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Most of the details of the Kyoto Protocol have been agreed on but the Bush Administration is still adamant that it is the wrong policy for the U.S. With the rest of the world moving forward with the treaty, what are the implications for U.S. business? Host Steve Curwood speaks with Kilaparti Ramakrishna, an expert in international environmental law. (08:10)
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Host Steve Curwood takes a look behind the scenes at the climate change convention in Bonn, Germany. (02:45)
Health Note/ Diane Toomey
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Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports on a study that suggests the West Nile Virus outbreak of 1999 could have caused more infections than previously thought. (01:35)
Almanac: Chincoteague ponies
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This week, facts about Chincoteague ponies. It's the annual Pony Penning on the islands of Assateague and Chincoteague, off the coast of Virginia. (01:30)
Fuel Efficiency/ Anna Solomon-Greenbaum
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The federal government is on the verge of raising fuel efficiency standards for the first time since 1975. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on why lawmakers are finally ready to do something. (07:20)
Toxic Cars/ Julie Halpert
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A recent report found that mercury from scrapped cars is one of the largest sources of mercury contamination in the United States. Some believe it's the responsibility of auto recyclers to remove mercury switches and other toxic car components. But, as Julie Halpert reports, a coalition of environmental groups are calling on the automakers to find substitutes for hazardous auto materials. (05:45)
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New developments in stories we've been following recently. (03:00)
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Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports on a inexpensive way to clean up storm runoff. (01:20)
Mexico Pollution/ Jana Schroeder
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Mexico City is known as a crowded city with lots of air pollution. In the past year, the air quality improved in the city. As Jana Schroeder reports, a new ten year plan is aimed at controlling the air pollution as the number of cars and people continues to grow. (08:05)
Antarctic Seals/ Allan Coukell
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Reporter Allan Coukell recently joined a group of scientists on a trip to Antarctica. Their goal: to unravel the mysteries of the unusual mating behaviors of the Weddell Seal. (07:30)
CURWOOD: This is Living On Earth. It took four years of international conferences and at least one near death experience in The Hague, but the rules to implement the Kyoto Protocol to combat climate change have finally been worked out. Compromise was the watchword of the latest round of negotiations, which ended July 27th in Bonn, Germany. Europe, in particular, wanted tougher rules than were adopted in Bonn, but Margot Wallstrom, Environment Commissioner for the European Union, conceded it was necessary to start someplace.
WALLSTROM: We are also willing to pay a price for that, because we cannot negotiate with the environment.
CURWOOD: As dropouts from Kyoto, the U.S. delegation remained largely silent throughout the talks and kept its promise not to obstruct the process. But that didn't satisfy all. Some jeered U.S. Under-Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky when she addressed the final high level session.
DOBRIANSKY: The Bush administration takes the issue of climate change very seriously and we will not [audience jeering] abdicate our responsibilities. Mr. President, thank you again for your many contributions to this process.
CURWOOD: With me to talk about the agreement to implement Kyoto is Kilaparti Ramakrishna. He's an expert in international environmental law and Deputy Director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Mr. Ramakrishna also advised the United Nations during drafting of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, upon which the Kyoto Protocol is built. Welcome.
RAMAKRISHNA: Oh thank you.
CURWOOD: Under the Treaty, European and Japanese companies -- any industrial nation companies -- get to invest in so-called clean technology in developing nations. And also companies in countries that reduce CO2 emissions below their targets will get to sell emissions credits. What kind of money is there to be made here?
RAMAKRISHNA: Depending on whose study you rely on, between 250 to 450 billion dollars per annum. A lot of that could go into, you know, into introducing new technologies, as well as doing things that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So that is about the range.
CURWOOD: Let me make sure I understood you correctly. You're saying about a quarter of a trillion dollars a year involved in international trading of the technology and expertise and such for combating climate change under this regime?
RAMAKRISHNA: I'm saying it could potentially be as high a figure as that.
CURWOOD: Now, of course, President Bush has said that the Protocol would put undue economic strain on the U.S., and that was the principal reason for us not participating. What are the implications for American business, given that the U.S. won't be ratifying the Treaty, and won't be able to participate in the emissions trade?
RAMAKRISHNA: They are big. The first question, of course, is, is it really so damaging to the U.S. economic interests? Again, if you go by studies, they are all over the map. But a majority number of those studies say that U.S. actually stands to gain by emissions trading, a joint implementation, or even clean development mechanisms. The private sector is increasingly getting interested in participating very vigorously in this, and I think in the end, it is the private sector that is going to tell Bush that we need to move forward with this Treaty.
CURWOOD: What happens to U.S. companies that operate internationally -- multi-national companies -- when this emissions trading starts on the Kyoto Protocol?
RAMAKRISHNA: It's a very good question. Potentially, a lot of legal implications are associated with it. To give you just an example, a company that is situated in London, for example, has produced emissions in a significant way, but has its corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C. You know, where do those emissions reductions account from? And the country might maintain that if the emissions are released from the particular undertaking in England, the U.K.'s responsible. Therefore, if there are gains made, then U.K. should be credited with it.
CURWOOD: How will U.S. companies be able to participate in the buying and selling of these emissions credits?
RAMAKRISHNA: They will not be able to do that because if a country is not a party to the Convention and the Protocol, then it cannot benefit from the provisions of these conventions. What a company in the United States that is interested in benefiting from it might do is establish a subsidiary of sorts in one of the countries where the Protocol is honored, and benefit from it that way.
CURWOOD: Some have said that the agreement struck in Bonn is a major foreign policy defeat for the United States. How do you feel about that assessment?
RAMAKRISHNA: Without a question, it was very distressing to be going from the United States to this Conference and to see the official delegation being so silent. The international community did everything it possibly could do to give the kind of additional room and time for the new administration to respond to what needed to be done. As you remember, going back in time, it was at the request of the United States government that the current session was moved from May to now. And it was at the request of the United States that a number of delegations moved their position from what was not accomplished in The Hague last year. So the international community did everything that it possibly could do to accommodate the United States, but the United States did not come forward with anything. They had asked for time -- they got it. They said they were going to introduce a plan -- there was no plan. Even now they talk about an alternative plan. I mean, it is simply not on to take the international community and then try to lead it astray this way. And the countries outside are very much cognizant of this and are unhappy, to put it mildly, and decided to move forward without the United States. So there is no question in my mind that this is a major diplomatic defeat for the United States.
CURWOOD: What are some of the possible consequences?
RAMAKRISHNA: It loses credibility for the international community. In international negotiations everywhere, if you lose the confidence of your partners to be trusted to do what you say you're going to do, it is a major setback.
CURWOOD: The White House says it still plans to come up with alternatives for the Kyoto Protocol. At this point, how relevant would those alternatives be, do you think?
RAMAKRISHNA: If we had not arrived at the deal in Bonn, then it would probably make a difference. But currently, with every single of the 186 countries that ratified the Framework Convention on Climate Change, with the exception of the United States joining this new deal, there is no chance at all that any alternate plan from the United States would be taken seriously. And honestly, I don't think the United States is ever going to submit a plan like this, because it would be laughed out of hand.
CURWOOD: The White House says, "Well, you know, the rest of the world can do its own thing. But this is in the best interest of America to stay out of the Kyoto Protocol." And they sincerely believe this. Don't they have a case?
RAMAKRISHNA: They probably sincerely wish that the problem would go away. They probably think that they will continue to have the private sector support in their position that the Kyoto Protocol is a bad thing for the private sector. But I wouldn't be a bit surprised if come next year, they turn around and then say that, well, we now have a better appreciation of the rules developed under the Kyoto Protocol, and what is more, we have carried out more studies, and then say that now maybe we could actually take part in it.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.
RAMAKRISHNA: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: Kilaparti Ramakrishna is Deputy Director of the Woods Hole Research Center.
CURWOOD: Over the past four years, I've been covering the Kyoto process. And one of the things that makes these kinds of negotiations so interesting and difficult is culture and its differences. Consider, for example, the culture of Japan, which seeks to avoid confrontation and losing face. Now, in a large way, we saw this in Japan's reluctance to tell the world that it would go ahead and negotiate and ratify the Kyoto Protocol with or without the United States. And in a small way, we saw this as the Living On Earth crew was setting up our operations.
With security concerns about the G8 Summit in Genoa in the air, the authorities were taking no chances in Bonn. In contrast to other sessions, the press center was set up about a quarter mile away from the actual meeting site of the delegates at Bonn's Maritim Hotel. But our crew managed to get a room inside the Maritim itself, so we could bring you our reports from on-site, as well as get some rest during down time.
Well, it turned out our room was right down the hall from the Japanese delegation, inside the restricted area imposed by security guards. No other reporters were allowed on the floor, since they didn't have rooms there. Past experience leads me to speculate that had the cloistered U.S. delegation found us inside their perimeter, we would have gotten an apologetic phone call from the hotel management saying we'd have to move.
But the Japanese decided not to confront us, and we decided not to confront them -- in the secure area, at least. So when the pack of reporters was pursuing the Japanese Environment Minister at the press conferences and in conference hallways, we joined the fray, but politely ignored her when she was in the private area we shared. My guess is they would have rather we had changed our living quarters. You could imagine how such cultural divides complicate negotiations. Politeness gets mistaken for indecision.
Now consider the value that we Americans tend to place on going it alone. The lone ranger of the frontier days may be gone, but most of us in North America ride alone in our cars and praise self-sufficiency. So while some Americans may be comfortable going it alone in the world, whether it's pulling out of the Kyoto Accord or the Germ Warfare Treaty or the ABM Treaty or the Anti-Land Mine Treaty or the Small Arms Treaty --much of the world doesn't get it, and sees our culture as arrogant.
By the way, the American delegation in Bonn never granted Living On Earth an official interview and never held a press conference. They simply never bothered to call us back, despite repeated inquiries. The Japanese delegation did brief the press, but they never granted us an interview with a senior official either, and they never quite said no. Indeed, they called to apologize that they were busy at the very times we sought.
CURWOOD: Coming up: Capital Hill is moving ahead with changes in fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. First, this health note from Diane Toomey:
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TOOMEY: In the summer of 1999, a slew of dead birds in New York was the first sign to alert health officials that the West Nile Virus had made its way from Africa and the Middle East to the U.S. In the vast majority of people, the virus may cause, at most, short term flu-like symptoms. In those who are more vulnerable, such as the elderly, the virus can cause lethal swelling of the brain. Eventually, New York State reported 62 cases of the mosquito-borne disease, including seven deaths.
But a group of scientists has found evidence that those numbers may underestimate the rate of infection. Six weeks after the initial outbreak, researchers from New York City's Department of Health went door-to-door in northern Queens, where nine cases of the virus had been reported. Researchers took blood samples from almost 700 people and analyzed them for antibodies to West Nile. They found 15 people were carrying Immunoglobulin M, which means they'd recently and unknowingly been infected with the virus. From this data, scientists estimate for every one reported case of West Nile, there are 140 milder cases that go undiagnosed.
Since then, West Nile virus has made its way down the East Coast. This year the first confirmed human case of West Nile has been found in Florida's Madison County. Researchers now suggest that doctors consider the possibility of West Nile when diagnosing patients with summertime fevers and flu. That's this week's Health Note. I'm Diane Toomey.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living On Earth.
CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: The history of the wild ponies of Chincoteague Island is still a bit of a mystery. Legend has it that a 16th century Spanish galleon capsized off the coast of Virginia. Its cargo of ponies somehow managed to escape to the nearby islands of Assateague and Chincoteague. But others say penny pinching Virginians on the mainland kept their horses on the islands to avoid paying a 17th century fencing tax. Well, no matter how they got there, this last band of wild horses east of the Rocky Mountains has made the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge its home.
They've adapted to the coarse vegetation, and in a squeeze they're even known to eat poison ivy. In fact, the ponies have survived so well that their population must be kept at 150, the maximum number that the Refuge can support. So, every year in late July, local volunteer fire fighters pose as saltwater cowboys and stage a roundup for the annual pony penning. When low tide comes, the cowboys lead the herd across the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague. The next day, the foals are sold at auction to a lucky few who adopt them as pets or for show. Last year, 84 ponies sold for between $2,000 and $7,500 each. And that ain't hay. And for this week, that's the Living On Earth Almanac.
CURWOOD: As the rest of the world moves ahead on the Kyoto Accord without the United States, it may seem that the U.S is doing little to address climate change. But in Washington there is action underway that would help curb our greenhouse gas emissions. For the first time since 1975, Congress is moving to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. As Living On Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports, the auto makers themselves are partly responsible for this change.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For 26 years, American automakers have managed to hold corporate average fuel economy -- or CAFE -- standards at a virtual standstill. They convinced the public, as well as Congress, that such a move would hurt the industry and consumers. Then last year, automakers tried a different sort of tactic to avoid stricter CAFE legislation. They promised voluntary improvements. Mike Flynn directs the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.
FLYNN: You have to really go back to last August, when partially in reaction to the escalation of gas prices, especially in the Midwest, both Ford and GM made announcements of committing themselves to rather dramatic increases in the fuel economy of some of their heavier vehicles -- notably sport utility vehicles. That got a lot of press and people said "Good move."
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Flynn says the car companies set themselves up for trouble by bragging that they could and would make a more efficient product by 2005. Then gas prices settled back down for a bit, and the issue lost its urgency. George W. Bush was elected, and for the first time in six years, automakers didn't bother urging Congress to block a CAFE increase. Mike Rogers is a Republican congressman from Michigan, and a friend to the industry. He says the car companies liked the post-election landscape in Washington -- so much so, they got complacent.
ROGERS: Well all of them, quite frankly, fell asleep at the switch. I think they assumed that nothing would happen on CAFE in the White House, mainly because -- I believe -- that Andrew Card, a former executive with General Motors, was the Chief of Staff. I think it was obviously a bad assumption.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The industry's inaction, says Rogers, sent a message to lawmakers.
ROGERS: That, hey, we don't care if you raise CAFE standards. It won't have any impact on us. And when that happened, this whole thing blew up. And I went to them and said "You are in big trouble."
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: When President Bush declared an energy crisis, the issue of fuel efficiency gained renewed attention. Mike Flynn says the White House simply couldn't afford not to at least consider the CAFE issue.
FLYNN: The administration comes in. It is perceived by much of the press, and much of the public, as being not particularly sympathetic to various environmental efforts. At the same time, there's growing momentum in the country for increases in fuel economy. And for the administration, I think, it's a relatively easy step to make that at least sends a message that whatever we do with Kyoto, you know, we are concerned about global warming. And here we are saying it's time to do something in the conservation area.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In Congress, too, CAFE is catching hold. Members saw the public react strongly against remarks from Vice President Cheney, saying that efficiency is merely a personal virtue. Even congressmen from the Midwest, whose districts have been traditionally been dominated by the Big Three car companies, are finding their constituents increasingly concerned about conservation. Dan Becker directs the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program. He says lawmakers are realizing the political advantage of appearing green.
BECKER: And they're feeling a lot of heat, because their constituents are reacting against the President's proposals on energy policy. So they've been telling their leaders in Congress "I want to be able to vote for something that proves that I'm for the environment, that I want to do something about energy, and unlike the President, I'm not in the hip pocket of the oil and auto industries."
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Those leaders appear to be listening, even those who fought for years against higher standards. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott says he's now open to some type of increase. And the industry's old friends, too, concede the standoff's over. Now they'll focus on keeping the increase to a minimum. At a recent House Committee meeting, Michigan Democrat John Dingell spoke in favor of a bill that would require auto makers to save five billion gallons of gas over six years on new SUVs and other light trucks.
DINGELL: I support the Amendment. Not because I love it, but because any alternative that I've been able to find is significantly worse. But the hard facts are that legislation is moving now to.... [FADES UNDER]
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: At the other end of the spectrum, Democratic Representatives Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Henry Waxman of California want to raise fuel standards to 40 miles per gallon for all vehicles within 15 years. Ford's promise last year on its SUVs would put the company on target to meet that goal. Current standards are 27.5 for passenger cars and 20.7 for SUVs and other light trucks. Waxman says the five billion gallon idea translates into a measly one mile per gallon increase.
WAXMAN: I'm not sure if it's a step forward or a step back.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The final outcome may depend on the not so usual suspects: people like Republican Representative Joe Barton of Texas. Barton's not known for pleasing environmentalists, and he voted against Waxman and Markey's higher increase. But he worried that Dingle and others are aiming too low.
BARTON: We use about 130,000,000,000 gallons of gasoline every year in this country for transportation purposes. And 5,000,000,000 over a five-year period out of well over the 600,000,000,000 gallons, is not a high number. I would like to go further.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Some observers say Barton's expression of concern was simply rhetoric meant to make Republicans look softer on the issue. After all was said and done, Barton voted for the five billion gallon mark. Meanwhile, President Bush has been fending off CAFE questions by saying he's waiting for a federal panel to finish a study on the subject. The report, commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences, is due out at the end of July. But now, a draft copy has been leaked, and it tells the White House, yes, it's time to increase CAFE. President Bush says he isn't taking a position until after the official NAS report is released. But environmental groups were pleased with the leaked version. They criticized the NAS for weighting the panel with auto and oil interests. But the report takes a fairly aggressive stance toward the car companies. It counters the industry's claim that making vehicles more efficient will also make them less safe. And it warns them against using improved technology to add power and heft, rather than efficiency. Mike Flynn, of the University of Michigan, says supporters of a CAFE increase have reason to be pleased.
FLYNN: To the extent that the leaked version of the report is accurate, and if it is also accurate that this is a panel that one would describe as industry-friendly, it says the pressure on Congress and the President to raise CAFE will be extraordinary.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Debate on CAFE Legislation will continue on the House floor in early August. For Living On Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington.
CURWOOD: As the U.S. government debates clamping down on auto fuel consumption, some are focusing on what they see as the next frontier: toxic emissions that are released when a car is junked. Julie Halpert, of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, takes a look at the hazardous materials inside cars and the latest drive to get rid of them.
[SOUNDS OF MACHINERY MOVING AUTO PARTS]
HALPERT: It's a crisp, sunny day, and hundreds of junk cars fill the lot at Fox Auto Parts in Belleville, Michigan. Owner Joe Fox, Jr. takes in nearly 1,000 of these cars each year. Today he's crushing a steel car skeleton and flattening it like a pancake. But before that happens, Fox says he removes everything that could cause problems down the line.
FOX: Well, there's a lot of hazardous waste. You've got gasoline, you've got oil, you've got antifreeze, you've got freon, and everything's got to be taken care of the proper way.
HALPERT: Most auto recyclers are encouraged to drain all fluids from the car, like gasoline, coolant, and used oil, all of which can be recycled. Some state and local laws also require that they remove the car's lead battery for recycling, as well. Joe Fox says, unlike some other auto recyclers, he's diligent about following these procedures. He also makes sure to remove other car components that he recently found out are harmful to the environment.
GRIFFITH: Inside the car here, you can see the nice dashboard we have here. This is typically made with a PVC vinyl skin, and it is what contains the sort of chlorine-based plastic.
HALPERT: That's Charles Griffith, with the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Griffith says that car parts, such as PVC plastics, and automotive switches for hoods and car lights, contain toxic substances hazardous to the environment. Polyvinyl chlorides, or PVC plastics, release dioxin when heated or burned. Dioxin is a known carcinogen that can cause health problems to adults and children. The car switches and high intensity headlamps contain mercury, which when incinerated, can contaminate water, prompting fish consumption advisories, because of potential neurological damage.
If these materials aren't removed, they stay with the steel after the car is crushed and shredded. Then they pollute the air when the steel is burned in a furnace to make new steel. A recent Ecology Center report found that mercury from scrap cars is one of the nation's largest sources of airborne mercury contamination. Some environmentalists place the blame for this toxic exposure squarely on the car companies.
In July, a coalition of environmental groups called the Clean Car Campaign asked automakers to remove mercury from cars in for service, repair, or recall. The Campaign called on car dealers to replace mercury switches for free. Gregory Dana is Vice President for Environmental Affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He argues that auto recyclers are better equipped to deal with the problem.
DANA: We don't think it's our business to pay for or set up take back programs on these switches, because there's a business out there already set up to be able to do that properly.
HALPERT: But some say junkyard operators have neither the incentive nor the money to undertake such a task. Dean Menke is with Environmental Defense's Pollution Prevention Alliance. He says carmakers should take responsibility from the start and curb their use of toxic materials.
MENKE: Substitutes are available for many of the toxics used in automobiles, including mercury. Automakers must consider the impacts their design decisions have throughout the product life cycle, including the disposal of the automobile. And I think automakers can definitely do more to address this issue of toxics in automobiles.
HALPERT: Carmakers say they've made great strides in taking toxic materials out of cars. But they say that developing environmentally friendly substitutes isn't easy, and they need to ensure that new products don't introduce new problems. Kevin Webber is Manager of Corporate Planning for Toyota Technical Center, USA in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He says Toyota's confronting the problem by trying to find a substitute for mercury in its high intensity discharge headlamps.
WEBBER: The HID headlamps are much, much brighter than standard headlamps. And so the safety improvement for our drivers and our customers is quite a bit higher. And so we have to really consider that tradeoff: is the safety improvement much better than what could be the potential environmental impact of having that mercury vapor in that headlamp?
HALPERT: So for now, Toyota will continue to use mercury in its headlamps. But other car companies are trying to limit the use of toxic materials in different areas. Daimler/Chrysler, for example, has found a way to remove lead from its painting process. Environmental Defense's Dean Menke is encouraged by that progress, but he says that more needs to be done.
MENKE: If pollution prevention or design for recycling or design for environment generally isn't implemented to the fullest extent possible, the issue of toxics or many of the environmental issues that automobiles create on our society will continue to persist.
HALPERT: Menke says he and other environmentalists will continue prodding carmakers, who are struggling to pay attention to what comes out of the car in the form of tailpipe emissions, to also pay attention to the toxics inside the cars they sell. For Living On Earth, I'm Julie Halpert in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living On Earth.
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CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we've been tracking lately.
CURWOOD: The backlash against the National Monument designations that Bill Clinton rushed through at the end of his Presidency continues. Local commissioners in Oregon's Jackson County are now asking the federal government to reduce the size of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument by two-thirds. Private land owners inside the boundaries of the Monument are worried about grazing, as well as access and land values. Biologists say the Monument protects important habitat links between ecosystems. Dominick Della Sala is a forest ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund. He says only the President or an act of Congress could reduce the boundaries of National Monument.
DELLA SALA: And this would be unprecedented, because most of the Monuments that we have across the nation, the adjustments that have been made have been to increase the size of the Monument, not to decrease their size.
CURWOOD: Della Sala says the delayed release of a management plan for Cascade-Siskiyou continues to hamper discussion over how the land will be used.
CURWOOD: Oregon has been called ground zero for the Earth Liberation Front, also known as ELF. That's the radical environmental group whose stated aim is to "inflict economic damage on those profiting from destruction and exploitation of the natural environment." ELF has claimed responsibility for acts of arson and vandalism across the country. Now new laws in Oregon treat ecoterrorism as organized crime. Actions like tree spiking and interference with agricultural research are now included under the state's anti-racketeering law, which means stiffer penalties. Democratic Congresswoman Darlene Hooley of Oregon has also introduced federal legislation calling for an information clearinghouse and more resources to fight ecoterrorism.
CURWOOD: Last summer's Cerro Grande wildfire in New Mexico prompted worries about radioactive contamination that might arise from the burned grounds of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Now the Interagency Flood Risk Assessment Team has concluded that the health threat from contaminated sediment is minimal. James Bearzi of the New Mexico Environment Department says elevated levels of some radioactive and carcinogenic chemicals were found, but not at risky concentrations.
BEARZI: At a contaminated site, we might require a certain cleanup level. You have to cleanup, remediate your site, to a certain level of contamination. And the levels of contaminants that we saw with the fire, in most cases, didn't even approach those cleanup levels.
CURWOOD: The team looked only at the human health effects of flooding, not ecological impacts. It does recommend that people avoid eating plants grown in ash from the burned area.
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CURWOOD: And that's this week's follow-up on the news from Living On Earth.
CURWOOD: Mexico City gets through a year without a smog alert. And Antarctic seals with strange mating habits. First, this environmental tech note from Maggie Villiger:
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VILLIGER: After falling to the earth, rainwater can pick up oil, gasoline, and other pollutants as it travels across roads and highways. These contaminants eventually end up in local waterways. Recently, a scientist at the University of Rhode Island devised a cheaper method to remove harmful pollutants from storm runoff. The researcher had been studying the effectiveness of storm water detention ponds in Providence. These ponds were designed to capture excess rainwater and filter out contaminants before the water reached Narragansett Bay. Pollutants latch onto sediments and organic material in the pond water. This heavier material then settles to the bottom of the ponds. The cleaner water flows out and into the Bay. But the researcher noticed that heavy rains decreased the pond's effectiveness. If the water flowed through the pond too quickly, the pollutants didn't have time to settle before flowing into the Bay. So additional material was needed to filter more effectively. In lab tests, the researcher discovered that shredded Aspen wood -- an inexpensive and non-toxic material -- filters out 97 percent of pyrene, a contaminant in roadway runoff. About 100 pounds of shredded wood in the ponds would be needed to aid in the filtration process. Once the lab experiments are completed sometime next year, the filtration system will be field tested in the ponds. That's this week's Technology Note. I'm Maggie Villager.
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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living On Earth.
CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Mexico City used to be known as the smog capital of the world. But it's now lost that dubious distinction to other cities, including Beijing and Hong Kong. Authorities say air quality has improved slightly in Mexico City. Last year, for the first time in a decade, this city of 20,000,000 celebrated a full year without calling a smog alert. But the good news may not last. More and more cars and trucks are coming on the road, and the population is projected to double in the next two or three decades. From Mexico City, Jana Schroeder has this report.
SCHROEDER: There are plenty of reasons Mexico City has an air pollution problem. It's a city that's grown rapidly without adequate planning or regulations. To see where it all started, there's no better place than the historic downtown area.
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SCHROEDER: I'm on top of a city government building overlooking the huge main square with Jorge Legorreta, a prominent Mexican urbanist. He points to the cloud-covered horizon beyond the city's largest cathedral.
LEGORRETA: [IN SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: Mexico City is located over 7,000 feet above sea level. We're basically in the mountains. And what we see around us are clouds. Only about 15 days a year we can see perfectly the two volcanoes to the southeast and all the mountains around us.
SCHROEDER: Mr. Legorreta insists that clouds, not pollution, block the view on most days. But whether you can see it or not, the dirty air is there, and the National Institute of Ecology reports 85 percent of it comes from vehicles. Since the city's in a basin surrounded by mountains on all sides, harmful emissions remain trapped in this metropolis, which was built over the site of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. But as Jorge Legorreta tells me, the Aztec god of the wind, known as Ehecatl sometimes lends a hand.
LEGORRETA: [IN SPANISH]
TRANSLATOR: This is the god that saves from the catastrophes caused by pollution. Mexico couldn't survive without the wind god. He takes away the fumes, the polluting particles. It disperses them and carries them out of the valley.
SCHROEDER: In fact, favorable climactic conditions with strong winds are cited as one of the reasons air quality has improved. Although authorities admit the levels permitted before a smog alert is called are 2.4 times over internationally accepted standards, Mr. Legorreta says measures implemented in the early 1990s have made a difference. They include cleaner formulas for gasoline, a requirement that cars older than 1997 stay off the streets one day a week, two days a week when a smog alert is called. Plus a vehicle inspection program.
[SOUND OF VEHICLES AT INSPECTION CENTER]
SCHROEDER: At this inspection center, workers say about 15 percent of vehicles fail the emissions test on their first try. The test has been required in Mexico City since 1990. But in the early years, these centers were known for giving a clean bill of health to any car in exchange for a bribe.
[CUTAWAY OF FERNANDO LOPEZ TALKING AT INSPECTION CTR.]
SCHROEDER: Fernando Lopez, the supervisor here, says in the last few years, the corruption in most inspection centers has been cleaned up. Authorities claim to have revoked the licenses for nine centers, and they plan to install new, centrally controlled software making it impossible to tamper with inspection equipment. But city authorities recognize there's still much more to be done. Specifically, to lower levels of ozone produced from the combination of sunlight and vehicle exhaust and the levels of suspended particles resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels.
[CUTAWAY OF SANTIAGO MENDEZ TALKING AT CENTER UP AND UNDER]
SCHROEDER: Santiago Mendez is waiting to take his car through the test. He says he thinks the inspection program is important and wishes everyone would do their part. Mr. Mendez's car is a 1978 Volkswagen Bug. He says his car has always passed the inspection because he keeps it well tuned. But, in fact, standards for older cars are lower. Ecologists say the many old vehicles in Mexico City are a big problem, since they don't have catalytic converters to filter car exhaust into less harmful gases. But it's difficult to get older cars off the streets, especially since cars are more expensive in Mexico than in the United States, for example. And high interest rates keep many people from borrowing money. Dr. Claudia Scheinbaum is Mexico City's new Environment Secretary. She agrees old cars are a problem, but she plans to focus on other areas.
SCHEINBAUM: There have been a lot of proposals to give money to the people who have very old cars. But I think that these kind of programs incentive the private vehicle. We have to put it where we think it's better, and that's public transportation.
SCHROEDER: But what will convince people to leave the comfort of their own cars? Dr. Scheinbaum says there's a lot that can be done to make public transportation preferable.
SCHEINBAUM: If I can come in half an hour from my house to here if I come by Metro, and it is safe and a clean place, then, you know, I will start using the Metro.
SCHROEDER: Some say Mexico City's subway system is as efficient or better than those in other cities. But Dr. Scheinbaum says improvements are still needed, such as more coordination between subway lines and bus routes. Dr. Scheinbaum says so far, all the attention has been placed on gasoline vehicles. But now, for the first time, strict standards will also be applied to diesel vehicles.
[SOUND OF GEESE UP AND UNDER]
SCHROEDER: Outside the city, ecologist Manuel Guerra lives away from the pollution on a farm with a flock of noisy geese and some rescued deer. But he goes into the city every day to work at the Autonomous Institute for Environmental Research. He says due to economic crises in Mexico, public funds have not been dedicated to improving traffic design, which could minimize congestion and thus, harmful emissions.
GUERRA: There has been a huge de-investment in infrastructure, in roads and bridges. And so, Mexico City grew in the amount of vehicles, but didn't grow in the existing infrastructure. We have to make an enormous effort in modernizing, making much more subway, introducing more lines of trolleys, electrical transport, and principally, a renovation of the fleet of taxis.
SCHROEDER: In fact, the new Mexico City mayor Andres Lopez Obrador recently claimed taxis pollute more than any other vehicle in the city and have reached a saturation point with more taxis on the streets than are needed. He said no new licenses for taxis will be issued for three years, and actions will begin against nearly 3,000 pirate taxis operating illegally. According to Manuel Guerra taxis, together with mini-buses and delivery trucks, are responsible for over half of vehicle pollution, even though they make up only 20 percent of the total number of vehicles. Mr. Guerra says up to now authorities have taken the easy way out with measures targeting private citizens instead of tackling powerful commercial interests. A 10-year-plan to improve Mexico City's air quality is being developed by a research team headed by Dr. Mario Molina, a Mexican chemist who won a Nobel Prize in 1995 for his work on the ozone layer. From his post at MIT, he's working with government authorities in Mexico and has recommended a long list of measures.
MOLINA: We know where the system is failing. Institutional barriers, social difficulties, economic problems, but it will take a relatively high level of government decisions to bring these changes about.
SCHROEDER: Dr. Molina says people aren't as concerned as they used to be, now that air quality has improved a little. But he insists that more pressure from citizens is needed, given predictions for the city's growth.
MOLINA: We have, on the one hand, the potential to have a cleaner city, using newer technologies. But there is a race with the natural growth of the City, in terms of more population, more cars, more trucks.
SCHROEDER: But Dr. Molina is hopeful and he believes his 10-year-plan for Mexico City can serve as a model for other cities in the developing world. For Living On Earth, I'm Jana Schroeder in Mexico City.
CURWOOD: Some of the most isolated animals in the world are the Weddell seals in Antarctica. These mammals have an unusual mating system. They breed underneath the ice. By studying how these seals mate, scientists hope to get a better idea of the factors governing other animal mating systems. Alan Coukell recently joined a team studying these seals, and has this report.
[SOUND OF RADIO TRANSMISSION ON BOARD PLANE]
COUKELL: It is sunrise as I board the plane in Christchurch, New Zealand. I'm on a journey to a land 2,000 miles south where the summer sun never sets and the snow hardly melts.
[SOUND OF PLANE RADIO TRANSMISSION]
COUKELL: There are 60 of us. Mostly scientists and support staff, plus equipment, crowded into a U.S. Air Force Starlifter bound for the U.S. and New Zealand bases on Ross Island, Antarctica. Antarctica is one-and-a-half times the size of the United States. The driest, coldest, least populated continent on earth. To survive there, you have to adapt to the cold.
[SOUND OF PLANE RADIO TRANSMISSION]
COUKELL: We land on an ice runway, the surface of a frozen sea. As we emerge from the aircraft and into below-zero temperatures, every piece of skin that isn't covered begins to freeze. Not too far away on the ice, fat seals are lounging.
WAAS: Right now we're just looking for the females of the group that we studied last year.
COUKELL: This is the fourth Antarctic summer that Joe Waas and his colleagues have spent camped here on the sea ice near the seals. Waas is an animal behaviorist from the University of Waikato in New Zealand. He moves easily among the seals, gently lifting their rear flippers with the tip of his ice axe to expose their plastic identification tags.
WAAS: So this one here is yellow 965. [Sound of seal] Yeah. So it makes it nice and easy to sort of know who you're dealing with. [Sound of seal]
COUKELL: There are more than a hundred seals here, lying near an open crack in the ice. They're Weddell seals, gray with white spots. Most are female. Their pups, close by, have eyes as black as buttons. Joe Waas motions me to look a short distance away.
WAAS: There's a male that you should really see over here too. He's really beaten up. He got this, quite commonly the males that are running the show underneath the ice here will actually prevent other males from coming anywhere into these areas, and will chase them right out of these cracks in the ice.
COUKELL: This lone bull seal is a big fellow. He weighs at least 1,000 pounds. But he hasn't had an easy time of it. His flippers are torn, and there are gashes on both sides of his head. These seals are so placid, so unperturbed by our presence, that it's hard to imagine that right beneath our feet they're fighting a ferocious battle for dominance. But it's this -- the unusual mating system of Weddell seals -- that's the focus of this research.
WAAS: The males will actually bite at one another's genitals, and in the water you'll see them spinning around, trying to get at one another's genitals.
COUKELL: So this male that's on top of the ice --
WAAS: This is a loser. (Laughs.) He's probably not going to reproduce this season. The guys that are down there are the ones that are really going to be reproducing.
COUKELL: So there's more than one down there, though?
WAAS: Oh yeah. Whole little territories. You know, there'll be an area like this that'll be the territory of one of the males here. Then adjacent to it, almost like in song birds, there'll be another territory adjacent to that that's defended by another male. And then further down the crack, another territory.
COUKELL: The males stake out and defend small territories under the ice around the access holes, so they can mate with the females when they leave their pups and enter the water to feed. The question for the scientists is do the best fighters make the most successful lovers? Mark Hindell is a zoologist from the University of Tasmania in Australia.
HINDELL: What we want to know is whether or not it's actually the territory holders that actually do father all the pups. In previous years we've been checking them and mapping those territories, and relating how many offspring different males have to see if there's some sort of tradeoff -- size of territory or amount of energy they spend or whatever -- in terms of the offspring they have. And this year we're coming back now to find out the answer to that question.
COUKELL: To conduct the paternity test, the scientists take tiny skin samples from the seal pups. DNA from the samples will be compared with DNA taken from the males last year.
[SOUNDS OF SEALS]
COUKELL: Here on top of the ice, the seals are ungainly and not very musical. But even through six-and-a-half feet of ice, we can hear eerie calls telling us that down below is another story.
[SOUNDS OF SEALS UNDERWATER]
WAAS: Well, they make an extraordinary number of different sounds. I think somewhere between, say, about 25 or 30 different sounds.
COUKELL: Joe Waas has been recording this underwater symphony. He says beautiful though it may be, it, too, is part of the competition for breeding success.
WAAS: There are certain sounds that they'll only do below the ice. The males have certain types of calls that the females won't use. Like they have this very long, sort of downward trill [CUTAWAY TO SOUND] and we think that that's associated with attracting females to the territory, so the males can actually tell the females how big they are. And high quality large males would be potentially preferred by females. [SEAL SOUNDS] And the calls are also used -- like that trill call, it's thought that it's used to sort of defend the area against other areas. Again, and you can sort of tell the other males how big you are by how deep in pitch their calls can actually go. [MORE SEAL UNDERWATER SOUNDS]
COUKELL: By examining the calls and looking at the DNA, the scientists can find out about the mating habits of the seals. Mark Hindell says this, in turn, could lead to a wider understanding of animal behavior.
HINDELL: Well these guys are interesting because they're an anomaly. They're sort of an outlaw. And not just in seal mating systems, but in mammalian ones. And it's always very instructive to compare how different systems work and the different environments that they work in, because that tells us something about the conditions that are required for certain things to evolve.
COUKELL: After a few hours, Mark Hindell and Joe Waas return to their camp to warm up with a mug of tea. As in each of the previous three years, they'll remain on the ice for several more weeks. Then they'll pack their camp for the last time, returning to the land of trees and universities to analyze their findings.
[SEAL SOUNDS, UP AND UNDER]
Perhaps, though, a trace of this seal song will stay with them as a reminder of the beauty and complexity of life in this harsh place. For Living On Earth, I'm Alan Coukell, from Ross Island, Antarctica.
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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living On Earth. Next week we'll hear about consumer reaction to mad cow disease in Germany. Nearly eight months after the first cattle came down with the illness, many Germans are now feeling complacent.
WOMAN: And I didn't touch any meat, you know, like beef, and sausages, and all these things. But then after awhile, you know, you're getting more relaxed, and now I'm started eating meat again.
CURWOOD: What's the beef about beef? Next time on Living On Earth.
CURWOOD: Before we go today, we just heard some eerie sounds underneath frozen water. Now let's take a dip into underwater melodies of small ponds. Engineer David Dunn drops some hydrophones into a pond in Africa and another in New Mexico and puts the sounds together.
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 Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Milisa Muniz, Ernie Silver and Bunnie Lester. We had help this week from Gernot Wagner, Marie Jayasakera and Katy Saunders. Alison 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. And I'm Steve Curwood, Executive Producer of Living On Earth. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the David and Lucille Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment; www.wajones.org; the William and Flora Hewett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Education 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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