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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

March 18, 1994

Air Date: March 18, 1994

SEGMENTS

Asian-American Environmentalists / Betsy Bayha

Betsy Bayha of member station KQED reports on an emerging population in the environmental justice movement — Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. From workplace hazards in the garment industry, to toxic fish, Bayha reports that Asian environmentalists are making the problems of their community known — and working to change them. (05:19)

Industrial Cleanup's Double Standard / Laura Seidel

Laura Seidel reports from New Jersey on the controversial Industrial Sites Recovery Act. The new state legislation sets two standards for hazardous waste cleanup — one for residential areas, and a less rigorous one for industrial sites. The Act is meant to save money and free up urban areas for industrial redevelopment, but some worry that the waste on such sites may still pose a threat to current and future neighbors. (05:53)

Straightening out Superfund

Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Ben Chavis, head of the NAACP, about the upcoming reauthorization of Superfund and its significance to the environmental justice movement. (04:44)

The Science of Trash / Stephanie O'Neill

Reporter Stephanie O'Neill travels to the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles for a look at the finer points of trash. The museum's high-tech, interactive exhibit gives visitors an opportunity to examine their own consumption habits . . . emphasizing the importance of individual impact on the waste stream. (04:44)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Stephanie O'Neill, Elise Ackerman, Betsy Bayha, Laura Sydell
GUEST: Dr. Benjamin Chavis

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. In the cities of the west coast, Asian Americans are helping to broaden the bounds of environmentalism by speaking out. Their concerns include lead poisoning, contaminated fish, and overcrowding.

G. CHIN: This Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood of any neighborhood in the entire country outside of Manhattan.

CURWOOD: Also, the Federal Hazardous Waste Cleanup Law is up for renewal, and the nation's largest civil rights organization is taking up the fight.

CHAVIS: The NAACP is concerned about the reauthorization of Superfund, primarily because so many of the Superfund sites are disproportionately located in African American, Latino, and other minority communities.

CURWOOD: Also, tackling trash in a Los Angeles museum this week on Living on Earth. Coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news. The Federal Government's ability to protect endangered species on private land could be undercut if a Federal Court ruling is upheld. A Washington, DC, appeals court panel says the government exceeded its authority in warning Pacific Northwest property owners not to destroy spotted owl habitat. The judges ruled that while the law may protect animals and plants themselves, it does not prevent property owners from destroying the habitat that wildlife depend on. If the ruling is upheld, it could be a serious blow to the government's new ecosystem management approach to species protection.

After plea-bargaining on criminal charges, the operators of a California oilfield may face new civil charges stemming from a 33-year-long petroleum leak. The UNOCAL Corporation admits it illegally discharged millions of gallons of oil thinner between 1957 and 1990 and failed to report the leak. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.

O'NEILL: Up to eight-and-a-half million gallons of the diesel-like fluid leaked into the groundwater and ocean and went unreported by UNOCAL officials. The company was fined one-and-a-half million dollars in criminal penalties, and in a separate plea bargain agreed to pay the entire cost of the cleanup - a bill that could run tens of millions of dollars. In return, the government agreed to drop 33 other misdemeanor criminal charges. UNOCAL also faces additional fines of up to $170 million in a civil suit by the State Office of Oil Spill Prevention. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: The government says it's the future of farm chemical regulation. Pesticide opponents call it a cave-in. They're arguing over an unusual agreement by the EPA allowing conditional sales of a new herbicide suspected of causing cancer. Monsanto and Zenaca Corporations say the new chemical, acetochlor, is effective in very small amounts, so its use will cut total herbicide applications by one-third over 5 years. Under the agreement, the EPA is holding the companies to their word.

GOLDMAN: If there isn't the reduced use of the pesticides, we could automatically cancel the registration of acetochlor. That is, remove the right of the companies to sell the herbicide.

NUNLEY: Lynn Goldman of the EPA's Pesticide Division says Monsanto and Zenaca must also pay to monitor acetochlor's movement through the soil and groundwater. If the chemical is contaminating water supplies, its registration will be revoked. Goldman says the agreement follows the Clinton Administration's plan to cut pesticide use, but some pesticide opponents question whether carcinogenic pesticide use should be encouraged at all. Al Meyerof is an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council.

MEYEROF: Are we going to accept simply marginal reforms, and incremental change, or have we reached a point where some kind of dramatic reform of the nation's pesticide laws are necessary?

NUNLEY: Meyerof favors legislation that sets a timeline for the phase-out of all cancer-causing farm chemicals. This is Living on Earth.

UN Officials call it the first major financial follow-up to 1992's Earth Summit in Rio, as the industrialized nations pledge $2 billion to fund environmental projects in the developing world. The Global Environmental Facility, or GEF, will help poorer countries develop their resources without adding to such problems as global warming and species loss. It took donor and recipient countries nearly 2 years to agree on how the fund should operate. The GEF has been criticized for ties to environmentally questionable projects funded by the World Bank. Under its new structure, both rich and poor countries will have veto power over funding decisions.

A new study suggests that Florida's manatees may not be on the brink of extinction. The researchers at the University of Florida say the sea mammal still needs very careful habitat management. Elise Ackerman has the story.

ACKERMAN: By discovering a way to accurately pinpoint the age of adult manatees and inserting those findings into actuarial models developed by the insurance industry, scientists were able to compare manatee birth rates and death rates for the first time. While they discovered that the death rate is unacceptably high, they also found that manatees are not in immediate danger of extinction. But Steven Humphrey, a coauthor of the study, cautions that the balance between humans and manatees continues to be extremely fragile. He says only 16 more manatee deaths a year in Florida boating accidents could tip the balance toward extinction. For Living on Earth, I'm Elise Ackerman.

NUNLEY: St. Patrick's Day may be over, but the green beer is just beginning to flow. According to the magazine Electrotechnology Report, Britain's allied breweries has developed a beer concentrate which they say has all the flavor but only one quarter the volume of regular beer. All it takes is filtered water added to the recipe for consumers to quaff a full-blown, pub-quality beer. And because it's concentrated, the beer requires less packaging and less energy to transport. It certainly moves the "great taste, less filling" debate to a whole new level.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

Asian-American Environmentalists

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For the first time, an Asian American group has formed to focus exclusively on environmental change. the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, based in San Francisco, sees itself as part of the growing environmental justice movement, organizing around the links among race, poverty, and pollution. The group is just one of many examples of growing environmental awareness by Asian Americans. From San Francisco, Betsy Bayha, member station KQED, reports.

(Crowded Chinatown street)

BAYHA: The bustling vegetable stands, fish markets, and sidewalk stalls of San Francisco's Chinatown could hardly be considered a hotbed of environmental activity. The biggest concerns here seem to be commerce and tourism, but there are other issues, too.

G. CHIN: This Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood of any neighborhood in the entire country outside of Manhattan.

BAYHA: Gordon Chin is Executive Director of the Chinatown Resource Center, a nonprofit community planning organization.

G. CHIN: There are no single family homes in this neighborhood. This is a neighborhood of 15,000 people, primarily senior citizens, families, recent immigrants, and children.

BAYHA: Chinatown is cramped and crowded with traffic and people. Because there is so little open space, residents use the numerous alleyways zigzagging through Chinatown as promenades and playgrounds. The consequences of this kind of crowding are many: poor air quality, garbage in the streets, barely room to breathe. There are other problems, too. Chin says almost three quarters of the housing stock in Chinatown was built before 1950, using lead paint.

G. CHIN: We do have lead-based paint in many of the older buildings. In Chinatowns across the country, you have older buildings.

BAYHA: Traditionally, such issues have been viewed as public health or social welfare problems. Only recently have they come to be seen as legitimate environmental concerns, mostly through the growing environmental justice movement, which explores the links between poverty, ethnicity, and exposure to environmental hazards. Some existing groups like Chin's have begun linking their activities to the environment. Other new groups have started up.

SAIKA: The environmental justice movement embraces so many different kinds of people living in many different kinds of places.

BAYHA: Peggy Saika is a Japanese American, and the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, or APEN, which includes Americans of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese descent. It's the first group in the country to explicitly organize around environmental issues from an Asian-American point of view. The group defines environmentalism broadly. For instance, they've targeted the garment industry, which tends to be dominated by Asian immigrant women. Francis Calpatura is a Filipino American and a local activist on the APEN Steering Committee.

CALPATURA: The lack of enforcement of any occupational and safety, that they are not even given any protective gear, any breathing gear, and just kind of a whole slew of workplace-related issues.

BAYHA: Calpatura and others point to the high-risk occupations in which Asians are concentrated, such as electronics assembly and dry cleaning establishments. APEN and other local activists are also looking at the links between poverty and exposure to toxics.

(Sounds of the pier: reels being cast)

BAYHA: On a cold, gray morning at the Dunbarton Pier on South San Francisco Bay, small clumps of fishermen cast into the shallow water hoping to hook striped bass, sturgeon, or croaker. The State Water Board has designated this area as a toxic hot spot. Most of the anglers here are minorities. Many are Asian immigrants from Korea, Samoa, Vietnam, and China. For them, fish from the bay is a primary source of food. But some fish species here have high levels of mercury, which causes developmental disorders and nervous system damage in children, and shouldn't be eaten by pregnant women. Other fish are riddled with parasites. Wendell Chin, of the group South Bay Anglers for Environmental Rights, or SAFER.

W. CHIN: The number of Samoan families, which eat them raw, have had problems. have had actual injuries: dizziness, upset stomachs.

BAYHA: Chin says most of the fishermen didn't know about the dangers until SAFER convinced officials to post warning signs in 6 languages, including Tagalog, Chinese, and Korean. But Chin concedes warnings are not enough. If poor immigrants can't afford to buy food in the market, he says they'll probably still eat fish from the bay. Asian-American environmentalists and groups like APEN say they are trying to build a society where people won't be forced to eat poisoned fish or breathe dirty air because of their income or race. They are hoping to use environmental activism as a tool for community empowerment, and as a way to increase the participation of all ethnic groups. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.

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(Music up and under)

Industrial Cleanup's Double Standard

CURWOOD: In almost any US city, you'll find vacant commercial and industrial sites contaminated with toxic chemicals. There are thousands of them, and they don't just threaten the health of local residents. They are also a drag on local economies. Many business advocates say that often, cleanup costs are more than the land is worth. But until they're cleaned up, the sites can't be redeveloped for commerce. That means no new investment, no new tax revenues, and no new jobs. As a partial solution to this problem, the Clinton Administration has proposed changing Federal cleanup laws to include lower standards for some industrial areas. It's a controversial idea, but it's already being put to the test in one of the most polluted states. From Newark, Laura Sydell reports on New Jersey's new Industrial Sites Recovery Act, or ISRA.

SYDELL: ISRA created two standards of cleanup: one for areas that would be returned to residential use, and another for those that would be returned to industry. The actual health risk remains the same under the new law: one additional cancer per million people. But the new law assumes that fewer people would use an industrial site than a residential area, so the cleanup needs to be less stringent. But the bill has received criticism from many environmentalists.

(Street traffic)

SYDELL: At the end of Kasouth Street, in the ironbound section of Newark, stands the site of the former Celinese Plastics factory. Surrounding the site are small one- and two-family homes. The factory closed 30 years ago, before there were many environmental laws. Today the site is contaminated with PCBs. In the late 80s, the city of Newark decided to convert the area into a stadium for local sports teams and put in a public swimming pool. Arnold Cohen is with the Ironbound Committee Against Toxic Waste.

COHEN: Back in 1987, when the city started digging for a new swimming pool to replace an old bathhouse, they found phenols in the ground. The smell was horrendous; people were getting sick. They had to quickly cover up the ground and had to bring back that contaminated dirt from where they had started shipping it.

SYDELL: The Ironbound Stadium is now being cleaned up under New Jersey's old laws. However, Cohen says the problems here reflect his fears about the new standards, particularly that they don't safeguard against future change in land use.

COHEN: One has to keep, you know, very careful records so that if an area does change, if you do have a changing landscape or changing land use, you have a way of going back and saying okay, wait a second now. we really have to clean this property up further.

SYDELL: Under ISRA, says Cohen, industry will be able to cap toxic waste sites rather than remove them, leaving open the possibility that the toxins could later be released. Especially, says Cohen, if careful records aren't kept. Another concern of environmental activists is that industry and government will be making the decision about what standards of cleanup to use at the site. The New Jersey Public Interest Research Group failed to get a provision in ISRA which would have provided for the input of local residents. Drew Kojack is one of the group's attorneys.

KOJACK: The public often knows whether or not a site is used as a stickball site, you know, an industrial site the kids go over the fence. If that site is only going to be cleaned up to a non-residential standard, that's going to be a problem. And there should be evidence brought into the whole decision making process by the community, indicating that no, this site is used widely by children even though they're not supposed to be there.

SYDELL: But Lance Miller, an assistant commissioner with New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection and Energy, says the DEPE will make sure companies carefully protect sites.

MILLER: One of the conditions of getting a nonresidential standard is access to the site has to be protected. There cannot just be an open area with the nonresidential standards there. There would have to be appropriate fencing or whatnot.

SYDELL: Addressing concerns that contaminants could be released at a later date, Miller says that the public records will document what' s buried at the site. However, it's interesting to note that no company contacted for this report would allow a visit to a site covered by the new legislation. Most seemed fearful of drawing public attention. Nonetheless, ISRA may become a model for national legislation. In discussions over the renewal of the Federal Superfund Program, members of the Clinton Administration have said they are considering the two-standard idea. This has some environmental activists concerned. Verniece Miller, the Director of the Environmental Justice Initiative at the National Resource Defense Council, says two standards may result in more harm to poor and minority communities. She points out that there are more industrial sites in poor neighborhood, and uses her own community, Harlem, as an example.

MILLER: Many communities of color, if not most around the country, have a mixed zoning kind of designation. Meaning that you can have residential, commercial, and industrial uses of the land all in one area. Which is pretty unheard-of in most white communities. And we can use the example of the community that is our southern neighbor; we share our southern border with the Morningside Heights community. Morningside Heights is exclusively residentially zoned. You even have a hard time trying to get a commercial utilization.

SYDELL: Nonetheless, some environmental activists support different standards of cleanup, providing there is public input and careful records are kept. They point out that the legislation will help keep undeveloped land from being turned over to industry, because it will be more cost-effective for companies to reuse sites. Although officials say they are encouraged by the number of companies now cooperating because of the new cleanup approach, most say it's too early to tell just how successful it will be. For Living on Earth, this is Laura Sydell reporting.

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Straightening out Superfund

CURWOOD: The debate over New Jersey's new cleanup law foreshadows a larger debate now heating up in Washington over the Federal Government's toxic cleanup program. Nearly everyone agrees that the Superfund law has been ineffective. Billions of dollars have gone into lawsuits rather than cleanups. The Clinton Administration wants to reduce litigation by setting up arbitration boards, which would determine who's responsible and how much they should pay to help clean up a particular site. But some would go even further. For instance, a coalition including Texaco, Johnson Controls, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has suggested doing away with site-by-site liability completely, and replacing it with a national cleanup fund financed by a tax on all users of toxic substances. Dr. Benjamin Chavis is the NAACP's new Executive Director. I caught up with him on Capitol Hill recently, and asked him why the organization has gotten so involved with Superfund.

CHAVIS: The NAACP is concerned about the reauthorization of Superfund, primarily because so many of the Superfund sites are disproportionately located in African American, Latino, and other minority communities. This is an issue of environmental justice.

CURWOOD: What are the basic changes that you want to see in Superfund? Now the President himself has some changes; do those go far enough?

CHAVIS: Well, I think the President's proposals to reauthorize Superfund are a step in the right direction. But they just don't go far enough. We want to expedite a cleanup of our communities. We want health studies done to show the causation between environmental hazards and the degradation of public health. Also, we found in urban areas there's multiple exposures to different kinds of environmental hazards. Under the present Superfund you have to be exposed to groundwater contamination, so most urban areas don't drink groundwater. And so, a place like the South Side of Chicago or Brooklyn and Harlem, New York, you can't get on a Superfund site list, but that does not mean you're not exposed to environmental hazards. We want that changed. We also want to change the liability system so that the financing for the cleanup is maintained. Right now, most of the money in the current system is spent on litigation, arguing about who is liable.

CURWOOD: So you want to take away liability, the finger-pointing, and just say let's clean it up? How do you do that?

CHAVIS: No, we don't want to take away liability. We want to change the way the companies who are responsible for the pollution put up the money for the cleanup. We have had meetings with the Chemical Association, with some of these companies, who are saying they are willing to put up the money to clean up sites. They just want to spend the money on cleanup; they don't want to spent the money on litigation. In this case, we agree with that.

CURWOOD: You're a leader of what might be arguably called the most important civil rights organization in the world, certainly one of the most important historically, the NAACP. And in the past, the NAACP has used the law, used civil rights litigation in the judiciary to get results. And -

CHAVIS: Yes, but keep in mind we want to practice what we preach. The problem with Superfund right now is too much litigation. And the dollars that are spent on court battles should be spent on cleaning up the community. I think it's fair to say the NAACP will redefine what we mean by civil rights. Civil rights traditionally has meant fighting in a judicial way or fighting in a legislative way to create social change. What we now see in the NAACP is our responsibility to raise the quality of life issue. Civil rights becomes quality of life when the quality of life is impacted by racial discrimination. And that is why now we will be involved in the environmental area, a little differently than we've challenged some other forms of racial discrimination.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how is President Clinton doing with the environmental justice agenda? He has a Vice President who put in a bill for environmental justice. How is he performing, the President?

CHAVIS: Well I think President Clinton is doing relatively well. During 12 years of Reagan-Bush, there was a systematic denial that environmental racism existed. There was a systematic denial that minorities were disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. Okay, we're over that period of denial. In fact, the Clinton Administration's gone so far to set up, within EPA, an Office of Environmental Justice. But I think the Administration has a long way to go to unpack a lot of the stuff that was stored in the closets of EPA over the years. I think a lot of communities that have not been served, that had been unequal enforcement, based on race, of the nation's environmental laws. And now we need greater and more equal enforcement. And I think the Clinton Administration and Carol Browner of the EPA, at least they're headed in the right direction. The NAACP's position, we're trying to quicken that pace.

CURWOOD: Benjamin Chavis is the Executive Director of the NAACP.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: What do you think about the environmental justice movement and Superfund reform? Give us a call on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth at Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth at Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

The Science of Trash

CURWOOD: Not long ago, only Sesame Street's Oscar the Grouch loved trash. But in these days of curbside recycling and 100% post-consumer waste, trash is nearly a national obsession. For those still unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the paper or plastic conundrum, there's a new exhibit at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles that could help. Stephanie O'Neill reports.

(Rock music with narration: "When you're a globe-head the world seems bright." "You make the effort to do things right." "Globe-head!")

O'NEILL: The Globe-heads, a family of claymation characters, are the first to welcome visitors to the exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.

(Rock music with narration: "Reduce, reuse, recycle, we've all heard the call." "But a waste kid doesn't bother at all!" "We're the Globe-heads!")

O'NEILL: Called "Our Urban Environment," the exhibit invites visitors to push buttons, turn cranks, and play sophisticated computer games, which dish up easily-digestible tips on green living. David Bibas is the exhibit curator.

BIBAS: In all of our exhibits we try to make the visitor work to get the information instead of just presenting it. So there is better learning as well as retention of the information.

O'NEILL: Visitors are led through interactive displays on energy efficiency at home, water use, solid waste management, and green shopping. In a mock supermarket, real items you'd find in your grocery store are displayed on turntables. One side asks a question about that product. The other side gives the answer.

BIBAS: For example, here, "Why aren't disposable razors such a sharp idea?" And you turn the turntable and it says, "Americans throw away 2 billion disposable razors every year, so the materials and energy that go into making all those razors are wasted after a few Chavis."

(Narration: "Are you a green consumer? To find out, choose Products by scanning the bar codes in the catalogue. When you're done, scan the total page for your final grade.")

O'NEILL: And when you've competed your shopping, a bar code scanner tallies the environmental score of your purchases. We chose juice in a large plastic bottle instead of a glass bottle or individual servings in boxes.

(Cash register rings, followed by narration: "Okay, but not a great choice. A large container uses less packaging material than individual servings. And PET plastic is recyclable. However, toxic waste is created during the plastic manufacturing process.")

O'NEILL: From this store, visitors can follow purchases to their ultimate resting place and wrestle with the problems they create along the way. At one point we're given a chance to test our mettle as municipal solid waste managers, by trying to deal with the ever-increasing trash flow on a specially designed computer game. We asked the computer to approve a landfill expansion plan.

(Computer beeps)

BIBAS: Unfortunately I get a fax back from the mayor saying, "Your planned landfill expansion has been denied. The site is located on an earthquake fault. Please try again."

O'NEILL: So it's all the real problems people run into.

BIBAS: Yeah, we want people to be aware of the complexity of the problems of managing the solid waste stream.

O'NEILL: The Home Center focuses on energy conservation. For instance, you'll learn that cleaning the coils behind your refrigerator and setting its temperature on low saves a lot of energy. Throughout the exhibit, Globe-head video clips roll continually, each teaching a different lessons.

(Music and voices: "Hey mom, what're you doin'?" "Time to change some oil in the old family car, kiddo." "What a mess!" "Relax, honey, we'll just hose it down when I'm finished here." "But mom, that'll go right down the storm drain!" "Mm hmm." "It'll go straight to the ocean. Think of those poor fish!" "Oh honey, I don't think there's enough to do any real harm." "Waste-head!")

O'NEILL: But by the end of the vignettes, waste-heads learn proper green behavior and become Globe-heads once again.

(Music and voice: "You were right, sweetie. We'll recycle our used motor oil, and take the old coolant to the next hazardous waste roundup. What do you say?" Dog barks.)

O'NEILL: The exhibit is funded largely by local public utilities and two corporations: Western Waste Industries, a trash hauling company, and Bank of America. There's not a whole lot here that deals with industrial pollution. Bibas says that's because officials didn't want to point the finger at anyone in particular, but instead wanted to emphasize that everyone's responsible for the environment.

BIBAS: Raising the awareness is a first step. And giving the public the information that they need in order to make, to take certain informed decisions, I think would, you know, get them thinking about these things, and hopefully act on their beliefs.

O'NEILL: David Bibas, curator of "Our Urban Environment" at the California Museum of Science and Industry. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Debra Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Chris Page, Jan Nunley, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessika Bella Mura, Eve Stewart, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Bill Haslem, and Doug Haslem. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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