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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

June 21, 1996

Air Date: June 21, 1996

SEGMENTS

Oil Barge Leaking Underwater

The Canadian government is racing against time attempting to salvage an old sunken barge that is leaking oil and toxic chemicals off the coast of Prince Edward Island. Steve Curwood asks Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Henk Vun Laywin for an update on the costly salvage operation. (03:52)

Flooding the Grand Canyon / George Hardeen

Earlier this year the U.S. government unleashed a portion of the Colorado river and flooded the Grand Canyon in order to help it recover from erosion. Other unanticipated discoveries were found along the way. George Hardeen reports from Arizona. (07:18)

Zap! Natural Mosquito Prevention

With mosquitoes out in droves this summer, Steve Curwood talks with John Rusmisel, manager of the Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District in Hayward, California for advice on some natural ways to keep the biting insects from getting to you. (03:35)

Sweet Seventeen: The Cicadas Return / Tom Verde

The last time this species of cicadas was around, Jimmy Carter was in the White House. The periodic, or 17 year cicadas, are back. Reporter Tom Verde talks with some insect experts on what makes these time sensitive creatures tick. Or chirp. (05:42)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... hurricanes. (01:15)

China's Three Gorges Dam / Lucie McNeill

A project of vast proportions is underway as the Chinese government works to harness the water power of the Yangtse River in the Three Gorges region of China for electricity. With a plan to relocate more than one million people, the impact for this most ambitious project since the building of the Great Wall could also be great. Lucie McNeill reports from China on some concerns for the region and its dam project. (14:00)

Organic Lawn Care / Mark Urycki

There is a new concept of the great American Lawn taking root, and it is very natural. Mark Urycki of member station WKSU Kent, Ohio reports on what makes lawns perfect. (07:15)

Listener Success

Steve Curwood talks with a listener in Trout Creek, Montana who gives old clothes a new life by weaving them into rag rugs which she sells. (03:37)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 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: Jennifer Schmidt, Steve Frankel, George Hardeen, Tom
Verde, Lucie McNeill, Mark Urycki
GUESTS: Henk Vun Laywin, John Rusmisel, Catherine Regier

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The Canadian government is racing against time, trying to salvage an old sunken barge that's leaking oil and PCBs, and threatening the coast of Prince Edward Island.

VUN LAYWIN: The marine life in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, lucrative snow crab and lobster for the fishermen, if that gets soiled or ruined, if the beaches get soiled or ruined, a provincial economy could be at stake.

CURWOOD: Also, early results are in from an intentional flood of the Grand Canyon. Scientists say it did wonders to restore beaches eroded since a dam was built upstream 35 years ago.

STEVENS: That part of the flood has been tremendously successful. Lots and lots of sand deposition, new, big, high beaches. We got on the order of 5 or 6 feet of new sand on a lot of sites all the way through the canyon.

CURWOOD: And waging non-chemical war on mosquitoes, this week on Living on Earth; first the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Rising testicular cancer rates in the US and Europe may be linked to chemical pollutants. Studies presented at the International Congress of Endocrinology show rates of the once rare cancer in the US are up 100% since the 1930s. In Denmark over the same period there's been a 300% rise. Researchers say the testicular cancer increase parallels a decrease in sperm counts observed in more than 60 studies worldwide. Previous studies have shown that some pesticides can mimic sex hormones and cause reproductive defects in animal embryos. Researchers say they lack a proven link between pollutants and testicular cancer, but studies of aborted male fetuses show testicular cancers already developing.

A Federal Appeals Court has overturned a lower court ruling that would have opened vast tracts of old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest to logging. The decision is a victory for the Clinton Administration and environmental activists. In Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt of KPLU reports.

SCHMIDT: The case centered on whether the government could legally block logging in forests set aside to protect the threatened marbled merlet, a small sea bird that nests in the mossy boughs of old growth trees. Earlier this year, to the delight of the timber industry, a lower court judge rejected the government's methods for determining merlet nesting sites. The judge imposed a tougher standard which would have forced the Forest Service to permit logging across thousands of acres of coastal old growth. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has now reversed that decision and has reaffirmed the government's formula for deciding where logging is off-limits. The Clinton Administration says the ruling is a victory for forestry based on science, not politics. The Appeals Court decision may also calm the fears of environmental groups who have been planning a series of mass demonstrations in the woods this summer to protest old growth logging. For Living on Earth I'm Jennifer Schmidt reporting.

NUNLEY: Lead buildup in the bones of young girls may flood out years later during pregnancy and affect fetuses. Researchers tracked 13 women who emigrated to Australia from the former Yugoslavia and then became pregnant. Because lead in the Balkans has a different molecular weight from lead in Australia, researchers were able to pinpoint its source. Scientists say lead levels in both mothers and children were roughly the same. While the amount of lead isn't enough to cause brain damage in fully developed children, researchers don't know what effect it may have on fetuses.

Ocean-going ships produce so much sulfur pollution that they could cancel out any cuts in acid rain from filtering industrial smokestacks. A report in New Scientist magazine says pollution from factories and power stations in Europe and North America should drop by more than 87% from 1980 levels thanks to filters and improved fuels. But ships continue to burn cheap, dirty oil with high sulfur content. The International Maritime Organization's Marine Environment Protection Committee will address the problem at its meeting next month in London.

In order to crack down on illegal polluters, the Illinois Attorney General's Office is training police officers statewide to spot environmental crimes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Steve Frankel reports from Chicago.

FRANKEL: Law enforcement officials say they hope that with more knowledgeable officers fewer illegal polluters will get away with fouling the environment. Douglas Rath is the Attorney General's Environmental Crimes Bureau Chief. He says officers need training because most don't have the technical knowledge to identify and properly handle environmental crimes.

RATH: It isn't simply going out there, getting an eyewitness and saying an armed robbery took place. That's an easy thing for a cop to do. What's more difficult is when there is drums of abandoned hazardous waste that requires experience in knowing how to approach it, and that's what's different about an environmental crime. It requires a certain amount of training that routinely police officers don't receive as they're going through their police academies.

FRANKEL: Officers completing the training will be linked through a statewide network created to coordinate environmental law enforcement efforts. More than 400 police officers are expected to be trained this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Frankel in Chicago.

NUNLEY: Britain's mad cow scare may lead to mooclear power. Britain's Environment Agency has approved small-scale test burning of meat, bone meal and tallow from the government's recent slaughter of cattle as fuel for a power plant. The test will not include products from any cattle diagnosed or suspected of suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The Ministry of Agriculture says the carcasses have to be burned at 2,500 degrees to ensure there is no risk to public health from smoke or ash.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

Oil Barge Leaking Underwater

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In eastern Canada, nerves are on edge for a daring salvage operation. The Canadian government will soon attempt to raise a barge loaded with 50 tons of oil, some of it laced with highly toxic PCBs. The barge, called the Irving Whale and owned by the Irving Oil Company, sank in a storm in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Prince Edward Island about 25 years ago. In recent years the wreck has started to leak, endangering already battered fishing grounds and tourism. Later this month a costly and controversial salvage operation will try to lift the barge from its watery grave without spilling more of its toxic contents. I spoke with CBC reporter Henk Vun Laywin about what's at stake.

VUN LAYWIN: Although this is nothing the size or proportion of the Exxon Valdez, which I guess your American listeners would be more familiar with, it poses a serious risk. The tourism industry of Prince Edward Island, a lot of beaches up here, the provincial revenues get jacked up big time by the tourists. And also the marine life in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, lucrative snow crab and lobster for the fishermen; if that gets soiled or ruined, if the beaches get soiled or ruined, a provincial economy could be at stake.

CURWOOD: The barge has been at the bottom of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, though, for more than 25 years. Why is the government so interested in moving it right now this year?

VUN LAYWIN: Last year the salvage team was in place to lift the Irving Whale, when suddenly the Irving Company phones Ottawa and says oops, by the way, there's also PCBs in the heating system of the Irving Whale. And of course the government here, the Federal government, said hey, now that we have PCBs of course only more the reason to get this thing up as fast as we can.

CURWOOD: But some environmentalists there don't want the government to raise the barge in the plan that's scheduled for the end of this month.

VUN LAYWIN: Right. When this whole issue of the PCBs came up last year, an environmental group known as SVP in Quebec went to court seeking an interim court injunction to stop the lift last summer, saying look, Ottawa's environmental assessment of this was hurried and shallow. A Federal court judge in Montreal agreed, and the salvage operation was aborted last summer and the salvage team went home.

CURWOOD: But what is it that the environmental group wants? They don't want to lift it at all: Or how do they want to address this problem?

VUN LAYWIN: This year, SVP, the anti-pollution group from Quebec, again went to the Federal courts and said hey, we would like it if you'd pump the PCBs out of the barge before you lift it. Because if you lift it, you're going to jar the PCBs loose and marine life is going to be saturated in PCBs. However, at this point in time the Federal court, another Federal court judge in Montreal, said hey, I'm not buying this one, I'm going to dismiss this application. Ottawa says hey, we've got suctioning dredges, we can, you know, Hoover these PCBs out of the area if they spill. The barge isn't going to rupture. We're confident of that. And it looks like now, I mean, judicially speaking, that's Ottawa and the salvage team have the green light to do this this summer.

CURWOOD: I wonder how much all this is costing.

VUN LAYWIN: Last year's, I guess, attempt to get it up, all the preparatory work before it was stalled, was in the vicinity of $17, $18 million. This year, to get the salvage team back and get the critter up will be $14 million. So you're looking at about $30 million in total. At this point in time it's taxpayer's money. Now, having said that, Ottawa is quick to tell you they're going to try and access a fund called the Ship's Source Oil Pollution Fund, and that was set up in the 1970s by oil companies themselves that could be drawn from to pay for any cleanups like the one we're going to have this summer. So if Ottawa is hopeful, although not guaranteeing anything yet that they can get the money from this fund, from the private companies, to pay for the salvage attempt. But at this stage of the game, $30 million to the taxpayer.

CURWOOD: Henk Vun Laywin is a reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He spoke to us from the CBC Bureau in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Thanks for joining us.

VUN LAYWIN: Any time.

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(Music up and under)

Flooding the Grand Canyon

CURWOOD: This spring, Federal officials cranked open the floodgates of the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona to send a wall of water down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. The idea was to stir up sand and sediment from the bottom of the Colordo and restore the numerous sandy beaches that had eroded away in the last 35 years since the dam was built. Now, as the waters retreat, scientists are starting to find out whether their experiment to help restore one of the world's most prized ecosystems worked. George Hardeen has our story.

BABBITT: This is a new beginning for the Grand Canyon and a new beginning for the way we manage this entire Colorado River system. So here goes.

(A door shuts. A klaxon, followed by mechanical sounds.)

HARDEEN: With the 710-foot high Glen Canyon Dam looming overhead, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt turned a valve to open the first of 4 8-foot wide bypass tubes, unleashing billions of gallons of water into the Colorado River.

(Water pours)

HARDEEN: As water gushed from the dam, enough to fill the Rose Bowl in 2 hours, 100 scientists waited downstream along the 300-mile length of the Grand Canyon to study the effects of a week of flooding.

WEGNER: The real objective here is trying to replicate as much as we can what Mother Nature would have done.

HARDEEN: Dave Wegner is director of Glen Canyon Environmental Studies, the Bureau of Reclamation office coordinating the research.

WEGNER: Historically, and that's pre-dam, floods would come in the spring time and erode beaches away. But as the waters receded in the spring, the sediment that had been picked up by the floods during the runoff would drop that sediment out then and rebuild those beaches.

HARDEEN: That changed 33 years ago when Lake Powell began filling up behind the Glen Canyon Dam. Millions of tons of sediment that used to replenish Grand Canyon beaches every year were held back. Annual spring floods that kept the river corridor scoured clean of most vegetation were halted, too.

(Footfalls on gravel)

HARDEEN: It wasn't long after the dam was built before hikers and river runners noticed environmental changes, primarily massive beach erosion along hundreds of miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. And fast-growing tamarisk and other non-native trees colonizing the river banks. For 30 years the dam was operated only to produce valuable hydropower to meet peak electrical demands of downstream consumers, rather than with any concern for the canyon's environment. As power was needed, more water was released, saturating sandy beaches. When power demands fell, water from the dam was quickly cut back allowing heavy, wet beaches to fall into the river and be carried away. This experimental flood was meant to rebuild those eroded beaches and wash away some of the invading trees. Larry Stevens is a river ecologist for Glen Canyon Environmental Studies.

STEVENS: That part of the flood has been tremendously successful. Lots and lots of sand deposition, new, big, high beaches being, having been formed by the flood. We got on the order of 5 or 6 feet of new sand on a lot of sites all the way through the canyon.

HARDEEN: In the first 61 miles, 55 new beaches were created with some gaining as much as 12 feet of new sand. The flood also dredged out backwaters that had filled in along the river. These are warmer, slow water areas which endangered native fish like the humpback chub, speckled dace and razorback sucker need to raise young. Yet the high water wasn't good news for every endangered creature. The Kanab ambersnail exists only here in its small lakes near Kanab, Utah. The flood washed away about 10% of its habitat here, but not before scientists marked and moved every snail in the path of the flood. And US Fish and Wildlife biologist Vicki Maretsky says in preparing for the flood, researchers found a new threat to the ambersnail.

MARETSKY: We've discovered a new predator on the snail in the area, which we hadn't anticipated. We'd been expecting things like beetles or maybe other snails or something like that, but it turns out that there are deer mice in the site, which seem to be able to grab the snails while they're active and moving around and just sort of pluck them from their shells.

HARDEEN: Dr. Maretsky says biologists will continue to monitor the mice, but that they probably don't threaten the snail population. Analysis of the flood data and aerial photography will continue through the summer. Tom Moody is a Grand Canyon river guide and consultant for the Grand Canyon Trust.

MOODY: We hope that we can learn, that the scientists can learn how these processes work well enough that we can use this as a valuable, viable management tool.

HARDEEN: Scientists will try to figure out how often a flood like this may be needed, how long it should last, and how much water should be released to rejuvenate the system next time. This first flood follows a 1992 law that changed the way the dam is managed and protects the canyon's environment. For years, power distributors and users resisted altering the dam's operation because of the costs. But among other benefits of this flood, researchers found the positive effects occurred in only 2 days rather than an entire week. That means the cost to power users for future prescribed floods will be millions of dollars less. Tom Moody says this flood's success demonstrates that a balance can be found between environmental and energy concerns.

MOODY: It's a significant event in that instead of fighting the effects and impacts of these large dams and western rivers, that we're actually working with the Bureau of Reclamation, working with the water users and the Upper Basin states to utilize the dam to restore and enhance the downstream resources.

HARDEEN: The flood had one other job to accomplish. Eleven years ago water flowing from the dam uncovered prehistoric Indian ruins and artifacts. The discovery of these relics was a reminder of how important the canyon has been to Hopis for millennia. Now, to protect these sites from the elements and vandals, 8 Indian tribes, including the Hopis, asked that this year's flood be allowed to re-bury them. Hopi religious leader Dalton Taylor.

TAYLOR: The Grand Canyon means a lot to Hopi, because our ancestors went through here. And my uncles and my fathers and other old timers, they tell me, if you ever visit any site, look for this symbol. And sure enough when we were at there, it's right there. So I tell them, this is Hopi. No doubt about it.

HARDEEN: While several sites were stabilized during the flood, scientists won't know until later this summer, when the spring runoff ends and the river level drops again, exactly how many of these cultural resources were saved. For Living on Earth, I'm George Hardeen in Tuba City, Arizona.

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CURWOOD: Some tried and true ways to get rid of mosquitoes without using toxic sprays is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Zap! Natural Mosquito Prevention

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. After an unusually wet winter, mosquitoes are back with a scratchy vengeance in much of the country this year. Pest control officials usually fight the pesky insects with synthetic chemicals. While individuals are turning more and more to those ultraviolet bug zappers. But neither solution is very good for the environment. Pesticides harm people and other creatures, and it turns out that patio bug zappers kill lots of beneficial insects but very few mosquitoes. But there are more benign alternatives for mosquito control. John Rusmisel is in charge of mosquito abatement in California's Alameda County. Mosquitoes breed in standing water, so Mr. Rusmisel says you should start by draining every container that holds water around your house.

RUSMISEL: We're talking about holding water, we're talking about perhaps a cup of water or less. In our area we have a lot of people who keep cuttings for plants in buckets and they get rainwater in them, or just the water for keeping the plants going cause a lot of mosquito problems. We also have things like boats that don't have the drain plugs taken out of them, that will hold rainwater in them. Water under a house, if you have a basement with a sump pump and the pump's not taken care of, that'll cause a mosquito problem. Tires, tires can be a very big problem throughout the country.

CURWOOD: Now you're the district manager of the Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District, and I understand that the Alameda County program is fighting mosquitoes with fish.

RUSMISEL: We're using a fish called a mosquito fish, gambusia effinis, and we put the mosquito fish into containers that are sources of mosquitoes, everything from residential fish ponds to unused swimming pools to fountains. A lot of people are using half whiskey or wine barrels now as water gardens. Just about anything that can hold the fish where they'll survive.

CURWOOD: And these fish eat the mosquito larvae, is that it?

RUSMISEL: They're very good at eating mosquito larvae. They can eat literally hundreds of them a day.

CURWOOD: But what happens if they run out of mosquitoes to eat?

RUSMISEL: They're very opportunistic feeders. They will feed on any kind of zooplankton or invertebrate in the water. That's why we don't put them into a lot of streams and rivers nowadays. But as far as a person's residential pond, that's not a real problem.

CURWOOD: Hmm. How can people get a hold of mosquito fish?

RUSMISEL: Well, if there's a mosquito abatement district or a public health department that's doing mosquito control, chances are that they can provide mosquito fish for them.

CURWOOD: Now, in addition to mosquito fish, your department also uses bacterial larvacide to control mosquitoes. How do those work?

RUSMISEL: Well, we switched to using bacillus therengensis israelensis, or BTI, which is very common throughout the country. It's a stomach poison. The mosquito larvae, if they feed on enough of it, will die.

CURWOOD: But it doesn't hurt the environment otherwise?

RUSMISEL: No, it's a very specific pesticide, which is why it's a good product for IPM, or integrated pest management. It really affects only mosquitoes and black flies.

CURWOOD: What other methods do you use that don't use synthetic chemicals?

RUSMISEL: Well, this could be considered a slightly synthetic chemical. We use an insect growth regulator called Altacid, or Methaprene. Methaprene is the chemical name. It prevents them from coming out of their pupal case. It doesn't cause an outright immediate death of mosquito larvae, and so other animals and insects can feed on these larvae so it doesn't take them out of the food chain. And it's not something that biomagnifies in other animals.

CURWOOD: John Rusmisel runs the Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District in Hayward, California.

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(Music up and under)

Sweet Seventeen: The Cicadas Return

CURWOOD: The moment in the sun has arrived for a rather peculiar insect. After 17 years living underground as grubs, millions of cicadas are emerging this month in eastern forests and suburbs from North Carolina to Connecticut. They'll spend just a few short weeks above ground. In a loud and buzzing fury they will mate and then die. The next generation will in turn burrow beneath the Earth' surface for another 17 years. Yet, because what may have been a forest years ago might now be a housing development or a strip mall, the 17-year cicada's habitat is disappearing. But as Tom Verde reports, some folks in Connecticut have created a preserve for these unusual insects.

(Cicada whirring)

VERDE: The year was 1979, the last time residents of Hamden, Connecticut, heard this sound.

(Loud cicada whirring)

VERDE: That's the unique mating call of the periodical, or 17-year cicada. And it's music to the ears of retired Yale entomologist Charles Remington.

(Footfalls)

REMINGTON: This is the only cicada preserve in the world. It's called the Maja Cicada Reserve. And it's set aside in perpetuity to conserve these marvelous insects that are so vulnerable to extinction. Of the approximately 75 colonies that we had information on in Connecticut in the earlier days, we're down to about 40, and that's too great a loss.

VERDE: Remington spearheaded the effort to establish the 90-acre reserve just 9 miles north of New Haven. He is one of only a handful of periodical cicada specialists in the country who say the creature's unique life cycle, one of the longest of any insects, is one reason they find the cicada so fascinating. The bugs spend 17 years underground, slowly feeding on tree roots, until practically on cue they all emerge at about the same time.

REMINGTON: A working hypothesis for that is that their secondary brain has a counter in it that says one year, two years, three years, and so on. And when they've counted 17 times, then it's time for these by now big juveniles to come up toward the surface of the soil from 15 inches to 5 feet down where they have spent their 17 years.

VERDE: These juveniles, or nymphs as they're called, attach themselves to foliage, shed their pale yellow skins, and in the matter of a few hours harden into adults. The adult cicada is an inch long black insect with large golden gossamer wings and bulging orange red eyes.

(Loud cicada whirring)

VERDE: Eager to attract a mate, the male cicada begins to sing by vibrating membrane-covered ribs on either side of its abdomen. When hard in unison, this mating song has been compared to the eerie pulse of a flying saucer.

(Combined cicada whirring, with bird song)

VERDE: The females deposit up to 600 fertilized eggs in small grooves, which they cut in the twigs of tree branches. After several weeks, the eggs hatch, and the ant-sized nymphs drop to the forest floor where they burrow into the earth in search of a tree root to suck on, and the whole process starts all over again. There are 13- and 6-year cicadas as well as the so-called dog day cicadas which come out every August. But the 17-year species are found only in the eastern US.

(More cicada whirring)

VERDE: Scientists aren't exactly sure why the 17-year cicada has evolved such a long life cycle. But entomologist Chris Simon of the University of Connecticut at Storrs says there are a couple of popular theories.

SIMON: Presumably there are no predators that can have a life cycle as long as theirs, so it cuts down on the predators that meet them every few generations.

VERDE: Another theory, says Simon, is that at one time there were periodical cicadas that emerged more frequently, but this led to overlapping and interbreeding among the species.

SIMON: Having a prime numbered life cycle cuts down on the number of times that you would meet the other life cycle. And that would cut down on interbreeding, or hybridization, between the species. Because presumably hybrids don't survive as well.

VERDE: Because of their dense populations and their resemblance to migratory locusts, cicadas have often been mistaken for the crop-damaging bugs of Biblical fame. In truth, cicadas do little damage to mature forests, although orchard owners complain that the incisions made in tender branches by egg-laying females can sometimes kill young fruit trees. It has been man and not cicadas who cleared the forests over the past century, reducing the insect's population by more than 50%. Simon says the cicada preserve in Hamden will guarantee that there will always be a population on hand, as she and her colleagues continue to study the DNA of periodical cicadas to learn more about how and why species diverge. Meanwhile, researchers elsewhere are already looking to the Connecticut preserve as a model for similar sanctuaries in their own states. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Verde.

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(Cicadas whirring, with bird calls)

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard] University. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; 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 National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: The perfect lawn is the symbol of success in the US, and the lawn care business is booming. The fastest growth in the industry is among those who claim organic methods. That's coming up in the second half of Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: June marks the start of the Atlantic storm season. Last year was the second worst season ever recorded. There were 19 named storms. Eleven were hurricanes and 5 had winds of more than 110 miles an hour. The worst season on record was 1933, when there were 21 named storms. The following year the National Weather Service started tracking hurricanes and tropical storms. Tracking at first depended on land-based observers. Then in the mid-40s aircraft started flying into storms to measure wind speed and barometric pressure. In the '60s the Weather Service added satellite photography. Today the National Hurricane Center relies on everything from high-altitude jets to advanced radar. After last year's near record, some predict a milder season for 1996. Professor William Gray of Colorado State University, the Punxsutawney Phil of the hurricane set, forecasts an average year with 10 named storms, 6 of which are expected to blow into hurricanes. And we've already had our first; tropical storm Arthur has just given the mid-Atlantic states a good drenching. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

(Chinese radio: voices and music)

China's Three Gorges Dam

CURWOOD: Business is booming on boats visiting the fabled Three Gorges region on China's Yangtse River. Tourists from China and the rest of the world are flocking to see the high mountains which rise on both sides of the turbulent river, and the sheer rocky cliffs which seem to play hide and seek through the mist.

WOMAN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: I just feel my heart open right up and my spirits soar. Such big waves and steep cliffs, and all the waterfalls. It's like they come down from heaven.

CURWOOD: People are rushing to see this sight because within 15 years much of this breathtaking landscape and its rich cultural heritage will be underwater. More than 1 million people will be displaced when their towns, villages, and homesteads disappear. This sacrifice is for China's most ambitious project since the Great Wall: the Three Gorges Dam, a gigantic $30 billion hydro power station and reservoir. Government officials say they need the dam to generate electricity for the power hungry cities of the south, to improve navigation on the river, and to control flooding. But the project has also generated unprecedented criticism. Lucie McNeill recently traveled to the Three Gorges region and has this report.

(Motors on the water)

McNEILL: In 1956, Mao Zedong himself envisioned a huge dam across the Yangtse. In the great tradition of Communist gigantism, where man's mission is to tame nature, the mighty river must be harnessed. Now that vision is becoming reality. For the past 3 years an army of 18,000 workers has been transforming the lush scenery into a mega construction site so huge that workers look like ants and giant trucks resemble dinky toys. For those who work here, like Huang Mugeng, this is a grandiose undertaking, a patriotic task, a heroic deed. Huang's state factory supplies machinery for the project.

HUANG: [Speak in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: This dam is all our own, our own design, our own investment. It's the biggest hydro project in the world. China's great, and it's all thanks to the Communist Party. In the past foreigners used to say China was the sick man of Asia. Now they see we are the strong man of Asia.

(Motors on the water)

McNEILL: The Three Gorges is more than a hydro project. It's a concrete demonstration of China's emergence as a superpower. The dam itself will rise 200 yards above the riverbed and stretch one and a half miles across the river. Imagine a 50-story building the width of 20 football fields. As for the reservoir, it will stretch 360 miles upriver. That's as long as Lake Superior. The power station's 26 gigantic turbines will turn out over 80 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year: 12 times what Niagara Falls generates.

(A foghorn, and other horns)

McNEILL: Chongqing Harbor is one of the busiest on the Yangtse River. This city of 4 million people is also one of the most heavily industrialized in China. But because it's located far inland a long way from the lucrative export markets, Chongqing has lagged behind booming coastal cities like Shanghai. The Three Gorges Dam is supposed to improve navigation on the river and hence the city's economy. It's a very appealing proposition, until you consider this: the muddy brown waters of the Yangtse River are laden with silt. With the Three Gorges Dam a lot of that sediment will accumulate in the reservoir near Chongqing. It's a prospect that scares Lu Gotie. Mr. Lu heads Minchung Shipping, one of the largest, most profitable firms on the river.

LU: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: The government is reassuring the people that Chongqing will become a dead port. That's our biggest worry. If that can't be solved, we'll have to move our whole operation downriver.

(More foghorns and boat traffic)

McNEILL: Even the government's own experts predict silt could gradually clog up the reservoir, flooding Chongqing Harbor in 60 years time. In the past, China has underestimated the sedimentation problem. Much ballyhooed methods to flush the silt from reservoirs haven't worked. The useful life of some of China's biggest dams has been vastly reduced.

(Industrial sounds)

McNEILL: While silt builds up in the reservoir, so too many fear will pollution. Countless bustling commercial and industrial centers produce billions of tons of waste every year. Most of it is dumped untreated directly into the Yangtse. Chen Caiti is deputy director of Chongqing's Planning Department.

CHEN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: People are worried about environmental problems because the water will flow slowly and pollution will accumulate. Once the dam is built we really need to treat all our sewage here. And we've been asking the government to give us funds so we can build treatment plants. They keep promising money. They tell us they're looking into it. Their priority is to build the dam first, then to spend the money on pollution control. We disagree. We want the money as soon as possible so we can get started.

McNEILL: But even if they are built, those treatment plants will only take care of domestic sewage. Industrial waste is another matter. Each enterprise is supposed to treat its own effluent. But China has a poor enforcement record. That's why there's so much concern for water quality in the reservoir. Drinking water will be affected and so will the fish. Biologists fear farm fish and wild species will decrease. The Yangtse River sturgeon and the Chinese paddle fish, both rare species that swim upriver to spawn, could become extinct. Scientists also predict the dam's impact on water levels and water temperture will affect the fish and wildlife that life in the delta of the river, way downstream.

(Honking horns; bustling city traffic)

McNEILL: The streets of Fengdu are alive at night. After supper everybody comes out for a stroll. It's none too peaceful but no one seems to mind. This small riverside town 4 hours downstream from Chunching attracts tourists from all over China. They come to see the ghost city, a complex of temples dedicated to the king of hell. Eerie to think that in a few years it will indeed become an underwater ghost town. Fengdu will disappear beneath the waters of the reservoir. Its 40,000 citizens will be resettled in a brand new town on the opposite bank. Mrs. Li rocks her grandson as she considers her fate.

LI: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: If they tell us to move we have to move, even if we aren't willing. We can't say we won't go. But for sure, our new apartments will be much better.

(Horns honking, heavy traffic)

MAN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: It's going to be hard for me to watch the water rise over my old city. I'm deeply attached to this place.

McNEILL: Sun Jinliang was born in Fengdu. This is where he spent his whole life. He's an engineer by trade, but for the past couple of years he's been put in charge of the resettlement bureau of the district. Relocating those who live in town is the easy part of his job. The old town is so run down it makes the new facilities across the river irresistible to the residents. But getting the farmers to move will be a lot more difficult. The land they cultivate along the river is very productive. However, Mr. Sun says he knows how to convince them.

SUN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Those who don't want to move are going to be a problem. But we will do propaganda work with them to show them we're right, and if they still refuse we'll have to force them. The waters will rise eventually. Nothing can stop that.

(Heavy traffic sounds, horns blaring)

McNEILL: The Chinese government is expecting trouble from the peasants. According to documents obtained by Human Rights Watch Asia, there have already been riots in some districts. The disturbances have been suppressed, of course, and both the police and the army are said to be ready to swoop down at the least sign of a protest. If the past is any indication, the fate of the 1.3 million people to be resettled could be a bitter one. Since 1949 over 10 million Chinese people have had to make way for dams and reservoirs. According to official statistics, decades later fully one third of these people are still living in extreme poverty, and that's despite the government's solemn promise that their lives would be better after they moved.

(Voices from a speaker amidst engines)

McNEILL: Like his father and his grandfather before him, Zhou Hongwei has been ferrying people on the Yangtse River for the past 15 years. At 30, he's already the captain of the Sunrise Number 4, a large tourist boat. But if Captain Zhou is sad about what's going to happen to his beloved Three Gorges, he's not letting on. He knows it's useless to recriminate. It's much wiser to look on the bright side.

ZHOU: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: After the dam is built, more and more people will come here to see the new Three Gorges. As the water goes up we'll see a different landscape. It's like a flower that blossoms and dies, but other flowers take its place.

McNEILL: In China, few dare to go against the flow. Since the Politburo gave the project its stamp of approval in 1992, critics have been muzzled. In 1989, prominent journalist Dai Qing spent 10 months in prison for opposing the project. She's one of the few who continue to fight it to this day. She's been effectively silenced in China, but she often campaigns abroad against the dam. For her, the Three Gorges project has nothing to do with navigation, flood control, and electricity. She believes this is a costly white elephant to the glory of China's red emperor, Deng Xiaoping, and his right hand man, Premier Li Peng.

DAI: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Most Chinese say this project is Li Peng's ticket to ride, his guarantee that he can stay in power, and it's a monument to Deng's dictatorship. Why am I saying this? Well, Li Peng got his job by pleasing Deng. To keep his job he has to carry the project to completion. As for Deng, he's completely cut off from any critical assessments of the dam. He's only told nice things about it. His underlings flatter him. They say: under your reign we're building the biggest dam in the world. This dam is being erected to glorify him.

McNEILL: Critics like Dai Qing believe China could have generated more power by damming upstream tributaries. Those dams are cheaper to build. The sediment problem is not so bad, and there are fewer people to be resettled. They also believe there are better ways to improve navigation and control the river's floods. But time is running short. Next year, when the river is diverted and construction starts on the dam itself, it will be too late to cancel the project.

DAI: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: It all hinges on Deng's death. Our biggest hope is that once he dies the project will be postponed. But once the river is diverted in late 1997 it would be hard to reverse the process. The best we could hope then would be to alter the plan and build a smaller dam.

McNEILL: Dai Qing is hoping foreign companies and financial institutions will boycott the project. Major international lenders have so far kept their distance. Western diplomats say the World Bank would have refused financial support had China approached it for funds. The US Export/Import Bank has decided not to back American firms that want to sell equipment to the project. And so far, only Canada is on side.

(Chinese music amidst engine sounds)

McNEILL: Still, China's determined to push ahead with or without foreign funds, and few people here doubt that the dam will be completed. That's why tourists come from far and wide, crowding on board rusty ships like the Sunrise Number 4, to see the Three Gorges before they're changed forever. It's a bittersweet farewell.

MAN: If they remove Niagara Falls I think, I mean the whole country will be shouting up and down and jumping up and down and straight up to the roof. But the Chinese people I don't think are going to do that. I don't know. We have to wait until our son, grandson, and they will do the judgment. We leave it for them.

(Chinese music and engine sounds continue)

McNEILL: For Living on Earth, this is Lucie McNeill on China's Yangtse River.

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(Chinese music and engine sounds continue)

CURWOOD: Don't throw away those old blue jeans. Put them to work. A listener will tell you how, coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Organic Lawn Care

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Lawn care has come a long way since the days of the push mower and the wooden garden rake. Today, men in protective suits from billion dollar companies use high tech equipment to analyze, prescribe, administer, eradicate, all in the interest of giving you a perfect looking lawn free of weeds and insects. But a growing number of folks are starting to feel that a chemically engineered lawn isn't necessarily a healthy one for plants or animals or for people. As Mark Urycki of member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio, reports, a new approach to the great American lawn is starting to take root: organic lawn care.

(Soggy footfalls)

URYCKI: In the wealthy colonial-era town of Hudson, Ohio, John Renner paces off a large lot to come up with an estimate for lawn care service. The neglected yard is soggy and not as verdant as the homeowner would like. Mr. Renner is the owner of Earth Source, a company he started 6 years ago that offers exclusively organic lawn care service. He plunges a metal tube into the ground to take a core sample of the soil.

(Core tube being moved amidst soil)

RENNER: We've got a nice deep sample here. Frankly, it's awfully wet right now, so it's hard to tell, but you see that we've got about 3 inches of decent looking topsoil, followed by the clay base underneath. Three inches of topsoil is quite good.

URYCKI: Mr. Renner can't tell what needs to be done until he knows what kind of soil he's dealing with. Organic lawn care companies like to say they treat the soil, not the plants.

RENNER: One of the most important things that we do is take soil samples. We'll have them analyzed by an agricultural extension office, in this case Ohio State University. And they'll come back and tell us what we need to do to the soil to make it perfect for growing grass, as far as pH levels. Nutrient deficiencies, those sorts of issues.

URYCKI: Mr. Renner says creating the best environment for healthy grass will in itself help keep down pests and weeds. Those problems could be treated with synthetic pesticides and herbicides, but he says they haven't been proven safe.

RENNER: My approach is, if they've gone into such detail and research and haven't come up with an answer, why take a chance?

(Raking sounds)

URYCKI: A few miles away in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Louise Luczak and Sandy Bierly pull weeds and rake up around a flowerbed in a small front yard. Ms. Luczak is owner of another small organic lawn care company called Grassroots. She started 8 years ago and has never used chemicals.

LUCZAK: I've learned through both experience and just, you know, education, that you don't need them to have a healthy lawn. You know, most lawns where chemicals are put down are actually probably the most unhealthiest lawns. They may look green, they may look healthy, but the soil's basically dead.

URYCKI: Dead, Ms. Luczak says, because lawn care chemicals will not only kill weeds, they'll kill beneficial microorganisms and earthworms that fertilize and aerate the soil naturally.

LUCZAK: See, the problem with a chemically treated lawn is, like, you know, it's like an addiction. It's like, you know, it's the same thing as, like, doing drugs, kind of. You know, the chemicals are put down, you create thatch, you get bugs and you have to put something on to fix the bugs. So what we're doing is we're basically breaking that cycle of chemical addiction that the plant is going through, and you know, after a period of three years it's back, it's healthy as it should be. Naturally, just like a person.

URYCKI: Ms. Luczak and other organic lawn care providers say natural fertilizer and compost can provide lawns with food without leaching pollutants into the groundwater. But the organic way requires some patience and perhaps a different perspective. I notice in this yard you have some clover there that looks very nice, but for some reason people don't like.

LUCZAK: They've been brainwashed by chemical companies. I mean, when I was a girl, I remember we always had clover in the lawns. Clover stays green, it fixes nitrogen, the bunnies like it. But chemical companies convinced homeowners that clover was bad for the lawn, and, you know, just like they've convinced them that dandelions and any other weed is bad for the lawn. You know, and it's kind of like that whole biodiversity thing, you know, it's like lawns don't have to be all grass.

(A trowel in the dirt)

URYCKI: Homeowner Yael Crawford replants a perennial in this lawn, which is now two thirds flower beds. She decided to go chemical free a few years ago.

CRAWFORD: I really didn't want to do anything that would create dangers to the neighborhood children or, I have dogs that live here. You know, the animals.

(Digging continues)

CRAWFORD: I was an apartment dweller, and Louise was kind enough to come over and garden with me and get me started, and then I just kind of gradually expanded and decided I wanted less and less lawn.

URYCKI: And the reaction from your neighbors?

CRAWFORD: They've come over and asked a lot of questions. They're very skeptical, some of them, and they're watching to see if this will work. A lot of them like the flowers. There, that should do it. This is going to be black-eyed Susans, which will take over.

URYCKI: More than the neighbors are watching. Twenty minutes south of Yael Crawford's yard is the headquarters of one of the larger lawn care providers in North America, the Davy Tree Company. It saw the possible trend in organic lawn care, and now offers that service. But vice president Roger Funk says so far it makes up only about 2% of their lawn business.

FUNK: We had anticipated that it would be greater than that, and I think the whole industry did. I would think cost is probably one of the major deterrents to people switching to that, and then performance. They're going to expect to see some kind of difference for the money, and if they don't see that then I don't think that they'd be so willing to pay the additional money and not see anything.

URYCKI: Mr. Funk says the higher priced products and more labor-intensive organic service runs 2 to 4 times the cost of their standard lawn service. While the big companies like Davy Tree and True Green Chemlawn provide organic lawn care, they consider it a niche market for now, and don't actively promote it. All-organic companies don't do much promotion, either, but the business seems to be growing. There's no national trade organization for organic lawn care companies. No one knows how many are in business, nor how much money is involved. And unlike organic food, there is no special certification to even define what are organic lawn care products or practices. But in the Cleveland area, company owners like John Renner and Louise Luczak say their businesses are growing. And if their ideas take root, lawns may never be the same.

LUCZAK: We're doing less lawns and we're doing more organic gardening using native plants, native ground covers to eliminate lawns. My goal is to eliminate lawns in America. [Laughs]

URYCKI: For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Urycki in Kent, Ohio.

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(Bird calls)

(Music up and under)

Listener Success

CURWOOD: If you think about it, clothing can be one of the most recycled items around. Garments are often handed down from sibling to sibling or passed from friend to friend, and resale shops do a booming business as well. But eventually the threads are worn bare or the style attracts no one. And that's when people like Catherine Regier of Trout Creek, Montana, step in. Ms. Regier takes old worn out clothes and weaves them into rugs. She says she got started when she found an old rug loom at a yard sale.

REGIER: I was a young mother at home and I wanted to stay home with my children, and I've been knitting and spinning my own yarn from wool for several years. And that I really wanted to try weaving.

CURWOOD: Is this something a lot of people in Trout Creek do? Or is this something special to you?

REGIER: Not very many people do it at all in the United States any more. It's an old craft, very popular in the late 1800s, early 1900s.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what kind of clothing do you use?

REGIER: My favorite is blue jeans, denim. I also use corduroy; I like those because of the bright colors. And I also use old wool clothing.

CURWOOD: How may articles of clothing does it take to make a good-sized rug?

REGIER: A 2 by 3 rug will use about 7 to 10 pairs of old bluejeans.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. So you've gone through a lot of old clothes then, in your time.

REGIER: [Laughs] My daughter and I were playing. She likes to do math problems, and she figured out I've done about 1,400 rugs, and she figured out that I've probably used 4 to 6 tons of old clothes.

CURWOOD: So where do you get all these old pants and skirts and stuff from?

REGIER: Well, I go to rummage sales and yard sales, and now people know that I'm doing it, and I come home and there will be just black plastic garbage bags full of old clothes that are waiting for me. People just donate it.

CURWOOD: Now, years ago my grandmother and my mother would do a process. They'd roll up the old rags and sort of make a cord, a braid as it were.

REGIER: That's right.

CURWOOD: And then stitch it together. This is what you do, huh?

REGIER: That's what I do. I rip all the old jeans into one-inch strips, and then I sew them end to end. If it's corduroy I sew them in a color combination I like, and then I roll them up into big rag balls. Lots of people remember doing that for their moms or their grandmothers. And then I wind those long strips onto shuttles and weave them as the weft into the rug.

CURWOOD: And do you sell them?

REGIER: Yes I do.

CURWOOD: Does it take -- can you make them fast enough to actually make money, or is this a hobby?

REGIER: It's a hobby. It helps, kind of pin money for our family.

CURWOOD: Can you tell me about your favorite rug, the one that you're perhaps most proud of?

REGIER: Ooh, there are several. My favorite is a wool rug that was all Pendleton wools that I gathered, and I did it in an elaborate stripe pattern that I really like.

CURWOOD: And where's that rug now?

REGIER: Upstairs in my bedroom.

CURWOOD: Ah hah, keeping those toes warm in those Montana winter nights, huh?

REGIER: You got it. That's right.

CURWOOD: Well, Ms. Regier, thanks so much for joining us.

REGIER: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Catherine Regier, rug weaver, hails from Trout Creek, Montana.

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CURWOOD: And if you have an environmental tale to tell, or sew, give us a call at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Senior producer for Living on Earth is Chris Ballman. Our senior editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Liz Lempert, and Julia Madeson. We also had help from Susan Shepherd, Peter Shaw, Heather Kaplan, and Paul Masari. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include 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; National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; and Jennifer and Ted Stanley.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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