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

March 30, 2001

Air Date: March 30, 2001




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Animal Update

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Taking Heat on Climate Change

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Kyoto Fallout

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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Health Update

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Listener Letters

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Central Park Drilling

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Ishi Speaks

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Chlorination is an effective way to disinfect water, and ever since childhood most of us have known that a little aftertaste of chlorine in a sip of tap water is but a reassurance that our water is safe. But there are communities where citizens are saying "no" to chlorine in drinking water. They say it produces byproducts that have been linked to miscarriages and cancers. One place where the debate is especially intense is the British Columbia town of Erickson. Bob Carty reports.

(Flowing water)

CARTY: In the Kooteney Mountains of British Columbia, a pristine creek gurgles through a snow-crested forest. Cold, clear, fresh water. A very special gift of creation to the people of the valley below.

MAN 1: We really do like our water. If you've tasted it, take a sip, swish it around, you'd say, "Oh, man, that water is sweet."

WOMAN: The water is delicious. It's lovely water.

MAN 2: When my wife and I, we travel anywhere, we take this Erickson water wherever we go.

CARTY: But where some see sacred beauty, others see danger in this water.

LARDER: It's a dangerous drink. It's a health hazard. It's contaminated with bacteria on a regular basis, and I wouldn't drink it under any circumstance.

CARTY: Welcome to Erickson, British Columbia, where water is a more common topic of conversation and dispute than even the weather. Erickson is a battle line in the debate over safe drinking water, and the debate starts up in the mountains.

(Flowing water)

MASUCH: This is Arrow Creek, and it flows into a valley of forested timber hillsides. There is no one living above here. There are no livestock. There's nothing. It's pristine. This is where Erickson gets their water.

CARTY: Elvin Masuch is a retired fruit farmer, and the chair of the Erickson Improvement District, a citizen group that operates this water system. Masuch knows that there are some bacteria in this water, but they're very few and not of a disease-causing kind. Elvin Masuch has been drinking this water for 65 years.

MASUCH: This water right now doesn't have any risk. Chlorine does, I know it does. There's about 2,000 people that drink the water. If people are getting sick, we'd know about it.

CARTY: But Elvin Masuch now finds himself in a bit of hot water. Recently, Masuch and his fellow trustees were stripped of their authority. The province of British Columbia took over the management of the water system, and it was all done at the insistence of the regional Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Andrew Larder.

LARDER: All I am trying to do is to protect people's health, and I am doing it with the best information and the best knowledge that's available to me and to the people I work with.

CARTY: What Dr. Andrew Larder wants to do is chlorinate Erickson's water. The problem is, chlorination is opposed by virtually everyone in Erickson . They've been fighting it every way they can, with court injunctions, protests, the blockade of a road for 55 days. And even with a song aimed directly at Dr. Larder.

WOMAN: (Sings) I want food in my larder but no Larder in my water. Erickson's the place I want to be...

(Speaks) We will never allow a single drop of chlorine to be put into our water.

(Sings) And they ain't gonna chlorinate me, no sir. They ain't gonna chlorinate me, no sir...

THORNTON: Erickson is not an isolated situation. There are scores of communities around the world that are working to have clean water, which is effectively disinfected and free of the organo-chlorine byproducts which can cause severe health effects.

CARTY: Joe Thornton is a biologist at Columbia University and the author of a new book called "Pandora's Poison." It's a study of the history, science, and environmental impact of chlorine.

THORNTON: Chlorine is a very powerful substance that combines rapidly and randomly with whatever organic matter it encounters. Organic matter is the carbon-based substances that our bodies are made of and everything in the living world is made of.

CARTY: And the result is the formation of chlorination byproducts. When chlorine interacts with organic matter, things like leaves that are dissolved in water, it creates new chemicals. Things like trihalomethanes or THMs, in addition to 200 other chlorine byproducts. Few of them have ever been studied, and all of them come to us when we turn on the tap, or breathe in the air of a morning shower. Now, scientists concede that chlorine does effectively and cheaply disinfect water. It's probably saved more lives this century than any other chemical. But the growing concern is that its byproducts are associated with a range of health hazards. Hazards like bladder cancer, studied by Queens University epidemiologist Will King.

KING: People who were exposed to a high level of chlorination byproducts for many years had a higher risk of bladder cancer than those who had been exposed in their water supply for only a few years. So, for example, we used trihalomethanes, one of the most abundant byproducts, as a measure of chlorination byproducts. And those exposed to an elevated trihalomethane level of 50 micrograms per liter for over 35 years had a 60 percent increase in risk for bladder cancer, compared to those who were not exposed at this level.

CARTY: And those results were found for amounts of chlorination byproducts that are half of the current, so-called, safe levels in Canada. While Professor King studied the possible impact of chlorination over decades, others have studied the consequences of short-term exposure for women in the first months of pregnancy. Dr. Kirsten Waller, an American physician and epidemiologist, looked at miscarriages among 5,000 women.

WALLER: Our basic finding was that women who drink at least five glasses a day of water that had at least 75 micrograms per liter or parts per billion of total trihalomethanes in it were about 60, 65 percent more likely to have a miscarriage than women who were drinking water that did not have as much THM in it. Any time you have an exposure that is affecting millions and millions and millions of people, even though your risk might be relatively low, you're still going to have an enormous effect. So, you're still talking about thousands of people being affected by it.

CARTY: And again, those results were seen at levels below what is currently deemed safe in the United States. Now this is fairly young science. Epidemiologists admit their studies can't yet declare a cause and effect relationship between cancers or miscarriages and these byproducts. And some say there's no cause for alarm at all, especially the chlorine industry itself. Water treatment is a small volume business for the chlorine industry, but saving people from waterborne diseases is the poster boy activity for a chemical that's already under siege by environmentalists for its other uses. Robert Tardiff is a toxicologist with a private consulting business. He sometimes speaks on behalf of the Chlorine Chemistry Council, the organization that represents the industry.

TARDIFF: I think consumers should feel very confident that chlorinated drinking water is really the best thing for them. There are a few compounds that are mutagenic, but they're not in sufficient quantities to be able to cause any kind of mutational injuries within the body. Chlorine itself has a tremendous advantage in terms of protecting public health on the one hand and not having any injurious consequences on the other.

WILGE: Dr. Tardiff's assertions remind me of the so-called debate around tobacco of ten, twenty years ago. I just don't buy it as a scientist.

CARTY: Don Wilge is a medical epidemiologist with the Canadian Government Department of Health.

WILGE: There comes a point when the evidence can no longer be ignored. I think we're at that point. Chlorinated byproducts can cause birth defects, several types of cancer. One of the compounds produced by chlorination is called MX. It's the most potent known mutagen. These are compounds that can cause mutations in your DNA. If you wait until the evidence is black and white, people get sick and die.

(Footfalls, unlocking)

MASUCH: This is our latest experiment.

(A door squeaks open)

CARTY: Back in Erickson, British Columbia, Elvin Masuch is showing me how the town would like to disinfect its water: not with chlorine but with a relatively new technology.

(Running water)

MASUCH: We were thinking of ultraviolet. So what we thought we'd do, the big blue pipe is Arrow Creek water. And that runs from there into the ultraviolet unit and supplies the 15 homes. There's two hoses running. One is the raw water from Arrow Creek, untreated, and the other hose is running from the ultraviolet. So far, it's tested perfect.

CARTY: Author and chlorine expert Joe Thornton believes this kind of technology can work. Thornton says that ultraviolet, along with ozonation and fine filtration, are effective non-chlorine treatments that are the way of the future.

THORNTON: The choice is not between chlorine and no disinfection. The choice should be between chlorine and other modes of disinfection. But the chlorine industry in the United States and Canada is extremely powerful, spends millions of dollars every year working to prevent communities and industries from moving away from their dependence on chlorine-based technologies.

CARTY: But there's a hurdle in the move toward non-chlorine technologies: how to keep water safe in between the treatment plant and our homes. In a big city that can take seven to ten days, during which time the water can become reinfected. That's why a residual amount of chlorine is added as water leaves treatment plants. Keith Christman is a senior director for the Chlorine Chemistry Council in Washington, D.C.

CHRISTMAN: There are no real alternatives to chlorine disinfection. Chlorine is the only disinfectant that protects the water from the treatment plant all the way to the tap. Those other technologies can be used in addition to chlorine, but they're not alternatives.

CARTY: But Don Wilge of Canada's Health Department says the situation is not so black and white. Alternative treatment technologies like UV are gaining more and more credibility. In Amsterdam, and a half-dozen other cities in Europe, safe water standards are met without chlorine, even as a residual in the pipes. Meanwhile, both Canada and the U.S. are considering lowering the level of chlorine byproducts they allow in drinking water, and Don Wilge says there are other things that can be done to mitigate the harmful effects of chlorination.

WILGE: Certainly at the level of the treatment plants, you know, careful monitoring of the use of chlorine, pretreatment of the water to remove a lot of the organic material, ultimately means filtration, sedimentation. And, finally, at the point of use in the home, consumers can consider using carbon filters. They remove virtually all of the chlorinated byproducts.

(Flowing water)

CARTY: For now, the people of Erickson, British Columbia, are very blessed. Few Canadian communities have this quality of source water to start with. Erickson reminds us of the importance of protecting that source water. And it's also helped stimulate a debate about the risks of a chemical that can hurt as well as help. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Erickson, British Columbia.

(Flowing water; fade to music up and under: Pajamazon, "Acid Rain")

CURWOOD: Coming up: Repercussions of the Bush administration's rejection of the global warming treaty. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this animal update with Maggie Villiger.

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Animal Update

VILLIGER: Last fall, a research team trekked into the mountains of Washington State, looking for evidence of Sasquatch, the mysterious animal, also called Bigfoot. They laid out fruit in muddy areas, hoping to lure the animal to a place where it would leave tracks, and the plan worked, sort of. When researchers returned to one spot, they found a five-foot-wide impression in the ground where a large mammal appears to have sat down. They think the animal leaned on its hip, thigh, and forearm as it reached for the fruit. A heel impression shows the same kind of ridges on the skin that people have, but one scientist estimates this creature to have been eight to nine feet tall. Also embedded in the mud were hairs from an unknown primate, and DNA analysis of these hairs is the next step to figure out just what animal enjoyed an apple snack in the muddy clearing. That's this week's animal update. I'm Maggie Villiger.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Taking Heat on Climate Change

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

BUSH: The idea that, somehow, we're supposed to get enormous amounts of natural gas on line immediately in order to be able to conform to a treaty that our own Senate sent a very overwhelming message against, and many other countries haven't signed makes no economic sense, makes no common sense.

CURWOOD: President George W. Bush, explaining to reporters why the U.S. is pulling back from negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming. The move prompted loud protests from world governments, especially Japan and EU nations. The Kyoto Treaty was high on the agenda in a recent summit in Washington between Mr. Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Michael Steiner is national security advisor to Chancellor Schroeder. I asked him how the German government feels about the U.S. retreat from the Kyoto process.

STEINER: Politicians have to realize that sometimes there are changes. This is fine and we cannot act on the basis of emotions. We have to act on the basis of interest, and not only national interest, also global interest we share all together. In the population, I think a number of people who are engaged in the area of environmental protection, they are frustrated by this move. I think the responsibility for politicians is now to find a way, how do we overcome this setback, and it is a setback. And how, in the long term, we come back to this road which will bring us to a position by which we effectively can face something where, let's say ten years ago, scientists would differ whether there is really something like global warming. Now, in 2001, I think you cannot doubt it anymore that there is a connection between these emissions and the global warming. And if you have that, you have also the responsibility to act, and you cannot say that it's economically difficult and we are in a difficult situation, so for national economic reasons, we don't want to do that.

CURWOOD: President Bush would like to see developing countries involved now in a protocol for limits on carbon dioxide and other gas emissions. How does Germany and the EU feel about bringing in developing countries right now to this process?

STEINER: The situation as we have it is the result from long discussions we had before. But I don't think that this is the main issue, and I don't think, seeing the explanations for the position taken, that this was the real issue. I think the real issue here for this decision was an economic, nationally multi-rated economic, reason. Which we have to respect as a decision. We think it is wrong. We think, in the end, the United States will have to join a common global effort to combat this global danger.

CURWOOD: So, what consideration is Germany and the European Union giving to the notion of proceeding with the ratification of Kyoto without the United States? The rules would say that you need 55 percent of industrial emissions. You could get that with the EU and Japan and Russia. You could go ahead and implement Kyoto without the United States. What sense would that make?

STEINER: Of course, there are several possibilities. They are all less good than if we could act together. Because if you have a common global problem, you have to address that in a common way. So everything what is short of that is, of course, worse. But we have to face the realities. We cannot force the United States. We cannot force Congress. And, of course, we also have to realize how the feeling is in the Congress. We have to have all the ingenuity necessary to on the one hand overcome the difficulties we have, and we have difficulties, that makes no sense to deny that. On the other hand, to preserve our goals. And the goal is that in the long term, we will have to find a basis which we all can share, a global material basis on which we can act.

CURWOOD: What happens now? This has been a long process since Kyoto. Three years. Close negotiations, talks, resume in Bonn in July. What will happen if the United States says no, we're walking away?

STEINER: I hope this will not be the case. I mean, one point is that also in the United States there is an awareness for the global responsibility, so I don't think that in middle and long term the issue is over. It might be difficult. We might have a setback this year, maybe also the next year. In the long term, I think it is unavoidable that we all face this global responsibility, which will directly affect us. Let's not fool ourselves. The idea that one country can isolate itself from this area, from this issue, and just say we take a national path there will not work. I think the policy cannot be that we say, "S o bad luck we don't have the United States on board." I think we still have to try to work together. For the sheer fact that there are so many emissions coming from the United States that we need to have them on board. We can, I mean speaking bluntly, not let the biggest country in the world off the hook totally. So, we need to find a way to have them in. The Chancellor and the President discussed that also. And I think there are ways. How this will look concretely we'll have to see in the coming weeks.

CURWOOD: How much can the United States be trusted diplomatically after this incident?

STEINER: I would want to see our societies as black boxes. There is no such thing as Germany, there is no such thing as France or Poland or the United States. You have people there. So, I think much depends here on the position the American people is taking. And I am quite sure if the popular demand for a certain position would be as strong in the United States as it is in Europe, then also the administration would feel forced to act maybe in a different way.

CURWOOD: Michael Steiner is foreign policy and security advisor to Chancellor Schroeder of Germany. I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

STEINER: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

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Kyoto Fallout

GELBSPAN: In withdrawing from the climate talks, President Bush is not only undermining allies, he is also turning his back on a huge burst of jobs and economic growth that would accompany a proper response to the climate crisis.

CURWOOD: Commentator Ross Gelbspan.

GELBSPAN: The President believes the Kyoto Protocol is unfair to the U.S. since it exempts developing countries from the first round of emissions cuts. Ironically, it was Bush's father who approved that exemption in 1992. It was based on the fact that the countries of the North basically created the problem - and have the economic resources to take the first step in addressing it. Bush's action is risking more than the country's diplomatic credibility, however. It is risking our future economic health, as well. A growing number of large corporations - who have saturated domestic markets - now see all their future growth coming from developing countries. If the President does succeed in imposing energy cutbacks in India, China, Mexico and Brazil, we will see massive job losses in companies like Boeing, Gillette, Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola, and scores of corporations whose future earnings depend on developing country markets. In the energy sector, virtually all the world's oil majors now acknowledge the reality of global warming - and most are positioning themselves to play prominent roles in a new energy economy. British Petroleum plans on doing $1 billion a year in solar commerce by the end of the decade. Shell is creating a new $500 million company in renewables. Texaco is putting substantial resources in fuel cells. Ford and Daimler-Chrysler are involved in a $1 billion joint venture to produce fuel-cell-powered cars by 2004. At last year's World Economic Forum in Switzerland, the CEOs of the world's 1,000 largest corporations voted climate change the most urgent problem facing humanity today. Their concern was underscored recently when Munich Reinsurance estimated that damages from our increasingly unstable climate will amount to $300 billion a year in the next few decades. If the President were to heed the requirements of a stable climate and spearhead a global transition to efficient and non-carbon energy sources, that effort would create millions of jobs all over the world. It would raise living standards in the poor countries without compromising ours. It would turn impoverished and dependent nations into robust trading partners. And it would make the future much more secure, far wealthier and, ultimately, far more peaceful.

CURWOOD: Commentator Ross Gelbspan is author of "The Heat is On, The High Stakes Battle Over the Earth's Threatened Climate."

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting reporting on western issues; the Oak Foundation for coverage of marine issues; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: High noon at the regulatory corral: a showdown over the release of a government report on dioxin. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Annie Lennox, "Here Comes The Rain Again")


(Music up and under: Maurice Jarre, "Lawrence of Arabia Theme")

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: April first marks the start of the annual Marathon of the Sands, and Lawrence of Arabia couldn't have asked for a more grueling ordeal. The 155-mile foot race begins in Ouarazazate, Morocco, with 700 people hoping to complete the course across the Sahara Desert in temperatures ranging from 40 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Marathon officials provide racers with two-and-a-half gallons of water and a tent, but the runners have to shoulder the rest. A checklist of carefully-packed supplies usually includes Power Bars and ramen for meals, antiseptic for scorpion bites, and signal flares, in case the desert heat gets too disorienting. Competition is difficult and dangerous. During the 1994 marathon, Mauro Prosperi, a police officer from Rome, got lost in a sand storm for nine days. He survived on boiled urine and dead bats. But Senor Prosperi has been back twice to race the Marathon of the Sands. He says someday he hopes to become the first person to walk across the entire Sahara Desert. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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CURWOOD: The Environmental Protection Agency is nearing the end of a long and controversial process to assess the health risks of dioxins. Dioxins are the inadvertent byproducts of industrial processes, such as paper bleaching, steel manufacturing, and waste incineration. The chemicals released settle in the environment, work their way up the food chain, and concentrate in body fats. All of us now have dioxins in our bodies. They are highly toxic in even small amounts, and there is growing concern about dioxin's adverse health effects. Joining me is Living on Earth political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Mark, as I recall, the EPA began its dioxin assessment back in 1991. We've seen draft reports since then, but this is the same process, right? We've never really seen a final report.

HERTSGAARD: That's exactly right, Steve. It's been delayed time and time again, and there are layers of ironies to this, especially for President Bush. It was his father, President Bush the first, who initially ordered this study in 1991. Not only that, but he did so at the specific behest of the chemical industry. Now why, you ask, would the chemical industry want to do that? Because they were getting a lot of pressure to regulate dioxin, after the scandals around Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam; Love Canal, the town up in New York State that was evacuated because of dioxin pollution. So, there were calls for regulation. The industry said, "Wait a minute, you can't regulate us, this is all anecdotal. We need a study before we can really understand what dioxin is doing." And now, ten years later, that study is about to come out, and it appears that the industry doesn't really want to see it, because it's not finding what industry had hoped.

CURWOOD: What does this new study say, then?

HERTSGAARD: Well, that's a very complex question, Steve, because this is a study that has been changing over time. And part of that is the science, but a lot of that is the politics. You know, of course, that when EPA does a study it has to be peer-reviewed by outside scientists who function through something called the Science Advisory Board. In the case of dioxin, there is a specific subcommittee, and that panel of 21 scientists is looking over EPA's findings on this. Six of those 21 scientists have been funded by the chemical industry, and they tend to be emphasizing the uncertainties in the data and arguing for a different interpretation. So that last June, when the first draft report came out, the findings said that dioxin had graduated, if you will, to a known human carcinogen, no longer potential but known. And there was a chance of cancer for one out of 100 high-risk Americans. By November of last year that number had slipped to one out of 1,000. And now, here in the spring, the current draft drops that calculation entirely and retreats from calling dioxin a known human carcinogen. Now they're trying to say that it will be a potential carcinogen. So, it's changing all the time.

CURWOOD: Now, what does it say about the non-cancer effects? I remember, I think it was the 1995 draft, where the EPA suggested that virtually everyone in this country has enough dioxin in his or her body to compromise their immune systems. What does the study now say about such effects?

HERTSGAARD: Well, indeed, Steve, you're quite right, that the non-cancer risks are, by far, the most worrisome about this. I interviewed Dr. Richard Clapp, who's a Boston University epidemiologist who's a member of the Science Advisory Board. And he said that what we're really worried about here are the effects on the thyroid and immunity systems of young children, birth defects, and reproductive problems. There's a frankly quite terrifying study out of Italy right now; there was a terrible explosion of dioxin there in 1976. The young children who were exposed to that are now having children of their own, and they're finding that those who had the highest exposures to dioxin are having twice as many girl babies as boy babies. The speculation is that somehow the dioxin has gotten in there and caused the male fetuses to spontaneously abort. So, it's really birth defects that are far more important than cancer in these health risks.

CURWOOD: Okay, Mark. What do you think is going to happen here? Is this study by the EPA on dioxin going to be released or not, do you think?

HERTSGAARD: I think it will eventually be released, if only because so much attention has been paid to it and so much science has gone into it. The question is, what will it say when it's finally released? So, Bush has a political problem here. If he releases the study, his chemical industry allies, who have put a lot of money into his campaign, are going to be unhappy. And on the other hand, if he blocks it, the activists are going to cry cover-up.

CURWOOD: Mark, what does this report release mean, really? I mean, right now, we could go over to the Internet and look up the document on the EPA website. It's available to anybody in the public. What does it mean to release it?

HERTSGAARD: Some cover-up, right? Well, there's a distinction there, Steve. Yes, anybody can go to EPA and look at the draft report. The importance here, though, is that that study has no legal standing until EPA formally approves it. And once EPA formally approves it, then EPA is obliged to set health regulations in that effect, and that's what scares industry.

CURWOOD: One more thing, Mark. The United States has committed itself to signing an international treaty that calls for the phase-out of dioxin. How does the Bush administration reconcile that?

HERTSGAARD: You're talking about the POPs treaty, the Persistent Organic Pollutants treaty, that the Clinton administration signed last year. It calls for, not only the phase-out of dioxin wherever feasible but also. a number of other chemicals, including DDT, PCBs, and so forth. In Stockholm, in May, the POPs treaty will be signed by the environmental ministers of 122 nations, and, at this point, it is very much an open question as to whether EPA administrator Christie Whitman will be among them. We'll just have to wait and see.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Always a pleasure, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

(Music up and under: His Name Is Alive, "Across Every Fjord")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: The voice of California's last known aboriginal. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: Researchers at the Mayo Clinic think they've made a discovery that might lead to a new treatment for prostate cancer. It's a substance called kwersetin. It's found in fruits, vegetables, tea, and red wine, and here's how it works. Androgens are male hormones, and kwercetin appears to deactivate androgen receptors found in prostate cells. That's important because androgen receptors control genes involved in the development of prostate cancer. Right now, prostate cancer treatment uses surgery or drugs to reduce androgen levels, but in many cases, the cancer reoccurs because the androgen receptor is somehow able to keep working. Researchers say kwercetin is promising but caution more work is needed to determine if it will translate into an actual treatment for prostate cancer. And that's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth. You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

(Music up and under: Splattercell, "Shumri")

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And coming up: oil drilling in one of the nation's most treasured pieces of real estate. But first...

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: Time for comments from our listeners.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Walter Bailey heard our report from New Haven, Wisconsin, where the Perrier company plans to tap spring water and sell it. Residents say the pumping will damage their aquifer. Mr. Bailey, who listens to us on Maine Public Radio, says similar questions are being raised in his state. "The same company," he writes," Recently obtained approval and support from the town of Buxton, Maine to add another plant there and remove groundwater. There were some protests from Buxton people, but now the plant is approved with very extensive benefits to the company." Mr. Bailey adds that some residents of the area near the first plant have complained about problems with their wells, but so far there is no proof that the well problems are linked to the bottling plant.

And Robert Jefferson heard our story on space junk. He works at WHYY in Philadelphia, and writes, "You made mention of the speed at which space junk returns to Earth. What about the speed at which such items are moving in the vacuum of space, before their orbit deteriorates? You should have spent more time explaining how a fleck of paint, traveling at well over 18,000 miles an hour, could cause a quarter-inch crater on a space shuttle windshield. Big and little kids would have loved to hear that."

(Music up and under)

Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is Letters@loe.org. And visit our web page at www.loe.org. Once again, www.loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

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Central Park Drilling

CURWOOD: As electricity blackouts continue to plague California and threaten to roll across the rest of the nation, the Bush administration is pulling out all the stops to squeeze every last drop of oil out of U.S. territory. The most controversial drilling prospect is Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but drilling is underway in another equally sensitive landscape. Fears of a summer energy shortage in New York City have officials there exploring new sources of oil in the heart of Manhattan. Neal Rauch reports.

(Breezes, children's voices)

RAUCH: Central Park, the oasis of Manhattan. A break from the relentless onslaught of noise, traffic, and concrete of America's largest city. But some see a threat to this tranquil scene with the increasing commercialization of the park. It began several years ago when the Parks Department began accepting money from corporations, which, in turn, put up their signs and slogans inside the park. Just a few weeks ago, an agreement was reached with Coca Cola, making it the exclusive soft drink at the park's concession stands. But a far more serious threat is looming.


RAUCH: Beneath the bedrock of Central Park there may be oil, and this exploratory well is already in place in the middle of Sheep Meadow.

(Sheep bleat amidst the clanking)

NORDLINGER: That drill bores through the rock, and through this pipe the debris is removed

RAUCH: Jim Nordlinger is the project manager of this oil rig. He says modern drilling techniques and new technologies, including lasers and MRIs, will make the rig much less intrusive than in the past.

(Carousel music)

NORDLINGER: Everything we use today is smaller, more precise, more efficient. And we disguise this rig to look like one of the horses on the carousel.

RAUCH: Have you found any oil yet?

NORDLINGER: Uh, no, just a couple of old egg creams. But we're optimistic.

RAUCH: A consortium of oil companies are behind the push for drilling in Central Park. Steve Monroe is its chairman.

MONROE: Our geological studies show, without a doubt, that there are thousands of barrels of oil beneath Central Park. And that's vital for the energy needs of New York City.

RAUCH: But there have already been a couple of mishaps, and last week animal rescuers had to save several contaminated pigeons.

CROWD: (Chants) Let's not spoil Central Park for oil! Let's not spoil Central Park for oil!

RAUCH: Environmentalists are lining up against the plan. Anita Concialdi is with Animals Before People.

CONCIALDI: How can they even think of digging for oil here? This is beautiful, lush Central Park. Oil wells will destroy the last pristine environment of Manhattan. Drilling poses a real threat to the abundance of wildlife here. Squirrels, pigeons, rats!

RAUCH: But oil consortium chairman Steve Monroe says concerns about the environment of Central Park are misplaced.

MONROE: Look, there's not one iota of nature left in Manhattan. Even this park is manmade. It's already environmentally dead.

RAUCH: Still, nearby residents also have qualms about the plan. Richard Mann lives in a quarter billion dollar studio apartment on Central Park West.

MANN: You know, I would hate all the drilling and the noise and the horrible mayhem that it would cause here in the park. But most of all, the idea of the destruction of the beautiful Olmstead and Vaux architectural structure would just destroy me.

RAUCH: So you're against the idea of oil drilling in the park.

MANN: Oh, no, I own stock in Exxon.

RAUCH: Surprisingly, even some Democratic city councilmen are for the plan, including Al T. Cocker, who represents Manhattan's Lower Upper West Side, known as LUWIS.

COCKER: New York City should not have to depend on imported oil.

RAUCH: Because the Middle East is too volatile.

COCKER: The Middle East? I'm talking about Texas. They hate us even more.

RAUCH: Councilman Cocker, whose last campaign was completely financed by the oil industry, is also advocating a pipeline from Central Park to New York's harbor at the mouth of the Hudson River. He says that would actually be good for the environment.

(Chanting in the background)

COCKER: Just like in Alaska. It'll attract caribou. They like to snuggle up against the pipeline to keep warm during the winter months.

RAUCH: There are no caribou in New York City.

COCKER: Well, there's always the homeless.

RAUCH: Al T. Cocker says the amount of oil under Central Park will provide all the power needs for the Big Apple for a full six weeks. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.

Back to top


Ishi Speaks

CURWOOD: Nearly 100 years ago the last hunter-gatherer in the continental United States emerged from the California wilderness, dazed and alone. He never revealed his real name, so the anthropologists who brought him to San Francisco called him Ishi. In his native language that word simply means, "man." Ishi died within five years of tuberculosis, but during that time two young anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and T.T. Waterman, recorded hours of Ishi speaking his now extinct Yahi language. Researchers are still trying to decipher these old recordings and piece together an understanding of California's ancient tribal culture. Nathan Johnson has our story.

(Bird song)

JOHNSON: For thousands of years the Yahi people lived in the wild foothills of Mount Lassen, California.

(Bird song)

JOHNSON: Here, in this land of steep gorges and cliffs, a man named Ishi witnessed the extinction of his tribe. Now, all that's left are some songs and stories recorded on wax cylinder. Most have never been translated.

VOICE ON CYLINDER: April fourteenth, nineteen-hundred-and-fourteen. Ishi.

(Ishi sings)

JACKNIS: Here we have his own words. They're sitting there on the wax cylinders. And it's as vital for us to use every method at our disposal to crack those open and see what's there.

(Ishi sings; fade to footfalls up and under)

JOHNSON: Ira Jacknis is an anthropologist at the University of California Museum of Anthropology.

(Footfalls down steps)

JOHNSON: He leads me down some steps, past stacks of artifacts, to his office in the basement.

JACKNIS: This is amazing. He comes out of the wilderness here. They bring him down to San Francisco. It's the first city he's ever been in. Within three days they sit him down in front of this phonograph to record. The scope of it was unprecedented.

JOHNSON: Never before had such a lengthy ethnographic recording been made. But over the decades the wax cylinders have not held up. They've been transferred to tape but the sound has degraded.

(Ishi speaks)

HINTON: Sometimes we can't quite hear what was said on the tape. If it's a language we don't know, it's really hard to transcribe.

JOHNSON: Lianne Hinton, a linguist at U.C.-Berkeley, is one of only a handful of people attempting to translate Ishi's stories. She uses her knowledge of other native California languages, plus the notes and a dictionary left by linguists who worked with Ishi in the early 1900s. From these translations, she's learned more about what Ishi was like and what interested him.

HINTON: He tends to focus on small everyday activities. So, he will spend maybe an hour talking about arrow making, and then he'll have a little nugget in there of a story about bear swallowing lizard or something like that. And then he goes back in the same story to another hour about arrow making. (Laughs) And then maybe another little nugget of the story, and then back to arrow making again. And these aspects of daily life were what really interested him. They were what he loved.

JOHNSON: And Professor Hinton says there's grammatical evidence of this. In the Yahi language there is a particle that's pronounced "anti." It's placed at the end of a verb to indicate a dramatic point in the story.

HINTON: In Ishi's stories, most of those "antis" are right there in the daily life parts of the stories, where "now he socketed the foreshaft of the arrow." (Laughs) And so that was, again, a little bit of evidence indicating that that's where he got excited when he was telling that part.

(Ishi speaks)

HINTON: At dawn, he smoothed down the arrow shaft canes. He made arrows. He rubbed the arrow shaft smooth. He worked at his arrow making, that's what he did. He fitted the main shafts onto the foreshafts, that's what he did. He socketed the foreshafts into the main shafts. He spun the arrows on the ground. He painted bands on them...

JOHNSON: For some it may be hard to get excited listening to Ishi describe how to make arrows or prepare acorn mush for hours on end. But these daily activities are what make up a culture.

HINTON: Ishi's knowledge of that world, all the knowledge that a people had about the world that they live in and that we live in, is lost.

JOHNSON: Out of all the stories Ishi told, there's one in particular that does seem especially significant.

JACKNIS: Out of the sort of 150 cylinders that Ishi recorded, 51 of them were of one story, the story of Wood Duck.

JOHNSON: Anthropologist Ira Jacknis.

JACKNIS: It's very difficult to know exactly what the story of Wood Duck meant. Right now, the whole story has not been translated. This story seems to have been recorded by nobody else in native California.

JOHNSON: Ishi told the story of Wood Duck to anthropologist T.T. Waterman and a group of newspaper reporters just days after arriving in San Francisco. Ishi began the story in the afternoon. It lasted into the evening and continued the next day.

JACKNIS: I can't imagine that Waterman knew what he was getting into when Ishi told a story for seven hours. I mean, (laughs) that's quite a story. Who knows quite what he was saying? But, that's quite a story.

JOHNSON: T.T. Waterman did make a partial translation of what Ishi said, so we know some of the story. It seems Wood Duck was a young man and a fine hunter who was in search of a wife.

JACKNIS: He attracts all of these sort of animal women, the Turtle Woman and all these different creatures. And he keeps rejecting them. And then, finally, he finds a woman that he wants, that he falls in love with, and then he doesn't get the woman. And Lizard, the other great character of Yahi mythology, Lizard grabs this woman and runs off with her. And Lizard and Wood Duck have a great fight, and Lizard kills Wood Duck.

JOHNSON: Several of the details in the story seem to mirror Ishi's own life. For instance, as far as we know, Ishi never married, probably because he spent his life in virtual hiding with only his closest family. And then, there's the end of the story where Wood Duck is brought back to life in a new body after he is killed by Lizard.

JACKNIS: It's quite interesting that Ishi tells a story about someone who's died and then is resurrected. He must have been very aware of the genocide of his people, and he must have thought of himself as sort of being reborn into -- being sort of dead to the Yahi world, and sort of reborn. That's a striking detail that resonates with me.

(Paper shuffling)

JOHNSON: U.C. Berkeley archaeologist Steve Shackley is preparing to make an arrow point using the same kind of tools that Ishi used.

(Items falls; chipping)

JOHNSON: Using a moose antler as a hammer, he's chipping off large flakes from a beautiful piece of brown and black obsidian.

SHACKLEY: By replicating this way, we can get a pretty good idea how he produced stone tools.


JOHNSON: While they know how Ishi made stone tools, researchers still struggle to know the meaning of stories like Wood Duck. So I asked Mr. Shackley what he thought. Could Wood Duck be some kind of alter ego of Ishi's?

SHACKLEY: Well, I have a couple of reactions to that. One is that a lot of times hunter-gatherers, rather than actually answering a question directly, they'll tell a story.

JOHNSON: But Steve Shackley says it's quite likely Wood Duck is not about Ishi's life at all. Rather, it could be a story with a much more ancient source.

SHACKLEY: The Yahi speak a Hokan language. Hokan is one of the oldest, if not the oldest identifiable language in North America. And stories are the kinds of parts of society that last a very long time, and it's possible it could go back to the Paleo-Indian or Paleo-American period way back tens of thousands of years.


JOHNSON: The ancient worldview of the Yahi, like other native California tribes, didn't really make a distinction between mythology and ordinary life. For that reason, Gerald Vizenor, a Native American writer and novelist, says it makes no sense to try and separate Ishi's own personal story from his tales about Coyote, Wood Duck, and Lizard.

VIZENOR: My guess, and what I imagine, is that his worldview did not make that separation.

JOHNSON: Instead, Gerald Vizenor says we should focus on Ishi's humanity and his incredible generosity.

VIZENOR: I'm interested in how he enjoyed singing in the women's wards in the hospital next door. How he befriended so many people. His moments of resistance. And his pleasure in telling Wood Duck stories. I suppose you could say he's kind of a bad invitation to a party, because you'd want to say, "Please, don't ask him about the Wood Duck stories, he'll go on and on."

JOHNSON: Even as his health began to fail, Ishi was determined to tell these stories. As Ira Jacknis points out, he even berated T.T. Waterman for interrupting a recording session to answer the telephone.

JACKNIS: One of the rules, common rules, in California Indian storytelling, is that once you start telling a story, particularly the myths, is that you must complete the telling. If you stop the story in the middle, something bad is going to happen. So, what happened is, Ishi is telling the story of Wood Duck and the phone rings, and T.T. Waterman goes over to the phone. And Ishi is very upset. And what Ishi said to Waterman is that, "Don't do that. That's very bad, and if that happens again you're not going to hear the end of the story. I'm not going to tell the story." And when I know the enthusiasm that he put into the storytelling, I think we do have a personal obligation to Ishi to listen to what he had to tell us.

VOICE ON CYLINDER: Fourteen, nineteen-hundred-and-fourteen. Ishi. Record 1,700.

(Ishi sings)

JOHNSON: The next step is to digitize the Ishi archives, to make it easier for scholars to analyze. But still, we may never really know who Wood Duck was, or why he was important to Ishi, because the language of the Yahi died with Ishi. And like so much about the man, these stories may forever remain a great and powerful mystery.

(Ishi sings)

JOHNSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Nathan Johnson.

(Ishi sings, fading to music up and under: Tuu, "Body of Light")

CURWOOD: Digital remastering of Ishi's sound recordings came to us courtesy of Bernie Krause and Wild Sanctuary.

(Music up and under)

Back to top


CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: Life in the underground. We meet a group of children from Nogales, Mexico, who make their home and their living in a drainage tunnel that straddles the U.S.-Mexican border.

MAN: As we came out, one of them turned to me and said, "We have no place. For us, there is here, the tunnel." Because they delighted in the fact that they could move at will from one country to another as nobody else could.

CURWOOD: It's the tunnel kids, next time on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. We had help this week from Stephen Belter. Our interns are Merav Bushlin, Dawn Robinson, and Evie Stone. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our 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 Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Turner Foundation.


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