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

July 29, 2011

Air Date: July 29, 2011



Obama Administration Divided Over Cancer Alley Case / Ike Sriskandarajah

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Mossville Louisiana sits in the shadow of 14 petrochemical refineries. When residents felt the US Government wasn’t protecting their right to a healthy environment, they reached past the American regulators, legislators and courts to take their case to the highest human rights court in the western hemisphere. Now candid approval from the highest U.S. environmental regulator appears to have boosted their petition. Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports. (06:05)

Atomic Sunflowers

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Scientists have discovered that sunflowers can pull radioactive contaminants out of the soil. Researchers cleaning up the Fukushima site in Japan are putting the flowers to the test. Soil scientist Michael Blaylock tells host Bruce Gellerman how this clean-up-by-plant works. (06:10)

Pressure Builds on Pipeline Decision / Mitra Taj

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Washington is debating whether a huge pipeline project to bring a dirty form of oil from Alberta's Tar Sands to the Gulf Coast of Mexico should be approved. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports on what's at stake if the massive project goes forward. (06:15)

Science Note: Cow Manure and Methane / Anne-Marie Singh

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Methane is a potent greenhouse gas but estimating how much ruminating animals produce has not been easy. Now scientists have found a correlation between levels of a compound in manure and the amount of methane released by the animal. Living on Earth’s Anne-Marie Singh brings us this science note. (02:00)

Fair Trade Phones / Cintia Taylor

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A group of Dutch entrepreneurs has hang-ups about where the minerals in your phone come from. From Deutsche Welle Radio’s Living Planet, Cintia Taylor reports on the push for phones produced without minerals from conflict areas. (06:15)

Sun Oven

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In the dog days of summer, many people try to avoid turning on their kitchen stove. And if you’re like commentator Pat Priest of steamy Athens, Georgia, you prefer cooking with the energy of the sun. (02:15)

Cape Wind Spin

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What started as a project to build America’s first offshore windfarm has turned into a ten-year battle, with powerful interests on both sides. A new documentary chronicles the extreme opinions on both sides. Bruce Gellerman talks with the film’s director Robbie Gemmel about why the Cape Cod community is so passionate about this issue. (11:05)

Fog Garden

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A new exhibit at the Center for Art + Environment in Reno, Nevada features designs for ways to trap and tap fog. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with expert fog catcher Pilar Cereceda. She runs the Atacama Desert Center and has been piping dew in the driest place in the world. (02:35)

BirdNote®/ White-throated Swifts / Mary McCann

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White-throated swifts sail through the air. As BirdNote®’s Mary McCann tells us, they’re one of the world’s fastest birds. Photo: A white-throated swift in flight. (© Greg Lavaty) (01:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS:, Michael Blaylock, Robbie Gemmel, Pilar Cereceda
REPORTERS: Ike Sriskandarajah, Mitra Taj, Anne-Marie Singh, Cintia Taylor, Pat Priest, Mary McCann


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Mossville, Louisiana is suing the federal government. The residents charge their human rights to a clean environment are being violated. But there's disorder in the court case.

HARDEN: The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing here because we’ve got the person in charge of environmental protection of the United States agreeing with the Mossville human rights petition and we’ve got others within the U.S. government saying, it isn’t so.

GELLERMAN: Also - the battle over Cape Wind - the nation’s first off-shore wind farm takes a turn to the big screen. A new documentary chronicles the decade long fight. We take a sneak preview.

GEMMEL: We used the title Cape Spin for the double entendre, obviously because the spin of the turbines. But also the political spin, and the media spin, there's just so much spin.

GELLERMAN: Oh boy, is there ever! Wind, spin, and a lot more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!


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

Obama Administration Divided Over Cancer Alley Case

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Mossville, Louisiana is one of the most polluted places in the nation. More than a dozen industrial plants spew millions of pounds of toxic chemicals a year into the environment. When the federal government failed to act, residents of Mossville sued the U.S. for not protecting their environmental human rights. Last year, the community – mostly African American – caught a break when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made the historic decision to hear their case. Now, Mossville residents may have caught another legal break, as Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.

View of the Georgia Gulf facility from the home of a Mossville resident. Houses within a one-mile radius have been abandoned or bought out. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Six years ago Christine Bennett made her first trip to her nation’s capital to file a human rights complaint against her government.

BENNETT: Being here in Washington DC, going to make a petition is one thing. But it’s whether or not we’re going to be heard is the most important thing. Will somebody do something about it or are we just wasting our time?

SRISKANDARAJAH: Bennett and her neighbors have been waiting a long time. The story of their rights not being protected goes back generations. Emancipated slaves settled the bayous of Mossville, Louisiana. They had land, but no voting rights to protect it. After World War 2, plastics companies found little resistance to building factories in these disenfranchised black neighborhoods. Fourteen of those petrochemical plants ring the town today.

BENNETT: I’m living where my grandparents lived and I am one of the fourth generations. But now the place that was once so beautiful and so clean is now a dump.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Each year the air is loaded with four million pounds of carcinogens, earning this place the nickname “Cancer Alley.” Government researchers have measured three times the national average of dioxin in the bodies of Mossville residents. They argue that there are no environmental justice laws on our books to protect America’s most vulnerable communities. So that’s the case they took to the Inter-American Commission, a last line of defense for human rights in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Government fought this arguing that the U.S. has plenty of environmental laws that protect its citizens. But last year, in an interview with Living on Earth, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, seemed to agree with the people of Mossville.

JACKSON: I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because what the petitioners argue as I understand it is in order to get heard is that they basically had to make the case that the laws of this country do not provide them an opportunity for redress. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws; there’s nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it.

The Conoco Phillips oil refinery is one of several facilities that release pollution including dioxins in Mossville. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: It was what the community of Mossville had been waiting to hear: A high-ranking Government official agreeing with the main argument in their case. Administrator Jackson is the first African American EPA head and she’s from Louisiana. Since she took the job, she has made environmental justice a priority of her agency. But even apparent support from Administrator Jackson didn’t put the human rights petition in the clear.

HARDEN: I think no one in Mossville operates under the assumption that everything will be great without struggle because that hasn’t been their experience.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s Monique Harden. She’s the lawyer for the people of Mossville and has been making the case that they have to go outside of the U.S. to resolve their human rights abuses. The State Department argues back that the citizens can still appeal within the American legal system. To Harden, Administrator Jackson’s comment seemed to bolster the Mossville case.

BENNETT: Her statement was just very positive and very affirming and so when we read a few months later the brief that was filed by the U.S. government countering that, we felt that, well, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing here because we’ve got the person in charge of environmental protection of the United States agreeing with the Mossville human rights petition and we’ve got others within the U.S. government saying, it isn’t so.

Many Mossville residents have left their homes due to the pollution. (Courtesy of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Harden included Jackson’s statement in briefs she filed to the Commission last March, but the government hasn’t responded. The EPA and the State Department both declined to talk to Living on Earth as well. So we asked someone who advises on environmental human rights cases what this means. Barbara Johnston is a Senior Research Fellow for the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California. She says the government’s silence speaks volumes.

JOHNSTON: I think there’s a minor war occurring (laughs) with all sorts of skirmishes over where our priorities are, whether we are actually going to actually demonstrate that we are indeed a nation that has great and huge concern of environmental justice, especially in cases of demonstrated environmental racism versus our economic liability. Because if the U.S. comes out with a petition that acknowledges its liability in this particular case, there is a very, very, very, very long list of injured parties out there.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which would make environmental justice a very, very, very expensive proposition. But environmental human rights lawyer Monique Harden says it may be expensive but that would be the cost of living in a society that values all citizens and neighborhoods equally.

HARDEN: What so often happens, in communities that are struggling for environmental justice, is that they’re in dialogue mode but there’s no remedy. And a favorable decision by the Commission would create a different paradigm for what governmental regulation of the environment should look like.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In the meantime, the Mossville case has already opened an avenue for Americans to resolve environmental human rights abuse. A Navajo group fighting a uranium mine in New Mexico, has just filed their own human rights petition to the Inter-American Commission. And they cite the Mossville case as supporting their claim. For Living on Earth and Planet Harmony, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

GELLERMAN: And be sure to check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. It pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony.com.

Related links:
- Read the US Government’s argument before the Commission
- The Mossville rebuttal

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[MUSIC: Spirit “Space Chile” from the Family That Plays Together (Epic/Legacy Records 1996).]

Atomic Sunflowers

GELLERMAN: Sunflowers soak up the sun’s rays and grow gloriously tall. Now, researchers in Japan are planting sunflowers to soak up radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The idea was tried back in the mid 1990’s near the Chernobyl
power plant meltdown. Soil scientist Michael Blaylock worked on that project – now he's Vice President of Systems Development at Edenspace Systems Corporation. Michael Blaylock - welcome to Living on Earth!

BLAYLOCK: Thank you!

GELLERMAN: So sunflower plants and nuclear power plants - what's the connection?

BLAYLOCK: Well, the connection there is really that sunflowers are really good at taking up certain radioactive isotopes. And that’s really the connection between the sunflowers and the nuclear power plants that we’ve discovered is that some of the fallout from the Chernobyl accident we were able to address through planting sunflowers in the affected areas.

GELLERMAN: So basically the plant just kind of grows, and as it grows, it’s sucking the radiation out of the soil?

BLAYLOCK: That’s correct. Those radioisotopes mimic some of the nutrients that the plant takes up normally. And so the plant really doesn’t distinguish between those radioactive isotopes and some of the nutrients like potassium and calcium that it takes up as a matter of course.

GELLERMAN: Well, you worked at Chernobyl back in the mid 1990s, did it work?

BLAYLOCK: It was very effective for the water. The soil was a little bit of a different story because cesium in soil is a little bit tricky. Strontium in soil. it works very well for us, but if you can’t take both of them out, taking just the strontium doesn’t necessarily get you to where you want to be if you leave the cesium around.

GELLERMAN: So why is cesium harder to get out then strontium?

BLAYLOCK: Well, cesium mimics potassium. The clay layers on a very small scale, the atomic structure, they have what we call, for lack of a better word, a cavity in between those clay layers. And the potassium fits very nicely into those cavities and that’s the way that soils retain potassium. Well cesium, being very similar to potassium, fits in those same cavities and it becomes fixed in the soil and it is very difficult for it to come out. Whereas strontium is very similar to calcium and calcium is in a form that is very available to plants - we don’t have that problem.

GELLERMAN: Well, we’re trying this at Fukushima, do you think it could actually work there?

BLAYLOCK: It could, given the right set of circumstances. You know, one thing we found in Chernobyl is, we came there a number of years after the fact. And so that gave plenty of time for that cesium to become fixed in the soil, and it’s going to become very dependant on the soil types. You know, soils that have very high mica contents, certain clays, are going to be very difficult to remove the cesium once the cesium gets fixed. But under the right set of circumstances, they could be effective in removing those contaminants from the soil.

GELLERMAN: So which part of the plant stores the radioactivity?

BLAYLOCK: You don’t want to have to dig up roots – that’s a very difficult process. It can be done but it’s much easier to harvest leaves and stems. So we focus our efforts on those plants that do a good job of translocating from roots to shoots.

GELLERMAN: Is the sunflower the best plant for this?

Sunflowers can take radioactive isotopes out of contaminated soil (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

BLAYLOCK: Sunflower was attractive because it grows well, it produces a lot of biomass quickly. It doesn’t take a lot of management to grow it as compared to some other crops, it’s adaptable to a lot of different climates. So, I don’t know that it is the best plant, but it is certainly one that meets the criteria that we need.

GELLERMAN: So when you harvest the plant, it’s radioactive!

BLAYLOCK: Yeah, the biomass, or the harvested material, would be radioactive.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, so what do you do then? How do you get rid of the radioactivity in the plant?

BLAYLOCK: Yeah, the real process here is, what we’re trying to do is, concentrate that radioactivity from the soil, which is a fairly low concentration, to a much higher concentration in the plant material. You still have to dispose of that plant material, but you move that particular contaminant or radioactive isotope from silica, aluminosilicate matrix in the soil, which is very difficult to deal with, to a carbon-based substance in the plant material. You concentrated that, so you have a lot less material to dispose of, and you can leave that soil, which is a resource that’s hard to replace – you can leave that soil in place and just remove the contaminant.

GELLERMAN: And the radiation doesn’t kill the plant as this is happening?

BLAYLOCK: Typically not. If they’re high enough to where they’re going to affect the plant growth, it’s not going to be an area that’s suitable for this type of approach.

GELLERMAN: I can see unexpected consequences from something like this. I mean, here you have these sunflower plants, and the seeds dry, and birds eat the seeds and then they fly off, and they’re radioactive.

BLAYLOCK: Yeah, that could be a risk. I mean, typically, when we performed this we would always harvest plants before they seeded out because the main idea is to harvest biomass. You want to produce as much vegetative material as possible. And once the plants start producing seeds, it flowers and the seeds start forming, it’s not producing a lot more vegetative matter to remove that contaminant, so typically once the plant flowered, we harvested and we would replant again. We’re not interested in producing seeds.

GELLERMAN: What about the hard-nosed question about money? How much does this cost relative to other technologies?

BLAYLOCK: Relative to other remediation technologies, it’s not that expensive. But when you factor in that there’s sampling and disposal of the material, it’s certainly not free, but, you know, on a cost basis as compared to the cost of storing soil for a very long period of time, very large quantities of soil, it’s a very attractive option.

GELLERMAN: You know, there’s something very special about sunflowers, I mean, they’re beautiful. And there’s something poetic, I think, going on here because they’re also an anti-nuclear symbol. Especially in Japan, where we’re almost ready to commemorate the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki!

BLAYLOCK: Yeah, it is an interesting set of circumstances. And to see a field of plants out there growing in an area that previously was not vegetated, and you’d be able to harness nature to do some of the things that we need to do to, you know, correct our mistakes, it is something that’s very pleasant to look at and to see. And it gives you, you know, it’s one of those touchy-feely things that you feel really good about.

GELLERMAN: Michael Blaylock is the Vice President at Edenspace Systems Corporation. Mr. Blaylock, thank you very much.

BLAYLOCK: Thank you for having me!

Related link:
Edenspace Systems Corp

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[MUSIC: Milt Jackson “Sunflower” from Sunflower (CTI/Sony Legacy 2011).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead – not going with the flow – critics try to put the kibosh on a transcontinental pipeline carrying crude. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Frank Foster: “What’s New From The Monster Mill” from Manhattan Fever (Blue Note Records 2007).]

Pressure Builds on Pipeline Decision

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. It’s going to cost 13 billion dollars to build a system of pipelines to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. The Canadian crude is thick and gooey but it could help reduce U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil. Yet critics contend the cross-country pipeline could wreak environmental havoc. The White House will decide whether the project goes ahead but not without the rest of Washington weighing in first. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports.

TAJ: The Obama administration says it will approve or deny the Keystone XL pipeline by the end of the year. But for some in Congress, that’s not fast enough. A bill to force a decision by November 1 just passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. It faces a likely dead end in the Senate, but offered oil-friendly lawmakers like Republican Steve Scalise of Louisiana the opportunity to pressure the President.

SCALISE: If we don't agree to this, you know because radicals they don't like oil at all so I guess they're going to ride around on bicycles and that's going to get them where they need to be. We’ve got to live in reality, we’ve Canada saying 700 thousand barrels a day can come into America. That means we don’t have to buy 700 thousand barrels a day from Middle Eastern countries.

TAJ: 700 thousand barrels a day of oil so thick it doesn’t flow naturally. To move it through a pipeline across six U.S. states, it has to be cooked with a lot of water and natural gas. By the time it comes out of the tailpipe of a car, its greenhouse gas emissions will be double, or by some estimates as much as five times those of regular oil. Keystone XL could force the White House to pick between key priorities: cut imports of Middle Eastern oil, or wean the country off oil altogether to address the long-term threat of climate change. Climate activist Bill McKibben says it’s important to block the project, because not much else is being done to slow climate change.

MCKIBBEN: One of the things we've got to do is identify those huge deposits of carbon that have to be kept safely in the ground. These Canadian tar sands are the second biggest pool of carbon on Earth. If we start burning them it's essentially game over for the climate.

TAJ: McKibben is leading protests at the White House in coming weeks to send the message that tapping the dirty Canadian fuel is “immoral.” He says about a thousand people plan to risk arrest, in part because they fear the process has been hijacked by powerful interests. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, the Department of State is charged with rendering the decision. Its initial favorable environmental impact statement was rejected by the EPA, and as it’s worked on a new report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said publicly she’s inclined to give the project a green light. McKibben notes that one of her chief campaign staffers was hired to lobby for Transcanada, the company that will build the pipeline.

MCKIBBEN: Not, would be my guess, because he knows an unbelievable amount about oil pipelines, but more because they hope he knows enough about Hillary Clinton to get his deal done.

TAJ: As Alberta ramps up its lobbying efforts in Washington, its backup plan is unclear. A proposal to pump the oil to Canada’s West Coast has met opposition at home and Energy Minister Ron Liepert said its oil sands would be "landlocked” without the Keystone pipeline. But Marty Durbin with the U.S. lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute says it’s only a matter of time before Canada finds a buyer.

DURBIN: I don’t think there’s any question that Canada is going to produce this energy resource. If they’re not able to provide this to the United States they’ll certainly be looking for markets elsewhere.

TAJ: Durbin says that means the global climate would suffer anyway, and American businesses would miss out. The pipeline would be a boon for oil refineries in the Gulf Coast and Durbin says that would ripple into jobs and investments throughout the economy.

DURBIN: Refining is just the start. By getting that feedstock, you use the natural gas and oil to create the chemicals, the fertilizers, the plastics, the medicines, you know, wind turbines! You’ve got to have natural gas and oil to create those materials.

TAJ: But green groups worry that approving the Keystone XL pipeline will only thwart efforts to get off oil, and that the project itself is a sign of desperation. To get to the deposits, Canada will have to strip mine millions of acres of its pristine Boreal forest. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz watches international oil markets for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: The fact that we’re going to more expense and being much more destructive in our search for oil should really sound a warning bell that it’s time to get off oil, now while we still have enough conventional resources that we can do a good transition to clean energy.

TAJ: Casey-Lefkowitz says the prospect of hundreds of thousands of barrels of toxic oil bursting underground near American aquifers should also raise flags. Tar sands oil is particularly hard on pipes, she says, and leaks are common. This summer the federal government shut down an existing TransCanada pipeline, saying its dozen leaks in just the past year harms “life, property, and the environment.” The House vote to push the White House on Keystone XL fell on the exact same day a year ago that the Enbridge pipeline broke. It poured tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, a disaster still being cleaned up today. And even though that spill was in his home state, Congressman Fred Upton, the Republican chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, urged the president to endorse the new pipeline. He said while safety can be improved, the U.S. economy is in dire straights.

UPTON: Most leaders in this situation would be searching for a project that would create jobs, help bring down gas prices, and yes provide a stable and secure source of oil to replace imports from dangerous parts of the world. Our president is being handed such a project on a silver platter.
TAJ: But lawmakers in Congress will mostly sit on the sidelines in this fight. Unlike other controversial energy policies, the executive branch alone has the authority to open or close the tap on Canadian tar sands oil. The State Department’s final environmental impact statement is expected in coming weeks. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.

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[MUSIC: Pink Floyd “A Pillow Of Winds” from Meddle (Capitol Records 1971).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up – mobilizing against cell phones that use minerals from war torn areas. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Anne-Marie Singh.

Science Note: Cow Manure and Methane


SINGH: Cow belches and flatulence produce large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more toxic than carbon dioxide. Now researchers have found that analyzing cow poop can provide valuable information about the amount of methane that’s released into the atmosphere.


SINGH: Cows, sheep, and other ruminant animals with four-chambered stomachs contain billions of microbes which help them digest grass and hay. Some of these microbes produce a compound called archaeol, which is found in feces.

While it’s been relatively easy to calculate CO2 emissions caused by human activity, it’s much harder to estimate the amount of methane emitted from livestock. Researchers from the UK and Ireland believed there is a correlation between the levels of archaeol in poop and methane released by the animal. To prove this, they devised an experiment.

They collected poop samples from twelve steers to test how much archaeol was present. Some of the male cattle had diets consisting of fermented grass, called silage. The others consumed a tasty mix of silage and dry food. The steers with the grass diet had higher levels of archaeol in their poop than the cattle which ate the silage mixture. The more archaeol there was in the poop, the more methane, in the form of burps and flatulence, was released by the animals.

This study suggests that methane emissions can be regulated by controlling the diet of domestic livestock. And if further research confirms archaeol to be a reliable biomarker, then scientists could look to piles of poop for greener pastures. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Anne-Marie Singh.


Related links:
- Press Release on the study on Pub Med
- Read up about methane on the EPA website

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Fair Trade Phones

GELLERMAN: There’s fair trade coffee, fair trade chocolate, even fair trade clothing – products sourced by importers trying to guarantee fair pay and decent treatment for farmers and workers in developing countries. Well, now a Dutch team is applying the principles of the fair trade philosophy to mobile phones to combat what’s called "the conflict mineral trade." From the Deutsche Welle Radio program “Living Planet,” Cintia Taylor reports.


TAYLOR: It’s estimated that there are over five billion mobile phone in the whole world. And in several countries, the number of these devices exceeds the number of people.

[PHONE RINGS: Talking in another language, voices overlap]

TAYLOR: Frequently, the very beginning of a mobile phone’s production chain is in Central Africa. There, some 300 thousand people make their living by mining for the minerals that are used in the components of our phones. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the mining business has helped finance and fuel the country’s ongoing conflict. Extraction is mainly controlled by the rebels or the government’s own military forces. Nathalie Ankersmit is from the Dutch Institute for Southern Africa.

ANKERSMIT: Every party, whether it’s the Congolese Army, or whether it’s the rebellions or militias, they use the illegal trade in minerals to finance their, well, their human rights abuses. And especially, the local population is victim of these abuses. There are mass rapes of women and children in the local villages, to make sure that these villages are loyal to a certain militia or a certain group of army people. And, that’s why the term ‘blood mobiles’ has suddenly turned up in media.

ABEL: When you look at all the circuits in your telephone, they use copper for it. Forty percent of all of the copper reserves are in Congo, and cobalt as well, and a lot of your cobalt comes from Congo which is being used for…

TAYLOR: That’s Bas Van Abel, creative director at the Waag Society in Amsterdam. He’s explaining to me where we can find minerals in our mobile phones.

ABEL: A lot of the stuff which is being used are minerals. And I think that there are more than 20 to 22 minerals used on average in every telephone. You have to do a lot of reverse engineering. Because that’s one of the problems that phone companies don’t give a list of the stuff that they have in their phones. And that’s also one of the things that we need to change, that also the big phone builders and production companies give insight into what they are using. And also who they buy from.

There are about 5 billion cell phones worldwide. (Photo: Mr. Thomas, Flickr Creative Commons)

TAYLOR: Bas and Nathalie’s organizations have joined forces against the use of conflict minerals in electronics, and that’s how Fair Phone was born. Just like the name suggests, it’s an initiative that aims to produce the world’s first ethical phone. According to Bas, the key to the project is not a new invention, but a new way of doing business.

ABEL: The easiest part of this whole project would be creating a phone. Because phones are already created, you know, the production process is there. The problem is it’s not transparent, and the working conditions and the fairness around it, that’s where the problem starts. So, if you want to make a fair phone, you have to use, you have to change all the production for all these 22 minerals.

TAYLOR: But a change in production can also mean added costs, something that doesn’t go down well in corporations.


TAYLOR: Nokia’s good, clean image has been severely impacted since the problem surrounding conflict minerals came to light, but it still ranks as one of the most environmentally friendly companies in the sector and it has banned Congolese minerals in its production. And while critics and activists claim it still has a long way to go, spokesman Jorgen Thiesman says the company is already producing the fairest phone possible.

THIESMAN: No company can give a 100 percent guarantee that there are no conflict minerals in their components, but we don’t allow our suppliers and their suppliers to source minerals from conflict areas. One of the things that we as a company have done already, it’s investing in R&D so that we can reduce the components that have these minerals in them, that we reduce them form, for instance, six components that were used in 2001 in a mobile phone, to one or two components now.

TAYLOR: Nokia says it also has a tagging system in place to ensure the origin of the minerals and that it orders its supplies regularly. But it admits that it’s a hard process to track down properly.

THIESMANN: If you look at the process, the real challenge is in what happens between the mine and the smelter. Because once the minerals are smelted into metals, you cannot trace them anymore. So it’s really important that you make sure that a control mechanism is in place between the mine and the actual smelter.


TAYLOR: It is this initial stage of the production chain that Fair Phone is now trying to tackle. They’ve recently traveled to the Congolese province of Katanga where cobalt is mined. Cobalt is an essential component for mobile phones’ batteries. They bought a bag of it directly from the mineworkers, which they’ll use later on the Fair Phone. At Bas’s office, his colleagues are also looking to the possibility of making the phone cards more replaceable, so that broken components can be replaced without throwing out a whole phone. The team doesn’t know yet when the first Fair Phone will hit the shelves, but they’re optimistic that it will be sooner, rather than later. Cintia Taylor, Amsterdam.


GELLERMAN: Our report on the conflict mineral trade and mobile phones comes to us courtesy of the Deutsche Welle Radio program Living Planet.

Related links:
- Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa
- Fair Phone
- Click here for videos about the fair phone

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[MUSIC: Greyboy All-Stars “Genevieve (Quantic Remix)” from Soul Mosaic (Ubiquity Records 2004).]

Sun Oven

GELLERMAN: As former president Harry Truman once said, “If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Well, with the dog days of summer upon us, that’s just what commentator Pat Priest of Athens, Georgia does.

PRIEST: When you say, "It's like an oven out there!"…when one baking hot day follows another, try baking outside using the free radiant heat of the sun. I’m cooking some beets this afternoon in my side yard in my solar cooker as I write this. I occasionally have to adjust the cooker slightly to orient it more squarely towards the sun. But other than that, it’s simple, working like a crock pot you can leave all day while you’re at work. No plug needed, no danger of fire. The only problem I’ve ever had is that someone ran over mine in the driveway once, causing an explosion of glass and garbanzos.

An aluminum reflective collar surrounds the cooking bowl, amplifies the heat of the sun.(Photo: Pat Priest)

Most sun ovens are shaped like the Elizabethan collar that you put on your dog so it won’t lick and scratch its wound - the shiny collar funnels the sun inward. The oven I use costs a little over a hundred bucks. It’s a black, enamel bowl that sits inside a rounded glass bottom and top, creating a greenhouse effect. I set the pot inside that reflective collar that cantilevers outward to surround the meal I’m cooking - it’s dazzling, really, gotta wear shades.

(Photo: Pat Priest)

With my solar stove, I can cook without using electricity, which I avoid because of the CO2 emissions and the mountain top removal associated with coal-fired power plants. And when I’m cooking outdoors, I don’t have to use more energy still to cool my kitchen on these stiflingly hot days. I love to be outdoors working in my garden and catch a whiff of my dinner cooking. And the neat part about the company that makes my solar cooker is that a portion of its sales helps send these simple devices to developing countries. Fuel is expensive. And cooking with wood or dung is harmful to people’s health. Solar cooking limits the deforestation that happens when poor people cut trees for wood stoves. So there, and here, solar ovens make sense. Sun powered, and very cool.

GELLERMAN: Pat Priest produces a radio program called “True South” in Athens, Georgia. For more information on solar stoves, go to our website – loe.org.

Related link:
Solar Household Energy sells the Olla Solar (Hot Pot) and helps provide solar cookers to women in third-world countries.

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[MUSIC: Pat Metheny: “Slow Hot Wind” from What’s It All About (Nonesuch Records 2011).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up, doing the dew – catching water out of thin air in one of the driest places on the planet. And a new documentary spins the off-shore wind story. Stay tuned - it's Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, helping students, workers, entrepreneurs and families create a healthy and prosperous clean energy future. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[CUT AWAY MUSIC: Frank Foster: “Shiny Stockings” from Shiny Stockings (Denon/Nippon Columbia 1989).]

Cape Wind Spin

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

[MUSIC: If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air…: Patti Page “Old Cape Cod”]

GELLERMAN: Lobster stew…and an ocean view? Winding roads and strong winds off the water beckon you? We've got just the place…

[MUSIC: You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod…that Old Cape Cod...]

GELLERMAN: Cape Cod juts out like an arm and a prize fighter’s fist into the Atlantic.
Five miles off the southern shore in Nantucket Sound beyond the sun, sand and surf, the wind blows steady and strong. For 10 years this vacation haven has been the scene of a knock down drag out fight over siting the nation’s first off shore wind farm. The Cape Wind Project – as it’s called – has come out the winner, having received all of the necessary state and federal approvals. And the decade long battle is now chronicled in the new documentary: “Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle.” Robbie Gemmel is producer and director of “Cape Spin.”

GEMMEL: I actually started following this story in 2001 when I was in college. I was absolutely mesmerized that it has carried on this long and it is still thriving more than ever.

Choppy seas from the abundant wind in Nantucket Harbor. (Photo: Ethan Oringel, Flickr Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: Why? What is it about this project that so divides people?

GEMMEL: I would say, the scale of it and asking a community that has many generations on the Cape and Islands to embrace such a large-scale industrial project, when, for the most part, despite all the development that has happened on the Cape, these communities have really gone out of their way to really preserve the natural beauty and also the history of the Cape and Islands.

GELLERMAN: When they were originally proposing this way back when, it was something like 170 towers and turbines, right?

GEMMEL: Correct. It was 170 and then shortly thereafter they downsized it to 130 turbines.

GELLERMAN: It still takes up a lot of water!

GEMMEL: Yeah, that’s correct, it is a fairly large footprint. The turbines themselves I think are 16 feet wide, but the entire wind farm is spread across 25 miles.

GELLERMAN: On the pro side, you’ve got the developer, Jim Gordon, who wants to build the windfarm…

[MUSIC/FROM THE MOVIE: The Cape and Islands, according the American Lung Association has the worst air quality in Massachusetts, so we thought that by developing a major [WIND SOUNDS] wind-powered project we could supply 75 percent of the Cape and Island’s electricity, with zero pollutant emissions, zero water consumption and zero waste discharge [MUSIC BEGINS AGAIN]…]

GELLERMAN: On the other side, you’ve got the Alliance to Preserve Nantucket Sound which was first financed by Bill Koch, who’s the fossil fuel energy billionaire. I don’t think you had any access, at least, you didn’t do any interviews, with Bill Koch.

GEMMEL: Yeah, that’s correct. It’s a rather interesting scenario to have a fossil fuel billionaire as the chairman of an environmental group fighting to protect a natural resource. Bill Koch has been completely unresponsive to doing an interview or talking to us in any capacity. I must say the proponents of the wind farm really welcomed us with open arms and were eager to jump in front of our cameras. The opposition was much more challenging to navigate, but eventually, they definitely let us in and trusted that we were doing an objective documentary.

GELLERMAN: This project has really created some very strange bedfellows. You’ve got Senator Ted Kennedy, from Massachusetts, who opposes it…

KENNEDY: The interests of our state have been basically submerged for a special interest developer. We’re going to find out that tax payers are going to pay 800 million dollars to this developer. They’ll get money that they won’t be able to count!

GELLERMAN: And Senator Ted Stevens, from Alaska, he opposes it…

GEMMEL: Senator Kennedy was clearly the preeminent Senator fighting Alaskan oil drilling, which Ted Stevens had been wanting to push through for a decade. So, for them to become buddies in this fight was quite bizarre, but it was obvious why and how they were doing it - because the Alaskan Senators were working on Coast Guard legislation which was very convenient to try to slip riders into to kill the wind farm.

GELLERMAN: There’s a part of the film where you’ve got one of the lobbyists who’s working to support the project, and he talks about, well, NIMBY – Not in My Back Yard.

Boats in harbor at Nantucket. (Photo: Maria Gilbert, Flickr Creative Commons)

SENATOR: Not here, and not there, and certainly not in my backyard LOBBYIST: First of all it’s five and half miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, and these people who say “Not in my Backyard,” it begs the question – how big is their f•••ing backyard?

GEMMEL: (Laughs). So, that’s obviously a very popular environmental term and slogan that’s been the crux of many environmental battles. Interestingly enough, most of them have been fighting fossil fueled power plants and what people refer to as ‘dirty energy,’ so to have that applied to a renewable energy project may be a first.

GELLERMAN: Probably the most powerful scene for me in the movie is the mountaintop removal, the coalmine, where they’re blowing up the tops of these mountains in Virginia and West Virginia. Why did you include them?

GEMMEL: Well, for one, I mean, I think it’s really important for people to keep in mind where our energy comes from when we turn on the light switch, but it wasn’t even a stretch to include that because those people were coming to the hearings on the Cape, begging people to understand what they were going through and they were obviously supporting the wind farm.

[WOMAN IN MOVIE CLIP: Now, October of 2001, a giant slurry impoundment, 72-acres of toxic coal sludge failed. Everything in it died [helicopter blades chopping]. Three hundred and nine million gallons of toxic sludge and I bet nobody here heard about it because the folk in Appalachia are expendable. And we’re tired of bearing the burden of everybody’s energy use [crying].]

GEMMEL: They were holding up pictures and telling stories of rocks rolling through their homes and killing three-year-olds, and the mudslides that were filling their rivers of coal sludge, and so it’s a pretty gut-wrenching picture to understand what’s going on down there to supply our country with energy.

[WOMAN IN MOVIE CLIP: I’m sorry, I do have some sympathy for those who are concerned about their view, but come and see the viewsheds and how they have been despoiled in Appalachia… MUSIC…]

GELLERMAN: You know for something so serious, your film has a lot of funny scenes in it.

GEMMEL: This controversy has divided families in the community, and we felt that the community really needed to feel some levity out of this controversy, and both sides are incredibly brilliant, passionate, and very funny characters. And what they’ve done to fight both for and against it is just absolutely mesmerizing, hilarious at times, gut-wrenching, sad. So we kind of went out of our way to have as much fun with it as we could.

GELLERMAN: You must have had fun choosing the music - there’s a lot of music in this.

GEMMEL: Yeah, we’ve been trying to go with kind of an Americana theme. Because we do want to use this story to kind of broaden out into the bigger picture and push off of this controversy and use the lessons learned to help people navigate future energy crises.

GELLERMAN: The piece of music that I particularly like, and I don’t like this song, but I like the way you used it… is the old, I think Blood Sweat and Tears song, “Spinning Wheel.”

GEMMEL: Right, yeah, it’s obviously such a great fit for us - we used the title “Cape Spin” for the double entendre, obviously because the spin of the turbines, but also because of the political spin, the media spin, there’s so much spin. So when we came up with that song, we were pretty excited to integrate it into the film.

[MUSIC: What goes up, must come down…(This version appeared in the film Blood Sweat And Tears): “Spinning Wheel” from Blood Sweat And Tears (Columbia Records 1969).)/MIXED WITH MOVIE CLIPS.]

GELLERMAN: Did you ever count how many edits you made in this, how many fast-cuts?

GEMMEL: (Laughs.) Uh, we have over 550 hours of footage that we have been whittling down to 90 minutes for the past two and a half years, so it’s been quite a beast.

Relaxed Nantucket. (Photo: Maria Gilbert, Flickr Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: And you use it to basically, kind of put the politics in juxtaposition, it keeps on going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

GEMMEL: Yeah, there are just so many bizarre approaches and angles to pushing this project forward and also to killing it, and the way people have collaborated from so many different camps has been really, really fascinating to witness and understand; and enlightening, actually, in terms of understanding how politics works and how large-scale energy projects get built and get squashed.

GELLERMAN: When you were making this film, did you find yourself at one point saying, “hey yeah, I really support the project,” and then again turning around and saying, “ah, yeah, I really am against the project?”

GEMMEL: Oh, constantly. My main arc was I first learned about the project when I was a sophomore in college and then I followed it for several years and I was pitching it to many different companies, and throughout that phase I really thought that should happen. And then, I ended up being a mate on a fishing boat in Nantucket to really immerse myself in the community, and then I did start to understand why people cared so much about protecting Nantucket Sound. And in the end, I guess it’s just going to be really interesting to see what happens.

GELLERMAN: So, is it over?

GEMMEL: I definitely would not say it’s over. The proponents are not backing down. There are still a few lawsuits pending. Cape Wind and the proponents claim that none of them would be able to stop them from moving forward. I’m sure if it is built, the proponents will be going out of their way to find and highlight every single thing that’s wrong with it. So I don’t think this is going away anytime soon.

GELLERMAN: Well, the problem is are you going to go away? Are you going to continue to follow the project, or are you going to stop filming, or what?

GEMMEL: I more or less told myself a year ago that this was probably a life-long endeavor that I’m going to be involved with in some capacity.

GELLERMAN: Well, Robbie, thank you so very much.

GEMMEL: My pleasure, thank you very much!

Related links:
- Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle
- The Cape Wind Project

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[MUSIC: “Spinning Wheel” from Blood Sweat And Tears (Columbia Records 1969).]

GELLERMAN: Robbie Gemmel is producer and director of “Cape Spin: An American
Power Struggle.” There’ll be a sneak preview of the documentary on Martha’s Vineyard on August 2nd. Now, from wind to fog….

[MUSIC: Paul Alpert “Fog” from Curb Appeal (Paul Alpert Music 2010).]

Fog Garden

GELLERMAN: An exhibit called "The Fog Garden" opens this week at the Center for Art + Environment in Reno, Nevada. It's a collection of scale models of fog catchers – devices designed to harvest mist in the driest place on the planet: the Atacama Desert along the northern coast of Chile. Pilar Cereceda, the Director of the Atacama Desert Center, is an expert in catching fog.

CERECEDA: It's like when you are in the fog and you have little droplets in your hair…


CERECEDA: Or in the sweater, many times, you can see that. So this is the same idea. And what we use is mosquito mesh nylon thread to stop the wind.

GELLERMAN: How big are these fog catchers?

CERECEDA: You have to think it’s something like…highway billboards.

GELLERMAN: Oh, they’re the size of highway billboards?

CERECEDA: “Drink Coca-Cola!”

GELLERMAN: (Laughs).

CERECEDA: And we had a little town, 300 people, had water from fog for around eight to ten years with fog collectors, and the collectors were in the mountain around 600m of altitude and by a tube it went down and the water was distributed and each house had a tap, and they could open the tap and they would have fog water in their hands.

GELLERMAN: So, let me get this right. You’ve got: The fog rolls in from the ocean…

The Valle de la luna or “moon valley” is typical of the extraterrestrial landscape in the Atacama. (Wikimedia)


GELLERMAN: And you’ve got the desert and you’ve got these mountains and the mountains are where you mount your fog catcher.

CERECEDA: Right, exactly.

GELLERMAN: And then you take that water that you capture and you kind of pipe it down to where you need it!

CERECEDA: Exactly.

GELLERMAN: How well does it work?

CERECEDA: It works very well. You can have, for example, in this village that I am telling you, there was a lot of fog, almost everyday, usually five or six days in a week you would have fog. And that village would receive one truck of 10 thousand liters once a week. And they had the fog collectors we had the equivalent of one truck a day. So, it works very well.

GELLERMAN: Well, Pilar, thank you very much, I really appreciate it!

CERECEDA: Thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Pilar Cereceda is the Director of the Atacama Desert Center. Fog Garden – an exhibit featuring scale models of their fog catchers – opens this week at The Center for Art + Environment in Reno, Nevada.

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BirdNote®/ White-throated Swifts


GELLERMAN: Today's Birdnote® takes us to the U.S. West - and profiles a bird that delights many who hike the region’s canyons. Here's Mary McCann.


MCCANN: A torrent of shrill notes ricochets off the sheer, stone walls of a Western canyon.


MCCANN: A pair of White-throated Swifts careens by at high speed, revealing boldly patterned bodies. They twist and turn, sailing through the air on black, scimitar-shaped wings spanning 15 inches. Dashing headlong across the canyon toward an unyielding wall, the birds disappear at the last second into a slender crevice.


A white-throated swift approaches a nest crevice. (© Howie Richardson)

MCCANN: This swift is aptly named – and doubly so. Flying at tremendous speed, the White-throated Swift is indeed swift, among the fastest of all birds. And its lyrical, scientific name suits it perfectly: Aeronautes saxatalis* – sailor of the air who dwells in the rocks.


MCCANN: Swifts leave the air only to nest or roost in a cavity. You’ll never see one perched. They do everything else while airborne. Ornithologist Percy Taverner said of them, “When mating, a pair meet…high in the air, cling together as though embracing for a moment …drop down hundreds of feet, then separate and catch themselves on their wings…”


GELLERMAN: Mary McCann of BirdNote®. For some great photos swoop over to our website – loe.org.

Related links:
- White-throated Swift sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by R.S. Little.
- BirdNote®/White-throated swifts was written by Bob Sundstrom.

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GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth…the health effects of the Deepwater oil disaster.

MILLER: I worked 60 days on the frontline for BP out here. I’m sick today. Nobody wants to take care of me.

FOYTLIN: We are very, very ill, and there’s a very good chance now that I won’t get to see my grandbabies.

GELLERMAN: Many sick Gulf residents blame the BP oil spill for their symptoms - next time on Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week, deep under the sea in the company of a haddock.


GELLERMAN: Now I know it sounds like a Harley, but this, actually, is the call of a spawning male haddock courting a female. Haddock produce this sound by contracting specialized drumming muscles that cause their swim bladder to vibrate. As the muscle contractions get faster, the drumming turns into a continuous humming noise. Who knew? And how could you possible look the fish in the eye now?

Professor A.D. Hawkins recorded this particular haddock with a hydrophone in Aberdeen, Scotland for the British Library CD: Sounds of the Deep.


GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, and Jessica Ilyse Smith with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. And congrats to Jeff Young. He’s going to be a jolly good fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Fellowship program. Knock their scarlet socks off, Jeff! Our interns are Daniel Gross, Stephanie McPherson and Anne-Marie Singh. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at loe.org - and check out our Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living On Earth. And you can follow us on Twitter - at livingonearth - that’s one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners; the Go Forward Fund; and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World, for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI - Public Radio International.


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