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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

February 4, 2000

Air Date: February 4, 2000

SEGMENTS

Politics of Desperation / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

Some activist groups, frustrated that candidates aren’t speaking much about the environment, have begun to hound the candidates at campaign events. Living On Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports. (04:00)

The Voting Guy

Bill Nye, popularly known as “The Science Guy,” speaks with host Steve Curwood about his new role as a spokesperson for the Washington Conservation Voters. The group is launching a campaign to increase the importance of environmental issues in politics. (04:00)

Nuclear Plant Safety

Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick broke the story last August of worker contamination at a uranium plant in Paducah (puh-DOO-kuh), Kentucky. He speaks with host Steve Curwood about decades of secrecy and cover-up at nuclear weapons factories. (12:40)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about the Komodo dragon, the largest lizard on earth. (01:30)

Burning Rubber / Nathan Johnson

Not very many of the quarter-billion tires that Americans dispose of each year are recycled. As Nathan Johnson reports, many end up in huge piles in landfills where they easily catch fire, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. (08:50)

Backyard Burning

A new study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that just a few people burning their own garbage in the backyard can release as much dioxin into the atmosphere as a municipal trash incinerator serving 120,000 households. Janet Raloff of Science News talks to host Steve Curwood about this practice. (04:00)

Salmon's Best Friend / Ingrid Lobet

It seems like an impossible challenge: rehabilitate a despoiled creek in one of Seattle's poorest neighborhoods so that salmon can someday rebound. But one man is battling against the odds in a personal crusade to save his neighborhood creek. Reporter Ingrid Lobet profiles salmon savior John Beale. (11:50)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Nathan Johnson, Ingrid Lobet
GUESTS: Bill Nye, Joby Warrick, Janet Raloff

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government ran short of uranium needed to make atom bombs. So it started recycling its stock. The only thing is, it didn't tell workers they were handling deadly plutonium.

WARRICK: Workers were literally told that the materials they were using were safe enough to eat, and we had many workers who told us of managers who would actually eat the stuff, this uranium powder that would come in for processing. They'd sprinkle some on their food, or they'd put it on a finger and lick it, just to illustrate that this stuff was completely harmless.

CURWOOD: The story of cover-up, deception, and deceit in Paducah, Kentucky. Also, the selling of the environment to the Democratic presidential candidates. And Bill Nye, "The Science Guy," he wants you to vote. We'll have that and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Politics of Desperation

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For years, presidential campaigns have been fairly quiet affairs, with little of the tumult and protest that marked the campaigns and conventions during the Vietnam War, for example. But direct action may be coming back. During the recent New Hampshire primary, some frustrated environmental activists who were feeling ignored, especially by Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley, decided to grab some placards and bullhorns and head for the barricades of confrontation. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's the morning before the New Hampshire primary, and Al Gore's local campaign headquarters is locked tight and guarded by police. A handful of protesters has come from Ohio to call the vice president a liar.

SWEARINGEN: This is the litmus test for Al Gore. Is he really the environmental vice president, and now possibly the president, that he calls himself?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Terry Swearingen leads a group of grassroots activists who've hounded Mr. Gore for years. They claim he broke a promise to block the opening of a hazardous waste incinerator in eastern Ohio. Seven years ago the group staged a sit-in at the White House, and today they're ready for a sit-in here, until they get what they want or get arrested.

MAN: I just was handed this by --

WOMAN: It's a letter from the White House

MAN: -- a member of the Gore campaign. It's a letter from the White House...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: After an hour, the confrontational tactics pay off. The vice president, who for years has been saying his hands were legally tied in the matter, agrees to an independent investigation of the incinerator. Terry Swearingen.

SWEARINGEN: This shows the power of the threat of civil disobedience. This is response is -- we're actually pleased with it. It's a step -- a step in the right direction. That's what it is.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's a small victory, but these days grassroots activists say small victories are the best they can get. Although Al Gore has an impressive environmental record, it's not a central theme in his campaign, and the same is true for Bill Bradley.

CROWD: (chanting) Hey, candidates, take a stand, global warming what's your plan? Hey, candidates, take a stand, global warming what's your plan?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Mr. Bradley's been attracting protesters, too, like at this town meeting in Derry.

O'CONNELL: Well, we're basically here today to encourage all the candidates to develop a plan to address global warming and make it forefront issue.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Christine O'Connell of Ozone Action and Doug Israel of Campus Green Vote want to force candidates like Gore and Bradley to take a more vocal stand.

ISRAEL: I mean, I know that Gore and the candidates care about these issues, but we're standing out here every day. They just don't want to talk about them at all.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The protest, though, isn't exactly at center stage. The environmentalists are relegated to the side lawn, next to animal rights activists who are dressed in pig costumes with signs saying, "Tax Meat." There's also a man here with a boot on his head, who wants the government to force Americans to brush their teeth.

(Applause)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The environmental protests don't seem to affect Mr. Bradley. He speaks to voters for half an hour and global warming never comes up.

BRADLEY: ... that we can do more in terms of education and health and race relations in America, and campaign finance reform and gun control...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Of course, it's not only a question of persuading the candidates to speak out, but getting the public's attention, too. Eric Gustavson was glad to see the protesters out front.

GUSTAVSON: I'm glad that they feel passionate about the issues they feel passionate about, and I think that's great what they're doing. I respect them for what they do.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But Jennifer Hazel points out it's easier for demonstrators to get noticed at small-town events like those in New Hampshire.

HAZEL: It's a little easier because we're a small state with a huge amount of attention placed on us. So it's easier for smaller voices to get a large hearing.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Grassroots activists may have a tougher time as the campaign moves away from New Hampshire's face to face political environment, but they're not giving up. The climate-change activists vow to be a presence at campaign events in Florida and New York. And Al Gore's chances in Ohio may be affected by his new set of promises concerning the hazardous waste incinerator there. If he doesn't deliver, he may find demonstrators ready to occupy his Ohio offices on the eve of Super Tuesday. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

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The Voting Guy

CROWD: (chanting) Protect our water! Protect our air! Protect our water! Protect our air!

CURWOOD: In Washington state, some activists are taking a gentler and perhaps more traveled path to build support for the environment. Just a few days ago, at the state capital in Olympia, conservationists kicked off a campaign for clean water and salmon protection.

CROWD: (chanting) Protect our water! Protect our air! Protect our water! Protect our air!

CURWOOD: Political rallies are nothing new, but this campaign is going multi-media, with the star of a children's television show as its spokesman, Bill Nye, "The Science Guy." Mr. Nye says he wants people to vote in an environmentally-conscious manner. But ultimately, he says his Web site and television ads will have succeeded if they just get people out to vote, period.

NYE: I don't take much of a stand in the spot. I just want people to vote. And if there's somebody that's going to argue that voting is bad, well I'm just going to disagree with that guy. (Laughs) I mean, sorry, I think voting's good. This call-click-vote thing that we have here in Washington state, it's a Web site, will lead you to other Web sites that allow you to send electronic mail to your representative.

CURWOOD: Tell me, quickly describe that Web site for me.

NYE: Callclickvote.com. They want you to take the environment into account when you vote, so here's the bit.

(A turkey gobbles.) Nye's voice-over: "Salmon and people. We both need clean water to live. But too much traffic, too many clear-cuts …" Horns beep, a chainsaw revs up. " … it's making pollution, it's making people sick … " Coughing. "… and it's killing our fish. Now we've all got to do our part to clean up out here." Water runs. "And conserve water at home. And tell them to do their part here. Then you can influence your elected officials to make and enforce good laws. Right?" A crowd of children yells, "Yeah!" Nye: "So call, click, vote!" Beeps. "We don't have a lot of time here." (A clock ticks.)

CURWOOD: Now, your science show is really popular with kids. And even the Web site that we saw looks like it's primarily geared toward a younger audience. Do you think kids are a real force for social change?

NYE: Absolutely. Kids very much have a big influence on their parents. You know, many parents complain, in a good-natured way, that their son or daughter is always after them to recycle the paper, not throw this away, turn off the lights, because this message is clear to them. And I like to argue it's clear to a kid in a scientific way. A kid can evaluate, can look at the world. You know, why are there wars? Or why are we making more pollution? These are questions that a kid can ask without the blurriness of the complexity of life.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. You don't have --

NYE: In my view.

CURWOOD: You don't have a long-term plan that these kids are going to grow up in, run things and change things, do you?

NYE: Ah -- it would be crazy, wouldn't it? That would be crazy. Kids aren't going to grow up. They're never going to become voters. They're not going to develop social habits that will affect the future. What are you trying -- to get us all killed? Yeah, I think they do.

CURWOOD: You have a lot of fans here listening to you in the control room, and they want to know: Bill Nye, why did you become a science guy?

NYE: That's a good question, and I would answer I'm not really sure. Ever since I was a little kid, long before really I can remember, long before a conscious memory, I loved science. I was fascinated by the world around me, fascinated with making stuff. And it stuck with me.

CURWOOD: So you became the "Science Guy," and what brought you to become Bill Nye, the Voter Guy?

NYE: Bill Nye, the Voter Guy. You know, I guess my parents once again. They would drop what they were doing, they would stop -- I mean, you had to wait for dinner while they went and voted. And it is said, it is said, Steve -- now I cannot document this --

CURWOOD: Yes?

NYE: It is said that my great-grandmother did not attend the birth of her first grandchild, which would be a big tradition among grandmothers, because she was marching in the suffragette parade in Washington, D.C. Now, I cannot document that, but this is the tradition handed down to me. And I've always been, I've always believed that if you vote, you can influence things.

CURWOOD: Bill Nye is the official spokesperson for the Washington Conservation Voters. Thank you, sir.

NYE: Thank you.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead: When reality turns out to be worse than the fears. The government cover-up of workplace hazards at nuclear weapons plants. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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Nuclear Plant Safety

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The federal government recently admitted that for decades workers at many of its nuclear weapons facilities were exposed to high levels of radiation and cancer-causing chemicals. At the same time, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced plans to more than double spending on clean-up and medical screening at two uranium enrichment plants, one in Piketon, Ohio, the other in Paducah, Kentucky. For residents of Paducah, it was the latest ripple in an unsettling story they first heard about last August. That's when Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick broke the news of secrecy and cover-up that prevented workers from discovering their exposure to highly radioactive materials. Joby Warrick says he'd been investigating nuclear facilities when a source suggested that he look into Paducah.

WARRICK: We started going over some documents together, and one thing that jumped off the page at us was this -- the word "plutonium." We saw some indications of plutonium contamination in the plant and off-site, and this is a real surprise to us. Because as far as we knew, there was never plutonium at Paducah. There's no reason for it to be there.

CURWOOD: So why would there be plutonium in Paducah?

WARRICK: It turns out that for a period of about 20 years, the government tired to economize on its uranium stockpile by recycling uranium that had already been used elsewhere, and basically in plutonium bomb factories. They took this used stuff and would feed it right back into this uranium plant; and as it turned out, this used uranium contained not only plutonium but a whole suite of other very serious, very radioactive isotopes that are much more dangerous than uranium.

CURWOOD: Now, workers didn't know about this. How were you able to get a hold of the studies that show that this was going on?

WARRICK: Well, this was something that required a lot of deep digging in archives, some records that had been recently declassified. It's not something that we could come across in reading public documents, for example, and EPA documents, clean-up documents for the plant. But in looking at some classified memos that had been declassified and released to us, we were able to piece together the whole history of this program that brought these contaminants to Paducah.

CURWOOD: Did you actually go down there at one point with a shovel, to find out what might be going on?

WARRICK: Yeah, we made a number of trips down there. But one of the early things we wanted to do was -- just sort of as a reality check -- to determine if this was still a problem, if it's something that an average person roaming around in the woods around the plant might encounter because we had seen there were reports of levels of plutonium off-site. So I went down there on a couple of occasions with Geiger counters and once with actually a little shovel and some sampling jars, and we just started taking samples. And we sent them to a lab for analysis. And sure enough, we found plutonium at levels hundreds of times above background and above the level that the government certifies as safe.

CURWOOD: Wow. So you took a chance yourself doing this, then.

WARRICK: A little more than we anticipated. We didn't expect to find the amounts that we did, and we tried to follow the rules and were very careful. But still, it was a little disconcerting when we found out that we'd actually been in some fairly contaminated areas.

CURWOOD: I mean, do I have this wrong? As I understand it, like a millionth of a gram of plutonium, if you inhale that, that's it. I mean, it's going to set off lung cancer, right?

WARRICK: If you inhaled that dose, yeah. There are some studies that show that even that small of a quantity of plutonium inhaled can cause the mutations of cells that will eventually lead to cancer. It's very dangerous stuff.

CURWOOD: So, as you started speaking to workers in Paducah, what kind of picture did they paint to you of work and worker exposure at the plant over the past 40 years?

WARRICK: The assumption by most of these workers, based on what they had been told by management, was this was a very safe working environment. Workers were literally told that the materials they were using were safe enough to eat, and we had many workers who told us of managers who would actually eat the stuff, this uranium powder that would come in for processing. They'd sprinkle some on their food, or they'd put it on a finger and lick it, just to illustrate that this stuff was completely harmless. So because of this, workers were not concerned when, over the years, they began to notice this heavy dust in these working environments getting onto their clothes, and coming home with it on their skin. And even sometimes getting in their food. Many stories from workers who had talked about waking up with their bedsheets stained with this green or black powdery dust that they worked in every day.

CURWOOD: And of course, there was a little bit of plutonium in that. But they didn't know that, did they?

WARRICK: A little bit of plutonium. And again, this was not realized by the rank and file, the workers, until decades later.

CURWOOD: Let's step back for a moment. Help me understand what this plant in Paducah meant to the people there.

WARRICK: Well, this was a fairly isolated and impoverished region of western Kentucky. Its claim to fame is that it had a vice president, Mr. Alban Barkley, who was the vice president under Truman. And one of the things he was able to do for this part of his state during his vice presidency is to convince the Atomic Energy Commission to build this uranium enrichment facility there. So it was by far the largest employer. At any time, a couple thousand people were employed there and in all kinds of ancillary jobs, where people would come in for contract work. And it was by far the best paying job, and people were very proud to work there and very proud of this opportunity.

CURWOOD: Joby, who knew that there were much more toxic and radioactive substances than uranium, the plutonium, the neptunium, and the other kind of exotic-sounding, what do you call them? Trans-uranic metals?

WARRICK: Trans-uranics. It's a whole set of radioactive elements that are more radioactive than uranium. But yes, there was very specific knowledge about these contaminants as late, excuse me, as early as the late 1950s, and we were able to document this from memos that we received that showed discussions by some of the plant managers about the contaminants in this material, and what to do about them. Their big concern early on was, is this going to contaminate the product that we're making? Not is this going to be a threat to the workers? And their discussions about hazardous working environments, where you had this one very telling memo from the early 1960s where a doctor is saying, look, we may have a problem with contamination with these workers, but we don't know it because we're not allowed to test them because the plant is afraid to alarm these workers and they're worried about some kind of hazardous duty pay these workers might demand if they know they're working with more dangerous materials.

CURWOOD: So the bosses knew and didn't want to tell the workers.

WARRICK: Yeah. There's no indication in the record that anybody was told in terms of the regular workers at least until the early 1990s, when some memos were circulated to some of the senior union officials saying, look, there may be other things in the plant -- this kind of vague language about trans-uranic materials, which most of the workers wouldn't understand. But not until this past summer, when our reports came out, did workers really begin to understand the gravity of the situation.

CURWOOD: Joby, did any of the workers suspect that something was wrong here?

WARRICK: Well, one in particular did. It's a man named Joe Harding, who was an employee at the plant for more than 20 years. And he began to notice through the years a whole range of unusual symptoms in his own body. He developed some weird spots and rashes that just covered him from head to foot. He had fingernail-like growths coming out of his palms and of his knuckles. He developed stomach cancer that eventually killed him. And he began to bring his health concerns to the attention of the managers at the time and to the government, saying, look, there are serious exposures going on in this plant. Workers are breathing this uranium dust, this radioactive dust. It's going home with them. I think this is causing my own illness. The government did not take these claims very seriously at the time. It launched an investigation based on what Joe Harding said, and essentially dismissed all his concerns and said that radiation levels at the plant were not unusual, and that if Mr. Harding developed cancer it was likely due to his diet of eating country ham. It turns out that, after Harding died, his attorney and his widow had the body exhumed and the bones tested for uranium, and the content of his body showed uranium levels of about 100,000 times higher than you'd expect in a normal person. But the government continued to resist any, you know, resist compensation for this widow, until just two years ago she settled out of court for $12,000. Just a settlement for all the back worker's comp that he would have been paid. It was a real travesty.

CURWOOD: What's been the response in Paducah?

WARRICK: There has been some elation on the part of workers and their families. They're very excited about just the acknowledgment, really, more than the money, that the government's finally saying, look, this was real, and we owe you an apology and a full explanation at the very least. Some are very happy to see some money coming because some of these families have been carrying some heavy financial burdens in terms of health costs that weren't covered by worker's comp or anything else. And just in the case of the workers, there are also a number of people who would just like to see this problem go away. The Chamber of Commerce is upset that Paducah's getting a bad name, and they're afraid they're not going to attract any jobs. There are lots of old-timers who just don't believe that radiation is a serious problem, and just think that the stories are exaggerated or they're just not that serious.

CURWOOD: Now, how does the local response compare to the national response you got when you started digging in this?

WARRICK: The initial stories we did really touched off a firestorm on Capitol Hill. There were immediate calls for hearings. There have been a total of three hearings and the Congress has gotten very involved in this issue of accountability by the government at these DOE plants and also in demanding that workers be taken care of. And this whole issue of compensation for workers has matured in the last year, in a way that we really never anticipated. And now the White House is talking about, for the first time, getting some kind of compensation for workers at all these plants who may have been injured by their work in helping make the United States safe from Cold War attacks.

CURWOOD: Joby, looking back, who was lying and how long did they lie?

WARRICK: What we've been able to determine, and that's always a difficult question to know who to blame in a situation like this, there was certainly the government. The Atomic Energy Commission sort of started this thing in motion, you know, began these plants and imposed this culture of secrecy and expediency in developing nuclear weapons. And at the same time they farmed out the responsibility to some very big corporations and told them, look, do what it takes, you know, meet these quotas. Get the job done. You know, don't come up to us with problems. And this is the environment that created this whole sort of nightmare for a number of workers, in which they did their jobs without really knowing what they were being exposed to, and didn't learn about problems until decades later. So how do you parse that out? I mean, who was ultimately responsible? Probably it was both, I think.

CURWOOD: Now the government is admitting that workers at many other sites around the country may have been exposed to high levels of radiation and cancer-causing chemicals, as well as the people in Paducah. But I'm wondering, Joby, do you think there's still more we don't know about? Do you think there are still other untold stories of hazards that are going to surface, or have yet to surface?

WARRICK: Yeah, absolutely. We get calls daily from people and plants and places all over the country -- those that are operating today and some that closed years ago and had fairly small and obscure roles in building nuclear weapons. But the theme that the workers bring to us is, it's generally the same, that production and sort of national security took precedence over safety concerns. And perhaps that was the necessary attitude of some of these places at the time. But these workers all feel very strongly that they've been the guinea pigs in this vast effort to build bombs, and that they think the time is now for people to recognize this and take care of them.

CURWOOD: Joby Warrick is a reporter with the Washington Post who broke the Paducah, Kentucky, story. Thanks for joining us, Joby.

WARRICK: Thanks, Steve. I enjoyed it.

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(Music up and under)

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; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Up in smoke. Health hazards from the back yard burning of ordinary household trash. Keep listening to 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 Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.

(Music up and under)

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: The Chinese New Year is upon us, and this is the year of the golden dragon. Though dragons are mythological creatures, several types of earthly fauna are sufficiently dragon-like to earn them the title. The dragonfly, for example. And of course the Komodo dragon. The Komodo is the largest lizard on earth if you don't count Godzilla. They live on a few islands in Indonesia, and adult males can grow to ten feet and weigh 300 pounds. Legends of fire-breathing dragons were reportedly inspired by the Komodo's yellow tongues and foul breath. These Indonesian carnivores mostly eat deer and wild boar, but if a big dragon spots a smaller one, well, it's dinner time. So young dragons tend to stay up in trees. And though they are generally shy around people, Komodo dragons occasionally nab a human or two. The dragons are now a protected species, but they are sometimes killed by villagers trying to protect their children and animals. Development and eco-tourism also threaten these reptiles, whose entire habitat is only one quarter the size of Rhode Island. And so, Komodo dragons are in danger of going the way of dinosaurs, relegated to the misty magical land of science fiction and fairy tales. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Burning Rubber

CURWOOD: Thanks to our passion for automobiles, Americans dispose of more than a quarter-billion tires every year. Some are recycled into rubber mats, or ground up and used to re-pave roads. And others end up scattered on roadsides or dumped in landfills. But a huge percentage of tires end up on fire. Some burn by accident. Others are incinerated on purpose. Nathan Johnson reports.

(Loud noises in an auto shop)

JOHNSON: The last time most drivers see or think about their old tires is when they turn them in, to buy new treads at places like Toscolito's in San Rafael, California.

(Noise continues)

JOHNSON: Here they'll take off your used tires for a buck and a quarter each, and then pay a middleman to haul them off. But every now and then, some of our old tires come back to haunt us.

REPORTER: Investigators say lightning struck a loading ramp early this morning and sparks touched off the tires. Firefighters say when they first arrived, heat shattered their windshield.

JOHNSON: Near Modesto, California, recently, a legal pile of 10 million tires caught on fire. Toxic smoke plumes shot up thousands of feet into the sky. Black soot landed on the windshields of cars 100 miles away.

(Flames crackle)

JOHNSON: Fires at tire dumps happen pretty frequently. In the last few years, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York all had massive fires. They can burn for months, even years. Tires end up in dumps because there's just not much of a market yet for used rubber. But millions of tires outside of dumps, tires that are legally disposed of, still end up being burned.

(A car door opens; bird song in the background)

JOHNSON: A few blocks from her home in Cupertino, California, Joyce Eden stops her car and points out some wisps of smoke rising from the Hanson cement plant about a mile away.

EDEN: It was only when some of the people in the community became aware of, that the cement plant had burned tires for fuel in a test burn and hadn't notified any of us about it, that I became concerned along with other people in the neighborhood.

JOHNSON: Ms. Eden says the cement company and local air officials promised neighbors that emissions from tire burning at the plant were safe. But she says concerned residents did their own research.

EDEN: Through the force of our knowledge, we were able to get their scientists to admit that, yes, the health risk did go up with burning tires for fuel.

JOHNSON: The Hanson cement plant stopped burning tires for fuel. But many factories and power plants around the country still do burn tires.

(Typing; a phone rings.)

SCHWARTZ: Hello, this is Sy Schwartz.

JOHNSON: Seymour Schwartz is a professor of environmental science at the University of California at Davis, who has compared the emissions from tire burning and coal burning.

SCHWARTZ: There were more than 100 percent increases, and in some cases more than 1,000 percent increases, in PAHs, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. And those are carcinogenic. There's no debate that there have been large increases in some types and categories of toxic pollutants. But there has been disagreement over the meaning, in terms of whether those increases create additional risk or not.

JOHNSON: Most regulators say there's no reason to worry, and some states actually promote burning as a way to get some value out of what's otherwise a problem. Meanwhile, as the debate over health hazards continues, there's a brisk business in tires as a cheap source of fuel.

(Auto body shop noise)

BURN: That is a state-of-the-art primary tire shredder. In fact, I just bought it last month.

JOHNSON: Michael Burn is president of Total Tire Recycling in Sacramento. It's the largest processor of scrap tires in northern California.

BURN: We bring them in here, we shred them, we chip them, we slice them and dice them, you know.

(Rubber grinding)

JOHNSON: The metal jaws of this shredder grind whole tires into little two-inch chips. Some of these chips are used in making road pavement and other products, but most of them are burned. They're a popular fuel in part because each tire contains the equivalent of seven gallons of oil.

BURN: A tire has more BTUs per ton than coal does. They're shipping in coal, I believe, from Colorado, Utah, and are paying upwards of $40 a ton to ship it here. Well, I can provide them with a ton of tire chips at $10 to $20 a ton, so the cost is half of what they would pay and gives more energy than they get from the coal.

JOHNSON: Environmentalists want government to cut down on incineration and do more to jump-start new markets for used tires. But tires are hard to recycle because the rubber has gone through a process called vulcanization, to give them extra strength.

SERUMGARD: Now what vulcanization does is mixes rubber with other chemicals, principally sulfur, and then subjects that resulting compound to heat and pressure. It's not unlike baking a cake.

JOHNSON: John Serumgard of the Rubber Manufacturers Association says just as you can't unbake a cake to get the flour and eggs out, you can't unvulcanize rubber.

SERUMGARD: In, for example, an aluminum can, you can take aluminum and you can crush it, you can melt it, you can form it into a can, and you can do that any number of times. There are no chemical changes that take place. Unfortunately, with rubber, there are those changes, those physical changes, that occur in processing. Even if we grind it up very small, it's still a vulcanized particle.

JOHNSON: The prospect of de-vulcanizing rubber has tantalized researchers for decades. Its promise is that it would allow tires to be transformed, essentially, back into virgin rubber. Recently, there's been progress on de-vulcanization, but people disagree about when the technology will be ready. According to professor Sy Schwartz at U.C. Davis ...

SCHWARTZ: It's already here. There is the chemical de-vulcanization process called De-Link [spells it out], that is already commercially in use, and is economical.

JOHNSON: But according to John Serumgard at the Rubber Manufacturers Association...

SERUMGARD: There are a number of processes where people claim that they have a de-vulcanization technology. And indeed they may de-vulcanize to some extent. But none of them have yet been capable of being ramped up to commercial-level production. Given the current state of the science, I would say that isn't simply years away. That's probably decades away.

JOHNSON: Whatever the reasons, de-vulcanization is not happening yet on a large scale. In the meantime, a partial solution to the problem of tire trash is to reduce the number of tires we throw away. The first element of the old mantra: Reduce, reuse, and recycle.

(Auto body shop sounds)

JOHNSON: Like most dealers, Toscolito's in San Rafael, California, sells extra-long-life tires, like the Toyo Ultra or the Goodyear Infinitred. These can last 100,000 miles. More than twice the life of an average tire. But you have to know what you're looking for.

LENOL: It was a 205-70-15, and it is a radial. And it's 95T, which implies that it's a T-rated speed-rated tire.

JOHNSON: There is a jumble of letters and numbers on the sidewall of your average tire, so salesman David Lenol says, to compare tread lifes, look for something called a UTQG rating. It's an ugly acronym that stands for Uniform Tire something or other.

(To Lenol): Is the 800 the UT --

LENOL: No, the UTQG rating would be found on the side of the tire. Right here you'd find the tread wear rating at 700.

JOHNSON: So right now, 700, that's the pretty much the highest you can get.

LENOL: Yes, at the moment that is the highest-rated tire you can purchase.

JOHNSON: The rating doesn't exactly correspond to mileage, but a tire with the rating of 700 should last twice as long as one rated at 350. Now, if people switched, or if auto companies began installing these tires on new cars, eventually the number of waste tires could be cut in half. That's more than 100 million tires a year that won't be thrown away or burned. For Living on Earth, this is Nathan Johnson in San Rafael, California.

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(Auto body shop sounds)

Backyard Burning

CURWOOD: Setting just about anything on fire releases an array of compounds into the air. Concern about dioxins, carcinogens released when things like plastic bags and batteries are burned, has led to tightened emission standards for municipal garbage incinerators. But these regulations don't apply to the many people who get rid of household waste by burning it themselves. A new study by the Environmental Protection Agency found these back yard trash burners are spewing huge quantities of dioxin into the air. Janet Raloff, senior editor at Science News and our science correspondent, has been following this story. Hi, Janet.

RALOFF: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: So tell me, is this new study a big deal? How many people are really doing this?

RALOFF: No one knows how many people are really doing this, although the EPA wants to. But their estimate is that if a lot of people in rural areas are doing it, it could contribute up to a quarter of the dioxin in the air in the United States. And then, certainly globally, most people get rid of their trash by burning, so they're going to be spewing it elsewhere as well.

CURWOOD: Now, just a few people burning in their back yard can cause a problem?

RALOFF: Well, the reason is because it only takes a few people to equal the same dioxin emissions of an incinerator that serves a community of maybe 50,000 to 100,000 people. I mean, really very few people, like three to 30.

CURWOOD: What are some of the common products that contain the ingredients for dioxins?

RALOFF: Well, what you want are things that are rich in chlorine, and many plastics are, particularly the polyvinyl chloride that's often not recycled along with your other plastics. And you can find this particular type of plastic in a whole range of household goods from placemats and children's raincoats to the legs on Barbie dolls, or electrical wiring. Even diaper bags.

CURWOOD: Now, is there any way to cut down on the pollution these products release in back yard fires? I mean, it probably is pretty hard to call for a total ban on fires themselves, right?

RALOFF: Well, one way would be to keep some of these things out of the wastestream . Things that are rich in chlorine, like these plastics and a number of other goods in the trash. But also certain things that can help push the reaction up, and those are like metals such as copper. And you can find those in a whole range of electronic circuitry, which you may be throwing out with small toys, or you could find it in batteries, which is another reason not to throw batteries out in the trash.

CURWOOD: Now, what if people recycle their trash? Now, that would be an improvement, right? I mean, at least in absolute terms, they'd be burning smaller quantities of stuff.

RALOFF: You'd think so, wouldn't you? It turns out that recyclers actually produce more dioxin than the non-recycling family of four. And we're not talking a little bit more. They're actually producing 44 times more per pound.

CURWOOD: Huh? How does that happen?

RALOFF: Well, it turns out that when they recycle, they take out a lot of the things that would otherwise dilute the recipe for making dioxin. And so you have more of the stuff left behind that's a very good producer of it. And you end up with lots of dioxin.

CURWOOD: So the dioxins can't form if the recipe's not available then.

RALOFF: Well, they may form but they won't form nearly as well.

CURWOOD: Now, what if these people are burning in their back yards way out in the countryside? You know, not near the city, not where you can expect the neighbors to breathe the stuff. Does it still affect us?

RALOFF: Well, nobody quite knows, but certainly that's where a lot of our food comes from. That's where we have the dairy cows. That's where we have our crops growing. And this stuff will rain down and into the food. And they've shown that it actually comes through into produce that we get in the market. It comes into the milk of dairy cows. It's not necessarily benign by having it happen out in rural areas.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks for bringing us up to date on this, I guess I could call it a burning issue, Janet.

RALOFF: (Laughs) Indeed.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Sorry about that one. Janet Raloff is senior editor at Science News and Living on Earth's science correspondent. When we return, in Seattle, saving Hamm Creek means saving salmon, and one man has done both, by turning a sewer back into the stream it was meant to be. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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(Music up and under)

Salmon's Best Friend

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. While government officials debate if dams should be demolished and urban growth curtailed to save the wild Pacific salmon, there's a gentleman in one of Seattle's poorest neighborhoods who's turned salmon preservation into a personal crusade. His battleground seems like a hopeless place for success, but he has found ways to help salmon bounce back in the city's most polluted stream. Reporter Ingrid Lobet brings us the story of the irrepressible John Beal.

(Keys jangle; a car door slams. A motor revs up.)

LOBET: Three hundred and sixty five mornings a year, John Beal climbs into his Ford Bronco and rolls out to check on his creek. Hamm Creek. He drives across his neighborhood, the most industrial part of Seattle, to a startling four-acre patch of new green.

(Coughing)

LOBET: He's there before the end of his second smoke.

(Door car shuts)

BEAL: I'm actually trying to cut down. I really am. From four packs to two.

(Chain links clank)

LOBET: Mr. Beal opens a gate and follows a gravel path down through a dense patch of cottonwood and alder saplings. None of this was here five years ago. No pond, no cattails, no red-winged blackbirds. Instead, there was a turn of the century sewage plant and cracked pavement.

(Footfalls)

LOBET: Mr. Beal winces as he bends his tall frame toward the water. He's got injuries from a tour in Vietnam in the Marines, and his old hobby, racing hydroplanes. Then he smiles as he spots a half-dozen small salmon shimmying against the current.

(Water splashes)

BEAL: There are some of my babies there. See them?

LOBET: Twenty years ago only a handful of old-timers remembered there even was a creek here. Few of the truck drivers or paint plant workers passing by noticed the roadside ditch, black with oil and solvents. It flowed past scrap yards and machine shops, past a few modest homes, including John and Lana Beal's. Then under the highway. For much of its course, this so-called stream wasn't even on the surface, but channeled underground like a sewer. Hamm Creek was the most fouled tributary of Seattle's most troubled river. But for John Beal it was also part of his neighborhood, and his doctor had told him his health could depend in part on finding a hobby.

BEAL: This is where the day I lived, the last doctor that I had been interviewed by, told me that I only had about four or five months to live. And it was right at this place where this pond is, that there was a Kelvinator refrigerator that had gone. It was into sediment about half deep. And I grabbed a shovel from home, came out here, and started digging it out of the stream.

LOBET: John Beal soon developed an uncommon devotion to his filthy, fractured neighborhood stream. What started as a shovel in the muck eventually became a full-time job supported by donations. He doesn't talk about it much, but if you ask him, John will tell you he's a Catholic and Hamm Creek is his calling.

BEAL: This is a mission from God. He gave it to me, 100 percent, woke me up at 2 o'clock in the morning and said, "This is what you're going to do." And I said, "You're out of your mind." And there was a deal struck: I do it, I stay alive.

LOBET: Mr. Beal says Hamm Creek has kept him alive. But early on he wasn't sure he was holding up his end of the bargain.

BEAL: After a year of doing that, of digging this garbage out and removing it, I had never run across anything alive. No crawdads, not even worms. I'd been around waters as a youngster and thought, in any live water you're bound to find bugs or something. And there just wasn't anything here.

LOBET: But eventually his efforts began to pay off. John Beal made friends at the local water quality lab, and they helped him identify the culprits who were dumping solvents and oil into the creek. Over the years he has worked with regulators to shut down several repeat violators. He even invented an absorbent boom to help strain contaminants out of the creek.

(Flowing water)

LOBET: Slowly, Hamm Creek was becoming clean, but it still wasn't alive. John had enlisted growing fleets of grade schoolers to introduce salmon fry into the creek, but the young fish didn't live long. He realized they didn't have enough food.

BEAL: It was by going to the Green River above the gorge, and actually diving in the water with a snorkel and observing wild Cohoe and what they would eat. And it was interesting. The second day, being very still in the water, they got curious, eventually, and came swimming right up underneath me, and I actually was able to watch a couple dive right underneath me and go to a larva on a rock, pluck it off and eat it.

LOBET: Mr. Beal discovered something he hadn't been able to find in books. The fingerlings wanted fly larvae, which live on slimy rocks. He began stocking Hamm Creek with live rocks from cleaner streams nearby.

BEAL: This has got -- whoo, there's a larva right there. I think that's probably the mayfly. There's a periwinkle, you can see it quite clearly. Looks -- not sure what that one is.

LOBET: Mr. Beal's expertise is entirely self-taught. And in his exploration of stream ecology, he eventually found he had to look beyond Hamm Creek to the river it flows into. Salmon have to travel through the Duwamish River to reach Hamm Creek to spawn. The river used to be home to mighty salmon runs, but as Seattle industrialized, the Duwamish was diked, dredged, and straightened, its sides reinforced with concrete. Ninety-eight percent of the fish habitat was lost.

(A boat motor runs)

CUMMINGS: (To Beal) Can you give me a little shove off the bow, John?

BEAL: Yeah, let's head upriver first. What kind of an out-drive you got on this thing?

LOBET: Often, John Beal goes out on a boat with B.J. Cummings, an ecologist whose job it is to look out for the Duwamish and the rest of Puget Sound. The Duwamish is among the Pacific Northwest's most altered waterways. It's the artery for Seattle's international barge traffic. It's the water frontage for Boeing. It was the home of all the city's early concrete production.

(Boat motor continues)

LOBET: Today, at an extreme low tide, John's offered to help B.J. spot hidden waste pipes that may still be draining chemicals into the river.

BEAL: See this rock outcropping that looks fairly normal? Well, this is where the outfall is. There's two of them. And when the tide drops, you can absolutely see that they had built it like they built a rockery. There are two pipes, one on the bottom of each one of these. And it is a mess. It was black.

CUMMINGS: This is the one you said was black.

BEALE: Yes.

CUMMINGS: Kind of black, green, a blue, and an oil, right? Okay.

LOBET: B.J. resolves to come back the next day in her kayak to take samples directly from the sewer pipes. John makes it clear he'll be there, too. John Beal is everywhere. He's an amiable guy, but he's also relentless. When local environmental officials open their offices on Monday morning, it's not unusual for them to hear first thing the voice of John Beal.

BEAL: (On phone answering machine) Okay, this is John Beal. Just got a report that yesterday at noon Burlington Northern and/or a contract crew was steam-cleaning and sandblasting the railroad bridge into the Duwamish. I just went down on the boat. It's now Sunday, low tide. There is rust all over the place...

LOBET: Some local officials find John Beal to be a major pain in the neck, a fanatic even. But they won't say so on tape. Some ridicule him, some fear him, and some say he doesn't always get the details right. George Blumberg, a biologist at the port of Seattle, remembers a time Mr. Beal threw a monkey wrench into a river restoration project that Mr. Beal himself supported, after excavators turned up a single piece of charred wood. Mr. Beal alerted a local Indian tribe that a previously unknown settlement had been unearthed.

BLUMBERG: That's a dramatic way to, by my lights, to perhaps misinterpret what we'd just seen, and perhaps even to raise a very important and significant question in the absence of additional information. And that's sort of a demonstration of how excitable Mr. Beal can be.

LOBET: It turned out there was no buried Indian site, but the false alarm caused a delay in a project. Still, Mr. Blumberg says he admires John Beal's determination and his dedication to a watershed others have written off.

BLUMBERG: A lot of folks would say, why spend the time on it? You know, it's lost. If I had a dollar to spend on fish and wildlife habitat restoration, it ought to be spent elsewhere, not on the Duwamish. But a guy like John Beal would say any effort we make here is going to be beneficial.

LOBET: And John Beal's passion for the Duwamish River and Hamm Creek is contagious. Over the years he's inspired hundreds of school children and youth with his warm and engaging style. They've helped him plant 750,000 trees during special work days, like this one.

BEAL: What is this tool called?

DEVON: Pickmatic.

BEAL: Pickmatic, woo-hoo! What is your name?

DEVON: Devon.

BEAL: Devon, you're on top of it. What is this used for? Digging through hard soil, yeah...

LOBET: Today the crew is 50 youths from different parts of the country. They're with the National Service Corps known as City Year. John is doing less of the physical work himself these days, and delegating what he can to crew leaders.

BEAL: With the Pickmatic you don't want to go really over your waist. You want to go down here. (Digs) And keep it low.

LOBET: The kids are transplanting native cottonwoods and alders to the streamside. The trees will stabilize soils and keep the creek cool and shaded, a necessity for fish. John Beal encourages the kids to see the spirituality in tree planting.

BEAL: For years, at Hamm Creek, every tree that I have planted has had a name. And more and more, I can't explain the science of it, but I can tell you that trees that have a name have a better chance at mortality than those that don't.

(Ambient voices. A woman calls: "James, come back and kiss this tree!")

BEAL: Name it before you plant it. Name it. Name it. Get your foot off.

WOMAN: Okay. This one will be -- Devon! What's the dude's name that died when we came back? Glenn. This is Glenn.

LOBET: Glenn, the sapling, is taking root next to the once dead stream, a stream which one biologist now says supports, quote, "a surprising density of organisms." Mr. Beal believes that through this model of taking responsibility for streams and knowing them intimately through daily visits, individuals can bring back the most broken of landscapes. John Beal says he can't count the number of people who said this could never happen.

(Digging)

LOBET: Invariably, when John returns home in the evening after his river rounds, there's one more task waiting for him -- a wing to mend or a mouth to feed. He's trying to repopulate the growing green spaces along Hamm Creek with onetime residents like heron and beaver. Today, an orphaned baby robin needs to be fed.

(Chirping. Beal: "Here you go.")

LOBET: It's an act of sustenance and revival. And like all his work on Hamm Creek, one which sustains him as well.

(Chirping. Beal: "Good boy. One more. Then you're done." Chirping)

LOBET: For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Seattle.

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(Chirping; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, author bell hooks delivers a Valentine's Day message with her new book All About Love. What the world needs now, she says, is a love ethic.

HOOKS: And that love ethic has to extend to both the planet and to how we treat one another, and to how we treat people who are strangers.

CURWOOD: So the Beatles had it right: All you need is love.

HOOKS: They absolutely had it right.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Maggie Villeger, Hannah Day Woodruff, Keneed Leger, Stephen Belter, and Emily Sadigh. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor, and Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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