The Carbon War Room
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Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is harnessing the power of the market and millions of dollars to wage a war on climate change. He’s founded a non-profit called the Climate War Room that is all about helping businesses make a profit while investing in efficient buildings and renewable energy. The War Room’s CEO Jigar Shah tells host Bruce Gellerman how we can fight climate change with capitalism. (Photo: The Carbon War Room) (06:05)
Air Pollution in the Gas Fields/ Conrad Wilson
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The Environmental Protection Agency has scheduled a series of hearings in Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado to hear residents’ health concerns about air pollution from natural gas drilling operations. As Conrad Wilson of KDNK in Carbondale, Colorado reports, tests show high levels of ozone and toxic benzene. (Photo: Samantha Pickard) (05:45)
People Sickened Getting Rid of Bed Bugs/ Ingrid Lobet
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Bed bug cases continue to climb. The parasites aren't a health threat, but they drive people to distraction. A new CDC report says some people desperate for a good night’s sleep are overusing insecticides to get rid of bed bugs and getting sick. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports. Bed bug reality in New York (Photo: Geoff Calvert) (02:45)
Heinz Awards Celebrate “Environmental Champions”
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This year’s Heinz Award honors ten environmental trailblazers, including marine biologist Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution. Host Bruce Gellerman spoke with Nancy Knowlton about her research on oceanic biodiversity, coral reefs, and her campaign to bring ocean preservation success stories to the surface. (Photo: Christian Zeigler, Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine) (05:20)
Science Note: Recycler Robot/ Sean Faulk
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Human workers who dig through waste from demolition and construction projects in search of recyclable materials work in peril. Now, researchers are developing a robot that can sort through waste and lift the burden off of humans. Living on Earth's Sean Faulk reports.Photo: One unit of the ZenRobotics Recycler. (ZenRobotics Ltd.) (01:40)
Removing Dams in Maine/ Bobby Bascomb
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An unusual collaboration has led to a deal that will remove two dams on the largest river in Maine. As Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports, the Penobscot River dam removals will not only benefit native fish, but also the hydroelectric utility. (09:00)
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Host Bruce Gellerman reads your compliments, corrections and criticisms. He also checks in with the man who lived in an airtight box with plants for 48 hours to see how he fared. (02:05)
A Seed Company With Deep Roots
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The Landreth Seed Company is about as old as dirt, or at least as old as America. Even George Washington ordered from Landeth’s seed catalogue. But the company’s deep roots may not be enough to save them from deep financial problems. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Landreth Seed’s CEO Barbara Melera. (06:05)
Up North In Search of the Polar Bear
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Writer Mark Seth Lender traveled to Hudson Bay near the Arctic Circle this summer to view wildlife and hunt with native Inuit. LOE called him up while he was there. Lender tells host Bruce Gellerman that his encounters with polar bears and beluga whales were life changing. (07:35)
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Jigar Shah, Nancy Knowlton, Iain Stewart, Barbara Melera, Mark Seth Lender
REPORTERS: Conrad Wilson, Ingrid Lobet, Bobby Bascomb
NOTES: Sean Faulk
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The boom in natural gas drilling in America's west is a boon for the country's energy supply - but a bane for some residents of Colorado.
TRULOVE: What we went through here was just kinda like being in a war zone. It was really like we weren’t in Colorado anymore. We couldn’t believe that no one really cared about us.
GELLERMAN: Fracking in Colorado is enough to make some people sick. Also - enlisting capitalists to fight the war on carbon and climate change. And close encounters of the polar bear kind:
LENDER: He woke up in the middle of the night and looked up and there was a full-grown polar bear in his tent, standing on his gun. So very quickly, he yelled and hit the nose, full closed fist, and the bear just ran away.
GELLERMAN: But don’t you! We’ll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth - stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Sir Richard Branson knows a few things about business and money. The British billionaire founded Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airlines, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Vodka - ok, that last one wasn’t such a hit - but Sir Richard has had a string of successful start ups, and recently launched Virgin Galactic to develop space tourism.
Back on earth, Branson is also bringing his entrepreneurial talents to fighting global warming. He’s founder of Carbon War Room. The non-profit organization is designed to enlist capitalists to fight climate change. As CEO of Carbon War Room, Jigar Shah is on the financial front lines. Mr. Shah welcome to Living on Earth.
SHAH: Great to be here!
GELLERMAN: So, maybe I should call you General.
SHAH: (Laughs). Well, no, I mean I have an entrepreneurial background, so no military background for me yet…
GELLERMAN: So, Climate War Room. "War," - strong stuff.
SHAH: Well, I think that it’s really the "war room" that we’re focused on, in a Churchillian sense. Where you really need to bring in the change makers and give them the tools and the resources necessary to be able to make the change that they desire.
GELLERMAN: What’s the big strategy - the big plan?
SHAH: Well, for the Carbon War Room, what we’ve seen is that 50 percent of all of the world’s carbon emissions, as well as 50 percent of the problems that lead to water issues, etc. - have technology solutions today that can address them profitably without further policy.
GELLERMAN: So, basically pointing out the market-driven solutions to climate change.
SHAH: That’s exactly right. We’re really promoting gigaton scale, market driven solutions to climate change.
GELLERMAN: Now, Carbon War Room just launched a 650 million dollar campaign to make buildings in, I guess, Miami and Sacramento more energy efficient - do I have that right?
SHAH: Yeah, the thing is that if you look at the solar industry globally, it’s something around 70 billion dollars a year. The energy efficiency retrofit industry is less than 10 billion dollars a year. So, something that makes a whole lot of financial sense doesn’t seem to be moving very fast.
And the reason for that is because it really doesn’t have a financial instrument that makes sense for everyone to use. But there is such a financial instrument now; it was developed by the property assessed clean energy bond folks. And Miami and Sacramento is just the very start of this process. And it will lead to hundreds of billions of dollars going into energy efficiency retrofits.
GELLERMAN: So, this program - I guess you call it "PACE:" Property Assessed Clean Energy - that’s the acronym?
GELLERMAN: This works, how?
SHAH: So, what happens is, is that if you use property taxes to finance the energy efficiency improvements, then it has a senior position to the first mortgage on the building. And so banks are very eager to lend under such a situation because it feels like a very secure investment.
And only technologies that save a lot of money actually are financed, so that there is extra money lying around. When you save money on your energy bills, you then can use that money to pay these slightly higher property taxes to pay off the financing.
GELLERMAN: So let me get this right. So you’ve got a company, that’s got a building it wants to retrofit it with energy efficiency and it needs money. So it goes to a municipality, and it says to the municipality - what?
SHAH: It says, "I need a million dollars to upgrade my building according to this energy audit. And if you lend me the million dollars, I’ll pay it back through higher property taxes over a ten-year period." And so the city is simply playing the role of collecting the money - they’re not on the hook to pay it back.
So, there's a private sector group that's lending the money - in this case Barclay’s - and, the building owner is saving money from all those improvements that they’ve made, so they have more than enough money to go around to actually pay off that payment every month.
GELLERMAN: Well, what if the business goes belly-up? That’s been known to happen.
SHAH: If the business goes belly up, the building itself still has those improvements on it. So the next group to enter the building pays those higher property taxes, but they should be happy to do so because they have much lower electricity bills.
GELLERMAN: How do you hold the company’s feet to the fire to ensure that they're actually doing these energy efficiency things, not just taking the money and running?
SHAH: Well, you have to have a qualified contractor that will provide a warranty for its work. And then there’s also an insurance company involved that is going to insure that that work was done appropriately. And so, if for some reason it wasn’t done that way - they would pay the damages through an insurance policy.
GELLERMAN: And it actually works?
SHAH: It actually works. And, in fact, it works so well that in these two locations alone - Miami and Sacramento - more than 650 million dollars can be deployed. But you can deploy hundreds of billions of dollars across the country if mayors, state legislators and others make their states friendly to this type of legislation like California and Florida have.
GELLERMAN: So what is the next new front for the Carbon War Room?
SHAH: Well, there’s several. We’re getting a huge number of breakthroughs now on renewable fuels - for aviation and diesel fuel. And the Navy and lots of other folks from FedEx to UPS to Virgin Airlines are leading the way to actually sign long-term contracts to switch to renewable fuels.
The reason we’re in this situation is because we have 550 billion dollars a year that go to fossil fuel subsidies. If these subsidies were eliminated - which the Super Committee could absolutely do - you would have a far more level playing field where fossil fuel prices would be set by the market, and not by these unfortunate subsidies in the wrong direction.
GELLERMAN: So, I’ve gotta ask you - Mr. Shah: do you really have a War Room? I picture, you know, kind of a Dr. Strangelove or Failsafe or something.
SHAH: (laughs) Well, we do have a room that has a lot of information on the walls around it that we use to plot our next strategies, and I have to say that it’s pretty exciting. You know, what we’ve been able to do is to attract thousands of entrepreneurs who are really fearlessly trying to make their world a better place, and giving them the tools necessary to operate on a level playing field. Today, we don’t have a level playing field for all these solutions. Once we get one, I think we’ll have solved most of the problem.
GELLERMAN: Jigar Shah is the CEO of the Carbon War Room. Well Mr. Shah, thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
SHAH: My pleasure.
GELLERMAN: And next time I’ll call you General -- you get four stars!
SHAH: (Laughs). Take care.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs) Bye-bye.
[Music: Todo El Mundo Es Kitsch” from Ceramic Dog (Pi Recordings 2008)]
GELLERMAN: Natural gas companies are discovering gas in more and more places, and many communities unaccustomed to drilling rigs and pumps are suddenly right in the middle of a natural gas boom. Garfield County, Colorado, is one of those places, but along with the growth of the new gas industry are growing concerns about health. Conrad Wilson has our report.
WILSON: Karen Trulove is back in her old neighborhood in western Colorado. These green rolling hills, butting up against the snow-covered Rockies, used to be ranching and coal mining country. Now, retirees and folks escaping city life, live in small towns and developments where horses and cattle graze.
But sprinkled across this valley are the reasons Trulove says she was forced to leave: natural gas drilling rigs - which look a lot like city construction sites - and the finished wells - small structures with a bunch of pipes sticking out of the ground. Trulove says the fumes from these wells made her sick.
TRULOVE: There were many times when just after you smelled the fumes, that day or the next day, you would be so lethargic that you could sit in a chair for six hours and not move a muscle.
WILSON: Eventually, she moved. Nearby, Bill Strudley abandoned his 3500 square foot home after he says his family got sick.
STRUDLEY: I’d walk out into my driveway at 5:30 in the morning and my wife would follow me and I said, "You better keep the kids inside today, because it stinks."
WILSON: Strudley says his well water eventually started to smell like chemicals, so the family stopped using it.
STRUDLEY: We had plastic duct tape to the inside windows of our house so the air couldn’t come in.
WILSON: Today his house sits vacant. They’ve stopped paying their mortgage and rent in a nearby town where natural gas development hasn’t hit yet.
WILSON: Stories like these are increasingly common, as companies have started discovering a lot more gas, sometimes where people already live. A few miles down the road from the Strudley’s old home, a large rig drills new wells. The gas is owned by Encana, one of the many operators in the area.
HOCK: The health impact issue is one that is challenging, because you have to find a causal link.
WILSON: That’s Doug Hock, a spokesperson with the company. He acknowledges that drilling for natural gas is an industrial process that creates pollution. But he says the industry has come a long way in how it interacts with the community to minimize environmental impacts. For example, they’ve helped develop a hotline for residents to call and report their concerns, including ones about public health.
HOCK: We’re an industry of scientists and engineers, and we have to make our decisions based on sound science. And so, you know, we get people saying, "Well, I think this well is making me sick," but unless we have that link, you know, it’s hard for us to react and respond to that.
WILSON: Residents of Garfield County, where much of Colorado gas drilling is taking place, may look to environmental health manager Jim Rada. But Rada says there’s not much he can do.
RADA: Although there’ve been many anecdotal cases brought to the attention of county officials and perhaps health professionals in and around Garfield County, I’m not aware of any documented cause and effect relationship that’s been drawn relative to any of those cases.
WILSON: Rada says the county can’t test for something at a moment’s notice. Besides that, he's the health officer for everything from air quality to flu shot clinics. And he says many of the pollution complaints involve sporadic exposure.
RADA: It’s really hard to, number one, isolate what it could be that’s causing the symptoms, and then recovering it in an environmental sample. What may have occurred to cause somebody to get sick, or feel that they’ve been made sick, may not be happening when we get there.
WILSON: Colorado doesn't require any onsite gas field monitoring for air quality. Places that have done such monitoring found some serious problems. Last winter, gas-drilling areas in Wyoming recorded smog or ozone concentrations comparable to Los Angeles and Houston. In Texas, inspectors found toxic benzene - which causes leukemia - seeping from gas equipment almost every place they checked. Corey Zurbuch’s an attorney in Aspen. He says he gets calls daily from people affected by natural gas development.
ZURBUCH: The typical conversation begins with an expression of immense frustration.
WILSON: Zurbuch recently filed a class action lawsuit against gas driller Antero Resources to pay for environmental testing and set up a trust fund to help people should they get sick from natural gas development.
ZURBUCH: This is not a localized event. The drilling operations are going on in many states around the country. And we’re seeing the same problems over and over again.
WILSON: Standing outside her old house, Karen Truelove says the impacts she’s experienced speak for themselves.
TRULOVE: What we went through here was just kinda like being in a war zone. It was really like we weren’t in Colorado anymore. It was like we weren’t in the United States anymore. Because the effects of it were so extensive and we couldn’t believe that no one really cared about us.
WILSON: Momentum is building around the country for more attention to gas field emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency, under a court order, this summer proposed the first national limits on pollutants from gas drilling, but they're not final yet. For Living on Earth, I'm Conrad Wilson in Carbondale, Colorado.
[MUSIC: John Coltrane: “Equinox” from Coltrane Sound (Atlantic Records 1986)
GELLERMAN: Just ahead, a wide variety of environmental winners of this year’s Heinz awards. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[MUSIC: John Scofield: “Simply Put” from A Moment’s Peace (Emarcy Records 2011)]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth - I'm Bruce Gellerman. Good night, sleep tight - but unfortunately, sometimes the bedbugs do bite. And while they don’t transmit disease, the creepy crawlers can leave you creeped out and wide awake with a bunch of bite marks on your body.
Bed bugs discovered by a couple on their mattress. Mattress covers deter bed bugs. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons; cuttlefish)
As Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports, some people are so desperate to get rid of the little bloodsuckers, they’re making themselves sick.
LOBET: It's a huge amount of work, and can cost a lot of money to get rid of bedbugs. It involves laundering everything that can be washed in hot water, and sometimes getting rid of mattresses and furniture. People may go through this ordeal when they're short of sleep, if the bugs are keeping them awake at night.
It's a recipe for desperation, and Geoffrey Calvert, a senior medical officer at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati, says that desperation is beginning to show up in cases of insecticide poisoning.
CALVERT: Some people were using sprays - spraying their beds or using these total release foggers in their bedrooms, and climbing into bed without, you know, taking the bedding off, and washing it.
LOBET: Calvert found 111 cases over an 8-year period in which people were poisoned while trying to get rid of bedbugs. Most had headaches, nausea, flu symptoms. One woman died. His findings are published in the Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The numbers are small, but represent data from only 7 states, and only cases where someone went to a doctor or called poison control, so they probably reflect only a slice of the actual illnesses.
CALVERT: Bedbug populations in our country are increasing, we’re hearing about more and more infestations, and we've noticed that with each year, the number of cases are increasing. And we’ve identified the most number of cases in 2010. So it's becoming more and more of a problem.
LOBET: Most of the illnesses came from exposure to pyrethroids, a class of chemicals regarded as relatively benign for humans when used as directed. There are ways to get rid of bedbugs besides insecticides, and one reason to use alternatives is that the bugs are becoming resistant to the chemicals. Alternatives include forced steam, hot water washing, vacuuming, spreading diatomaceous earth, even heating whole houses up to 130 degrees, but the truth is:
CALVERT: Eradicating bedbugs is very difficult.
LOBET: Bottom line, if you're going to go the chemical route, Geoffrey Calvert says, read the labels carefully, don’t use more than one fogger per room, or, if you can, hire a professional exterminator. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.
[MUSIC: Squirrel Nut Zippers “Bedbugs” from The Best Of The Squirrel Nut Zippers (Mammoth Records 2002)]
GELLERMAN: When I say Heinz, you say _______. Nope. I’m not talking ketchup, beans or 57 varieties, but the annual Heinz Awards that honor individuals working for inspirational solutions to environmental problems. Many of this year’s 10 winners have been featured on Living on Earth.
We recently spoke with biologist Sandra Steingraber about her latest book "Raising Elijah,” and back in 2006, we talked with Environmental Composer John Luther Adams.
ADAMS: Even though this is not a piece of music in the traditional sense with a beginning middle and end, it’s not written for human performers playing acoustical instruments, creating it still involved the process of, of imaging sounds.
GELLERMAN: Filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis will share the 100 thousand dollar Heinz Award for their documentaries investigating food. We spoke with them about their movie "King Corn."
CHENEY: We rented an acre. We didn’t even know how big an acre was. And we found a willing farmer in the town where my great-grandfather grew up and my friend Curt’s great-grandfather grew up. And I think he was amused that a couple of city kids were coming out to try and learn how to do agriculture.
GELLERMAN: Well, no one has to teach Nancy Knowlton anything about marine life and coral reefs - the Smithsonian Institution biologist also got a call from the Heinz Awards folk:
KNOWLTON: I have to say, like, you could have knocked me over with a feather. It was really a wonderful surprise.
GELLERMAN: Huh, you didn’t know you were nominated?
KNOWLTON: No. It’s a complete surprise until you get the phone call.
GELLERMAN: Among Nancy Knowlton’s many contributions to marine science is the project she calls “Beyond the Obituary.” We reached her in Panama City.
KNOWLTON: The thing is, my whole generation, we’ve specialized, literally, in writing obituaries of the various environments that we care about. But, beyond a certain point ... I mean, it’s good to alert people that there are problems, and so you have to say, "This is bad, and it’s actually really bad. It’s very, very, very serious what’s going on. But after awhile, you know, doom and gloom stops being an effective motivator for people, for, not only scientists, but the public at large.
They feel: "Oh, it’s just hopeless, so why should I do anything?" And I think that it’s really important to recognize that we do have success stories out there and they’re sort of inspirational in one sense, and then they’re also very educational - they tell us what actually works.
GELLERMAN: Well, give me a success story, please!
KNOWLTON: Well, I mean, one of the success stories has to do with the return of turtles in some of the turtle beaches where they have been protected. There are success stories in terms of bringing back oysters - even to the Chesapeake Bay, if you do it right. There are success stories associated with marine protected areas, actually worldwide.
Heinz Award winner and environmental composer John Luther Adams. (Heinz Awards)
And actually in some places, even the corals are coming back, which is very good news because they’re much slower - they’re more like trees - they grow slowly and they respond slowly, so it takes awhile for them to improve in response to the management.
GELLERMAN: You’re in Panama right now, right?
KNOWLTON: Yes, I’m in Panama. I’m here to study coral spawning, which I do every year. Corals have this crazy sex life where they reproduce essentially one or two days a year, and so I come down here every year to see how the population of corals that we’ve been studying for the last ten years here is reproducing.
GELLERMAN: Coral sex life, who knew?
KNOWLTON: (Laughs). Yeah, who knew! It all happens at night even! It all ... The corals that I work on, they reproduce - one species reproduces between 8:15 and 8:45 five to six days after the full moon, and the other two that I work on reproduce between 9:30 and 10, five to six days after the full moon in September. So it’s very, very precise. They don’t need calendars or stopwatches; they just do it on their own.
GELLERMAN: Are you at the place, where, many years ago, you were doing dives on coral reefs and Noriega was the President of Panama, and you and your four-year-old daughter were taken hostage?
KNOWLTON: Well, it was during the invasion. And I think Panamanian soldiers had standing orders to take hostage any Americans in the vicinity. And so, my daughter and I and my research assistants - one of whom is actually with me this year studying the coral reproduction that we’re here for - there were 11 of us in total, and we were taken hostage and walked up to the Continental Divide for about 24 hours, and then we were released. So it all ended up fine, and no one was hurt.
But it was not here in Bocas del Toro, which is near the Costa Rican border, it was in the San Blas Archipelago near Colombia.
GELLERMAN: You’re still diving coral reefs then?
KNOWLTON: I am still diving. One of the reasons I study coral reproduction once a year, is it keeps me…you know, you have to dive a certain amount in order to stay actively certified and in fit condition to dive, and so, yes, even at the age of 62, I am still diving and plan to continue to dive for awhile.
GELLERMAN: Well, Nancy Knowlton, congratulations again on the Heinz Award, and thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.
KNOWLTON: Thank you very much for having me.
GELLERMAN: Nancy Knowlton is a Marine Biologist at the Smithsonian Institution, and a winner of this year's Heinz Awards.
[MUSIC: Ruben Rogers “The Things I Am” from The Things I Am (Renwick Entertainment 2005)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up, a dam removal project that doesn’t generate controversy. But first, this note on emerging science from Sean Faulk:
[SOUNDS FROM THE MOVIE WALL-E]
FAULK: Industrial machines like the lovable movie-animated robot Wall-E are not just figments of science fiction. Researchers now are developing a robot that can sort recycling without the help of human hands.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
FAULK: The Recycler Robot is under development at ZenRobotics, a high-tech company in Finland that specializes in artificial intelligence and robotic recycling. The robot is engineered to sort waste from construction and demolition sites, but it doesn’t roam the junkyard on wheels and sift through rubble, like Wall-E. It’s a stationary system with a conveyor belt, a suite of sensors, and several robotic arms hanging from above that pluck away at the waste stream. The arms sort out plastics, wood, concrete, electronics, and also remove dangerous contaminants, such as radioactive materials.
The robot has the edge over human workers who must shovel through the waste themselves. It’s more efficient and more durable, capable of 24/7 operation and needs little maintenance. But most of all, it would relieve the occupational hazards from toxic substances and sharp or heavy objects that threaten human sorters everyday. So roll over Wall-E, there’s a new robot coming to town. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Sean Faulk.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
GELLERMAN: Over the past decade, more than 500 dams have been removed in the United States, the majority in the Northeast. Most of the dams were built around the turn of the 20th century to power the Industrial Revolution. But the small factories and mills are long gone, and soon, so will two old dams along the Penobscot River in central Maine.
It’s the largest river in the state. As Living On Earth's Bobby Bascomb reports, thanks to an unusual coalition, the dam removal project will serve the needs of fish and a power company far into the future.
[RUNNING WATER SOUNDS]
BANKS: We’ve had a lot of rain this year. It’s been great for the salmon.
BASCOMB: It’s a warm, sunny day as John Banks paddles an Old Town canoe up the wide Penobscot River. Banks, the natural resources director for the Penobscot Nation, heads towards a favorite calm spot on the water. He says practically every tributary and bend in the river bears a Penobscot name.
BANKS: If you go down, downstate to the Belfast area, there’s a river called the Passagassawakeag which comes from a Penobscot word that refers to a place where you could spear sturgeon at night by torchlight.
Penobscot Tribe elder John Banks paddles up the Penobscot River. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)
BASCOMB: When Banks’ ancestors were using torchlight to catch their dinner, the river was thick with millions of alewife, shad, and Atlantic salmon.
BANKS: The salmon were extremely important to my ancestors in terms of protein and survival.
BASCOMB: The salmon have also been important for non-native communities along the river. Salmon club were established near fishing holes. Each spring, the first fisherman to catch a salmon sent that fish to the President of the United States.
Starting in 1830, the first of five dams was built to power the growing number of sawmills that popped up along the Penobscot River. New industry polluted the water and dams diminished the once strong fish runs.
Locals describe a filthy, polluted river in the 1950s and 60s. But by 1972, the Clean Water Act began to regulate discharge into the river. And since the 1980s, environmental groups have focused on blocking new dam construction and removing existing dams.
ROYTE: Fish need to move up and down streams, wherever they live.
BASCOMB: Josh Royte is a conservation planner with the Nature Conservancy. His organization has pushed for dam removal for decades, and salmon have become the poster species for Penobscot River restoration.
ROYTE: The Penobscot happens to be one of the rivers that has the highest potential for Atlantic salmon recovery in the country. And if we’re going to bring back salmon, we need to bring them back to the Penobscot River.
BASCOMB: In 1999, seven environmental groups and the Penobscot tribe sat down with a local hydropower utility to see if they could reach common ground. Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, says it was an unusual gathering of groups with seemingly conflicting interests.
DAY: Power production, tribal cultural resources, recreational paddlers, commercial fishing, we all got together and said, "If we could do this again to better accommodate interests and bring back some balance, what would we do?" And the Penobscot project was the result of that.
BASCOMB: After years of negotiations, the group came up with a deal that will remove two dams and install a state of the art fish passage on a third. To offset power lost when the two dams are removed, the utility has already increased production on a smaller tributary.
A dam on one branch that’s been idle for 10 years is now up and running again, producing 30,000 megawatts of electricity. Ultimately, the utility will be producing the same amount of energy as before the project began.
DAY: We hope that that is one thing that this project provides is an example of how people can work together and not only reach an agreement, but really make it stick. Basically, they’ll be increasing power in less ecologically damaging areas than the current dam. So the main stem of the river will be opened up; it will basically be the fish highway.
[SOUNDS OF A DAM]
BASCOMB: Today, the Penobscot is less fish highway and more like a residential street full of speed bumps and potholes. The first obstacle for fish coming in from the Atlantic Ocean is the Veazie Dam.
[SOUND OF A FISHWAY]
BASCOMB: There’s a fishway here, three feet wide. The fish that find it can continue upstream. Those that don’t, bump their noses against a cement wall. The Veazie Dam will come down in the summer of 2013, but until then, it’s ground zero for managing fish on the river.
I met Mitch Simpson at the dam on a cool morning. Simpson is a biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources and in charge of managing the fish trap at the Veazie Dam.
Mitch Simpson moves a salmon from the fish trap to a holding tank so he can measure it and insert it with an “easy pass.” (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)
SIMPSON: This is the fish trap right here. The fishway is actually underneath - you see it down below there.
BASCOMB: The fish trap is essentially a tall elevator that goes from the bottom of the river to the top of the dam. Simpson and I stand on a metal grate that’s the top of the fish lift. As the floor rises below, us three dark shapes take form.
SIMPSON: Those are Atlantic salmon, yeah. At least three.
[CLANKING METAL, DOOR OPENING]
Mitch Simpson measures a salmon on the Veazie Dam (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)
BASCOMB: Simpson opens a metal door on the side to reveal three large salmon swimming circles in two feet of water. His assistant climbs inside the trap with a large plastic tube to catch each fish and move it into a holding tank. Simpson leans over the tank to measure the fish and look at its overall condition.
[FISH FLAPPING AND SPLASHING]
SIMPSON: A deformed dorsal, like this one has, is typically a hatchery fish. The hatchery fish, right now, are pretty much sustaining the population. Only anywhere from three to five percent of the fish that come back to the Penobscot are wild - what we call wild.
[SOUNDS OF FISH TAGGING]
BASCOMB: Some of the fish caught here are sent to a hatchery where biologists harvest the eggs and raise baby salmon to release upstream. The rest of the salmon are sent on their way, but first they are injected with a tag that uniquely identifies each fish. Every fishway on the river has an antenna system that identifies that fish as it passes.
SIMPSON: So when that tag goes through, it’s just like a tollbooth. Like the Easy Pass, so basically we’re giving all these fish an Easy Pass.
BASCOMB: The "easy pass" allows scientists to figure out how long it takes the salmon to go from dam to dam, and how many are actually getting through. That’s how they discovered that the next dam up - the Great Works Dam - allows almost no fish to pass through. The Great Works will be the first dam to come out next summer.
SIMPSON: That’ll be good to get rid of that one.
BASCOMB: At 260 miles, the Penobscot is the longest river in Maine. Despite the dams, it’s still home to the largest remaining Atlantic salmon run in the country. Unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon can return several times over to spawn.
DAY: Salmon get a lot of focus; they’re, you know, sort of the sexy fish.
BASCOMB: But Laura Rose Day says what makes the Penobscot really exceptional is that it still has remnant populations of all 11 species of fish that live in both this river and the sea.
DAY: The reality is that the 100s of millions of river herring that will rebound in the Penobscot River are equally important, because for instance, when a young salmon migrates down, one of their biggest ways to avoid being eaten is to travel down with all of these millions of herring, and if you’re the only fish coming down the river, well, the cormorant is going to have you for lunch.
BASCOMB: The Nature Conservancy’s Josh Royte says that once the dams come down, biologists expect fish populations to explode.
ROYTE: Where right now there maybe 800 or so American shad in the river, we hope that there’s over 1.5 million shad in the future. And for salmon likewise, it will be a huge increase from about the 2,000 that we see right now, to as many as 12,000 or more fish coming up and down the river every year. It’s one of the most exciting projects I know about for river restoration in the world.
[RUNNING WATER, PADDLING SOUNDS]
BASCOMB: Back on the Penobscot River, John Banks continues to paddle his canoe upstream. He says the river now is as clean as it’s been in his lifetime, and he’s looking forward to the day the dams finally come down.
BANKS: So, I have a lot of hope for the future - for our future generations of tribal members, and their use of a clean, healthy river.
BASCOMB: The Penobscot tribe has not been able to exercise its fishing rights here for more than 100 years. But a couple years from now - that’s just a few fish generations away - the Penobscot expect to be able to fish in the river as their ancestors once did.
BANKS: Let’s just go up a little bit further. There’s a place up here where eagles often perch.
[WATER SOUNDS, DISTANT BIRD CALLS]
BASCOMB: For Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb on the Penobscot River in Central Maine.
[MUSIC: Vitamin Piano Series “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville from Fragile: The Piano Tribute To R.E.M. (Vitamin Music 2005)]
GELLERMAN: In just a minute - the oldest seed company in the country may soon go to seed itself. Find out why right here at 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, welcoming students back to college with SIERRA magazine’s annual ranking of America’s “Coolest Schools.” Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth.
This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[MUSIC: Ivan “Funkboy” Bodley: One Note Disco from Look At That Cookie (Funkboy Music 2011)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.
GELLERMAN: Time now to catch up with some of your letters. First off, we goofed! In our story last week about Chesapeake Bay shore birds, we said the birds munched on horseshoe crab eggs, and described the horseshoe crab as a prehistoric mollusk that looks like a World War II battle helmet. Well, many a sharp-eared listener wrote in to inform us that horseshoe crabs are in fact: arthropods. It’s a good thing we have a thick shell!
Ed from northern California heard our interview about the solar company Solyndra going belly up and half a billion dollars in federal loan guarantees going bad. Ed listens to our show on KQED in San Francisco and writes: “ federal subsidies for solar power are completely out of proportion to solar’s tiny share of the nation’s electricity output.”
And last week we talked with Scottish scientist Iain Stewart – just before he was shut in a glass box with a bunch of plants for two days to see if they’d produce enough oxygen for him to survive. We were curious to find out how the experiment went, so called him back up.
STEWART: (laughs) Yeah, well, I lived. No, it was ok. When I when in, I was a bit worried, you remember, about whether I would be gasping for breath with the low oxygen, but in the end, I wasn't gasping for breath, but I was ... I was kind of just a bit slow, really. My mental faculties weren’t really working as good as they should have been. That aside, I was confined, and the last six to eight hours - I had a huge headache because of the lights. The lights had been on for about 40 hours solid. So that was a problem. That aside, but in between that, it was quite pleasant to be on low oxygen, actually.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs) Any surprise findings?
STEWART: Just how much care that I took of the plants. You could actually see that every time, for example, I did some watering - that they would have a kind of surge, a little surge in photosynthesis and a surge in oxygen. So, I started to almost tend every leaf, every frond. I didn’t want to see them damaged. If they started to wilt, I gave them extra care. So, by the end of it, I was fixated by these plants around me.
GELLERMAN: Iain Stewart, would you do it again?
STEWART: Not quickly (laughs). But, I would, I would. Having 40 hours to sit down and relax and read a book and think about things was very pleasant indeed. And all I had to do was, you know, every few hours to do some watering. But I think doing nothing is actually exhausting, and I came out feeling really tired. So, you know, I’d give that a little bit of time. But, I recommend it to anyone.
GELLERMAN: And we recommend you get in touch with us. Send your kudos, comments, corrections and criticisms our way. Our email address is: comments at L-O-E dot O-R-G - or go to our Facebook page – it’s PRI's Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: And we have a listener to thank for alerting us to this story: in 1784, Congress ratified the treaty ending the American Revolution. That same year, Benjamin Franklin invented his bifocal spectacles and in 1784, David Landreth founded his seed company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Today, D. Landreth Seed is the fifth oldest U. S. company in continuous operation.
This piece called Aunt Chloe was commissioned by the photogropher Rudolph Eikemeyer. It was part of a photo documentary about African Americans living on plantations after the Civil War. (Landreth Seeds)
The company's seeds have literally provided the roots of America’s agricultural history for the past 227 years. Every US president from Washington to FDR has purchased seeds from Landreth’s catalogues. But today, the firm is in a deep financial hole, and it may have to close at the end of the month. Barbara Melera is CEO of the D. Landreth Seed Company, now located in New Freedom, Pennsylvania.
MELERA: When I purchased the company with my husband in 2003, we put our savings into the company as equity, but that was not going to be enough money to turn the company around. It had basically been in hibernation for about 75 years. It had been selling seeds continuously during that time, but had not updated for 75 years.
So, the company, when we took over, was still doing accounting on index cards. The equipment was, in many cases, over 100 years old. So the company needed to be completely reinvented. And, so, I wound up borrowing the money. When those debts came due, I did not have the capital to pay off those debts, and so, we were dead in the water. And I am a fighter and I still believe as much as I did eight years ago, that this is an important historical asset.
GELLERMAN: Barb, why did you buy this old seed company?
MELERA: I bought this old seed company because in the early part of 2003 I was introduced to the company and I went to visit it. And the man who then owned the company set me down in a dirty old office with a box of absolutely dirty old books.
Those books happened to be bound copies of catalogues which told the story of how American agriculture and horticulture had been developed. I was completely blown away by what was in that box. And I felt that we couldn’t afford to lose that.
I’ve later been told by some people from the Smithsonian, it’s the only collection of its kind in the world - they think. But what it is, is it’s the writings from one seed house that go back to 1839 and tell the story of America’s journey in history in agriculture and horticulture.
GELLERMAN: I guess Landreth Seed Company introduced many a plant into the United States.
MELERA: It did. It was the leading seed house throughout much of the 1800s, when that industry basically developed in this country. In 1798, it introduced America to the zinnia - one of its most beloved flowers. 1811, the white fleshed potato. 1820, it was the first time that tomato seeds were sold commercially in this country. In 1826, they introduced a product called "Bloomsdale spinach," which is the spinach that we eat today, in most cases. It is the most successful selling spinach variety that any of us know of.
GELLERMAN: Your company played a pivotal role in Afro-American history in the United States - a lot of the seeds went south.
MELERA: Our company has preserved many of the seed varieties that were important to African Americans during the time that they were enslaved in this country.
GELLERMAN: I’m looking at the sweet potato pumpkin - it was brought from Jamaica to the Chesapeake in the 1700s.
GELLERMAN: And you’ve got the long handled dipper - it’s a gourd that was actually used.
MELERA: Yes, it was used as a cooking implement - as a ladle.
GELLERMAN: And then you’ve got the California Black Eyed Peas, which you say has mystical properties. It says, "good luck" and "attracting money."
MELERA: (Laughs) Yeah, well, we’ve got enough Black Eyed Peas back here. We should be millionaires!
GELLERMAN: Well, you could raise California Black Eyed Peas and hope for the best... How are you hoping to raise the money so you don’t have to close up the seed house at the end of September?
MELERA: Well, we have a very special seed catalog. We have decided that we need to charge for that catalog because we get it printed here in the Untied States. And that is a significantly higher expense then if we were to have it printed overseas.
But the catalog is really more than just a seed catalog; it contains data from this library of catalogs that we inherited from the Landreths. And lots and lots and lots - and that’s not an overstatement - of historic information about the flowers, herbs and vegetables that you eat.
And so you could purchase the catalog, even if you’re not a gardener, and use it as an educational resource. If we can sell - and this is a huge number - if we can sell a million catalogs, we can get out from under all of the debt obligations that we have. If we sell less than a million catalogs, we will be able - I hope - to pay off the immediate debt obligations, and then as the spring comes, and people order from those catalogs, perhaps we will be able to get out from under all of the debt.
GELLERMAN: Barb, you have a historic catalog, and, as I understand it, a very special cat.
MELERA: (Laughs) Yes, yes. His name is Desi, and in keeping with titles - which we all use today - he is our "R.R.E." - our rodent removal engineer. And he does an exceptional job of that, and he is sound asleep behind me right now, so he must have had a heavy night of activity.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs) Well, Barb, thank you so very much and good luck!
MELERA: Well Bruce, thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to tell our story.
GELLERMAN: Barbara Melera is the CEO of the D. Landreth Seed Company - the oldest seed house in the United States. For more information, go to our website LOE.ORG.
[MUSIC: Grover Washington Jr. “Reed Seed” from The Ultimate Collection (Universal Music 1999)]
GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender is a prolific writer, photographer and audio producer who likes to get up close and personal with nature. This summer, he traveled to the far north to Hudson Bay near the Arctic Circle. There he got a rare view of the wildlife and the people who call the place home. We caught up with Mark while he was in Arviat - Mark, where in the world is Arviat?
LENDER: (Laughs) It’s an Eskimo community, 61 degrees, seven seconds north on the northeast corner of Hudson Bay.
GELLERMAN: Ooh, you’re way up there. What does Arviat look like?
LENDER: Way up there. Well, it's very flat and the area has been scraped and ground by glacier after glacier. So, there’s just not much here but flatness. And there’s a rich ground cover, many different kinds of berries this time of year, there are flowers towards the coast called Fireweed, which are a really beautiful purple. And occasionally small trees, because we’re really away from the taiga here - it’s really just open tundra.
GELLERMAN: Why did you go to the Arctic? Its gotta be cold, even this time of the year.
LENDER: The short answer of why I came is polar bears, because, you know, you usually visualize - think of them - on ice, and I wanted to see them in fields of Fireweed and out on the green and doing what they do this time of year.
GELLERMAN: So, you brought along some audio equipment with you; what did you record?
LENDER: Well, perhaps the most stunning thing to date was a polar bear hunting. I was standing on the far side of a small inlet on Hudson Bay and I saw a bear come across the mudflats, work his way up onto the beach, and he vocalized:
[SOUND OF POLAR BEAR VOCALIZING AND CHIRPING BIRDS AND BUZZING INSECTS]
LENDER: ... which, unless there is another bear or a reason, they don’t usually do. And then he moved off into the grass, and for a moment I couldn’t see what he was after and then it became clear. There was a pair of Sandhill Cranes on the other side of the grass, and they had a young flightless chick, and he wanted that chick.
And so he was trying to scare them off. And they kept quiet - probably hoping he would miss them. And then he came through the grass - I could hear the grass rustling - and he came within sight. And at that point the cranes began leaping into the air - first the male, then the female, then male again, back and forth and back and forth, and vocalizing their alarm calls.
[SOUNDS OF SANDHILL CRANES]
LENDER: What’s really amazing is that they were able to dissuade the bear. Sandhills - like most wading birds - have a very long, sharp beak, and that is their defense. And the bear took a look at that beak and how small that chick was, and he just decided it wasn’t worth it.
And then he went off through the grass, deeper into the tundra. And as he went, you could hear other birds giving their alarm calls until finally everything went silent and the bear was gone.
GELLERMAN: So, did the bear spot you? Did he see you as being maybe an appetizer, or next on the menu?
LENDER: Certainly the bear saw me. And in this area, the bears are somewhat used to seeing people really everywhere. They mostly don’t want to tangle with us. But I spoke to a man yesterday who punched one on the nose.
GELLERMAN: Who won?
LENDER: (Laughs) Well, he told me this story, so I think it’s somewhat self-explanatory. He woke up in the middle of the night and looked up, and there was a full-grown polar bear in his tent, standing on his gun. And he remembered what an Inuit elder had told him, and that was: the bear has a very sensitive nose. And if all else fails, you hit him in the nose as hard as you can.
So very quickly, he yelled and hit the nose - full closed fist, - and I’m sure there was enough adrenaline running it was the hardest punch he ever threw. And the bear just ran away.
GELLERMAN: Hm. So, Mark, did you bring your hydrophone with you to record underwater?
LENDER: I wanted to desperately, but it was one piece of gear too many. It was another 30lbs of gear. I will be back here, and I’m hoping to change out some of the gear, and get some hydrophone recordings of the belugas. And - they do talk to you, and if you sing at them - which I did - they will come up to you and roll on their sides and look you right in the eye and swim along with you and they sing back. And I want to tell you, that was one of the great wildlife experiences of my life.
GELLERMAN: Oh, boy, talk about getting up close and personal!
LENDER: First name basis!
GELLERMAN: (Laughs) Yeah, you could kind of shake hands!
LENDER: Well, something very unusual happened while I was in the water with them. One of the whales came up and took my fingertips of my left hand in its lips.
LENDER: Just for a second, and it looked at me, and then it swam off.
GELLERMAN: Wow, that’s incredible, Mark.
LENDER: Yes, and this is a big animal. This is not a, you know, it’s not a dolphin - it’s really a whale.
GELLERMAN: So, Mark, I understand you sent us a piece of audio. I want to play that and tell us where you are and what’s going on. What are we hearing here?
LENDER: This is a little pool out on the tundra and it’s filled with Least Sandpipers. You see quite a few of them in these little tundra pools, and they’re feasting away on some little insect and talking to each other and just talking up a storm. Every once in awhile one flew by me. They’re quite tolerant. They really didn’t seem to notice my presence. They were very busy doing what they were doing.
[SOUNDS OF A TUNDRA POOL FILLED WITH SANDPIPERS]
GELLERMAN: So, where are you off to next?
LENDER: Well, tomorrow, if the weather holds, we’re out looking for foxes and caribou. They don’t, so much, have anything to do with each other - this is not Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle - it’s just that they’re both likely to be in the same area of the tundra.
So, I’m going off with an Inuit hunter, and we’re going to see if we can find some caribou. And, this afternoon, I’m very privileged to going to be going to meet an elder who is an Inuit throat singer. And I’m particularly interested in that because as far as I know, the only other place on the planet where throat singing is done is in Mongolia.
And so, there is the intimation of a connection that goes back many thousands of years.
GELLERMAN: Oh, I’d love to hear that. Be sure and record that, ok Mark?
LENDER: I will do my best!
GELLERMAN: (Chuckles) I’m sure you will. Well, Mark, I am so jealous - have a safe and terrific journey, and I hope to see you when you get back.
LENDER: Me too, Bruce. Thank you, and listen, if you want to come help carry the gear, come on ahead!
GELLERMAN: (Laughs) Next time, I’m there, Mark.
LENDER: Sounds like a plan. Thank you!
GELLERMAN: Talking to us from Hudson Bay, Canada is Mark Seth Lender. His latest book is called "Salt Marsh Diary: A Year on the Connecticut Coast."
[MUSIC: Oka “Elephant Dub” from Oka Love (Soultree United 2009)]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, and Ike Sriskanderajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Raphaella Bennin and Jack Rodolico. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at L-O-E dot org. And, while you’re online, visit myplanetharmony.com. Our sister program, Planet Harmony, welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony.com. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
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