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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

October 22, 2004

Air Date: October 22, 2004

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The Costs of Fracking

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Over the past few years, Halliburton has led the effort to exempt a specific drilling technique from environmental regulation. The technology called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces oil out of the ground under enormous pressure. The vice president’s Energy Task Force included language that supports fracking in the energy bill, now under Senate consideration. The EPA has determined the technique poses no threat to drinking water supplies. And yet residents who live near fracking projects complain of carbonated and polluted drinking water. Host Steve Curwood talks with Wes Wilson, an engineer with EPA, who’s filed criticism against the agency for its lack of scientific review. Tom Hamburger, who’s covered the issue for the Los Angeles Times, also joins the conversation. (12:45)

Political Swing Dance / Jeff Young

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The presidential candidates aren’t the only ones swinging through battleground states these days. Their top environmental officials and advisors are also stumping on the campaign trail. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on how election year politics could interfere with environmental protection. (04:30)

Bottoms Up for Once Lowly Mezcal / Jana Schroeder

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Efforts are underway to lift mezcal up from its reputation as a poor man’s drink to one that can compete on the market with its better-known cousin, tequila. To reach that goal, ecologists are working with mezcal farmers and producers to make a product that is valued for its unique and diversified taste, and that is environmentally friendly, as well. Jana Schroeder reports. (08:30)

Farewell to a Pig / Sy Montgomery

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Commentator Sy Montgomery pays tribute to her beloved pet pig, Christopher Hogwood. (03:30)

Environmental Health Note/Online M.D. / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on a study that suggests too much knowledge from the Internet could affect your health. (01:20)

The Great Tree of Avalon

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Wizards, elves and dwarves are the creatures that star in T.A. Barron’s fantasy novels, but there’s also a more subtle character that runs throughout: nature. The author hopes his readers will pick up an appreciation and respect for the environment as they page through his latest trilogy, "The Great Tree of Avalon: The Child of the Dark Prophecy." Host Steve Curwood talks with Barron about his own childhood, and the kids in real life who inspire his plots. (15:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Weston Wilson, Tom Hamberger, T.A. BarronREPORTERS: Jeff Young, Jana SchroederCOMMENTATOR: Sy MontgomeryNOTE: Jennifer Chu

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.

[THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood.

CURWOOD: Halliburton and former CEO Dick Cheney are under scrutiny again, this time at home. There are allegations the company is using its sway with the vice president to avoid laws to protect drinking water when it uses a drilling technique called fracking.

HAMBERGER: And what we found there was, I guess you would say, three for three. In all three cases, the administration came down on behalf of this technique against regulation, and in behalf of the position taken by the vice president’s former employer.

CURWOOD: Also, viva mezcal! Demand is up for Mexico’s latest liquor export, but growers say that won’t strain the environment.

LARSON: It’s part of the personality of mezcal to be diverse, so that in a sense has a lot of nice echoes between biological diversity and also the diversity of taste.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

[NPR NEWSCAST]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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The Costs of Fracking

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

We’ve heard a lot in the past year about Halliburton, the corporation formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, and its activities in Iraq. Now, two reporters at the Los Angeles Times have uncovered a series of measures the White House has taken here at home that would benefit a key oil and gas drilling technology developed by Halliburton. It’s called hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. And critics say, in certain cases, it can endanger drinking water supplies.

The national energy bill, which was overseen by the vice president’s Energy Task Force, includes language that encourages fracking. And Halliburton has lobbied extensively to exempt this practice from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

A recent study by the EPA stated that fracking does not pose a threat to drinking water supplies; Weston Wilson thinks otherwise. He’s an environmental engineer for the EPA in Denver, and has sought whistleblower protection in order to criticize the agency, claiming its review of fracking lacks scientific objectivity. He joins me now from the studios of KCFR in Denver. Also joining me is Tom Hamberger, one of the LA Times reporters who uncovered this story. Gentlemen, hello.

WILSON: Hello, Steve.

HAMBERGER: Good to be with you.

CURWOOD: Tom, I want to start with you. This is a pretty complex investigation you’ve done here for your paper. How did this story first get on your radar screen?

HAMBERGER: Steve, we were in the course of this year, like a lot of other reporters, taking a look at the Bush administration record broadly in the area of environmental and energy policy. And after writing one of our stories, we heard from an EPA employee – a former employee, not Mr. Wilson, who’s on the air with us now, but a EPA employee who worked with the White House Energy Task Force back in 2001. What he described to us was what he thought of as a kind of peculiar interest on the part of the vice president’s office with a portion of this White House Energy Task Force report that affected a drilling technique that was pioneered by Halliburton Corporation. As you might imagine, that got our attention, and that is really the genesis of this story that you have in front of you today.

CURWOOD: Now, Tom, you write that there was an EPA study to determine the environmental effects of this drilling technique. And before we get into that, I’d like to get an idea of what exactly fracking is, as those in the industry call it. And Wes Wilson, you’re an environmental engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency, perhaps you’re the best one to answer this for us.

WILSON: Yes, Steve. Well, hydraulic fracturing in coal beds is the process of pumping a thickened fluid into a well that exceeds the capacity of the coal bed to accept it. And they increase the pressure in the injected fluid, which results in cracks or fissures, allowing a path for those injected fluids to move along those newly formed fractures. And here’s the most important thing for your listeners: while the hydraulic fracturing process in oil and gas has been done in conventional geologic traps since the ‘50s, this is a relatively new practice in coal bed methane.

CURWOOD: So, how did politics get involved with this drilling technique? Tom?

HAMBERGER: One of the things that we learned, Steve, was that through the 1990s, largely as a result of a lawsuit brought by some residents of Alabama, there were environmental concerns about widespread use of the technique. In most cases it’s perfectly safe, but in Alabama some residents claim that their drinking water was fouled after fracturing companies, of which Halliburton is the world leader, injected chemicals underground. EPA was ordered to oversee the regulation of this technique under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and from that time in the mid-1990s it became a priority of the fracturing industry – of which Halliburton again is the leader – to seek exemption from federal regulation.

CURWOOD: Now, the EPA study concluded that fracking poses no threat to drinking water and, therefore, it doesn’t have to be regulated under federal drinking water laws. But, Wes Wilson, you filed a statement under the whistleblower protection that says that the study was scientifically unsound. This puts you in a somewhat vulnerable spot, I’d guess right now. Why did you decide to take this action?

WILSON: Well, I did this for three reasons. First, EPA did not follow its own science policy, which required EPA to obtain water quality data in each one of these basins to determine whether the water, the groundwater, remained safe for drinking. Second, EPA’s decisions are not consistent with the law, they’re not consistent with the Safe Drinking Water Act. And third, EPA relied upon a peer-review panel which itself had conflicts of interest.

CURWOOD: Let’s look at those one at a time. First, the peer-review panel. What was the problem there?

WILSON: Well, EPA didn’t follow its own science policy. This policy that EPA has is that reviewers should be free of real or even perceived conflicts of interest. Yet five of these seven-member panels appear to have a conflict of interest. They include an engineer who worked at Halliburton; a manager who worked at the Gas Technology Institute, an organization of the industry; an engineer of BP Amoco; and two professors who had worked for the oil and gas industry. The sixth member was a state regulator who worked for Amoco in the past, and the seventh member worked at the Department of Energy’s Sandia Lab. Well, in my view, this is not a peer-review. This is simply, I think, a thin veneer cover over what is a scientifically unsound study, while the scientific process of peer review was abandoned.

CURWOOD: Seems to me it would be simple enough just simply to test the water. Why did the EPA choose not to test the water?

WILSON: Well, that was one of my first reasons for objecting. EPA has no data on the amount of fluids injected, what remains in the ground, whether the groundwater will be unusable to drink, or what those health risks are. Yet EPA reached this unsupportable and scientifically unsound conclusion that hydraulic fracturing of coal bed methane poses little or no threat to drinking water supply.

CURWOOD: Tom Hamberger, you’ve been working on this case for a while. What’s your sense of what the risk might be to the public?

HAMBERGER: Well, fracturing generally occurs safely in most cases. It’s been widely used and is widely used without incident in most cases. However, we ran across in Alabama, and in numerous other states, accounts that fracturing may, in some cases, have inadvertently fouled drinking water supplies. We did talk with some of the Alabama plaintiffs who brought suit against EPA saying this must be regulated. And while their case was not proven because there wasn’t a timely investigation of their claims, what they described was quite dramatic. Which is, almost immediately after wells near their property were fractured, they turned on their taps at home and discovered literally carbonated water coming out. It was bubbling and it contained small specks that looked like maybe coal specks, and also a gelatinous fluid that appeared, one of them said--if you’ll forgive me for saying it on air – it seemed just like snot but it was running all through the water. Unfortunately, there were not scientific tests, lab results available to show exactly what was in this stuff. But I can tell you that the residents of Alabama that we talked with feel very strongly that it was fracturing that led to this strange results when they turned on their taps.

CURWOOD: And I guess the number one lesson in any investigative reporting is to follow the money. So I’m wondering, what kind of money trail did you find in this story?

HAMBERGER: Well, that’s the old investigative reporter’s moniker, you got it. And what we wanted to see, indeed, was this technique important to Halliburton? And we found the technique was pioneered by Halliburton. The first test of hydraulic fracturing commercially was done by Halliburton in about 1949. And we learned subsequently that three companies dominated the business worldwide, and that for Halliburton the hydraulic fracturing business brings in about $1.5 billion annually – about a fifth of its energy-related revenues.

Second, we found that the company had intervened in the lawsuit that I referred to earlier in Alabama. It notified the court that the technique, and regulation of it, could have a serious impact on Halliburton’s financial future. So that’s the money trail to the company, if you will. That’s why Halliburton, and the other two companies that dominate this technique worldwide, had a strong interest in whether or not the federal government chooses to regulate it.

And then there’s a controversy, ongoing, of Vice President Cheney’s ongoing financial interest in Halliburton.

CURWOOD: Well, what is the nature of the conflict of interest here possibly involving the vice president? I mean, he was at one point the chief executive officer of Halliburton and, I gather, during some of the time that the questions were being raised about this fracturing technique.

HAMBERGER: Well, one, the vice president does continue to receive deferred compensation from Halliburton; and second, he has several hundred thousand stock options to purchase Halliburton stock, which are unexercised. Under normal circumstances, the Congressional Research Service concluded, even with agreements to donate those profits to charity, or to have an insurance policy so that the payments occur whether the company survives or not – even so, the Congressional Research Service said, conflict of interest rules would apply to a typical federal employee. However, these rules do not apply to the vice president of the United States. And the vice president has said emphatically that he has severed his ties to Halliburton. His Democratic opponents and some in Congress disagree, and we just have to leave the facts out there, I guess, as I’ve described them. Let the readers decide.

CURWOOD: Tom Hamberger, as you have looked into this story, to what extent, at the end of the day, do you feel that Vice President Cheney’s connection to Halliburton, and his position as vice president, has been used really to forestall the implementation of regulations of this technique?

HAMBERGER: Steve, that was a good question, and it’s very much the one that editors posed to us at the outset of this project. And I have to tell you, it’s a little bit difficult to answer with great certainty because the vice president’s office, particularly under this vice president, is unusually secretive in its deliberations and its discussion in general and especially associated with this Energy Task Force report. What we were able to conclude was that the vice president’s office was directly involved in discussions with EPA over how to represent, how to discuss this technique in its energy policy report.

And the second thing we decided to do was to look at what, in effect, is the bottom line. What did the administration do with the regulatory questions in front of it regarding this practice? And what we found there was, I guess you would say, three for three; in all three cases, the administration came down on behalf of this technique against regulation, and in behalf of the position taken by the vice president’s former employer.

CURWOOD: Wes Wilson is an environmental engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency’s office in Denver, and Tom Hamberger is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times based in Washington. Thank you both for speaking with me today.

HAMBERGER: Thank you, Steve.

WILSON: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: In response to Weston Wilson’s accusations, EPA Press Secretary Cynthia Bergman says the EPA’s study was submitted to “a scientific peer review panel of experts from industry, academia and government agencies.” Ms. Bergman also said the EPA decided it would not look further into the matter because “the EPA was unable to identify confirmed cases where drinking water was contaminated in their study in Alabama.”

Wendy Hall, Director of Public Relations at Halliburton, says the company has ended its practice of using diesel fuel for hydraulic fracturing. As for the selection of one of its employees on the peer review panel for the EPA study, Ms. Hall says “we had no expectation of specific benefit from his participation, and, in fact, were not aware of it until after he was chosen.”

A spokesman for the vice president has told reporters deliberations of the Energy Task Force are confidential, a matter of principle Mr. Cheney is defending in federal court.

CURWOOD: Just ahead-- move over flavored vodka and single malt scotch, and make room at the bar for a new drink that’s also good for the environment: varietal mezcal. Coming up on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Buddy Emmons “Silver Bell” AMAZING STEEL GUITAR: THE BUDDY EMMONS COLLECTION (Razor & Tie – 1997)]

CURWOOD: In response to Weston Wilson’s accusations, EPA Press Secretary Cynthia Bergman says the EPA’s study was submitted to “a scientific peer review panel of experts from industry, academia and government agencies.” Ms. Bergman also said the EPA decided it would not look further into the matter because “the EPA was unable to identify confirmed cases where drinking water was contaminated in their study in Alabama.”

Wendy Hall, Director of Public Relations at Halliburton, says the company has ended its practice of using diesel fuel for hydraulic fracturing. As for the selection of one of its employees on the peer review panel for the EPA study, Ms. Hall says “we had no expectation of specific benefit from his participation, and, in fact, were not aware of it until after he was chosen.”

A spokesman for the vice president has told reporters deliberations of the Energy Task Force are confidential, a matter of principle Mr. Cheney is defending in federal court.

CURWOOD: Just ahead-- move over flavored vodka and single malt scotch, and make room at the bar for a new drink that’s also good for the environment: varietal mezcal. Coming up on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Buddy Emmons “Silver Bell” AMAZING STEEL GUITAR: THE BUDDY EMMONS COLLECTION (Razor & Tie – 1997)]

Related link:
EPA Study of Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing
Hydraulic Fracturing: A Primer (Oklahoma State) [PDF]">

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Political Swing Dance

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Recent travel schedules for some top environmental officials in the Bush administration show them spending most of their official travel time in the hotly contested states in the presidential election. Some conservation groups complain that’s improper, and warn that election year politics could interfere with environmental protection. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from Washington.

YOUNG: Back in June, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt announced some grant awards in Wisconsin. Communities there were getting money to clean up old industrial sites under the brownfields redevelopment program. Leavitt had a little trouble with some of the Wisconsin town names.

LEAVITT: The village of A-Ashwonimbinwah? Did I get that close?

CROWD: (LAUGHTER) WOMAN: Close.

LEAVITT: Close? Okay. The city of Delavan?

YOUNG: Since then, Leavitt’s had plenty of practice on his pronunciation, with four more public events in Wisconsin. Leavitt also had 11 events in Michigan. And he’s been a frequent visitor to Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. One thing these states have in common: they’re all up for grabs in the presidential race. Leon Billings of the non-partisan environmental group Clean Air Trust says that’s probably not a coincidence.

BILLINGS: That’s a very clever and probably modestly, in a modest way, effective technique to use public funds to accomplish political purpose.

YOUNG: Mike Leavitt’s travel schedule shows 38 public events in battleground states since June, and just 16 trips to so-called safe states, where the presidential race is not close. Leavitt’s also handing out a lot of money at some of these events. Four of the five largest brownfields grants this year, totaling some 23 million dollars, went to four battleground states. EPA press secretary Cynthia Bergman denies election politics played any role in the grants or in Leavitt’s travel.

BERGMAN: He’s a very active administrator who keeps a very busy travel schedule.

YOUNG (TO BERGMAN): But no connection whatsoever between his travel schedule and the political terrain?

BERGMAN: No! I think that minimizes what he’s doing and the business of this agency. A lot of these environmental problems the administrator wants to see first-hand. A lot of these states or counties that we’re going to who have some of the worst air quality problems in the country, some of them happen to be in battleground states.

YOUNG: Other Bush environmental officials are also spending a lot of time in the battlegrounds. Of Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s 31 trips since June, 26 were to swing states. Norton’s deputy secretary, Rebecca Watson, recently spent a weekend picking up litter in a popular recreation area in the swing state of Nevada. And White House Council on Environmental Quality Director James Connaughton had events in the battlegrounds of West Virginia and Florida.

So, is there anything wrong with this apparent mix of election year politics and environmental policy? Trevor Potter is president of the Campaign Legal Center, a non- partisan watchdog group that follows campaign law. Potter says he sees no violation of law or ethics, although directing so much official business to swing states could push the ethical line.

POTTER: It’s probably dancing. Where you’d fall off the line is where the campaign is requesting appearances in particular states or if there is any record that these events are being scheduled only in these states for political purposes.

YOUNG: Potter says it’s certainly nothing new for incumbents to press their political advantage by lavishing attention on the states that matter most. Bush administration critics say what is new is the matter of degree.

Roger Ballentine is an environmental advisor to Senator Kerry’s campaign and was President Clinton’s deputy assistant for environmental initiatives. Ballentine echoes what other Clinton-era officials claim: that the Bush administration has greatly politicized environmental protection.

BALLENTINE: We certainly did not do it to this extent. This is a pretty extraordinary change of course. And I don’t think it’s unprecedented to target officials to key states, but I’ve never seen it quite at this scale.

YOUNG: The Clean Air Trust’s Billings says that could carry a cost for an agency like the EPA, which needs some distance from partisan politics in order to fulfill its regulatory role.

BILLINGS: To the extent that the Environmental Protection Agency is perceived as practicing partisan politics it will hamper its effectiveness.

YOUNG: If that happens, Billings warns, the environment could end up the real loser in this election. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

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Bottoms Up for Once Lowly Mezcal

CURWOOD: Perhaps the best known liquor from Mexico is tequila. But tequila has a cousin called mezcal that’s also made from the agave plant, and it’s gaining in popularity. Mezcal used to be known as a poor man’s drink, with a worm at the bottom of the bottle, and mostly enjoyed by locals. For years it was outlawed, and that made for unpredictable quality and little availability for the lucrative export market. But now, high-quality, premium mezcal is edging its way into international trade with a marketing twist: small producers are branding their mezcal as an environmentally-friendly product, locally grown and produced. Jana Schroeder has our report from the Mexican state of Guerrero.

[ROOSTER CROWING; BACKGROUND NOISE]

(Photo courtesy of GEA, AC)

SCHROEDER: The dusty roads winding through the Chilapa region of Guerrero lead to endless hillsides of tropical dry forest. Little vegetation survives here. But one plant that does is the agave, also known as maguey. It’s a succulent plant that opens up like a huge spiky flower sprouting from the ground, but instead of petals, it has green, fleshy leaves with spines at the tips. Local farmers have long put it to use —to make mezcal, a traditional drink.

[MAN SPEAKING SPANISH]

SCHROEDER: Moises Calzada is one of the local mezcal masters. He learned how to make it as a boy, watching his father. Researchers date the tradition at least as far back as the 1600s. Today, Mr. Calzada is carefully selecting maguey plants —that grow wild here— for this year’s batch of mezcal.

[CHOPPING SOUNDS]

A farmer chops off the outer leaves of the maguey plant. The heart of the plant is used to make mezcal. (Photo courtesy of GEA, AC)

SCHROEDER: With a special, sharp-bladed tool, Mr. Calzada chops off the thick leaves, exposing the heart of the maguey, where all the sugars for making mezcal are concentrated.

[CALZEDA SPEAKING SPANISH]

SCHROEDER: Mr. Calzada leads me to a fire pit for roasting the maguey hearts. He explains that firewood is placed at the bottom of a deep hole in the ground.

[ROCKS BEING THROWN]

A fire pit used for roasting maguey hearts. (Photo courtesy of GEA, AC)

SCHROEDER: Then a thick layer of rocks are thrown in, leaving a hole in the center to light the firewood. Later, maguey hearts will be placed on top of the burning rocks, covered with palm leaves, and left to roast for five or six days —this is what gives mezcal its smoky flavor.

[BUBBLING SOUNDS]

SCHROEDER: Not far away, another mezcal master is at work. Here, the maguey hearts have already been roasted and mashed, and the bubbling pulp is fermenting, in large tubs made of wood from local acayahuite trees.

[FIREWOOD DUMPED AND STACKED]

SCHROEDER: A load of firewood dumped on the ground was gathered from the surrounding hillsides and brought here by donkey. Three more loads will be needed as the source of heat for distilling this batch of mezcal. [WOMAN SPEAKING SPANISH] A woman tells us most people are careful to gather only dry, fallen wood — but environmentalists say deforestation is a growing concern.

ILLSLEY: Where we are standing here, we can see several different situations. We have some slopes where there are many trees that people use for firewood….(FADES UNDER]

SCHROEDER: Catarina Illsley is a biologist with the Mexico City-based Group for Environmental Studies. She points to some slopes where trees are still growing. And then to another slope where only maguey and palm are left.

ILLSLEY: All other vegetation has disappeared, it has probably been all cut down, and the degree of deterioration is not as great as on the next one which is quite deteriorated. You can see, there’s almost nothing there, except the bare soil.

SCHROEDER: She says once the trees and vegetation are gone, the soils here erode quickly.

ILLSLEY: We think maguey could play a very important role in stopping this process of erosion because maguey has this great capacity to grow in very limited situations, where there practically is no soil left.

SCHROEDER: Ms. Illsley’s environmental group is working in 30 communities here, together with a local farmers’ group called Sansékan Tinémi. They provide technical assistance for producing and marketing mezcal, while they’re promoting the sustainable management of natural resources.

Together, they’re reforesting trees used for firewood, and collecting seeds from magueys to grow seedlings and plant them back in their natural habitat. And they’ve closed off reserve areas to prevent over-grazing by cattle, sheep and goats —and allow the magueys to grow back on their own.

ILLSLEY: There are several reserves in different communities that have been closed off for, in some cases for seven years now, and there the forest has come back in a significant way.

SCHROEDER: Ms. Illsley sees the model they’re developing for mezcal as an alternative to the environmental damage caused from making tequila.

To make tequila, only one agave species is used, mostly in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The plants are cloned, and grown on large, single-crop plantations, in areas deforested or taken away from food crops. A lot of fertilizers and pesticides are used.

In contrast, mezcal is made from different species, with naturally-occurring pollination —mostly by bats that feed on nectar from the flowers. Ms. Illsley says this guarantees genetic diversity, plus, unlike tequila, no chemicals are used in the field or in distillation.

But, carving out a place in the market for mezcal isn’t easy.

LARSON: The high demand and the high prices that tequila has achieved is putting negative economic incentives for the development of and use of local magueys.

SCHROEDER: Jorge Larson works at Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity.

LARSON: One of the strategies that we need to do is add value to these local and regional varieties, so they can compete on fairer conditions in the market. So, we can appeal to the consumer in terms of telling him you’re drinking a mezcal that is environmentally responsible. But it has to be high quality mezcal.

SCHROEDER: New regulations, with on-site inspection and tighter controls, are aimed at guaranteeing quality and may bring higher prices. But some in Mexico are worried costs will also increase, and mezcal will become industrialized and homogenized. Jorge Larson says the identity of mezcal from specific regions should be protected, with local trademarks identifying the community it came from.

LARSON: The basic character of mezcal is its wild sense, it’s non-domesticated character. It’s part of the personality of mezcal, to be diverse, so that in a sense has a lot of nice echoes between biological diversity and also the diversity of taste. The bet is that the market will value this, that we have wild mezcal drinkers that value this.

SCHROEDER: In Mexico, there are growing numbers of mezcal connoisseurs.

[PEOPLE TALKING AND LAUGHING. CLANK OF A BOTTLE HITTING GLASS, POURING OF SHOT]

SCHROEDER: The people who came to this mezcal tasting in Mexico City are interested in supporting small producers who protect the environment and produce a chemical-free mezcal. The Group for Environmental Studies that organized the event, is following the scheme used for organic coffee and other fair trade products. The goal is to make the link between producers and consumers as direct as possible, while exporting high-quality products to the U.S. and Europe. Catarina Illsley points out that as recently as the 1970s, mezcal was not only unregulated but, in fact, illegal.

ILLSLEY: And so, now that it is open, there are those industrials, especially the big tequila companies, that are interested in investing in mezcal – which means taking all the benefits. And we think it shouldn’t go that way.

SCHROEDER: If her group has its way, small producers in Guerrero will receive a fair price for a premium mezcal. That’s come a long way since it was stored in a plastic jug and only shared with neighbors. For Living on Earth, I’m Jana Schroeder in Mexico.

[MUSIC: Vangelis “Song of White” ANTARCTICA-THE ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK (Polydor – 1983) ]

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Farewell to a Pig

MONTGOMERY: I have an embarrassing, and you might say oxymoronic, dilemma. I have a picky pig.

[PIG SOUNDS]

MONTGOMERY: Meet Christopher Hogwood, named in honor of the famous conductor.

CURWOOD: That’s Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery introducing us to her pig, Christopher Hogwood, a number of years a ago. Sadly, Sy’s beloved pet died recently and this is her tribute to him.

MONTGOMERY: First frost: to other people, it meant the season of fall color, or time to cut firewood, or go back to school. For us, first frost meant that the cold-damaged produce of all the gardens in Hancock, New Hampshire came rolling towards our pig sty.

Zucchini the size of baseball bats. Injured cucumbers. Shriveling pole beans. Frostbitten tomatoes. It appealed to that Yankee sense of thrift. “I don’t have to throw this away—I can give it to a pig!” And for folks all around town, our pig, Christopher Hogwood offered dinner and a show.

Watching a 750 pound hog enjoy his food is a wondrous spectacle. His greedy joy was glorious to witness. After eating every last scrap, he would lay down in the autumn sun to digest the harvest. Everyone in attendance could then touch his soft ears. We would rub his tight pink belly, and he would grunt contentedly in a swill-sodden swoon.

But this year, all those frostbitten vegetables go to the compost pile. Christopher Hogwood died in his sleep one night in May. He was 14 years old. That’s very old for a pig. How long do pigs live? Usually six months. That’s when most people think pigs should be slaughtered. But Christopher Hogwood had a different destiny. He lived with a vegetarian and a Jew.

Christopher Hogwood

Chris had a wide constituency. At almost every election he got some of the write-in votes. Hey, he weighed 750 pounds—he had true “gravitas.” He also sometimes appeared in the police log: Loose Pig. Our cop, Ed Caughlin—for 11 years he was our only full timer—used to carry apples in the cruiser in case Chris got out again—which he invariably did.

Everyone knew Christopher. His sty was a local destination. People brought their kids to see him. People brought their grandchildren. And they brought their slops. Here in our little corner of New Hampshire, Christopher’s death was front-page news. It was the lead story on the state page in the larger daily in Concord. Even the original Christopher Hogwood, the conductor, put a link to our Christopher’s obit on his web page.

When folks heard the news, they sent us so many flowers we filled every vase and started filling up the pickle jars. We got sympathy cards and emails literally from around the world. People knew him who hadn’t met him because of the Christmas cards we sent out every year, showing him fatter and happier.

What was it about him that touched people so? Christopher knew how to relish the juicy savor of this abundant, sweet, green world. That was a great thing for us all to witness, and to remember. And he showed us the uplifting truth that a great soul can appear at any time--in any creature.

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery lives in New Hampshire and is a frequent contributor to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Angelo Badalamenti “Laura’s Theme” MOVIE KILLERS (Telstar – 1996)]

Related link:
Christopher Hogwood’s obit in Monadnock Ledger">

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Environmental Health Note/Online M.D.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: where men fly as eagles and wizards fight for environmental justice—the mythical world of author T.A. Barron. First, this Environmental Health Note from Jennifer Chu.

[HEALTH NOTE THEME]

CHU: Knowledge is power. But for millions of people who suffer from chronic health conditions, too much knowledge may prove to be harmful. A recent review of studies on internet health services has found that people who use the web to diagnose, treat, or simply research their illnesses are likely to end up in worse health than if they had simply heeded their doctors’ advice.

The authors of the review examined studies that measured the effectiveness of Interactive Health Communication Applications, or IHCAs. An IHCA is any computer-based information source combined with an interactive component such as a chat room or online support group. Not surprisingly, researchers found that these applications help increase people’s knowledge about health related matters and offers them a sense of social support. But they also discovered that IHCAs had little effect on motivating behavior change, and a notably negative impact on the outcome of web users’ health.

The authors speculate that as people actively seek more information about their condition, they become less concerned. As a consequence, they are less motivated to take necessary action toward treatment. Another possibility is that web users may find information that leads them to disregard or contradict their doctors’ advice. In either case, researchers say that further study is needed to better understand the adverse relationship between net surfers and their health. That’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Jennifer Chu.

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

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Ford, committed to developing cleaner forms of transportation that don’t compromise your needs or the environment. Ford vehicles dot com back slash environment. The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at w-k-k-f dot org. This is NPR -- National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: The Ventures “Walk Don’t Run” REVENGE OF THE SURF INSTRUMENTALS (MCA – 1995)]

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The Great Tree of Avalon

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Books on the environment may not be on the top of kids’ reading lists these days, but to read one of T.A. Barron’s books, you might wonder why not. His fantasy novels, set in the mythical time of Merlin, are packed with dragon fights and wizard riddles and epic battles against evil. And readers might get so caught up in the action that they might not notice they’re also taking in some deep lessons on nature and ecology.

T.A. Barron, or Tom, as he’s known to his family and friends, joins me to talk about the latest of his ten novels: “The Great Tree of Avalon: Child of the Dark Prophecy.” It’s the first book of a new trilogy. Tom, welcome to Living on Earth.

BARRON: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, your books are geared towards young people, I think it’s fair to say. And much of your work outside of writing also involves young people.

BARRON: Young people of all ages.

CURWOOD: Of all ages, okay, and we’ll get to all that in a minute. But first, I want to get an idea of what you were like as a kid yourself. Think you were any different from kids today?

BARRON: (LAUGHS) Well I can’t say whether I was different from kids today, but I can say that I was different from a lot of the kids around me. And lucky enough, for starters, to grow up in two wonderful places: one was a little apple orchard home in New England where we could still find Indian arrowheads. And then, when I was about ten, we moved out to Colorado and my parents bought a ranch, a quarter-horse ranch under the shadow of Pike’s Peak and great big blue skies so wide that made me feel like anything was possible. And with the sense of all that I grew up really feeling like nature was a friend. It wasn’t just a setting, it was a friend. So, when we would find old pieces of petrified wood on the ranch and my mother, who was a part-time geologist, would explain “this is more than 50 million years old, little ones.” You know, a sense of geologic time began to permeate my consciousness and gave me an awareness that human life is wonderful, but it’s only a small part of the grander wonder of all this creation. And it’s not just vast in terms of space but, also, time.

CURWOOD: Now, you say that you don’t know about kids of today being different from, but you felt somewhat different from your peers. Why?

BARRON: Well, for starters, I always enjoyed being close to the woods and outside. You know, I still enjoyed a lot of things that kids would enjoy, sports and the rest. But there was a special friendship out there that I had in that quiet place which gave me kind of a grounding that is especially important today. What I’m saying was that a lot of the kids I was around, a lot of the kids in my public high school just didn’t have any kind of a sense of wild places, open spaces, around them at all. That you know, if you were to ask them where the water came from in their house, they would say from the faucet. Or what does it feel like to walk barefoot among pine needles? They wouldn’t know. And I suppose that is worse today. And I fear for those people, I fear for our planet, because there are so many people who don’t have the opportunity or the exposure to those kind of experiences.

CURWOOD: So, let’s see, here you are growing up in New England, and then in Colorado, one of six children –

BARRON: One of seven. Although my parents did lose count every so often, thought it was six or eight. But usually it was seven.

CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) Now, with six brothers and sisters, I’m sure that you had your individual personalities. And I want to ask you if any of these personalities, or pieces of them, show up in your writing now? Because you got some pretty strong – in fact, I’d say downright stubborn – folks in your books.

BARRON: (LAUGHS) No doubt. You know, I think I have to tell you, I have one character who’s absolutely, no question about it, tied to my brother, Jim, who was the first guy to lead me up a mountain. Jim is a wonderful man and yet words don’t always come out they should, and he gave me a very clear idea of how one character could talk. And he’s actually, as it turns out, a lot of kids’ favorite character in “The Lost Years of Merlin” books.

CURWOOD: Just how does he speak?

BARRON: (LAUGHS) Well, he says everything in triplet, for one thing. He says “certainly, definitely, absolutely.” Or he will add –ly to the strangest words. So he’ll say ”maybely I’ll do that.” But that’s something that Jim sometimes falls into. And it gave me a great idea for how Shim should speak.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk now about your latest book, “The Great Tree of Avalon: Child of the Dark Prophecy.” It’s a great fantasy mythological tale. It’s set in the time of Merlin, and there are elves and dwarves and a dragon or two. And it all centers around one 17-year-old named Tamwyn. Could you introduce us please to Tamwyn?

BARRON: I’d be delighted. Tamwyn is a wandering wilderness guide. He’s 17 years old. He has no real sense of himself other than that he’s searching for his lost brother; he has no family that he remembers. He has a great kind of mysterious cloud about his future. And he would be the last person ever to describe himself as a hero. He’s bumbling and clumsy. He falls off of roofs when he’s thatching them. Yet he has somehow managed to pick up a lot of wisdom from nature in all those years as a wilderness guide – wisdom that serves him well when he has to really be put to the test in “The Great Tree of Avalon.”

CURWOOD: Now, Tom, throughout this book there’s this constant presence of nature – either in its full glory or in decimation. There’s this world of Merlin which is flowering, and healthy, and is a natural place. Then there’s this darker encroaching world where they’re clear-cut trees and things sort of smoldering and smoking, and drought, and where animals are made slaves, and such. Can you talk to me a bit about this dichotomy in the world that you’ve created here in Avalon?

BARRON: The Avalon of “The Great Tree of Avalon” is really very much a parable for our modern day world. I want you to imagine a world that for more than a thousand years has been the last place and time where all creatures of all kinds, all descriptions – some that live only as long as a heartbeat, and some that have been alive for more than that thousand years – all of them living together in the weave of this wonderful luminous tapestry of Avalon. And then, suddenly, a few of the threads begin to come apart. And that’s because of a few ideas that have to do with humanity’s superiority, that have to do with greed, that have to do with arrogance. And I don’t think we have to look very far to see those things in our world, and what it can do to pull apart the weave of our own wondrous fragile planet.

There’s no accident, Steve, that “The Great Tree of Avalon” is dedicated to Mother Earth – beleaguered and yet still bountiful, as I said in the dedication page. Because I want this book, with all of its adventure, and all of its emotion and romance and fun and humor and great old page-turning experience for the reader – I want it also to have some ideas underneath. Because nature has always been the greatest teacher for me, nature is often a great teacher for my characters.

After all, in “The Lost Years of Merlin” books, it’s a storm that teaches Merlin that he has hope to change his own life. When he sees the power of transformation of a storm, where he’s nearly killed by this terrible storm, and then suddenly it turns into a tranquil and serene forest all around him, where mist is rising everywhere and the smells are fresh and water runs down each tree. Then he realizes, well, maybe I have a chance to transform my own life. And that’s his beginning, that’s his way to becoming a wizard, ultimately.

The same is true of Tamwyn: it’s when he runs like a deer that he realizes he may have the power inside to do much more than he did before. And I think in the end, if Avalon survives – and I’m not gonna say how it’s gonna end – but in the third book of “The Great Tree of Avalon” you’ll see, ultimately, whether three young people with a shred of hope and a lot of wisdom from nature, can ultimately save this world from all those forces of greed and avarice that want to pull it apart.

CURWOOD: So, along with writing your novels you’ve also set up a “Young Heroes” prize, which is in honor of your mother.

BARRON: Right, right. It’s the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. This is a prize, first off, that’s all about one thing – and that is to turn the spotlight on remarkable young people, period. It’s kids who have stepped out and done something truly heroic. Who understand right from the cellular level what the difference is between a hero and a celebrity – something we’re massively confused about in our culture – and who go out and just try to make the world better somehow. More than half these kids every year have done something for the environment. Others have done things directly for their community. But, in every case, they’ve shown the kind of courage and perseverance, compassion, humor, that is really inspiring.

CURWOOD: You must come across some pretty interesting youth in the process of awarding this prize. Can you tell me a couple stories about some?

BARRON: Amazing kids. Amazing kids. Let me tell you a couple of stories. There’s Barbara Brown, a girl who grew up in West Texas. She’s black. She has a rural home in a place where recycling crude oil is not exactly the first thing on everybody’s priority list. She decided that it was really wasteful the way her parents and the neighboring ranchers would take oil that they hadn’t used and were ready to change out, and dump it on the ground. And she was worried what was going to happen to the water table, as well as about the waste. So she organized a recycling program in her county and called it “Don’t Be Crude.” And she has spread that idea now over, I think it’s, nine or ten different counties in West Texas.

There’s another story about a boy from Ontario who was so upset – his name is Ryan. He was so upset when his first grade teacher told him that kids were dying in Africa from bad drinking water that he spent his whole summer trying to earn the $200 that he was told it would take to buy a drinking well. And then when he brought it in to the local relief agency in Ontario they said “sorry kid, your numbers are wrong; it’s actually $2,000.” So this guy is seven years old, but instead of giving up he just went right back to work. He started cleaning windows, and doing all kinds of things, and he raised the money. And then, as it’s turned out, he’s now raised the money for, I think, 11 or 12 free wells that are for communities in Uganda and other places. And it’s a great thing to see.

Now, another example is a lovely young woman named Ellie Wen who just won the Barron Prize this year. She’s in San Francisco, and she was struck by how many kids who had English as a second language were really struggling. And to make it fun for them, but to also give them a sense that they could learn anything, she organized a troop of volunteers – who are now in the hundreds – who read poems and stories. And everything from Doonesbury comics to acts from Shakespeare’s plays and tape them as audio books, and give young people a way--through their computer, or through a tape or a CD--they can hear the language that they’re learning. And also experience the fun of it.

So those are three examples, and there are so many more.

CURWOOD: What if the winners of the Barron Prize have shown up as characters, or maybe a piece of a character, in your writings?

BARRON: (LAUGHS) Oh, I can’t think of any specific examples, but I can say that the mood of hope and inspiration that they give me definitely comes through in my books. As dark as the days get – and I think we’re in a dark time now in our society and in our planet – those young people really give me hope in a way that I haven’t found anywhere else, other than those moments of brightness that come from my own children. It’s a really striking thing to find young people out there determined to try to make a difference in a way, even if it’s not marked and not widely known, but who truly have that staying power to do it. And that’s why even, I think, with all the struggles that I have in all my books, that the young heroes – whatever their name, whether it’s Merlin or Kate or Anna – whatever their name, those kids have to go through misery, often, and great loss, before ultimately they come to that point of triumph. But they, in the end, always have a sense of hope. And I think it’s important for readers today to have that, whatever our age.

CURWOOD: T. A. Barron is the author of ten novels, including the epic “Lost Years of Merlin,” and the new trilogy, which begins with “The Great Tree of Avalon: Child of the Dark Prophecy.” Tom, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

BARRON: Thank you so much, Steve.

[MUSIC: Cirque de Soleil “Journey of Man” JOURNEY OF MAN (Sony Classical – 2000)]

Related link:
The Worlds of T.A. Barron
“The Great Tree of Avalon” (Philomel Press)">

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CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth - In drought-stricken northern New Mexico, pinon trees have come under attack by bark beetles and are dying at a rapid rate. But an audio artist has come to the rescue. He listens for sounds like these….

[INFESTED TREE SOUNDS]

CURWOOD: ...to find out if a tree is infested.

HARRILL: We can go out, insert a probe, listen for the presence of the beetle, and tell the property owner that this tree is, or this tree is not, infected. That can help them make the decisions on which ones to spray.

CURWOOD: It’s art for the sake of science – next time on Living on Earth. And remember you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot O-R-G.

[BIRD SONGS]

CURWOOD: We take you now to a bird symphony – at the break of dawn – deep in a forest in the heart of Poland.

[BIRD SONGS]

CURWOOD: Jean Roché recorded the sounds as they echoed through a nearby cathedral.

[EARTHEAR: Jean C. Roche “Bialowieja Forest” DAWNS OF THE WORLD (Sittelle – 1996)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Christopher Bolick, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Ingrid Lobet and Susan Shepherd - with help from Carl Lindemann, James Curwood and Kelley Cronin.

Our interns are Jennie Cecil Moore, Jenn Goodman and Steve Gregory. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. Al Avery runs our website. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.

I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form Ford, committed to developing cleaner forms of transportation that don’t compromise your needs or the environment. Ford vehicles dot com back slash environment; the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt and more. Women of Inspiration speak at the Stonyfield Strong Women programs taking place in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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