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

February 10, 2006

Air Date: February 10, 2006



Particulate Particulars / Jeff Young

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The Environmental Protection Agency can always count on a fight from industry when it regulates emissions of soot and dust called particle matter. But this time the fight is with EPA's own science advisors who say the agency has ignored their recommendations. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports. (04:45)

Emerging Science Note/Sugar Blues / Emily Taylor

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Using new MRI technology, researchers have found subtle brain differences in people who suffer from diabetes, which could explain the depression that afflicts so many diabetes patients. Emily Taylor reports. (01:30)

Toxic Car Interiors / Rachel Gotbaum

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A Detroit environmental group tested the dust inside automobiles and found high levels of flame retardants and plastic softeners called phthalates. The auto industry banned two flame retardants for use in cars, but says the one in use has been proven safe. Living on Earth's Rachel Gotbaum reports. (04:10)

Texas Green / Larry Schooler

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In Texas, the city of Austin has sold more renewable energy to residents and businesses than any other city in the nation. And not only are the costs of renewable energy there cheaper than oil and gas. But as Larry Schooler of member station KUT reports, the demand is so high that the city is holding a raffle to allow new customers in on the action. (05:00)

Taxing California Crude

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A proposed California constitutional amendment seeks to tax state oil production to fund alternative energy research and development. Host Steve Curwood talks with Marc Lifsher, who reported the story for the Los Angeles Times. (04:00)

Timothy the Turtle

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What does a turtle think when it looks at us humans? That's the question New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg sets out to answer in his new book: “Timothy; or Notes of an Abject Reptile.” (09:00)

U.S. Indian Tribes Challenge Canadian Company’s Legacy of Waste / Ingrid Lobet

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Observers say an environmental border dispute 20 years in the making is likely to set precedent. A Canadian metal smelter dumped 15 million tons of waste into the Columbia River, which many suspect to be poisonous to fish and wildlife. Now Indian tribes who live downstream in the U.S. want the American Superfund law be applied to the Canadian company. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports. (16:20)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

A nightingale sings in the British countryside.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Marc Lifsher, Verlyn Klinkenborg
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Rachel Gotbaum, Larry Schooler, Ingrid Lobet
NOTE: Emily Taylor


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. One might expect federal regulators to take the advice of their handpicked scientific experts. But the head of the EPA is stirring controversy by
ignoring his agency’s own science panel calls to tighten rules for fine particle pollution.

HENDERSON: I was surprised and disappointed that the administrator did not choose to follow our recommendations. We’re in uncharted waters here. This has never happened before here.

CURWOOD: The particulars over particulates, this week on Living on Earth. And a novelist allows us to imagine the world through the eyes of a very old and very wise tortoise.

KLINKENBORG: For a time I flinched whenever a human approached. The feet would stop but the top might timber on to me. I still doubt the stability of the species.

CURWOOD: Timmy the turtle speaks, when we return. So stick around.

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

Particulate Particulars

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

The stakes are often high when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates emissions of the soot and dust known as particulate matter. Tiny particles, mostly from burning coal and diesel fuel, are linked to thousands of premature deaths each year from heart and lung disease. But cutting these emissions can cost millions of dollars. When the Clinton administration's EPA sought tougher regulation, industry fought the agency all the way to the Supreme Court. Now, the Bush administration's EPA has a new proposal on particles and a new fight. But this time, the showdown is between the agency and its own science advisors. Living on Earth's Jeff Young explains.

YOUNG: Despite gains in clean air over the years, public health studies still show that low levels of particulate matter cut short tens of thousands of American lives each year. So public health advocates like Paul Miller hoped a court-ordered review of EPA regulation would bring tighter controls. Miller’s group of northeastern state regulators wanted the acceptable annual average for particle matter lowered from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 14 at the most.

MILLER: It means reduced emergency room visits by children suffering from asthma. It means reduced mortality. So small changes in lowering the pollution really mean big differences in health protection.

YOUNG: The proposal from EPA administrator Stephen Johnson would leave the annual average as it is, at 15. It seems a minor difference. But Miller says in his region it means missing a chance to protect twice as many people.

MILLER: So why the administrator went up to the edge but didn’t take that one small step further that would have been a much bigger leap in terms of public health, I don’t know.

YOUNG: It’s also puzzling to members of the EPA’s own Clean Air Science Advisory Committee. CASAC, as it’s known, recommended a lower level – somewhere between 12 and 14 – for long-term particle emissions. Congress appointed the diverse panel of experts to give EPA rigorously researched and unbiased scientific advice. Committee chair Dr. Rogene Henderson says this is the first time an EPA administrator has not followed that advice.

HENDERSON: I was surprised and disappointed that the administrator did not choose to follow our recommendations. We’re in uncharted waters here. This has never happened before here.

YOUNG: EPA’s proposal also would not regulate or even monitor coarse particle dust in rural areas. It would exempt from regulation dusty activities like mining and agriculture. Henderson says the proposal makes it sound as if that idea came from her committee.

HENDERSON: The CASAC committee did not say that. We recommended monitoring in both urban and rural areas and at no time did we ever mention the mining industry.

YOUNG: Environment and public health groups say some language in EPA’s proposal distorts science to downplay health risks and heighten uncertainty about well-established scientific studies. John Balbus with the group Environmental Defense points to public records showing edits by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

BALBUS: The edits raise doubts about some of the conclusions when in fact authors and others reviewing those studies did not have the same level of doubt. The result of that is the conclusions of those studies that would support more protective standards get watered down and EPA is able to justify taking a less protective stance.

YOUNG: A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, issued a two-sentence, written response: "OMB reviews rules as part of the routine regulatory process. The ultimate decision on rule-making rests with the individual agency."

EPA press secretary Erin Witcher says the agency carefully considered the science advisory committee’s recommendations.

WITCHER: We agree with CASAC’s interpretation of the underlying science on particle pollution and health. We had different views for tightening the fine particle standards. However, we are taking public comment on the full range of CASAC recommendations and we are also taking comments on going below what CASAC recommended.

YOUNG: The proposal is open for public comment through April 17, and public hearings are scheduled for March 8 in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Science advisory committee members are urging EPA administrator Johnson to take another look at their recommendations. One veteran CASAC member says if the agency is not going to use the science advice from its own science committee, he might resign. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

Related links:
- EPA on Particulate Matter
- Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM)

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[MUSIC: Delta 5 “Now That You’re Gone” from ‘Otis’ Opuses’ (Kill Rock Stars – 2005)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: Austin, capital of the oil rich state of Texas, puts a premium on renewable energy. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Emily Taylor.


Emerging Science Note/Sugar Blues

TAYLOR: Feeling sweet, but a little low? Scientists working in conjunction with the Joslin Diabetes Center have new evidence that some people living with Type 1 diabetes have subtle differences in parts of their brain which, down the road, may be responsible for depression in diabetes patients.

Using a new three-dimensional form of magnetic resonance imaging called voxel-based morphometry, or VBM, scientists were able to take very sensitive measurements of small areas of the brain. What they found was a lower density of gray matter in certain areas of the brains of the diabetes patients. They were also able to associate this less-dense area with inferior glycemic control.

Although no changes were found in processing functions, the researchers believe that similar brain damage, caused by diabetes, may be responsible for the common depression among diabetes sufferers who sufferer from depression at twice the rate of the general public.

Depression in diabetes patients was originally attributed to the increased stresses found among people living with the disease. The VBM technology may be able to prove that it’s the result of actual brain damage from diabetes and just may help explain those “sugar lows.” That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Emily Taylor.

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Toxic Car Interiors

CURWOOD: Americans spend an average of an hour and half in their cars every day. Now, a report suggests that under certain conditions the air you breathe inside your vehicle could do you harm. Rachel Gotbaum reports.

GOTBAUM: Researchers from a Michigan environmental group took dust samples from the inside of 133 automobiles. They found that dust from all the vehicles contained flame retardants and phthalates – the same chemicals used in seat cushions, floor covering, wire insulation and other interior car parts. Jeff Gearhart is the campaign director of the Ecology Center, which sponsored the report.

GEARHART: We found that these chemicals in cars were at levels that are much greater than in homes, and that the exposure in vehicles contributes to an overall body burden, or an overall exposure in the population, that is at a level that causes great health concerns.

GOTBAUM: Phthalates are used to soften plastic and are found in hundreds of products. In animal studies, these chemicals have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, and also liver damage. Some industries, such as the computer and electronics industry, have begun to phase out plastics that contain phthalates. And so have some car companies, including Volvo, Toyota and Ford.

SHOSTECK: Safety sells in a way it has never sold before.

GOTBAUM: Eron Shosteck is a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents nine car companies on three continents. He says auto- makers want to do the right thing, but there is not enough proof that these chemicals are actually causing harm to people in their cars.

SHOSTECK: Automakers are constantly looking for ways to do everything better and safer, and so, if these chemicals are proven to be any type of health risk, it goes without saying that automakers would immediately phase them out.

GOTBAUM: By 2003, the automobile industry voluntarily phased out two types of PBDE flame retardants. These flame retardants have been found in human tissue and are associated with reproductive growth and developmental problems. The European Union voted to ban those same flame retardants because of the safety concerns. But EU’s scientists decided to keep one flame retardant on the market called DECA. And the automobile industry continues to use DECA in its cars.

Dan Adsit is an engineer with Ford Motor Company.

ADSIT: You’re going from something that has been studied to death and been found to be safe and effective, so why would you look for an alternative? And, more than that, it is a very effective flame retardant. It saves lives by keeping people safe in their vehicles and in their homes. That’s why industry uses it.

GOTBAUM: But some scientists believe DECA may cause the same health problems as the other PBDE flame retardants. And the European Union plans to revisit its decision to keep DECA on the market because of the questions. Heather Stapleton is a professor of environmental science at Duke University who studies pollutants in dust. Stapleton says there’s new evidence that DECA may actually break down in sunlight and in the body, and become the same PBDE flame retardants that have been banned worldwide.

STAPLETON: It doesn’t seem like a large percentage of the DECA actually is absorbed into human tissue. It’s a very small percentage that actually accumulates. However, if gets in the environment and breaks down in the environment – from sunlight exposure, for example – and it degrades to other forms, then these other forms are going to end up being accumulated into people.

GOTBAUM: Stapleton says more studies need to be conducted to figure out whether people are actually absorbing flame retardants and other chemicals while driving in their cars. But Jeff Gearthart of the Ecology Center says car companies don’t have to wait to do the right thing. He points to Volvo, which had the lowest levels of both phthalates and flame retardants in the study.

GEARHART: This shows that it’s feasible for all companies to step forward and replace these chemicals with safer alternatives and it is critically important for the industry to send a clear message to their supply base that the use of these chemicals in vehicles is no longer going to be tolerated.

GOTBAUM: Volvo has actually sought out alternatives to DECA and products with phthalates, says Gearhart, and he hopes the rest of the automobile industry will also find safer options for their vehicles. For Living on Earth, I’m Rachel Gotbaum.

Related links:
- Ecology Center
- Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers

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[MUSIC: Dean Elliot & His Big Band “Lonesome Road” from ‘Ultra Lounge Sampler’ (Capitol – 2000)]

CURWOOD: You can hear our program any time on our website or get a download for your iPod or personal listening device. The address is loe.org. That’s loe dot org. You can reach us at comments@loe.org. Once again, that’s comments at loe dot org. Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144. And you can call our listener line at 800-218-9988. That’s 800-218-9988. CDs and transcripts are $15.00.

You’re listening to Living on Earth

[MUSIC: Eyvind Kang & Tucker Martine “Madrona” from ‘Orchestra Dim Bridges’ (Conduit Records – 2004)]

Texas Green

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The term “alternative energy” might bring up images of a car running on recycled cooking oil, or rooftops covered with solar panels. To be sure, biodiesel and photovoltaics have become more popular in recent years, attracting a devoted but fairly small following. Now, the city of Austin, Texas, is betting it can attract a wider audience for renewables. As Larry Schooler from member station KUT in Austin reports, the city’s utility has an unusual pitch to potential new customers.


SCHOOLER: As you enter the Decker Power Plant in Northeast Austin, you can’t really tell you’re driving through what some call the epicenter of the renewable energy world.


SCHOOLER: Machines hum and whir just as they would at any other power plant in the country.


SCHOOLER: But inside a small office building at Decker, Austin Energy’s James Jacobs is sitting on the front lines of a kind of renewable energy revolution.

Each of the past three years, Austin Energy has sold more renewable power than any other public utility in the country under what it calls the “Green Choice” program. That takes a lot of wind. James Jacobs pulls up a computer screen to show how the winds are blowing from the utility’s turbines.

JACOBS: If it’s blowing stronger, the less generation we have to provide. If the wind dies down, we have to make that generation up on other units.

SCHOOLER: Wind power pollutes less than the other, more conventional energy sources, like coal and natural gas. It’s a challenge for Austin Energy to bring wind from turbines hundreds of miles away in West Texas. There aren’t many transmission lines yet. But the utility’s electric operations manager, Wayne Morter, says the demand for more green power is growing. The utility has sold nearly all its renewable energy capacity.

MORTER: And the way our program’s designed, a customer can choose to buy that energy and fix the price pretty far into future and not be under the fuel charge fluctuation, which can go up some and can go down significantly over time.

SCHOOLER: That’s what has Morter and his Austin Energy colleagues especially excited. Austin customers who signed up for Green Choice when it began in 2000 are still paying now what they were paying then, less than two cents per kilowatt hour. By contrast, a conventional energy user is paying more than twice that.

The utility recently announced it was going to raffle off its last 1,400 residential and 200 business spots in Green Choice. Austin City Council member Brewster McCracken told reporters at the raffle announcement that now was the best time for utility customers to get in on the action.

MCCRACKEN: This is the first time since coal sparked the Industrial Revolution 300 years ago that a utility has gone out and competitively bid on coal, gas, and nuclear in the open market on one side, and that same utility has gone out on the open market and competitively bid on wind and solar on the other side, and the cheaper power after that open market competitive bidding was wind and solar.


SCHOOLER: At the Rhizome Collective in urban east Austin, Scott Kellogg is excited about the Green Choice raffle. He works and lives in this combination house and sustainable living center that relies solely on renewable energy.


SCHOOLER: Kellogg climbs onto his tin roof and points out a windmill made from bicycle parts and 30 solar panels used for energy.

KELLOGG: Any surplus power being produced by those solar panels that we’re not using feeds back in to the grid, which we get credited for on our utility bill. And if we’re using more power than the panels are producing at the moment, then we can still be drawing power off the city’s main grid.

SCHOOLER: But Kellogg and other renewable energy advocates realize that much of Austin – and, for that matter, the United States – still isn’t turning to renewable energy. The price break Austin residents can get from signing up for Green Choice could help. But geologist Rich Bonskowski of the U.S. Department of Energy says that market competitiveness could be short-lived. Oil and gas prices that spiked after the hurricanes of 2005 are starting to level off. More importantly, Bonskowski says renewable energy users are benefiting from some unusual advantages.

BONSKOWSKI: The current use of renewables does include some subsidization of the rates that they are able to get, for example, when electricity is produced with renewables. There is a rate break there that makes it a lot more feasible and, without that, or without tax incentives, it wouldn’t really be at the level it is right now.

SCHOOLER: In fact, wind energy executives say the reason they’re locking customers into those desirable 10-year contracts is because they get a tax break for doing so. Even so, the American Wind Energy Association says the industry is coming off its best year yet in terms of installing new renewable energy equipment. And Austin Energy already has plans to buy more renewable energy. The utility is betting that even an adjustment in price won’t dull growing enthusiasm for “going green.” For Living on Earth, I’m Larry Schooler in Austin.

Related link:
Green Choice Program

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Taxing California Crude

CURWOOD: A group of Californians has come up with an innovative way to spur the alternative energy market in their state. Californians for Clean Alternative Energy is proposing an amendment to the state’s constitution that would place a tax on oil production in California.

Many other states, including Texas and Louisiana, already have so-called “wellhead” taxes, but none of those states specifically direct the revenue towards promoting alternative fuels. The proposed California measure would go to fund research and development in wind, solar, hydrogen and other sustainable forms of energy, to the tune of nearly four billion dollars over ten years.

Opponents to the initiative say it will drive up the cost of gas at the pump. Joining me from Sacramento is Marc Lifsher. He’s been covering the story for The Los Angeles Times. How are you, Marc?

LIFSHER: I’m fine, thanks.

CURWOOD: So tell me, who’s going to be paying this tax? Californians or the oil companies?

LIFSHER: It’s totally unclear. If this makes it to the ballot and passes in November, it would put a severance tax, or an extraction tax, on oil as it comes out of the ground at the wellhead. The language of the proposed initiative says that the oil companies would have to eat the cost of this tax, but the oil industry says it will be passed along in one way or another.

CURWOOD: Now, if this initiative is approved, Marc, it could cost oil companies, what, up to about $380, maybe $400 million? So, for an oil company, or for the oil companies there in California, how much is $380, $400 million? What does that mean to their finances?

LIFSHER: Well, for a company like Exxon-Mobile or Chevron or Occidental, which are, in one version or another, in the top producers, it could…it would probably be kind of a negligible amount, considering the price is $65 a barrel or more.

CURWOOD: So, for the big boys it’s not much money?

LIFSHER: No. But they argue, and their independent oil producers and the oil companies argue, that just because California is the only oil producing state in the United States that doesn’t have one of these wellhead extraction taxes, it doesn’t mean they don’t pay a lot of taxes. California has very steep corporate income taxes. It also has high property taxes on the oil in the reserves. So, they say they’ll be paying more than the fair share they already pay.

CURWOOD: California sometimes leads the way in this country with, what, pollution regulations and such. In this case, I guess being the only state that doesn’t have a tax on oil of the wellhead it’s following the rest of the pack, but with an important twist: to apply this to alternative energy. How important is this as a precedent if it comes to pass?

LIFSHER: It would pour millions of dollars into the universities for research. It would help inventors and scientists and developers of these products all across the country, particularly in California. It would also help commercialize projects to see if they’re viable, and make them viable. So it would provide up to four billion dollars over ten years; that’s a lot of money. The federal government talks a good game, but they don’t really spend that much.

CURWOOD: Marc Lifsher is a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times based in Sacramento, California. Marc, thanks so much.

LIFSHER: Thank you.

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[MUSIC: Tom McFarland “Gasoline Blues” from ‘Travelin’ With The Blues’ (Arhoolie Records – 2005)]

Timothy the Turtle

CURWOOD: Okay, so a turtle – which is one of the most unassuming of all species on earth – may not on the face of it seem like inspiration for a compelling and poetic novel. But the turtle we have in mind was very real. For forty years, she resided in the garden of Gilbert White, the author of “The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne,” who is considered to be one of England’s first ecologists.

In that nature-writing classic, White observed the turtle and noted its comings and goings in meticulous and loving detail. And now the turtle’s observations of human behavior come out from under its shell in a book by New York Times editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg. It’s called: “Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile.” Verlyn, thanks so much for joining me.


CURWOOD: Now, the book is called “Timothy, Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile.” Can you tell me about Timothy?

KLINKENBORG: Well, Timothy was a tortoise that came from the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. No one knows quite how Timothy got to England. She--and, in fact, Timothy was a female-- turned up in the port city of Chichester in 1740, and was purchased for half a crown by Gilbert White’s uncle, Henry Snook. And she lived in the village of Ringmer with the Snooks for 40 years, in a bricked-up courtyard that was pretty muddy, pretty wet, pretty uncomfortable living, until Mrs. Snook died in 1780.

At which point Gilbert White, her nephew, inherited Timothy, and dug her up, carried her back to his home in Selborne, England, about 50 miles south of London. And she lived there until the spring of 1794, when she was, I believe, found dead in the spring. She just didn’t come out of hibernation. Gilbert White had died the previous June, 1793. And her shell was preserved by the family as a memento of a creature that had been very important to them, and was eventually given to The Natural History Museum in London, where you can see it today displayed in a wall case.

CURWOOD: Now, how did you come to make Timothy your central character?

KLINKENBORG: Well, I had been interested in Gilbert White for a long time. He had written a book called “The Natural History of Selborne,” and I was reading through his journals one winter and just noticing how much attention he paid to Timothy. He weighed her, he watched her diet, he watched her hibernate, watched her come out of hibernation. And it just occurred to me that it would be fun to write a book in which the tortoise watched the natural historian. And it was one of those ideas that seemed complete in itself; I wrote down in my notebook “Do this.” And the next day I was off.

CURWOOD: Verlyn, I wonder if you could read this passage where Timothy the turtle describes how comical looking she finds us to be.

KLINKENBORG: Happy to do so.

[READING] For a time I flinched whenever a human approached, especially Mr. Henry Snook, who carried such a stoop of belly before him. The feet would stop, but the top might timber on to me. I still doubt the stability of the species. All that brain bulk merely to prop them up? Or are they less top-heavy than they appear?

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Oh, my. What made you think of this perception? I mean, what’s the vision that came to your mind, Ah, that’s how the turtle sees us!

KLINKENBORG: Really just imagination. Really just trying to understand what it would mean, for example, to be that low to the ground. One of the real things I noticed that was most helpful to me is I thought about how many postures does Timothy really have? Well, you think about it, there’s up, and down, in, and out; and that’s basically it. But you think about a human, and how flexible and mobile and adaptable – able to scratch anywhere, able to stand from one leg and hang from your knees from a tree bough. All of these things must’ve seemed so strange to a creature that had just a simple choice of postures.

CURWOOD: Is this a work of philosophy or a novel? Or are you going to tell me what Albert Camus said, that if you want to be a philosopher write novels?

KLINKENBORG: That’s probably a good answer. But what I would say is it’s whatever any individual reader brings to it. For me, it sounds a little odd to put it this way, but it was an act of scholarship because it meant four years of devotion to trying to understand, in as much detail as I could, the rhythm and the character, the nature, of not just Timothy’s life, but the life of the garden she lived in. The life of the parish she lived in. The life of the world she lived in.

CURWOOD: One of, perhaps, your philosophical points might be, if I may, that the things that animals do perhaps make much more sense than some of things that we humans do. There’s a passage I’d like you to read. You start with the words “How the naturalist begins to understand.”

KLINKENBORG: [READING] How the naturalist begins to understand after years of study. He records the when, and where, and which, of the birds of passage and beasts of the field. Those are the very questions that system is poised to answer. But why will never by solved by system. No number of small corpses dissected, tagged, and preserved will ever begin to answer why. How the nightingale sings, pitch of the notes, melody of the song, structure of the voice box. But never fully the nightingale’s why.

Woodmen tell me, Mr. Gilbert White notes, that fern owls love to sit upon the logs of an evening. But what their motive is does not appear. Is not the love of sitting upon logs of an evening motive enough? What is the motive for taking tea at the hermitage on a blue afternoon, gray and still? To understand the motives of the rest of creation, Mr. Gilbert White will have to consult his own. But humans are blinded, even the naturalist, by being human. Barely able to witness what is not human.

Mr. Gilbert White rides over the commons from Newton, late May in the human year 1784, reins his Galloway mare at the crest of the hanger. Every manner of living thing in sight or in memory on this sweet, warm evening. Bees thriving, flycatcher nesting under the parlor window, rooks at their endless beach-top quarrels, swallows taking food up and down the river feeding their young in exact rotation. Mare beneath him feeling the pull of home. Tortoise making her escape into the fields among the grass.

Brute beasts that have no understanding, says the prayer book, driven only by love and hunger. Driven, they know not why.

CURWOOD: Verlyn, there’s this lovely passage you’ve written where Timothy is deciding whether or not she can speak to Gilbert White, a man who in some senses really sees nature and loves it much more than many of the people around him. And Timothy gets to wondering how Mr. White would react if she, Timothy, looked at him and said, simply, “Now then.” Verlyn, is your book your way of giving Timothy permission to say, “Now then?”

KLINKENBORG: Exactly. Exactly. She says that she hides her words in her skull, behind her obsidian eye. She calls it the stern prow of her skull. And the point of language for Timothy is that language is how often humans…it’s the tool humans use to separate themselves from nature. They say, simply, well, we talk, and nothing else on god’s Earth talks. Therefore we are unique, we’re special, we have a special relationship to the Creation itself, whether you frame that in a Christian context or any other way.

And Timothy’s point is that to a certain extent every creature, every species, has its language, has its way of communicating, has its way of relating through meaning to the world around it. And that to say simply to Gilbert White, “Now then,” would be to destroy his sense of isolation, to destroy his sense of privilege, the uniqueness of his place in life. Which is something we humans take absolutely for granted, and which enables us to be such a destructive, rapacious, environmentally overwhelming species.

CURWOOD: One last question before you go.


CURWOOD: If you were to actually sound like Timothy, take on her accent, what would she sound like?

KLINKENBORG: Well, I’m going to leave that question to Dame Judi Dench, okay?

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Is she making the movie of Timothy?

KLINKENBORG: I think she would have the perfect voice.

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes the “Rural Life” column for The New York Times. His new book is called “Timothy: Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile.” Thanks so much, Verlyn.

KLINKENBORG: Thank you very much, Steve.

Related link:
“Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile” by Verlyn Klinkenborg

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[MUSIC: Sammy Davis Junior “Eee-O Eleven” from ‘The Best Of The Rat Pack’ (Capitol – 2001)]

CURWOOD: Just ahead: In North Central Washington state, Native peoples pay the price of progress for Canada’s metal industry. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Kashi, maker of all natural foods, founded on the belief that everyone has the power to make healthful changes. Kashi. Seven whole grains on a mission; The Kresge Foundation, investing in nonprofits to help them catalyze growth, connect to stakeholders, and challenge greater support. On the web at Kresge dot org; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; The W-K Kellogg Foundation. 'From Vision to Innovative Impact: 75 Years of Philanthropy' This is NPR -- National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: California Guitar Trio “Whitewater” from ` Whitewater’ (Inside Out U.S. - 2004)]

U.S. Indian Tribes Challenge Canadian Company’s Legacy of Waste

Smelter waste at a public beach in Northport, Washington. (Photo: Patti Bailey)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. More than a century ago, much of north central Washington State and adjoining British Columbia was wilderness with a significant Native American population and a growing number of settlers. But after copper, lead, zinc and other key raw materials for industry were discovered in the region, mining and smelting began on an industrial scale. Big smelters can produce big amounts of toxic wastes. And a century of dumping into the Columbia River has left a toxic legacy with a legal twist.

The polluters were in Canada, but many of the folks who were exposed to the toxins were in the United States. Now, members of the Colville Indian Tribe and local residents who live just downstream from a key smelter have taken the Canadian company involved to court in what has become a high stakes test of the American Superfund law. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our story.

LOBET: Our story begins in the late 1800s, in the creases of low mountains where Washington, Idaho and British Columbia meet. The hills crawled with miners digging tons of ore that needed refining.

The Trail Teck Cominco facility. (Courtesy of Colville Confederated Tribes)

TECK COMINCO VIDEO: On February 1st, 1896, the first copper furnace was blown in at Fritz Heinze's BC smelting and refining company at Trail Creek landing, starting a chain of events that led to the formation of a great Canadian enterprise…

LOBET: By the turn of the century, there were 19 smelting operations in British Columbia. Most went under. But the smelters in the town of Trail grew. Stand above the 80-acre Trail works today and you'll view the largest combined lead and zinc producer in the world.

EDWARDS: This is a lookout of the whole of Trail operations, with the exception of the fertilizer operation, which is behind us. Quite a large site.

LOBET: Mark Edwards manages Environmental Health and Safety at Trail. These buildings produced nearly 300,000 tons of zinc in 2004. Zinc is used for galvanized steel framing, for cars, coins and baby ointment. And 84,000 tons of lead, mostly for car batteries.

EDWARDS: One of the unique aspects of Trail operations is we try to squeeze every valuable bit of metal out of every feed that comes in here. Even if an element is present in small concentrations, it quickly adds up to a significant amount of material. So we have a variety things from lead to cadmium, and them some more exotic and esoteric things like indium, germanium, which are rarer metals.

LOBET: The elements indium and germanium have become significant sources of profit. They are used in laptop screens and optical fiber. One of the things Edwards is proud of is the way the company repeatedly takes waste out of one process and feeds it back into another to recapture more lead and zinc, even from fumes.

EDWARDS: This integration is kind of unique to Trail operations. Not many operations in the world have that synergy. They'll have piles of residue sitting in perpetuity. In terms of waste, we have very little, if any, true waste.


LOBET: That's the sound of the black glassy furnace waste known as slag. Teck Cominco now sells this waste to the cement industry. Until 1995, the company discharged hundreds of tons per day of this slag, along with tons of liquid waste, directly into the Columbia River. The river marks the eastern border of the 1.4 million acres the Colville Confederated Tribes call home.


LOBET: There are many high places, shaded with pine on the reservation. From those places you can look down on the Columbia River, slowing into its own lake, held back miles downstream by the Grand Coulee Dam.

BAILEY: It’s beautiful here, I mean this is just a real treasure. I think we were just very naive and unknowing what was going on here.

LOBET: Patti Bailey is an environmental planner for the tribes, and D.R. Michel chairs the Resource Committee. Warming hands over a fire, they reminisce about the exposed lakebed that was their playground when the reservoir was "drawn down" every year.

MICHEL: Those big draw downs--there was just miles and miles of mud and sand and water to play in. We basically grew up down on the river. We rode our peddle bikes down there, then we got horses, then we got motorbikes, then we got cars. We just spent a lot of time down there, all summer.

BAILEY: Our parents certainly wouldn't have let us continue to be down here every day. And they just didn't know. And someone should have let us know.

LOBET: Bailey and Michel came of age about the same time the environmental movement was gaining steam. Local residents were asking questions.

BAILEY: We starting working with local watershed groups, the Lake Roosevelt Water Quality Council and the citizens here to try to educate ourselves about what this really is.

A popular black sand beach near the Canadian border used for fishing and swimming. The black sand is actually slag from the Teck Cominco smelter. (Photo: Patti Bailey)

LOBET: They learned that Lake Roosevelt's striking black sand beaches were actually slag, yards deep in some places.

In one early experiment, Canadian fisheries biologist Jennifer Nener exposed fingerling trout to slag in tanks. The fish died in less than one day; she saw that their gills were abraded. Local residents pressed the United States Geological Survey to test the beaches and lake bottom. Hydrologist Stephen Cox worked on one study.

COX: Some of the concentrations are very high, and you wouldn't want your kids playing in that kind of sandy environment, with elements that large. Zinc can be very, very large; mercury, cadmium, probably the ones that come to mind most. Copper concentration, while large, are not so alarming to humans, but they're alarming to fish.

LOBET: And Cox found, contrary to Cominco claims, the slag was not inert.

COX: We saw the surface of the slag grains were beginning to flake off. Basically, the surface cracking off and chipping away. They were showing signs of both mechanical breakdown and chemical breakdown, so they were not inert.

LOBET: And that could mean that what's in the slag could find its way into living things. Benthic ecologist Mark Munn is also with USGS. He went looking for the tiny midges and worms that live on and in the sediment layer that feed the lake's little fish, which feed bigger fish, birds and bears.

MUNN: You typically find 30 to 60 species in a river. And we found only something like three to 14 species.

LOBET: And when animals in the laboratory were exposed to the sediment ....

MUNN: Those tests in the upper river did show some toxicity. One can assume that if it’s toxic to the animals in the lab that there is a chance – a chance – not a proof, that the levels could also be toxic to the invertebrates in the river.

Slag particles in sediment from Lake Roosevelt and the upper Columbia River, Washington. (Photo: USGS)

LOBET: Scientists also say the glassy slag could be cutting the fish. Or the greatest harm could even be the disturbance of lowering Lake Roosevelt.

But the tribes and other residents still had basic questions: Was fishing or gathering plants causing them harm? Again D. R. Michel.

MICHEL: Is it safe to eat the fish? Is it safe to play on the beaches? Is it safe to swim in the water? That's the basic questions we want to get answered.

LOBET: And still, no one had researched what fish the Indians eat, what their exposure might be. What pregnant women were eating. The tribe petitioned EPA. EPA ordered Teck Cominco to investigate the lake and river in preparation for cleanup. There were negotiations – negotiations that involved Canada, the Departments of State, Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Teck Cominco offered to spend $14 million on studies. EPA and the tribes dismissed the offer. They think the cleanup could cost half a billion dollars. Fed up, the tribes did something no one has done before. Using a little-known citizen's provision of the Superfund law, or CERCLA, they sued a company in a foreign country.

They didn't do it lightly. The tribe's own economic well-being was now tied to a thriving houseboat business on the lake. A million and a half people come to swim and fish each year, and might not be as attracted to a Superfund site. Again, D. R. Michel.

MICHEL: The tribes have a lot at stake here also, with that perceived stigma, but felt that CERCLA was our best chance to get people looking at the area.

LOBET: During all this time, neither Washington state nor EPA had asked Canadian authorities for the records showing what Teck Cominco had been putting in the river. So the tribes and the Spokane Spokesman Review newspaper did. When they got the records, they were stunned.

LEE: It is the equivalent of enough slag to build a road 12 feet wide, six feet deep, from Seattle, believe it or not, to the Ivory Coast of Africa.

LOBET: Valerie Lee is an engineer and former Justice Department environmental prosecutor now consulting for the Colville tribes. She read the Canadian documents.

LEE: We looked at '94, '95, '96 and '97. And we were pretty shocked at the results. Cominco discharged more arsenic, which is a known carcinogen, cadmium and lead than all U.S. sources reporting to EPA’s toxic release inventory to all waters of the United States in all years, except 1996. Basically, you had one source to one river, the Columbia River, out-discharging all sources in the United States. That is extraordinary.

LOBET: In a single two-day episode in 1980, documents show Cominco dumped 6,300 pounds of mercury into the Columbia River. When British Columbia regulators saw the records of the mercury spill from automatic sampling, they sent them to Don Skogstad who, at the time, was a provincial prosecutor.

SKOGSTAD: It was 6,000 pounds of mercury. They were outraged. These guys are scientists. They had tested the fish. I said, “What did you do?” They said, “We dissect them.” I said, “What was it like?" He said, “About the only thing those fish would be good for was for thermometers.” The mercury.

When I saw the case I thought, “Well, this case is will be about exceeding the permit, like all the other cases.” No, there could be no such charges against Cominco.

LOBET: No such charge, because Cominco's permit had no restrictions.

SKOGSTAD: Cominco did not have any limits on what they could put into the river. That wasn't what the charge was.

LOBET: In other words, it was a permit that provided legal protection for the company, but no protection to the public. As for the public, according to documents obtained by Living on Earth under the Freedom of Information Act, it took weeks for the Canadian government to notify U.S. EPA and Washington State ecology officials of the dumped mercury. When they did, those American authorities did not notify the tribes or other residents along the lake's numerous fishing spots. With these documents coming to light, and the tribe's lawsuit, bureaucratic wheels began to turn. The EPA began its most comprehensive fish study yet in Lake Roosevelt.


LOBET: On a chilly night, a Colville boat with tribal and federal biologists aboard motors to one corner of the 150 mile lake.

MAN ON RADIO: How are you guys doing? Got any fish?

MAN: We probably got about a dozen rainbows and about 50 walleye.

MAN ON RADIO: You guys have any suckers?

MAN: Zero, nada. Back on this side.

LOBET: After a couple of hours, the boat stops so the biologists can club the fish over the head, size, sex and tag them for their final journey to the lab.


LOBET: Meanwhile, the Colville tribes' lawsuit made its way to court in eastern Washington. There, something happened that made more people pay attention. Teck Cominco argued that as a Canadian company whose discharges had been in Canada, it could not be held to account under U.S. Superfund law. But the federal judge In Yakima, Washington, said the United States has an interest in the care if its domestic environment, regardless of the location of those who damage it. So the case moved swiftly to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle.


CLERK: Please be seated. [GAVEL]

LOBET: The clerk said it was the fullest she'd seen the courtroom in five years.

MAN: Would everyone take their seats and, if they do not have seats, they’re going to have to stand still.

LOBET: Attorney Kevin Fong for Teck Cominco argued the company recognized its responsibility for its legacy and has been negotiating in good faith, but it can’t subject itself to unlimited liability under American law.

FONG: Here, Teck Cominco has made an offer to voluntarily assume the costs of the investigation and to address any risks identified in that investigation. So it's not a question of whether this will get cleaned up or not, it's just of whether it is under CERCLA liability.

LOBET: And Fong argued Congress never intended the Superfund law be applied outside U.S. borders.

FONG: If Congress wants to apply CERCLA to situations like this, it should say so…

LOBET: But the judges did not seem inclined to accept the notion that a company located just ten miles upstream of the U.S. border didn't realize its waste would flow downstream. Judge William Schwarzer:

SCHWARZER: It sounds like Werner Von Braun, who said, “I only send the missiles up, I don’t care where they land.” That’s sort of your position. We just dump it in the river; we don’t care where it lands.

LOBET: The Ninth Circuit has not yet ruled. People on both sides of the case believe it is significant, and the powerful players lined up on the side of the company include mining associations on both sides of the border, the Canadian government, and the U.S. State Department. Allied with the tribes are environmental groups and five western states; California, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

Quentin Riegel is an attorney with the National Association of Manufacturers which, like many observers, believes the case cuts two ways. If Americans can apply the Superfund law to a company in Canada, what about all the acid rain that has traveled north over the years?

RIEGEL: There is nothing to prevent Canadians or other governments from adopting the same litigation position against American companies. With our companies already besieged by regulatory requirements, environmental requirements, taxes, energy costs, litigation costs in general, health care costs, additional litigation from foreign plaintiffs for activities that occurred in this country, in compliance with American law, would be an additional burden that could continue to make manufacturing in America extremely expensive.

LOBET: But when state attorneys look at Teck Cominco, they see deep pockets.

VIDEO FROM TECK: When people think Teck Cominco, they think zinc and with good reason...

LOBET: They point out the company doubled its profit last year over the year before, as demand in China drove up the prices for zinc, copper, coal and indium. Kristie Carevich, a Washington State assistant attorney general in the ecology division, says ‘remember, if Tech Cominco doesn’t clean up Lake Roosevelt, someone else will have to.’

CAREVICH: I think one of the most important things about this case is that if we are not allowed to apply CERCLA and hold Teck liable for cleaning up this site in Washington, then most of this is going to fall on state taxpayers and, potentially, federal taxpayers, to pay for.

LOBET: A few years ago, U.S. officials could have used the federal Superfund to cover research and cleanup, then attempt to recover the costs from Teck Cominco, with a triple penalty. But Superfund is nearly empty, down from more than a billion dollars to less than $15 million. Congress hasn't renewed the corporate taxes that feed the fund.

How this international environmental dispute reaches its end will ripple through legal circles, board rooms, and the calculations of fishing people in a fishing place. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.

Related links:
- Colville Confederated Tribes
- Teck Cominco News Releases and Documents

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CURWOOD: We leave you this week in the land where Timmy the Turtle roamed.


CURWOOD: The British countryside is home to a vast array of creatures, but few whose song is quite as melodious as this nightingale recorded by Philip Radford in Gloucestershire, England.

[EARTH EAR: “Nightingale (Gloucestershire)” recorded by Philip Radford from ‘Nightingales: A Celebration’ (Jacobi Jayne & Company /British Trust for Ornithology – 1972)]

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 any time at LOE dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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