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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

November 12, 1993

Air Date: November 12, 1993

SEGMENTS

Armenia's Energy Crisis / Reese Erlich

Reese Erlich reports from Armenia on the country's search for solutions to its growing energy crisis. Regional conflicts have drastically curtailed Armenia's gas and oil supplies, increasing pressure on a hydrodam that is draining the capital's main water reserve. To meet Armenia's energy demands, the government may reopen a controversial nuclear power plant that was closed after a 1988 earthquake. (07:02)

Germany's Green Fridge

Host Steve Curwood talks to Benedict Herlin of Greenpeace about Germany's CFC-free hydrocarbon refrigerator. The Green Freeze fridge is proving popular in Germany, despite concern that early refrigerators run on similar fuels were prone to explosion. (04:51)

Bald Eagles Back From the Brink / Catherine Winter

Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio reports on the comeback of America's most famous endangered species. Thanks to strong legal protection and the banning of DDT in the United States, bald eagle populations are growing, and the federal government may upgrade the birds from endangered to threatened. Not everyone's cheering the news; some worry that the upgrade may lead to a decrease in crucial preservation activities. (05:39)

Bear Spray / Nancy Lord

Commentator Nancy Lord remembers a recent unbearable encounter with a controversial wildlife repellent. (02:42)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Scot Bronstein, Joel Southern, Thomas Lalley, Reese Erlich, Catherine Winter
GUEST: Benedikt Harlin
COMMENTATOR: Nancy Lord

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Hard choices face the people of Armenia and their need for energy. War has cut off gas and oil supplies, hydropower has drained a major drinking water supply, and the government wants to restart a controversial nuclear power plant that's on an earthquake fault.

TER STEPANIAN: This decision may be fatal for our country. We are too small country where no place to evacuate the people.

CURWOOD: Meanwhile, good news for the bald eagle - in most of the United States, it's come back from the brink of extinction .

MARTELL: It's important to recognize that even though it was lot of work and expensive, that we can turn around the plight of endangered species.

CURWOOD: Also, CFC-free refrigerators from Eastern Germany, this week on Living on Earth. First the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

Water shortages will affect a third of the world's people within thirty years, according to a new study of water supplies and population growth. The report by Population Action International says twice as many countries will feel the fresh-water crunch by early next century, but only a few are planning ahead. Bob Englemann is the study's author.

ENGLEMANN: Surprisingly, even where water is a pretty scarce commodity, there isn't very much recognition of the finite nature of renewable fresh water and the way population growth affects it.

NUNLEY: Englemann says many countries which do foresee a water squeeze have been trying to control population growth, but he says falling birth rates and water conservation alone won't be enough to solve the problem.

ENGLEMANN: Frankly, we'll have to develop more water sources, we're going to need to build more dams and build more reservoirs around the world, and we're going to have to do that carefully.

NUNLEY: Englemann says making these new projects environmentally benign will be a challenge, because the easy water projects have already been built.

A study detailing environmental racism in Chattanooga, Tennessee is being watered down and its author is being fired from the EPA's Southeast regional office. Scot Bronstein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the story.

BRONSTEIN: John Stockwell is the only medical epidemiologist in the EPA, working on detailed research analyzing the tie between race and waste. He just completed a confidential study on Chattanooga, Tennessee, which concluded the largest quantities of chemicals that can cause diseases, such as cancer or leukemia, are being dumped onto communities which are predominantly non-white, uneducated and low-income. But that report is now being rewritten by his supervisors into a much shorter version, with no conclusions about pollution and minorities, and now he's being removed from his office. Dr. Stockwell.

STOCKWELL: Simply put, I'm being muzzled, censored - they're trying to force me out, using a kill-the-messenger approach.

BRONSTEIN: Stockwell's supervisors deny his removal is related tothe report. Stockwell has filed grievances to EPA administrator Carol Browner. For Living on Earth, I'm Scot Bronstein in Atlanta.

NUNLEY: Reports of serious problems with the Alaska oil pipeline have been confirmed by a Congressionally-commissioned audit. From Washington, Joel Southern of Alaska Public Radio reports.

SOUTHERN: The audit says poor management by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company could jeopardize safe operation of the Trans-Alaska System - the pipeline pumps a quarter of the country's domestically-produced oil from the North Slope of Alaska. The audit calls Alyeska's quality control program dysfunctional. It says there are serious electrical and structural problems that make the pipeline vulnerable to spills. Bureau of Land Management director Jim Baca is the pipeline's lead Federal regulator.

BACA: All of these kinds of things lead up to a disaster in the making.

SOUTHERN: The audit confirms many of the most serious problems brought to light by pipeline critics and company whistleblowers, but does not substantiate all of them. The oil company owners of the pipeline appeared before a Congressional oversight committee. They promised to fix the problems at Alyeska as soon as possible. For Living on Earth, I'm Joel Southern in Washington.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

Five of the potentially worst nuclear polluters could opt out of a new ban on the dumping of nuclear waste at sea. Russia, China, France, Britain and Belgium abstained from a vote by an international convention on nuclear dumping, to make a ten-year moratorium permanent. The countries which didn't approve the ban have 100 days to decide whether they will abide by it. Russia says it will need massive international aid to find other ways of disposing of radioactive wastes if it's to stop ocean dumping. France and Britain had lobbied for a simple extension of the temporary moratorium.

Washington is turning up the heat on China over endangered species. President Clinton says the US will impose trade sanctions on China and Taiwan in March, unless the two countries stop their trade in endangered animal parts. But the President declined to impose sanctions immediately, and some environmental groups say the delay could be fatal to at least one species. From Washington, Thomas Lalley has the story.

LALLEY: The body parts of endangered rhinos and tigers fetch a high price in some Asian countries, where they are used in traditional medicines. Industries and stores that rely on the body-parts trade have been around for centuries, and Chinese officials say it will be a while before they are totally rooted out. The US State Department says, while China and Taiwan have passed strong legislation to end the trade in endangered species, enforcement remains lax. President Clinton warns that if verifiable, measurable and substantial progress is not seen in six months, sanctions will be imposed. But the World Wildlife Fund says that March may be too late for some species. It's estimated that only 350 Siberian tigers are left in the world and another winter of poaching may render the species extinct. For Living on Earth, this is Thomas Lalley in Washington.

NUNLEY: The cumbersome process of separating and recycling dozens of different types of plastic could be avoided, if a technology developed at the University of Kentucky proves successful. Scientists there say the treatment returns all plastics to their original form - crude oil. The scientists have yet to make the new process economically feasible, but if they do, they estimate it could recover over 80 million barrels of oil a year.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Music up and under)

Armenia's Energy Crisis

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Winter is bearing down on the people of the former Soviet republic of Armenia, and in the capital city of Yerevan, the electricity is on for just one hour a day. The fledgling country's supplies of natural gas and fuel oil have been largely cut off by war with neighboring Azerbaijan and other regional conflicts. And that's left the energy-starved country facing some terrible environmental choices. The Armenian government can continue to sacrifice a major source of drinking water in order to generate electricity from hydropower, or it can restart an old-style nuclear power plant closed after a devastating earthquake in 1988. We sent reporter Reese Erlich to Yerevan for this report.

(Sound of passing car)

ERLICH: A flatbed truck holding a massive tank sits by the side of the road. That's what passes for a gas station in Armenia these days, because the regular distribution system has broken down. Gas costs this driver the equivalent of $8 per gallon, nearly two months' salary for a blue-collar worker. The pipelines and rail cars carrying petroleum and natural gas must pass through neighboring Georgia, where they are frequently blown up as a result of that country's civil war. The lack of supplies has led to serious problems in generating electricity. The government is desperate to find reliable energy sources. So last year it increased the use of hydroelectric power from nearby Lake Sevan.

(Sound of water rushing through dam)

ERLICH: Water rushes through six different power stations here in what deputy manager Nelly Meheran describes as a highly efficient system

MEHERAN (translated from Armenian): It was a hydroelectric plant built in 1956. Those turbines were made in Germany.

ERLICH: But these efficient hydroelectric plants may cause a major disaster. The government decision to increase electrical output means Lake Sevan is being drained faster than nature can replenish it. The capital city of Yerevan depends on the lake for drinking water, and the lake has gone down over 30 inches since January. No one knows exactly when, but if water continues to be drained, Lake Sevan will become a marshy swamp.

MEHERAN (translated from Armenian): The water from Sevan is going down and there's no drinking water, in the end there will be no drinking water.

ERLICH: Nelly Meheran, like government officials, sees only one way out of the crisis.

MEHERAN: The only hope is the atomic electric plant, which must be opened.

ERLICH: Re-starting that nuclear power plant is no less controversial. George Ter Stepanian is an environmentalist and retired geology professor. He opposed building the atomic plant back in the 1970s, because of its proximity to earthquake faults. He helped get the plant closed after Armenia's disastrous 1988 earthquake and is not convinced it's safe today.

TER STEPANIAN: This decision may be fatal for our country. We are a small country, with no place to evacuate the people. It is impossible to use this station in this dangerous place.

ERLICH: The Armenian government maintains that the plant had operated safely for ten years, and is earthquake-safe today. Steve Tashyan is deputy prime minister responsible for energy issues.

TASHYAN: The plant is designed to withstand the postulated earthquake in the region. In the last four years has the plant been shut down, there have been additional restraints put into the plant to make it more resistive to seismic activity.

ERLICH: But environmentalists say the government doesn't have the technical expertise to make the plant earthquake-safe. The Armenian power station is an outdated Soviet model. Critics say it wouldn't be allowed to operate anywhere else in the world. Hakob Sanasarian is a member of Parliament and president of the Greens Union of Armenia. He says there's another danger - the lack of a containment dome makes the plant an easy target for terrorist attack.

SANASARIAN (translated): In a situation where there is nothing stable, and there is war, and there is an opportunity of diversion, like terrorists, this is even more, makes it more dangerous operating atomic plants.

ERLICH: Environmentalist Sanasarian says rather than turning on the reactors, Armenia should seriously explore alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar power. Deputy prime minister Tashyan agrees these should be developed, but says they won't be sufficient.

TASHYAN: We have an aggressive program for renewable and alternative energy resources, specifically in solar and wind. As you know, those are long-term processes, and their value is incremental in terms of capacity. We have erected our first wind turbine, a 125 kilowatt for an experimental basis. We have our first solar system, installed again for an experimental basis. But to bring this whole thing to full mature fruitation it would take at least a couple of years and at best it can provide about 5 percent of the energy needs of Armenia. In itself it cannot be the solution.

(Sound of turbines)

ERLICH: Back at the Lake Sevan hydroelectric station, deputy manager Nelly Meheran and her fellow engineers continue to debate the merits of opening the atomic plant.

(Sound of male and female voices in Armenian)

ERLICH: The Armenia government says the nuclear power plant was found safe by three outside groups, including the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it has shelved plans to reopen the plant this winter, a tacit admission of continuing safety concerns. In the meantime, the hydroelectric plants continue to drain Lake Sevan. Even that power, however, won't give the country enough electricity for the coming winter. For now, Armenians pin their hopes on resumption of oil and natural gas supplies shipped through Georgia. Leaders of Russia, Armenia, and Georgia, meeting in Moscow in mid-October, agreed to protect the transport lines. The civil war in Georgia, however, makes implementation of that accord uncertain. Armenia faces a hard winter. The prospects for next year are even more difficult as the country must decide whether to drain the lake providing the capital's drinking water or risk a possible nuclear disaster. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Erlich in Yerevan, Armenia.

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(Sound of water, fade into music up and under)

Germany's Green Fridge

CURWOOD: Much has been made of the economic benefits that western Germany has provided to the former East Germany, and also of the environmental degradation that occurred in the east under communist rule. But in fact, the reunification of Germany has been a two-way street for the environment and the economy, and there's no better illustration than the rapid development of ozone-friendly refrigerators. Last year, the environmental group Greenpeace paired up with an eastern German firm to build a fridge that was cooled by something other than ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons. Greenpeace provided the marketing know-how, and the eastern Germans provided the technology - an updated version of once-common hydrocarbon refrigerants - in this case a mixture of propane and butane. The result was the hugely successful Green Freeze refrigerator. Greenpeace says many thousands have already been sold. On a recent visit to the eastern city of Dresden, I spoke with Greenpeace's Benedikt Härlin, about how the partnership produced such a successful collaboration from what was thought to be an obsolete technology.

HÄRLIN: Well, it's been around for a long time, before CFC's have been used and invented in the Forties. A lot of refrigerants were used and some of them were hydrocarbons such as propane and butane, and they were quite dangerous in these days because people had big compressors and lower technology and so there was this rumor of exploding fridges. So it is not a new invention anyway, right? It is just the use of an already known technology with high accuracy and high technology today.

CURWOOD: So what did you do next?

HÄRLIN: Well, we found a company here in Saxony, east Germany, which was willing to produce prototypes for us and we commissioned ten prototypes to be built. And during the course of this period, the Troihand (sic) which is the big State-owned company who tries to privatize all the assets of the former GDR, and decided to close down this very company. And so we stepped in, we make a big press conference, we said this is not possible, you cannot kill a company that is trying to save the world, right? But they said well, but the consumers won't like it, and there is no chance for it and so on. So in order to prove that the consumers are much better educated than the Troihand (sic) and the industry, we started a big campaign to pre-order such CFC-free fridges, and we managed to get 70,000 orders within more or less eight weeks. Now these days we have won this campaign and we have succeeded in getting all major German fridge manufacturers to switch to this hydrocarbon technology.

CURWOOD: How much do these refrigerators cost, compared to refrigerators that use Freon and other CFC's?

HÄRLIN: They are cheaper, actually. Hydrocarbons are cheaper than CFC's and they are much cheaper than HCFC, and also it depends on the quality. And so it's a wide range between the low end of some 600 marks, that would be something like, say, $400, and up to $1000 for a high end product.

CURWOOD: What about safety? These refrigerators can blow up. Why are they safer now?

HÄRLIN: Well, they can blow up, as too cigarette lighters can blow up. Still you have a lot of cigarette lighters around. Everybody who cooks or heats with gas handles much much bigger amounts of these so terribly dangerous gases. It is not a real threat. Nobody claims that it is a real and significant threat. It is indeed a question that fridge makers are not used to handle any risk, right?

CURWOOD: Do you think we could use these in the United States?

HÄRLIN: Oh, yes, definitely. We've been negotiating with Whirlpool and Amana and Frigidaire and what's the, General Electric of course. And they all have some reservations, they claim it was especially complicated in the US because of the product liability laws, and all these terrible lawyers who will cost them a lot of money even if no fridge ever explodes. But I'm quite confident that in the course of this or at least next year you will see such fridges on the market.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you so much for taking this time with us.

HÄRLIN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Benedikt Härlin directs the Berlin office of Greenpeace. I spoke with him in Dresden, Germany.

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(Music up and under)

Bald Eagles Back From the Brink

CURWOOD: A quarter-century ago, our national symbol, the bald eagle, was on its way to becoming extinct. But since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in the early '70s, upwards of $30 million has been spent to protect the magnificent bird, and the effort has paid off. So well, in fact, that the Federal Government is considering upgrading the status of the bald eagle from endangered to threatened across most of the United States. That would be a pretty unusual move. Very few species have been upgraded from the endangered list; most that have been removed have come off either because the original data was wrong, or because the species went extinct. But now some biologists say the success of the eagle is proof that the Endangered Species Act can work. Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

WINTER: In northern Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest, it's not unusual to see the hunched shape of an eagle roosting in a tree, or eagles circling over lakes and rivers looking for fish. On a foggy fall morning, wildlife biologist John Mathisen walks through the forest to a creek to visit an eagle nest. He points out a mass of sticks, about five feet across, high up in a pine tree.

MATHISEN: You can usually see it about two-thirds of the way up.
WINTER: It's huge!
MATHISEN: Usually they're big enough that you can go lay down in 'em if you want to.
WINTER: Will it hold you?
MATHISEN: Sure. That's, when we band 'em that's what we do, we go up and sit in it and band the young ones.

WINTER: Mathisen has been collecting information about eagles in the Chippewa National Forest for thirty years. In his office, stored on his computer, he has information about every one of the 186 eagle nests in the forest.

(Sound of computer keyboard; Mathisen's voice: "So that nest was found in 1986, and that year it had zero young.")

WINTER: When Mathisen first started collecting data, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. Today there are close to 4,000. Minnesota has more bald eagles than any other state besides Alaska, and Mathisen says there are so many eagles in the Chippewa National Forest that they're running out of good nest sites.

MATHISEN: So we see them at least attempting to build nests in places we never would have thought to look for them before, like around buildings and along highways and so on.

WINTER: Bald eagles were listed as endangered in 1967 in most of the United States. Eagle habitat had been destroyed by logging and development; people killed eagles, mistakenly believing they harmed livestock; and the insecticide DDT accumulated in eagles' food, making the birds' eggs too fragile to hatch. Biologists say the main reason eagles are doing better now is that DDT was banned in the US in 1972. But they say human efforts to help eagles have been crucial too.

(Voice: "You can go ahead and give him his fluids -" and eagle sounds)

WINTER: At the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, an injured eagle opens its curved beak and clucks in protest as a veterinarian looks at its bandaged leg. The Raptor Center treats injured birds and returns them to the wild. Such projects are expensive; public and private organizations have spent millions of dollars on bald-eagle recovery. But they've helped bring bald eagles' numbers up to the point that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering changing the bird's status from "endangered" to "threatened" everywhere except five Southwestern states. Whether they're listed as threatened or endangered, eagles would still be protected by Federal law. But Raptor Center biologist Mark Martell says if the eagle's status is "upgraded," money could be steered to species that need more help. And he says changing the listing makes a statement.

MARTELL: It's important to recognize that even though it was a lot of work and expensive we can turn around the plight of endangered species, that when we set our minds to it, and protect animals, protect their habitat, that we can reverse what seems to be a pretty drastic trend that's towards extinction. I think we have pulled the bald eagle back from the brink of extinction and that needs to be recognized.

WINTER: Some conservationists support the proposal to change the eagle's status. But attorney Brian O'Neill, who represents the Defenders of Wildlife and other environmentalist groups, says he doesn't want to see money steered away from bald eagles. He says when eagle habitat is protected, other animals also benefit.

O'NEILL: When you eliminate a threat to eagles, by way of example strychnine, you're eliminating a threat to kit foxes, grizzly bears, every kind of migratory bird that exists. So I'm not so sure I want all of the money moved from eagles to obscure mussels.

WINTER: Supporters of the proposal say changing the eagle's status shouldn't be an excuse for ignoring it. Mark Martell from the Raptor Center says biologists must continue monitoring eagles and watching for future threats.

MARTELL: That's very important, habitat protection, a clean environment without a lot of toxic chemicals in it, people not shooting birds, all of those things have to continue to happen, we have to still be aware of the bird and be looking out for it, we can't just revert to old habits because all of our efforts will be for nought then.

WINTER: Officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service won't comment on the proposal to change the bald eagle's status because it's only a draft at this point. Once a formal proposal is released, the public will be invited to comment before the agency makes a final decision. The director of Fish and Wildlife is expected to release the formal proposal before the end of the year. For Living on Earth, I'm Catherine Winter in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

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Bear Spray

CURWOOD: Eagles are abundant in Alaska, as are bears. Commentator Nancy Lord likes it that way, but she's recently sought out a little help in keeping the inquisitive animals at a safe distance.

LORD: We call it bear spray. The brand I carry comes in a black plastic can with orange writing and a drawing of a bear's face. The idea is that if you have an unfriendly meeting with a bear, rather than shooting the bear or getting mauled, you spray the bear in the face and it retreats with teary eyes. The active ingredient is cayenne pepper. Most everyone who spends time in the Alaskan bush keeps some handy. It doesn't often get used, but it is a comfort. Alaska has a lot of bears - one to every six people - so it's not all that unusual to cross paths. And then, earlier this year, the sprays were jerked from store shelves by the Environmental Protection Agency. It seems that, as an animal repellent, bear spray is a pesticide, but none of the pepper sprays had ever been registered as pesticides or tested for effectiveness. Identical sprays which don't mention bears on their labels are however perfectly legal to use against human attackers. In the end, after a lot of fuss that even had one of Alaska's senators speechifying that Federal bureaucrats were forcing Alaskans to throw pots of chili at bears, the EPA gave manufacturers another year to test and register the repellents. It's not entirely clear, at least to me, how tests will be conducted against charging bears. This summer I did a test of my own, of sorts. At our cabin, we frequently see both brown and black bears. Rather than a problem, they're a joy to share the country with. Occasionally, however, a young black bear, teenage style, is too brash for its own welfare. One morning, after the same bear came up on our porch for a third time, I thought it would be better to deter it before one of our less-tolerant neighbors took a gun to it. From a recommended distance of twenty feet, I sprayed one quick blast. The bear didn't react. In fact, the spray only reached about ten feet, and then in the breeze the fine red dust blew back around me. There I was, twenty feet from a bear, and I was the one blinded, reeling in pain. Multiply the effect of sticking your finger in your eye after handling hot peppers and you have some idea of the feeling. Weeping. I stumbled and lurched back in the cabin, where I poured water over my eyes and snuffled through runny, burning sinuses. When I could finally see again, the bear was gone - repelled, no doubt, by the crazed behavior of this peppered person.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord is a writer who lives in Homer, Alaska.

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(Music up and under)

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