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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

March 1, 2002

Air Date: March 1, 2002

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Maine Drought / Naomi Schalit

(stream / mp3)

The entire northeast is in the grips of a severe drought. And even though Maine is chock full of rivers and lakes, it’s been one of the hardest hit states. Maine Public Radio’s Naomi Schalit reports. (07:10)

Drought and Climate Change

(stream / mp3)

Droughts could become more common with global warming, but scientists aren't sure what that might mean for the current drought on the East Coast. Host Steve Curwood discusses the issue with Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. (04:20)

Health Note: Sleeping Sickness / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a new effort to combat tsetse flies and sleeping sickness in Africa. (01:15)

Almanac: Antarctica Marathon

(stream / mp3)

This week, we have facts about the fifth annual Antarctica marathon. Snowy trails and icy glaciers make up the course for this coldest of races. (01:30)

Energy Task Force

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A federal judge has ordered the Department of Energy to release more than 7,000 documents from the administration’s energy task force to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC requested the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Host Steve Curwood speaks with NRDC’s David Hawkins, about what will be done with the information. (04:30)

Energy Bill / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

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As the US Senate prepares for a showdown over energy, Living On Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on last-minute political maneuvers in Washington. (04:30)

West Night / Verlyn Klinkenborg

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Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg travels west and reflects on how great wide open spaces can make even the hardiest traveler seek shelter. (03:35)

Toxic Exports

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The vast majority of outdated computers that Americans send off for recycling end up as hazardous waste in Asia. Host Steve Curwood talks with Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network about the dubious legality of this international trade. (03:00)

Animal Note: Smelly Elephants / Maggie Villiger

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Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on scented secretions that help keep the peace in elephant society. (01:20)

Listener Letters

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This week, we dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. (02:30)

Bhopal

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The worst industrial accident the world has ever seen happened more than 17 years ago in Bhopal, India. Host Steve Curwood talks with Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times about the ongoing health and environmental problems around the accident site. (05:30)

Kiwis / Allan Coukell

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The kiwi bird is the national symbol of New Zealand. But the population of this unusual animal is on the wane due to a non-native, weasel-like predator called the stoat. As Allan Coukell reports, a kiwi recovery program named Operation Nest Egg has succeeded in increasing the number of kiwis by isolating the babies until they are old enough to fend for themselves. (07:15)

Superfund [audio only]

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When the Superfund program was set up in 1980, taxes on polluting industries were supposed to finance the bulk of the hazardous waste cleanup program. Recently, the Bush Administration decided not to reauthorize what many call the "polluter pays" taxes, and instead has shifted the burden onto taxpayers. Host Steve Curwood talks with Katherine Probst of Resources for the Future, about the future of the Superfund program. ()

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Naomi Schalit, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Allan Coukell
GUESTS: Kevin Trenberth, David Hawkins, Jim Puckett, Paul Watson
UPDATES: Diane Toomey, Maggie Villiger

[INTRO THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. There's a dark side to the unusually warm and pleasant weather that much of the U.S. has enjoyed this winter. The East Coast is caught in a severe drought. And in parts of the state of Maine, it's so bad, wells are running dry.

DEPALMER: Just ran out. Just went to put on the water to do some dishes, and there was nothing there three days ago. It's just so dry. The ground is so dry. It's just taking everything.

CURWOOD: Also, a federal judge orders the Bush Administration to release the records of its controversial energy task force. And the Senate heads for a showdown over the energy bill.

CHAFEE: I think they were counting the votes at this stage. And they want to have an energy policy, and they know they're going to get into a no man's land, a dead end, on ANWR.

CURWOOD: And looking for home in the wide-open spaces. We'll have that, and more, this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.

[THEME MUSIC]

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Maine Drought

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For folks in the West, drought is a familiar and unwelcome part of the environment. Now, for the first time since record books have been kept, some parts of the East are getting a taste of what the weather analysts call "extreme drought." The current dry spell is parching communities all along the East Coast, with some regions of Maine particularly hard-hit. It's a down home problem Down East. Well after well is drying up. Maine Public Radio's Naomi Schalit reports.

[SOUND OF DRILLING]

MALE: They just hit bedrock.

ADAMS: We just hit bedrock. We're down 188 feet. Now we'll drill in the bedrock a ways, and get ready to set our casings.

SCHALIT: John Adams has been at this rural Maine residence in Leeds for about four hours. His drilling rig is capable of boring down 1500 feet in search of water, which is what the owner of this home needs. She's one of a number of residents in this neighborhood whose wells have gone dry in Maine's worst drought in recorded history.

About 40 percent of Maine's residents are on private wells. And the failure rate of those wells has skyrocketed since last summer. Requests for new wells are flooding drilling companies. And some are backed up until July. One driller described the situation as his worst nightmare. Adam's co-worker, Pete Johnson, sums it up in classic Maine understatement.

JOHNSON: Busy year.

SCHALIT: Just next door, neighbor Wesley Stevens is out a chunk of change after having drilled a new well a few weeks ago.

STEVENS: We were running low on water. We were getting low, and started doing laundry out in Winthrop. And I got sick of that, so I called up my money man, and told him I wanted $5000 out of my bank. The house over there, their water came back a little bit. And the house there, they've gone to Florida. But they're holding about four feet. Mine went down about two, two and a half feet, something like that.

SCHALIT: But folks like Stevens and his neighbor are lucky. They've got the money to drill new wells. And there's federal money to help low-income homeowners pay for their new wells. But many Mainers are not able to come up with the four to seven thousand dollars needed to drill a new well. So they're trying other creative ways to get water. And that's got state officials worried.

[SOUND OF RUNNING WATER]

SCHALIT: This is the sound of, at least, temporary relief for Jefferson resident Joan DePalmer and her husband. The water being pumped into their well was hauled here from the public water supply of another town that hasn't been as hard-hit by the drought.

DEPALMER: Just ran out. Just went to put on the water to do some dishes, and there was nothing there three days ago. It's just so dry. The ground is so dry. It's just taking everything.

SCHALIT: Unlike the high cost of drilling a new well, this delivery costs $200. And since it's from a municipal supply, this water has been tested as safe. But in other instances, that's not the case. For example, local fire departments are playing good samaritan by offering to bring water from their fire fighting ponds to fill wells that have gone dry, a prospect that's got Haig Brochu quaking in his boots. Brochu is an environmental specialist with the state's drinking water program.

BROCHU: Especially with surface water, you could really get into some serious problems because there are things like cryptosporidia and giardia. Giardia is a type of critter with, once you get it, there's no getting rid of it. You've got it forever. It takes up residence in your stomach, and in your intestinal track. So, I guess there are many, many. You wouldn't even begin to compile how many different types of bacteria there are out there which could cause significant health effects with people.

SCHALIT: Also, there could be solvents, gasoline and oil, present in the water. And once these contaminants are in your aquifer, he says they may be impossible to get out. You could end up contaminating your water supply and your neighbors. But in cases of severe drought like this one, bacterial contamination is generated from inside aquifers as well. Again, Haig Brochu.

BROCHU: We're at the point where the bedrock has been dewatered so much that oxygen, or the presence of air, is now down underground in places where it wasn't typically there. So you've created an environment down underground which promotes the growth of bacteria and all these little creepy crawly things.

SCHALIT: State officials are stymied about how to deal with this evolving disaster. Some of them joke about doing rain dances. Others have unsuccessfully tried to convince out-of-state well-drillers to come to Maine. While others have been frantically looking for obscure sources of money to help homeowners pay for new wells.

Art Cleaves heads Maine's Emergency Management Agency. He also co-chairs the state's drought task force. He says the problems created by the water shortage are enough to make him wish for a disaster that's easier to deal with, like a good old-fashioned hurricane.

CLEAVES: There is not a good solution to a drought. And there's no immediate cavalry that can be turned to that comes in and rescues folks. There's no good recovery methods. There is a limited number of well-drilling rigs available. It's also a little bit more scientific than just removing debris, and moving through a normal disaster.

SCHALIT: Officials are drawing up contingency plans in case of widespread well failures. For instance, when individual wells fail, towns may still have intact municipal sources of water. So there are schemes to make public buildings available for showers. Local disaster officials are also imagining more dire scenarios, like the failure of school and hospital water systems. But Cleaves cautions that it's going to be hard to help everyone.

CLEAVES: We can't come to the rescue with a well-drilling rig tomorrow. The best that we can hope to do is bring tankers of water in. And those are not quickly and readily available. But that would also take a declaration at the national level in order to get those resources here. The Army National Guard possesses some trailers that we could do on a limited basis. And then, during freezing weather, it's not easy to place a tanker just somewhere, and let people draw water from it.

Photo: Auburn/Lewiston Water DistrictLow water levels in Lake Auburn, Maine.
(Photo: Auburn/Lewiston Water District)


SCHALIT: Even if the precipitation gods smiled on Maine today, says Cleaves, it would take a long time to make up for the cumulative water deficit. Scientists say that it would take at least six months of above-normal snow and rainfall to recover. And the National Weather Service predicts that's just not going to happen. Governor Angus King could request a disaster declaration from the president, freeing up federal funds. But the feds have never granted one for a drought emergency...yet. And while some towns have instituted either voluntary or mandatory conservation measures, there's been little push on the state level to do anything comprehensive to force conservation.

[SOUND OF WELL BEING DRILLED]

SCHALIT: In the end, says Leeds resident, Wesley Stevens, Mainers are mostly on their own as they face this water shortage.

STEVENS: Keep hopes up -- that's all -- if you don't have somebody that has money enough to have a well drilled.

SCHALIT: For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit in Leeds, Maine.

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Drought and Climate Change

TRENBERTH: This is the sort of thing we expect to see more of. And so, we can't actually blame this specifically on global warming. But it's consistent with the idea of what global warming will do to us.

CURWOOD: Kevin Trenberth is a climate expert with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. And he's been following these extreme weather patterns, and how they relate to climate change. Kevin Trenberth says, "It's hard to pinpoint the causes of the current East Coast drought." But, he says, "Global warming could lead to more droughts in the future."

TRENBERTH: There are a couple of effects that are really important that come into play here. First, the global warming warms up the atmosphere and the atmosphere, when it's warmer, can hold more water. Secondly, some of the global warming itself, some of the heating that's occurring, goes into evaporating moisture. That increased drying creates an increased risk of drought in general. But in addition, because there's more moisture in the atmosphere, it means that all of the weather systems that occur, whether they're thunderstorms or snowstorms, and so on, they just gather up all the moisture that's around. And as a result, it's apt to rain harder at the time when it does rain. And so, greater extremes is one of the prospects, and more risk of floods, and more risk of droughts. That's the sort of thing we expect to happen with global warming.

CURWOOD: At what point do you think we could say it was global warming?

TRENBERTH: Well it's always difficult on a day-to-day basis. Because there can be weather systems from one year to the next that are related to things like El Nino. And there are influences like that that have had an influence this year. But the degree of warmth that has occurred, especially from November through to about the current time, is certainly remarkable. And we're breaking records.

CURWOOD: Now, there might be what you weather and climate folks call an El Nino developing in the Pacific at this time. What effect might that have on the East Coast drought?

TRENBERTH: Certainly a change in the weather patterns, such as from El Nino, can turn that around. Although, it depends upon what I call the "particular flavor" of El Nino. Somewhere in the United States is apt to be wetter. And on the other hand, somewhere else is apt to be very dry. What we will be doing is tracking that and seeing how it goes. And we should get a better handle on that in about the next month or so. The spring is really the critical time when a lot of the rains occur, especially in the breadbasket of the United States, and across into the East. And, if I were a farmer, I would keep track of how this developing El Nino is occurring, and what the official forecasts are.

CURWOOD: Dr. Trenberth, for those of us who may have forgotten, I should say, at this point, the El Nino is a condition where there's quite a bit of warmer water on the surface of the Pacific. How am I doing with the accuracy of my description?

TRENBERTH: Well, that's correct. El Nino refers to a warming, especially east of the date line. But it's a huge area of the globe, all the way from the date line across to the coast of South America. It tends to produce very wet conditions in Peru and Ecuador. It tends to produce very dry conditions in Australia and Indonesia. And it has quite a profound effect on the United States. But the effects on the United States depend very much on exactly what time of year you're talking about, as well.

CURWOOD: Now, in the long run, Dr. Trenberth, how do you think we can prepare for longer periods of drought? For surviving these extremes in weather that you're predicting are likely to happen with climate change?

TRENBERTH: Well, if indeed this occurs, that we get too much water at certain times, and then not enough at other times, it means that water management becomes a key issue as we go into the future. It means, on an individual farm, having a little reservoir with water so that you can save it up when there are times of plenty. But, then you can use it at times when you've got a shortfall. I think that kind of thing. But also, on a much larger basis, it applies much more generally to large reservoirs, and dams, and management of hydroelectric power, and things like that. Water management is going to be a key issue as we move into the future.

CURWOOD: Kevin Trenberth is the head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Thanks for speaking with us.

TRENBERTH: You're most welcome.

Related link:

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Health Note: Sleeping Sickness

CURWOOD: Coming up, a federal judge tells the Bush Administration to release its documents on the energy task force. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.

[THEME MUSIC]

TOOMEY: One of the most devastating problems in Africa, on par with war or drought, is the tsetse fly. The bloodsucking insect carries a parasite that causes sleeping sickness, a disease that destroys the nervous system, and kills 80 percent of its victims. It's estimated that 60 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are at risk for the disease. But sleeping sickness has no effective treatment unless diagnosed early, something that rarely happens. The parasite also devastates rural economy, killing millions of livestock animals, and forcing people to abandon infested farmland. But now, a UN nuclear watchdog group is working on a remedy. The International Atomic Energy Agency exposes laboratory bred male tsetse flies to a dose of radiation. This doesn't kill the insects, but it does make them sterile. These flies are then dropped by airplane into areas with sleeping sickness where they mate with female flies, but produce no offspring.

The project has been tested on the island of Zanzibar where both the tsetse fly and sleeping sickness have been eradicated. The agency says, so far, the elimination of the fly has not harmed Zanzibar's environment. But milk and meat production on the island has more than doubled since the program began. That's this week's Health Update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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

[MUSIC: Herbie Hancock, "Rain Dance," SEXTANT (Sony - 1988)]

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Almanac: Antarctica Marathon

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

[Vangelis "Chariots of Fire (& Ice)," CHARIOTS OF FIRE (Soundtrack)]

CURWOOD: Over the glacier, and through the mud, to the finish line they go. It's time for the fifth annual Antarctica Marathon. And if the weather holds this week, about 100 men and women, from more than a dozen nations, will challenge the rugged terrain on King George Island.

JENNINGS: Most of it's run on dirt roads; although, depending on the temperature intensity, into very muddy roads. Some of the course does go over a glacier. It's not a flat course. In fact, the glacier itself is quite hilly.

CURWOOD: That's Cliff Jennings, a sales manager for Marathon Tours in Boston, the company that organized the original race back in 1995. Right now, it's summer in Antarctica, with temperatures hovering around a balmy freezing mark. So, runners need only long underwear and tights to keep warm. A Gore-Tex outer layer protects them from the strong wind, while trail shoes handle the snow and mud.

So far, no one has suffered frostbite. But, one year, a competitor did have to be talked out of running the race in a t-shirt and shorts. In the past, racers have had to run around penguins and seals. A few have even been dive bombed by native birds including skuas and terns.

But sometimes, just getting to the race is the hardest part. Last year, stormy weather prevented the runners from landing on King George Island. So they improvised. On calmer seas, just off the Antarctic coast, the racers ran the 26.2 mile marathon on the deck of their transport ship. That's about 400 laps to the finish line. The official Antarctic marathon time to beat, two hours, 23 minutes for men; three hours, 40 minutes for women; and six hours and 47 minutes for penguins. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC OUT]

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Energy Task Force

CURWOOD: Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force has been a secret affair since it first started meeting early in 2001. The task force presented its recommendations for a national energy plan to the Bush Administration in May. Its report heavily favored coal, oil, gas and nuclear energy. Since then, the task force has refused to release accounts of its meetings to the general public. In December, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit requesting the documents. Now, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler has ruled that the Energy Department must turn over to the NRDC more than 7500 papers relating to the task force.

With me now is David Hawkins, director of the Climate Change Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. David, welcome to Living on Earth.

HAWKINS: Thank you, Steve. Glad to be here.

CURWOOD: Why did the judge finally decide to order the release of these documents? What's the evidence that finally determined her ruling, do you think?

HAWKINS: Well, months of delay, I think, influenced the judge. The Bush Administration has been pressing for Congress to act on its energy policy. But, at the same time, it was stonewalling the public in an effort to find out why the government put forward the energy policy that it did; trying to hold secret the notes, the information, who it met with, which industry lobbyists influenced its policy.

I think the judge looked at this and said, "You can't have it both ways." If you're trying to get the Congress of the United States to adopt these policies, which are highly controversial, you need to be able to share with the public the public's business. And the government is the public's business.

CURWOOD: Now, once you get these documents, what are you going to be looking for?

HAWKINS: Well, first of all, we'll be looking to see who did the task force meet with. We'll be looking to see what arguments where presented to the Department of Energy, and to the task force. What information was presented by which industry lobbyists to backup those claims, if the claims can be backed up.

The White House has released information on a number of meetings it had with Enron company officials. But Enron is just the tip of the iceberg. So we'll be trying to examine the rest of the iceberg; all of those other energy lobbyists that got in to see the vice president, and his top aides, while they were ignoring the public.

CURWOOD: What do you think is in the rest of the iceberg? And why does it matter?

HAWKINS: Well, first, it matters because this is the public's business. The energy plan that was recommended by the vice president's task force is a grab bag of favors for special interests from highly polluting fossil fuel industries. It calls for billions of dollars, tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for the heavy, old-fashioned, dirty fossil fuel industries, and only a pittance for the new, modern technologies such as efficiency and renewables.

It called for relaxing the Clean Air Act protections against air pollution from energy facilities. It called for no action to deal with gas-guzzling SUVs. It failed to call for any action to clean up America's dirty power plants. It called for drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. We want to know why the vice president's task force was so selective in picking all of these things.

CURWOOD: What option does the government have to appeal this ruling that you've gotten?

HAWKINS: Well, the government could file an appeal. But it appears that they have decided not to do so. And instead have agreed that they would comply with the court's order.

CURWOOD: Now that the judge has ruled, what's next in this process?

HAWKINS: Well, on March 25th, under the judge's order, the Department of Energy will have to turn over thousands of pages of documents. And we will be busy reviewing them, but also releasing them to the public. We will share this information with policymakers on Capitol Hill. We hope that the Senate of the United States would be interested in finding out about these documents, and would think that they are relevant to the decisions that the Senate is going to make on energy policy. We believe they are relevant. And we will be taking every effort to share these documents both with the public, and with members of Congress.

CURWOOD: David Hawkins is director of the Climate Change Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thanks for taking this time with us.

HAWKINS: Sure, Steve. Very glad to be with you.

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Energy Bill

CURWOOD: The energy of the U.S. Senate these days is focused on the energy bill that's now before the chamber. At the core of the debate remains the question of whether or not Senators will vote to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas drilling. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum has our update.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: On a recent morning on the South Lawn of the White House, President Bush rolled out a display of prototype vehicles, outfitted with hybrid and fuel cell engines. His new Freedom Car Initiative, he said, "would help make these engines a reality."

BUSH: Imagine when that technology comes into being. Imagine how less dependent America will be on foreign sources of energy. And how more easy it'll be to clean up our air.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The president's emphasis on future technologies was a message to U.S. senators who are about to debate raising the fuel efficiency of American automobiles now. The White House prefers a long-term approach. A few days later, the administration reportedly began hinting it might scale-back the numbers of acres it wants for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

[SOUND OF A ROOM]

Republicans in the House employed a similar tactic last fall, and pushed enough congressmen into the pro-drilling camp to get ANWR development into the final House bill. But will it work in the Senate?

CHAFEE: I think they were counting the votes at this stage. And they want to have an energy policy, and they know they're going to get into a no man's land, a dead end, on ANWR.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island is one of several moderate Republicans the White House is targeting on ANWR. Chafee's been opposed to drilling. And he says he'll stay that way. So will one of his colleagues from Maine. Republican Susan Collins says she doubts the administration's compromise will work.

COLLINS: I think it's a good faith attempt to try to reach a middle ground. But it's not an area that is very conducive to finding a middle ground.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: At the middle of the ANWR debate sits a small band of tight-lipped senators who have remained tight-lipped despite the administration's recent maneuverings. Indiana Republican Richard Lugar gave a weary smile.

LUGAR: I'll make my opinion very clear when I make up my mind. Thank you.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Meanwhile, the leaders in the energy debate remain unfazed. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle sounded pointedly cool about the issue.

DASCHLE: It's safe to say we have the votes on ANWR procedurally. And I'm not too worried about that issue, at this point.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Daschle says "procedurally," because that's how the Democrats will have to win this fight. Republicans may have the 51 plus votes they'd need to attach an open ANWR amendment to the energy bill. But Democrats plan to filibuster that move. Republicans will then need 60 votes to overcome the filibuster. And right now, that looks unlikely.

Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska, the tireless champion for opening ANWR, continues to point out that Senator Daschle bypassed the normal committee process as the energy bill was being written. When asked by a reporter if he'll filibuster the entire energy bill if it doesn't end up with an open ANWR provision, Murkowski turned red.

MURKOWSKI: ANWR is going to be in the bill. Okay?

MAN: If it isn't, would you filibuster?

MURKOWSKI: I answered the question. Anybody got anything else?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Environmentalists say how the Republicans respond to the expected ANWR filibuster from Democrats is the key question. Alden Meyer is with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

MEYER: Will they try to bring down the whole energy bill, and try to blame the emocrats for withholding a floor vote on Arctic? Or will they let the bill go to the merits, have the debate on CAFE, on renewables, on taxes, on the other provisions of the bill, and then take their chances in the conference committee?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Environmentalists aren't letting their guard down. They're on the offensive with a national media campaign that's costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

[COMMERCIAL]

FEMALE: Oil drilling is a dirty business. On Alaska's North Scope, big oil corporations already average more than 400 spills each year.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: On the other side, a coalition of labor and business groups is spending millions on its ads. And members from two native Alaskan tribes, who differ sharply on the ANWR question, have come all the way to Washington to lobby senators.

The energy bill faces hundreds of amendments. Debate could last for weeks, and in the end, could collapse on the toughest issues; fuel efficiency standards, and ANWR drilling. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington.

[MUSIC: Sting, "Desert Rose," BRAND NEW DAY (Interscope - 1999)]

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West Night

CURWOOD: Sometimes people travel to get away from the rush, and noise and smell of the crowded city. That was one thought on Verlyn Klinkenborg's mind as he flew out West recently to visit a brother in Wyoming. And there, in the midst of the wide-open space, he found a reminder about why we seek contact with each other in the first place.

KLINKENBORG: My flight into Casper, Wyoming at sunset restored everything to scale; a slow turbo prop plane, more than half empty, the Casper Airport, nearly deserted, except for a man and woman in National Guard uniforms with black rifles, slung barrel-down across their backs.

I sat behind the wing, looking out at the rivets on the trailing edge. The snow-matted thatch of Colorado hovered below, tilled ground, running north from Denver to Fort Collins, and breaking suddenly near the Wyoming line, where an ocean of short grass spread without interruption to the dark eastern horizon.

I'd spend all day in crowds, at check-in counters, in security lines, in the thigh and elbow crush of the viewless airliners. And now, here at last, was the pure impassioned abstraction of flying once again. The ground subsiding at takeoff. The occasional sideways skid of the plane on the currents of air. The shuttering and ticking as crosswinds caught us on the final approach. It felt like a rite recovered at last, a perspective too vital to be curtailed.

Long wind shadows cast by haystacks and windbreaks stretched eastward across the snowy plains. The ranch buildings below had herded together out of the cold wind into the pale reach of a yard light. On the ground, I drove westward, out the hundred-mile stretch of blacktop that passes through Powder River, Moneta, Shoshoni, Riverton. The snow shone like a version of the moon's thin light. A coyote stood beside the highway, his coat brushed thick, looking like a crossing guard with miles and miles of crossings to watch over. The Powder River sign, population 50, seemed to be exaggerating.

A winter night can seem almost infinite here under the smooth, cold sky. Even the smallest undulations in the open ground, the tightest switches of grass, look like welcome cover from a wind that's always blowing. Sooner or later, all that open makes you want to find someplace where the rooflines limit the winter sky just a little.

When I finally pulled in to the small town of Lander, 20 minutes beyond Riverton, the sense of relief came not so much from the street lights, which are hidden until the very last, but from the depth of the hills; from the willows on the rivers and creeks. The cottonwoods in town have that look, too; a witch's head of bare, tangled branches against the night.

The streets lie still and broad. The houses lit within themselves the darkness deep and even. I had traveled all day with my back to the East, to the huddling crowds of New York City. I thought that I'd come West again, looking for endlessness, which is easy to find in Central Wyoming. But what I really found, once again, was a place where you can still feel the power of settlement, and urged to ban together in the night.

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

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Toxic Exports

CURWOOD: Most of the computers disposed of in the United States wind up being scavenged overseas. And a new report from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and the Basel Action Network, says, "Our high-tech waste is dismantled in low-tech, environmentally dangerous ways."

Jim Puckett, of the Basel Action Network, recently visited one such illegal recycling center in China. He says more than a hundred thousand people at this site process e-waste 24 hours a day.

Photo: Basel Action NetworkWoman about to smash a cathode ray tube
from a computer monitor in order to remove
the copper laden yoke at the end
of the funnel. Guiyu, China.
(Photo: Basel Action Network)


PUCKETT: We saw whole villages of women and children, men, of course. Their entire livelihood is made up of sorting wires that have been pulled out of computers in the town. They're sorted by day, and burned at night. When you burn these type of wires, you're burning brominated flame retardants. You're burning PVC, which will instantly make dioxin, and also polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are also cancer causing. So, it's quite an ugly scene. The computer monitors themselves, which everyone knows now, I hope, have lead in them. These were just being cracked to pull off a copper yoke off the back to get about 20 cents worth of copper. Circuit boards, they go to these women and girls who, all day long, over hot plates, will slap them down and cook them until the solder melts, and they're breathing in the lead tin solder. They pull the chips off. Some of those will go to be reused in what they'll call "new computers." But, the vast majority will go to a new cyber-age gold mining operation.

And basically, what they're doing is using a very primitive process, nitric acid and hydrochloric acid to dissolve the very small amounts of gold in the chips. The sludges from this process go right into the river. And they're breathing the gasses from this process constantly. There's no protective equipment for their lungs. They're breathing it in all day long, and all night long. This is a full-time, 24-hour operation we observed.

Photo: Basel Action NetworkWomen in Guiyu, China picking through
wires torn out of computers.
(Photo: Basel Action Network)


CURWOOD: Jim, how legal is this trade in high-tech waste?

PUCKETT: Well, this is the really distressing thing, is that the United States is one of the very few countries of the world that has not ratified the Basel Convention. And this is a treaty that was a United Nations treaty to resolve this problem of trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste. The United States government has done more than just ignore this problem. They have made it quite easy. And, you talk with the folks at the EPA. They actually say we're happy to have this offshore market. Otherwise, we would never be collecting so many computers. They would all go and poison our own land, and our own soil.

Photo: Basel Action NetworkChild sits atop pile of unrecyclable
computer waste. Guiyu, China.
(Photo: Basel Action Network)


CURWOOD: So, what should a conscientious recycler do here in the United States? If I upgrade to a new computer, what should I do with the old one?

PUCKETT: What I would do, right now, is hang on to it. We're going to ask certain recyclers to sign up on a platform that they guarantee no export; they guarantee that they won't sell to brokers that export. And we will post those. And consumers can then find a viable place to take their old, obsolete computer. But ultimately, the problem has got to solved upstream at the manufacturing design position. We've got to get the poisons out to begin with. They're going to cause a problem no matter what. And, I'm afraid that's going to take a mandate.

CURWOOD: Jim Puckett is a coordinator of the Basel Action Network. Thanks for your time, Mr. Puckett.

PUCKETT: Thank you.

Related link:

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Animal Note: Smelly Elephants

CURWOOD: Just ahead, 18 years after the Bhopal disaster, a court orders Union Carbide to make more disclosures. First this page from the Animal Notebook with Maggie Villiger.

[THEME MUSIC]

VILLIGER: Mature male elephants experience musth once a year. The symptoms are high testosterone levels, aggressive behavior, and a strong urge to mate. Also, a smelly secretion oozes from the temporal gland near the eye. Younger males, who are sexually mature, but not yet socially mature, experience a kind of trial musth. Their testosterone levels spike. And like human teenagers, their behavior gets mischievous and erratic. But instead of the acrid secretion of their elders, the youngsters release a sweet-smelling ooze that's chemically related to honey.

In a recent experiment, scientists allowed mature and young elephants to sniff both secretions and observed their reactions. Adult males weren't fazed by the sweet smell of the immature males. The youths, on the other hand, were repelled by the smell of an adult in musth about 90% of the time. Researchers think these scented secretions send messages that help elephant society run smoothly. Young guys know to steer clear of adults who mean business, while mature males know that the youngsters are just horsing around, and aren't real competition.

The scientists are working out ways to use these chemical signals in deterrence programs in the wild where rampaging musth elephants can destroy crops. That's this week's Animal Note. I'm Maggie Villiger.

[MUSIC OUT]

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

[MUSIC: John Martyn & Talvin Singh, "Sunshine Better," CAFÉ DEL MAR]

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And coming up, Operation Nest Egg, New Zealand's ambitious program to save its national bird, the kiwi. But first--

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

CURWOOD: Time for your comments. Some listeners felt our recent interview with the Department of Energy's David Garman about the Freedom Car Initiative, or hydrogen vehicles, left some important questions unasked. Scott Reuman hears us on KUNC in Greeley, Colorado and wrote, "I haven't heard you, or anyone, ask what the source is for hydrogen in the proposed fuel cells for auto use. It is my understanding that current designs call for fracturing crude oil, a hydrocarbon, to extract the hydrogen. If that, indeed, is still the case, then the fuel cells themselves may be a clean technology, but the affect of deriving hydrogen from oil will actually make the pollution and CO2 worse than the current internal combustion engines."

Lots of you enjoyed our report on artist, Janet Cardiff, and found themselves transported by her "audio walks." WUWM listener Patty Zager, from Milwaukee, wrote in with her appreciation for the piece. "The excerpt was positively enchanting," she said. "Thank you so much for the afternoon escape."

And Georgia Public Radio listener Sydney Bacchus let us know she appreciated our story about extreme nature photography. She writes that she was glad to hear that other people shared her concern over professional nature photographers who portray only the full bosom centerfold nature shots. "Here, in the southeastern United States," she writes, "I have been pleading with professional nature photographers to use their skills also for portraying the atrocities. How else can we get the message to the people?"

You can get a message to us by calling our listener line anytime at (800) 218-9988. That's (800) 218-9988. Or, write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our email address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. Tape, CDs and transcripts are $15.00.

[MUSIC OUT]

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Bhopal

CURWOOD: Eighteen years after the deadliest chemical accident in history occurred in Bhopal, India, a U.S. federal judge has ordered the Union Carbide Corporation to disclose documents related to the disaster. The ruling is the latest in the saga that began in early December, 1984. Over two days, clouds of lethal gas escaped from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, killing thousands of residents. Eventually, the Indian government negotiated an out-of-court settlement, and some money has been distributed to victims. But health problems, and environmental contamination, still continue to plague Bhopal.

Paul Watson, the South Asia Bureau Chief for The Los Angeles Times, recently visited the accident site, which he describes as a rusting hulk.

WATSON: You can see the towers, similar to the one where the December, 1984 leak occurred from. They're rusting through in parts. There are old warehouses, and storage areas with broken windows, bags of what appears to be chemicals, or old pesticides that have been broken open, and are spilling out onto the floor. We didn't have a long time to look around in there because there were guards stationed at the gate, which we had to work our way past.

CURWOOD: What's the security like there? Are kids kept out of the area, and that sort of thing? Or, can anyone just walk right through it?

WATSON: That is the strange thing. We got a lot of attention, as journalists, on the site trying to find out what state it was in and taking photographs and such. But if you cross the road to a very large containment pond, which was used for years to dump raw chemicals in so that they could evaporate, children walk through it, and play in this large pond. We counted at least a dozen, in two separate groups, wading waste-deep in this stuff. There were no security guards or police there to stop them.

CURWOOD: What are some of the chemicals that are in the area now?

WATSON: Well, this is another mystery so many years after. It was methyl isocyanide gas that leaked from the plant, which caused so many deaths. But to this day, Union Carbide insists that it is a trade secret, the formula for the chemicals which were used there. So people have done, from various different groups, analysis of the soil, and the water, and determined, in some studies, that there were probably about 65 different chemicals that were involved in the gas leak itself.

CURWOOD: What's the health situation for people around Bhopal? I know some activist groups contend that ten or fifteen people still die every month as a result of the accident, and ongoing contamination.

WATSON: There were more than a million people who made claims that their health had been affected by it. Tribunals, which were set up by the Indian government to hear these claims, rejected more than half of those. The only scientific studies into the longer-term effects, such as birth defects, cancers, and other suspected illnesses, were being carried out by a state-run Indian medical institution.

And about six years ago, unceremoniously, the plug was pulled on that research. And they were looking into various things, including the suspicion of birth defects, and carcinogenic effects. But also things such as the suspicion that cases of depression could be connected to the inhalation of this gas, as well as actual long-term brain damage.

CURWOOD: Why was that government research into the after-effects of the accident halted, Paul?

WATSON: No formal reason was given for it. The suggestion that's made in-court documents is that the research was going nowhere; that there wasn't much substance to what they were finding. And therefore, it wasn't necessary to continue it. In different studies, certainly Indian experts felt they were on to something. But they weren't allowed to continue to either conclude that it was a false fear, or that it was a real fear.

CURWOOD: Paul, there was a settlement that the Indian government brokered with Union Carbide for victims of the accident back in 1989. Whatever happened to that money?

WATSON: Well, the total sum was $470 million, which was a large sum of money in those days. And, in some respects, still is, certainly for the people who were the main victims of this leak. If they were able to get larger than the $580 average settlements that they received, or around $1300 in the case of deaths, they would be much better off than they are.

There is a mystery surrounding that $470 million. And most estimates are that more than half of it is still in the government central bank vault. That is more than half of what the $470 million would have risen to with interest. The problem is no one really knows how much of it's left because the government has not done a full accounting, publicly, of what funds are available still.

People who continue to appeal to the Supreme Court, and are still fighting in the United States for more compensation, insist that they're giving out the bare minimum to these victims. And in the end, the rest of it is just disappearing.

CURWOOD: Paul Watson is the South Asia bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. He joined us from New Delhi. Thanks for your time, Paul.

WATSON: Thank you.

[MUSIC: In The Nursery, "Kotow," KODA (WaxTrax - 1988)]

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Kiwis

CURWOOD: Just as Americans look to the bald eagle, the people of New Zealand turn to the kiwi as their national symbol. Kiwis are large and flightless. And they evolved in the absence of predatory mammals. But, 200 years ago, Europeans came to New Zealand. And the cats, dogs and other mammals they brought set the kiwi on the path to extinction.

Allan Coukell has our story about an effort to save one of the most endangered populations of kiwi.

[SOUND OF BOAT STARTING]

MAN: Come up through here and go across that way I'm going to have you right behind.

COUKELL: In the harbor at Picton, New Zealand, two young birds in a plywood box are loaded aboard a boat. They started their journey 500 miles south of here, in a dense and tangled rainforest. Now they'll spend an hour crossing from the mainland to a small, offshore island. This is Operation Nest Egg, an ambitious attempt to save the kiwi.

[SOUND OF BOAT AND KIWI]

COUKELL: One hundred years ago, about five million kiwi could be heard at night in New Zealand's forests. Now, the kiwi population is less than two percent of its historical size and numbers are halving every decade.

[KIWI SINGING]

COUKELL: The kiwi is an ancient bird. Found only in New Zealand, it diverged from its other flightless relative, the African Ostrich, and the Australian Emu, more than 80 million years ago. Hugh Robertson is the coordinator of research with the New Zealand Department of Conservation Kiwi Recovery Program. He says, with it's shaggy, hair-like feathers, long, slim beak and whiskers, and the keen sense of smell it uses for finding insects and worms, the kiwi is well-adapted for life on the forest floor.

ROBERTSON: They have all sorts of unusual features such as nostrils at the tip of the bill, rather than at the base of the bill. They have no tail, which is unique amongst birds. Their wings are really short little stumps, only an inch long. They run around at night on the forest floor hunting out invertebrates. And, yeah, they're quite an interesting creature.

COUKELL: Adult kiwi are tough and fast, and have sharp claws. It's the juvenile birds that are more vulnerable to predators. The most endangered population of kiwi is found in Okarito Forest on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island. And their main enemy is a weasel-like carnivore, the stout.

Chris Rickard is the manager of the Okarito Brown Kiwi Recovery Program. In 1996, he surveyed the entire 25,000 acres of Okarito Forest, finding fewer than 200 kiwi. Even worse, Rickard says, was discovering the mortality rate among young kiwi.

RICKARD: We've monitored 26 chicks and we've lost 24 of those. We know that the survival rate is very, very low. It's estimated at 96 percent mortality.

COUKELL: So Rickard and his colleagues at the Department of Conservation devised a plan to keep the baby kiwis away from predators until they're big enough to fend for themselves.

RICKARD: We have 30 pairs that we monitor throughout the forest. And during the birding season they get checked once a fortnight to determine whether they're breeding. And all the chicks and eggs from those piers are taken into captivity. We didn't have the funding and the ability to trial the large-scale stoat control, so we went with something to buy us time.

COUKELL: The captivity program, better known as Operation Nest Egg, works like this. The adult kiwi are left undisturbed in the forest while they incubate their eggs. This takes a surprisingly long time, about 75 days. But just before the eggs hatch, or very soon after, the young kiwi are removed from the forest. After only a few days in captivity the hatchlings are able to forage for food on their own and they're relocated to an island sanctuary.

[SOUND OF BOAT AND WATER]

COUKELL: The boat from Picton pulls up at Motuara Island. Conservation workers unload their gear onto the pier and a few minutes later carry the wooden box of kiwis up a steep trail into the bush.

[SOUND OF HIKING THROUGH FOREST]

COUKELL: A mile long and a few hundred yards wide, Motuara Island is a slip of land covered in a scrubby forest. Ron van Merlo is the Department of Conservation field worker who will release the kiwi chicks today. He says the island is ideal because it's far enough from the mainland to keep it free of stoats.

VAN MERLO: This is quite a good spot for them to just have a gentle introduction to the wilderness, get to learn a few things away from predators, learn how to fend for themselves, feed themselves, look for places to shelter, do normal kiwi things in a easier sort of environment.

COUKELL: Van Merlo sits on the forest floor, holding the birds on his lap.

VAN MERLO: You just want to hold them.

[SOUND OF BIRDS]

COUKELL: His large, strong hands move gently and methodically, checking each chick a final time before releasing it on the island.

VAN MERLO: They've got very strong legs. The rest of them is a little bit fragile, so we just handle them by the legs so that they don't get squashed.

[KIWI CHICKS CHIRPING]

COUKELL: These are the last of 24 kiwi chicks released on Motuwara Island this year. All of them wear radio tracking devices. And every few weeks for an entire year, Ron Van Merlo or another field worker will find each bird and check its growth and physical condition.

[SOUND OF RADIO DEVICES]

VAN MERLO: So this is TX -45. So now I'm just going to tape its legs up to weigh it. It looks a bit drastic, but hang them upside-down from the hook of the scales-- So long as the bird's not obviously really stressing out about it all, hanging them up briefly upside-down doesn't do them no harm. That's 1.05, which is good.

COUKELL: By the end of the year the birds will quadruple in size, up to almost four pounds. They'll then be big, fast, and smart enough to defend themselves against stoats and they'll be moved back to Okarito Forest on the mainland. With each individual chick taken from the forest, moved hundreds of miles, handled dozens of times and eventually transferred home again, this is an extremely labor-intensive process. It's also about to end.

Four years of Operation Nest Egg have bolstered Okarito kiwi numbers by almost a third, giving conservation staff the time and confidence to develop a large-scale pest control operation right in Okarito Forest. They hope this will insure that the timeless call of the kiwi continues into the future.

For Living on Earth I'm Alan Coukell on Motuwara Island, New Zealand.

[CALL OF KIWI]

[MUSIC: David Hudson, "Talkative Didgeridoo"]

Related link:

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Superfund [audio only]

[no transcript available; audio only]

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living On Earth.

CURWOOD: Next week--

MAN: Avast 'ye swabs.

CURWOOD: -- we're off in search of buried treasure. But instead of sextants and compasses we'll use satellite technology and the Global Positioning System to find our precious booty.

MAN: We've got a Cleveland Browns miniature football, which is kind of cute; a Bicycle poker deck; the ever-present golf balls-- if you do a lot of geocaching, you discover there's a lot of golf- balls out there; a yo-yo. Oh, how cheap. Someone put an AOL disk in here. That's bad. (Laughs.)

CURWOOD: It's the wide world of geocaching, next time, on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC OUT]

[Ted Levin & Joel Gordon, "Tuvan Roundup," THE DREAMS OF GAIA (EarthEar - 2002)]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week with evidence that imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. While traveling through Siberia, reporters Ted Levin and Joel Gordon met two young yak musicians who, accompanied by Jew's harp, proceeded to imitate the calls of the many animals that inhabit the frozen plains. The result is called "Tuva Round-up."

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, Jessica Penney, and Gernot Wagner, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Bree Horowitz, and Milisa Muniz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Rachel Girshick and Jessie Fenn. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.

Our Technical Director is Dennis Foley, Ingrid Lobet 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 Hewitt Foundation for coverage of western issues, the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network-- Living on Earth's expanded Internet service.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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