZ: The researchers discovered early on that the eggs didn't have to touch oiled gravel to be affected. Some eggs were killed merely by oil circulating in the water at concentrations as low as 17 parts per billion. At higher doses other eggs showed sublethal effects, such as abnormal development of gonadal tissues, the cells that eventually become eggs and sperm. As they continued their experiments, the researchers found that the longer the oil weathered, the more deadly it became. Oil which had weathered 1 year killed salmon eggs at concentrations as low as 1 part per billion. Dr. Stanley Rice, program manager at the Auke Bay lab, explains that traces of oil in the water are attracted to the fatty yolk of fish eggs. When they encounter an egg, the heavier compounds can enter easily, And once inside the egg can't get rid of them.
RICE: When a tiny particle of oil comes along and bumps into the egg, it's absorbed, And it's trapped. If we get exposed to a piece of oil, we'll metabolize it and get rid of it. But the fish egg, it's in the lipid and it just sequesters it, And eventually the dose builds up within the egg. And then you get these long-term effects.
SEITZ: Often, the effects of the oil couldn't be detected until the fish were older. The fry that survived exposure as eggs grew more slowly and fewer of them returned from the ocean as adults. Those that did return were smaller than normal. Similar effects were found in herring eggs exposed to weathered oil in the lab. Adult herring also showed suppressed immune systems and vulnerability to a virus, the same virus which caused the Prince William Sound herring population to crash in 1993. The Auke Bay studies on weathered oil could add a significant new item to the already long list of concerns about oil spills in Prince William Sound and elsewhere. In the past the concerns centered mostly on the lighter molecules in crude oil, some of which are highly toxic, but which also dissipate quickly. Dr. Rice says the new findings show a far more complex picture.
RICE: We are right in the forefront of thinking it was the light ends that were the bad guys, And they certainly are in the first weeks and months of the spill. But later on the persistence takes hold. Being more toxic is not a big deal if you don't hang around. But when you hang around literally not for days, months, but years, there's a lot of time for that toxicity to be a factor.
SEITZ: And there's a lot of weathered oil hanging around. Oil is the most common contaminant in aquatic environments. The new study of the toxicity of old weathered oil will face tough scrutiny, And will probably need to be reproduced elsewhere before it's widely accepted.
MAKI: If indeed those levels are valid, we have some very serious concerns about what it implies in the real world.
SEITZ: Dr. Alan Maki is environmental advisor to the Exxon corporation. He has also served on the US Environmental Protection Agency's Science Advisory Board and conducted his own research on pink salmon after the Valdez spill. He says it's difficult to believe that 1 part per billion of weathered oil could cause the damage reported by the Auke Bay researchers.
MAKI: The number is directly in conflict with a large number of published papers, research programs done by other agencies. Similar studies indicate that effects don't occur at that low level, And we have serious problems in understanding how those effects could really be reported at what are basically background levels.
SEITZ: Other researchers who've advised Exxon are also skeptical. Dr. Ernie Brannon, director of the Aquaculture Institute at the University of Idaho, says the lab experiments don't represent what actually happens in the streams. Dr. Brannon also questions the field research would set off the alarms about the higher salmon mortality in the first place. He suggests the eggs were sampled too soon after spawning, And that handling, not oil, killed the eggs. The scientists at Auke Bay believe the egg sampling was done properly. They say they found results no one had ever found before, because they did long-term experiments that had not been done before. No one knows where or how much oil remains in the beaches of Prince William Sound, And there's a lot of uncertainty about its effects on wildlife populations. Researchers have continued to see the mark of contamination in several species that inhabit the oiled areas. The Sound's herring and salmon populations crashed in 1993, but researchers have still never linked those crashes to the oil spill, And they don't think the Ocbay findings mean Alaskans are in danger of losing their salmon runs from oil pollution. But it probably does erode the populations, says Brian Bue of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
BUE: Salmon are a very resilient species. There's an effect but it's not catastrophic.
SEITZ: For its part, the state of Alaska seems to be taking the new findings seriously. Recently, industry had proposed relaxing the state regulations for oil discharges in water. But Ocbay research suggests weathered oil could have a toxic effect at levels less than a tenth of the current standard. So while it takes a closer look at the research, Alaska has decided at least not to lower its water quality standards. For Living on Earth, I'm Jody Seitz in Anchorage.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Well, it's mid-January now, And households around the country are still recovering from the holiday season. New toys, hopefully not too many of them broken all over the place, And plenty of Christmas plants to water. Living on Earth's traditional gardener Michael Weishan is going to help us with those plants. Hi, Michael.
WEISHAN: Hey, Steve, how are you?
CURWOOD: Tell me, did you give a lot of plants this year?
WEISHAN: No one appreciates plants from me because they think it's too easy. It's like, what did he give you this year? A plant. Oh, that was a real tough gift. So I don't give any plants at all.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay. Now, what's the most popular Christmas plant?
WEISHAN: Well, by far the most popular Christmas plant and ones that are now sitting in the millions around the United States are poinsettias. They are the most popular potted plant in the United States bar none, Christmas or otherwise.
CURWOOD: Of course every at my house there seems to be a lot of poinsettias. I never really thought about it. I figured we get them because they're red and green, the Christmas colors. But is there more of a story to poinsettias than that?
WEISHAN: The plant had tremendous religious significance to the Aztecs. They left it in place wherever it was growing, And thought it was a gift from the gods because of its beauty. When the Spanish arrived to South America and to Central America, they saw this plant and they associated the red color with the blood of Christ. And so, it became associated with Christmas because it turns red about this time of year. It didn't become popular in this country until a man named Joel Poinsette, who was a Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren and sort of a roving ambassador down in Central America. He stirred up a tremendous amount of trouble down in that part of the world. Fermented political rebellion and actually had to flee for his life, appropriately enough, on Christmas day (Curwood laughs). But before he did that, he sent back to his home town, Charleston, some of the first samples of this plant. And actually, subsequently, became very wealthy, breeding them. There's a movement afoot to try to get it renamed away from poinsettia, because it's not very P.C. down in the Spanish-speaking countries. As a matter of fact there's a word, pointsentissimo, which means meddling in other people's affairs (Curwood laughs) without being warranted. So it's not a very good history, And they certainly don't want to call it a poinsettia by any means of the imagination.
CURWOOD: Is it true that these poinsettias are highly toxic? That you shouldn't let your pets anywhere near them?
WEISHAN: According to the research I've done, that's not true. They definitely will give you an upset stomach, however, but they won't kill you.
CURWOOD: Of course, the poinsettia isn't the only plant that gets given at the holiday season. What are some of your other favorites?
WEISHAN: I personally am a big fan of Christmas cactuses. They come in a tremendous variety of colors these days. They've been doing a remarkable amount of breeding. This one still has a few blooms left on it, And you can see it's --
CURWOOD: Ooh, look at that. They're a beautiful pink.
WEISHAN: Yeah, huge flowers. Almost like orchids. Not a lot of scent but just absolutely beautiful. And it's been blooming like that since November.
CURWOOD: Now help me with the Christmas cactus for a moment. I have one of these things, And you know, it puts out beautiful flowers but darn it, I never get them to come out at Christmas.
WEISHAN: The problem is that most plants that bloom at this time of year, the bloom is triggered by the shortening days. And so, if they are in a house where there is a lot of extra light, or somewhere where there's a lot of artificial lighting, they're not going to sequence the bloom correctly. The days will be too long, the days will be short. If you turn on the lights the days are long and if you don't they're short. The plant gets confused in other words. Here in the greenhouse where it's just totally natural light, they come into bloom all by themselves without any help. But in a household environment, what you want to do is put them down in a dark place or cover them, And the poinsettia the same way, for about 14 hours or so, a day, nighttime included, so that you'll have a very long period of darkness for the plant. And then they'll come into bloom automatically, at the right time.
CURWOOD: So what other plants are people likely to get at the holiday season?
WEISHAN: Gardenias are another great favorite, And they're certainly one of my favorites. Certainly for the fragrance. Actually, I have a gardenia right here I can show you. Let me pull this one over.
WEISHAN: This is a problem with gardenias. They need to be kept constantly moist. But if you keep them overly moist like this one, you can rot the whole bottom off. So this and azaleas are (laughs) it's not a place to start, let's put it this way, if you're interested in keeping over your plants from one year to the next. This is an advanced subject in plant care.
CURWOOD: Well, thanks for the help, Michael.
WEISHAN: My pleasure, Steve. Here, I'll even snap off this little glass gardenia blossom for you for your lapel there. You can take it back with you.
CURWOOD: Mmm, thank you. (Inhales) Just beautiful.
WEISHAN: The last of the season.
CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's traditional gardener and is publisher of the magazine Traditional Gardening. Find out more about gardening and any gardening questions you have. You can send to Michael via our Web site. The address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. When you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.
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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: Just ahead: shutting the lights off at one of America's oldest nuclear power plants: the pros and cons considered here on Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
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: Theodore Roosevelt died on January 6, 80 years ago. First Governor of New York and then Vice President of the United States, he became President in 1901. A Republican and an opponent of big business, Teddy Roosevelt was also a rancher, a big game hunter, And a conservationist. He added 150 million acres to our national forests and hired lumber tycoon Gifford Pinchot to run the Forest Service and convince lumber companies to adopt selective cutting practices. Although Teddy Roosevelt loved the wilderness, he did not hold the same affection for its native peoples. Instead, he despised them as savages. In his book Winning the West, Roosevelt writes, "The rude fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him. It is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, And Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, And yellow aboriginal owners and become the heritage of the dominant world races." So, while Teddy Roosevelt created 5 new national parks and the National Wildlife Refuge system, he also helped instill in the conservation movement an ideology of white preference that it has yet to fully shed. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: With electric industry restructuring well underway, many states are taking a second look at the cost and benefits of operating their aging nuclear power plants, among them the folks of Vermont. The 26-year-old Vermont Yankee plant in the southern part of the state is licensed to run until 2012. But state officials and company owners are considering shutting it down early. And they're getting lots of advice from area residents, including those in neighboring Massachusetts where the Yankee Rowe plant closed its doors 6 years ago. Tatiana Schreiber has our story.
MAN: I have this sheet and this sheet of people who have signed up to speak, And I will ask...
SCHREIBER: Business leaders, Vermont Yankee workers, plant managers, And local residents crowd a Brattleboro elementary school to tell state officials what they think should happen to the local nuclear plant. They want input to a Vermont public service department study that's comparing the economic value of nuclear power to alternatives.
MAN: If Vermont Yankee goes away for no good reason, there's going to be 540 jobs leaving the state, probably. I'll probably leave because I can't make any decent living.
WOMAN: Has anybody estimated how much it's going to cost to store the atomic waste that we are creating for at least 100,000 years? Where is the figure? A hundred thousand years of storage. Who has that figure?
SCHREIBER: The tension at this meeting reflects decades of debate over nuclear power. Vermont Yankee's in Vernon, a rural community a few miles from Brattleboro along a wide curve of the Connecticut River. No one disputes the fact that it's an economic engine for the region. The plant employs over 500 workers at an average wage of $48,000 a year. Bruce Wigget, chief financial manager, says without the nuclear plant electricity generated by fossil fuels over the past 26 years would have pumped over 100 million tons of pollutants into the atmosphere. His calculations don't include the health or environmental costs of the low-level radiation released by the plant over its lifetime. The public service department study won't address this, either. But activists in the area say there are significant health and safety concerns to be considered, both with the ongoing operation of the plant and with its closing. They say lessons could be learned from across the state border in Massachusetts.
(Knocking; a dog barks. A woman answers the door. "... the kitchen; actually, we're having some lunch...")
SCHREIBER: The Citizens Awareness Network works out of Debbie Katz's home in Rowe, Massachusetts, some 20 miles from Vermont Yankee and just 4 miles from the closed Yankee Rowe plant, now in the process of being dismantled. The house is down winding dirt roads in the sparsely populated rural community. One of the group's biggest concerns is whether nuclear power has affected health.
KATZ: People are calling us all the time with issues of health and lupus and cancers and multi-birth-defected children. We have a very high rate of children in the school system with learning disabilities, And disabled children. We don't believe this is coincidental.
SCHREIBER: The citizen's group doesn't blame all these problems on releases from Yankee Rowe or Vermont Yankee, but they do believe that a combination of effects, from radiation and contaminants from other sources, could have played a role. At the group's request, the Massachusetts Department of Health did an epidemiological study to see if people exposed to radiation releases from Yankee Rowe were at increased risk.
KNORR: We did conclude that we saw an excess of prevalence of Down's Syndrome from the records that we looked at.
SCHREIBER: Robert Knorr is with the Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health Assessment. He says the only known risk factor for Down's Syndrome, which is caused by a chromosomal abnormality, is the mother's age.
KNORR: If you adjust for maternal age, we still had an excess prevalence of Down's Syndrome. So that wasn't the answer.
SCHREIBER: The study showed about a 4-fold increase in Down's Syndrome, as well as an unusually high level of multiple myeloma, a fairly rare cancer that's been associated with exposure to radiation. Knorr doesn't think there's enough evidence now to link the health problems to either of the power plants, but he has asked the Centers for Disease Control to assist with follow up studies. The Citizens Awareness Network wants to see an end to the constant low-level emissions from regular operations at Vermont Yankee, but they're also worried about radiation releases during the process of dismantling the reactor when it shuts down and its radiated materials are shipped out. Debbie Katz shows me a picture of a worker standing next to the reactor vessel at Yankee Rowe.
KATZ: This vessel, to take out, filled with concrete, was over 500 tons. I mean these are massive things that have to be moved along roads and railroads.
SCHREIBER: Katz fears the accident potential when these parts are moved. At Yankee Rowe, the irradiated materials were immediately shipped to the low- level waste dump at Barnwell, South Carolina. For Vermont Yankee, Katz's group advocates keeping them on site for 30 years or more to allow the radioactivity to naturally decay.
(Indoor industrial fans)
SCHREIBER: At Vermont Yankee the reactor itself is enclosed in an 8-story building.
WILLIAMS: Now we're in the radiologically controlled area, And to get back out at this point we'll have to pass through those monitors.
SCHREIBER: Rob Williams takes me up several floors to see how the spent fuel is stored. I'm gazing into a deep pool of blue water packed with the long metal fuel assemblies.
WILLIAMS: That is all of the spent fuel that's been produced here at this plant since back in 1972 when we started up. We're looking right now at expanding this pool's capacity.
SCHREIBER: If Yankee wins approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, fuel could be stored here until 2008. That's still 4 years shy of the end of the operating license. The issue of what to do with this highly radioactive waste after that is still unresolved.
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SCHREIBER: As we leave the plant, radiation monitors indicate I haven't been contaminated on my tour.
SCHREIBER: The need for constant, careful controls, And Vermont Yankee's ability to maintain them, has come under scrutiny recently by the Union of Concerned Scientists. David Lochbaum is the nuclear safety engineer for the group. He says last summer the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found several serious design flaws at the plant, some of which affect critical safety systems. For example, there was a valve in the emergency generator system that he says could have failed under accident conditions.
LOCHBAUM: A lot of the instrumentation that's available in the control room for the operators to monitor plant conditions and respond accordingly would have been lost. So that one failure of that one valve could have led to a cascading series of events that would have been quite, quite severe.
SCHREIBER: Activists fear Vermont Yankee's increasingly dangerous to operate under the twin pressures of aging materials and the need to compete against other sources of power in the environment of deregulation. Plant spokesman Rob Williams disagrees.
WILLIAMS: There is absolutely no incentive to cut corners on safety. Our board of directors has just expressed its confidence in our safety philosophy by authorizing the largest budget that we've ever had, And that's to promote long-term reliability, which will bring long-term competitiveness. In the era of deregulation we spend more at this plant, not less.
SCHREIBER: Vermont Yankee has recently invested millions of dollars upgrading equipment, repairing cracks in the core shroud, bringing design blueprints up to date, And hiring engineering staff. Williams believes the plant can run safely and economically not only until 2012, but beyond if the owners decide to seek an extension on the license. But Debbie Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network says that's not what's happened at other reactors in New England. Five have shut down before their licenses expired.
KATZ: You know, the truth is that Vermont Yankee will shut down no matter what. We learned this at Rowe. It was a tragic moment. No matter what happens, Vermont Yankee will shut down. And the question is when.
SCHREIBER: The moment was tragic, Katz says, because the community near the Massachusetts plant wasn't prepared, And she's urging Vermonters to put an economic development plan in place in advance. Ultimately, Vermont Yankee's fate is up to the plant's owners, a consortium of New England utility companies, And while they wait for the outcome of economic studies they've put the plant up for sale. So far, a buyer hasn't stepped forward. For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Brattleboro.
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CURWOOD: And now comments from you, our listeners.
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CURWOOD: Michael Cosgrove, who listens to Living on Earth on KUOW in Seattle, said our story on Native American environmentalism is part of a misguided trend that rewrites history to paint Native Americans as ardent defenders of the environment. He says, "We keep getting this embarrassingly anti-intellectual pablum, which is white people's fantasy of native thought," And adds, "It's so, dare I say it? New Age."
Our story on migratory song birds colliding with communications towers drew a wide response and several ideas for making the towers less of a threat to the birds. One of them came from John O'Donoghue, who listens to us on KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. "If it's the lights on the towers that are attracting the birds," Mr. O'Donoghue says, "why not replace them with radio beacons that can transmit warnings to aircraft?" He writes, "This solution has the further advantage of reducing light pollution for the benefit of those who like to see the stars from time to time."
Finally, our story on pesticide testing on humans caught the ear of Greg Twain, who hears us on KOPB in Portland, Oregon. He writes that he's all in favor of testing pesticides on humans, on one condition. Mr. Twain wants the subjects to be limited to the boards of directors, 12 highest-paid executives, And chiefs of the research and development departments of the chemical companies desiring such data.
We welcome your comments on our program. You can call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15.
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CURWOOD: Coming up: a gifted writer takes us on a worldwide environmental tour. Mark Hertsgaard is just ahead here on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Europe, Russia, Africa, India, China. Just a few of the stops on the environmental pilgrimage of journalist Mark Hertsgaard, a voyage of over 6 years beginning in 1991. He chronicles his trek in his latest book, called Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future. When I spoke to him recently, Mark Hertsgaard told me his travels led him to understand that the world's 2 environmental superpowers are the United States and China. And it was during his time in China, he says, that he discovered a fundamental lesson about our planet's fate.
HERTSGAARD: The number one environmental problem in the world today is not global warming. It's not ozone depletion. It's not any of the laundry list. It is poverty. And the reason is that people who are poor, which comprises about two thirds to three quarters of all the humans on this planet, will very reasonably put up with a great deal of aesthetic and environmental unpleasantness simply to have a little bit better standard of living. And China is the great, great example of that. You know, it's only in the last 20 years that the Chinese people have been warm in winter. For the first time in their history, precisely because they're burning coal. And because they're burning coal, 2 million of them are dying every year from air pollution. Nevertheless, they are living longer lives, they are warmer, And that's a tradeoff that I think we in the United States simply aren't aware of, because we live such comfortable lives. We take it for granted. So this is why we really have to change our conversation about the environmental crisis, And realize that you cannot hope to address it unless you are also addressing the problems of poverty and unemployment that are so much more part of the daily reality for the vast majority of humans on this planet.
CURWOOD: It's interesting that when you're talking about China's enormous environmental problems, you have a line in there saying that for its politicians, doing the right thing environmentally could be political suicide. I recall Al Gore saying pretty much the same thing to me, that what's required environmentally is not politically feasible.
HERTSGAARD: In the case of China that is absolutely right. One of the most terrifying findings during my trip there is that the institution in China that is most concerned about the environment is the government, the Communist Party, as it were. And that's terrifying, because in some ways they're the least trustworthy people in that entire country. Yet they clearly understand that they've got to do something about the environment. Why? Because environmental damages are literally canceling out all of their economic growth, through the costs of air pollution, hospital visits, the lost work days. Just this summer the terrible, terrible flooding in China, which left 56 million people homeless -- 56 million people, that's about the population of California, the entire West Coast of the United States -- they're homeless, the economic damage is $5 billion at a minimum. You know, the government knows that they cannot keep the economic system, economic growth going if they continue to have those kinds of environmental problems. On the other hand, in the short term, if they shut down the dirty factories, if they order that the deforestation stop that's causing these floods, if they do all these other things, they're going to throw so many people out of work that they're going to risk social upheaval and revolt. And indeed, we're already seeing that in China. You don't hear about it much here in the United States, but there's a lot of people in the street there because they've been thrown out of work. And nobody likes or respects the Communist Party any more. The only thing keeping the party in power is that it's keeping the economic miracle going. So they're really caught between a rock and a hard place in China.
CURWOOD: Now, you traveled also to the former Soviet Union. And in particular, you found yourself in a place that some people call the most polluted spot on the planet. What did you find there?
HERTSGAARD: You're referring there to the Mayak Complex, which was the actual secret nuclear city where they actually put together the nuclear components.
HERTSGAARD: Yes. As I say, it was very, very troubling. The first catastrophe that happened at Mayak was -- well, I should say they were all related to nuclear waste. How do you get rid of the waste products that you create when you're building nuclear bombs? And the Russians were behind the United States right after World War II. They were in a rush to catch up with the US, And they did something that today to us sounds inconceivable. They took that nuclear waste and they poured it directly into the river, into the Taicha River. And as a result, many of the people downstream got doses of radioactivity that were anywhere from 28 to 57 times greater than the people did at Chernobyl. Then again, in 1957, after they'd stopped pouring the waste in the river, they tried to build a containment vessel. The vessel blew up, creating far more radioactive damage, killing all the vegetation in a 20-kilometer radius area. When I went back there and traveled around with people who are now fighting to try and get some health care from the government, it was astonishing to travel in these beautiful sun-drenched meadows that looked completely fine, And yet you put the radiometer, the dosimeter down by the water, And you'd see it just climb up. From 25, which is the normal background level, it would climb up to 200. Then the next day we went a little farther down the river, And it was up to 400, And 600, And 800, if you held it over a piece of cow dung. And nevertheless, those people in those villages had never been evacuated. They've never been given any kind of health care by the government. It's really a disgraceful, disgraceful kind of treatment. These people were in effect nuclear guinea pigs.
CURWOOD: Well, now, here's an interesting conundrum. You assert in your book that environmentalism has been ascendant in this century, but it won't be ascendant in the next if it doesn't deliver economic well-being. But how do you do that? I mean, to have this economic focus on the environment you need cash.
HERTSGAARD: Mm hm.
CURWOOD: And the richest parts of the world would seem to have, you know, perhaps the least motivation to make the change.
HERTSGAARD: It's true that the richest part of the world, parts of the world, do have to belly up to the bar as it were and jump start this with infusions of cash. But I would take issue with the idea that they don't have an interest in this. One of the most interesting political challenges in all of this is going to be to bridge this gap between rich and poor. But one advantage that we have going into this is that the environmental crisis strikes the rich and the poor alike. Very much like the nuclear weapons crisis in the 1980s. There's no saving yourself from nuclear war, just as there is no insulating yourself from global warming or from air pollution. The rich suffer from those things just as much. Maybe not as directly, maybe not as immediately or as acutely. But you're not going to be able to hide yourself away in some little bubble in the year 2010 and think that global warming is not going to be troublesome for you. In fact, I'd say the rich folks out there on Cape Cod and the Hamptons on Long Island had better watch out, because the scientists are saying that most of the beaches on the east coast are going to be gone by the year 2020. So I think the rich do have an incentive here. And indeed, they need the poor's help to solve these problems. Being specific, the United States and the West cannot hope to tame the global warming problem without getting China's cooperation, And that's going to take some kind of deal to be cut on economic programs.
CURWOOD: You know, you raise the analogy of rich and poor alike being threatened by the nuclear problem. But in the nuclear problem the rich weren't likely to blame the poor for this. In environmental degradation, rich are prone to blame the poor as part of the problem here. I mean, in fact in your own book there, you talk about coming back to California, And you chat with a friend, And he says to you, "Well Mark, it's not really our fault. Why don't those impoverished folks stop having so many kids?"
HERTSGAARD: Yeah, I'm really glad you raised that point, because it is very, very common here, in the United States especially, to blame the poor. To blame the victims of all this. And it's just shameful as well, on factual grounds, because again, if you look at -- the guy who said that, actually, had 2 kids of his own, And if you look at the difference in consumption patterns, the average American baby imposes 13 times more environmental burden on this planet than a baby does in Brazil, which is where I had just come from. That means that my friend in San Francisco had the equivalent of 26 children, environmentally speaking, compared to the family who piloted me up the Amazon River who had 9 children. But because they were consuming at such a low level, they imposed far less burden on this planet. And this is something that Americans have got to face up to. It is part of the reason that people in the rest of the world resent us, even at the same time as they oftentimes envy our riches. The idea that we, with our cars and our luxurious lifestyle, are going to blame them, boy does that make their blood boil.
CURWOOD: Okay, Mark, what are we up against here? You say in your book that 99% of all species that we've seen on the planet have gone extinct.
HERTSGAARD: That's true.
CURWOOD: Ninety-nine percent of the species that have been on the planet have gone extinct. What's your prognosis for the human race? Can we move quickly enough to keep us from following those other 99% into the darkness?
HERTSGAARD: Personally, Steve, I have to draw a distinction between optimism and hope, And this is something that was brought to bear with me very directly in my interview with Vaclav Havel in Prague. I cannot be terribly optimistic about our chances. When one looks at the trends and one looks at the facts, these are very powerful trends. It's going to be very difficult to turn them around. And above all, right now, our political institutions, our economic institutions, and in large part average people, are not making those changes. So that's why I'd have to be pessimistic as a sort of a factual basis. But I still have great hope, And hope is a different calculation. Hope is what makes people like Vaclav Havel continue to oppose totalitarian rule throughout the deepest, darkest years of the Cold War, when it looked like nothing was ever going to change there. Havel stood his ground, was sent to prison and kept in solitary confinement for years, because he believed in what he was doing and he had hope that it would eventually manifest itself in a change. And you know, we would have said much the same in 1984, if you asked people, are we going to survive the nuclear crisis? You know, there are a lot of very smart people giving us 50/50 odds. And yet, who could have known that Mikhail Gorbachev would have come along onto the stage of history and utterly changed that situation? And now, although we're far from out of the nuclear woods, we have taken a significant step back from nuclear catastrophe. So I remain very hopeful, but I can't say that I'm optimistic.
CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard's latest book is called Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future. Thanks, Mark, for taking this time with us today.
HERTSGAARD: Thanks for having me.
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. But first one more thing before we leave. We'd like to make a tribute to a man who shamed us into recognizing our roles in polluting, without saying a word. His name was Iron Eyes Cody, And he died recently at the age of 94 at his home in Los Angeles. Mr. Cody was an actor with credits on films including Sitting Bull and A Man Called Horse. But most Americans probably first met Iron Eyes Cody through a television ad on Earth Day, 1971.
CURWOOD: The ad was produced for Keep America Beautiful, financed by packaged good companies to raise awareness about the nation's mounting litter problem. It showed Iron Eyes Cody canoeing down a dirty river flanked by billowing factory smokestacks. A single tear ran down the face of the noble Indian as a bag of litter thrown from a passing car landed at his feet.
(Voice-over: "Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country." Dramatic music continues. "And some people don't. People start pollution. People can stop it.")
CURWOOD: The ad was reproduced in 1975 and again last year. Iron Eyes Cody's impassioned stand became a powerful symbol that helped define the modern environmental movement.
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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, And Miriam Landman, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, And Bree Horowitz. This week we bid a fond farewell to Julia Madeson. We will miss her big heart and wonderful voice. And you, our listeners, will miss the encyclopedic knowledge of music she brought to the show. We had help this week from David Winickoff, Alexandra Davidson, Stephanie Pindyke, Laura Colbert and Ally Constine. 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. Michael Aharon composed the theme. 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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