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

February 24, 1995

Air Date: February 24, 1995


Amtrak on the Line / Dan Grossman

The pressure to cut federal subsidies may put some Amtrak passenger train service on the chopping block. The rail line seems like an easy hit, until the subsidies and hidden costs of auto travel are factored in. How does the equation look then? From Boston, Dan Grossman adds it all up. (08:03)

Update on the Hill

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Greenwire publisher Dale Curtis to update what's going on with major environmental bills in Congress. (04:57)

Pulling for Salmon / Terry FitzPatrick

In Washington State, dozens of volunteer groups are donating their time to help restock salmon in local streams. Terry FitzPatrick from member station KPLU examines how this human effort to reshape nature's fate is faring. (07:09)

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
REPORTERS: Michael Lawton, Amy Eddings, Dan Grossman, Terry FitzPatrick
GUEST: Dale Curtis

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Federal budget cutters say the nation's passenger rail system doesn't pull its own weight. But supporters say trains actually save money, in energy and environmental costs.

FOY: Although we subsidize Amtrak to a tune of maybe a billion dollars a year, we subsidize highways to the tune of tens of billions of dollars every year. If we're going to subsidize any form of transportation, where do we get the most bounce for the ounce?

CURWOOD: Also, volunteers are bringing coho salmon back to a Northwest stream.

WELLS: You know, I want to be able to catch a fish. I want my son to be able to catch a fish. But if you don't come back and restore creeks, put fish back in the creeks, there won't be any fish for you to catch or anybody else to catch or just to look at.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up after this round-up of the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Global warming may pose more direct threats to humanity than just changing weather patterns and rising sea levels. A news report in the journal Science says many researchers believe as the Earth's temperature increases, the range of deadly tropical diseases will also increase. Computer models suggest that tens of millions of people may die from malaria, yellow fever, and schistosomiasis as tropical insects expand their range. The threat is considered serious enough that the World Health Organization and others are trying to add disease surveillance capabilities to their worldwide network of research stations.

Disposal of nuclear waste is spurring a new round of controversy around the globe. Activists are trying to prevent a ship filled with high-level radioactive waste from stopping anywhere on its trip from France to Japan. Meanwhile, in Germany the state of Lower Saxony has lost a 10-year battle to stop the federal government from storing spent nuclear fuel there. From Cologne, Michael Lawton reports.

LAWTON: For 10 years, the government of Lower Saxony has refused to accept the delivery of spent nuclear fuel rods for medium-term storage - that means around 40 years - in a large warehouse near the town of Gorleven. The building was ready 10 years ago but court injunctions have so far prevented its use on safety grounds. Now, according to the federal government, there are no further safety risks, and the State Environment Minister, Monika Griefhahn, a former Greenpeace official, has been forced to back down. The responsibility for what is to all intents and purposes a final storage for spent rods, she says, lies entirely with the Federal Minister, who has refused to authorize any more safety checks. But the deliverers themselves pose a security risk of an entirely different kind. Last November, when the first deliveries were expected, environmental activists bombed railroad tracks in the area and five-and-a-half thousand police were called in to deal with expected violence. Already, demonstrators have gathered at the power station in southern Germany from which the first nuclear waste transport will come. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Lawton in Cologne.

NUNLEY: It will cost over $8 billion a year to give the rapid erosion of US farm and pasture land under control. But a team of Cornell University researchers say that's a bargain, since damage caused by wind and water erosion amounts to more than $44 billion annually. The scientists say soil conservation techniques such as ridge planting and no-tool farming would not only dramatically reduce the erosion rate, it would use water more efficiently and cut nutrient losses. The US government currently spends under $2 billion a year on soil protection programs.

Environmental laws and the GOP's Contract with America are both riding high according to a new survey. A Times-CNN poll shows that almost two thirds of US voters think the environment is a very important issue. But a little over half want the government to slow down spending on environmental cleanup. Some core issues of the Contract with America had overwhelming support. Sixty-eight percent approve of cost-benefit analysis of laws, and nearly that many feel landowners should be reimbursed when regulations decrease the value of their land. The number of people who think environmental laws should go further has dropped dramatically to only 42% down from 63% just 5 years ago.

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking more than $1.5 million in fines from 4 oil companies for dumping sewage, oil, and grease into Alaska's Cook Inlet. The fines are among the stiffest ever imposed for such violations. EPA cited 827 violations by Unocal, Marathon Oil, Shell Western, and Philips Petroleum over the last 5 years. The Agency feels harmful carcinogens may have been dumped into the inlet, which is a major fishing area. A representative from Unocal said the company will work hard to comply with all Federal and state laws.

The range of the coyote in the US was originally restricted to the West, but logging, development, and the extermination of their natural predator, the wolf, has extended the coyote's home. And as Amy Eddings of WFUV tells us, now coyotes are showing up in some strange places.

(Honking traffic)

EDDINGS: New York City's latest immigrants are furry and mangy and living in the Bronx. There have been 3 coyotes sighted there in the last month. Two were found dead, one by gunshot, the other by highway traffic. The third, called Wiley, lives in Woodlawn Cemetery. It was found there last October by a couple who mistook the coyote for an abandoned dog. City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern says the coyotes probably came from the northern suburban county of Westchester and were forced south by development.

STERN: Apparently, they didn't really get much food in Westchester, which is why they migrated here.

EDDINGS: Stern believes there's more coyotes in nearby Van Cortlandt Park, and he'd like to move Wiley there, too, if animal experts think the coyote can survive in the wild, and if they can find it. Wiley hasn't been seen for several days. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings in New York.

NUNLEY: That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Amtrak on the Line

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As of April 2nd, a good deal of the US national passenger rail service will be history. Amtrak has announced route and segment cuts around the nation, including many trains serving Chicago, Florida, and the congested Northeast Corridor. Several states are negotiating to save some of these trains, but most aren't likely to be revived. The service cutbacks are aimed at blunting the axe of Congressional budget cutters. Amtrak has received more than $13 billion in Federal subsidies since 1977, and some say it's time to call a halt to the Red Ink Express. But finding the true costs and benefits of rail travel takes more than a glance at the bottom line. There are many who argue that when you add up all the hidden subsidies and environmental costs of cars, trains, and planes, rail comes out ahead. Reporter Dan Grossman has more.

(Railway depot announcer: "Amtrak train... boarding now on Track No. 4...")

GROSSMAN: It's an early morning in Boston's busy South Station railway terminal.

(Railway depot announcer: "Final boarding call for Amtrak train 145 ... boarding on Track 4...")

GROSSMAN: Clusters of groggy travelers are rushing to catch the Connecticut Yankee. They are among some 5,000 passengers a day who shuttle along the corridor between Boston and New York by train, alleviating congestion on the crowded highways and airways of the Northeast. But in April, Amtrak will suspend this train and at least one other daily departure from South Station. The cutbacks are part of a wider plan to reduce the railroad's annual deficit, which came to over $1 billion last year. Many Amtrak critics welcome the shrunken timetable as an overdue pruning to the rail carrier's thicket of routes. But some say it's not enough.

HEFLEY: The point is, people don't want to ride the train.

GROSSMAN: Republican Representative Joel Hefley of Colorado says the Federal Government is propping up a relic. Amtrak's subsidy this year comes to $970 million. Last month Hefley introduced legislation to eliminate Federal funding for passenger rail service.

HEFLEY: What we're talking about here is taxpayer subsidy of $25 per passenger. Every time anyone gets on an Amtrak train, whatever they pay, the government is subsidizing it $25 over and above that. And somehow or other, it seems to me in a time when we're trying to balance the budget by 2002, this is one of those things that we can't afford any longer.

(An arriving train clanging; wheels on the rail)

GROSSMAN: It's true. Amtrak has been kept afloat with Federal support ever since it was created by Congress in 1970. Last year passenger fares and other fees covered less than 60% of the railway's two-and-a-half billion dollar budget. Most of the rest came from the Federal Treasury. But environmentalists like Doug Foy say these figures don't tell the whole story.

(Bells clanging)

FOY: We subsidize all forms of transportation in this country, and although we subsidize Amtrak to a tune of maybe a billion dollars a year, we subsidize highways to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year. Every form of transportation in the country - roads, rails, airlines - are subsidized with public dollars. The issue is, if we're going to subsidize any form of transportation, where do we get the most bounce for the ounce?

GROSSMAN: If driving habits mean anything, Americans think they get the most bounce in their cars. Of the 4 trillion miles Americans log each year, about 90% are in passenger cars. Americans spend $400 billion annually to purchase, operate, and service cars. But Foy, who heads the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, says the full cost of the automobile is often ignored.

FOY: The car is just buried under hidden subsidies. Police, fire, snow plowing, salting of roads in winter areas. Air pollution costs, which are extraordinary. Respiratory diseases are going sky high in our cities and a large portion of that is attributable to automobile emissions. Those are some of the costs.

GROSSMAN: Foy calls these costs hidden because they are not included in sticker prices, insurance premiums, or the cost of gasoline. But they still come out of our pockets when tax dollars are used to defend overseas oil reserves, or when traffic noise depresses property values. One study puts these additional costs at $300 billion a year. Another study by the Natural Resources Defense Council compares auto travel with bus and rail. It concludes that trains are not as costly as subsidies make them appear, and that all 3 modes of transport cost roughly the same: between 35 and 53 cents per passenger mile. But others crunch the numbers differently. Professor Jose Gomes Ibañez is a transportation expert at Harvard University.

IBAÑEZ: The studies that the environmental groups are generating are using high estimates of the pollution damage, the energy security damage, and the accident external costs of the automobile. And if you look at studies that are done by more objective groups, they tend to show lower numbers for the automobiles.

GROSSMAN: What even critics like Gomes Ibañez agree on is that a full train consumes less energy and generates less pollution than a car or plane. But the environmental potential cannot be reached unless the trains are nearly full. And today, relatively few Americans ride the rails. That forces Amtrak to choose between running partly-loaded cars and less frequent service. With its recently announced cutbacks, the railroad has clearly chosen to run fewer trains. But that carries the risk of further discouraging potential passengers and spurring a downward spiral in service. Service which Doug Foy says is already inadequate.

FOY: At the moment, we run Third World quality trains in this country. And it's not surprising that people find train service unappealing and that politicians find investments in train service an unwise investment.

GROSSMAN: Foy says now is not the time to make service worse. Frank Wilner, author of the recent book The Amtrak Story, agrees.

WILNER: The highways are terribly congested today. Anyone who has traveled by airplane knows how almost impossible the airports are. There are just too many of us in certain regards for the transportation that we have available, at least by auto and air. But incredibly, we have room on the rails.

(A spike being hammered in)

GROSSMAN: As Congress debates its future, Amtrak is going ahead with plans to carry some passengers faster and more comfortably.

(Man's voice: "Two-twelve, twenty-one, fifty-five." Walkie-talkie voice replies: "Two-twelve, twenty-one, fifty five...")

GROSSMAN: On this railroad site in Boston, a crew is marking the site of an electrical substation for a high-speed rail connection to New York. After its completion in 1999, the new service should whisk passengers the 200 miles between the 2 cities in just 3 hours, and will carry nearly 2 million passengers annually who would otherwise drive or fly.

(Train horn, wheels on rails)

GROSSMAN: Environmentalists like Doug Foy say this is the future of American rail. And the Federal Railroad Administration is studying high-speed rail networks in roughly a dozen urban corridors, including the California Coast, the Pacific Northwest, and Florida. A recent Congressional study concluded high-speed rail routes won't be built without Federal backing. But Amtrak critics like Congressman Joel Hefley say that would be a waste of taxpayers' money.

HEFLEY: The reality is, they don't want to ride the train. They want to have the independence of driving their car. Now what are we going to do in America?

GROSSMAN: Congress may answer that question soon. It's likely to take up Amtrak's future in late March. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.

Back to top

(Music up and under. A man sings: "I know that she still has no key? /I'm waiting in by the door/But that train don't stop there any more. Any more. Any more. Any mooooore, all right!)

CURWOOD: Do you want your tax dollars to go to Amtrak? Call us right now 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, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Our Internet address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

(Music up and under)

Update on the Hill

CURWOOD: The fate of Amtrak is only one of many environmental issues on the Congressional docket. Key elements of the GOP's Contract with America, for instance, could have significant environmental impact. Among the most contentious items are regulatory reform, property rights, and risk assessment. And there may be a major fight brewing over the Clean Air Act. Some leading Republicans want to modify or even repeal it, and they're getting support from drivers upset about new auto emissions tests and cleaner gasoline. Dale Curtis is publisher of the on-line environmental daily Greenwire, and a former environmental advisor in the Bush White House. He's also a regular analyst on Living on Earth. I asked him if he thinks the Republican move to repeal the Clean Air Act will succeed.

CURTIS: Not really, although it should be a fun show here in the next couple of months as they hold hearing after hearing, and they'll probably have a lot of angry citizens and so forth. People are complaining about a provision in the Clean Air Act which requires motorists to get their automobile emissions inspected. The Clean Air Act requires more stringent programs. And a dozen states have balked at that, said no, we're not going to do it. Delegations have been sent to Washington. Carol Browner has met with them and promised to be more flexible. There will be hearings and not only about this provision but others as well. But that is an incredibly complicated statute. It would be pretty remarkable if the wholesale repeal could move through the legislative process without being stopped by somebody.

CURWOOD: There were a number of predictions that moderate Republicans would side with Democrats when it came to environmental legislation. But so far, the votes that I've noticed have been pretty much along party lines. Do you think that environmental legislation is going to fall prey to partisanship?

CURTIS: Yes, unfortunately I think it will. There used to be a tradition of bipartisanship on environmental laws, but I think that's history for now. Basic factions are, you know, the hard-line conservative Republicans, predominantly from the South and the West, who want to roll back environmental regulations. Not protections, they would say, but just, you know, the process, make it less burdensome. You have the moderate Republicans who generally have worked well with Democrats to strengthen environmental laws. And of course you have the liberal Democrats who are just in a daze about all of this and cannot believe the speed with which it's happening.

CURWOOD: What do you see as the greatest changes coming in environmental law?

CURTIS: Just to give you the short list, there will be action on the Clean Water Act, on the Endangered Species Act, on the Superfund toxic clean-up law, on the Safe Drinking Water Act.

CURWOOD: There are a number of water subsidies and other subsidies that some people say are anti-environmental in their impact, and they certainly don't help balance the budget. What do you think are the odds of changes in those laws?

CURTIS: Yeah, well this goes back to what I call the Enviro-Cheapo Coalition. Consistently, there is a pattern where you can get enough pro-environment members of Congress and enough of the fiscal conservatives to vote together and vote against these subsidies for logging or for water projects out West. For some of the coal and nuclear power research. I'm just pretty willing to bet that some of those programs will be scaled back or eliminated altogether. Where that might come into play is a program called the Conservation Reserve and the Wetlands Reserve. These are both programs that pay farmers to set aside environmentally sensitive land, and there probably will be a real cat and dog fight over the level of funding for that. The Clinton Administration wants to increase it. And I'm sure conservatives will want to cut it or, you know, at a minimum hold it where it is.

CURWOOD: By the way, Dale, I wanted to ask you. The presidential campaign is starting to heat up. Everyone's eyes are turning towards New Hampshire. What if any environmental legislation that could be coming up might play into that campaign?

CURTIS: Mm. I don't think it's gotten much attention yet. It will be interesting to watch whether Clinton and the Democrats position themselves, though, as champions of environmental protection against the Republicans who they will charge want to weaken environmental protection. And I thought it was interesting. Senator Cochrane from Mississippi who's a Republican said look, this gives Clinton an opportunity to portray the Republicans as opponents of public health and safety in the environment, and that that could work well for Clinton in '96. So a lot of it depends on the President, but certainly there's at least one leading Republican who recognizes that threat. I personally think that it is an issue that either party can use to their benefit if they appeal to the public's general support for protecting the environment. And then the test is showing the voters that you've got the best way to do it. It's basically up for grabs right now. The whole terms of the environmental debate are changing.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much. Dale Curtis is publisher of Greenwire in Washington, DC. Thank you, sir.

CURTIS: No problem. Thank you.

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(Music up and under)

Pulling for Salmon

CURWOOD: Coho salmon may be added to the nation's Endangered Species List later this month. And if that happens, recovery efforts could lead to cutbacks in logging, fishing, agriculture, power generation, and urban development throughout the Northwest. But nearly lost in the debate over what should or shouldn't be done to save the salmon are the efforts of some private citizens who are already taking action to help the fish survive. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Terry FitzPatrick reports on one such project and the obstacles that may stand in its way.

(Flowing water)

FITZPATRICK: This is Eagle Creek, a crystal-clear, spring-fed stream in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Overhead is a lush canopy of pine and alder. The banks are covered with moss and ferns. It's prime spawning habitat for cohoe salmon. But like many Northwest streams, coho haven't spawned here in decades.

LEBON: The river was starting to cut into some farmland, and to protect farmland they built, they diked it off. With no way for the fish to get in and out of it.

FITZPATRICK: Jeff Lebon is an oceanographer and commercial fisherman. He leads a crew of volunteers who are trying to reintroduce salmon to Eagle Creek.

LEBON: We would have hopefully a self-sustaining salmon run back in the spring, that would go on and rebuild itself. And that's the whole idea of the project. So, grab a shovel and go for it.


FITZPATRICK: For 4 years, volunteers from the commercial fishing industry and a sport fishing club have been restoring salmon habitat on Eagle Creek and 2 other streams nearby. They've removed obstructions that block the fish from getting to sea, and they rebuilt small pools where young fish can grow.

(Pipes being dragged)

FITZPATRICK: They've also built a small fish hatchery out of plastic pipes and a backyard swimming pool. Volunteer Paul Wells.

WELLS: You know, I want to be able to catch a fish. I want my son to be able to catch a fish. But if you don't come back and restore creeks, put fish back in the creeks, and get the creeks self-sustaining, there won't be any fish for you to catch or anybody else to catch or just to look at. (Grunts, that's it) Just real careful.

FITZPATRICK: This is egg-planting day. The state has donated 135,000 salmon eggs from its hatchery nearby. The eggs are bright orange, about the size of small pearls.

LEBON: They're not too fragile; you'd be surprised. As long as you don't squish them you could drop them about 6 feet up on concrete and they'll bounce okay.

MAN: No kidding.

LEBON: All right, get 'em all out of here.

FITZPATRICK: Volunteers put the eggs in trays to incubate.

LEBON: Real carefully, spread 'em out...

FITZPATRICK: When they're born, the fish will live in the hatchery pool for about a year. Then, they'll be released to begin their precarious journey to the sea. If they survive, they'll return to spawn on Eagle Creek when they're 3 years old. There are dozens of volunteer groups running hatcheries and improving habitat throughout Washington. Altogether, they release about 15 million fish: a small number compared to the 250 million produced at the huge hatcheries run by the state. But there's a key difference between the state and the volunteer efforts. Volunteers work on small streams, where state officials say they cannot afford to go.

KOLB: We don't have the manpower or the money, and even if we did we couldn't do it as effectively as people living out there can.

FITZPATRICK: Rich Kolb of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department provides technical assistance and small financial grants to the volunteer groups. The idea is to help the fish while avoiding the image of Big Brother government.

KOLB: People don't want government on their property telling them what to do and how to do it, whereas a local person can come in, a neighbor, and they're much, much more receptive and willing to listen and learn and help.

FITZPATRICK: Local landowners support the Eagle Creek project and there's been no public opposition. However, there has been trouble. Last year, the hatchery was sabotaged. Someone removed the screens that keep salmon hatchlings safely inside. Jeff Lebon.

LEBON: And it was very deliberate. The screens had been thrown out in the middle. And you see how they're wired there? They unwired them so we knew it was not an animal; it was definitely a person.

FITZPATRICK: Lebon estimates that 40,000 fish were killed, and he says it wasn't an isolated incident.

LEBON: Every enhancer project like this in the past, such as just egg boxes or incubators, has always been vandalized. It has never been able to go through the season without being either shot by bullets, piped, kicked, or something.

FITZPATRICK: No one was ever arrested in the Eagle Creek vandalism, and it remains a mystery. The incident was a setback to the Eagle Creek volunteers, but a much bigger battle may lie ahead. A battle which could trap the project in the middle of a strategic debate over salmon management. Many biologists think large salmon hatcheries are harming the dwindling supply of wild fish. Professor James Carr directs the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Washington.

CARR: The addition of hatchery fish is likely to cause more damage than benefit for a couple of reasons. First of all, the things that happen in hatcheries change the biology of the fish. Essentially, they breed fish with bad behavior, if you will. And finally, the appearance that we are doing a good thing makes members of society concerned about salmon feel like they're working towards a solution, when in fact they're not working towards a solution.

FITZPATRICK: And that presents a real irony for projects like the one at Eagle Creek. Many salmon advocates want to shut down hatcheries and focus instead on helping wild salmon establish their own self-supporting populations. That's ultimately the purpose of the Eagle Creek project. But because it relies initially on a small hatchery, the volunteers fear it, too, could be forced to close. An Endangered Species listing could protect salmon habitat, but could also require all hatcheries to justify their existence. And Jeff Lebon fears that could smother his tiny project in Federal paperwork.

LEBON: Basically, it stonewalls us and it gets the private sector, volunteer sector completely out of the picture.

FITZPATRICK: And in a time of increasing distrust of government, Lebonsays that could be counterproductive.

(Sloshing through water)

FITZPATRICK: Despite the discouraging developments, the Eagle Creek volunteers got a big boost this January. It came from the coho salmon themselves.

LEBON: You see the depression upstream, right there, and the rocks piled up back here? That really looks like there was some digging going on there.

MAN: Uh huh.

FITZPATRICK: Out of the 10,000 fish born at the Eagle Creek hatchery in 1992, volunteers spotted 8 who came back and dug gravel nests to spawn. They're the first fish to spawn here in 4 decades. Although it's only 8 fish, the volunteers say it's a start. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's production team includes Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, Heather Corson, David Dunlap, and Alex Garcia-Rangel. Our coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Deborah Stavro directs the program. Our producer and editor is Peter Thomson. Our WBUR engineers are Louis Cronin and Mark Navin. Special thanks to Alan Maddis. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the Jessie B. Cox Foundation for New England reporting, and from all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Joyce Foundation; and the National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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