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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

February 28, 1997

Air Date: February 28, 1997

SEGMENTS

Freeing Willy / Terry FitzPatrick

Keiko, the killer whale which starred in the movie Free Willy, may have his Hollywood dream come true. Friends of Keiko have raised millions of dollars to move him to a special aquarium where his handlers are preparing him to return to the wild. But as Terry FitzPatrick reports, the effort is raising some serious scientific and ethical questions. (08:30)

Nuclear Poetry

Debra Greger, a poet raised in the atomic energy boom town of Hanford, Washington, reads from her work and talks with Steve about growing up in the shadow of the atom. (11:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about the Pittson Coal Mine flood of 1972. (01:15)

Transportation Funding

The federal Transportation Efficiency Act, known as ISTEA is up for reauthorization this year. The question is whether Congress will renew funding for innovative mass transit and human-powered transit projects, or return all funds to highway projects. Hank Dittmar, President of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, discusses the issues with Steve. (06:50)

Tom Bliley, A Profile / James Jones

Superfund, Clean Air and electric utility restructuring: these are just a few major pieces of legislation that will land on the desk of Congressman Thomas J. Bliley this year. The Virginia Republican is Chairman of the House Commerce Committee. During the last Congress, he forged some uncommon alliances and moved certain environmental issues forward. But as James Jones reports, Bliley's conservative resume still makes environmentalists nervous. (08:00)

Listener Lifestyles

In our occassional series on green living, Steve talks with Barbara Bird of Yazoo County Mississippi. Ms. Bird has put some local snakes to work killing rats in her barn. The hungry rodents were costing her $1000 a year in cattle feed. Now she's sittin' pretty. (03:44)

A Road Salt Saga / Liz Lempert

A century ago, workers cleared snow from the roads by dousing it with flaming gasoline. Today we clear with salt, by pouring about 10 million tons of it on our roads every winter. But all this salt is taking a toll on the environment. A handful of states have stopped using the corrosive cleaner and they're trying a vinegar like alternative. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert reports. (05:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1997 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: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Rob Schoeber, Jason Parr, Terry FitzPatrick, James Jones, Liz Lempert
GUESTS: Debora Gregor, Hank Dittmar, Barbara Bird

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. The whale Keiko starred in the Free Willy movies and now his handlers are planning to release him back into the wild.

HUGHES: We really need to pay attention to what we take from the world and what we put back, and we have an opportunity to put something back here. And I think it's worth the effort to find out if we can do that successfully.

CURWOOD: But some say Keiko can't survive on his own and the effort to release him is just serving to hype movie tickets. Also, we meet a poet who grew up near the atom bomb factory in Hanford, Washington.

GREGOR: The cheerleaders had a little 4-foot bomb painted in the school colors, which they would take out at halftime and prance around. But we thought nothing of it, except that we were a company town and that was the product.

CURWOOD: Coming up this week on Living on Earth, right after this summary of the news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The shrinking of Antarctic ice sheets should not increase sea levels. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin say theories predicting ice sheet collapse are over-simplified, focusing too heavily on the role of ice shelves, the massive walls of ice that line the continent's perimeter. Many scientists believe the shelves keep ice from retreating by limiting how much melts into the ocean. But new data suggest that ice shelves are not so crucial to the stability of the continent. Instead, the report suggests the shelves remain relatively stable over time because the ice sheet's core stays at a constant temperature. According to this model it would require thousands of years of sustained global warming to alter the core temperature enough to cause a threatening rise in sea levels. The report appears in the journal Science.

Cash strapped small towns are at risk for waterborne diseases because they cannot afford treatment equipment. Now Indiana officials may have come up with a way to inexpensively treat rural wastewater. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Rob Schoeber reports.

SCHOEBER: The state of Indiana is experimenting with using wetlands to filter wastewater. The State Department of Environmental Management says plants can sop up impurities about as well as an expensive treatment plant. The public comment period is ending for new regulations covering construction of these wetlands, and IDEM Deputy Commissioner Tim Method says using wetlands to treat wastewater will give small towns an alternative to expensive treatment options.

METHOD: Five of the small towns in this sector right now find it very difficult to come up with dollars to put a conventional treatment system in place. In some instances these can be cheaper, certainly to operate.

SCHOEBER: Critics say manmade wetlands don't do a good job of filtering some chemicals that run off farm fields, like nitrates. Method says towns might have to buy additional filters to remedy this problem, but he still believes wetlands are a less expensive alternative. Towns may begin construction in May, when the state releases the new wetland regulations. For Living on Earth, I'm Rob Schoeber in Urbana, Illinois.

MULLINS: The Clinton Administration wants to spend $175 billion on surface transportation programs over the next 6 years. Most of the money would go toward highways with a small percentage devoted to mass transit and environmental and community projects such as bike paths. A spokesman for the Administration says traffic congestion in the nation's largest 50 cities costs travelers more than $40 billion annually. Environmental groups are pushing for more money for Amtrak and clean air programs, but they face still opposition from the highway lobby. Congress is expected to act by September, when current transportation legislation expires. The Clinton Administration recently unveiled its transportation plans during testimony before the Senate.

The Australian government is offering gardeners and investors a chance to buy a piece of prehistory. It's selling seedlings from a tree species that existed 150 million years ago. A government spokesman says the sale is part of an attempt to save the prehistoric wilemmi pine trees from extinction. The only known stand of the trees was discovered in a park in 1994. The government is considering selling off international rights for commercial propagation of the trees, which existed in the time of the dinosaurs. A number of forestry bodies have already shown an interest in growing the species for soft wood plantation timber. The trees, some measuring 130 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, were found in a deep gorge whose exact location has been kept a closely guarded secret.

The sea lions who've been dining on fish at Seattle's Ballard Locks are dining elsewhere this year, which means officials won't have to kill the marine mammals as they threatened to do last year. From KUOW, Jason Parr reports.

PARR: After many years of unsuccessful attempts to drive the sea lions away from the boat locks, it appears they are not returning with their usual numbers this year. The problem started in the early 80s when the sea lions began to dine on steelhead trout that were returning to spawn. This year, however, the voracious eaters have not been seen much. National Marine Fisheries spokesman Brian Gorman.

GORMAN: The time that sea lions are spending hanging around below the dam foraging for steelhead is much, much lower than it has been in previous years.

PARR: The numbers of fish returning through the fish ladder at the locks so far this year are 4 times what they were last year at the same time. Federal fisheries experts are cautious, though, saying it's early in the season, and it will take years to see if the fish numbers will recover. For Living on Earth, I'm Jason Parr in Seattle.

MULLINS: The western rattlesnake is not Idaho's state reptile. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected a bill that would have given official recognition to the slithering, poisonous creature. A fourth grade class got the legislation introduced as part of a class project. While the youngsters drew praise for their hard work, House members saw no reason to glorify rattlesnakes and said the state's image would suffer if Idaho passed the bill. Said one legislator, "I hope that you don't hear that there's any venom in my voice, but I'm coiled and ready to strike at this bill."

And that's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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(Theme music up and under)

Freeing Willy

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

(Keiko sings as water splashes)

CURWOOD: That is Keiko, star of Hollywood's Free Willy movies, which chronicle the fictional adventures of a killer whale who escapes captivity. These days, Keiko is making history as the world's first Orca whale to be removed from a theme park for possible release into the wild. His celebrity status has attracted millions in donations for a special rehabilitation aquarium where his health has improved dramatically. Keiko's handlers are striving to make the Free Willy dream come true. But his potential release is raising some serious scientific and ethical questions. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick explains.

(A man claps. "Right here big guy!" Keiko blows. Man: "Good morning. Hi.")

FITZPATRICK: It's 10:30 AM and zookeeper Nolan Harvey is preparing Keiko for the first of 5 physical workouts of the day. With hand signals and a dog whistle, Mr. Harvey tells Keiko to nudge his 9,000 pound body to the edge of the pool.

HARVEY: Hold it! Hold it!

(Keiko blows)

HARVEY: Good boy!

(Whistles)

HARVEY: I've just asked him to roll over on his back, and then once he gets into position I'm going to ask him to do a fast lap around the pool underwater.

(Whistle blows)

HARVEY: Go!

(Water splashes)

FITZPATRICK: As the command comes, Keiko races away. When his lap is complete, he shoots into the air.

(Huge splash)

FITZPATRICK: The maneuvers look like a typical marine park show, but with an important difference. There's no set routine. Sometimes Keiko must perform frustrating or challenging tasks. Other times Mr. Harvey asks Keiko to surprise him by doing any trick he likes.

HARVEY: That's solving the problem. That's creativity. And that's what killer whales need to survive in the wild. That's what makes them such an efficient predator, and the top of the food chain.

(Harvey and Keiko talk to each other with whistles and other nonverbal sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Keiko's conditioning here at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport seems to be working. When he first arrived a year ago, Keiko could barely hold his breath underwater for 3 minutes. Now it's 13 minutes, about right for a healthy killer whale. Keiko has also gained a 1,000 pounds and strengthened his muscles.

(Keiko blows)

FITZ PATRICK: Keiko's health is improving, but there's a growing debate over the wisdom of actually releasing him. It's a debate about his chances of surviving in the wild, and the power of Hollywood movies to create unrealistic expectations.

(Movie music and water splashing)

FITZ PATRICK: Keiko became famous by starring in the 1993 film Free Willy, the story of a captive whale who refuses to perform. Willy is about to be killed by his owners when a young boy helps him escape.

(Music swells. Boy: "Come on, Willy, I know you can do it boy! I know you can jump this wall! Come on, I believe in you Willy! You can do it! You can be free!" Willy blows. "Come on, you can jump it!" Music swells further.)

FITZ PATRICK: Ironically, after the movie's release an expose uncovered that Keiko himself was suffering under poor conditions at a Mexico theme park. The embarrassing revelations prompted the movie's producers, along with several corporations and animal welfare groups, to take action. They raised more than $7 million to build Keiko a better home in the US and see if the Hollywood fantasy of releasing a captive whale could eventually come true. The fundraising expanded with a Free Willy sequel in 1995, and will continue with a third Willy film this summer. The movies vastly oversimplify the challenge of releasing a captive marine mammal. They don't mention that many attempts to release dolphins have ended in disaster, and that no one has ever tried to release a killer whale. Still, the head of the Keiko Project, Beverly Hughes, says people are willing to donate because the effort touches deep emotions.

HUGHES: I really think this project is a lot about hope. We hope that we really learn how to return a captive animal to the wild. We really need to pay attention to what we take from the world and what we put back, and we have an opportunity to put something back here and I think it's worth the effort to find out if we can do that successfully.

FITZ PATRICK: Many marine biologists, however, feel the plan is hopeless. Wild whales survive by living in groups known as pods, and scientists say Keiko would face an impossible challenge of trying to fit into this complex social network because he spent more than a decade alone in captivity. Some biologists also suspect the Keiko Project is motivated more by marketing than by science. Tundi Agardy is with the World Wildlife Fund.

AGARDY: Certainly, the interests of the movie producers are to make more money. And so they will continue to publicize the plight of this animal and get people to give money and to, you know, create all kinds of concern for this animal, in part because that's a great marketing strategy. It raises a lot of interest in the sequels. (Laughs)

FITZPATRICK: Killer whales are not an endangered species, and Dr. Agardy feels the millions raised for Keiko could be better spent helping other animals that are on the brink of extinction.

(Whistle. Harvey: "Okay! Good!")

FITZPATRICK: Keiko's handlers deny their work is motivated by Hollywood, and insist he'll never be released unless scientists are convinced he has a good chance of survival. The project has begun to enlist the help of researchers from some of the nation's top oceanographic institutions. They'll study if Keiko can use his underwater sonar skills to find fish, and if he's fit enough to swim 100 miles a day in search of food. Zookeeper Nolan Harvey says it's tests like these that will decide Keiko's future.

HARVEY: We're trying to do what's best for him. Not what makes us feel good as human beings. If that's the reason that we're rehabilitating him, and if we turn him loose because it makes us feel good, that's the wrong reason. We shouldn't even be doing this.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Harvey says there's no pressure to release Keiko. He'll always have a home at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where he's become a major attraction and generates enough revenue to pay for his upkeep.

HARVEY: Come on!

(Keiko squeals)

HARVEY: You're getting tired. I see that.

FITZ PATRICK: During his poolside sessions, Mr. Harvey has learned Keiko is a long way from becoming a viable wild whale. For years he's been fed by hand and it's uncertain if he'll ever learn to hunt. For example, Keiko was terrified when keepers added squid to his diet, and didn't know what to do when confronted by live baby salmon in his tank.

(Water splashes, brushing sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Keiko is also battling serious medical problems including bad teeth and gums, which must be brushed 4 times a week. And he's infected with a herpes-like virus.

(Keiko squeals. Harvey: "Oh stop it.")

FITZ PATRICK: Even if Keiko overcomes these problems, his fate may ultimately hinge on the harsh realities of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic, where Keiko was born and his handlers hope to release him. International fishing fleets are known to kill nuisance whales that interfere with their nets. This could affect Keiko's chances of ever returning home, because the last thing anyone wants, either his handlers or the governments that must approve his relocation, is a movie star whale winding up at the end of a harpoon.

(Keiko blows. Movie music swells)

FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

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(Movie music up and under)

CURWOOD: Growing up with a dad who makes nuclear bombs for a living, and the poetry those memories inspire, is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Nuclear Poetry

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Nuclear energy was once seen as the hope of humanity's future. In the 1950s the atom promised an endless supply of power and possibly world peace. Perhaps nowhere was that promise so bright as in the boom towns built around the United States nuclear program. Places like Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford in Washington State. Debora Gregor is a poet who grew up next door to Hanford. She attended Catholic schools there while her father worked at the nuclear processing plant. Her latest collection of poetry is called Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters, and it reflects the experiences of her youth.

GREGOR: Hanford is the name of the plant and is the name of the ghost town that the plant is named for. Richland was the town where most of the workers and their families lived. It was a small town at the edge of the world, the last frontier town in a way I think of it.

CURWOOD: A fun place? An easy place to live?

GREGOR: Oh, exceedingly. A very safe place, too. You didn't have to lock your car. You didn't have to lock your house. You didn't even really have to lock your bike. And so innocent, now. I mean part of that was the temper of the times. Part of that was the secrecy, perhaps. Part of that was childhood. I was a Bomber.

CURWOOD: A Bomber?

GREGOR: Yes. The high school team was the Richland Bombers. The cheerleaders had a little 4-foot bomb painted in the school colors, which they would take out at halftime and prance around. The high school seal has the mushroom cloud going up the middle of it, so the high school --

CURWOOD: A mushroom cloud?

GREGOR: -- the high school ring has the mushroom cloud on it. What does your high school ring have on it? (Both laugh) I mean, I'm going to win this contest. I have never lost this contest.

CURWOOD: I think there's a little lamp...

GREGOR: Mere racism just doesn't compete with total annihilation. But we thought nothing of it, except that we were a company town and that was the product.

CURWOOD: Could you read for us the poem "The Desert Father?"

GREGOR: Yes. This is called "The Desert Fathers" and has a subtitle, "The flagpole sitter." That was a big moment in a small town in the 50s, and I hope the poem explains that:

Forty days and forty nights. Down at the used car lot at the edge of town a man had vowed to sit on top of a flagpole, renouncing fleshly pleasures in the name of sales. And from the radio stations there came men in search of wisdom to pass onto their followers. A hermit chained to this pillar in the desert. The salesman broke his silence then. But who remembers what he said? He was as a field mouse clinging to a reed shaken in the wind. He missed his Elvis. The nuns said Elvis moved like sin, like Kruschev, who pounded on the table with his shoe. A man who sat in quiet, the old desert father said, and heard the reeds in the wind, had not the same quiet in his heart. Down to earth, the customers came by twos to test the great finned arcs lined up. Noah the owner breathed on a rear view mirror, then rubbed out the desert with his sleeve. And if a pillar of cloud rose out there, invisible, from the reactor and drifted overhead, it was top secret or accident or both. We didn't need a seer to tell us that. We wouldn't be told. Across the road, cow and steer would nuzzle the barbed wire, chewing their contaminated cud. Eyeing the river swollen in spring flood.

CURWOOD: In another poem you write, "The air was thick with isotopes we knew nothing about." Were you aware of the secrecy that surrounded what your dad worked on, or did you just kind of take it for granted?

GREGOR: Well, I'm not sure. I mean, I knew where he worked. I knew he wore a badge. I realize now that that badge had a dosimeter on it. His first position at the plant, I now realize, was radiation monitor entry level. What I knew then was that once a month he came home from work with a black case, which had two glass bottles in it. And those were to be filled up with urine and then the case was left on the front porch. And again you thought nothing of this, because everybody else's dad was doing it, too. I don't know when all the pieces came together. Until I left the state in 1972 to go to graduate school, I didn't know that anybody opposed nuclear power. In those days the whole state was so dependent on defense contracts, and of course the Vietnam War was a very prosperous time, as was the Cold War.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, when you discovered that your father had been working on these weapons of mass destruction, how did that change your view of him or of the world?

GREGOR: Well, I -- I don't know how exactly to answer that. He and I don't sit down and discuss it except from an historical standpoint. He remains proud of what he did, I think.

CURWOOD: Do you?

GREGOR: Well, I'm -- I don't know. If he hadn't been opposed to the Vietnam War I might feel differently, and it's interesting to think about men in his line of work who were able to separate those things.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could read for us now the poem "The Age of Reason."

GREGOR: (reads) Oh, eternity. Oh, Sunday afternoon. Just as the nuns had said, it stretched forth, even more endless than I could imagine. I was seven. The age of reason, Aquinas said, who reasoned how many angels exactly could crowd on the head of a pin. In a dress unreasonably white I made my first Communion. The host, tasting neither of body nor bread, just library paste, stuck to the roof of the mouth. Old enough to know better, my father said, but still that eternal Sunday supper I played with my food. I even sat still, watching the fat on the platter congeal like a miracle. The last of the Sunday beef tongue lolled, silenced by the knife's sharp word. Outside, a leaf took its time to fall, bad angel, down through the well-scrubbed floor of heaven, down to the dirty unreasonable desert. Out there somewhere, uranium broke down into its no more stable daughters. Oh half life, oh eternity. Sometimes we had to crouch under our desks at school as if to pray even harder. But we would be saved, if only from the Russians. And did you drink the milk as a child, the doctor will ask, the voice of reason. Milk from the dairy downwind.

CURWOOD: So much of the power of your poetry comes when you equate the mysteries of religion and the mysteries of these nuclear programs. How did all that secrecy feel to you when you were a child?

GREGOR: Well, on the one hand it was a given, and on the other hand it was pretty tantalizing.

CURWOOD: Tantalizing?

GREGOR: The assumption of a child is that there are things grownups don't know -- (Laughs) Isn't Freud great? There are things grownups know that children aren't grown up enough to know, and religion trades on this and in a way Hanford traded on it as well.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could read for us now the poem "Ship Burial."

GREGOR: Oh right, yes, yes. Well, that is Hanford's modern day function, isn't it?

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

GREGOR: From the very beginning it was a nuclear waste dump, and among the other things buried out there are reactor cores from nuclear submarines. And they are barged up the Columbia River and then trucked out into the desert, and these tombs are built out there. So this poem "Ship Burial" begins with a quote from Beowulf:

"Take these treasure, Earth, now that no one living can enjoy them." On great stone wings a hawk hovered in the great dusty hull of the sky. Below, in the shade of a lowly sagebrush, a rabbit dug its own grave. An official sang out from time to time, sharply, almost dreamily, to a bulldozer pushing back the earth, back where it came from, as if to plunge a great ship deeper into the dirt. That the dead might make the voyage from this world to the next more easily, the ship bore bread and candles, irradiated fuel rods, the half-lives of mother and daughter isotopes. Stout leather shoes. Like gold leaf the dust scattered. Over the ships set adrift, the wind hurried the waves of sand, the hill dead ahead. Coffee was poured from its flask, the dregs flung upon the ground. So in the desert they buried the heart of the nuclear submarine.

CURWOOD: What do you feel like today when you go back to Hanford?

GREGOR: As if I don't belong there any more. There's less and less trace in town of it being an atomic town, though the uptown movie theater still does have a neon atom spinning at the top of its sign. But it's odd, deeply familiar and deeply foreign is how it seems at this point.

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

GREGOR: Well, thank you so much.

CURWOOD: Poet Debora Gregor teaches at the University of Florida. Her latest collection is called Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters.

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(Music up and under: "Do you fear this man's invention that they call atomic power? Are we all in great confusion? Do we know the time or hour? When a terrible explosion may rain down upon our land leaving horrible destruction blotting out the works of man? Are you ready for the great atomic power? Will you rise and meet your savior in the air? Will you shudder, will you cry, when they're firing from on high? Are you ready for the great atomic power?...")

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

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Should the gas tax be used to help pay for Amtrak as well as highways? And should highway builders pay more attention to ecological concerns? Congress is about to decide, and we'll have that story next on 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: This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the worst floods in US history, and some say it didn't have to happen at all. For years the Buffalo Mining Company, a subsidiary of Pittston Coal, had dumped coalmine sludge across a stream near the town of Man, West Virginia. Eventually the mine refuse formed a dam, but despite local protests the coal mining company refused to clean it up. Then on Friday, February 26th, 1972, four inches of rain quickly fell in the area. An estimated 135 million gallons of water, coal, and mud backed up behind the sludge dam. The following morning the mine tailings gave way, sending a great wave down the 18-mile-long Appalachian valley. A hundred and twenty five people were killed and thousands injured. More than 600 people sued Pittston. The coal giant settled for 13-and-a-half million dollars. The money did not go far to console the survivors, including Tammy Osborn, who lost 11 family members in the flood. The company, she said, should have warned people. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Transportation Funding

CURWOOD: Until 1991 nearly all Federal transportation funds, including gasoline tax revenues, went into building the interstate highway system. Then the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act came along and broadened the focus from highway building to include community revitalization and environmental protection. Now the Transportation Efficiency Act is up for reauthorization. The Clinton Administration has called for a renewal of funds, with some earmarked for building public transit links between inner city residents and suburban jobs. Hank Dittmar is president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project. He says Congress may roll back the innovations of the Transportation Efficiency Act and return Federal help to an era when almost all funds flowed into highways, a time that Mr. Dittmar says had a disastrous impact on communities.

DITTMAR: You know, I live in a community where I'm fortunate enough to be able to walk to the train, walk to the grocery store, walk to the shoe repair store. And that's not true for most Americans. I don't have to get in my automobile, and as a result my quality of life is better. We've legislated that kind of community out of existence in a lot of our metropolitan areas, and we've spent highway funds to destroy those kinds of communities. Now it's time to begin spending those funds to build them back again.

CURWOOD: Somebody who's listening to us talking right now, let's say they're stuck in traffic in some beltway around a city, creeping along. What are you calling for that could get this person home quicker?

DITTMAR: Well, we're grappling with I think what is one of the thornier problems that we face in this country, and that is sprawl. Our metropolitan areas are growing out, and each time they grow out we build new roads which cause them to grow out still further. And in the process we leave behind a lot of people in the center city who are isolated from jobs and really left without the wealth that moves out to the suburbs. This is an environmental problem because of the loss of farmland and the air pollution, but it's a social problem because we're essentially leaving the poor behind in the hole in the doughnut. So we're calling for a transportation and land use pilot program to really look at the possibility of growing jobs where infrastructure transit already is. And we're calling for a job access program that would deal with the real challenge the country faces with Welfare reform by trying to create jobs in center cities and get people in center cities who need jobs in the suburbs out to the suburbs.

CURWOOD: Your organization, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, has come up with a couple of proposals. One of these calls for devoting some of the gas tax to trains, to Amtrak. I'm wondering, where would this money come from? Would it come out of highway funds, or would it come from other public transit funds?

DITTMAR: Well, we certainly don't think that it should come out of other public transit funds. We spend $5 for highways for every $1 we spend for public transit. We think it could come out of funds that are not currently being allocated to either highways or transit, and our proposal that if we increase the overall level of spending on transportation, that about a half a cent of the current gas tax be dedicated to providing capital funding for the Amtrak system. And this would benefit not just the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak comes very close to breaking even and making a profit, but a lot of isolated rural communities where train service is the only time the outside world really passes by.

CURWOOD: Anything else about the Transportation Efficiency Act you'd like to see changed?

DITTMAR: Well, we're calling for a renewed emphasis on managing transportation systems in metropolitan areas, and a move toward creating choices for people when they face their daily commute. We're calling for a national initiative on transportation and the environment, and we're calling for a fix it first policy, which would ask state highway agencies to fix roads before they build new ones.

CURWOOD: What can be done to ensure that the roads that are built are better maintained?

DITTMAR: There ought to be a requirement that before you build a new road you commit the resources to maintain it over its lifetime. We would like to see a change in Federal procedures to allow states to ask contractors to guarantee their work.

CURWOOD: Now, I want to be sure I understand this right. Right now the current Federal law says that if I'm a state, it's illegal for me to require a guarantee for the road that is being built by a contractor?

DITTMAR: Well, that's right. The state can inspect the road before it accepts it and decide whether it's in good shape, but it can only inspect it to see that the specifications were met. Going beyond that and asking contractors to design and build and guarantee a road for a specified lifetime is illegal.

CURWOOD: Now when you go to Europe, you don't see all the construction that's going on. For example, the autobahns in Germany. I mean they're very fast, very busy roads. Do they have road building guarantees there?

DITTMAR: Well in fact, this is an idea that originated in Europe. And in Europe they do plan to build roads to last 30, 40, and even 50 years. The less we have to go back and repair roads after we build them, the better for the environment and certainly the better for the harried commuter who's stuck in traffic.

CURWOOD: Now, what about -- looking at our economy. The automobile industry, the highway lobby, they say look, the Gross Domestic Product in this country is really dependent on the automobile and the trucking industry. And that if we cut funding for highways we're going to hurt this economic keystone that we have. That a legitimate argument?

DITTMAR: Well, it's certainly true that transportation is a good part of our Gross Domestic Product. But it's also interesting to note whether that's a positive or a negative. I mean, all this money we spend on transportation is money we spend inefficiently getting people around. And they haven't really shown the link between investment in highways and increased productivity. Most of the studies I've seen about productivity show that highway construction creates highway building jobs. Well, transit construction does, too, and so does digging a hole and filling it back up again. The era where we could generate wealth by building roads in the hinterland is long over, and folks who would have you believe that that's the way to create wealth are stuck in the 50s.

CURWOOD: Hank Dittmar is president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington. Thanks for joining us.

DITTMAR: It was my pleasure.

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Tom Bliley, A Profile

CURWOOD: Many, if not most, environmental bills in Congress have to pass muster in the House Commerce Committee before they can make it onto the House floor. And that means the chairman of House Commerce, Thomas J. Bliley, Jr., is a key gatekeeper for environmental legislation. Mr. Bliley, a Republican from Virginia, is widely credited for forging uncommon alliances on environmental legislation during the last Congress. From Washington, James Jones has this profile of Chairman Bliley.

MAN: Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Chairman Thomas Bliley.

(Audience applause)

JONES: Congressman Tom Bliley is a tall, silver-haired gentleman whose trademarks are a bow tie and a genuine Virginia drawl. He's right at home addressing members of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He embraces the group's free market philosophy, and he's lived up to his reputation as a powerful anti-regulation leader in Congress.

BLILEY: It was government on automatic pilot. But we are beginning to change that, to put the American people back in the driver's seat. In the days ahead we will continue the process of careful oversight of the departments within agencies within our jurisdiction. And it's an important part of our effort to improve regulation, make it more flexible and more cost efficient. An effort that's already yielded considerable success. For as long as...

JONES: A mortician by trade, Bliley has carried the anti-regulatory torch throughout his political career, first as a conservative Democrat and mayor of Richmond, Virginia, in the early 70s and then as a Republican convert during his successful 1980 bid to represent Virginia's Seventh Congressional District. When the GOP gained control of the 104th Congress, Bliley took over the Commerce Committee and led the GOP effort to rewrite environmental regulations. Given his record, Tom Bliley hardly seems like someone who helped push through the only 2 environmental bills to pass Congress last year. But Eric Olsen of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that's exactly what happened.

OLSEN: He generally will start with a position that is fairly extreme. At least he did on the pesticide law. He did on the drinking water law. But he has been willing, unlike some of his colleagues, he has been willing after introducing a bill like that to sit down and try to negotiate something that sort of retreats from some of the more extreme elements of the party and retreats from some of the more extreme proposals that have been made.

JONES: Congressman Bliley accomplished what Democrats and the White House could not. He forged a compromise between the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats.

SWIFT: Tom is a problem solver.

JONES: Former Congressman Al Swift, a Democrat from Washington State who worked with Bliley on the Commerce Committee says one thing is clear: Tom Bliley's success in moving controversial environmental bills is driven by a desire to get the job done.

SWIFT: People like Bliley were never a part of this kind of fervent wet-lipped salivating right-wingism that is prevalent on the Republican side on the Hill. And if you will look, the Republican leadership now claims this to be the most productive Congress in history, I think. They couldn't make that claim had it not been for guys like Bliley, who actually got something done toward the end of the last Congress.

JONES: While Bliley is forging a reputation as a consensus builder, on Capitol Hill there is little consensus about Tom Bliley.

LOYLESS: Well, I would describe his environmental record as exceedingly poor.

JONES: Betsy Loyless, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, gives Bliley some credit for the environmental bills he's moved through Congress. But she's suspicious of his motivation.

LOYLESS: I think that he is very conservative and for the most part anti-environment member of Congress who chairs the Commerce Committee. And who when it is appropriate and it is appropriate because it's politically expedient is able to command his committee and move legislation that's agreed on.

JONES: Bliley's critics also dislike his steadfast defense of the tobacco industry. Virginia is, after all, the home of Philip Morris. And Fran Dumelle of the American Heart Association says Bliley is not shy about using his power to protect his powerful constituents.

DUMELLE: Mr. Bliley stopped the committee's investigation into the tobacco industry in the previous Congress. Mr. Waxman had initiated a number of oversight hearings in to the industry's disclosure to the public of what did they know, when did they know it? Mr. Bliley ended those hearings and in fact did the opposite: let's investigate the Federal agencies that are trying to regulate the tobacco industry.

JONES: In the last decade Congressman Bliley has been the leading recipient of funds from tobacco industry political action committees. The chemical industry and agribusiness are also major contributors to his campaigns. Casey Tomonovic, political manager of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, says there is good reason for this support.

TOMONOVIC: We are thrilled that Tom Bliley is the chairman of the Commerce Committee. As well, he's been trying over the past 2 years to help small business owners in the horrible nightmare problem they have with Superfund. He's been looking for a fair and balanced solution to a very broken Superfund program.

JONES: Blaming partisan politics, Representative Bliley says he's disappointed that his committee could not move a Superfund bill last year. But now with the election over, he strikes a cautious but optimistic tone when evaluating the bill's prospects in the current Congress.

BLILEY: So I fully expect some, a movement. We will not be going at a breakneck speed. We're not going to do it in 100 days. But we are going to move with steady but deliberate progress, and hopefully we will get a resolution to the issue.

JONES: The question is, will Tom Bliley again be willing to craft compromises business groups and environmentalists can both live with? Representative Henry Waxman was the chief negotiator for the Democrats on the Food Safety and Drinking Water bills last year. He's hopeful that the trend started during the last Congress will continue.

WAXMAN: Even though Congressman Bliley and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, we were able to negotiate the Pesticide bill and the Drinking Water Act because we worked in good faith and we wanted to accomplish a good result. So I'm hopeful that we can do that as well on the Superfund issue. And if we end up in a fight on the Clean Air Act, avoid a confrontation and agree on whatever changes need to be made or agree that we will let the Environmental Protection Agency regulations be commented on and then adjusted.

JONES: Tom Bliley can't help patting himself on the back a bit for his success last year. And despite an air of bipartisanship currently sweeping Capitol Hill, he still takes an occasional slap at the Democrats and the President when it comes to environmental initiative.

BLILEY: We passed more environmental legislation in the last Congress than the President in his first 2 years when he had a Democrat House and a Democrat Senate. He passed zero. And so, we were considerably ahead of him.

JONES: The chairman appears ready to pick up where he left off, and a number of environmental and business groups will be watching to find out if Tom Bliley the deal maker or Tom Bliley the conservative will carry the day during the 105th Congress. For Living on Earth, I'm James Jones in Washington.

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CURWOOD: Coming up, we meet a woman who will surprise you by the way she got rid of some barnyard pests. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

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

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Listener Lifestyles

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Do you have mice, rats, or other rodents? Think about your options. You could trap them, poison them, or ignore them. Barbara Bird, who raises cattle in the Yazoo County, Mississippi, has come up with another option, and she joins us on the line now. Hello there.

BIRD: Hello.

CURWOOD: Ms. Bird, I'd like you first to describe your rodent problem.

BIRD: Well, it started about a year ago last fall. We developed a terrible infestation of rats. Not just field mice but bonafide wharf type rats in a hay barn.

CURWOOD: How big were they?

BIRD: Well, they were about a foot long, I would say, plus tail.

CURWOOD: That's a rat!

BIRD: A rat rat.

CURWOOD: Whoa!

BIRD: And we don't know where they came from, but they were apparently nesting under our stacked hay bales.

CURWOOD: Don't you have barn cats?

BIRD: We had barn cats but they seem to be intimidated, either by the size or the numbers of these things. And we started having real feed losses and a sanitary problem. They kept multiplying and fouling everything that was in the barn.

CURWOOD: How much feed did you lose?

BIRD: We figured we were losing about $50 worth of feed a week. And if you feed up about 20 weeks or more out of the fall and winter, we probably lost about $1,000 worth of feed.

CURWOOD: A thousand bucks going to rats. So how did you finally get rid of them?

BIRD: Well, we tried live traps and they really didn't make much of a dent. My herdsman wanted to put out poisons like warfren. But I hated to do that, not just on principle but I was afraid to use something that would poison the cats or some other animal around the barn. So our problem was solved almost by accident. Last spring I started losing my newly-hatched chicks at night, even though I was closing the coop against predators every evening. And early one morning I found this enormous chicken snake virtually in the hen's nest.

CURWOOD: Chicken snake.

BIRD: A chicken snake.

CURWOOD: Now how big is that?

BIRD: Well, this one was huge. He was about 5 feet long. Anyway, I managed to capture him with a hayfork and a feed bucket.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

BIRD: And I took him to the hay barn in my truck, it's about a mile and a half away, and released him. I had to warn the help because their knee-jerk response to snakes is to kill them. And apparently he was able to go where no cat had gone before.

CURWOOD: Because?

BIRD: Like under bales and into rat holes, because our results were spectacular.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

BIRD: This past fall and winter we've had almost no rats, at least none that I've seen, where we used to see hundreds when we'd turned on the barn light.

CURWOOD: Do you think the snake will stay on season after season?

BIRD: Well I hope so. I hope he'll find a mate and maybe we'll have more than one snake. But it's hard to say. I mean, he ate through all my chicks at the chicken coop, and he stayed around until I bought more chicks or had more chicks. So apparently, they're very opportunistic.

CURWOOD: Well, Barbara Bird, thanks for joining us.

BIRD: Well, you're very welcome.

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CURWOOD: How have you overcome some vexing environmental problems? Do you know anyone with an interesting eco-story to tell? Give our listener line a call right now at 1-800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. And if you do go on line to check us out, check out the Living on Earth web page at www.loe.org.

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A Road Salt Saga

CURWOOD: A century ago New Yorkers cleared city streets of snow and ice by dousing them with flaming petroleum. Today, spreading salt is the way most road crews handle the problem. We dump an estimated 10 million tons of salt onto our roads in an average winter. But all this salt takes a toll on the environment, and as a result a half-dozen states have stopped using it altogether. Many other states are beginning to experiment with snow-melting methods that promise to clear the streets without hurting roadside ecosystems. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert has been exploring some of the alternatives.

(Trucks, plows)

LEMPERT: It's 3 in the morning and snowing at the Massachusetts Highway Truck Depot just south of the New Hampshire border.

(Man: "That's good!" Trucks, plows roll.)

LEMPERT: Highway operations engineer Gordon Brose is heading across the parking lot to meet an incoming fleet of 5 large snow plows.

BROSE: Long as you're dressed for it, it's not too bad.

LEMPERT: Brose consults with the foreman on what the plows should spread on the roads tonight.

BROSE: They're saying that it's going to turn to rain at daybreak, which is usually when it starts to warm up a little bit. The sun is our friend when it comes to snow fighting, and the sun is worth multiple loads of salt, that's for sure.

LEMPERT: But the road crews aren't waiting for daylight. In the darkness, a forklift dumps a salt mixture into the truck's loaders. Road salt makes it easier for plows to scrape streets clean, but it's hard on the environment, says Zev Ross of the River Alliance of Wisconsin.

ROSS: Trucks will go through the street and they'll dump salt, and salt will mix with the snow and melt the snow, and the runoff will go into the gutters and go straight to lakes or streams. Or it will go through the soil. Salt is very mobile in soil and it goes straight down to the groundwater and ends up in our water supply.

LEMPERT: Salty well water poses a health threat to people with hypertension. Salt runoff into rivers and streams can kill fish, and salted roads attract wild animals. The state of Maine had to begin lining its highways with moose repellent to cut down on the number of collisions. But it's corrosion that's causing states and cities to rethink their use of salt. Salt causes an estimated $750 million worth of damage to roads and bridges each year, and causes $2 billion worth of damage to cars. In hopes of curbing these costs, Washington State has stopped using salt altogether. Department of Transportation maintenance engineer Dale Keep says the move was prompted in part by public concern.

KEEP: And most of our customers, you know, they want their roads open but their first question is, when talking about using chemicals, de-icers, is what will it do to my car and what will it do to my environment?

LEMPERT: To clear the roads in areas of Washington where there's sensitive fish habitat and many bridges, crews now use a vinegar-like substance called calcium magnesium acetate, or CMA. CMA is non-corrosive. It doesn't hurt plants or contaminate drinking water. And because it smells like vinegar, it doesn't attract animals. The problem with CMA is that it costs around $900 per ton, far more than a ton of salt, which costs just $30. But Oregon transportation consultant Dick Parker says that when you factor in the costs associated with salt corrosion, CMA isn't such a bad deal.

PARKER: Obviously we would love to see it significantly cheaper than what we're now paying for it. But even at prices we're paying we're still able to show savings.

LEMPERT: And there's promising research that could bring down the high cost of CMA. Scientists at Ohio State University have discovered that CMA's most expensive component can be made out of fermented cheese whey. The new process could make CMA 4 times cheaper, but that's still not as cheap as salt. And for this reason, advocates of salt say it's still the most practical de-icer around. Salt Institute president Richard Hannemann says salt won't cause serious environmental problems if it's used properly. For instance, he says, road crews can be taught that more is not always better.

HANNEMANN: Obviously a truck driver who was told that 300 pounds per lane mile will be good to keep the roads safe might conclude that 600 pounds per lane mile would keep it twice as safe. And so we have some education to do.

LEMPERT: Many cities have reduced their salt use by mixing it with sand. But sand has its own environmental problems. As sand dries it's blown up into the air, adding to particulate levels. Denver had to stop applying sand because it was exacerbating the city's air pollution problems. The bottom line, says Washington State's Dale Keep, is there's no perfect solution.

KEEP: There are prices to be paid for whatever we choose to do or not do. For example, if we choose to do nothing and the city shuts down, there's some prices to be paid for that. If we go out and just simply plow, well we're burning fossil fuels.

(A horn beeps. Snow is shoveled.)

LEMPERT: It's the morning after a winter snowstorm in Boston. Residents are busy shoveling their driveways and brushing snow off their cars. But thanks to road crews, the streets are as bare as on a summer' day. And that, say some environmentalists, is the problem. While they're heartened by advances in technology and the use of more benign chemicals like CMA, they caution that dumping millions of pounds of any chemical into the environment will take a toll. The real issue may be our unwillingness to change our driving habits. As long as motorists expect summer-like driving conditions in the middle of winter, there's likely to be a trade-off. For Living on Earth, this is Liz Lempert reporting.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Mark Navin at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Our production team includes Susan Shepherd, Julia Madeson, Peter Shaw, Constantine Von Hoffman, Kim Motylewski, George Homsy, and Liz Lempert. Jennifer Schmidt edited this week's program, and Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. We also had help from Kim Chainey, Colin Studds, and KPLU Seattle. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes Reporting; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and in part by Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

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