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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

January 20, 2006

Air Date: January 20, 2006



A Nuclear Incident "Worse Than Three Mile Island"

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In 1959 a partial meltdown occurred at the Boeing-Rocketdyne nuclear testing facility, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The incident released the third greatest amount of radioactive iodine in nuclear history. But no one really heard about it until Boeing recently settled a class-action suit filed by local residents. The plaintiffs complained of nuclear-related cancers and thyroid abnormalities caused by proximity to the facility. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Arjun Makhijani, who provided scientific testimony for the case, and Bonnie Klea, who was a secretary at the Boeing facility for eleven years following the 1959 accident. (12:00)

Sticky Situation Update / Jeff Young

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Earlier this month Living on Earth's Jeff Young told us about the health and safety questions surrounding the Teflon chemical known as C8,which contaminated drinking water around a DuPont plant in West Virginia. Now C8 is showing up in water near a DuPont facility in North Carolina and residents want officials to investigate. (02:00)

Hot on Solar / Ingrid Lobet

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California regulators have just approved incentives that could give homeowners and businesses a third off the expense of installing solar systems. They want to install seven times the total solar megawattage currently installed today in the United States over the next decade. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet speaks with two experts about the prospects. (07:00)

Life Bytes / Steven Cherry

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The time is not far away when you will be able to digitally capture your entire life – every sound, sight, phone call, everything you do--on your computer and put it all on a database the size of a matchbox for easy retrieval. Steven Cherry of Spectrum Magazine reports on Microsoft’s MYLIFEBITS project. (06:30)

Emerging Science Note/Sex in the Jungle / Rachel Gotbaum

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When plants compete for pollination, it's a jungle out there. Rachel Gotbaum has this week's Note on Emerging Science. (01:30)

Writers’ Ethics

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Several prominent opinion writers have recently lost their syndicated contracts because it was revealed by BusinessWeek Online that the writers had previously undisclosed financial arrangements with companies who paid them to write about a particular story or viewpoint. Eamon Javers, the Capitol Hill correspondent for Business Week who broke the story, talks with host Steve Curwood about why and how this breach of journalistic ethics seems to be happening. (05:45)

Urban Crow Invasion / Sy Montgomery

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Each winter Auburn, New York is invaded by hundreds of thousands of crows. No one knows exactly why the birds come to this small city upstate, but the scene they create – and the mess – has residents divided over whether to embrace the crows or drive them out. Sy Montgomery reports on efforts currently underway by pro-crow and anti-crow forces. (11:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Julie Blunden, Roberta Gamble, Bonnie Klea, Arjun Makhijani, Eamon Javers
REPORTERS: Steven Cherry, Sy Montgomery
NOTE: Rachel Gotbaum


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. A nuclear power accident that you may never have heard of.

MAKHIJANI: I estimate somewhere between 80 and 100 times bigger than the iodine-131 releases from Three Mile Island. That would make it the third largest release of iodine131 in a reactor accident in the history of nuclear power.

CURWOOD: The time: 1959. The place: about 30 miles from Los Angeles. The company, Boeing, has settled the suit filed by residents, but former employees say company officials have turned their backs on them.

KLEA: They're still fighting worker’s compensation. They’re still lying to the employees, telling them that their jobs didn’t give them cancer, when we’re all sick and some of us are dead.

CURWOOD: Also the pleasure – or is it pain? – from crows in a small city in New York state. Those stories and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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[MUSIC: Boards of Canada “Zoetrope” from ‘In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ (Warp Records – 2000)]

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

A Nuclear Incident "Worse Than Three Mile Island"

The Former Sodium Reactor Experiment Containment Building where the 1959 meltdown occurred. (Courtesy of DOE)

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

Nuclear power plant accidents. Chernobyl in the Ukraine, Windscale in the UK, and… the Santa Susana Field Lab in California. Those incidents are the top three releasers of radioactive iodine in nuclear power history. But number three slipped largely under the radar.

The Boeing-Rocketdyne Nuclear Facility, also referred to as the Santa Susana Field Lab, is located about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, near the Simi Valley area. And in 1959, a clogged coolant channel in a 20-megawatt nuclear reactor lead to the melting of 30 percent of the fuel elements in the reactor core.

The Former Sodium Reactor Experiment Containment Building where the 1959 meltdown occurred. (Courtesy of DOE)

Iodine-131 – that is, radioactive iodine – was released in doses estimated up to 100 times that of Three Mile Island, enough to cause various types of cancers and thyroid abnormalities, particularly in children under the age of 15. And while radioactive iodine only has an eight day half life, that’s more than enough time to get into the local dairy cows and contaminate the milk supply.

The facility also released many other radioactive materials, as well as other toxic chemicals, over a period of years. After an eight-year-long court battle, more than 100 local residents reached a settlement with Boeing-Rocketdyne.

Dr. Arjun Makhijani provided scientific testimony for the plaintiffs. He’s the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and a former advisor to the EPA on nuclear matters. Hello, sir.


CURWOOD: So, tell me the story of what happened in California. Now why is it that nobody ever heard about this?

MAKHIJANI: Well, it was a sodium-cooled reactor that had had a problem that had been detected in terms of contamination in the core, and they ran the reactor anyway. And then, in the middle of July, they had a partial meltdown and there was a release of radiation. The iodine-131 releases were between, I estimate, somewhere between 80 and 100 times bigger than the iodine-131 releases from Three Mile Island.

And there had been a reactor accident at Windscale in Britain two years prior which had an even larger release of iodine from there. And after attempting to sort of cover it up, or hide the consequences, in a day or two the British authorities decided to go largely public. They collected milk from a 200-square-mile area – I believe half a million gallons, if I remember the number correctly – and they dumped it. So they actually went and sampled the milk, collected it.

And I felt that at the time of the Rocketdyne accident, in 1959, that that example was available to the authorities. And yet, despite that public health example, they did not follow a sound procedure. And then the officials concluded that, “ah, well, although we don’t really understand the accident, we don’t think anything was released;” and that became the accepted theory for 45 years.

So, essentially, people were led to believe that there were no serious releases of radioactivity, especially in terms of iodine, from this accident. And so the subsidiary questions as to who was hurt, whether somebody got thyroid cancer, and so on, were not really raised until this lawsuit was filed.

CURWOOD: Just briefly explain the science of why iodine-131 would be of interest involving people’s health.

MAKHIJANI: Yes. Now, iodine-131 is a radioactive form of iodine – very radioactive – that’s produced in nuclear reactors when uranium is split and we generate energy. It’s the same as iodine in terms of how the body recognizes it, chemistry, so it goes to the thyroid. But when it gets to the thyroid, the radiation damages the thyroid – increases risk of cancer, and, at certain levels, increases risk of hypothyroidism, because part of the thyroid gets destroyed in children. It can have developmental effects.

CURWOOD: Now, you were brought in as an expert witness on the nuclear questions here. What was the lawsuit all about?

MAKHIJANI: Well the lawsuit was filed by neighbors of this plant, essentially alleging that the plant’s operation had caused a variety of health effects, especially cancers. Radioactivity wasn’t the only type of thing that was emitted from the site. They had chemicals, they had chromium, they had heavy metals, and so on. So it was a complicated case.

My own involvement as an expert involved primarily the radioactivity at the site, and estimating how much was released. The facility itself was quite complex. They had a huge number of activities. And I did report that if they wanted me to study everything it would take years and cost millions, and, of course, there were not the years available, nor the millions, to do it.

CURWOOD: Now, going back over the records that were kept by Boeing, apparently there’s some large gaps in those records. Can you fill in any of those parts for us of what might be found?

MAKHIJANI: Well, that’s partly what we did in arriving at the estimates of how much iodine was released. Our best estimate was about 1,300 curies. That would make it the third largest release of iodine-131 in a reactor accident in the history of nuclear power. First there was Chernobyl; then Windscale in England in 1957; and the third-worst would be this sodium-reactor experiment in Simi Valley. Because the records were incomplete, and the investigations were incomplete, it was like solving a mystery with partial information. And so essentially we filled in the gaps through scientific analysis.

CURWOOD: Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Thank you, sir.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much, Steve.

Aerial view of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, which includes both the developed land (facilities and buildings) and undeveloped land (buffer zone) shown in the picture. (Courtesy of DOE)

CURWOOD: The 1959 nuclear power accident is one of a series of chemical contaminations, radiological mishaps, and partial nuclear meltdowns that occurred at Boeing’s Santa Susana Lab over decades. And while Boeing compensated inhabitants of surrounding areas with $30 million this past September, a number of Boeing employees, those closest to the radioactivity, have yet to succeed with worker’s compensation claims.

Bonnie Klea worked for Boeing at the Santa Susana Field Lab right after the 1959 meltdown. She lives in West Hills, California, a town about two miles from the facility, and joins us on the phone. Ms. Klea, thanks for speaking with us.

KLEA: And thank you for calling.

CURWOOD: Now you’ve been active in raising awareness about Boeing’s nuclear facility since you were diagnosed with cancer, what, in 1995?

KLEA: Yes. I worked up at the facility in 1963 until 1971, and in 1995 I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. And my doctors asked me where I worked, because generally it’s an environmental cancer, or it’s a smoker’s cancer, and I was not a smoker. So I told my doctors where I worked in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and they said, oh my gosh, we’re treating a lot of employees for cancer from that facility. Not just the scientists, but the janitors and the secretaries. And one of my doctors said we’ve even gone so far as to write the company a letter to ask them what are they doing to their employees.

CURWOOD: So you weren’t there for the ’59 meltdown though?

KLEA: No, I was there in ’63. That happened ’59, but we had another meltdown in ’64, which is just becoming public now, as far as I know. They had 80 percent of the cladding on the fuel rods melt down. And it was immediately shut down when they found that out, and decommissioned in 1965. And that’s been kept secret for a very long time.

CURWOOD: As a former employee of Boeing, you weren’t a plaintiff in the class action lawsuit where Dr. Makhijani made his statement?

KLEA: That’s correct. Don’t forget, when you’re working for a company, and that company causes you harm, you’re only recourse is through worker’s compensation, which I filed in 1996. And eventually, I lost my case. Their doctor that they sent me to wrote a six-page letter, and he said it was work-related. And then the company’s health physicist found out; he went to the doctor and made him change his letter, so I had a little one paragraph that said it wasn’t work-related, and I consequently lost my case.

CURWOOD: You say you attended a meeting this past July where Boeing-Rocketdyne addressed a group of ex-Boeing employees. Would you tell us about what happened at that meeting, and describe the scene for us?

KLEA: Yes. You know, we had a big workers’ study done at UCLA, and their conclusion was that we had six to eight times the death that they ever expected from exposure to radiation. So after that study was done the Boeing company commissioned their own doctors, they brought in four doctors from all over the country, to do their own workers’ study. And so they had a little meeting at the recreation center to tell the employees that their work did not cause them extra death or any harm.

And one of the employees stood up and said, now look, my son died of leukemia, my husband died of leukemia, and I have leukemia, and we were all employees. And, you know, they just said, well, we don’t know about that. And another stood up, he says, I have lung cancer, and he says I had a beryllium test, and he says I can’t get the results of my test back from the company. And so here they are telling a roomful of workers that the job did not make them sick, and most of us were sick or survivors.

CURWOOD: As I understand it, Boeing stopped the nuclear aspects of its work there in Ventura County, what, back in the late ‘80s, ’89. But have they cleaned everything up there?

KLEA: No, they haven’t cleaned anything up. In fact, I’m part of a group right now that is monitoring the cleanup. We want it cleaned up to EPA standards, which is a very, very tight standard that they use for the Superfund sites, and the reason we can’t use the EPA standards is because ther’re currently no residents living on Santa Susana mountains. But they propose to release it for unrestricted use. Potentially we could have schools and homes and children living on nuclear land. And believe me, those of us who are getting involved, our group is growing. And we’re just not going to let them do that.

CURWOOD: How do you feel about all this?

KLEA: I’m pretty upset. And I’m more upset at what they’re doing today, and they’re still denying it, they’re still fighting our worker claims, they’re still fighting worker’s compensation, they’re still lying to the employees, telling them that their jobs didn’t give them cancer when we’re all sick and some of us are dead. And that upsets me more than anything.

CURWOOD: Bonnie Klea, speaking from her home in West Hills, California. The Boeing Corporation declined to be interviewed, or comment on the settlement, but did provide a written statement regarding workers compensation. Boeing says, quote:

"There is no evidence that working conditions caused increased mortality in the Rocketdyne workforce."

And as for the partial meltdown in 1959, Boeing writes:

“The 1959 Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) incident was not a ‘meltdown.’ Measurements and data taken at the time determined that releases were contained and controlled in accordance with regulatory guidelines. The SRE facility has since been properly decommissioned and cleaned up and has not adversely impacted the surrounding communities.”

Related link:
DOE info on Santa Susana Field Laboratory

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[MUSIC: Scanner “Continuum” from ‘Trybrid: Installation Soundtracks’ (Hacca Note – 2002)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: the power of the sun is set to add financial power to California businesses and households. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: The Instruments “Carnival” from ‘Billions of Phonographs (Orange Twin Records – 2002)]

Sticky Situation Update

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Early this month we reported on health and safety concerns about the chemical C8, which is used to make Teflon and other non-stick and stain-resistant products. Thousands of residents near a DuPont C8 facility in West Virginia had their blood tested for the toxin after learning their drinking water had been contaminated for years. Now some North Carolina residents, near another DuPont plant are concerned about their water supply. Living on Earth's Jeff Young has this update.

YOUNG: DuPont’s facility on the Cape Fear River, near Fayetteville, North Carolina, is now the only U.S. plant making C8. The 3M company had supplied the chemical to DuPont until concerns about potential health effects caused them to stop making it. So DuPont started making it in 2002.
Hope Taylor-Guevara, of the group Clean Water for North Carolina, says it wasn’t long before C8 started showing up in nearby monitoring wells.

TAYLOR-GUEVARA: There were releases into groundwater that were recorded within a few months, and we also have documentation of very elevated C8 levels in the blood of workers at the plant.

YOUNG: It was beginning to sound like the situation around DuPont’s Teflon facility in West Virginia, where six water districts were contaminated with C8. Last month, DuPont agreed to a record $16 million payment to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to settle charges that the company knew of the contamination long ago. That’s why Taylor-Guevara wants federal and state regulators to investigate DuPont’s North Carolina plant.

TAYLOR GUEVARA: As the state that is now the sole source of new production of this compound, we have real responsibility to prevent the exposure of the public and of workers until more is known about this substance.

YOUNG: EPA has not yet responded to the request, although the agency is assisting with some water and soil sampling near the site. EPA is also assessing C8’s health risks. A draft report from its advisory board called C8 a likely carcinogen. DuPont issued a written statement saying that no study to date has linked C8 exposure to human disease and that its North Carolina plant complies with reporting requirements.

Meanwhile, some residents near DuPont’s West Virginia facility are still searching for clean water. DuPont had paid for them to use bottled water until tests this month showed it, too, was tainted with trace amounts of C8. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

CURWOOD: For more information about Dupont and C8, go to our website, Living On Earth dot org.

Related link:
LOE piece (1/6/06) on Dupont and C8

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[MUSIC: The Instruments “When The Stars Shine” from ‘Billions of Phonographs’ (Orange Twin Records – 2002)]

Hot on Solar

CURWOOD: California regulators are moving ahead with the nation's largest-ever solar energy subsidy program. A hearing to approve the measure attracted more than 200 people and its share of high color.

SHELDON: California is the fifth largest economy in the world. We led the world in gold. We led the world in agriculture, we led the world in the entertainment industry. We led the dot com revolution into the information age. Now we have an opportunity to lead the world into the solar age. I urge your unanimous vote today

[WOMAN]: Commissioner Grueneich…yes. Commissioner Chong…yes. President Peevey…yes.

PEEVEY: So, it's adopted, three to one. [APPLAUSE]

CURWOOD: For the next eleven years, homeowners and businesses in the state will be eligible for more than three billion dollars in rebates if they install solar energy systems. Roberta Gamble is an energy research manager for the consultants Frost & Sullivan in Palo Alto, California. Julie Blunden, is vice president of the Sunpower Corporation, a solar energy manufacturer who worked on the measure.

Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet recently spoke with them, first asking Ms. Blunden how much it costs to install solar and how much the new rebates will help consumers and the solar industry.

BLUNDEN: Right now if you put in a three kilowatt system, kind of an average-size residential system in California, you might spend between $20,000 and $25,000; you might get $8,000 or $9,000 of that back from the state. As a result, you’re likely to spend about $15,000 for a system.

LOBET: And how is the state going to pay for the rebates?

BLUNDEN: The solar funding will be taken out of electric rates, as with a lot of other public purpose programs, and it comes out as really a sliver on your monthly bill, under a buck a month.

LOBET: Now, my understanding is that consumers in Japan and Germany have been able to buy solar systems at quite favorable prices for a while. How much will this even up the situation for residents of California?

BLUNDEN: Well, both Germany and Japan have demonstrated that a long-term policy commitment to solar can provide a tremendous business platform for companies like mine, Sunpower, to invest. In California, we’ve had rebates now since 1998, but the rebates have always been kind of on an annual basis. So the confidence level people have had to invest in California hasn’t been very good; so now we have the confidence to invest and bring solar mainstream, not just for California, but actually for the rest of the country.

GAMBLE: I agree with Julie that it’s certainly going to make a difference, but we do have to keep in mind that in terms of being on par with Germany and Japan, they’re very much more advanced than the United States with federal government-level incentives that have brought their installed capacity to three times what we have in all of the U.S., not just in California. So I think it’s a positive move towards something that, such as Japan or Germany have, but I think we’re still quite a ways away.

LOBET: Roberta, let me ask you, the California Public Utility Commission – that’s the commission that just passed this program – it hopes that these rebates will put up enough rooftop solar to equal six power plants worth, enough to serve 2.3 million people over the 11 years. Sounds like a lot. Can that happen?

GAMBLE: It is a lot. To be perfectly honest, I would be a bit surprised if it did happen. I would be pleasantly surprised. The amount of solar, about 3 million megawatts – I’m sorry, 3,000 megawatts – is quite a lot. We have only about 408 installed in the U.S. so far. It’s about twice what we estimate the market will grow without such incentives; so it is possible.

BLUNDEN: I think it’s not only possible, I think it is entirely achievable. We’ve seen the solar markets grow in jurisdictions like Germany and Japan, where you have long-term incentives, at somewhere between 30 and 60 percent a year.

LOBET: And when we talk about growth in the solar industry, really a major factor is the cost, and the cost has always been the bane of the existence of solar advocates. And the cost of solar has been going down, but solar boosters have always said they want something that looks a lot like this to help force the price of production lower. So to what extent now do they have what they’ve been asking for to get prices down faster?

GAMBLE: I think they very much have what they’ve been looking for to get these prices lower. We’ve seen overall in the market that prices have been stable to slightly high in recent years, due to a very healthy industry in Europe that U.S. companies have been selling to. And it’s true that the prices have gone down by about half from what they were in the 1970s. So this could be the impetus to reduce prices further. I think this will go relatively far to reducing prices for solar over to the long term.

BLUNDEN: One of the things that’s important to recognize is that today solar is already cost-effective for a lot of customers.

LOBET: So this subsidy – or support, depending on your point of view – for solar comes at an interesting time, because my understanding is the industry is sold out, and it’s been that way for a couple of years. There are new manufacturing plants cropping up all over the world; I think production increased 33 percent last year. But still suppliers can’t meet demand. So is it ill-advised to do something like this, to get people asking for solar more, when there’s a shortage?

GAMBLE: It’s not necessarily a bad time simply because there is an apparent shortage. There is globally a lot of increase in production capacity going on. We’ll see producers be able to keep up with capacity. Even if there is a slight shortage I don’t think that would hinder the market, I think that will just make solar that much more appealing.

LOBET: What about this shortage of solar-grade silicon? To what degree is that related to the tight market for the supply of modules themselves?

BLUNDEN: It’s directly related. The constraint to growth in the market today is polysilicon supply, which is the feed stock to the silicon solar industry. Beautifully, we actually have cataclysm at work here; what we do expect to see is in late 2007 quite a bit of polysilicon capacity come on board. And basically the price signals have already gone out to the market, and people are already responding, and there are polysilicon plants under construction. It’s exactly what should happen in a market.

LOBET: So it’s not going to be like the Prius, you have to wait six months?

BLUNDEN: No, fortunately today you can get a solar system in probably less time than it takes you to get a Prius.

CURWOOD: Julie Blunden, vice president of solar manufacturer Sunpower Corporation, speaking with Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet. We also hear from Roberta Gamble, an energy research manager at the consulting firm of Frost & Sullivan in Palo Alto, California.

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[MUSIC: Mike Doughty “No Peace, Los Angeles” from ‘Skittish’ (ATO Records – 2004)]

Life Bytes

CURWOOD: More and more these days it seems our lives are being oversupplied with information. Our hard disks can store hundreds of gigabytes of data. Countless e-mails, Web pages, and MP3s come at us. Even with the help of powerful search engines, finding what we want can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But don’t worry. As reporter Steven Cherry explains, researchers are on the case.

CHERRY: What would it be like to have every minute of your life recorded, archived, searchable? What if you could Google a perfectly complete database of your time on this planet? That’s the dream of a feisty, 71-year-old computer scientist, Gordon Bell.

In the 1970s, Bell made a name for himself as the designer of some of the first computers that weren’t mainframes. In the 1980s, he was in charge of the network that became the Internet. Today, Bell studies databases for the giant Microsoft Corporation at a tiny research center in downtown San Francisco. It was there, about seven years ago, that he started digitally documenting his entire professional life. He calls the project “MyLifeBits.”

BELL: MyLifeBits started out as my attempt to capture all of the easily archive-able content, articles, books, communications (email, letters), my music, CD’s, videos that I had. Essentially, anything that was in a bit form, and to put that all into cyberspace, into my computer.

CHERRY: Soon, Bell began recording his every phone call, every keystroke on his computer, every Web page he visits. They were captured and put into a database. Yet, something was missing.

BELL: We realized there was a whole other world that we were not dealing with, and that was capturing stuff that was going on in real time. That is, taking pictures.

CHERRY: At the same time, Microsoft researchers in England invented a new camera. It’s called a “SenseCam” and it takes up to 2,000 photographs a day based on changes in vibration, temperature, lighting and so on. The SenseCam was the breakthrough Bell had been waiting for.

BELL: MyLifeBits captures everything that goes through the computer, including phone calls. We enhanced it, and now there’s a whole branch that’s starting up, which Jim Gemmell has coined as CARPE, which stands for Continuous Archiving and Recording of Personal Experience.

CHERRY: Jim Gemmell, a brilliant researcher in his own right, has spent the past four years refining the MyLifeBits database and figuring out techniques for pulling the right fact out of the database effortlessly.

GEMMELL: One of the things we appreciate most about MyLifeBits is this incredible freedom from having to intentionally remember a lot of things. The more that you automatically capture, and the ability you have to get back at it, the more powerful it is.

CHERRY: That power will eventually show up in Microsoft’s operating systems. For now, the company is experimenting with some practical applications.

For example, Microsoft’s researchers in England gave SenseCams to hospital patients who suffer from profound memory loss, including one woman with a rare degenerative disorder of the neurons. Each night, her husband downloads the 2,000 pictures the SenseCam took of her day. The couple would review the pictures together. The process gave her back the memories she otherwise would have quickly lost.

Meanwhile, Gemmell, Bell, and a host of other researchers have come to rely more and more on MyLifeBits in their own lives.

GEMMELL: I just bought and sold a house. And of course there were questions and problems of various things, so one thing was we had to tell who had done the tile in our bathroom and what kind of tile it was, very precisely. I was able to go in MyLifeBits and quickly go through the hundreds of pages of renovation documents that had been scanned, and find out exactly what tile it was and who it was from, and we were rapidly on to having it replaced properly and solving the problem.

BELL: I’d like to add that, in fact, with all of the hurricane damage, and all of the things that are going on now, this is probably the most important advertisement for putting your life on a hard drive. I mean, certainly I won’t claim that a hard drive is more reliable, necessarily, than having all of the paper and things like that, but certainly people’s photographs, videos, wills, bills, various kinds of certificates. I think if people had scanned all of that stuff, and have gone the way I’ve gone, I feel comfortable that, in fact, I can withstand a hurricane and retrieve copies of every important document that I have.

CHERRY: Frank Nack, a Dutch computer scientist based in Amsterdam, has given a lot of thought to the issues raised by MyLifeBits. Do we always want to have at our fingertips the answer to each and every question about our past? The act of forgetting, he says, makes our life bearable, and is closely related to some essential cultural concepts, such as forgiveness and absolution. Would removing this human imperfection do more harm than good? Would we be as creative? As free?

We'll find out soon enough. In ten years time, all your life bits will easily fit onto two or three hard disks the size of matchboxes. Your smartphone-sensecam will dangle casually around your neck, snapping away. Can’t remember what you wore on that blind date last Saturday? How many glasses of Chardonnay you drank? Who you called on the phone the next day and what you talked about? Where you were, what you did every minute that weekend? Let's just open up that database of yours, the matchbox containing your life bits, and take a look.

For Living on Earth, I'm Steven Cherry.

CURWOOD: Steven Cherry is a reporter for Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of Eye-Triple-E Spectrum magazine. To read more about the “LifeBits” project visit our website, Living on Earth dot org. But you won’t find Steven Cherry’s life bits, he’s deleted them.

Related links:
- MyLifeBits Project
- IEEE Spectrum article "Total Recall"

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[MUSIC: Talk Talk “It’s My Life” from ‘It’s My Life’ (EMI - 1998)]

CURWOOD: Just ahead: a New York town is counting crows….by the thousands. First this note on emerging science from Rachel Gotbaum.


Emerging Science Note/Sex in the Jungle

GOTBAUM: When it comes to sex, plants can be fierce competitors. And some scientists say the rivalry can lead to the extinction of species.

Researchers at the University of Calgary studied 166 different plants from around the globe. They found that in places where a diverse population of plants was vying for pollination – from bees, birds and even bats – the greater the number of plants that suffered from low pollination rates. Low pollination means low reproductive rates; the plants are simply not generating enough seeds and fruit to carry on their species.

Scientists worry that in biological hotspots such as tropical rainforests – where plants are already threatened by development and resource extraction – the low pollination rates accelerate habitat destruction. And with the loss of habitat, pollinators are threatened, too, putting ecosystems at risk. That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Rachel Gotbaum.

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[MUSIC: David Demnitz “Pick Your Notes” from `Gamelan As A Second Language’ (Frog Peak - 2005)]

Writers’ Ethics

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. The scandals around influence peddling in Washington may end up sullying a lot of politicians’ reputations, but they’ve also had an effect on several prominent opinion writers.

A recent series of articles in BusinessWeek Online point out previously undisclosed financial arrangements between several columnists and the special interests who paid them to write about a particular story or viewpoint.

This is a matter of ethical concern, but it also raises the question of whether harm might be done in cases where people’s health or the environment is at risk. Joining me is Eamon Javers the Capitol Hill correspondent for Business Week who broke the story. Eaman, thanks for coming on Living on Earth.

JAVERS: Thank you.

CURWOOD: You’ve been working on quite a few stories recently about writers getting themselves into sticky ethical situations. Briefly tell me about the case involving Mr. Fumento.

JAVERS: Michael Fumento is a columnist, author, think tank scholar here in Washington, DC, at the Hudson Institute. And what we’ve reported on Business Week Online was that Mr. Fumento, who had written a book in 2003 called “BioEvolution,” which talked very favorably about the biotech and agribusiness industries, had actually been paid $60,000 by the agribusiness giant company Monsanto to write that book.

CURWOOD: What prompted you to do the research and write this story?

JAVERS: Well, I’d been on the Jack Abramoff beat here in Washington, the ongoing scandal about lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and one of Abramoff’s former associates told me that they had, as sort of part of their arsenal of tools, regularly used to pay columnists to write favorably about Abramoff’s clients. And the two columnists that we talked about in an earlier story on Business Week Online were Doug Bandow, of the Cato Institute and the Copley News Service, and a guy named Peter Ferrara, of the Institute for Policy Innovation, both of whom took money over a long period of time, $1,000 or $2,000 a pop, to write pieces about Mr. Abramoff’s clients.

CURWOOD: So what’s going on here?

JAVERS: (Laughs) I can give you a couple thoughts. I mean, the first is that a lot of the people – all of the three people we’ve talked about here so far – work at think tanks, and think tank people seem to, as a matter of course, have to wear a number of different hats. And a lot of pressure is put on them to do fundraising and to bring in revenue. So they’re also syndicated columnists, in the case of both Mr. Bandow and Mr. Fumento. Bandow worked for Copley News Service, which severed its relationship with him after we asked them questions about this situation.

And so you see that there are people who are not coming from a journalism background who are writing opinion columns, and who in fact have a lot of different financial sources of support. And unwinding that can be pretty complicated.

CURWOOD: By the way, for the record, I understand that none of the gentlemen we’ve talked about so far disagrees with your story that, in fact, they had a financial relationship with the folks that you say they have.

JAVERS: No. The basic facts are undisputed here. I think if you talk to them, all three of the people that we’ve mentioned would say that the money did not change their opinions, that they had held whatever opinion they were writing for a number of years.

CURWOOD: We did speak to Mr. Fumento and he asked us to ask you if you think there’s some sort of a statute of limitations on listing where money comes from, and, if so, what it is. Is it five years, is it ten years?

JAVERS: Well, that’s a fair question, and I don’t think it’s for us to decide that. I mean, we asked this question of his syndicate, Scripps Howard, whether he had disclosed the fact that he had been on the payroll at Monsanto, and whether that made any difference to them. And in fact it did, because he hadn’t disclosed those payments, at least to them, and it would have been up to them to decide whether or not (a), to run his columns that talked favorably about Monsanto, or (b), to run them with some sort of disclaimer to point out that the $60,000 that Fumento got in 1999 he says was to support the writing of that book, “BioEvolution.” And when you pick up a copy of that book, as I did at a bookstore around the corner from my office here in DC, there is no disclosure in that book that Monsanto paid for it to be written. It talks favorably about Monsanto in a number of different places.

CURWOOD: So in your view, or, is it your understanding that, really, all such payments should be disclosed?

JAVERS: Well I think that’s the standard that the syndicates have. And when you’re talking about opinion columnists, you’re talking about sort of a hybrid breed of person. These people are not journalists, they’re not reporters. This is not a journalism problem, it’s maybe more a media problem, in that these people are paid to offer their opinions; I’m not, I’m paid to offer facts. I think there’s a big distinction there.

CURWOOD: Now, how much do you think the behavior of companies has changed over time? Are companies being more savvy about reaching out and placing strategic dollars with opinion-makers to help them with their campaigns than they were in the past?

JAVERS: Well I think both lobbying and corporate America generally have gotten more aggressive when it comes to public opinion. The old school of lobbying was you hired a well-connected lobbyist in Washington, he would go up to Capitol Hill and button-hole a senator and ask him to slip a loophole into a bill for you.

What’s changed is that now lobbyists are really mounting very aggressive PR and public-image campaigns out in the rest of the country through the media, through grassroots organizations, and creating public pressure for a particular kind of change that the client wants. Those are very elaborate and sophisticated efforts, and they will depend much more heavily on opinion columnists and people who can really move public opinion. So suddenly those columnists have a dollar value attached to their product that maybe wasn’t there in an era where they weren’t needed by these lobbyists.

CURWOOD: Eamon Javers is the Capitol Hill correspondent for BusinessWeek Online. Thanks so much for joining me.

JAVERS: Hey, thank you.

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Urban Crow Invasion

Crow droppings mar the gravestone of Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman. (Photo: Sy Montgomery)


CURWOOD: Imagine coming home from work at the end of a long day and all of a sudden you look up in the sky and see a huge, dark cloud approaching.

McGOWAN: You start to see lines of crows coming from three or four different directions. It looks almost like they are leaves on the trees; but they are big and black and they make noise.

CURWOOD: At times they’re so many crows they seem uncountable.

LATTIMORE: They’re so thick, it’s almost like out of the movie “The Birds.”

CURWOOD: But for citizens of Auburn, New York, the avian invasion isn’t Hollywood fiction – each winter it’s a daily reality show.

LATTIMORE: It’s a gigantic black explosion – the noise, the beauty of the whole thing, it was beautiful. If that was on television I’d watch it. I’d love that.

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery reports on a city inundated with crows, and its residents divided over whether the birds are a blessing or a curse.

MONTGOMERY: Auburn is a small city. A city of fine old churches and pretty little parks located about 25 miles southwest of Syracuse, as the crow flies. And each winter, a lot of crows do fly to this community of 28,000 people. Tens of thousands of them.

Crow droppings mar the gravestone of Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman. (Photo: Sy Montgomery)


MONTGOMERY: The spectacle begins around dusk: a river of black wings, the air alive with noisy, hurrying birds flowing down from the sky. No one knows exactly why crows mass in the winter. Ornithologists think they do it to share information, or ward off predators with sheer numbers. Whatever the reason, crows have been roosting in Auburn for at least 100 years. They used to keep to the outskirts, but lately they’ve been coming downtown. Maybe it’s the fine dining.

LATTIMORE: They know our trash routes better than our sanitation department!

MONTGOMERY: That’s Auburn’s Mayor, Tim Lattimore. When he took office, downtown Auburn’s crow roost was the biggest in the state. Last winter, biologists counted 63,000 of them. In Auburn, in winter, crows are the talk of the town. Some folks welcome them; others are intimidated by so many black birds. But on one point, most agree: tens of thousands of crows can leave your city in, well, deep doo-doo.

Mayor Tim Lattimore has paid the USDA to scare crows from the city. (Photo: Rachel Gotbaum)

LATTIMORE: There are some businesses in town, such as the bank, and the girls would have to leave and wear their umbrellas. Our local YMCA, when the people come out, they would normally get hit two or three times.

MONTGOMERY: Though experts assure the birds pose no threat of transmitting, say, bird flu, the crows do present the mayor with a big public relations problem.

LATTIMORE: I’m trying to attract Fortune 500 companies, and with the droppings that the birds were giving, people would walk in City Hall with fecal matter on their feet. It’s just not cleanly. It just doesn’t give the right presentation that we want to give off here in the city of Auburn.

MONTGOMERY: So he called in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Program. Biologist Rich Chipman is the New York state director.

USDA biologist Rich Chipman prepares to go out with teams for crow harassment. (Photo: Rachel Gotbaum)

CHIPMAN: [ON CELL PHONE IN USDA TRUCK] Hey Adam, did you find any? Big time!

MONTGOMERY: For a week, Chipman and eight federal scientists team up with eight city employees, including Dave “Spider” Ganey, who’s been working Auburn’s streets for 35 years.

SPIDER: VanAnden Street? Give us two minutes. We’re about two minutes away from there.

MONTGOMERY: Wearing blaze orange vests and driving trucks boldly labeled USDA Wildlife Services, these men are on a mission: to drive as many crows out of town as they can.


MONTGOMERY: Tonight, we head for one of the birds’ favorite spots, a neighborhood of tall pines and oaks, not far from a ball field.

CHIPMAN: This is prime time, about 6 o clock, when we would certainly expect to see crows trying to roost here for the night.

MONTGOMERY: The team’s arsenal is completely non-lethal, but effective:


MONTGOMERY: A tape recording of a crow distress call broadcasts the news that this is no place to spend the night. Shining a bright red laser into the trees makes the crows nervous. Pretty soon, the flock gets the message:


MONTGOMERY: As thousands of crows flee the trees, their wing beats sound like a rainstorm, and their deep black forms against the gray sky look like night itself taking flight.


MONTGOMERY: Each night, teams try to hit all the crow hotspots, like a little park on the west side of town.

CHIPMAN: Here, along the back of the bench, you can see whitewash. These are all crow droppings, and it’s really impacted people’s ability to enjoy the area.

SPIDER: I work for the city, I see it all the time. The parking meters were so bad you couldn’t even put money in them, they’d be dripping with this.

MONTGOMERY: But in the grove of trees where the birds typically roost, we find none tonight. This is the fifth night of the program, and these extremely intelligent birds are learning fast. If they don’t leave things will only get worse.

SPIDER: Do you have your artillery rounds, Rich? I’ve got some caps left.



MONTGOMERY: For stubborn crows, Chipman and Spider break out the heavy stuff.


MONTGOMERY: Screaming rockets shot off from a cap gun zig zag into the night air.

CHIPMAN: Put the laser through here and we’re gonna do the pyrotechnic again.


MONTGOMERY: Near the maximum-security prison, usually a favored spot, one lone crow eyes the USDA truck suspiciously from the top of a tall tree.

CHIPMAN: Quite often before they roost they’ll send in a sentinel or a scout to make sure things are OK, and you can see this guy is looking and he’s obviously a little nervous. See how he’s bobbing back and forth? He may go back and send a message that this isn’t the place to go for tonight. They actually communicate back and forth quite a bit.

MONTGOMERY: Word’s apparently spreading in Crowdom. So far, 90 percent of the 36,000 crows that showed up this year are gone. After seven days and 14,000 city dollars, downtown Auburn is no longer crow city.


MONTGOMERY: But over at the J&B Bar and Grill, Tom Lennox and his buddies have a message for the USDA team. Just moving crows around is a waste of time.

LENNOX: What they don’t understand - America - hunting is a tradition.

MONTGOMERY: Lennox calls crows feathered rats, and he’s made the bar the official headquarters for this year’s Crow Shoot, scheduled for the second weekend in February. Shooting crows in winter is perfectly legal in rural New York. Lennox and his friends have been doing it for years. They even award cash prizes for the team of hunters who kill the most crows in one day. Lennox sees it as a way to liven up the winter.

LENNOX: Well, if you don’t ice fish and you don’t snowmobile, and the Super Bowl’s over with, NASCAR doesn’t start for another week…what are a bunch of rednecks like me supposed to do? So, we all just basically got together…(laughs)

MONTGOMERY: Kidding aside, Lennox says last year more than 200 people came here, from as far away as Arizona. The teams killed about a thousand crows in all. Profits from the hunt were donated to a needy local individual, and the hunters gave a Cornell ornithologist more crow carcasses than he could study. But not everybody thinks the Crow Shoot is a great idea.

Dead crows are strung up in trees in one Auburn resident’s yard. (Photo: Sy Montgomery)

SARNICOLA: These poor birds are slaughtered, this is not even called hunting, maimed, wounded, strung up afterwards and laughed about in this bar room situation. It is a terrible thing, and it is an awful thing to send to our children the message.

MONTGOMERY: When Rita Sarnicola heard about the shoot she formed CROW: Citizens Respectful of Wildlife. The group urges people to celebrate the urban crow roost – to appreciate the birds as living creatures, and to use them as a cultural resource instead of for target practice.

SARNICOLA: Oh my goodness, the potential is just enormous. We could have tourists come in from other cities. Even the children’s groups could come in from our local areas. We could have it as a science study. There are so many people that love nature-watching, and this is such a unique phenomena it would just bring in tourists. And it would also stimulate a lot more businesses downtown, too, and we could have a lot of fun with it. It could be like a “Crows R’ Us” type of city.

Crow Shoot organizer Tom Lennox’s Crowmobile, a customized 1986 Pontiac, with wings and a system that dispenses “crow poop” (actually, a mixture of Cremor and windshield wiper fluid). (Courtesy of Tom Lennox).

MONTGOMERY: The crows have inspired a lot of activity in Auburn. The Stafford Auto Group car dealership is offering a Crow Crap Car Wash all month long. Profits go to charity. Earlier this fall, Auburn’s Schweinfurth Art Center hosted an exhibit of crow-inspired paintings and sculpture, and a series of lectures and readings all about crows.


“…And Someone driving west through town is amazed
at the swirl of the flock across the winter sky…”

MONTGOMERY: Cayuga County Community College English professor Howard Nelson was among the authors who read at the event:


“Wow, a natural wonder, he thinks
The most beautiful thing he’s ever seen in the city, or maybe anywhere,
And feels it’s a piece of luck to have crows in your city
Something to be grateful for,
To share the wintry earth with crows.”

MONTGOMERY: And how should we share the wintry earth with crows? That’s a question Auburn crow chaser Dave "Spider" Ganey never used to think about.

SPIDER: I think I kind of thought like a lot of other people did, that they were just flying rats, you know?

MONTGOMERY: But now – after being in the unique position to watch crows a lot more than the average citizen of Auburn - Spider says he’s changed his mind.

SPIDER: I appreciate them a lot more than I ever did before. I find them incredibly intelligent, versatile. I’m pretty much fascinated by the whole project, how these fellas do it. It’s been a great learning experience.

MONTGOMERY: And obviously, something to crow about. For Living on Earth, I’m Sy Montgomery in Auburn, New York.

CURWOOD: For a bird’s eye view of this story, go to our website, Livingonearth.org. Our story was produced by Rachel Gottbaum.

Related links:
- **LOE Web-only Special: Reporter Sy Montgomery talks with crow expert Kevin Mcgowen of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
- Crow Shoot
- Save the Crows

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[MUSIC: Preacher Boy “Black Crow” from ‘Crow’ (Orchard – 2000]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, and Susan Shepherd - with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, James Curwood and Michelle Kweder. Our interns are Bobby Bascomb and Emily Taylor. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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