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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

October 12, 2001

Air Date: October 12, 2001

SEGMENTS

Security or Censorship

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Government agencies have recently been removing information about chemical plants and pipelines from their websites. Darren Samuelsohn, a reporter with the environmental news service Greenwire, talks with host Steve Curwood about why some people consider this information essential to local citizens' groups, while others see it as a security risk. (05:00)

Now, More Than Ever / Peter Thomson

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Former Living on Earth editor, Peter Thomson has an essay on why environmental stories still matter in the post September 11th world. (03:05)

Nitrogen Study / Diane Toomey

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A preliminary study shows that synthetic chemicals that mimic estrogen may be interfering with a vital plant process. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports. (02:45)

Animal Note

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Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports on newly discovered acoustic turf wars among masked birch caterpillars. (01:15)

Almanac: American Angler

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This week, facts about the nation's first fishing magazine. The American Angler appeared on the scene 120 years ago. (01:30)

Eco Pilot / Barbara Ferry

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Sandy Lanham pilots her 45 year old Cessna plane with Mexican environmentalists to help them track endangered wildlife. Reporter Barbara Ferry accompanied Lanham on a recent flight. (13:00)

News Follow-Up

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

Health Note

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Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports on a new breast cancer study that will try to distinguish between the role of genes and the environment in the development of the disease. (01:20)

Bucket Brigade / Danielle Knight

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Durban, South Africa residents have been suffering from high rates of asthma and cancer. Trained by American environmental activists, local residents have learned to test the air quality using inexpensive technology made of plastic buckets. Danielle Knight reports on a community that is trying to pressure the government and corporations to clean up the environment. (08:30)

Follow the Leader

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Scientists flying ultra-light aircraft are leading endangered whooping cranes on a new migration route this fall. Host Steve Curwood talks with Operation Migration's Joe Duff about how he'll lead the birds from Wisconsin to Florida. (03:30)

Peaches / Linda Tatelbaum

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Writer Linda Tatelbaum comments on her compulsion for canning peaches. (03:30)

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Security or Censorship

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Since September 11th, governments and public agencies have rushed to beef up security. In the face of concerns that information detailing the vulnerabilities of chemical plants, pipe lines and other key facilities could fall into the wrong hands, a number of government databases have been blocked from public view over the internet. Activists fought hard to make this information accessible to the public so local groups could act as watchdogs and help ensure the safety of their communities.

Darren Samuelsohn is covering this issue for the environmental news service Greenwire. He says some governmental officials fear this information could provide a road map for terrorists.

SAMUELSOHN: A lot of people on Capitol Hill and within industry are saying that terrorists can access this information and then use it in a very easy way to cause destruction all across the country.

CURWOOD: So what specifically has been taken off the web?

SAMUELSOHN: A number of things have come down. First off, on the Transportation Department's web site there was a map of pipe lines across the country and their weaknesses, whether they be because of critical habitat for native species or large population centers, places where maintenance was done on a regular basis or maybe there was a maintenance problem. That came down within, I think, a day of the attack. Also, Center for Disease Control report on security at industrial facilities around the country; that report basically says that security at industrial facilities is from very poor to good. So that came down. And then also, the Environmental Protection Agency. About four or five days after the attacks, they took down what are known as risk management plans. That's something that was called for under the Clean Air Act. Industry had to submit to EPA a long list of things that people around industrial facilities in the country that use hazardous chemicals, scenarios that would potentially happen in the event of a criminal or terrorist attack.

CURWOOD: Before the events of September 11th, was all of the most sensitive information up on the web?

SAMUELSOHN: No, not everything. There was something called worst case scenarios and those are the worst things that can happen at industrial facilities that use chemicals around the country. And that information, there was a big fight on Capitol Hill between environmental groups, right to know groups, freedom of the press groups, and national security federal agencies, saying please don't put that information up. And it was limited, and put into special reading rooms – there's about 50 of them around the country, one in every state, I believe. To gain access to that information you have to go through a little bit of a protocol and you can't take notes when you sit down – or, I'm sorry, you can't photocopy the information. It's a little bit unclear if you can take notes or not of the stuff that you're reading. And right now there's a push to try and take that access away as well.

CURWOOD: Let me get this clear. The government agencies are taking this off on their own, they've been ordered? What's the situation here?

SAMUELSOHN: It's a little bit unclear who's telling who to do what. It looks right now like the individual agencies are still evaluating their situation since September 11th. They're probably doing it on their own, right now. There's, I'm sure, with the Office of Homeland Security, the new White House office, there's going to be some sort of a White House directive to deal with this issue. I know right now they're sparring over just giving information to congressional leaders in sort of a classified format and then congressional leaders leaking information to the media. So you've got to expect maybe the White House to make some sort of a decision on this at some point, too.

CURWOOD: I don't think anybody here would debate the necessity to keep the wrong information from falling into the hands of people who would do harm. On the other hand, some people would say that this could be a smoke screen for shoddy safety practices. What's going on in this case do you think?

SAMUELSOHN: Well, the debate's pretty interesting. I mean, on one side you have people who want to keep this information out of the hands of the public, off the internet, and they have a number of reasons why. They're concerned that false alarms might be called in, that their resources might be tapped, there might be sort of a cry wolf syndrome, I guess, that people might get a lot of false threats over tapped resources there. Some people believe, even in restricting the information, some people do believe that locals should have some access to this information, but there's also a degree where they shouldn't have, and it's sort of a fuzzy line that's still being worked out right now. And they're also saying that the recent events of September 11th, that they're considering – these are people who are trying to restrict information – that they're considering all the security measures right now, and they're doing a pretty good job of it, and we should trust them.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the response from some of the environmental and citizens rights groups about the government taking this information off the web sites.

SAMUELSOHN: I think they've been trying to document it as much as they can. There's a right to know group called Working Group on Community Right to Know. There's also OMB Watch; they've been documenting and trying to keep a running list of what information has come down. It seems like it's changed a couple of times since September 11th. I was talking to someone yesterday from OMB Watch who said they hadn't yet contacted anybody on the Hill to make their case known. I guess there are people that they expect – lawmakers who are traditionally environmentally friendly – who will probably speak out when the time is right. But they’re concerned that there won't be a line that will have been clearly drawn in terms of what information can come down. And we could get to the point where there's pretty much nothing on the internet that would be of benefit to a democracy.

CURWOOD: Darren Samuelsohn is a reporter with the environmental news service Greenwire, in Washington. Thanks for taking this time with us.

SAMUELSOHN: Thank you.

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Now, More Than Ever

CURWOOD: Like many Americans, environmental journalist Peter Thomson has spent most of the past few weeks trying to get a grip on reality, and he's decided that not everything has changed since September 11th.

THOMSON: First, I wrestled with the reality that, yes, thousands of people were murdered right in front of my eyes in New York, in a neighborhood where I used to live and work. Since then, I've been trying to get a fix on what life is going to be like in our suddenly dark new world. As a journalist who has spent more than a decade covering the environment, I found myself wondering whether what I do even matters anymore. Who cares if we're going to make the planet unlivable in another 100 years? Tomorrow, a plutonium-filled suitcase might explode in the street. Tomorrow, poison might fall out of the sky. Suddenly, creeping problems like climate change and ground level ozone don't seem quite so threatening. But as the smoke of the attacks clears, I'm starting to see that the environment is still part of what matters, if only because it's part of this life-changing event.

In the days following the attacks, amid our shock, grief, and fear, we took refuge in the things we care about most: our families and friends, and the natural and human environments that we love. And now, we're going to war to protect these people and places from terrorism. I think that as we rub the dust of the World Trade Center from our eyes, we'll recognize that we still need to save what we love from destruction at our own hands as well: from the smog and congestion that are choking our communities, the sprawl that's chewing up our countryside, the atmospheric pollution that's changing the very nature of the world around us.

In the weeks since September 11th, we've also slowly begun to examine why some people hate us so much and how we might change that. This isn't capitulation to our enemies; it's just common sense. And any honest reckoning with this question will lead us, in part, to our insatiable appetite for the rest of the world's resources, especially oil.

Bin Laden and his cohorts are enraged about the thousands of U.S. troops staged in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia, about the strangulation of Iraq by American sanctions and bombers, about our support for Israel against many of its Arab neighbors. And to a large degree all of these facts stem from our need to maintain access to the Middle East's oil. In other parts of the world, the U.S. backs repressive regimes and harsh economic policies in the name of stability and open markets, which often mean the freedom for U.S. companies to extract timber and minerals with little regulation.

So, activities which often degrade the environment around the world make us enemies around the world as well. This is why the environment still matters, even in our stark new reality, and why it shouldn't fall off our nation's list of priorities. By reducing the harm we cause to the natural world, we'll also reduce the threats to us from abroad, and we'll affirm what makes life here at home worth living and maybe even fighting for.

CURWOOD: Commentator Peter Thomson edited Living on Earth for many years and is currently a freelance producer based in Boston.

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Nitrogen Study

CURWOOD: Nitrogen is one of the building blocks of life, and, while there is plenty of it in the air, it's not in a form that plants and animals can use. But bacteria can convert nitrogen into plant food, through a process called nitrogen fixing. A study published recently in the journal Nature offers preliminary evidence that synthetic chemicals that mimic estrogen might be affecting this process. If true, both agricultural and wild plant systems could be at risk of disruption. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports.

TOOMEY: Members of the plant family known as legumes range from dwarf herbs in the Arctic to massive trees found in tropical forests, and they include cultivated crops like alfalfa and soy beans. To thrive in nitrogen-poor soils these plants have developed a survival strategy: they produce a natural form of estrogen that attracts soil bacteria into their roots, where these microorganisms begin the process of nitrogen fixation. This produces fertilizer for the plants and a form of nitrogen that's distributed throughout the food chain when these plants are eaten.

Since a natural estrogen kicks off this process, researchers at Tulane University wondered-

McLACHLAN: Could chemicals block the effect of the natural stimulator.

TOOMEY: John McLachlan directs Tulane University's Center for Bio Environmental Research. He says since manmade chemicals can disrupt hormonal systems in animals, they might be doing the same thing in certain plants. So he and colleagues grew bacteria and alfalfa together in petri dishes, then added certain pesticides and other chemicals that are known estrogen mimickers. They also added something called a reporter gene into the mix. This gene produces a blue color when the bacteria receive an estrogen signal.

McLACHLAN: In a root tip that is trying to accumulate some of these bacteria, in the presence of one of the synthetic chemicals would actually block the activation of the bacteria such that you can't see any color at all. Even though the bacteria themselves are there, they're not participating in this sort of chemical exchange or chemical dance that's occurring.

TOOMEY: In other words, the bacteria never got the signal to enter the root and begin converting nitrogen. Although these synthetic chemicals are widely distributed throughout the environment, Professor McLaughlin says so far, no one has looked for this disruption anywhere beyond a petri dish. And, out of the 100 or so chemicals tested in his lab only a handful actually blocked the plant estrogen. But he says nature uses many signaling systems of the type studied here.

McLACHLAN: It's only now that we're even starting to look at the way the synthetic chemical environment might affect these global networks of signals.

TOOMEY: So, Professor McLaughlin says, this small observation should be used as a starting point for further research, especially since the legume family of plants that depend on estrogen signaling for their survival are key to agriculture and make up a significant portion of many ecosystems. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

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Animal Note

CURWOOD: Coming up, keeping an eye on nature from the sky. First, this page from the Animal Notebook, with Maggie Villiger.

VILLIGER: Caterpillars seem to have one single-minded mission: eat, eat, eat. But recently, researchers observing masked birch caterpillars, discovered that they aren't just voracious eaters, they're also staunch defenders of their grazing territory. Here's the scenario: one caterpillar is innocently chomping away on the leaf area around its nest; another masked birth caterpillar approaches. The first begins making sounds that translate roughly to “Back off, this is my turf!” In some cases, the intruder gets in on the action, engaging in a sound duel. The caterpillars drag a special scraping structure across the leaf and pound on it with their mandibles. The heat of the battle sounds like this:

[SOUND OF SCRAPING AND THUMPING]

VILLIGER: There can be a bit of head butting, but never biting. And then, the showdown is over.

Researchers found that the nest defender won the battle about 85% of the time, though nest takeovers did occur. Masked birch caterpillars don't have ears that can pick up sound vibrations in the air. They sense the territorial signals as vibrations on the leaf. Scientists are now trying to figure out where these vibration receptors are located in the caterpillars. They also wonder whether other specifies use the same kinds of techniques to say “Private property, get lost.” That's this week's Animal Note, I'm Maggie Villiger.

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

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Almanac: American Angler

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. To keep up with news from the fishing world, today's angler can check out more than a dozen different fishing magazines. But 120 years ago, there was only one: The American Angler. The American Angler was the nation's first fishing magazine devoted to the sport and culture of fresh and saltwater fishing. It cost 10 cents an issue back in 1881, or you could subscribe, for three dollars a year. But American Angler was nothing like today's glossy magazines. The only graphic was on the cover; it was a lithograph of a black bass. The editor, William C. Harris, described The American Angler this way: "It isn't pretty but, brother angler, we propose to make it useful." The magazine included stories titled, "Should an Angler Make his Own Tackle?" and "Our Mutual Friend, the Black Bass." There were also fishing reports from correspondents at major eastern rivers, including the Potomac, Susquehanna and the Niagara. The final pages of the magazine were filled with ads for all things piscatorial: tackle, rods, reels, and even mosquito repellant. Back then, of course, you could get your hands on a brand-new, three-piece flyrod for just $2.75. That same rod today will cost you a few hundred dollars. American Angler grew so popular that it moved to New York and started a weekly run. In 1923 it merged with the magazine Forest & Stream. But American Angler was not lost forever. The journal was reincarnated in 1978 and is currently the No. 2 magazine in the United States for folks hooked on fishing. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Eco Pilot

CURWOOD: Federal and state fish and wildlife agencies in the U.S. employ hundreds of pilots to track endangered wildlife. But across the border in Mexico, there are very few who do that job. One of them is Sandy Lanham. She flies her 45-year-old Cesna hundreds of hours each year above Mexico's skies. She searches for leatherback turtle nests, counts endangered pronghorn antelope, and scans the Gulf of California for giant blue whales. As part of the series' Border Stories, reporter Barbara Ferry of Homelands Productions has this report from the coast of Baja California, in La Paz, Mexico.

[SOUND FROM AIRPORT]

FERRY: Sandy Lanham walks around her tiny airplane doing a safety check before taking off from La Paz' airport. Her long brown hair whips around her face as she leans over the propeller on the windy tarmac, surrounded by giant Aero Mexico jets taking off and landing.

LANHAM: Feel the propeller, in case a stone hit it the last flight. See if there's any nicks or cracks.

FERRY: Lanham's plane, nicknamed Emily, is a 1956 Cessna. Its chipped yellow and brown paint gives it a raggedy look. But Lanham says Emily has earned her scars. The plane is the oldest of its model still in the sky.

LANHAM: I like that it’s an old airplane, and I think it's doing the best work of its life, at the end. It appeals to me, gives me hope. I tell people it has bad paint and a good heart.

FERRY: Sandy Lanham founded Environmental Flying Services after working as a flight instructor, a social worker, a belly dancing teaching, and a print saleswoman. She says it was just good luck that she realized she could create a new career out of three things she loves: Mexico, wildlife, and flying.

LANHAM: I was living in Mexico for ten months. I had bought an airplane, didn't know what to do with it, had to do something with it, could not afford it. And I went away for the weekend, and when I got back the kids ran up to me – kids living on the block in this Mexican little town – and said, The police are looking for you, the police are looking for you. And, yeah, it scared me.

FERRY: As it turned out, it was the environmental group Conservation International that had asked the police to track down Lanham. The group was looking for a pilot to help with a research project over the Gulf of California. That flight led to others, and Lanham soon found out that researchers were desperate for pilots. Now, 11 years and thousands miles later, she makes a quick stop into the airport office to file her flight plan, before taking off on today's mission.

[SPANISH SPEAKING]

FERRY: Today we'll be flying over San Jose Channel, a narrow waterway between the Baja Peninsula and a tiny island. Our mission is to track blue whales, part of a long-term study to understand the importance of the gulf to these largest mammals on earth. Diane Gendrone, a biologist with the Interdisciplinary Center for Marine Sciences in La Paz, heads the study. Armed with binoculars and a camera, Gendrone climbs on board, next to Lanham.

[SOUND OF PLANE STARTING]

FERRY: We take off, leaving behind the brown desert city. Soon we're flying, though it feels more like floating, above the brilliant jewel-like sea.

LANHAM: Boy, look at the view of that lagoon, with the mountains, brown mountains, reflected in the water. It's incredible.

GENDRON: Yeah, that green, red.

FERRY: The ocean is like a thick soup of marine life. Everywhere we look, we see something. Gendron and Lanham point out schools of dolphin and mackerel, along with fin whales, hump backs, a sperm whale, even a rarely seen Sei whale.

LANHAM: Oh, there's a whale. Oh, maybe that's the sperm, let's go look.

GENDRON: It looks like a blue whale.

LANHAM: Oh.

FERRY: The blue whales are about 80 feet long, four times bigger than our plane. But as we lean out the open windows, they look like small steamships chugging along in the water.

LANHAM: Looks blue.

GENDRON: It's the blue, isn't it?

LANHAM: Yeah.

GENDRONE: Turquoise-lime.

LANHAM: Yeah.

GENDRON: They're so easy. What a pretty place for it to be.

FERRY: Some days, Lanham flies for hours and hours without seeing anything, and though she says the absence of wildlife is valuable information, Lanham admits it's more fun when she circles down low to get a close look at something.

[SOUND INSIDE PLANE]

LANHAM: Oh, great. Sometimes, you fly so low or you drop down so low because of an updraft or, I'm not sure what. All the spout, the blow of the whale, drifted through the open window. I mean, we were literally wiping a blue whale's breath off our faces. Our faces were wet with blue whale breath.

FERRY: Getting this close to the water can be perilous, and there are other dangers: fog can roll in suddenly, tiny stopover airports can run out of fuel. Lanham keeps a life raft on board, as well as a marine radio. And affixed to the dashboard she has a medallion of San Ysidro Labrador. He's the saint Mexicans pray to for rain. Lanham prays to him for no rain, at least not while she's flying.

LANHAM (in plane): I'm going to see if I can get rid of this tower -- there's something else right ahead, let's do him first. Something I'm going to put on your side.

FERRY: During the 700 hours or so that she spends in the air each year, Lanham sees wildlife in places no one imagined. Her sightings of threatened shore birds, rare turtle nests, and endangered pronghorn antelope, have helped win critical habitat protection for these species. And Lanham sees animals behave in ways that surprise even the scientists who spend their lives studying them. Just yesterday, she saw a gathering of hundreds of sharks in the water, a sight that baffled marine biologists. Even more common behavior can be a remarkable site from 1000 feet up.

LANHAM: You fly over an area that looks just like when you lift the lid on your washing machine when it's in the agitate cycle, let's say, on the dark clothes. You see your Levi’s and you're not quite sure which is a leg and which is a button. That was kind of going on. You know, I didn't know what was happening. And then, kind of my confusion cleared up pretty quickly. I understood that this was a copulation circle, which took at least three animals – male, female, and a juvenile male, who was helping to hold the female up against the male, holding the animals together so they could copulate.

[IN AIRPLANE:]

LANHAM: It is a definite 9, way point 819. Good. And she's going down. Oh, she's a fluker, she's a fluker. Great.

FERRY: Lanham uses a satellite-based global positioning system to record the exact position of all the whales she and Gendron see. Later, Gendron will hook up the GPS to her computer, to download the information for each whale they've spotted.

LANHAM: And I got a sperm whale, right underneath me.

GENDRON: I have a blue whale, too, when you have a chance.

LANHAM: The sperm whale is a 35, one sperm whale.

GENDRON: A twenty?

LANHAM: Yes. For you.

FERRY: After four hours in the sky, we head back to the airport.

[AIRPORT SOUNDS]

FERRY: Back on land, Lanham remembers wanting to be a pilot ever since she was a young girl growing up outside Detroit. Although she loved exploring the woods near her house, the tall trees of Michigan made her feel claustrophobic. She imagined herself flying high up above them, with a long view of the earth. But it wasn't until she became a mother and was going stir crazy at home with her daughter that Lanham signed up for flying lessons.

LANHAM: And after about a year of this, she was in nursery school, and the teachers were having the kids write little books, and it was about what mommies do, what daddies do. And her little book which she brought home was: Daddies go to work, read the books, drive the cars. Mommies take care of the kids, cook the foods, and fly the airplanes.

FERRY: Since those early days, Lanham has learned a lot. She's now known as one of the best bush pilots working in Latin America. And research colleagues, like whale biologist Diane Gendron, say they inherently trust her.

GENDRON: Since the first time I flew with Sandy, I felt very safe. And when she hears me saying that, she always look at me and say, “You can't say that, because it's not safe to fly, you never know what's going to happen.” But what I mean by that is that I feel that I am in good hands.

FERRY: Lanham is so devoted to her work that friends joke she should wear a sign that says, “Will fly for food.” And it's true that, even with all the time she spends writing and occasionally landing grants, Lanham makes a lean living at times. But her clients say Lanham's services are invaluable. Jorge Canzino, of the Center for Biological Research, in La Paz, studies endangered pronghorn antelope in the deserts of Baja California.

CANZINO [SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: Without her, we don't fly. Maybe we would look for other options, but with the costs and with the way we work, there really isn't any other way.

FERRY: As an American working in Mexico, Lanham feels frustrated that environmental groups are relatively well funded in the United States, while those south of the border struggle to survive. As she flies back and forth across the border, that political line is as invisible to her as it is to the wildlife which migrate across it.

LANHAM: The border is relevant only to a political system, but if you want to protect ducks in the United States, you have to protect their wintering ground in Mexico. If you want to protect whales, I'm not trying to protect Mexican whales. These are whales that don't recognize the border, not part of their DNA, let's say.

FERRY: After a day of flying, Lanham gathers with her colleagues at a restaurant in La Paz. Over seafood, margaritas, and cigarettes, she entertains them with tales of her airplane adventures. Sometimes, even bathroom stops can be dangerous.

LANHAM: We're in the bushes, when I notice that there are four men like running down the runway towards us, with guns. With guns. Right. So I'm pulling my pants up as I'm running back into the airplane, climbing in, he climbs in, doors shut, no back taxi, no engine warm-up, just crank the thing on and go. I mean go.

FERRY: Running into narcotraficantes, or being mistaken for a drug runner by the Mexican Air Force, are the kinds of adventures Lanham says she'd rather avoid. Of course there are plenty of times when flying is just tedious and exhausting.

LANHAM: When you're flying pronghorn surveys, you're half asleep half the time; it's so boring. Then all of a sudden, out of the corner of your eye, you've got – you catch a movement, and it's an animal that's running, second fastest running animal in the world. It's moving like a sail. And you see a group of ten and I guess you kind of wonder how so much life and how much energy can happen, in a place that's so still.

FERRY: It's moments like these which help explain why, despite the low pay and risks, Lanham thinks she has the ideal job. Some might call it a crazy career choice, but she says she's one of the lucky ones.

LANHAM: If there's any, like, goal in life, it's just to find out what it is that you can do well, put it together in a way that you can both enjoy your life and also do some good, do something that matters. I mean, how can you be any better than that?

FERRY: For Living on Earth, I'm Barbara Ferry, in La Paz, Mexico.

CURWOOD: Our story on Sandy Lanham is part of Border Stories, a series by Homelands Productions.

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News Follow-Up

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we've been tracking lately. Until this September, airports all over the U.S. were making plans to deal with congested air traffic. But people are now starting to think again about expanding airports. Los Angeles mayor, Jim Hahn, is considering a new master plan for LAX, which would de-emphasize airport growth, compared with other options.

HAHN: So I want to move as quickly as possible and really downsize that plan and orient it more towards security, and I think if we do that we can solve some noise problems, solve some traffic problems, and really make Los Angeles the state-of-the-art in terms of safety.

CURWOOD: Mayor Hahn adds that smaller airports near L.A. may be the best solution to air traffic problems at LAX.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD:A few years ago, we visited Toms River, New Jersey, where some people were wondering if chemicals could be blamed for a cluster of childhood cancers. A former chemical manufacturing plant there had been declared a super fund site. Now the land's current owner, Ciba Specialty Chemicals Corporation, has signed an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean it up. The EPA's Nina Habib Spencer.

SPENCER: Before we can move any further, we do need to have something in our hands that commits this company to paying for this clean-up and to actually undertaking the clean-up under EPA oversight. And that's what this consent decree is.

CURWOOD: Special bacteria will be used to break down contaminants in the soil, while other solid waste will be removed from the site for proper disposal. Treatment of contaminated groundwater is ongoing.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: Last year, we reported on the communities who live in the shadow of Popocatepetl, a volcano outside Mexico City. Scientists have now devised a map that predicts which areas around the volcano are most likely to be threatened by mud flows and lava. Michael Sheridan, of the University at Buffalo, says the map gives disaster crews some guidance for their planning of how to respond to a major eruption.

SHERIDAN: This is really critical for people around Popo, because many of the people don't speak Spanish, don't have electricity, don't have paved roads. So the communication with these people requires extraordinary capabilities.

CURWOOD: Scientists combined topographical data from satellite images with computer models of how these lava and degree might flow. They hope to increase the resolution of their map over the next few years.

Finally, you may remember our story about these little critters.

[FROG SOUNDS].

CURWOOD: Those are the Coqui, Caribbean tree frogs that have infested Hawaii, and are keeping islanders up all night long with their loud calls. Now the EPA has issued its approval for a caffeine spray to kill this invasive species. It may be the first instance of caffeine actually helping people to get a good night's sleep. And that's this week’s follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.

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Health Note

CURWOOD: Just ahead, confessions of a compulsive canner. First, this environmental health note from Diane Toomey.

TOOMEY: Very few women who get breast cancer have any of the known genetic mutations that would make them susceptible to the disease. Researchers don't know why these women end up with breast cancer. Some think there may be other genes that play a role, or perhaps diet or exposure to toxins could be key. Or maybe it's a combination of genes and the environment. Researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences hope to tease out the answer to this question. In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers will track 50,000 women who do not have breast cancer. The scientists will take blood and urine samples from the participants, as well as test for chemicals in the water and dust in their homes. The women will also provide information about their diet and exercise habits. Researchers stress the importance of studying participants who do not yet have breast cancer. This will help to accurately gauge what risk factors might have been in play before any diagnosis.

The researchers admit it's going to be difficult to find 50,000 women who'll stick with the study over its ten-year duration. So they'll be recruiting a group of participants who will probably be motivated: namely, women whose sisters have had breast cancer. These people are more at risk for the disease, so when some of them developer breast cancer the researchers hope to trace back the possible causes. The sisters study will begin enrolling participants next summer. That's this week's Health Update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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

Related link:

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Bucket Brigade

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A heavy industrial complex in the coastal city of Durban, South Africa is the economic envy of its neighbors. The factories and refineries there mean jobs and incomes for many, but for some residents this boom comes at a price. They say air pollution from those smoke stacks and refinery towers is making them sick with cancer, asthma and other illnesses. Danielle Knight reports.

KNIGHT: A small garage sits on a South Durban street overlooking a massive industrial complex, the size of several football fields. Dozens of flares and smokestacks tower over huge storage tanks and factories. Mechanic Herb Badstubner is fixing an old beat-up Volkswagen. When he is not working on cars, he worries about air quality. Badstubner is part of an environmental watchdog group known as the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. The organization keeps track of chemical spills and gas leaks and lobbies the government and industry. Last year, with help from Communities for a Better Environment, an advocacy group in California, Badstubner and others here learned how to take their own air quality samples using an ordinary plastic bucket.

BADSTUBNER: We have here a bucket, very simple bucket, of plastic, with an airtight lid, and attached is a plastic packet, under a valve, which is open to the atmosphere.

KNIGHT: Badstubner is demonstrating how to take an air quality sample. Inside the bucket is an air sampling bag. A small vacuum sucks the air out of the bucket.

BADSTUBNER: And as you create a vacuum inside the bucket, which you do for three minutes, you switch the vacuum off and open the valve which – can you hear it? – the air was sucked into the bag now, as you open that, through that vacuum inside the bucket. Very straightforward. Very simple.

KNIGHT: Badstubner and his group call themselves the Bucket Brigade. They take samples periodically, whenever they notice a strange smell or emission. The bags are then sent to a laboratory overseas, for analysis. So far, the test results seem to confirm the community's fears. Some of the samples, taken near the oil refineries, revealed high levels of benzene, a chemical classified as a known carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Levels of benzene were up to 15 times higher than World Health Organization guidelines.

South Durban is home to several crude oil refineries, including one of the largest in Southern Africa. The area also hosts the city's airport and 150 factories, including many chemical plants and a pulp and paper mill.

PEEK: We have fiber plants, chemical plants, chemical hazardous storage facilities in communities.

KNIGHT: Bobby Peek is one of South Africa's most prominent environmental activists, and founder of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. He grew up in South Durban, and became involved with environmental issues because he believed that pollution was to blame for the seeming abundance of illnesses in his community.

PEEK: My mother died of cancer, my uncle died of cancer, my niece died of cancer, three of my rugby buddies died of cancer.

KNIGHT: Peek says that industry is taking advantage of South Africa's lack of legally-binding pollution standards. Because South Durban is mostly made up of poor, black, Indian and mixed race communities, many residents view the location of industry in these residential areas as a lingering legacy of racism by the previous apartheid government.

PEEK: We have pipelines that run a few meters from our houses, pipelines that carry crude oil, gas, and various other types of fuels that have leaked in the past. We have toxic landfill sites in the area – six, seven to be exact – and these are all within black neighborhoods in South Durban.

KNIGHT: No formal studies have been done on the impact of pollution in South Durban, but this past year workers and residents, including hundreds of school children, were hospitalized because of several toxic gas leaks from chemical facilities. An investigative report last year by Durban's main daily newspaper, the Mercury, concluded that the rate of leukemia in the area may be up to 24 times higher than in other parts of South Africa. Two years ago, the city government released an environmental assessment of South Durban that concluded that certain residents living close to industrial operations should be relocated. But Peek says relocation is not the answer.

PEEK: In the past there was an apartheid government that created this nightmare, and the only way the present government is going to deal with this nightmare is not relocating people out of the area, but is actually cleaning up the industry. And if there has to be a partnership in this new South Africa, it has to be a partnership around sustainable development where community groupings living next to industrial areas go into strong partnerships with government and industry to clean up the industry.

KNIGHT: In order to make their case that pollution is jeopardizing public health, environmental activities are calling on the city's health department to conduct an overall health assessment. Neil Larrat is acting chief environmental health officer for the city government. He says part of the problem with pollution in South Durban reflects a nationwide dilemma. Even though the country's new constitution ensures the right to live in a clean and healthy environment, there are no legally-binding air pollution regulations in the country.

LARRAT: Currently, South Africa doesn't have any national standards. We do have guidelines. These are particularly problematic in that they haven't been revisited for many years and when compared to international guidelines clearly are lacking.

KNIGHT: South Africa also lacks any kind of enforcement body like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and relies on self regulation by industry. To deal with this challenge, the new South African government has set up a multi-agency committee that is advising legislators on the development of national environmental standards.

Richard Parks is the managing director of Sapref, a South Durban petroleum refinery jointly owned by Shell Oil and British Petroleum. Parks admits that refineries emit pollution, but he bristles at the accusation that Sapref is taking advantage of South Africa's lack of legally binding environmental standards. He says his company is working to minimize pollution.

PARKS: We feel that, if you compare our impact with refineries around the world, in many respects we're better than many refineries. So we reject the more extreme accusations that suggest that we don't care about the environment and that we're sort of polluting the environmental willy-nilly and without regard for the impact on people in this area.

KNIGHT: Parks points to Sapref's recent $40 million investment in a new sulfur recovery and gas treating unit. This new technology aims to deal with the high amounts of sulfur dioxide emitted by the refinery. But, in the absence of national pollution regulations and an enforcement agency to make sure industry is complying with these rules, there is no way for the residents of South Durban to know what they are breathing every day.

[GARAGE NOISES]

KNIGHT: Back at the garage, Herb Badstubner is optimistic that residents can make a difference. He says the bucket testing devices remain an important tool for the community to find out if industry is actually reducing pollution levels.

BADSTUBNER: We are very happy, because the information we got back from overseas gave us, really, something positive in our struggles to bring a better environment and a better health to the people in the Durban South.

KNIGHT: Badstubner says he hopes the vigilance of the Bucket Brigade will eventually force industry to stop polluting. For Living on Earth, I'm Danielle Knight, in Durban, South Africa.

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Follow the Leader

CURWOOD: This fall, nine endangered whooping cranes and a couple of ultra-light planes are making history. With the planes leading the way, they are migrating as a flock south, from Wisconsin to Florida. There are no wild whoopers left who migrate this eastern route, but scientists hope that these young birds will remedy that, once they've been taught the flight map.

Joining me now is Ichabod Crane, no?

DUFF: That's the name of my aircraft, actually.

CURWOOD: That's the name of your plane. But your name is Joe Duff, right?

DUFF: That's right.

CURWOOD: And you're the lead pilot in this migration.

DUFF: I am.

CURWOOD: I understand that you and your colleagues make this entire journey in costume. Can you describe the disguise that everyone wears when you're interacting with these whooping cranes?

DUFF: You named it right, it is a disguise. We're not trying to look like birds, we're actually trying to disguise the human form, and we wear a big bag. It's made of cotton, it covers our arms and goes down to mid-calf, and it's got a drawstring at the bottom and kind of turtle neck collar. And then we have a head gear thing, it's a veil that's built over a baseball type cap, so it covers the head, too. And then we have little visors that we look through, so the birds can't see anything of the human form. And it's also very baggy, so it kind of disguises the form.

CURWOOD: So let me see if I have this right. The idea really isn't so much, obviously, to look like a whooping crane as it is to not look human, but why are these costumes necessary?

DUFF: Well, the thing is that if you mis-imprint a crane, any kind of crane, really, on humans, you can run into trouble. They look to humans as a source of food and they want to associate with humans once they're released, and you can imagine, a whooping crane is 5 and a half feet tall and they can be quite aggressive. Also, if you mis-imprint a whooping crane on humans, when it comes breeding time for these birds, when they're 5 to 8 years old, they can either look at you with admiration, or figure you're a competitor. So they can be quite aggressive.

CURWOOD: So you're not interested in having one of these whooping cranes fall in love with you.

DUFF: No, I don't think so, and it's not good for the bird, either.

CURWOOD: Walk me – or I guess I should probably say fly me – through a day of migration. You wake up in the morning, and what happens next?

DUFF: Well, we start before sunrise and the first thing is a weather check. We eventually get our costumes on and get in the aircraft and taxi down to where the pen is kept, and that's kept away from all buildings and away from any human activity and paraphernalia. And then a biologist releases the birds and we take off. The birds follow the aircraft because they've been conditioned to it since hatching, and we also use digitally recorded adult crane calls on the aircraft that we can broadcast, so that they're familiar with those, too, and they follow it.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering now, as we look ahead to next spring when it's time for these cranes to head back north again, how involved will you be in that migration back to Wisconsin?

DUFF: We’ll do nothing except sit at home and watch the computer and track them by satellite device.

CURWOOD: Well, wait a second.

DUFF: It's a one-way migration that birds learn. The need to migrate is genetically pre-programmed into these birds, but the direction and the destination is taught by the parent, on a one-way trip. See, the thing is, a migration route may have existed for millions of years and been passed from one generation to the next. That migration was lost with the last bird that used it. And we teach it, these birds the migration, it exists in their memory only, and they hopefully will teach their offspring and now it goes, we've started a new migration.

CURWOOD: Joe Duff is one of the pilots leading a group of nine endangered whooping cranes on their migration south this fall. He's also a co-direction of Operation Migration. Thanks for taking this time with, Mr. Duff.

DUFF: Thank you very much.

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Peaches

CURWOOD: Migratory birds, you might say, are creatures of habit. So is commentator Linda Tatelbaum, when it comes to peaches and the yearly ritual of canning. Her motto: waste not, want not.

TATELBAUM: I'm lying on the cool kitchen floor, windows closed to keep out the heat. I'm a late summer still life: woman with basket of peaches, empty jars, towels and tongs, jar lids. I roll over and study the dust under the stove. My feet are hot. I want to lie here forever. But on the counter peaches tower over me. They command, “Light the burner, get this scene moving.” Really, it's my neighbor's fault. Poor innocent man. How could he know I can't stop till all the jars are full. Just as I was finishing, he came by with a carton of empties. Now I've succumbed to the loaded peach tree on the way to town. Then it'll be the yellow pears on the old tree by the road. And how can I ignore apples plopping to the ground. Waste I just can't condone. Yet, what is waste, if we all trend downward to the earth where our life will be food for other lives. Fruits drop to the ground to feed worms and ants and wasps and skunks. Or, suspended in glass, they get swallowed later. These peaches are headed for composts whether they run through me or not. O.K. So it's all the same to nature, but my grandmothers would have a fit. Eat, eat, you never know when Cossacks might ride through the barley and plunder the apricot trees. Oy! Did we suffer months in steerage for the promised land with nothing but a heel of pumpernickel and a dill pickle, for you to let such peaches go to waste? Okay okay, I'm getting up already. I agree. Next year there might be nothing. But it's not just want that fuels me. I need to can these peaches so I can keep on canning peaches. I need to eat so I can keep on eating from the never-ending stream. In the words of my grandfathers, “L'chaim! To life.” But before I dip my fragile glass into this abundance I'm suddenly distracted by the specter of time. We only get a life's worth, and you can't put it up for later. Think of those pints of green tomato chutney sitting in my cellar since 1977. I wasted my time because I didn't want to waste the tomatoes to early frost. And now those poor tomatoes have wasted a quarter century, awaiting their return to the promised land. Outside the vacuum, time marched on. The last thing those tomatoes remember was the dim light of kerosene lamps, the splash of hand-carried water poured from a jug. While they waited in the dark cellar, which didn't even have a finished house on top of it, we added a bedroom, a living room, solar electricity and a water pump. While chutney mellowed in syrup with raisins and ginger, half my adult life has passed. And I still don't like green tomato chutney. But no peach need fear the limbo of the uneaten. I am a peach-crazed woman. I submit to their command and light the burner. I peel, pit, slice and arrange them in jars with honey syrup. The jars seal. It's the moment, not of peaches' death, but their still life in sterile glass. When I pry up the lid, in a month or a year, peaches reenter the land of the living, and thanks to them, I get to live in this promised land.

CURWOOD: Linda Tatelbaum homesteads in Maine, and is author of Writer on the Rocks: Moving the Impossible. And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, it's the lost and found hiker – what it's like to be lost for three days and two nights in the woods of New Hampshire's White Mountains.

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MAN: At some point I said, Well, if this is where it's supposed to end, then all right. I mean, I can understand that. My father died at 59. If I got myself into this, then it's – that's supposed to be it. But if there's something for me to do, then let me come through.

CURWOOD: Surviving on the hiking trail, next time on Living on Earth.

[SOUNDSCAPE]

CURWOOD: Our closing soundscape for this week comes from the Carmanah Valley, in British Columbia. Hildegard Westerkamp recorded these sounds in Old Grove forest, and composed what she calls, Beneath the Forest Floor.

[SOUNDSCAPE: "BENEATH THE FOREST FLOOR," TRANSFORMATIONS]

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, Jennifer Chu and Gernot Wagner, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Milisa MuÒiz, and Bunny Lester. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. And special thanks to Homelands Productions and the Ford Foundation for its support of Border Stories.

We had help this week from Jessica Penney and Jonathan Waldman. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Year. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempart is our western editor, Diane Toomey is our science editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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 advance environmental protection and human prosperity – www.wajones.org; the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental educational; the Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Town Creek Foundation; and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation.

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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