Air Date: November 17, 1995
Superfund Reform, or Corporate Welfare?/ Patrick Cox
While many large polluters are being held accountable for widespread toxic dumping, some small businesses with minor violations are getting caught up in the same legal and financial complexities of Superfund laws. Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston reports on a small Massachusetts firm that's inherited some big business and legal problems. (09:20)
Living on Earth Profile Series #18: Sherwood Rowland, 1995 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry/ Virginia Biggar
This year's Nobel prize co-winner in chemistry is Professor Sherwood Rowland. After years of standing up to critics' ridicule for his research into ozone depletion and CFC's, his work is now widely recognized for its authenticity and has earned him and two colleagues the coveted Nobel prize. Virginia Biggar has this profile. (05:00)
Smog and the Whole Body
Jan Nunley speaks with John Grupenhoff on recent citings that smog can have a negative effect on many more human organs than simply the lungs and respiratory system. Dr. Grupenhoff is executive vice president of the National Association of Physicians for the Environment. (03:55)
Ozone and Improbable Research/ Mark Abrahams
Have you ever wondered how ozone affects a condom's effectiveness? Mark Abrahams, editor of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research has, and comments on some recent research on the subject. (02:11)
The Living on Earth Almanac
The Execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa: Nigerian Environmentalist
Jan Nunley speaks with Susan Osnos (Ohz-nohss) of Human Rights Watch Africa about the international outcry against the Nigerian military government's execution-by-hanging of environmental activist, author and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders last week. (07:03)
Growing Coca in the Rainforest/ Bob Carty
The United States is working hard with the Peruvian government to stop coca plant growth in the jungles of Peru. Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports on the impact of these efforts. Among the results, peasants are burning and cultivating increasing acres of remote rainforest to elude detection. Some would like to help solve this problem of land encroachment by creating a legal coca market for the plant's medicinal properties. (10:01)
Rocky Mountain High/ Carol Kauder
Carol Kauder of Colorado Public Radio reports on the popular ourdoor trend of "peak bagging" or hiking up Colorado's many fourteen-thousand foot mountainsides to tell it on t-shirts. Some people worry that the new crowds are harming the delicate alpine environment and are developing ways to help reduce erosion. (07:13)
Copyright c 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.
HOST: Jan Nunley
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Ley Garnett, Patrick Cox, Virginia Biggar, Bob Carty, Carol Kauder
GUESTS: John Grupenhoff, Susan Osnos
COMMENTATOR: Mark Abrahams
(Theme music intro)
NUNLEY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley. It's being called the first Nobel Prize for the environment, awarded to the chemists who discovered that CFCs were harming the ozone layer. At first, the scientists thought they'd made a mistake.
ROWLAND: Our initial reaction to this was, I think, disbelief. We didn't start out looking at an environmental problem and so we checked it over, and we didn't find anything wrong. In fact, we realized that it was right.
NUNLEY: And environmentalists say Congressional Republicans plan to gut Superfund. But small business owners complain the law is squeezing innocent companies.
LEAVITT: I did not pollute, and yet I am responsible for a clean-up, the cost of which far exceeds the ability of this business to pay for.
NUNLEY: Cleaning up Superfund, that and more this week on Living on Earth. First, news.
MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. In a vote that surprised Republican leaders, the House of Representatives has again rejected any funding for the Interior Department that doesn't include a ban on low-cost mining permits. By a 31-vote margin, it voted to send the bill back to a conference committee. It also told House leaders to reject a Senate plan that would increase logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The Interior bill would appropriate $12 billion, $1.4 billion less than 1995, for agencies managing Federal lands and resources. It also cuts funding for the controversial National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
An anti-pollution device that lets cars suck smog from the air has come up short in its first round of testing. Ford Motor Company says road tests show the device does remove 80% of the ozone from the air it takes in, but the overall environmental impact may not be as significant as earlier hoped. Ford researchers say even if every vehicle in a metropolitan area were equipped with a smog-eating radiator, the technology's effect on ozone, the main ingredient in smog, would be small. The technology would decrease Los Angeles's overall ozone levels by only 400 parts per billion. Englehard Corporation, which invented the technology, projected a reduction of 30 times that amount. Both companies said the testing program would continue.
Government salmon hatcheries are playing a major role in the destruction of the fish in the Pacific Northwest, and a National Research Council study says that 40% of the region's salmon runs are extinct. Ley Garnett of Oregon Public Radio reports.
GARNETT: The study comes down hard on state and Federal hatcheries. It says hatcheries have diluted salmon gene pools and have wasted resources that should be used to protect wild salmon spawning grounds. It calls for a ban on logging and grazing in salmon watersheds. While they support many of the study's conclusions, environmentalists are upset by its endorsement of the Army Corps of Engineers' Fish Transportation Program. Under the program, most salmon smolts are collected and loaded into specially-designed barges and shipped through the network of Columbia River dams. Lori Bodie is President of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.
BODIE: We need to fix the river conditions, so that we actually can leave the fish in the river and let them migrate naturally.
GARNETT: Though the report basically supports the salmon recovery plan run by the National Marine Fisheries Service, it recommends creation of an independent scientific board to isolate financial decisions from political pressure. For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.
MULLINS: More than 30,000 plant and animal species now face possible extinction thanks to one species: human beings. That's the conclusion of a new UN report that tries to quantify the impact of humans on the planet. The global biodiversity assessment says mammal extinctions this century are 40 times what fossil records show they were millions of years ago. The rate of species extinction since humans first walked the Earth may be 1,000 times what they would have been without human intervention. The report contains what is said to be the best estimate yet of the total number of species in the world: 13 to 14 million.
Africa's northern white rhinoceros is on the edge of extinction. Its population's decimated by poachers. Conservationists for South Africa's Natal Parks Board says there are less than 40 surviving northern white rhinos left. Of those, 30 are in the Garamba National Park in Zaire. The rest are in captivity in the Czech Republic and California but are not breeding. At a recent workshop in the United States, conservationists agreed to consider planning a second wild population of northern white rhinos elsewhere in Africa to try to save the subspecies. The southern white rhino faced extinction a century ago with less than 30 survivors in southern Africa, but efforts by the parks board have boosted numbers to almost 7,000.
Singer Wayne Newton is coming to the aid of 600 Japanese snow monkeys who need a new home on their adopted range in south Texas. A spokeswoman for the singer told Reuters that Newton will perform at a benefit concert in San Antonio some time in early 1996 to raise funds for the imported monkeys. About 150 of the 30-pound monkeys were brought to south Texas 25 years ago when their native habitat in Japan was destroyed by real estate development. There's no snow in south Texas, but the monkeys proliferated and number more than 600 now. Their favorite food is cactus. The animals are now the property of the nonprofit South Texas Primate Observatory, but they roam at will on ranch land 60 miles south of San Antonio because the group hasn't had the funds to buy land and put up a fence.
That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.
(Music up and under: "Danke schön, darling, danke schön. Thank you for all the joy and pain...")
NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood. Perhaps no environmental legislation has been a better example of the law of unintended consequences than Superfund. Designed to force polluters to pay for their misdeeds, Superfund has generated more lawsuits than clean-ups. And many businesses have found themselves liable for others' mistakes. Congress wants a radical restructuring of Superfund, but critics say those reforms will just let big corporate polluters off the hook and force taxpayers to pick up the cleaning tab instead. More from Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston.
(A clock chimes.)
COX: The Chelsea Clock Company in Chelsea, Massachusetts, boasts a history dating back 99 years. The White House and the US Navy are customers; so are several members of the Grateful Dead.
(The sound of tools)
COX: Workers assemble the clocks by hand here. It's the only such operation in the nation.
COX: The Chelsea Clock Company may be in trouble. A few years ago, owner Rick Leavitt tried to get a bank loan so the company could expand. A bank ordered inspection revealed groundwater contamination on the premises. Leavitt, who has owned the company since 1978, launched an investigation.
LEAVITT: There was one individual, a machine operator, who was responsible for disposing of his oily cleaning solvent in a disposal drum at the company the previous owners had arranged to have for him outside in a shed. Occasionally, he told me, once, perhaps twice a year, he would get lazy and dump a half pail of it down the storm drain that is located outside of our factory.
COX: When they discovered the contamination the bank refused to loan Leavitt any money, afraid they could be liable for the cost of a clean-up. What's more, the bank is trying to sever its links with Leavitt as quickly as possible by demanding he repay his mortgage at an accelerated rate. The Chelsea Clock Company is not a Superfund site. It's not under an order to clean anything up. But a clean-up might be ordered some day, and the mere threat of a clean-up means under current law, a company and any lenders would be liable for the cost. Even though the spills took place before Leavitt owned the company. Leavitt says that's rendered his business worthless. He can't get a loan to expand, and he can't sell the company.
LEAVITT: I own the property. I own the business. I did not pollute. And yet I am responsible for a clean-up the cost of which far exceeds the ability of this business to pay for.
COX: Leavitt is not alone in feeling he's sinking under the weight of the Federal Superfund law and its state counterparts. Many businesses along with their insurance companies are calling on Congress to dramatically reduce their clean-up liability.
OXLEY: This is a badly-flawed piece of legislation that we've been working with now for 15 years. It's a bad law and it needs radical change.
COX: Republican Congressman Michael Oxley of Ohio is leading the reform charge. The Superfund law imposes taxes and fines on corporations with the intention of making polluters pay for toxic clean-up. But it hasn't always turned out that way. For one thing, Superfund is putting perhaps innocent business owners like Rick Leavitt of the Chelsea Clock Company in a bind. But maybe more important, most polluted sites aren't getting cleaned up. In fact, clean-up is being completed on fewer than 10% of Superfund sites. Typically, clean-ups are delayed for years as firms sue their insurance agencies and each other over liability. The problem for many lies in the fact that much of the chemical dumping took place prior to 1980 when it was perfectly legal. In 1980, the Superfund law retroactively made that dumping illegal and the companies liable. Congressman Oxley wants to relieve some of the pressure on these companies by making them pay just half the cost of clean-up.
OXLEY: We're saying that we're going to give you a rebate for cleaning up because we don't think you were liable in the first place.
COX: But the House proposal does more than that. It would give the rebate to all polluter companies, including those who have dumped illegally since 1980. House Republicans also want to eliminate the liability of some small businesses and banks who loan to potentially liable firms like the Chelsea Clock Company. Critics say these reforms would chop $700 million off the money available for clean-ups, and either taxpayers would have to make up the difference or a site wouldn't get cleaned up. Karen Florini of the Environmental Defense Fund says it's tantamount to corporate welfare.
FLORINI: The House bill would turn Superfund into a pay the polluter program by providing that from now on, every time a polluter spends a dollar cleaning up EPA has to write the polluter a check for 50 cents. If the House bill goes through in anything like its current form, what we're going to have is inadequate funds and crummy clean-up.
COX: The Environmental Defense Fund is backing an alternative set of reforms proposed by the EPA. Those reforms focus on how the Agency deals with small businesses.
DeVILLERS: We need to treat people fairly. I think at times perhaps we haven't.
COX: John DeVillers is the EPA's New England administrator. Under the Agency's new rules, more small businesses would escape full liability from clean-up costs and have easier access to bank loans. Officials hope to reduce litigation and frustration among owners of companies who may not be responsible for the pollution they're asked to clean up. The EPA's DeVillers says the overall goal is to forge alliances, not create enemies.
DeVILLERS: When the first contact that a small businessman has with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Superfund program is to get a letter that in essence says congratulations, you may be subject to a $25,000 a day fine and criminal penalties, including jail time, for your involvement in a site, that's -- that's rather more frightening than it is enlightening.
COX: Critics say the EPA's internal reforms are just a half-hearted attempt to stave off more sweeping changes. Nonetheless, the EPA and the Clinton Administration say they are willing to compromise with Republicans. The Administration has indicated it would support a narrowing of Superfund's focus, even removing some of the most contentious sites from the Superfund list such as municipal landfills. But Administration officials say Superfund's cornerstone principle, that the polluter pays for clean-up, must remain. And despite the law's unintended effects,they say, Superfund can work.
THIBIDEAU: I lived in Dartmouth all my life. I've moved 100 yards from where I was born.
COX: High school teacher Arthur Thibideau has an intimate knowledge of the EPA, after serving 12 years as chairman of a citizens advisory committee for the resolved Superfund site in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, 70 miles south of Boston. The EPA has overseen a $23 million clean-up of the site, a former chemical waste dump. Thibodeau is impressed with how the EPA handled the clean-up.
THIBIDEAU: The EPA came up with a system. The responsible parties were responsible to the system and worked together. And I think they did the job the best that they could have done.
COX: To get this 6-acre site cleaned, the EPA cut a deal with most of the 400 businesses that had deposited hazardous chemicals here. The businesses agreed to pay for most of the clean-up costs after they were given some control over the project. Litigation was reduced and the clean-up is now entering its final phase.
(A dog barks)
COX: More than 300 people live within a quarter mile of the former dump. Site manager Joe LeMay says the clean-up is essential to their health.
LeMAY: We're removing the threat of groundwater migrating offsite and potentially contaminating some of these residents.
COX: LeMay points out wetlands on the site that are slowly returning to their natural state. Notices still prohibit consumption of the eels and catfish in ponds nearby. But LeMay says eventually, people will be able to eat these fish.
LeMAY: Over time, by cleaning up this area, the PCB levels in the fish had come down dramatically so that they are actually an edible fish again.
COX: This site might not have been returned to health under the Republicans' proposed reforms. That's because the reforms would require the EPA to prove its chosen clean-up plan was the most cost effective, and that such a plan would bring back what's described as significant ecosystems. At a time when Congress is slashing the EPA's overall budget, critics of the reforms say it would be a tough case for the EPA to make. They say liable businesses would be less inclined to strike a deal with the EPA as they did in Dartmouth. The result: even more litigation and even less clean-up than now. President Clinton has vowed to veto the Republican reforms, but the Administration is in a weak position. Congressional leaders are threatening to hold up reauthorization of the corporate taxes that partially pay for Superfund until the President lifts his veto threat. One way or the other, it seems, the reach of Superfund in combating toxic dumping is set to shrink. For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox in Boston.
NUNLEY: A modest scientific inquiry that changed the course of environmental history and captured a Nobel Prize. That story just ahead on Living on Earth.
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NUNLEY: This year for the first time in history, a Nobel Prize was awarded for work on an environmental issue. The winners, Sherwood Rowland of the University of California at Irvine, Mario Molina, now at MIT, and Dutch scientist Paul Krutzen of Germany's Max Planck Institute, were the first to discover the connection between the use of chlorofluorocarbons as refrigerants and propellants and the destruction of the Earth's protective ozone layer. The prize was a kind of vindication for these scientists, whose work is still questioned in some political circles. As part of our series on 25 influential environmental figures, Virginia Biggar spoke with Sherwood Rowland in Los Angeles.
(Flowing water, bird calls.)
BIGGAR: Southern California was once best known for its surf and sun-worshipping beachgoers. In recent years, though, that's changed.
ROWLAND: There are an awful lot more umbrellas on the beach now than there were 10 years ago.
BIGGAR: Atmospheric chemist Sherwood Rowland, one of Southern California's own, is largely responsible for that. Ultraviolet rays is a dirty word because of his research. In 1973 Rowland was looking for a new project. He was intrigued by recent findings of chlorofluorocarbon gases, or CFCs, in part of the atmosphere. CFCs were then a common and supposedly harmless gas used in industry and consumer products. Rowland and his colleague Mario Molina decided to investigate further.
ROWLAND: We in effect tried to find out the entire lifetime of what would happen to a chlorofluorocarbon gas molecule, and found that nothing would happen to it in the lower part of the atmosphere. But that it would eventually come apart in the stratosphere by the influence of high-energy solar radiation. And when it came apart it would release chlorine atoms.
BIGGAR: Rowland says they then looked at what happened to these chlorine atoms.
ROWLAND: And that's when we found that they were going to destroy ozone.
BIGGAR: Ozone forms a thin protective layer around the Earth, shielding it from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Rowland says he and Molina found that chlorine atoms broke ozone molecules apart much faster than they were produced. They estimated a loss of up to 13% of the ozone layer in about 100 years, bringing huge increases in skin cancer and crop damage, and possibly changes in the world's weather patterns.
ROWLAND: Our initial reaction to this was, I think, disbelief. We didn't start out looking at an environmental problem and so we checked it over, and we didn't find anything wrong. In fact, we realized that it was right.
BIGGAR: What followed was a high-stakes nearly 15-year debate between activists and industry over whether to get rid of CFCs. It ultimately resulted in a 1987 global agreement to phase out the compounds. Richard Benedick was the Reagan Administration's chief negotiator on what came to be known as the Montreal Protocol. He says the agreement was historic.
BENEDICK: It was the first time that the international community of nations could agree on taking rather serious steps to control a very important part of the chemical industry, of any industry, in this case the chemical industry, on the basis of science which was not totally proven. In other words, it was truly a precautionary principle, like an insurance policy, against future damages.
BIGGAR: The impact of Rowland and Molina's work has been felt in the scientific community as well. Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund says it brought critical attention to the question of how human actions alter the global environment.
OPPENHEIMER: It has been transformed from a matter of philosophical speculation into a question of hard science, and answering what are human beings doing to the ozone layer, what are human beings doing to Earth's climate, what are human beings doing to the oceans, is becoming more and more a major focus of scientific endeavor.
BIGGAR: Still, there are a few who continue to doubt the validity of Rowland and Molina's findings. Rowland says he was disturbed by recent testimony in Congress claiming that CFCs aren't destroying the ozone layer.
ROWLAND: That's simply not a belief in the working scientific community and the atmospheric science community. But it is something that it's easy to sell in Washington.
BIGGAR: When the Swedish Academy awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Rowland and his colleagues, one member said he hoped it would help put this debate to rest. Sherry Rowland continues to teach and study atmospheric pollution. When asked how he'd like to be remembered, Rowland first says he doesn't really care much, then adds, maybe as a scientist that gave taxpayers their money's worth. For Living on Earth, I'm Virginia Biggar.
NUNLEY: The threat posed by air pollution to the human respiratory system is well documented, but does smog affect other parts of the body as well? At a recent conference of the National Association of Physicians for the Environment, doctors and public health professionals came to some disturbing conclusions. We spoke with Association Vice President John Grupenhoff about their soon to be published proceedings.
GRUPENHOFF: The key point is that air pollution not only affects the lungs but it can affect virtually every organ and system in the body, from the skin to the sinuses to the blood to the urogenital system, to the skeletal system, the nervous system, the immune system and others.
NUNLEY: Tell me a little bit about that. You talk about the circulatory system, for instance. How does pollution affect the circulatory system?
GRUPENHOFF: Well, the American Society of Hematology is a member organization of ours and one of their former presidents, as a matter of fact, spoke at the conference, and his point was that after pollutants are inhaled or otherwise taken into the body they can enter the bloodstream, where their potential harmful effects are distributed to all other systems throughout the body. Blood profuses every organ, and can carry toxic as well as beneficial substances to them. For example, carbon monoxide binds much more avidly to the blood cell than does oxygen, and displaces it. And this can have significant effects upon the heart, which relies so heavily upon oxygen.
NUNLEY: The skeletal system is also affected, and that was a surprise to me.
GRUPENHOFF: Well, that was a surprise to many in the audience. The skeletal system can be affected because it can store heavy metals like lead. And that can be accumulated over time. And this can lead to later release of the lead back into the body when the bone changes, such as in pregnancy or lactation or osteoporosis.
NUNLEY: Some groups seem to be more affected or affected differently than others. Children, women, the elderly, minority populations. Why is that and what are some of the differing effects?
GRUPENHOFF: Well, children, particularly, are more vulnerable to airborne pollution. Children, after all, have an increased need for oxygen relative to the size of adults. They breathe more rapidly. They inhale more pollutant per pound of body weight than do adults. And they also spend a lot more time engaged in vigorous outdoor activities than adults do.
NUNLEY: You brought all these physician groups together. They're sharing this information about environmental health effects. What do you want to come of this effort?
GRUPENHOFF: Well, we're now developing a national program of physician education and, through physicians, public education on the impacts of air pollution on all body organs and systems, with the bottom line being the theme that pollution prevention is disease prevention. We will be developing a slide program with a teacher's guide, and we'll be developing a video graphically displaying each of the organs and systems and showing how those are impacted by air pollution. We've already put a lot of this information on our home page on the Internet. Also, we're creating a series of physicians' fact sheets. For example, there will be a fact sheet on air pollution impacts on the ear, nose, and throat, and air pollution impacts on the skin, and so on.
NUNLEY: How can physicians help their patients avoid these environmental effects?
GRUPENHOFF: Well, what the doctors can do primarily is to indicate to the public that air pollution can be mitigated, that prevention is vital in terms of air pollution, and to join in community efforts to reduce the amount that is in our air.
NUNLEY: Mr. Grupenhoff, thanks for talking with us.
GRUPENHOFF: Thank you.
NUNLEY: John Grupenhoff is Executive Vice President of the National Association of Physicians for the Environment.
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NUNLEY: Smog may have some other, more perplexing effects, that could contribute to some unexpected problems. A lot of very unsafe sex. Even the growing population. Editor Mark Abrahams of the Annals of Improbable Research explains.
ABRAHAMS: First, let me tell you about ozone. While too little ozone high up in the atmosphere is worrisome, too much of the stuff at ground level can cause problems, too. Ozone is garden variety oxygen that's gotten itself some extra electrical charge. It's very unstable. It likes to react with all sorts of things. Ozone bleaches, it poisons, it generally makes its presence known. So much for ozone.
Second, the growing population. The world has more and more people. As we discover how much fun it is to make more people, we get better and better at doing it. The worry is that we will make so many people that the planet gets too crowded. So much for the growing population.
Third, condoms. You probably know about condoms. So much for condoms.
Now, the connection between these 3 scientific concepts is fairly clear. Condoms are generally made of latex rubber. Ozone likes to react with latex, leaving little microscopic, teeny tiny pits all over the surface, weakening the condom. A weak condom is an unhappy condom. It's likely to burst or tear instead of keeping a stiff upper, uh, lip. Every burst condom can mean another blip in the world population total.
A group of researchers led by Richard F. Baker at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles subjected some condoms to a heavy dose of ozone. The condoms did not hold up very well. The test was done on naked condoms, that is, on condoms that were not individually packaged. When the test was done on individual clothed condoms, the results were much better.
However, there's good cause for concern even with well-packaged condoms, because at least one other common pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, has shown itself able to penetrate standard condom wrappers. So it appears that if we hold down the amount of pollutants that get dumped in the air, we might just keep the condom supply in good fighting shape and maybe, just maybe, make a wee dent in the population problem.
That's a wrap. For Living on Earth, this is the over-cautious Mark Abrahams.
NUNLEY: Mark Abrahams edits the Annals of Improbable Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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NUNLEY: Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation and is recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University.
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ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Bullitt Foundation for northwest reporting; 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 Joyce Foundation; the George Gund Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation.
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NUNLEY: Coming up in the second half of Living on Earth, the whole world is shocked by the execution of Ken Saro-wiwa, but will Nigeria's government be moved? Stay with us.
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NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. America's war on drugs hasn't wiped out the cocaine trade, but some say it may wipe out parts of the Amazon rainforest instead, as coca farmers are pushed further into the jungle. And a hiking explosion on Colorado's tallest peaks proves as tough for the mountains as it is for the mountaineers. Those stories in the second half Living on Earth. First, this week's Almanac.
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NUNLEY: If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, the turkey would have been our national bird, but he didn't, and now it's practically our national dish instead. The turkey got its name through one of Christopher Columbus's naming errors. He felt the turkey was a kind of peacock and called it tuka, an Asian word for that other bird. The black and brown bird Columbus saw, which has come to symbolize Thanksgiving, is commercially obsolete. Today's turkeys have white feathers. They've been bred that way to eliminate the unsightly dark pin feathers that showed up on the previous model. There are 13,766 turkey farms in the US, and they produce some 87 million birds every year. The National Turkey Federation says per capita consumption of turkeys has increased tenfold in the last 20 years. We're each expected to gobble more than 19 pounds of turkey this year. There's a 2 to 1 preference for white meat in the US. No reliable statistics on who usually gets the wishbone.
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NUNLEY: Royal Dutch Shell has announced it's going ahead with a controversial $4 billion natural gas project in Nigeria despite an international outcry against the execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, the president of the movement for the survival of Ogoni peoples and 8 others who had opposed oil and gas exploration on their tribal land. Saro-Wiwa was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, a Goldman Prize-winning environmental activist, and a playwright with an international reputation. But none of that kept Nigeria's military junta from sentencing him and his 8 colleagues to death. And no amount of international pressure restrained Nigerian General Saniabacha from carrying out that sentence suddenly and swiftly. A Nigerian military court convicted Saro-Wiwa and the others of contributing to the murder of 4 pro-government Ogoni chiefs, but human rights advocates say the charges were false. It's a grim reminder of the dangers many environmental activists face around the world. Susan Osnos is communications director for Human Rights Watch. She says the Ogonis are the victims of a long-standing deal between Nigeria's governments and multinational oil companies, a deal Ken Saro-Wiwa dedicated his life to fighting.
OSNOS: He became involved in environmental activism and human rights over a period of years. The Ogoni region of Nigeria, the Niger Delta, is extremely rich in oil and was discovered by multinational oil companies years ago. They were invited in by the Nigerian government, who derives an enormous proportion of their income from oil. In the course of their activities they undertook virtually no environmental protections of any kind. I'm told that there are vast areas which are just no longer livable, and that there are gushers all over the place. That the oil is just, and oil fires and stuff like that, that make the land uninhabitable. And the Ogoni people receive no recompense whatsoever.
NUNLEY: So the oil companies basically have carte blanche under the Nigerian government?
OSNOS: They do. Nigerian law has a provision which requires, in fact, oil companies to report when their activities are being interfered with at the local level. There were popular demonstrations against the oil companies in the Ogoni region, and that was interpreted under the law as interfering with the oil companies' effectiveness.
NUNLEY: Was it at one of these popular demonstrations that the incident happened which led to Ken Saro-Wiwa's arrest?
OSNOS: It was at a popular demonstration. He was not in fact there. And the connection that was never made between him and the killings of those 4 regional chiefs.
NUNLEY: To your knowledge, what effect has Ken Saro-Wiwa's death had in Nigeria?
OSNOS: I've only spoken to one Nigerian friend since this happened and he's devastated. Not actually surprised, but certainly devastated. I think the rest of us were surprised. We couldn't believe that General Abacha would fly in the face of so much pressure. My Nigerian friend, who's been involved in civil liberties in Nigeria for almost 2 decades, he understands that they are in the grip of a completely abusive military dictatorship. The Nigerian government is making it clear to its own population that anybody that doesn't toe the line is going to pay a very high price. The thing that astonished all of us was the level of international outcry on Ken Saro-Wiwa's behalf was almost unprecedented. I haven't seen activity like that probably in a decade, when Andrei Sakharov was sent off to Gorky. Governments as a rule, if they're going to hang onto these people, they use them as bargaining chips. They keep them alive because they might need them at some point. And the Nigerians created a situation where there will be no going back.
NUNLEY: What can the US do as Nigeria's largest oil customer?
OSNOS: Well, in terms of being a customer we ought to look elsewhere for our oil is my guess, that's what the United States could do. The government has done, the US government has performed well in terms of Nigeria. They've been tough on Nigeria for a long time. But my sense is that the only thing that Nigeria listens to is the sound of that black gold turning into money.
NUNLEY: Now this is not the first time that Royal Dutch Shell has been caught in some sort of controversy. I mean, obviously, there was for years the boycott of Shell for its investments and drilling in South Africa. There's the Brent Sparr situation. And now the situation in Nigeria.
OSNOS: It's interesting to me that Shell doesn't seem to care very much that they are branded in the press as being in fact complicit in the kinds of things that are happening in Nigeria. If I were Shell I wouldn't much like to see that about myself in print. In the New York Times or anyplace else. It doesn't seem to matter to them. And that's what makes me think that their shareholders are the only voice they listen to.
NUNLEY: What do you see as the best possible outcome at this point for Nigeria?
OSNOS: The best possible outcome, I think, would be coordinated outrage from the international community. We're calling for a range of measures that have to do with isolating Nigeria from the rest of the world, including not allowing senior Nigerian officials to travel, freezing their assets abroad, blocking any kind of international loans of any sort. There is a wonderful, now terrified, civil society in Nigeria, a tremendous population of people who know their rights and respect the rights of others. And have dreams and plans for Nigeria. And what needs to happen is that somehow the international community has to make it possible for those people to function and in fact to flourish.
NUNLEY: There have been many environmental activists and workers who have been endangered over the years.
OSNOS: Mm hm.
NUNLEY: This is one of the few times that an environmental activist has actually lost her or his life. I'm thinking of Chico Mendez and now Ken Saro-Wiwa. Are activists becoming an endangered species?
OSNOS: I think they always have been endangered. Because the truth is that Chico Mendez and Ken Saro-Wiwa are the names that the world knows. For every Chico Mendez and every Ken Saro-Wiwa there are tens if not hundreds of others who pay the ultimate price for that kind of activity.
NUNLEY: Susan Osnos is Communications Director for Human Rights Watch. Executed along with Ken Saro-Wiwa were Barinem Klobel, John Kpunien, Baribor Bera, Saturday Dobee, Felix Nwate, Nordu Eawo, Paul Levura, and Daniel Gbokoo.
(Music up and under)
NUNLEY: Cocaine. A hundred years ago it was a common ingredient of patent medicines used to cure headaches, toothaches, in fact just about any illness you could name. Now it evokes images of ruthless drug cartels and decaying inner cities, children on crack and violent death in the streets. But cocaine has other harmful effects that North Americans don't usually see, in the remote regions of South America. There the raw material for the drug is extracted from the leaf of the coca plant, a process which is destroying large tracts of Amazon rainforest. Some Peruvians say an all-out war on coca farmers won't stop the ecological damage, but legalizing coca very well might. Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation explains.
(Birdcalls in the rainforest. A man speaks Spanish. Translator: "This is the coca leaf plant. You begin the harvest like this. Just pull off the leaves like this." Sound of leaves being pulled.)
CARTY: The coca plant looks like just an ordinary shrub, about chest high on Jose as he strips its branches bare. Behind Jose, a jungle-covered mountainside slopes down to the Huallaga River, a tributary of the Amazon. Here in the highlands of Peru, peasants like Jose grow two thirds of the world's coca. Jose does not use his real name. He knows he's on the first rung of the international cocaine trade. Jose says he grows coca because it's the only thing between survival and abject poverty, and survival comes before the environment.
JOSE: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: What you do first is you go into the jungle so people can't see the coca, and the police can't get in. Then you cut all the underbrush. You let it dry for about 3 weeks. Then you cut down the big trees and you let them dry out. And then you do the burning.
CARTY: And the burning to clear the land has taken its toll. Forest experts say that since large scale cocaine trade began in the 1970s, 15 million acres of jungle have been lost. These are only estimates. The Shining Path guerrillas and the army's counter-insurgency warfare make it impossible to really know how much damage has been done. But Alejandro Camino has seen it with his own eyes. Alejandro Camino is the head of the Trust Fund for Parks and Protected Areas, a Peruvian organization supported by the United Nations.
CAMINO: As an anthropologist, I used to work in some areas of the Peruvian rainforest, in the eastern slopes of the Andes. Now the areas are planted with coca for the drug trafficking, and this is true for many valleys. The destruction of biological diversity of the forest is cut. But also you have soil destruction, no jungle left.
(A helicopter flies overhead)
CARTY: Coca cultivation does not go uncontested, however. Almost daily, American helicopters fly up and down the Huallaga River valley. They are part of Washington's drug war, a $25 million a year effort to help Peru destroy coca plants. US diplomat Sherman Henson runs the program out of the embassy in Lima, and from there he directs the helicopter squadron.
HENSON: They support activities of the Peruvian government interior ministry agency that manually eradicates. They chop up with machetes the seed beds from which new coca plants come. The end result has to be the elimination of the plant.
(Bird calls in the jungle)
CARTY: Now, given the damage caused by coca cultivation, you might think this steely resolve to wipe out coca plants would make ecologists happy. Not so. Eradication efforts have just made things worse, according to Alejandro Camino.
CAMINO: The actions against the growers have made the growers move further and further into the forest, and cut more and more forest. And areas which were formally grown with coca, due to repression on the cultivation, have been abandoned and the coca wars have moved into more and more remote areas. So now you have coca being grown in the lowland rainforest.
CARTY: Despite all the efforts to eradicate coca, there is 4 times more land under cultivation today than a decade ago, and the war against drugs has had another effect. Because of police raids against the cartels of Colombia, the drug lords have moved part of their cocaine processing right here to the jungles of Peru. These operations use tons of chemicals, such as sulfuric acid, kerosene, gasoline, acetone, ether, something called methylethylketone if that's how you say it. And Alejandro Camino says sometimes they even use a bit of cement.
CAMINO: And once the processing is done, the chemicals are thrown right on the side so this is another environmental impact of the coca, illegal coca trade. There are rivers where there is no more fish. There's no more wildlife in the river. The river has been extremely polluted.
CARTY: So for ecologists, the problem is twofold. Drug related demand for coca leads to rainforest destruction. But attempts to wipe out the plant exacerbate the damage. What then to be done? Many Peruvians insist the solution begins in recognizing that the coca plant itself is not the problem.
(Singers sing about coca.)
CABIESES: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The coca leaf is 5,000 years old. It's part of our customs. It plays the same role as coffee for North Americans or tea for the English or wine for the French.
CARTY: Hugo Cabieses is an economist and one of many scientists, government officials, and even musicians who are trying to change coca's image. Coca, they insist, is not the same as cocaine hydrochloride, the illicit drug. The coca leaf contains less than one percent of the ingredient which is processed into the narcotic. And by itself it's not addictive. Eight million people in the Andes regularly chew coca leaves or drink coca tea.
CABIESES: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Coca has always been fundamental in religious rituals, but it also has medicinal properties. It improves blood circulation. It combats the effect of altitude, of the cold, and of fatigue. It's very good for digestion. It prevents diarrhea. It has many uses. It's known as mama coca and also the sacred leaf.
CARTY: Hugo Cabieses argues that ironic as it may seem, the coca leaf could be a weapon in the fight against both the cocaine trade and environmental destruction. The idea is that poor peasants can be weaned off illegal coca cultivation if there are profitable alternatives. Throughout Peru there are attempts to help peasants produce citrus fruits, tea, and organic cotton. Hugo Cabieses says let them also grow coca. Legally.
CABIESES: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: If we marketed the benefits of coca for humanity, if we made products like coca tea or coca toothpaste or coca pills, it would be much more profitable for farmers to produce coca for this legal market rather than for the illegal market. So farmers would not have to get involved with narco traffickers in order to survive.
CARTY: Ecologist Alejandro Camino agrees that the idea has merit. That the marketing of coca leaves as a mild stimulant or a health product could help get a good number of farmers out of the drug trade. And it would have an environmental dividend.
CAMINO: If you look at the traditional coca field, usually the coca is planted on very well-done furrows. The soil is prepared in such a way that when it rains, the soil won't be washed away. Also, the use of pesticides, you never use pesticides on a traditional coca plantation used for traditional chewing. But if you grow it illegally, you're not going to put a lot of effort on protecting your soil; you just grow your crop, take out the harvest as fast as you can, and run away.
CARTY: The idea of marketing legal coca leaves faces major hurdles. The leaf itself is on a UN list of restricted substances not to be traded internationally. Coca supporters say that's unfair, like blaming grapes for the effect of wine. Peru and Bolivia are lobbying to get the leaf legalized. And North American scientists are investigating its medicinal properties. But Washington strongly opposes legalizing the leaf. US Diplomat Sherman Hinson.
HINSON: You can't treat coca quite as benignly as some of its advocates would want. The fact is, if there is demand for the drug, people will process the leaf to produce the drug. Total production of any agro-industrial product basically increases to satisfy the demand for that product. There's no reason to expect the coca industry, even though it's illegal to behave any differently and observed evidence suggests that it doesn't.
CARTY: Coca supporters counter that if demand is the main problem, then Washington should be putting more effort at curbing cocaine use at home than on stamping out the coca plant in the highlands of Peru. Ecologists here agree that a legal coca industry will not solve the cocaine problem. But the continuing campaign to eradicate the plant will only lead to more rainforest destruction. So, they say, why not give the coca plant and a cup of coca tea a chance? For Living on Earth I'm Bob Carty in Peru.
(Musicians sing about coca)
NUNLEY: Coming up on Living on Earth, hikers love Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks. Maybe a little too much. Stay tuned.
(Music up and under)
NUNLEY: In Colorado, climbers looking for that ultimate Rocky Mountain high go for what's called the 14-ers. Some 54 peaks reaching about 14,000 feet, more than in any of the other lower 48 states. Conquering these towering heights, known as "Peak Bagging," is luring as many enthusiastic and sometimes ill-prepared amateurs as experienced mountaineers. What's more, the massive 14-ers themselves may be suffering from their sudden popularity. Carol Kauder of Colorado Public Radio reports.
KAUDER: When Mark Borneman started climbing 14-ers in the late 1960s there were no guidebooks, so he wrote one. Now every outdoor store in the state stocks his book and 2 others to supply the demand of mountaineering hordes. Borneman still remembers when it was rare to meet another hiker, like in the summer of 1972 when he and a friend climbed 20 14-ers.
BORNEMAN: The only people that we met the entire summer turned out to be when we climbed on Labor Day. We climbed Mt. Elbert, and we met Tim Duffy, who's still our good climbing buddy, and met him on top of Mt. Elbert. But he's the only soul we saw in an entire summer of climbing.
KAUDER: Twenty-three years later, the scene on Mt. Elbert near Leadville is a little different.
KAUDER: At any given time on this recent afternoon late in the climbing season, as many as 30 hikers sprawl on rocks at the highest point in Colorado: 14,433 feet above sea level.
WOMAN: It's spectacular. A lot of work, though.
MAN: It's fantastic. It was worth the hike.
WOMAN: The view from here is absolutely incredible. It makes me want to hike a lot more of these mountains.
MAN 1: Sopers daily capital. Snowmass.
MAN 2: Sopers is the one out there on its own?
MAN 1: The farthest edge, right where the range starts.
KAUDER: This kind of enthusiasm has led thousands of people to the current craze of climbing all the 14-ers in Colorado, or "Peak Bagging."
KAUDER: Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is the most popular 14-er in the state, and for many it is their introduction to mountaineering. Until 127 years ago, this mountain was considered unclimbable. Now 10,000 people reach the summit each year, many of them ill-prepared for the hike. Long's Peak rangers Jim Detterline and Dan Ostrowski headed up the trail recently for a commemorative climb on the anniversary of the first recorded ascent.
RANGER: How far are you folks going today?
WOMAN: Chasm Lake.
RANGER: Chasm Lake. Okay, you have your raincoats with you, I hope.
WOMAN: Oh yeah.
RANGER: Our big concern is a lot of people consider the 14s just to be walk-up hikes. Many people don't respect the mountains properly. They're not ready for a hail storm in the afternoon. They're not ready for lightning. They're not ready for a little ice on the route.
KAUDER: In an effort to head off hiking disasters, rangers have posted a large sign at the trail head instructing people what to bring up the mountain. Like a flashlight and extra water. And what to do if a storm moves in. Another piece of advice posted at the trail head is: be willing to turn back in the face of inclement weather. For some reason, people don't. Dederline says they are drawn up the mountain by what mountaineers call summit fever.
DETTERLINE: You get on a big mountain like Long's Peak and you get very goal-oriented. Some people in the morning, when they come into the parking lot, you can tell that even no matter how bad the weather it is, they still even head up, and they kind of look like they're on a mission from God, so to speak. They're going to climb Long's Peak regardless if they're alive when they reach the summit or not.
KAUDER: Dederline has plenty of stories of people who died, or had to be rescued, on Long's Peak. The absurdity of the 14-er craze hit Ostrowski a few years ago climbing Grizzly Peak. He realized he was the only one there just because the summit is 12 feet short of the 14,000 foot mark.
OSTROWSKI: And 10 miles away on Mt. Elbert there are probably 300 people. And then I started to see T-shirts with a list of all the 14-ers and little check marks. And I realized maybe we're -- we're doing these things for the wrong reason. The reason we should be up here is the experience, the natural beauty of the place, and because you stopped a quarter mile short, it should not lessen your sense of fulfillment, the beauty of the day.
KAUDER: Ostrowski and others are concerned that the crowds flocking to the 14-ers are starting to undermine the wilderness experience. But some hikers, like Jeff Yaegan and Ken Benson, don't really seem to mind all the people.
YAEGAN: You don't climb a 14-er in Colorado and expect to be out in the middle of nowhere with nobody unless it's the middle of the winter. And that would be pretty cool. But.
BENSON: If you really want to get away, I mean, there's a lot of other places to go.
KAUDER: But the crowds are damaging the pristine environment. In their haste to make it to the summit the quickest way possible, many climbers trample the delicate alpine vegetation. That sets the stage for serious erosion and scarring gullies. In response to these problems, environmental groups banded together to form the Colorado 14-er Initiative to work with the Forest Service building new trails and restoring tundra. In 1993, Forest Service planner Mary Beth Hennessey and a group of volunteers began work on LaPlata Peak, a popular 14-er outside Leadville. Here at the beginning of the LaPlata Trail, she points out where hikers have scrambled straight up the slope, leaving a heavily eroded swath. Last year, Hennessey and the group spent all summer creating a trail that zigzags up the slope, a method which reduces erosion. The damaged trail will take years to return to normal, and that's only if hikers stay off it. Hennessey thinks they will stick to the new trail.
HENNESSEY: Most people do stay on a trail when there is a trail, and that's sort of the bottom line with a lot of the work we're doing on the 14-ers. There hasn't been a trail, people haven't known where to go, so they go every which way. We believe and we have this assumption that once we place one route that's very clear up to the summits, people will follow that.
KAUDER: There's talk but no specific proposals for a permit system to limit the number of visitors. Hennessey is convinced it doesn't have to come to that.
HENNESSEY: I don't think there's anything wrong with having thousands of people climb 14-ers as long as we make that activity sustainable and allow, as long as those people that are climbing it are aware of what their impacts are.
KAUDER: Hennessey and others working to preserve the wild character of the 14-ers have their work cut out for them. Half the money will have to be raised from private foundations. And their plans to lay out 125 miles of trail above tree line will take at least 10 years to complete. For Living on Earth, I'm Carol Kauder reporting.
WOMAN 1: I'm so impressed Susanne made it.
WOMAN 2: She still looks pretty beat. (Laughter) Delirious. (Laughter)
MAN: We actually have another person in our party who couldn't make it. She has an irrational fear of heights, so she's down about 1,500 feet below us.
(Music up and under)
NUNLEY: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our director is Deborah Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. The associate producer is Kim Motylewski, and our production team includes Constantine Von Hoffman, Chris Ballman, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Eric Losick, and Christopher Knorr. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Keith Shields and Frank DeAngeles. Our Harvard engineer is Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Executive producer Steve Curwood returns next week. I'm Jan Nunley.
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