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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

June 29, 2001

Air Date: June 29, 2001

SEGMENTS

Farm Bill

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Lawmakers are looking ahead to next year’s Farm Bill reauthorization. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum briefs host Steve Curwood on how the bill could influence conservation practices on the nation’s farms. (04:45)

Champion Trees / Peter Payette

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Champion trees are the largest, and often the oldest tree of a species. Some believe these trees have genetic superiority. As Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio reports, genetic duplicates of two Champions are now for sale commercially. And there’s plan to propagate every Champion Tree in the United States. (06:10)

Health Note / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on hitchhiking germs. Researchers have found evidence that microbes can survive a transatlantic journey by hiding in the crevices of dust particles. (01:20)

The Living on Earth Almanac

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This week, facts about the longest cave in the world. Mammoth Cave, in central Kentucky, measures 365 miles long. Further exploration could expand that to 1-thousand miles by the end of the century. (01:30)

Pump

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Ocean currents transfer warm and cold water across the globe, significantly influencing temperatures of nearby land. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Scottish oceanographer William Turrell on a recent discovery that one segment of this ocean circulation in the Atlantic may actually be slowing down - which could lead to a colder northern Europe. (06:10)

Swans

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Since the 1900s, trumpeter swans have been a rare sight in the Great Lakes region. The birds were hunted down for their meat and feathers. Wildlife biologists are now trying to reintroduce them into the area, but the birds still face many obstacles. Lester Graham of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, reports. (05:15)

Listener Letters

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This week, Living on Earth dips into our mailbag to hear what listeners have to say about our stories. (01:30)

News Follow-Up

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New developments in stories we’ve been following recently. (03:00)

Technology Note / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on the discovery of a bacteria that can digest the pollutant benzene. (01:10)

Libby / Jane Fritz

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It was little more than a year ago that hundreds of deaths and illnesses in Libby, Montana were linked to asbestos exposure. The toxin came from a nearby mine owned by the W.R. Grace Company. The town is seeking damages for cleanup and health care, but W.R. Grace has recently filed for bankruptcy protection. Meanwhile, the EPA has discovered that children have been exposed to asbestos on school grounds. Producer Jane Fritz reports. (14:45)

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Farm Bill

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The federal government pays farmers billions of dollars each year to take conservation measures on their land. This money is part of the overall Farm Support and Crop Subsidy Program authorized in the Omnibus Farm Act. Many of these programs are so popular that they quickly use up the dollars or acreage allotted to them each year. As Congress prepares to reauthorize the nations farm legislation, a number of voices are calling for increases in spending for conservation. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Living on Earth's Washington correspondent, joins us now. Hi, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hey, Steve.

CURWOOD: First, give us a sense of what these programs do.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In a simplest sense, these programs provide incentives for farmers to protect and restore their land. They're all voluntary, and generally, they involve some combination of financial and technical assistance. One example is the Wetlands Reserve Program. In this case, the Department of Agriculture compensates farmers for restoring their cropland back into wetland. And then there's WHIP, or Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and this, like it sounds, helps farmers develop land into habitat for fish and wildlife. Probably the most popular program is the Conservation Reserve Program, and this involves farmers taking erodible cropland out of production and replanting it with grasses or other vegetation.

CURWOOD: If these programs involve taking farmland out of production, why are they so popular with farmers?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, it's an opportunity for them both to protect their land and to get paid for it, and most of the time the money they get is more than they'd be getting for planting and harvesting crops on land that's often marginal in the first place. There isn't much to lose. What that means, though, is that conservation payments are now the third largest type of assistance that the Farm Bill hands out. For instance, in the last five years, farmers received 8 and a quarter billion dollars. The only payments larger than that are for corn and wheat. The problem is the programs are so popular that the number of farmers wanting to participate has exceeded the money, or, in some cases, the acreage, that was allotted for the programs in the last Farm Bill

CURWOOD: So, what are the chances of getting more money for this program?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, there are two ways that could happen. In the first scenario, a legislator would need to step forward during the appropriations process-- that's what's been going on now-- and offer an amendment to authorize more money or more acreage for these programs. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen, so the next bet is really with the new Farm Bill that's up for reauthorization next year. Hearings in Congress are starting on this now, there are bills being introduced, and this will be the chance to set new spending and acreage levels on all of these programs. There's kind of a coalition gearing up right now to fight for an increase in those levels. That includes environmental and religious groups, and others as wide-ranging as the National Rifle Association.

CURWOOD: Now, where does this coalition get support in the Congress itself?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, Tom Harkin, who's the Democratic Senator from Iowa, is now the Chair of the Agriculture Committee. He took over when the party balance shifted in the Senate a few weeks ago, and he's calling for a Farm Bill in which conservation is the centerpiece. He says he wants to beef up programs like the ones we talked about so that more farmers and more land can be involved. On the House side, 140 members from both parties signed a letter this week in which they urged increased funding for conservation in the new Farm Bill. But we'll have to keep an eye on Larry Combest of Texas, in particular. He's the Republican who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, and he's been promising a Farm Bill draft by the end of the summer. At this point, he's been focusing mainly on revising the commodities subsidies programs, and he hasn't recommended any specifics yet on conservation.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the opposition here. What are the interests who would rather not see an increase in funding for these conservation programs?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, if you ask the conservation groups, they'll say that the resistance comes from the agribusiness lobby, but these groups will tell you that they do support conservation programs; in fact, they've testified before Congress to that effect. But-- and this is where you see that different groups favor different kinds of conservation-- they don't support he programs that take land out of production. Instead, they favor payments that will help farmers take care of their working farmland. And don't forget, the reality here is, for agribusiness, the Farm Bill has traditionally been where they get their crop payments. So unless the overall agriculture budget increases, more money for conservation means less money for commodity crops. And up until now, the balance has been heavily in favor of commodities. Wheat and corn farmers, for example, got about 38 billion dollars over the last five years, whereas conversation programs got 8 and a quarter billion, so everyone's waiting to see if that balance is going to shift. And I don't think anyone is feeling very confident that everyone is going to be satisfied by the same pot of money. So, the battle over the Farm Bill is really going to take place on two levels: first, how much of the overall budget will be allotted for conservation, and then what types of conservation will receive the most money?

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum is Living on Earth's Correspondent in Washington, D.C.

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Champion Trees

CURWOOD: If you want to plant the world's largest red ash tree in your yard, you can now buy a tree propagated from the original, sold under the name "ChampTree." A champion tree is the largest, and often longest-lived, example of it's kind. The red ash was the first so-called champion tree to be sold commercially. Grafting trees is common in much of horticulture. For example, every apple tree that bears Golden Delicious apples was propagated from the one, single, original Golden Delicious tree. But until now, no one had tried it extensively with the biggest known trees. The non-profit Champion Tree Project hopes to market every champion in the U.S. Peter Payette from Interlochen Public Radio reports.

(walking noises)

MILARCH: Here's the largest red ash clone in the world. This is the largest and the oldest.

PAYETTE: David Milarch is a third-generation shade tree grower in Northern Michigan. He and his son helped propagate this tree's parent, which stands ninety-five feet tall, and has a trunk eight feet in diameter.

MILARCH: Pretty incredible, isn't it? But you'll notice this tree's never been staked, this tree has never been sprayed, it's never had a disease problem. The branching on this tree has-- the pruning has been absolutely minimal, and you'll see a straight central leader, disease resistance, and a tremendous growth rate.

PAYETTE: Those qualities, says Milarch, helped this tree's parent live an estimated five hundred years, and every duplicate will have the same genetic characteristics. The process of naming champion trees began in 1940. Champions are identified by using a formula that gives points for height, the spread of the branches, and the circumference of the trunk. Trees are then listed in a national register by the group American Forests. In 1995, Milarch began collecting buds from Michigan champions and submitting them to J. Frank Schmidt Nursery in Oregon. There, the buds are grafted onto root stocks and grown into young trees. Bud material from these is collected to make more genetic duplicates, and so on until a supply of grafted clones can be established. The red ash is one of two champions now listed in J. Frank Schmidt's wholesale catalog. The project receives royalties from each tree sold.

(Machinery noise)

PAYETTE: The Champion Tree Project started in Copemish, Michigan, at E.L. Milarch and Sons Nursery. At the age of sixteen, David Milarch's son, Jared, found himself looking at rows of dying trees, and wondering why he'd want to go into the family business.

JARED: I asked my father. I said, "Hey, you know, why can't we plant some of these trees that will last as long as some of the champion trees that you've shown us throughout our travels?" And he said, "Well, I guess you could." So, that was really how the project began.

PAYETTE: The Milarchs set out to graft one hundred trees, just in Michigan. But the project rapidly expanded as the father-son team was asked to propagate and plant trees around the country. In Key West, Florida they cloned the champion silver buttonwood. Later, the parent tree was killed in a hurricane, and a duplicate was planted in its place. The projects executive director, Terry Mock says they're transforming the way people think about trees.

MOCK: Trees have never had a national brand name that people could identify with. ChampTree, which is the registered trademark for the Champion Tree Project, will be the first national brand-name line of trees. We will be the Ralph Lauren of trees.

PAYETTE: Which is not to say the project is about making trees fashionable. Mock sees it as a solution to problems with the nation's forests. Today, more trees are being planted in so-called urban forests, and their lifespans are short. On average, a tree planted in a downtown area is expected to live from seven to ten years. What's needed, says Mock, are vigorous trees that can thrive in adverse conditions and put a canopy above our heads.

MOCK: The tree canopy coverage is probably the most important component, and without that canopy coverage, all kinds of bad things happen. Air temperatures rise, air pollution increases, groundwater runoff increases, groundwater pollution increases.

PAYETTE: What better trees to populate the urban forests, says Mock, then grafted clones of champions, since they have the genetic potential to live a long life. But that idea has been less-than-well received by some members of the scientific community. Don Waller teachers botany and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He notes that longevity is the result of many factors.

WALLER: They're looking at a plant that may or may not be genetically special. That is, it may just be the luck of the draw and the place that the plant is growing, not its genes, that account for its large size.

PAYETTE: Waller says the way to find genetically superior plants is to conduct research, where a number of trees are exposed to the same pollutants and other environmental conditions. Then, if a tree shows resilience, it can be attributed to its genes.

WALLER: Going around and just picking big old trees does not separate genetic from environmental circumstances at all.

PAYETTE: That sort of criticism has dogged the project. Up until last fall, the effort had little financial support. The first big infusion of cash came from the National Tree Trust, an organization created by Congress under the American the Beautiful Act of 1990. Executive director George Cates says the Tree Trust is eager to learn if champions have genetic value, but he says, even if they don't, they're still worth preserving.

CATES: They are flat awesome. I mean, there is a sense of reverence when you see something like the national champion red ash, for example, and think a little bit and put it in perspective about the centuries that that tree has seen pass. And it's just an amazing sight to be up beside one of these giants.

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PAYETTE: With the help of the National Tree Trust, plantings of champion trees have been scheduled at Arlington National Cemetery and George Washington's home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Trees will also be planted in Utah at the Winter Olympics in 2002. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Payette in Copemish, Michigan.

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Health Note

CURWOOD: Coming up, new ocean research suggests the climate of Northern Europe could be in for an unwelcome change. First, this health note from Diane Toomey.

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TOOMEY: African microbes may be hitching a ride on dust particles that head west to the United States. It was once thought these stowaway germs wouldn't survive the week-long journey. Scientists believed that ultraviolet light killed the bacteria and fungi as the dust blew across the ocean. But a group of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey wasn't so sure, so they set up air sampling instruments on the Virgin Islands, in the direct flight path of a major dust stream from Africa's Sahara Desert. They found that on dusty days, the number of microbes in the air rose tenfold. At the same time, these scientists analyzed data from a space-based dust-tracking system. They found that a dust-stream from Africa was indeed sweeping into the Virgin Islands at the same time researchers found elevated levels of microbes in the air. But scientists need to analyze the microbes to actually confirm if they originated in Africa. But, they added, exposure to the microbes would not produce a serious illness. Scientists think the microbes escape UV rays by hiding in tiny dust cracks and crevices. On average, the Eastern United States is sprinkled with Saharan dust about three times a year. Each invasion lasts about ten days. Researchers hope to find out how these microbes survive such a long journey, and what they are capable of once they cross the ocean. That's this week's health note, I'm Diane Toomey.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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

(music plays up and under: Steve Fisk "Amateur European" 999 LEVELS OF UNDO.)

CURWOOD: The 1st of July is the 60th anniversary of the designation of Mammoth Cave National Park in central Kentucky. Mammoth Cave certainly lives up to its name. This underground labyrinth is 365 miles long, and takes the prize as the longest cave in the world. It officially won that honor almost three decades ago. That's when explorers discovered a connection between Mammoth Cave and the nearby Flint Ridge cave system. Mammoth is home to over two hundred species of animals. Many, including eyeless fish and silent crickets, have adapted to live in a cave environment. Explorers of Mammoth Cave are still looking for even more passages and wells in the Mammoth Cave system. James Borden and Roger Brucker are doing just that. The two used to be strong rivals. They each planned secrete expeditions involving dangerous and unexplored routes in an underground effort to outcave each other. But today, they're working together, along with other explorers, who have found nearly four hundred miles of underground passages near Mammoth Cave. It's hoped that connections between these twists and turns and the cave itself can be found. If that happens, Mammoth Cave might stretch for as long as 1,000 miles. By the way, the world's second longest cave? It's in the Ukraine, measuring a mere 113 miles. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Pump

CURWOOD: Deep ocean currents in the Atlantic keep Northern Europe warmer than what might be expected. For years, climate scientists have predicted that climate change could disrupt this circulation and actually make parts of Europe colder. Now, new research from a team based in Scotland shows that this circulation is indeed slowing. But scientists say it's too soon to conclude if this is the result of human-induced climate change. William Turrell is an oceanographer with the Fisheries Research Service's Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen, Scotland. He explains the research took place in a narrow passageway between Scotland and the Faroe Islands to the north.

TURRELL: It's part of the thing called the global conveyor belt, but it's the sort of northern limb of that conveyor belt. It starts, say, in the Gulf Stream, where warm surface water flows up the coast of the States. Then some of it crosses over to Europe in the North Atlantic current, and then some of that flows into the Arctic Ocean, past the north of Scotland, between Scotland and Faroe. It then goes into the Arctic ocean, where it's cooled every winter and sinks, and then in comes back out as cold water near the bottom of the sea. And again, that cold outflow flows, again, back out through a gap between Scotland and Faroe. So, we sit either side of this key area in the circulation of the North Atlantic and Arctic.

CURWOOD: How does this North Atlantic circulation affect the European climate?

TURRELL: It's very important, particularly for the Northern European and Scandinavian climate, because that warm surface inflow brings with it a lot of heat. And each winter, as the water is cooled and sinks, of course, when it cools, what it means is it's giving its heat to the air. And then the air blows over Northern Europe and Scandinavia, keeping us moderately warm compared to places as far north as us, such as Alaska and Siberia.

CURWOOD: What did you find in your research?

TURRELL: Well, we've been monitoring since 1994, the cold bottom, or the outflow. And since about '94 we saw about a 5 percent decrease in that outflow. We then went up to Ocean Weather Station Mike, which is a station in the Norwegian Sea. There they have data from the 1950s. So by combining the modern measurements with the older measurements, we've been able to extrapolate the results back in time, and over the last 50 years we've found that the overflow from the Arctic has decreased by about 20 percent.

CURWOOD: What does this mean, a decrease in flow by 20 percent?

TURRELL: Well, the obvious implication is that if the outflow has decreased by 20 percent, so has the inflow, the inflow of warm water at the surface. So the delivery of heat to Northern Europe will have decreased by 20 percent.

CURWOOD: Your research organization has data going back for more than a hundred years covering this gap. What do you know from that ancient research?

TURRELL: All we can really say is that the changes we're seeing that commenced in the '50s really didn't occur in the previous part of the century. A hundred years is really nothing in terms of climate. There are other records, like the Greenland ice core record, where you can go back a lot further in history, go back hundreds of thousands of years. And over that period we know that these sort of changes in the Northern Europe climate have occurred many, many times before, before man ever came on the scene. So this could be just part of a natural-- not cycle, because that implies it happens regularly, but a natural episode that has happened before.

CURWOOD: What does your research tell us about the rate of this change?

TURRELL: Only that over 50 years it's decreased 20 percent. We can't extrapolate into the future. We know that these systems can recover so that the outflow may again strengthen again. We know that it may keep reducing at the same rate. So really, the only thing we can do is monitor, keep our measurements going, and see what happens. The next decade will be fairly crucial. We'll know whether it's going to continue or whether it's going to recover.

CURWOOD: What links between this drop in flow in the ocean circulation and temperature change, climate regime change in Europe have been observed to this point?

TURRELL: The one direct link we think at the moment is that the air temperature in Faroe and possibly in Northern Norway, is, if not cooling at the moment, it is not showing the warming that everywhere else is showing. So already we think that there may be evidence of a reduced supply of heat to the air around Faroe and to the climate of Faroe. So that's, at the moment, the only direct link between the change in the outflow and atmospheric climate we've seen.

CURWOOD: Warming elsewhere? Could you explain, please?

TURRELL: Well, throughout the Northern Hemisphere, in fact, throughout the globe, the norm at the moment is for air temperatures to be warming. One of the few exceptions is in Northern Scandinavia and Faroe where it looks like air temperatures aren't following that global trend.

CURWOOD: Now, how could human-induced climate change, if it happens as the models predict, be affecting this circulation of water that you're seeing?

TURRELL: The only way, really, that anthropomorphic climate change could affect it would be by the supply of fresh water to the Greenland Sea area. We think that the sinking has stopped because there's more fresh water in that area. And that might be associated with, say, melting ice in the arctic. But that is beyond our own research; we can't really say anything about what's causing the outflow to slow down.

CURWOOD: William Turrell is an oceanographer with the Fisheries Research Services Marine Lab in Scotland. He spoke to us from Akureyri, Northern Iceland. Thank you sir.

TURRELL: Okay, thanks.

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Swans

CURWOOD: About this time of year, biologists in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are on the lookout for new broods of trumpeter swans. But for a century, the distinct call of the trumpeter had been missing from the Great Lakes Region. Now that call has returned, and it's growing in strength. Lester Graham from the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports.

(trumpeter swan trumpeting)

GRAHAM: That loud honk belongs to North America's largest waterfowl.

JOHNSON: It's the clarion call of the trumpeter swan.

GRAHAM: Joe Johnson is a wildlife biologist at Michigan State University's Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. He says it doesn't sound like it, but the trumpeter swan is one of nature's most graceful looking animals.

(trumpeting)

GRAHAM: In flight, it glides low and slow above the treeline, and its flying habits probably helped lead to its decline in the Great Lakes. Johnson says European settlers found them easy to shoot, and easy to sell.

JOHNSON: So these were marketed for their flesh, they were marketed for their feathers. Huge trade in feathers back to Europe through Fort Detroit, where I assume they made pillows and quilts and mattresses and adornments for hats and writing pens, all those things that feathers could be used for 200 years ago.

GRAHAM: By the 1900s, trumpeter swans were gone from the Great Lakes. So, in the mid 1980s, Joe Johnson and some of his biologist colleagues decided to bring them back. They went to Alaska, where the trumpeter swans could still be found, and returned with a few eggs to incubate and raise. The restoration effort took hold, and today, Joe Johnson says the birds are doing better than expected.

JOHNSON: We thought if each pair produced two young per effort that we would be doing real well. That is basically their productivity in Alaska. But if we think of the Great Lakes as sort of the premier trumpeter swan habitat because of the length of our growing season, the productivity of our soils and our wetlands, then its not a surprise that their producing, on average, three young per nesting effort.

GRAHAM: But trumpeter swans continue to face obstacles, literally. Because the birds fly so low they often plow into power lines that crisscross the landscape. Others die from lead poisoning. Until it was banned in 1991, hunters used lead pellets to shoot ducks and geese. And lot of those pellets are still in the mud where trumpeter swans forage for underwater vegetation. And despite news releases and briefings at state sites to watch out for the birds, some are shot accidentally. Dan Holm, of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says some hunters mistake trumpeter swans for snow geese.

HOLM: Well, there is a dramatic difference in size between a snow goose and a swan. Really, there is no good excuse for one being mistaken. You know, it happens, mistakes happen in all aspects of life. But snow geese are a lot smaller than swans, any species of swans, and snow geese have black wing tips, where the swans are all white.

GRAHAM: And it's not just conservation officials who call the accidental shootings unexecusable. Bruce Batt is chief biologist with the sportsman's group, Ducks Unlimited.

BATT: Well, in my opinion, hunters just shouldn't make that mistake. A hunter should be well-prepared when he goes to the field and be able to tell the difference. If we have hunters out there, though, that are actually shooting swans, it's a sign of terrible preparation on their part, or else they're just being criminal and they're just doing something that they knowingly shouldn't be doing. And they're really not hunters, they're criminals.

GRAHAM: In some cases, the shootings are criminal. In 1999, in Illinois, five swan carcasses were found on a road, four of them decapitated, possibly to remove tracking collars. Recently, a Wisconsin teenager was fined for killing a trumpeter swan. Sumner Matteson heads up the trumpeter repopulation effort for Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources.

MATTESON: Generally, a concerted effort is made to educate hunters about the differences between swans and geese, and it really comes down to wanton acts of vandalism, if you will, regarding the shooting of trumpeters. So, in other words, in most instances in my experience, it has not been the mistaken identity of the bird, but when you have bird that are killed at close range, it's clearly a case of a malicious act. Fortunately, those are quite few and far between.

GRAHAM: At the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, Joe Johnson says despite power lines, lead pellets, and hunters, the trumpeter swan population is up from a few dozen eggs in the 1980s to a 1999 count of well over 2000 birds in the Great Lakes Region.

JOHNSON: The population is growing at about 17 percent per year, despite losses to lead poisoning, vandalistic and accidental shooting, high tension wires, they're doing great.

GRAHAM: Johnson says now that nesting pairs are doing well in northern areas, it's time to start rearing trumpeter swans in Southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. If successful, that would reestablish the birds' migratory patterns from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. For Living on Earth, I'm Lester Graham.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: Time now for comments from you, our listeners. Our recent story about the endangered Kihansi Spray Toad in Tanzania caught the ear of John Brewer, who listens to us on WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "I laughed hysterically when the interviewee ceded that the conservation project could be perceived as an unwanted intervention by a rich, first-world nation in the business of small, impoverished third-world country," writes Mr. Brewer, "The six million dollars used to help a toad that nobody knew existed, much less cared about until a couple of years ago, could have built a hospital, fed hundreds of thousands of hungry children, or provided shelter for the homeless families in impoverished Tanzania."

Our story about the Canadian Rat Patrol made many listeners think we weren't showing enough respect for this species. "I cannot fault the farmers for wanting to have rat-free farms," wrote Erika Katz, who hears us on KQED in San Francisco. "However, I was disgusted to hear more than one of the men remark that he was disappointed there were no rats to kill on a particular day. They went on about how fun it is to kill rats. I find this barbaric. Anyone who has ever had a pet rat will tell you that they are intelligent, gentle creatures, and like all creatures, deserve to be treated humanely, even if we need to restrict their populations."

Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line anytime at 800-218-9988. Our email address is letters@loe.org. And visit our web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth

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News Follow-Up

CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the new stories we've been tracking lately. Interior Secretary Gale Norton made a recent visit to Arctic Village, Alaska, to meet with representatives of the native Gwich'n people. The tribe adamantly opposes drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, because they believe it will endanger the caribou that support their traditional way of life. Faith Gemmill is a member of the Gwich'in Steering Committee. She felt that Secretary Norton was just paying them a courtesy visit.

GEMMEL: It seemed that she didn't have an open mind. She came here with her mind set on development and she was determined that nothing we said was going to change that.

CURWOOD: Ms. Norton brought along two newly appointed Alaska assistants, both of whom are long-time supporters of drilling in ANWR.

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CURWOOD: Secretary Norton was also in the news when she chose not to go forward with a Clinton-era decision to reintroduce grizzlies into Central Idaho, essentially killing the plan. Environmental groups and timber organizations had collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a proposal. It would have allowed local management of the bear population. Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation says objections from state officials influenced the Interior Department's decision.

FRANCE: Secretary Norton's decision is very ominous for many, many different endangered species programs around the country. In essence she let a governor veto six years of work by the Fish and Wildlife Service and citizen groups in fashioning a very innovative plan.

CURWOOD: Mr. France says a healthy grizzly population in Idaho's Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem is essential for the bear's overall success in the west. The public does have sixty days to comment on the plan before the decision becomes final.

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CURWOOD: And our update on our coverage last week of the World Worm-Charming Championships in Willaston, England. Eleven year old Nicholas O'Malley once again took the title, working as a team with his sister, Alissa. They enticed two hundred and ninety worms out of the ground, using his vibrating garden fork technique.

That's this week's follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.

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Technology Note

CURWOOD: Just ahead, it's not good news from Libby, Montana. More people may have been exposed to deadly asbestos contamination. First, this technology note from Cynthia Graber.

(Music plays, Technology Note Theme)

GRABER: Benzene is a cancer-causing chemical found in oil and gasoline, and used in many chemical processes. It leaches into the environment primarily from oil spills and gasoline tank leaks. Once there, it doesn't break down naturally. Cleanup of these polluted sites sometimes involves using bacteria that can digest benzene. The microbes need oxygen to do this, but there's a hitch: many times the soil near a spill lacks oxygen. Pumping oxygen into the soil to get these bacteria working is extremely expensive and difficult. Now, for the first time, scientists have discovered two bacteria that don't need oxygen to make a meal of benzene. No one knows exactly how they do this, but researchers do know the bacteria actually thrive on the pollutant. And after they finish eating, the only thing left is carbon dioxide. This discovery points the way to a possible new tool for cleanup of polluted sites, and researchers say they'll be looking at similar strains of bacteria to find out what other pollutants they might find appetizing. That's this week's technology note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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

(Music plays: Medeski, Martin, & Wood "Just Like I Pictured It" COMBUSTICATION (Blue Note-1998)

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Libby

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. The news in Libby, Montana keeps going from bad to worse. It's been more than a year since more than a hundred deaths were linked to tremolite asbestos in that small town. The source of the toxin is a closed vermiculite mine owned by the chemical company W.R. Grace. This isn't the first time Grace has gotten into trouble over pollution. In the 1980s, the story of a municipal well contamination case involving Grace in Woburn, Massachusetts, led to the book and movie, "A Civil Action". Now, as the spotlight turns on its activities in Libby, Montana, W.R. Grace has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The move jeopardizes its cleanup and health care payments for the benefits of its victims in Libby. And recently, the Environmental Protection Agency found that children in the town have been exposed on school grounds to asbestos from the mine. Producer Jane Fritz has our story.

(voices, rain, birds)

FRITZ: On Memorial Day, a light rain is falling on Libby, Montana's Community Cemetery. Family members walk through the wet grass to place flowers at the graves of loved ones lost in war. But along Libby Creek, a different fraternity is being remembered: the miners who worked at the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine, and their brothers, cousins, and wives.

TOM: Walter McQueen, Alice McQueen, George McQueen, Ed McQueen-- (fades into background)

FRITZ: A crowd gathers before rows of small, white crosses set like grave markers. The names of the deceased are lettered in black. Leroy Tom, the last union president at the defunct mine, reads the names of family, friends, and neighbors. All of them, all 170, have died from asbestos-related diseases.

TOM: -- Fred Johnson, Lauren Garret, Ruby Garret-- (fades into background)

FRITZ: Twelve year old Michael Benefield stands by the marker bearing the name of his great-grandmother, Margaret Vatland. Michael remembers how his grandma Margaret suffered with asbestosis, tethered to oxygen tanks, her lungs scarred from years of breathing in asbestos dust her husband unknowingly brought home from the mind on his clothing.

BENEFIELD: She always had candies in this little glass jar. Everytime we went over to her house we used to get some from her. I think it's kind of sad, because she died and I didn't really want her to.

FRITZ: Michael points to another marker for his great-grandfather Perley, then one for his uncle Ed. And he wonders if he's next.

BENEFIELD: My grandmother said that I might have it because it takes a whole bunch of years before you really know you have it. If I have it, it'll make me feel way different. It'll turn my world around. It'll make me suffer, and it'll just make me die.

FRITZ: Michael has reason to worry: asbestos has been found on the playground of the school he's attended since kindergarten, a year and a half after victims of asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer were linked to the W.R. Grace mine, the Environmental Protection Agency is finding other asbestos-contaminated sites in Libby in unexpected places.

BLACK: This asbestos fiber here is unique in that way. It's extremely electrostatic. It's stuck to everything. So when miners left the workplace with their clothing, their overalls on, it went to the dental office, the hospital-- (fades into background)

FRITZ: Dr. Brad Black, the county health officer, is concerned about new exposures to asbestos. That's why he's visiting Michael Benefield's class at Libby Middle School today, answering students' questions and teaching them how to identify vermiculite, a flaky, shiny mineral that is contaminated with tremolite asbestos.

BLACK: Okay, how do you think the air gets contaminated? (fades into background)

FRTIZ: After class, Dr. Black tells me education is about all one can do.

BLACK: Right now, there's nothing to do other than we want to stop all ongoing exposures. So, we're going to be counting to look very closely to find new sources in the community to make sure that we don't have ongoing exposures to kids.

FRITZ: The reason for concern lies in the history of the middle school's athletic track. It was constructed over a base of mine waste in the early 1970s. So was the track at the high school. In 1981, W.R. Grace tested the high school track for asbestos. Confidential, internal memos show that runners were exposed at nearly twice the level the federal government allows for adults working with asbestos. Eventually, both tracks were paved over. But today, vermiculite is surfacing at the edges of the asphalt, so the town canceled the remaining track meets and closed both tracks. This summer, the EPA will remove and replace them, but they aren't the last of the new asbestos sites in Libby that need cleaning up.

(children playing)

FRITZ: It's recess time at Plummer Elementary School, and Kathy Foote is here to make sure no children go beyond the orange plastic fence that separates the playground from the old ice-skating rink. Recently, the EPA found asbestos ore on the surface of the abandoned rink. It covered the area with thick, plastic sheeting and several inches of sand to prevent exposure to asbestos. Like many children in Libby, all of Kathy's kids have played here for years.

FOOTE: Since it hasn't been an ice skating rink, the little boys have played cars in it, they ride their bikes through it. All the kids around here do. How many of them are going to end up with asbestosis several years down the road from breathing this in? Maybe none of them will. Maybe we'll get lucky. My husband has been diagnosed with having asbestosis because he played in the piles at the ball fields as a kid. So, I guess it makes you wonder, you know, from playing in this dirt, if the children are going to be exposed.

FRITZ: Like hundreds of others growing up in Libby, Kathy's husband, Cam, played little league baseball on fields adjacent to the mines shipping area. Piles of vermiculite were stored there just beyond the home run fence. Parents encouraged kids not on the ball field to play in the vermiculite instead. They thought it was safer than behind the bleachers, by the riverbank. Loose vermiculite was also used by coaches to soak up water on the playing field after storms. Kathy Foote and her husband know several people in their thirties and forties who played at the ball field that now have lung abnormalities. Cam, himself, is in the early stages of asbestosis, and he's only thirty-two years old.

FOOTE: I have five family members out of my family and my husband's family, who have been diagnosed with asbestosis. Not one of them has worked up there. I guess in the beginning, when all of it started, I thought it was being blown out of proportion, but the more it progressed, I don't think it's been blown out of proportion at all. I mean, it's something that needs to be dealt with and taken care of. To make sure that it gets cleaned up so that it's safe and the sooner, the better.

FRITZ: But cleaning up Libby isn't going to be that easy. Finding tremolite asbestos can be tricky. The individual fibers are longer and thinner than other forms of asbestos. It can take an electron microscope to find them.

(machinery noises)

FRITZ: When it's detected, like around the ball fields and mine buildings, dump trucks haul away the contaminated soils. Paul Peronard, the EPA coordinator in Libby, says by summer's end the agency will have spend 28 million dollars on investigation, cleanup, and health studies.

PERONARD: The impact here is huge, off the scale on most terms of epidemiological measures. I haven't seen a site that really compares with this. There are more people sick around Libby than ever documented, say at Times Beach or Love Canal.

FRITZ: Peronard says it may take placing Libby on the Superfund list to clean up all the asbestos-contaminated sites. Vermiculite was used extensively in hundreds of gardens in Libby, and in homes, as Zonolite attic insulation. There's another reason that the cleanup is going so slowly. The EPA spent months in court forcing W.R. Grace to allow it access to the mine. And according to Chris Weis, science advisor for the EPA, W.R. Grace hasn't helped the agency identify other problem areas in town.

WEIS: We don't expect W.R. Grace to own up to any of this. Throughout our short history of interaction with them on this site, they have not been cooperative in any way. So we certainly wouldn't anticipate them to change their behavior for material that they placed at this school or anyplace else.

STRINGER: Criticize us for maybe being a little slow, but don't criticize us for not doing anything.

FRTIZ: That's Alan Stringer, Grace's representative in Libby. He was the manager of the mine until it closed in 1990, and stayed on to handle the mine's reclamation until 1994. He's returned to Libby, he says, to help solve the cleanup problems, not create them. After all, he says, this was his community too.

STRINGER: I have two children that grew up here. I have one daughter who was employed by this company while she was going to school. And I think there were a number of other employees whose children worked up there, that we didn't believe that we were putting our children at risk.

FRITZ: But court documents show that W.R. Grace knew when it purchased the mine in 1963 that tremolite asbestos was a dangerous contaminant, and that the mine had a serious dust problem. A 1969 study showed that 92 percent of long-term workers at the mine suffered from lung disease. In 1973, the company began switching to a wet milling process that reduced asbestos exposures to workers. It also cut the daily emission of airborne asbestos fiber over town.

STRINGER: Well, after Grace bought this and became aware that there was this significant problem, a period of time was taken to try and understand just what is the problem; what is the size of it and what is the magnitude of it, and what do we need to do? There is still an unknown about the insulation, but I find it very difficult to believe that there is a substantial risk to people today in this community because of vermiculite just being on the ground someplace.

FRITZ: To determine the scope of health problems in Libby, the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is conducting the largest asbestos study ever undertaken.

MAN: Ever employed by W.R. Grace? No. Inhalation or exposure to vermiculite, hunting and fishing, firewood gathering near sites? Yes. (fades into background)

FRITZ: More than 6,000 current and former Libby area residents were screened last summer. Early results show that one out of three have lung abnormalities. Hundreds of cases are confirmed to be asbestos-related. A second screening is planned for this August.

MAN: Your children played in the piles? Yes.

FRITZ: Chest x-rays showing abnormalities need follow-up by a doctor, so Libby's hospital created the Center for Asbestos-Related Diseases. It is funded by W.R. Grace. Dr. Brad Black, the county health officer, directs it. And today his patients are Gayla and David Benefield, young Michael's grandparents

BLACK: You have some changes in the lung tissue. See this bump out here? This looks very suspicious here for plaqueing. And the other thing that I noticed with you is you've got too much in here. You notice the increased whiteness in through this area. (fades into background)

FRTIZ: Gayla Benefield's lung problems come as no surprise to her because her father worked at the mine, and she grew up with asbestos in the home. But David Benefield never worked at the mine, nor had anyone from his family. He thinks his exposure came from twenty years of coaching little league games near where the vermiculite was stored.

DAVID: The only reason I was there was because I had two boys that played ball there. They had the same exposure I did, and they were there with me all the time that I was there. And the younger one, he would go down with me when I was coaching the older one and play in the piles.

FRITZ: In April, Gayla Benefield traveled with several other Libby residents to Montana's state capitol. They went to ask Governor Judy Martz for help, especially with future healthcare needs. The cost of caring for someone with a disease like asbestosis can exceed a half a million dollars, and there is no cure. W.R. Grace set up a medical plan for those officially diagnosed with asbestos-related illness, but the company declared bankruptcy in April, so support beyond this year is uncertain. Governor Martz told Gayla and her friends the state would try to help the community, but couldn't make any promises.

MARTZ: Our heart's there. Can we get a pocketbook there? That's what we're going to have to work on. I'm not going to tell you something that I can't do, because I know for Montana to take this issue on, you know as well as I do there's probably not money to take it on.

(birds)

FRITZ: After the meeting, Gayla Benefield looks out over the same asbestos-laden site where her grandchildren used to play. After fifteen years of working to understand and document Libby's legacy of asbestos poisoning, she's stunned by the prospect that the W.R. Grace mine may touch yet another generation.

GAYLA: Literally, all my grandchildren have been exposed to this now. The same thing that killed my parents and probably is going to get myself, and my children. My own children, I couldn't protect them, they were exposed, and dammit, I couldn't protect my grandchildren, and that really hurts me right now.

FRITZ: And Gayla Benefield worries about communities beyond Libby. Vermiculite from Libby is commonly used as attic insulation and in potting soil. It's estimated to be in millions of homes across America. EPA's Paul Peronard says it's best to leave the insulation alone and keep the potting soil, which poses less risk, outdoors and wet down. A more pressing problem, says Peronard, is the 18 processing sites that received vermiculite ore from Libby.

PERONARD: What kind of medical effects have happened at these other places? Are there similar rates of asbestosis? You know, we certainly know that that's the case among workers at some of the processing facilities, like in Minneapolis or Marysville, Ohio. You know, so then you have to ask, what about the communities around these places? So, you have a whole set of problems related directly to Libby.

FRITZ: This summer, at the invitation of Governor Judy Martz and Senator Max Baucus, EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman will visit Libby and assess the cleanup to determine if Superfund status is required. She'll also consider how the federal government should play a more direct role in the community's growing public health needs. For Living on Earth, I'm Jane Fritz in Libby, Montana.

(music plays: Sally Timms "Painted Girl" LAND OF MILK & HONEY (Bloodshot -- 1995)

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, Sheep, Hog, and Hen, are unlikely names of islands of the coast of Maine, but that hasn't kept the public from discovering their beauty. The popularity of these fragile islands is a mixed blessing.

MAN: -- and he was walking around up on the island. I paddled in and I said, "Excuse me, I just want you to know, this is a bird nesting island." And he said, "Oh, they don't bother us."

CURWOOD: The wilds of the Maine Coast at risk, next week on Living on Earth.

(Sounds: Jonathon Storm "Glacial Meltwater" RIVER OF ICE (EarthEar -2000)

CURWOOD: Before we go today, we'll take an audio journey inside a glacier. Jonathon Storm reported the sounds of falling meltwater and ice crystals at the Columbia Glacier near Anchorage, Alaska. The Columbia Glacier calves both large and small icebergs into Prince William Sound.

(Sounds: Jonathon Storm "Glacial Meltwater" RIVER OF ICE (EarthEar -2000))

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in Cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villager, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Milisa Muniz, and Bunny Lester. We had help this week from Gernot Wagner, Marie Chung, and Katy Saunders. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. Diane Toomey produced this week's program. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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; The W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advancing environmental protection and human prosperity, www.wajones.org; The National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on Energy and Climate Change; the Geraldine Art Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; The Town Creek Foundation; and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

 

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