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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 11, 2002

Air Date: January 11, 2002

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

EPA Ombudsman

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Living on Earth political observer Mark Hertsgaard talks with host Steve Curwood about EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman’s decision to move the office of the agency’s ombudsman, and how this has led to charges of conflict of interest for her. (08:40)

Ecological Indicators / Terry Link

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Economic indicators are a common part of news broadcasts. Commentator Terry Link argues that environmental indicators should air alongside them. (03:00)

Health Note / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on efforts in Salt Lake City to cut down air pollution as a result of the Olympic Games. (01:15)

Almanac: Pier 39

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This week, facts about sea lions at San Francisco’s Pier 39. (01:45)

Toms River

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Host Steve Curwood talks with Jerald Fagliano of the New Jersey Department of Public Health and Dick Clapp of Boston University’s School of Public Health. They discuss the results of a five year study of a cancer cluster in Toms River, New Jersey that has made some association between chemical waste and childhood cancers. The case is similar to the Woburn, Massachusetts cancer cluster made famous in the movie "A Civil Action." (08:00)

Woburn Update / Chris Ballman

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Living on Earth’s Chris Ballman has a reporter’s notebook about a new toxic waste controversy in Woburn. (04:45)

Listener Letters

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We dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear what our listeners have to say. (03:00)

Technology Note / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on a new, inexpensive technique to remove exotic species from ships’ ballast water. (01:20)

Kitty Litter / Willie Albright

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A high-stakes mining dispute north of Reno is not about gold, silver or any other precious metal. The commodity in question is clay used to make premium kitty litter. Willie Albright reports from Hungry Valley. (05:10)

The Grid and the Village

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In January 1998 a massive ice storm knocked out power in parts of northern New York, New England, and eastern Canada. Host Steve Curwood talks with Steven Doheny-Farina, a resident of Potsdam, New York, and author of the book "The Grid and the Village: Losing Electricity, Finding Community, Surviving Disaster." (07:00)

Wind Chill / Bob Carty

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Weather forecasters in the United States and Canada recently calculated a new wind chill index, and it turns out the temperature might not be as cold as you think. Reporter Bob Carty sends an audio postcard from Ontario. (02:50)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Mark Hertsgaard, Chris Ballman, Willie Albright, Bob Carty
GUESTS: Richard Clapp, Jerald Fagliano, Stephen Doheny-Farina
COMMENTATOR: Terry Link
UPDATES: Diane Toomey, Cynthia Graber

[INTRO THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Controversy is heating up at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over allegations that Administrator Christine Todd Whitman is muzzling the EPA's public advocate. The stakes are high, as ombudsman investigators allege in federal court that through her husband, Ms. Whitman has a financial conflict of interest in a case affecting Citigroup.

KAUFMAN: Christine Todd Whitman, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is dissolving the national ombudsman function to financially help herself.

CURWOOD: But a spokesman for Ms. Whitman dismisses the charges as unfounded.

MARTYAK: The facts simply aren't there. The conflict of interest that's being proposed here simply doesn't exist because she's been upfront about what her involvement is with Citigroup.

CURWOOD: That's coming up on Living on Earth, right after this.

[NEWS]

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EPA Ombudsman

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman is being accused of muzzling the EPA's public advocate, known as the ombudsman. This is occurring at the very time the ombudsman is challenging an EPA decision that will save tens of millions of dollars for the company Citigroup. Citigroup is a principal investor in the firm where Administrator Whitman's husband works. Living on Earth's Political Observer Mark Hertsgaard joins me now.

Mark, let's look first at the issue of transferring oversight of the ombudsman to the inspector general's office at the EPA. Why is that controversial?

HERSTGAARD: Well, it's controversial, Steve, because you're talking about basically oil and water here. The ombudsman's office is a kind of public advocate complaints department. If you're a local citizen group or a local government and you can't get satisfaction out of dealing with the EPA bureaucracy directly, you can go to the ombudsman's office and say, “Here, can you help me get some closure on this?” The inspector general's office, on the other hand, is sort of like the internal policeman. The Commerce Department, the Agricultural Department, they all have one of these, and their job is to, sort of, make the trains run on time inside the department. So, as I say, it's a bit oil and water, and that's part of the concern of the ombudsmen, that they will be muzzled, under this new arrangement.

CURWOOD: But Administrator Whitman says that this move is specifically geared to give the ombudsman greater independence. There was a press release that came out in November, in which Administrator Whitman quotes the General Accounting Office as saying that the ombudsman does need more independence, and the Administrator says that the office will get it, under the Inspector General.

HERSTGAARD: That's true, Steve. That's exactly what she said in that press release, and I spoke with Joe Martyak in her press department, and he argues that, “Look, right now, the ombudsman reports to a deputy administrator in the EPA who reports to the EPA administrator. Under our proposed reassignment, moving him to the inspector general, he will have more independence, because the inspector general does not answer to the EPA boss, the inspector general answers to Congress.” And, Mr. Martyak argues that the ombudsman's office will, therefore, get greater staff resources, greater independence, and will in general be more effective.

That is not, I hasten to add, the view of the ombudsman himself, Bob Martin, or of his chief investigator, Hugh Kaufman, we spoke with. Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Martin, in fact, filed a suit January 10th against this move, against Administrator Whitman, complaining that this will hinder their independence. And Kaufman says, “Look, right now we have a boss, but that boss gives us free leeway to investigate what we like. Under the reassignment, we'll have to get permission for every investigation that we want, from the inspector general.” And the problem with that is that the ombudsman has frequently tangled with the inspector general's office, going back as far as the early eighties, when Mr. Kaufman's whistle-blowing was what led to the resignation of Ronald Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency Chief, Ann Gorsuch, and Rita Lavelle, the Superfund administrator.

In their lawsuit, Martin and Kaufman complain that last year the inspector general's office obstructed their investigation of a case in Pennsylvania, and just last week, the ombudsman has begun an investigation of the inspector general's office itself. Here's what Hugh Kaufman told us about that.

KAUFMAN: Right now, we are investigating the EPA inspector general doing a cover-up in Denver, Colorado, on air pollution in people's homes. That investigation will be closed down once we go to the inspector general's office, because we can't investigate the inspector general.

CURWOOD: Mark, tell me, what has been the reaction in Washington to this proposed reassignment of the ombudsman at the EPA?

HERSTGAARD: Well, there's been quite a lot of negative reaction, Steve, and this is coming from Republicans and Democrats alike. In the House of Representatives a bi-partisan group wrote to Mrs. Whitman before Christmas and urged her not to go ahead with this until they had a chance to hold hearings.

But probably the most significant opposition has come from Wayne Allard, the Republican senator from Colorado. He originally approved Mrs. Whitman's move and now has come out against it after talking with her and asking further questions about the ombudsman's independence. We spoke with Senator Allard this week, and here's what he had to say.

ALLARD: Where they happen to stick him in the bureaucracy is fine, as long as they maintain their independence. She's decided to put it in the inspector general's office. The way I understand the way it's set up right now is that it's set up in a way that he does not maintain his independence.

HERSTGAARD: You should know, Steve, that Allard has a particular interest in the ombudsman's fate because the ombudsman has played such a crucial role in the Superfund clean-up investigation in his home state of Colorado.

CURWOOD: Now, this is the Shattuck Superfund site there, in Denver. I gather, in that case, some radioactive waste was left in a residential neighborhood, and citizens complained for years to get it removed. How was it that the EPA ombudsman got involved with that case?

HERSTGAARD: Senator Allard said that he was the one who put the citizens in touch with the ombudsman, precisely because the citizens were getting the cold shoulder from the rest of EPA The ombudsman was, literally, the first one at the EPA who listened to these citizens, and has now got a more proper clean-up under way.

What's at issue now is who pays for that clean-up. And the current settlement between EPA and Citigroup, which owns the Shattuck site, limits Citigroup's liability to 7.2 million dollars. EPA's own scientists say that the clean-up will cost at least 22 million dollars, and the taxpayers would cover the difference. The ombudsman's office says that, “Look, if you really want to properly clean that site and clean up both the soil and the groundwater, it's a hundred-million-dollar job.” That's why they are trying to challenge this agreement that limits Citigroup's liability to a mere 7.2 million dollars.

CURWOOD: Mark, tell me, now, where do the questions of conflict of interest on the part of Administrator Whitman come into this story?

HERSTGAARD: The very first firm that's listed on Administrator Whitman's public finance disclosure forms is Citigroup, and that's because she and her husband own as much as a quarter of a million dollars of stock there. Her husband worked for Citigroup for 15 years, until 1987, and now is a managing partner in a venture capital firm that spun off from Citigroup about five years ago, Sycamore Ventures. And Citigroup remains a principal investor, probably the principal investor. So, what you've got is an EPA decision, on the Shattuck case, that will clearly have a substantial impact on Citigroup's finances--as much as 93 million dollars.

CURWOOD: How does the administrator respond to this?

HERSTGAARD: She declined our repeated requests for interviews, and I have to say that her story on this has changed over time. Originally, her spokesman said, last year, that she doesn't have to recuse herself because she's not directly involved in these kinds of decisions. Then, later I was told by a spokesman that she has recused herself, but the spokesman couldn't produce the recusal form. This week, though, we did speak to her main Press Secretary, Joe Martyak, and here's what he told us.

MARTYAK: The Administrator, of course, is concerned that these kind of accusations are being raised, because they're totally unfounded. The facts simply aren't there. The conflict of interest that's being proposed here simply doesn't exist, because she's been upfront about what her involvement is with Citigroup. She has not been involved in the decision making process, and the terms of the settlement that's been reached were reached under the previous administration and before she was even nominated.

CURWOOD: So, what does all this add up to now, Mark?

HERSTGAARD: I'd say, Steve, that there's a lot of questions, and maybe this lawsuit that Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Martin and the ombudsman's staff are making against Mrs. Whitman will yield some of that information that we need. What is plain is that she is reassigning the ombudsman at the very time that the ombudsman is challenging an EPA decision in Colorado that could mean up to 93-million-dollars savings for Citigroup, a firm that she has had and admits to having had a very long and close relationship with through her husband. And you know what they say about conflicts of interest: it's not so much the conflict itself as the appearance of a conflict, and there certainly does appear to be a potential conflict of interest here.

CURWOOD: Mark Herstgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks Mark.

HERSTGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

Related link:
The Project On Government Oversight

EPA Ombudsman

For Mark Hertsgaard's investigative piece on Christie Todd Whitman in Salon.com, click here.">

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Ecological Indicators

CURWOOD: Stock prices, inflation rates and unemployment figures are a part and parcel of most daily newscasts, but commentator Terry Link says maybe it's time for similar reports about environmental indicators.

LINK: Some economists like to toss around the saying that you are what you measure, so by that standard, how do we appear? Look at what the media tell us.

[NEWSCAST MUSIC]

NEWSCASTER: The Dow Jones tumbled 170 points on heavy trading of more than one billion shares.

SECOND NEWSCASTER: Consumer confidence is lagging, dropping 0.2 percent from last month’s figure.

FIRST NEWSCASTER: Wholesale prices rose 2.3 percent for the month, hinting that demand for products may once again signal a rebound in the economy.

LINK: You get the picture. Given the standard, then, that you are what you measure, it should be no surprise that we have become, simply, homo-economists. By constantly trying to measure wealth by GNP and stock prices, we tend to idolize consumption while we devalue much of what gives life its true meaning, namely, our connections to each other and with the marvelous and mysterious spinning sphere that provides us with life. So, I believe it's way past time to give us equivalent daily reports on the health of our biosphere.

Why not report on the spread or decline of disease in humans, animals, and plants? Or give regular updates on receding glaciers, severity of storms? Or increased ridership on mass transit and its effect on reducing pollution. A daily report might sound like this:

[NEWSCAST MUSIC]

NEWSCASTER: Energy consumption was up briskly in December, but the percentage of power generated from renewable resources climbed 25 percent faster than the overall increase. This has resulted in an overall drop in greenhouse gas emissions, despite the rise in overall consumption.

LINK: And how about we start reporting not only raw agricultural statistics but also the implications of those numbers:

NEWSCASTER: Michigan saw its consumption of locally produce lettuce climb by 19 percent from last year. More effective marketing of locally grown food brought a welcome boost to the state economy. Along with the advantage of increased freshness for lettuce consumers, the diminished transportation needs of locally produced food led to a reduction in air pollution, traffic congestion, and noise.

LINK: We must understand that the condition of our air, land and water is just as, if not more, important than fluctuations in our stock portfolios. Making environmental information more prominent and regularly available, as we do with stock prices and economic reports, is a step towards crucial mindfulness. We might even copy a Wall Street business reporting model and highlight a socially and environmentally responsible firm or organization that is developing products, services or processes that help build more sustainable communities.

We need to nourish the entrepreneurial spirit towards community solutions, and we need the mass media to give more of its news hold to report daily on the indicators of total community health, not simply the sterile financial numbers. If we were to give, at least, equal play to our natural world, we might just create a future where we all flourish.

CURWOOD: Terry Link is a librarian at Michigan State University and comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

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Health Note

CURWOOD: Coming up: more clarity in the hunt to find links between pollution and cancer clusters. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.

TOOMEY: The 2002 Winter Games are less than a month away, and Olympic organizers are working to cut down on Salt Lake City's notorious wintertime air pollution with the first ever Olympic air quality plan. The goal is to offset emissions expected to come from increased traffic, chair lift runs, fireworks displays, even the Olympic torch itself. In total, the games are expected to produce more than 180,000 tons of pollutants. So, the committee asked local businesses to cut back. Since the effort got under way two years ago, businesses have reduced emissions by more than 240,000 tons. They've reached that goal by shutting down old industrial plants and mining operations, as well as by using new technologies. Meanwhile, ten percent of the city's diesel buses have been replaced with cleaner burning natural gas vehicles. And volunteers have planted 80,000 trees in and around Salt Lake City, to soak up pollutants and make the 2002 Olympic Games a little bit greener. And that's this week's health note. I'm Diane Toomey.

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

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Almanac: Pier 39

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

[SEA LIONS BARKING]

CURWOOD: Every since 1989 San Francisco's Pier 39 has belonged to the sea lions. A few of these burly pinnipeds started hanging out there right around the time of a major earthquake, and more have kept coming. Sea lions are known for their playfulness, and it didn't take long for tourists to start flocking to Pier 39, as well. So, the pier owner marked the dock "Sea Lions Only" to keep the curious at bay. And at times, indeed, there is hardly any room for anyone else. Up to 1,000 sea lions have been observed on the pier at any one time.

A local marine mammal research group has a visitor center there. Employee Marcia Schmeltzer says on the dock right now she can see 100 or so sea lions putting on a show.

SCHMELTZER: The older ones sleep, and the younger ones are playing, and there's several--there's probably like a half a dozen or more playing, having a good time, knocking each other off the dock, diving, just having a good time. I mean, they're cute, they really are. They're cute.

CURWOOD: It's unclear why sea lions started coming to Pier 39. Could be because these waters are relatively safe from their predators, or perhaps they were drawn to the San Francisco waterfront after the 1989 earthquake knocked down a noisy expressway, and brought new life to the area. After all, consider that the Latin name of the sea lion is Zalophus californicus. Roughly translated, that means, “there's lots happening in California,” and sea lions gotta be right at the action. And that's this week's Living on Earth Almanac.

[SEA LIONS BARKING]

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Toms River

CURWOOD: For years, parents in Toms River, New Jersey expressed alarm that their children were suffering from seemingly high rates of cancer. And they blame the cancers on industrial chemicals that leeched from landfills into the town's drinking water. Recently, dozens of families reached an out-of-court settlement with the companies responsible for the pollution. And now, results of a five-year study confirm that at least some of that pollution can, in fact, be linked to the town's high incidence of childhood cancers.

The case hearkens back to a similar situation in Woburn, Massachusetts, highlighted in the movie A Civil Action. To help us compare the two cases, I am joined by Richard Clapp, Associate Professor of Public Health at Boston University. Professor Clapp was involved in the Woburn study and advised the Ocean County Health Department in the Toms River case. Professor Clapp, welcome.

CLAPP: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And Jerald Fagliano is with the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. He was the lead researcher on the Toms River study. Dr. Fagliano, thanks for joining us today.

FAGLIANO: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Dr. Fagliano, what specifically did your study conclude?

FAGLIANO: Well, we found that female leukemia cases were five times more likely to have been exposed to one of the specific water sources that we were concerned about in the Toms River water system than were control children. This water source had been contaminated sometime early to middle 1980s.

CURWOOD: Why would there be a gender difference in the effect of this pollution exposure, Dr. Fagliano?

FAGLIANO: Well, we really don't have any idea why that particular finding occurred the way it did. The occurrence of cancer was elevated primarily among females to begin with. And we have no explanation for that, either.

CURWOOD: What was your biggest challenge in doing this study?

FAGLIANO: Well, there was a very simple question that we asked: whether or not children with cancer were more likely to have been exposed to specific water sources than control children? But that question evolved into a very complicated reconstruction of the environment on a monthly basis, over a 35-year period. So, it was a very complicated effort, not only to physically reconstruct the scope of the system, the pipe networks, the tanks, the well fields and the pumping patterns, but also to understand how that changed through time, over a very long period.

CURWOOD: Well, let's talk about these limitations of the study, Dr. Fagliano, just in terms of its ability to point the finger and say that this pollution caused this cancer. In fact, you don't do that in this study, so can you talk to us about these limitations?

FAGLIANO: Some of the factors that would inhibit us from drawing a direct link include the small numbers of subjects in our study, which is inherently a part of a cluster-scale investigation. We do not have a specific biological mechanism to be able to point to, and, as you pointed out, the male-female difference is something that we have no explanation for. On the other hand, these associations that we found are relatively strong, for an environmental epidemiology study.

CURWOOD: In general, Professor Clapp, what's your take on these limitations when you do epidemiological studies?

CLAPP: Well, I'm looking at this from a distance. I'm a person in Massachusetts, although I'm quite familiar with New Jersey and I'm quite familiar with the study and I've visited Toms River and so forth. And I am comparing what I've seen in Toms River with what happened in Woburn, and this, to me, is “second verse, same as the first,” or, Yogi Berra's line, I guess, was "deja-vu all over again." It seems very convincing to me that there's something going on here. There is, at least, one and perhaps two of the same chemicals involved, the same route of exposure seems to be the most significant--through the drinking water--and to me this is, I would say, almost like a replication of a finding that was pretty dramatic in the first place.

CURWOOD: Dr. Clapp, I think it was a colleague of yours over at Boston University who once said quote, "A public health catastrophe has a health effect so powerful that even an epidemiological study can detect it." How much are we expecting from these studies, too much perhaps?

CLAPP: I think too much, yes. You know, the average person thinks, “Well, it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, it walks like a duck, it must be a duck.” And epidemiologic studies aren't that clear. The fact that we can see things in a community setting like this in the first place is pretty remarkable.

CURWOOD: Dr. Fagliano, let me turn to you. How do you resolve the scientific standard, the very high standards and very precise nature that science wants to answer questions, with the desire for the public to know, on a public policy level, something?

FAGLIANO: Well, I think that the approach that we tried to take in Toms River is to involve the community and representatives of the community in as many of the steps of the design of the study as possible. One of the things that we tried to do is listen to the community's concerns about very specific sites or specific contamination problems in the past, and evaluate each one from the perspective of whether or not we could study that in this epidemiologic study.

CURWOOD: How have things changed politically, if at all, since the Woburn study?

CLAPP: At that time, in the 1980s, in this state, if you got too far out on a limb you could really not only lose your own career, your department could get its budget cut. And you could really be in some deep trouble for saying too much about what you thought caused something like childhood leukemia in the town of Woburn.

A lot of things have happened in the State Health Department in Massachusetts since then, whereby there is now a unit. It actually has something like 70 employees, that has actually several levels of investigation of these kinds of things: community-based health problems, cancer clusters, lupus or auto-immune disease clusters, and so forth. And they really do try to work in the way that Dr. Fagliano's described in New Jersey: with the community, listen to the community, not sort of freeze them out or shut them out of the process. There are more studies that are being done now. So, this is growing, the awareness of this kind of exposure and its effect on human health, or children's health in particular, has developed.

CURWOOD: Dr. Fagliano, what did you learn from studying Woburn?

FAGLIANO: Well, I think, as Dr. Clapp has mentioned, you can look at these two studies together now, and see, potentially, some patterns emerging that I think are of interest, of scientific interest and of public health interest. And both found connections between pre-natal exposure to pollutants, and not necessarily exposures in the post-natal period but particularly in the pre-natal period, which may indicate to us a particular window of vulnerability of children, of the developing human, to environmental pollutants. And I think, taken with information related to toxicology and other fields, I think there's been a confirmation of the fact that this is potentially a very important time period for epidemiologic investigation.

CURWOOD: Jerald Fagliano is an epidemiologist with the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, and Richard Clapp is an associate professor of public health at Boston University. Thank you both for joining me today, gentlemen.

FAGLIANO: Thank you.

CLAPP: Thank you for having us.

Related link:

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Woburn Update

CURWOOD: Just prior to the release of the movie "A Civil Action" a few years ago, Living on Earth's Chris Ballman produced a documentary about the lessons learned in Woburn. As he explains in this reporter's notebook, there's a new chapter to the story.

[SOUND OF CAR STARTING]

BALLMAN: It's a little hard to believe I'm on my way to cover another story about toxic waste in Woburn. But there's one thing people in Woburn told me over and over during my interviews with them a few years back, was that it would never happen there again. Their A Civil Action experience left them better informed, better prepared, and more environmentally aware. I remember resident and former State Representative Nick Paleologos summing up the sentiment this way.

PALEOLOGOS: We do now have a much more heightened awareness of not just the water, but a whole host of other things from, you know, asbestos in the schools and lead in the, you know, whatever.

(CROWD SFX)

WOMAN: I wonder if the landfill was over the west side, would Mr. Dever have allowed so much to be dumped? [Clapping.] I'm sorry. I just don't understand why you're all fighting. Why don't you just test it and prove to all of us that live up here?

MAN: It has been tested, ma'am. We have the data. We have it.

WOMAN: When 20 or 30 years passes, and somebody has cancer, can I come to you and tell you?

MAN: Absolutely.

BALLMAN: At the St. Anthony's Club in North Woburn, a meeting is underway about the town's current environment problem: a municipal landfill that most folks thought was shut down in 1986. Turns out the city started accepting waste there again as a way to fund a permanent cap for the site. The dump sits atop an aquifer that supplies drinking water to some residents. And Michael Raymond says when he and some of his neighbors who live near the dump went up to take a look around, they didn't like what they found.

RAYMOND: We found medical waste the two times that we were up there. We found highly corrosive material. I saw liquid leaching off of the mountain, underneath the barrier that's not even in place. I'm seeing some pretty nasty stuff in that landfill.

DEVER: What people don't understand: the materials that are brought in are not pretty, but they are approved.

BALLMAN: That's Robert Dever. Up until a few days ago he was Woburn's mayor. And he's come to this meeting to defend his handling of the landfill operation.

DEVER: We have done to the letter of the law everything that we should be doing. There's an element of panic or hysteria about this thing that is absolutely not appropriate.

BALLMAN: As Dever turned to answer another reporter's questions a bystander recalled that back in the '70's people called Anne Anderson hysterical when she insisted that drinking water from a contaminated city well was the cause of her son Jimmy's leukemia. Turns out Anne Anderson was right.

Today folks here worry about the town's attitude almost as much as they worry about what might be lying in the landfill. Woburn has been so poked, prodded, studied and scrutinized by health experts that people felt safe under the watchful eye of science. They assumed city officials were looking out for them too, and they thought Woburn had learned its lesson about pollution. Now, residents like Marie Coady say they're not so sure.

COADY: And I think the thing that really struck me is today I took-- I take a ride by there every once in awhile—and today I went by. And as I was leaving and turning around to get out of the parking lot I could see the tower of the new transportation center named after Jimmy Anderson. And I get all choked up, because it just seems so ironic. There it was, a Superfund site that it's supposed to be remediated and everything's supposed to be fine, and we're having another problem.

BALLMAN: To be fair to former Mayor Dever, it's way too soon to tell if there's any health threat from the landfill. North Woburn residents just want to get some tests done to find out. The new mayor says he's looking into it and some state lawmakers are supporting the residents, and perhaps that's the lesson this time around. Public officials are heeding residents' concerns just months after the issue was brought to their attention. It took Anne Anderson years to get anyone in town to take her seriously.

Also, as I look around, there's at least 100 people here at this meeting on a cold January football Sunday afternoon. Twenty years ago, the Civil Action began with only 13 families. The landfill issue is now on the city's agenda, and no child had to die or get sick to make that happen. And maybe that's progress enough. For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Ballman in Woburn, Massachusetts.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. Coming up, how a fierce winter ice storm warmed up one northern New York community. But first, time for comments from our listeners.

Our holiday program "Celebrations in Latino Landscapes" drew appreciation from a number of you. John Victery from Houston, Texas was moved by the story of Antonio Sacre finally hearing his father's stories about his Cuban homeland.

VICTERY: I found the interview to be really resilient and impressive in every way. It was almost tear-jerking, it was so well done. Congratulations, and thank you.

CURWOOD: The memories of Elida Guardia Bonet, of growing up under the mango trees in Panama, whetted the appetites of other fans of this sweet fruit. KLCC listener Alain Gelbman from Summit, Oregon wrote in with this mango eater's tip to prevent mango strings from lodging between teeth, "Cut bite-sized chunks of the fruit completely off the seed to eat it," he advises. "And do not try to bite any flesh directly off the seed."

Also in the holiday show, we said that it's just a myth that poinsettias are poisonous. Listener Charles Bier from Sarver, Pennsylvania points out that the toxicity of poinsettias is often exaggerated, but he writes, "Many members of the genus Euphorbia do indeed contain poisonous properties for humans in the milky sap, and poinsettia is no different. Depending on your sensitivity to this sap, it can irritate your skin. But there are no documented cases of people or animals dying from ingesting this holiday plant."

And speaking of plants that could get you into trouble, WHYY listener Gerald Strahs called to say that our story last month about the renaissance of kava in Hawaii neglected to mention some problems associated with this herbal supplement:

STRAHS: I am a physician, and there have been negative statements about kava and liver damage. And the diagnoses have included liver failure, hepatitis and cirrhosis.

CURWOOD: And finally, Linda Listing of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, heard our story about longwall coal mining on our website. "Mine damage is a common occurrence around here," she writes, "even causing the I-70 highway to sink several feet last year. But the technology behind the problem is not something the public at large is aware of. Perhaps awareness will lead to a solution. Thank you for covering the story."

We welcome your comments. Call our Listener Line any time at (800) 218-9988. That's (800) 218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. Our e-mail address is: letters@loe.org. Once again: letters@loe.org. And visit our webpage at: www.loe.org. That's: www.loe.org, where you can hear this program any time. CD's, tapes, and transcripts are $15.00.

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Technology Note

CURWOOD: Just ahead, how demand for fancy cat litter could mean problems for a Native American community in Nevada. First, this Environmental Technology Note from Cynthia Graber.

[MUSIC]

GRABER: One important and expensive problem in the shipping industry is rust in ballast tanks caused by salt water. Shipping companies pay hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for special paint to prevent rust. To accomplish the same job, scientists in Japan came up with a new technique. They blew nitrogen bubbles into water to remove oxygen. Oxygen is what causes rust. In studies, the technique worked to prevent tank corrosion.

And as it turns out, it has a side benefit for the environment, too. Scientists in Monterey, California reason that getting oxygen out of ballast water also kills organisms in the water, organisms like invasive species. Exotics often hitch rides from one port to another in ballast water of huge tankers. The California researchers tried the oxygen depleting method on three known invasive species. In each case, the larvae died in the oxygen-poor water after two to three days. Most ship crossings take weeks. The technique wouldn't be 100 percent effective in killing all invasive species, but scientists say this simple, cheap, and environmentally benign technique holds great promise for cutting down the number of ecosystem invaders. That's this weeks Technology Note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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

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Kitty Litter

CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A high-stakes mining dispute is underway just north of Reno, Nevada. But it's not about gold, silver, or other precious metal. The commodity in question is clay used to make premium kitty litter. Willie Albright reports from Hungry Valley.

ALBRIGHT: Hungry Valley, home to deer, coyote, hawks, and other wildlife, is one of the last undeveloped areas close to Reno. Chicago-based Oil-Dri Corporation, the world's largest manufacturer of kitty litter, wants to dig two open pit mines here. Plant Manager Craig Paisely says the clay Oil-Dri needs to supply its western customers, a mineral called calcium mont-morrilonite, can only be found in Hungry Valley.

PAISLEY: Oil-Dri has been searching for this type of a clay deposit in the western part of the United States for probably 25 to 30 years. I know for a fact that there has been holes and samples taken in literally every state this side of the Mississippi.

ALBRIGHT: According to Paisely, the clay in Hungry Valley is unique because of its tremendous absorbency. It's also relatively dust-free, making it a healthier kitty litter ingredient. Kitty litter is a one-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and Paisley says the company will bring 100 well-paying jobs to the community.

PAISELY: We're going to build a 15 million dollar plant. It's going to have a 12 million dollar per year impact on the local economy. It's a major investment for us. Because it is such a premium deposit for us, it's a good, solid business decision.

ALBRIGHT: However, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony also has land in Hungry Valley, bought about 15 years ago to house its growing population. It doesn't want Oil-Dri to be its neighbor.

[SOUND OF DRUMMING AND CHANTING]

ALBRIGHT: The colony and its supporters held its protest pow-wow last spring. Colony member, David Hemke.

HEMKE: Now it's just, you know, our little community here against a big international mining company like Oil-Dri. Now, what chance do we stand? I don't know. But we feel we have some legitimate issues here.

ALBRIGHT: According to the colony, the mine will create noise, dust, heavy traffic, and possible health hazards. But the Mining Law of 1872 allows residential mining when the mineral can't be found elsewhere. Oil-Dri operates a residential mine in Mississippi, and Paisely says people there have no problem with its proximity to their homes.
Colony Chairman Arlen Melendez says his people feel differently.

MELENDEZ: Reno, Nevada is not Mississippi. If I were Senator Reid, Senator Ensign and our congressional people, I would be jumping on the bandwagon to stop this Oil-Dri thing, because it's making havoc for the rest of the mining industry. Everybody's going to jump on changing the regulations. If they think that there were only a few people before, because of this Oil-Dri mining, everybody's going to be on it.

ALBRIGHT: The Colony and other nearby residential areas have formed a coalition, Citizens for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods. The group recently spent ten thousand dollars in one week on radio ads to help sway public opinion.

[SOUND FROM RADIO AD]:

WOMAN: Morning, honey. Breakfast?

MAN: Just coffee. This story in the paper just ruined my appetite. They're still talking about putting those open pit mines in Hungry Valley.

WOMAN: You're kidding. You mean the ones for kitty litter? That valley belongs to all of us. It would just be destroyed.

MAN: Well, that's bad enough. But look. The study says the dust from this kitty litter could cause cancer, and it could put arsenic in our ground water.

[AD FADES]

ALBRIGHT: Under pressure from critics, the Bureau of Land Management commissioned an environmental impact statement that concluded the mine should go forward. Paisely says the mine is safe and accuses opponents of trying to scare the public.

PAISELY: It's difficult to mitigate an issue that doesn't exist. The perception is there's going to be a traffic problem. The perception is there's going to be a dust problem. The perception is there's going to be water draw-down problems. And when you do all the studying and you do all the technical data and you find that, hey, those may be somebody's perception, but we're not finding anything that validates that there's going to be a real problem.

ALBRIGHT: The environmental impact statement does predict increased dust, although not enough to pose a health hazard, and makes no suggestions for fixing the problem. Colony Spokesman Todd Irvine says the government is condoning environmental racism.

IRVINE: Washoe County and the State of Nevada will be pulling in all the taxes off this mining operation. We won't get any of it, but we will be getting the brunt of the pollution. And that's an environmental justice concern that has not been addressed.

ALBRIGHT: Oil-Dri Vice President Robert Vetere says the company needs to build the mine in Hungry Valley because the clay can't be found elsewhere.

VETERE: We didn't decide to put it here. You know, somebody greater than me put it here. We're just trying to take it out and give it to the 65 million homes that have cats in it.

ALBRIGHT: The Washoe County Planning Commission is considering issuing a special-use permit to Oil-Dri for its mine. Both sides have vowed to appeal, whatever the commission decides. For Living on Earth, I'm Willie Albright in Hungry Valley.

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The Grid and the Village

CURWOOD: For people in northern New England, New York, and eastern Canada, the ice storm of 1998 is still a vivid memory. Pounding rain and frigid temperatures created conditions that cut off communications and shut off electric power for days, in some cases weeks, in many places along the northern tier. One such community was Stephen Doheny-Farina's hometown, Potsdam, New York.

Photo: NOAA(Photo: NOAA)

Potsdam's ordeal of doing without electricity is the subject of his book “The Grid and the Village: Losing Electricity, Finding Community, Surviving Disaster.” Mr. Doheny-Farina, welcome to Living on Earth.

DOHENY-FARINA: Thank you.

CURWOOD: The cover of your book is certainly something else. Can you tell us about it, please?

DOHENY-FARINA: Well, it's a photo taken at some point during the disaster, the ice storm of 1998. And what we're looking at is, oh, in this picture, three completely crumpled, huge power distribution towers, the kinds of things you see in the distance, hundreds of feet high. And we can see two gentlemen standing in front of a row of crumpled towers. You look at this and you know that something is seriously wrong.

CURWOOD: Suddenly those towers look like a child's erector set, and that somebody has sat on them.

DOHENY-FARINA: Yeah, it's amazing. This was ice that did this, and yet they seem so fragile when you look at the picture. You know, so strong when you look across the horizon and see them, and so fragile when something as simple as ice coated them.

CURWOOD: Okay. So let's go back now to January of 1998. The ice storm was bigger than anyone had expected. But how was it so devastating? What happened?

DOHENY-FARINA: Well, it all happened very slowly, and it just started raining. A huge storm came up the eastern seaboard. But what happened was there was cold air that just wouldn't budge, and it was this large tongue of cold air that cut across eastern Canada and into northern New England and northern New York. And for five days it rained. In the end, I think we're talking about roughly four inches of ice coating everything, a little more in some places.

CURWOOD: What was it like to be in this storm? How did you know that it was more serious than your average winter squall?

DOHENY-FARINA: Well, that was just the thing. No one knew that. I'll tell you the moment. The moment when suddenly something seemed more serious was when I woke up, my wife woke up, saying, "Ah, there's no power. Huh. It should be on soon. We'll just have to sit tight here. Let me turn the radio on. Let's hear what the status is." And there are no radio stations. I mean, nothing, not a sound, up and down the dial. And this just doesn't happen. And the power always comes back on. Well, it just didn't come back on. For, I think, at least a day or two, many of us figured, "Well, the power will just be back on soon," because we were suddenly so isolated. So it was a gradual-- But there were moments when suddenly we thought maybe this was bigger than we realized.

CURWOOD: Radio-- what was the role of radio in all of this?

DOHENY-FARINA: It was kind of an interesting combination of commercial and public. The commercial stations sort of became more like public stations. They rarely ran any ads, and when they did they just seemed strangely-- people, they would apologize on air. "Sorry, we have to run this ad." But they just seemed totally out of place, and they didn't do much of it.

The public stations, they were doing commercial things. Like, you know, after a few days, you know, "There's a load of kerosene arriving at so and so station," you know. In other words, they were promoting things to buy in the community. And it was this kind of middle ground that had developed. They ended up sort of telling the story, and it was our story. People were calling in and telling what's happening, and that was one of the main sources of news, was people in the community calling the station and reporting. it was intensely local, and in a way that just doesn't happen in any other situation.

CURWOOD: The title of your book is “The Grid and the Village,” and I'm wondering, when did your small town become a village during this disaster, and what's the difference?

DOHENY-FARINA: Well, I have to say that I think if you asked people before the ice storm, you know, "What's the status of the community here," you know? “Are people interdependent?” "Well, oh, you know, somewhat. But no more than anywhere else. We can pretty much live without knowing our neighbors." I mean, that's the common status of the nation. But the ice storm really revealed to us a vibrant network of community ties that I think most people had thought maybe had withered away over time. But it's still there. And it was energized as the power grid became de-energized.

CURWOOD: Share with us the image that sticks with you from this ice storm.

DOHENY-FARINA: Well, one indelible image was the night that my family and my neighbors and I, after a number of days, made it to a shelter to eat. And I had this moment, sitting in this large cafeteria-like area, and looking around, and everyone was talking with everyone else, whether you knew them or not. We were all bound by the same absolute necessity, and all pretense of individuality was lost. There was just constant conversation: "How are you doing?" "What do you have?" "How are you surviving?" "Where are you?" "Have you heard anything?" "Do you know anything?" "What's happening out there?" It was a very powerful moment for me.

CURWOOD: Once the storm had passed and the power was back on, one of the women you chronicle in your book, you quote as saying, "I wish I could do it again, because now I've got a dress rehearsal." What do you think she meant by this?

DOHENY-FARINA: Well, you know, that points to the real conflict in this whole thing. I was so unsettled afterwards, you know. At one point, I write about a couple days after I had power. And, you know, now I have to go back to my pre-storm life. And I was tremendously let down by that in a strange way. I didn't want to live without power, but why was I so unsettled? This happened with person after person. The power went out suddenly-- it was only for a brief time-- but suddenly I was energized again. You know, "Wow. Let me get a hold of my neighbors again."

People-- the woman you referred to and others-- they had this tremendous sense of purpose, and they felt tremendously tied to people around them, and now they didn't. And while you don't want to live in a 40 degree house without a bathroom and lights, something was lost when the power came back on that was very powerful during it.

CURWOOD: Stephen Doheny-Farina is a professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, and author of the book, “The Grid and the Village: Losing Electricity, Finding Community, Surviving Disaster.” Thanks so much for talking with me today.

DOHENY-FARINA: Thank you very much for having me.

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Wind Chill

CURWOOD: In the good old days, a wind blowing at 25 miles per hour at a temperature of five degrees Fahrenheit would create a wind chill factor of 35 below zero. But those were the good old days. Today, there's a new wind chill index from the folks who make the weather rules for the United States and Canada. They put a dozen Canadians in a refrigerated wind tunnel, monitored their body temperatures, and discovered it isn't always as cold as we would like to think. Bob Carty sent us this audio postcard from Ontario.

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WOMAN: I walk my kids to school. We walk through the woods, and it's really, really nice because it's really beautiful snow, and the ice on the trees. It's just absolutely gorgeous. And then we come around a street and then we go up a hill in this little park. Until that point, the kids are totally happy walking to school through the snow; we're enjoying the winter. And then that blast comes, and they don't want to be walking anymore. So that's when I really experience wind chill.

[WIND BLOWING]

CARTY: Wind chill. A fact sheet from Environment Canada: "The coldest wind chill in Canada was recorded in Kugaaruk, formerly Pelly Bay, Nunavut, on January 13th, 1975, when 56 kilometer an hour winds made the temperature of minus 51 degrees Celsius feel more like 92 degrees below zero."

Wind chill is a feeling, not a real temperature.

MAN: Ah, yes. Wind chill is when the wind makes it feel colder than it really is.

WOMAN: But it's the same temperature.

MAN: Yeah, it's the same temperature, but with the wind it feels colder.

WOMAN: Wind chill doesn't affect inanimate objects. I didn't know that. Like, if there's no one there, is there really wind chill? (Laughs.) The great existential question.

LESHESKY: The wind doesn't actually make the air any colder. What it does is makes our skin colder. I've been complaining for 25 years that the wind chill index is wrong. My name is Randall Leshesky. I work at Defense and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine, which is in Toronto. The old index exaggerated how cold it was, how cold it felt. This new equation is being used all across North America now. It's approximately 13 plus 0.62 times the air temperature, take away 11.4 times the wind speed at ten meters, and then you add to that 0.4 times the air temperature, multiplied by the air temperature.

MAN: Eleven point four times the wind speed… And then I’ll add 0.3965. Times that wind speed with the air temperature? Wow. So when I get up in the morning and want to determine how cold it is, I'll have my answer. And then, I'll be late for work. (Laughs.)

WOMAN: Imagine this. I'm not going to be able to tell my mom any more that it's 52 degrees below zero with the wind chill. She'll think I'm a wimp when I'm up here fussing about things.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

CURWOOD: Our feature on the new wind chill index was produced by a now slightly warmer Bob Carty. And for this week, that's Living On Earth.

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CURWOOD: Next week, mushrooms. They're gaining popularity in alternative medicine circles for their reported ability to boost the immune system and help cancer patients. But even some fungi aficionados say more research is needed.

MAN: My worry is that people are going to hear about the exciting potential of mushrooms and rush out and make it like the next St. John's Wort “--more is better.” Well, actually, right at this point more data is better.

CURWOOD: Myco-medicine or myco-magic? Next time on Living On Earth.

[MONKEY NOISES]

CURWOOD: Before we go, a little monkey business. Douglas Quin recorded this bevy of communication among a troop of one of the charismatic and endangered species in Brazil, the wooly spider monkey.

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 and Milisa Muñiz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Jessica Penney, Walter Dixon, George Hicks, Marianne Nichols, and Brett Silton. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley, Liz Lempert is our western editor, Diane Toomey is our science editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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