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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

November 21, 1997

Air Date: November 21, 1997

SEGMENTS

Congress Hedges it's Bets

When the 105th Congress returns to work for its 1998 session, it will face plenty of choices about the environment. During this year's session lawmakers continued to ignore Superfund, the toxic waste clean-up law, and the Endangered Species Act. Both are long past due for rewrites. The reason, says Congressional Quarterly's Allan Freedman, is that Republican leaders are still smarting from the electoral beating they took on the environment in '96. Steve Curwood spoke with Mr. Freedman. (06:25)

Rock Climbers Leaving their Mark / Robin White

Rock climbing was once the province of a handful of true daredevils. But today, thanks to a whole new generation of high tech climbing equipment and access to climbing, the US now sports an estimated two million active climbers. As the numbers of new climbers rise, some wilderness managers are worried about the impact on the natural landscape. Robin White has our report. (07:25)

Buy Nothing Day

One man's answer to the holiday shopping crunch: just don't do it. A Vancouver, British Columbia based group is touting a new celebration for the holiday season called Buy Nothing Day, and it falls on the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. Steve Curwood talks with Kalle Lasn (CALL-ay LAW-sen) who is the founder of the Media Foundation and the man behind Buy Nothing Day. He’s hoping that this year, instead of spending a lot of time and money at the mall, people will reflect on whether it’s necessary to spend at all. (03:48)

The Storm / Carol Hauser

The official start of winter is still a month away, but some regions of the nation have already experienced significant snow fall. In Minnesota, commentator Susan Carol Hauser is growing anxious anticipating the first big storm of the season, and for good reason. Susan Carol Hauser is author of "Sugartime: The Hidden Pleasures of Making Maple Syrup." She comes to us from station KNBJ in Bemidji, Minnesota. (02:34)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about the Cornucopia, or Horn of Plenty. (01:15)

Burning Trust / Bob Carty

Residents of Hamilton, Ontario say they were burned in more ways than one by a huge industrial blaze that blanketed their city in toxic smoke for days. It was a disaster, they say, that could have been prevented. For four days last July, a black, toxic cloud hung over the city of Hamilton; Canada's "steel city" on the shores of Lake Ontario. It was the worst fire in Hamilton's history and one of the worst fires of its kind in the world. The Hamilton conflagration was a plastics fire: polyvinyl chloride, or PVC plastic. As hundreds of tons of PVC burned, it released huge amounts of toxic chemicals, including dioxin, one of the most carcinogenic substances known. Some residents say the Hamilton blaze was not an accident: it was the culmination of years of bungling, mismanagement and misjudgment by a slew of government officials. And experts say it could happen again elsewhere in the industrialized world. Living On Earth contributor Bob Carty prepared the following documentary examination of a disaster that need not have happened. (25:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Robin White, Bob Carty
GUESTS: Allan Freedman, Kalle Lasn
COMMENTATOR: Susan Carol Hauser

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Technical climbing is booming these days and lots of equipment is being left on rock faces. Now there's a move to limit high-tech climbing gear in wild areas.

STOKES: These areas are not established for us to take our mechanized equipment or our paraphenalia into them to dominate these areas. They are to be enjoyed on their own terms.

CURWOOD: Also, the day after Thanksgiving can be the biggest shopping day of the year. One man says it's too much. He's calling for a Buy Nothing Day.

LASN: Buy Nothing Day is a good time to personally discover, you know, how much we are all -- I hate to use the word -- addicted. But I bet, yeah, addicted to satisfying that buying impulse.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

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(Music up and under)

Congress Hedges it's Bets

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
When the 105th Congress returns to work for its 1998 session, it'll face plenty of choices about the environment. During this year's session, lawmakers continued to ignore Superfund, the toxic waste cleanup law. And the Endangered Species Act. Both are long past due for rewrites. The reason for the malaise, says Congressional Quarterly's Allan Freedman, is that Republican leaders are still smarting form the electoral beating they took on the environment in '96.

FREEDMAN: What the Republicans have basically done is they've been trying to sort of seek out the middle ground, you know, find the areas where people want to make changes. And they've really had a hard time sort of finding that middle ground, because that middle ground right now in Washington on environmental issues is very volatile, and nobody quite knows where it is.

CURWOOD: Conservatives have a reputation of being fairly meticulous and organized. Are there any sorts of quiet, almost stealth initiatives that those who feel there's too much environmental regulation have been able to inject into the process?

FREEDMAN: Well, there are 2 things about that. First of all, the conservatives have not been quiet and organized in the past. In fact, they've been somewhat bone-headed about the way they've gone about the politics of the environment, and they've admitted as such. This year, however, they seem to have gotten their act together a little bit. There have been 4 bills that have passed the House but not the Senate, and may not go anywhere, but nonetheless there are bills that have passed the House on grazing legislation, limiting the President's authority to set aside environmentally sensitive lands under the 1906 Antiquities Act, and a few other bills they've been able to get through. Mainly by crafting narrow pieces of legislation, packaging them as somewhat innocuous, in other words, incremental change. Building coalitions with their eastern Republicans, who have traditionally been their foes. And essentially sort of moving things through a little bit below the radar screen.

CURWOOD: Now, the Congress did try to deal with a major highway funding bill. That's the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA. But they ended up putting it on hold until March. It seemed to be just loaded with construction job goodies. Why didn't they go for it?

FREEDMAN: Believe it or not, there's not enough money to go around. Here's the problem. In 1991, the power in Washington was in northeastern states, and that bill, the law, was written to benefit northeastern lawmakers. Since then we've had a revolution in politics in Washington, and power is now controlled by southern states like Trent Lott, the majority leader of the US Senate, is from Mississippi. The entire Republican leadership in the House is from the South, or from Texas. And basically, there is a fight over redistributing that money.

CURWOOD: Allan, the Transportation Bill has a lot of environmental provisions in it that were used to fund things like mass transit and bike paths. Was there a fight over that aspect?

FREEDMAN: Not really. I think the smart money basically says that that stuff stays, mainly because in the time that they've been in the law they've actually built up a very solid constituency among members, like mayors, for example, people who count. The White House is very much in favor of it, as are the environmentalists. And most of all, it's not a lot of money.

CURWOOD: What's on the docket in terms of environmental legislation we should be watching out for in this next year?

FREEDMAN: Probably the most important thing to watch is the Endangered Species Act. This fall, Dirk Kempthorne was able to, a Senator from Idaho, was able to put a bill together that would reform the Endangered Species Act. This was an incredible political task. The importance of this bill is that it has the many Democrats and Republicans. The bill is opposed strongly by many environmental groups. But the bill was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this fall, and it is considered to be sort of a prime candidate for consideration on the Senate floor in the spring. Now, the odds are still against it because it's an extremely difficult issue to get agreement on.

CURWOOD: One thing that is likely to be before Congress in the next year is the climate change treaty. Now, we don't know what sort of treaty will come out of the negotiations in Kyoto, or if the Administration will choose to bring that treaty to Capitol Hill right away. But if it does, some proposals on the table include binding limits on emissions, perhaps tradeable emissions credits. What would be politically salable on Capitol Hill to fight the threat of global warming?

FREEDMAN: Almost nothing. The President is likely to do some proposed R&D spending next year, maybe some tax incentives all in his budget. Some of the R&D spending may get through, but I think you'll just see drips here and a drip there and that's about it.

CURWOOD: Now, the Presidential commission that looked at climate change recommended changing the fuel economy standards, the so-called CAFE Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And there's a study by the Environmental Working Group and the Surface Transportation Policy Project and others saying that bumping the car standard to 45 miles a gallon and trucks to 34 could reduce greenhouse gas emissions half the way back to 1990 levels. And 1990 is the current target level that's being talked about for the Kyoto treaty. Any chance the Administration's going to do this?

FREEDMAN: They might. But it's important to note that Congress in the last 2 Congresses has opposed CAFE standards, and in fact has affirmatively put language in appropriation bills telling the Administration not to increase CAFE standards. The Administratoin can increase CAFE on its own, but then Congress would be free to block it through passing legislation, which it will do. So here's the question: is the Administration willing to court a confrontation with Congress over this issue?

CURWOOD: And the answer?

FREEDMAN: The answer is maybe. The question is: how willing is Bill Clinton and Al Gore, how willing are they to take on key factions within the Democratic party? The people opposed to this are also the people who the Democrats have to rely on for their money in a reelection effort, both the Presidential election in 2000 and also the midterm elections next year. So, they would have to take on both big labor and also take on business. And they would be doing something the environmentalists would like, and that's an important part of the Democratic party, but they would also be playing some very difficult politics within the Democratic party itself.

CURWOOD: Always a pleasure to talk with you, Allan. Thanks for joining us.

FREEDMAN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Allan Freedman is an environmental staff reporter for Congressional Quarterly.

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(Music up and under)

Rock Climbers Leaving their Mark

CURWOOD: Rock climbing was once the province of a handful of true daredevils. But today, thanks to a whole new generation of high-tech equipment and easy access to practice climbing arrays, the US now sports an estimated 2 million active climbers. It can be a rushing thrill, and some climbers push the limits of endurance and strength and see a climb as an ultimate extreme weekend workout. But as the numbers of new climbers rise, some wilderness managers are worried about the impact on the natural landscape. Robin White has our report.

(Scraping and tapping)

WHITE: Rock climbing used to be a quiet contemplative sport: a rope, a hammer, and a few metal spikes called pitons, were all you needed to climb a big wall. Climbers used to follow the natural cracks in rock faces. Cracks provided secure places for hand- and footholds and a ready-,made niche to bang in your piton. These days there is another tool.

(Drilling)

WHITE: The cordless electric drill came onto the market in 1976. It's transformed the sport of climbing and changed the face of many once-pristine cliffs.

(Drilling continues)

WHITE: With drills, climbers can secure metal bolts on almost any surface, allowing ascents in places that were once inaccessible. The technology has made rock climbing almost easy and has boosted the sport's popularity. But Mark Fincher, climbing ranger in the Yosemite Valley, says the use of bolts is having a degrading effect on the wild places where people come to climb, like this cliff in Yosemite.

(Footfalls)

FINCHER: These were the original 2 climbs at this area, these 2 cracks here. And they were fairly popular, they got a fair amount of use. You know, this area was still denuded of vegetation before all these other climbs went in. But it didn't extend too far; that whole area was still vegetated. And then in a space of about 3 years, all these other climbs went in, probably 40 new climbs all went in, virtually all bolt-protected. And you see the results. A lot greater area impacted. More soil erosion, more litter. More aesthetic impacts in the rock, there's just a lot of chalk you can see.

WHITE: That stuff up there, in there?

FINCHER: Right, all these right spots here.

WHITE: Fincher points out white patches on the cliff. It's chalk, which climbers use to dry sweaty palms to get a better grip. So many climbers do this that it leaves a trail of handholds which almost allows climbing by numbers. Climbers also leave trash: wads of brightly colored nylon slings mark the tops of vertical trails. Down below a network of access paths leads to soil erosion and damaged vegetation.

(Echoed ambient conversation)

WHITE: The new bolted routes reflect a new style of climbing called sport climbing. The trend began in climbing gymnasiums like this one in San Francisco. Gyms make climbing safe, easy, and convenient. Mission Cliff's owner Mark Melvin says instead of long, arduous climbs, which may take days or weeks, indoors climbers learn a taste for doing short routes to test their strength and technical skills. Then they head for the mountains.

MELVIN: Now, there's been the advent in the last, say, you know, 6 years of sport climbing, which are well-protected routes, the commitment is a lot greater. It looks, it's more like a climbing gym. And you can work more on the hardest technical limits in climbing and so forth. And that's actually made it -- a lot of places in the country now have areas that weren't even thought of before to climb. So it makes it really fun.

WHITE: And routes which take only minutes to complete are proliferating. In one privately-owned area of the Owens River Gorge in the eastern part of California, where climbing is unregulated, there are 1,000 climbing routes in a single mile of gorge. The prospect of that density of climbing on public land has some wilderness managers nervous. The use of drills is already illegal in some national parks, although climbers are known to still use them discreetly. The Bureau of Land Management has proposed making the use of drills and bolts illegal, except where authorized by local land managers. And the US Forest Service is considering the option of banning all new bolts in wilderness areas. Jerry Stokes, Assistant Director for Wilderness with the Forest Service, says it goes back to fundamentals.

STOKES: With each issue that arises, we have to go back and revisit the Wilderness Act initially to see if this activity fits within what Congress intended that wilderness be managed for.

WHITE: The 1964 Wilderness Act prohibits the use of so-called structures in wilderness, and managers like Jerry Stokes have to decide if rock bolts fall under this provision.

(Tapping)

WHITE: At Pinnacles National Monument in central California, Sam Davidson is belaying a partner who's climbing using bolts placed by climbers who've come before.

(More tapping)

DAVIDSON: (Calling) Sounds dubious.

CLIMBER: Yeah.

WHITE: (To Davidson) What's he doing there? He's tapping on the rock?

DAVIDSON: He's testing the rock quality, the quality of a certain hold, by just tapping it with the palm of his hand or his fingertips.

(Tapping continues)

WHITE: Davidson is a paid organizer for the Access Fund, the nonprofit organization which advocates for climbers' rights. By banning bolts on public lands, Davidson says the Forest Service would be putting climbers in danger.

DAVIDSON: If a lightning storm comes in on you, for example, I mean you are the greatest conduit up there on the rock, and sometimes you have to get off in a hurry. The option of being able to leave a fixed anchor is very important to climbers. You may not have to, but you should have the option.

WHITE: That's because fixed anchors give climbers the safest way to get down off the rock. Organized opposition by the Access Fund against the rock bolting ban made the Forest Service back down temporarily on its proposal. But in the long run, park managers say there's a deep philosophical question of whether wilderness exists to be used for safe recreation or whether it exists to be an untouched island in an increasingly mechanized world. Jerry Stokes quotes one of the authors of the 1964 Wilderness Act, Howard Zonheiser.

STOKES: "I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the Earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters of our own environment. I think what we have to keep in mind is that these areas are not established for us to take our mechanized equipment or our paraphenalia into them to dominate these areas. They are to be enjoyed on their own terms."

WHITE: For climbers who use bolts, that would mean not being able to enjoy thousands of acres of public land. And in a burgeoning sport hungry for new climbing spots, the message isn't sitting well. The Access Fund already has its eye on thousands of miles of desert rim rock likely to become public land if the Red Rock Wilderness Act is passed. The area contains the last unexplored climbing areas in the lower 48 states, and climbers say they have a right to scale those cliffs, bolts and all. The Forest Service is holding public forums on the issue this fall. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin White in San Francisco.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: One man's answer to the holiday shopping crunch: just don't do it. A call for Buy Nothing Day is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Buy Nothing Day

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

(Pigs oinking, followed by music and man's voice-over: "The average North American consumes 5 times more than a Mexican. Ten times more than a Chinese person. And 30 times more than a person from India...")

CURWOOD: You're listening to an advertisement. Make that a subvertisement, from The Media Foundation. The Vancouver, British Columbia-based group is touting a new celebration for the holiday season, and you don't have to max out your credit card to participate. The idea in fact is not to participate. It's called Buy Nothing Day, and it falls on the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. Kalle Lasn is the founder of The Media Foundation and the man behind Buy Nothing Day. He's hoping that this year, instead of spending a lot of time and money at the mall, people will reflect on whether it's necessary to spend at all.

LASN: The goal is to launch a debate about sustainable consumption, to get people to ask themselves this question: how much is enough? You know, we North Americans are only a tiny 5% of the people in the world. And yet we consume a third, one third of the world's resources, and we also spew out about a quarter to one third of the world's greenhouse gases and toxic wastes. So this level of consumption is -- well, I find it morally obscene in some sense, and even quite aside from the ethical argument I think we as a nation have to come to grips with a level of consumption that is just plain unsustainable and is -- you know, I see our economic system as somehow living off the death of nature and off the backs of future generations.

CURWOOD: So what if people stay away from the mall on the Friday after Thanksgiving? What happens if they just put off their shopping until later?

LASN: Well, I think that Buy Nothing Day is a kind of a symbolic event. When I first went on a consumer fast for 24 hours, 5 year ago, then I found that it was quite a profound experience. I suddenly realized when I was walking past a shop and I wanted to have a Mars bar or a coffee or something, that curbing that impulse to buy was very, very difficult. It reminded me a little bit of when I tried to give up smoking in 1987. So I think that Buy Nothing Day is a good time to personally discover, you know, how much we are all -- I hate to use the word -- addicted, but I bet, yeah, addicted to satisfying that buying impulse.

CURWOOD: What happens to the people who work in the various industries who count on the Christmas boom for their paychecks?

LASN: Well, I think they also have to ask how much is enough? I understand that, you know, the retailers and the Chamber of Commerce will never take a shine to Buy Nothing Day. But nonetheless, I think there are some very deep-seated debate that we have to have, and I'm not going to let the Chamber of Commerce stop us from doing that. I think that somebody has to suffer, that's fine.

CURWOOD: No one's sent you a lump of coal yet, as a joke.

LASN: (Laughs) No, not so far, no. I should say that one way of not being called a Grinch would be to go to our World Wide Web site and download a Christmas gift exemption voucher, which basically says this year, instead of spending a huge amount of money on me, spend a huge amount of time with me.

CURWOOD: Ah. Love instead of a thing, is that it?

LASN: That's it.

CURWOOD: Ah.

LASN: You find that hard to take?

CURWOOD: How are you going to make a buck on love?

LASN: Well, maybe making a buck isn't what it used to be.

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

LASN: I really appreciate talking to you, actually. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Kalle Lasn heads The Media Foundation, based in Vancouver. You can learn more about Buy Nothing Day by visiting our web site at www.loe.org.

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The Storm

CURWOOD: The official start of winter is still a month away. But some regions of the nation have already experienced significant snowfall. In Minnesota, commentator Susan Carol Hauser is growing anxious, anticipating the first big storm of the season, and for good reason.

HAUSER: All day, we wait for the blizzard. If it follows predictions, it will come up from Texas and across Kansas and Iowa. It is even supposed to find us here in our northwestern corner of Minnesota. In anticipation of the storm, and of the pleasure of being safely stranded, my husband and I move stove wood from outside to in. Then we turn our attention to the horizon, where the gray clouds seem far away and unconcerned with earth. As the day's footprints glimmer in the last light of the failing sun, we comment on the obvious. This storm, like some human ambitions, has faltered along the way, dissolved in a passing wind, or taken a turn in a different direction.

Disappointed, we eat in the early dark, pick up our nightly pleasures, books and knitting, and turn on the television. But during those hours between work and rest, we sense something moving in the dark beyond the windows. I leave my chair, go to the back door, and turn on the outside white. Snow blows sideways through the wide beam. My husband joins me, and we stare down the slope to the edge of the yard, where we can see the faint outlines of the old barn foundation.

Jenny, who lived here early in this century, told us that once during a blizzard, she tended sheep there in birthing time with only a lantern and the heat of new life for warmth. Her husband was in town, and she only hoped that he had seen how ripe the clouds were and had not tried to come home, or had stopped along the way to spend the night with strangers.

We turn off the outside light, stoke the fire, and return to our chairs. But now it is different. We are being snowed in. We get to stay home, can't leave if we want to, can't leave if we have to. Our schedule for tomorrow wiped out with the same thoroughness as tracks covered by blowing snow. The promise and the threat rub against us like a coarse blanket, both keeping us warm and reminding us of how cold winter can be.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Susan Carol Hauser is author of Sugartime: The Hidden Pleasures of Making Maple Syrup. She comes to us from KNBJ in Bemidji, Minnesota. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1- 800-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Residents of Hamilton, Ontario, suffered through a huge industrial blaze that blanketed their city in toxic smoke for days. It was a disaster, they say, that could have been prevented. The Great Hamilton Plastics Fire is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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SECOND HALF HOUR

(Theme music up and under)

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and candied yams. Yes, they're all on the menu of a typical Thanksgiving meal, but a less well known member of the feast is the cornucopia. Cornucopia is Latin for Horn of Plenty. And during Thanksgiving it symbolizes the prosperity of the Earth. There are a number of stories about this word's origin. One of them comes from ancient Greece. According to this myth, the baby Zeus was nursed on the milk of a goat named Amalthea. One day Zeus broke off one of the goat's horns, blessed it, and from then on the horn overflowed with all the food and drink its owner desired. The goat ended up in the skies as the constellation Capricorn. Another version holds that Zeus's son, Hercules, got into a fight with the river god Achelous. Trying to defend himself, the overmatched Achelous turned himself into a bull. But Hercules wrestled the animal to the ground and pulled one of his horns off. This horn also delivered whatever nourishment was requested. One simpler explanation comes from nature herself. The Horn of Plenty is a tall dark mushroom that is shaped, well, like a horn. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Burning Trust

CURWOOD: For 4 days last July a black toxic cloud hung over the city of Hamilton, Canada's steel city on the shores of Lake Ontario. It was the worst fire in Hamilton's history, and one of the worst fires of its kind in the world. The Hamilton conflagration was a plastics fire. Polyvinyl chloride or PVC, used to make plastic pipes and countless other products. And as the hundreds of tons of PVC burned it released huge amounts of toxic chemicals, including dioxin, one of the moist poisonous substances known. The Hamilton blaze was not an accident. It was the culmination of years of bungling, mismanagement, and misjudgment by a slew of government officials, and experts say it can happen again almost anywhere in the industrialized world. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty prepared our report.

(Children yelling)

WOMAN: Twenty after 7, I'm sitting outside in my little respite time before I have to get the kids ready for bed. I hear Bang Bang. I don't think twice, I just go in, I start the water for their bath. The next thing I know my son comes to me and says Mommy, there's a fire. And I said to him, No there's not. Don't tell stories. Because we had had a small discussion before that. And he said Mommy, it's a nuclear. And he's 4 years old, but he had seen a documentary just fresh in his mind the night before about a mushroom cloud. We looked outside and I saw it, and immediately I panicked, because I'd never seen anything like this before in my life.

(Horns, sirens)

(FIREFIGHTER)MAN: It's definitely the biggest fire I've ever been at. My first reaction was, I want to retire. (Laughs) You know, I just thought, I don't want to go there, you know, because I knew how bad it was.

(Horns, sirens, crackling flames)

WOMAN 2: The public officials told us, day 1, everything is fine, day 2, everything is fine, day 3, everything is not so fine. You may want to get out of your homes. It's absolutely despicable. I don't know who they were looking out for but I have to say it doesn't feel like they were looking out for my family and myself.

(FIRERFIGHTER)MAN : I've had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about getting cancer and dying of cancer or leukemia or, you know, am I a walking corpse?

WOMAN 3: Why did this fire happen? Who's responsible? I've got 2 beautiful children that God entrusted me with. What the hell do I do now?

(Voices, sirens)

CARTY: It's the questions that remain, now 4 months since the fire. The disturbing questions of firefighters who fought a blaze unlike any other. The unanswered questions of citizens who endured the acrid fumes and cannot understand how this happened. This is a story not just about a fire but about a place: Hamilton's North End, an old working-class neighborhood where every house is different and the cultural diversity matches the variety of vegetable gardens. Hamilton's North End is also speckled with industrial sites, one of them the size of a couple of football fields. Just 100 yards from residential neighborhoods. Just 300 yards from the Hamilton General Hospital. The city of Hamilton has declared a state of emergency on only 2 occasions in its history. Both were because of this site. To the people of the North End, it has been nothing short of an environmental horror story.

FOURNIER: Right now we're staring at the former Plastimet site, which is pretty much a disgusting heap of twisted dark metal. And it stinks. (Laughs) My name is Charlotte Fournier and I've lived in the North End for 4 years. My husband's family, however, has lived here pretty close to 7 generations now. There used to be a small canal, and that's where my great grandfather used to skate and play hockey. Unfortunately, they closed in the canal with a lot of toxic dump crap, I don't know, and the Earth swallowed it up.

CARTY: The mess in her back yard has made Charlotte Fournier curious about the history of this industrial site, a history she has been piecing together with her neighbor, Anne Gallagher.

GALLAGHER: My understanding is that many different factories have operated out of there, all dealing with scrap metal and metal processing from what I understand. We've had residents call us and tell us that their father worked there in the 40s, and they used to burn battery acid. At some point in the 80s, they had been approved to handle high lead dust. And the assumption is that that lead dust was buried there.

CARTY: Anne Gallagher and Charlotte Fournier are just 2 of a group of North End residents who have suddenly become activists. They have ferreted out hundreds of pages of government documents. They have discovered that a scrap metal company called USARCO used to operate here, belching out pollution. So much pollution that in the late 1980s, USARCO's owner Frank Levy pleaded guilty to 10 counts under the Environmental Protection Act. Then the company went deep into debt and its bankers put it into receivership in 1990. No one was responsible for watching over the toxic materials left on the site.

OFFICIAL: Report on status of USARCO properties for the Ministry of the Environment, April 1993. The front yard area used to store transformers is possibly contaminated with PCB oil...

CARTY: The official from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Energy, the MOEE, was shocked by the contamination he found in early 1993. He made a point of warning about containers he found, of chemicals and liquid mercury.

OFFICIAL: The laboratory located within the office area of the building contains a large assortment of chemical re-agents that if mixed could cause violent reactions. As this area is in a state of disorganization and is susceptible to vandalism, it is recommended that this area be cleaned up and all materials removed.

CARTY: That provincial environment report was either ignored or fell into a very deep filing cabinet. In the summer of 1993, what preoccupied local officials were the repeated fires on the site, apparently set by vandals. They left the buildings charred and damaged. In fact, USARCO was a regular stop for the Hamilton Fire Department. Over the past decade, firefighters were called to the site no less than 26 times. But despite all the attention, it appears no one gave a whole lot of thought to those containers of chemicals and mercury. They were never removed.

(Newscast music up and under)

WOMAN REPORTER: The city of Hamilton, Ontario, declared a state of emergency today. As many as 100 Hamilton school children have admitted to passing around mercury that came from an abandoned warehouse in the north end of the city. Local health officials have sealed off the warehouse, and they're trying to figure out how the whole thing started.

GALLAGHER: School children had gained access to the building and had gotten hold of liquid mercury. It beads, it's shiny, it moves in a very weird sort of way that would appeal to kids. And they were passing it around. And it is highly toxic. Two-hundred-fifty-five children were exposed. Nine children were hospitalized. Nine schools were involved, and I believe 4 bad enough to require clean-up.

MAN REPORTER: Clean-up crews will be at the plant for the next few days scooping up the chemicals they see and searching for more. The company that used to work out of the building is bankrupt, so it's likely local taxpayers will get stuck with the cleanup bill.

CARTY: And indeed they were: a cleanup bill of $60,000. The city of Hamilton tagged the $60,000 onto Frank Levy's municipal taxes. Taxes which were already in arrears, a tax bill which would eventually total $2 million. It became a classic case of a municipal Catch-22. Because of the toxic waste, the property was more of a liability than an asset. So, in 1994, the receivers gave the property back to the owner. And even though the city could have seized the property to recover its taxes, they wouldn't touch it. It would have been an invitation for scores of other polluting industries to dump their problems in the taxpayers' lap. The USARCO site was like an unwanted orphan.

FOURNIER: I'd walk by once in a while to go to the Tim Horton's on the corner. Never once did I see anybody working there. I didn't even know that it was a working building.

CARTY: In late 1995, Charlotte Fournier and other residents of the North End were unaware that a new operation had started up on the USARCO site. Frank Levy, who refused me an interview, had leased part of the property to Jack Lieberman, the owner of a company called Plastimet. Plastimet called itself a PVC plastics recycler. It applied to the province for a certificate of approval to operate, but was eventually told that this kind of operation did not need a certificate of approval.

FOURNIER: I, I, I consider myself very naive now, because I thought no, we have people in certain situations that take care of this. I don't have to worry about this. Well hello!

CARTY: Hello indeed. Plastamet started storing PVC on the site in October of 1995. It was not until September of 1996 that the Hamilton Fire Department became aware that the operation existed. No fire inspections had occurred for almost a year. And when fire inspectors did tour the site, they slapped Jack Lieberman and Plastimet with 20 violations of the Ontario Fire Code. The Fire Department set a deadline for compliance.

GALLAGHER They were given a deadline initially, I believe at the beginning of November of last year, to fix them. But it wasn't really a deadline, it was a negotiating point. We're being told, well they were complying with, you know, they fixed some of the violations. They fixed the violations that basically did not cost them anything to fix. They fixed the most minor violations. The important ones, the fire wall, the sprinkler systems, those were the ones that were still under negotiation in the first week of July.

CARTY: In fact, by July 11, Plastimet was supposed to provide a letter committing itself to a plan. But that would be 2 days too late.

(Yelling children, playing)

COOK: When I first heard of it, I was on the mountain and we had been out home inspecting, and we had had the call come in. So we walked down to the end of the street that I was on and I looked over the mountain brow and I could just see this massive, massive amounts of smoke. If you've seen the Gulf War pictures, it's large amounts of rolling smoke, black, blacker than I've ever seen. And I said to the guys, I says Guys, we better get the heck back to the station, I said, because I think we'll be going.

(Sirens, horns)

CARTY: George Cook is 28 years a firefighter. It is a hot July 9th, and he is called in to fight the biggest fire he's ever seen.

COOK: When I got there, the building had collapsed. The walls had collapsed, the roof had collapsed in. The product that was burning was about maybe 12 feet high, large cubes of crushed plastic. All we were doing at that particular time was, you know, pouring massive volumes of water on the flames.

(Sirens)

FOURNIER: The amount of people that were around us was just incredible. Gawking, staring, playing, eating ice cream, eating popcorn. We were being entertained by this fire. And nobody was telling us to leave. It was like this is okay, again the false prophet. The government could have told us all to leave at that time, knowing what was in there. However, they chose to let us all watch.

(Crackling flames)

COOK: Due to the large amounts of water that was put on the fire, there was a large amount of runoff, and there was a big lake. In fact, the guys had christened it Lake Simcoe because the fire was at the corner of Simcoe and Wellington Streets, and this water was up to 2 feet deep in some places. When I was walking through this water, I tripped over some hose that was submerged underneath this water. My face went under the water. Swallowed some of the runoff, went in my ears and my eyes, and down my throat and that kind of thing. And you know, I just kind of shrugged it off, I laughed. And one of the guys that saw me made a joke about going for a swim.

GALLAGHER: We got a hold of a transistor radio and tried to listen to any reports on the news. Which they reported there was a fire. We never heard the phrase PVC plastics. And I think we went to bed with the assumption that it would all be over by tomorrow. And the next day there seemed to be no change; it was burning as high and as bright.

WOMAN REPORTER: A toxic scare in Hamilton, Ontario, today as thousands of residents hid behind sealed windows and doors. The threat came from smoke billowing from a fire at a plastics recycling plant...

CARTY: It is Thursday, the second day of the fire. And there are growing concerns about the toxins that are produced when hundreds of tons of PVC plastic burns. There are also reassurances from the Medical Officer of Health. Dr. Marilyn James tells the public the smoke is no worse than a bad smog day in Hamilton.

JAMES: Smoke and fumes are, you know, cause irritation and such. But to date, we haven't identified major toxins that would cause immediate concern.

GALLAGHER: One of the first comments I believe that I saw on the news from Dr. James was not to worry. There may be chemicals present within the smoke but they were going high into the atmosphere and basically dissipating, I guess, like pixie dust or something. And it's human nature. You know what? I wanted to believe that. I would have been --if Matthew Bramley of Greenpeace had not raised concerns, I'm sure that many of us would have thought everything is fine.

WOMAN REPORTER: Joining us from Hamilton is Dr. Matthew Bramley. He's a chemist with the environmental group Greenpeace. Dr. Bramley...

FOURNIER: It did get to the point where the entire community was saying okay, I don't care what public health and the MOEE is saying. Talk to me, Greenpeace.

BRAMLEY:... because of the dioxin production. Dioxin is one of the most toxic substances known to science, literally. And when we've got a fire like this, we get a huge production of dioxin. And it's going to be in the ash and in the smoke and in the...

COOK: Well, seemingly the Ministry of Environment was saying that there was no immediate danger and that it was just, you know, the same toxicity as a regular fire that you would get. It sounded strange to me because I didn't know, you know. Because the Ministry of Environment is saying one thing and Greenpeace is saying another. We were getting conflicting reports.

(Crackling flames)

GALLAGHER: I was sitting here on the Thursday afternoon, with my daughter who was in the dining room drawing. And she looked out our back yard and said, Mom, I can't see the back of our garden. And I looked out, and we were engulfed in smoke. And at that point I did panic and I had run out to the side of the house. The Red Cross had set up and was feeding firefighters and emergency workers, and I had said, you know, what is going on? And they said, it's just that the wind shifted, you're fine. And at this point I'm choking and gagging. I ran in the house. We threw the kids, and the dog, in the car, and we were out of there.

(Music swells)

WOMAN NEWSCASTER: Good evening. There's a state of emergency in Hamilton, Ontario tonight. Hundreds of people are out of their homes. Police wearing gas masks went directly...

CARTY: On the third day of the fire, with weather conditions trapping the toxic smoke close to the ground, the Medical Officer of Health orders an evacuation. But there is no evacuation for the firefighters.

(Breathing through a mask; crackling flames)

COOK: After the second day I felt really bad. I was fatigued. Headaches, shortness of breath, that type of thing. There was a lot of -- lot of chlorine burning. And when this was mixed with the water it was coming down as hydrochloric acid. One fellow I know had, the skin on his hands were peeling in between his fingers, were all peeling off. We're employed as firefighters. You know, some people say well maybe you should let it burn, and that might have been a good idea, too, just to let the product burn. You've got to do your job, we're firefighters and that's what we've got to do.

(Creaking sounds)

COOK: I had brought in some heavy equipment Saturday morning, backhoes and bulldozers and that kind of thing, exposing the product to the, you know, to the hoses and that kind of thing. Basically, that was when the fire was knocked down.

MAN REPORTER: People who live near a burned-out plastics plant in Hamilton, Ontario, have been told they can go home. Police have lifted an evacuation order. Officials say the levels of toxins in the air are normal, but Greenpeace chemist Matthew Bramley says the ash from the fire at Plastamet contains toxins.

BRAMLEY: The question is, where has this dioxin gone to? Is it mainly confined to the fire site, or have substantial quantities gone out in smoke?

FOURNIER: Can you smell that? Can you taste it? I call it chemical mouth. I remember my microwave went on fire and it smelled up the house for days and days and days, and that's the same smell. You can smell charred metals.

CARTY: Three months after the fire, the Ministry of the Environment is overseeing a cleanup of the Plastimet site, getting rid of the charred rubble, and scraping off up to half a foot of topsoil. The Ministry has found 500 tons of plastic that was not burned. It had been stored outside the collapsed building. That suggests that Plastimet had a lot more plastic on the site than the original estimate of 400 tons, and even that had been too much for the fire department. Three months after the fire, no one can get rid of the questions.

FOURNIER: I want to know what I can do to make sure that my children are going to be safe. And from there, why did this fire happen? Who's responsible? Why are we not qualifying for a public inquiry?

CARTY: In fact, everyone seems to want a public inquiry. The city; the regional government; the fire, building, and medical departments; the firefighters themselves; and the residents of the North End. They all want the power of a provincial inquiry to find out what went wrong. But in the provincial legislature in Toronto, the Minister of the Environment and Energy, Norm Sterling, faces his critics with a steadfast refusal.

MAN: Minister, what are you afraid of? What else are you waiting for. Why don't you do what the Minister of Health said on August 22nd, and call a public inquiry today?

STERLING: Mr. Speaker, I am waiting for evidence that there is some wrongdoing or something wrong with regard to somebody's conduct during this. (Yelling in the background) Whether it be a fireman, the Medical Officer of Health, or the Ministry of Environment or it be anybody else. You don't call in an inquiry for fun. You call it because in fact there is some evidence of wrongdoing with regard to some public official, and none has been presented to me.

(Yelling)

CARTY: And so, the residents of the North End are doing their own inquiry of sorts. They meet over kitchen tables with their Freedom of Information documents, and they gather at community meetings with a determination to hold their local politicians and city officials to account.

MAN: Sir, isn't your agency responsible for authorizing this place to be a recycle, PVC recycling plant?

OFFICIAL: No, no, there was no certificate of approval necessary for that facility to operate as a recycling facility.

MAN: So basically what this was, was a garbage dump in the middle of the city of Hamilton.

OFFICIAL: Do you have the person here who said it can't be recycled?

MAN: The next speaker is Dr. Paul Johnstone from England.

OFFICIAL: Okay.

MAN: And actually, I'll turn it over to him right now.

(Cheers and applause from the audience)

JOHNSTONE: My name is Paul Johnstone. I'm Principal Scientist for the Greenpeace research in the UK. Today, when I inspected the site, and it was the first time that I'd seen it, there were still very substantial quantities of plastics still on the site that were unburned. And amongst that stockpile of plastics were bales of vinyls, for which no significant recycling market exists. And the question, I think, that pertains there is: why was this site allowed to accumulate this material, particularly when of course you stockpile something like this, not unnaturally it presents ultimately a fire hazard.

CARTY: The Ontario Fire Marshal's office says local governments do not have enough power to crack down on fire code violators, or to prevent plastic recycling plants from setting up near residential neighborhoods. The fire marshall has been unable to determine the cause of the Plastimet fire. He has not ruled out arson. In fact, more than one third of all chemical and waste fires are deliberately set. Another third are of unknown origin. Greenpeace scientists Paul Johnstone says that looking around the world, there are similar patterns everywhere.

JOHNSTONE: Certainly we're seeing an increasing number of fires at plastics recycling facilities. We've seen fires like this in Sweden, we've seen fires like this in Germany, we've seen fires like this in Chile, we've seen fires like this in the UK. And the simple reason for this is that far more plastics exist than there are facilities capable of doing something useful with them. So what tends to happen with them is they're either shipped abroad, or they end up in landfill. And the other thing that may be of significance, that with similar materials in the United Kingdom, we've recently uncovered several schemes where people are being paid to take this material away.

CARTY: However, some manufacturers in the vinyl industry say operations like Plastimet give recycling a bad name. They insist that PVC plastic, properly melted down and reformulated, can be reused, and there's a good market for it. But Plastimet was just storing, sorting, grinding up the plastics, and moving them out.

(Ambient, echoing voices)

MAN: We've been talking with the firefighters themselves, the guys who, you know, actually stood there in the face of it for 4 days...

CARTY: Finally, there are still questions about Hamilton's fire department, about its decision to fight the blaze as a normal fire instead of declaring it a hazardous materials fire, which in turn might have given firefighters more personal protection from injury. In the fire stations men say there is an unusual sense of fear and uncertainty. There are still dozens of reports of recurring symptoms among the men who fought the Plastamet blaze: severe headaches, fatigue, respiratory difficulties, and a couple of cases of chemically induced asthmas. And they're worried about cancer. You can hear it in George Cook's voice.

COOK: A few years ago up in Kitchener, I think it was 1987, there was a chemical fire. And about 3 or 4 years later a couple of guys started dying. And I think in total there was about 5 guys died, young guys getting cancer. That's what's going through my mind. You know, I'm 53 now, am I going to see 60 kind of thing? Seemingly, I'm only getting two thirds of the oxygen into my, going through my lungs than I would normally get. So I've had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about getting cancer and brain damage from the lead content of the water that I swallowed. And you know, am I a walking corpse?

FOURNIER: I feel like I've been lied to, and I'm a 28-year-old woman who had blind faith and trust in my government, because I figured I'm a taxpayer, they're taking care of me. I know I'll be fine. And what's bothered me the most about this whole situation is that dream is gone. That little bubble has bursted. And now I feel like I'm totally out there by myself. I've got to check everything now.

CARTY: The cleanup of the Plastimet site is expected to cost $4 million. There may eventually be other costs. Dioxins persist in concentrate in the food chain. The dioxins released at Plastimet are now part of our environment. Here in the North End, though, new soil tests register very little dioxin. It's likely been dispersed by the rain and the sun and the wind. That's good news today for Charlotte Fournier and her neighbors. The bad news is that those same tests revealed dangerous levels of carcinogenic PAHs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in the corner park. The park will be fenced off, the soil removed. Apparently, it's contamination left over from a different industrial occupant of the North End. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Hamilton, Ontario.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. Kim Motylewski is our associate editor. And Peter Thomson heads our Western bureau. Jeff Martini engineers the program. Michael Aharon composed the theme. And our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Liz Lempert, and Jesse Wegman, Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, and Peter Shaw make up our production team, with help from Dana Campbell and Carolyn Martin. Special thanks this week to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And greetings to our friends and listeners at WBGO in Buffalo; party on. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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