• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

June 19, 1998

Air Date: June 19, 1998

SEGMENTS

A Chemical Roundtable

Officials from more than 100 nations will gather in Montreal later this month to begin negotiations on phasing out a dozen toxic chemicals. Scientists call these toxins "Persistent Organic Pollutants" because they lodge in the fatty tissues of people and animals, and can cause health problems from reproductive defects to cancer. Here to give us a preview of the talks is Cliff Curtis, director of the World Wildlife Fund's global toxics campaign, and Mr. Rafe Pomerance, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Environment. Laura Knoy asked them which chemicals are at issue and why there is concern. (06:30)

New York City Taxis: Clearing the Air With Natural Gas? / Neal Rauch

In the United States, only Los Angeles is worse than New York for air quality. But air in the Big Apple could get significantly cleaner if the thousands of taxi cabs working its streets switched from gasoline to cleaner burning compressed natural gas. Getting cabbies to buy these vehicles, or convert their present ones is an expensive proposition. But, as Neal Rauch reports, a new incentive package may help the fleet to make the switch. (06:40)

Canada Clearcut Halt! / Laura Lynch

The clear cutting of British Columbia's virgin forests has angered many Canadians and prompted consumer boycotts of the giant timber producer MacMillan Bloedel. Now, in a dramatic change of course, the company says it will stop clear-cutting old growth forests in British Columbia. Laura Lynch reports from Vancouver. (03:05)

Planting Native Trees / Andy Wasowski

There's a new bumper stickers that says: "Trees are the Answer." The idea is to make us all aware of how important planting trees is to the environment. But, commentator Andy Wasowski says that while the basic thought is right, the methods can be very wrong. Mr. Wasowski lives in northern New Mexico surrounded by native Ponderosa Pines. He is co-author of "Gardening with Native Plants of the South" and "Native Gardens of Dry Climates". (02:05)

Audience Letters

Recent listener comments responding to our segments on bottled water, horse whispering, and single child families. (02:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Tea: Iced and otherwise.. (01:30)

1998: Year of the Ocean / Terry FitzPatrick

In the "Year of the Ocean" President Clinton draws mild praise for his efforts to protect the marine environment. But some say they're just a small part of what's needed to shore up the nation's greatest natural resource. A lesson about the oceans for President Clinton and Vice President Gore came from explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle on the shores of California's Monterey Bay recently where the nation's top ocean experts gathered to brainstorm about protecting the marine environment. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick was there, and he tells Laura Knoy what happened. (06:30)

Talking Rules / Steve Curwood

Our host Steve Curwood has been on assignment in Bonn, Germany, covering the latest round of negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol. That's the international agreement designed to combat global warming. The pact requires the industrialized nations of the world to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by about five percent over the next decade or so. But, negotiators have not finalized the rules for implementing the accord, and some prickly issues have yet to be resolved. In Bonn, some observers say the United States is trying to use the rule- making process to soften the impact of the Kyoto agreement. Here's Steve's report. (05:50)

West Antartica Ice Sheet / Daniel Grossman

Some climate researchers now say global warming will alter weather patterns and ocean currents in the years to come. And with severe consequences. One focal point of their concerns is in Antarctica, where they say part of the continent's ice cap will melt and raise sea levels. A recent article in the British journal "Nature" concludes the threat is real. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman has our story. (03:30)

Dakota Disaster / Eric Whitney

Desperate for jobs, a small community embraces a potentially dirty industry which other towns might turn away. Promises of a clean operation are broken, and the town ends up with far more than it bargained for. It's an old story, but one that’s taken a new twist in an isolated corner of North Dakota. There, in the small city of Williston, local and state governments became financial partners in a company which built an incinerator to recycle hazardous oil refinery waste. As environmental problems mounted, regulators seemed to do little to address them. Before long, the company collapsed, leaving a legacy of toxic waste, bad debt, and environmental crimes. Eric Whitney of the High Plains News Service reports. (08:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: Neal Rauch, Laura Lynch, Steve Curwood, Daniel Grossman, Eric Whitney
GUESTS: Cliff Curtis, Rafe Pomerance, Terry FitzPatrick
COMMENTATOR: Andy Wasowski

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy.

They're called Persistent Organic Pollutants, or POPs for short. Some are known cancer causers, others are suspected. And this month, negotiators consider whether to eliminate these unwanted airborne chemicals in the coming century.

POMERANCE: The most important thing to remember about these Persistent Organic Pollutants, they have 3 important characteristics. They're toxic, they have long lifetimes in the environment, and they can travel great distances.

KNOY: Also, the greening of the yellow cab: a drive to fuel New York City taxis with cleaner-burning natural gas.

KASSEL: When you breathe on Madison Avenue, you're breathing some of the highest pollution levels east of the Mississippi. If you can clean up those cabs, you've gone a long way to cleaning up the whole problem.

KNOY: Those stories this week on Living on Earth. First news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

A Chemical Roundtable

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Officials from more than 100 nations will gather in Montreal later this month to begin negotiations on phasing out a dozen toxic chemicals. Scientists call these toxins Persistent Organic Pollutants because they lodge in the fatty tissues of people and animals and can cause a host of health problems, from reproductive defects to cancer. Here to give us a preview of the talks is Cliff Curtis, director of the World Wildlife Fund's global toxics campaign, and Rafe Pomerance, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Environment. Mr. Pomerance, what type of chemicals are we talking about, and why should we worry about them?

POMERANCE: The most important thing to remember about these Persistent Organic Pollutants, they have 3 important characteristics. They're toxic, they have long lifetimes in the environment, and they can travel great distances.

KNOY: Can you give us some names, some common names that people might have heard of?

POMERANCE: Sure. PCBs, Dioxin, DDT, Myrex, Endrin.

KNOY: Cliff Curtis from the World Wildlife Fund: why do we need an international agreement on Persistent Organic Pollutants? Why not just a national action or regional action?

CURTIS: They have the ability to travel extremely long distances. They're hitchhikers, they tend to evaporate up into the atmosphere and move towards the poles. So you can find substances from the tropics in the tissue of marine mammals in the Arctic, in the breast milk of Inuit mothers. That desperately calls for global action of the type that does not currently exist.

KNOY: Mr. Pomerance, what pollutants do you think are going to be the most controversial, or the most difficult to restrict at the Montreal negotiations?

POMERANCE: Well, we have, first of all, agreed to a list of 12 key pollutants that we have to address in this negotiation. That's because they're identified as the most serious problems. I'll give you an example of a difficult pesticide, which may surprise people, but it's D-D-T. D-D-T is used in some countries as a control for malaria, mosquitos, and I think that some countries will certainly be reluctant to give up its use until they're assured that there are substitutes available. And until they know something about the cost of those substitutes.

KNOY: Is the Administration going to be pushing for the elimination of these 12 key pollutants that you mentioned on the agenda? Or restricting their use?

POMERANCE: Well, I think our goal is elimination, but we have got to address concerns that some countries will have about the rate of elimination of them.

KNOY: Mr. Curtis, what do you think of all this? Is this acceptable? A slow phase-out?

CURTIS: Not surprisingly, we'd like to push it a bit faster. On DDT, my organization, World Wildlife Fund, is going to release on the second day of the meeting, June 30th, a report resolving the DDT dilemma, in which we have concluded based on case studies in 6 regions and developing countries, that you can fairly quickly move down the toxic chemical usage within a few years. Also, in terms of the document that they will negotiate, there's likely to be 2 annexes, one that's restricted use, other is an elimination schedule. So for these 12 prioritized substances, we're going to be urging them to put all of them on that elimination schedule annex, with a road map for getting there. For a number of the pesticides I think there'll be no problem, but for D-D-T we will have to show that the critical route map is there to eliminate them, and the same for getting at dioxins and furans. When you burn PVC's, which is a common plastic that's used, it produces dioxins and furans. And those kinds of PVC's are usually present in municipal waste, in hospital waste, and other types of toxic waste incineration. So one problem that's got to be addressed is ending land-based incineration in order to shut off that valve or emissions of these nasty chemicals.

POMERANCE: The quality of incineration processes can be very different and some of them, you know, over the years various processes have been brought on line that have significantly reduced emissions of these substances. So, to say incineration you can mean various things by it.

KNOY: So, Mr. Pomerance, the Administration, I take it, will not be advocating the complete elimination of the process of incineration.

POMERANCE: I don't think we're going to be addressing taking on the issue of incineration directly. What we're going to talk about is the technology that we have available to reduce emissions to the greatest degree that we can.

KNOY: You've both talked about what you hope will happen at the Montreal talks. Rafe Pomerance and then Cliff Curtis, what do you expect will happen at the talks?

POMERANCE: Montreal is an organizational meeting. Maybe the most interesting thing will be the World Wildlife Fund report on D-D-T. From a perspective of negotiations we have to get this process organized. We have a mandate that has been agreed on by the United Nations Environment Program. We need to set up committees, try to work on a schedule, get some feel for what the opening positions of the different governments are. Montreal is but a first step on the way to an agreement that we hope to reach by the year 2000.

CURTIS: Let me take the long view. At the end of the day, hopefully by no later than the end of 2000, the negotiators will have an agreement for the phase-out and elimination of these 12 substances. What's hard to discern at this point in time is what kind of innovative financing mechanisms and tech transfer provisions will be agreed. That's going to have to be in place in order for this to really be a strong, effective agreement in terms of meeting some pretty expedited schedules for phase-out and elimination of these nasty Persistent Organic Pollutants.

KNOY: Cliff Curtis is director of the World Wildlife Fund's global toxics campaign, and Rafe Pomerance is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Environment. Thanks, both of you, for joining us.

CURTIS: Thank you.

POMERANCE: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

New York City Taxis: Clearing the Air With Natural Gas?

KNOY: About 4,000 people die prematurely each year in New York City because of air pollution. In the United States, only Los Angeles has a worse record, says the Natural Resources Defense Council. New York City air could get significantly cleaner, however, if the thousands of taxi cabs working its streets switched from gasoline to cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. Getting cabbies to buy these vehicles or convert their present ones is an expensive proposition. But as Neal Rauch reports, a new incentive package may help the fleet make the switch.

(Traffic sounds)

MARTINEZ: Hey, how are you?

WOMAN: Good, how are you? I'm going to 123 West 79th Street.

MARTINEZ: Okay.

WOMA:N Thanks.

RAUCH: Another day, another fare for hackey Silvio Martinez. Recently I joined him as he plied the streets of Midtown Manhattan. To most passengers his taxi looks, sounds, and probably even tastes like any other Yellow Medallion Cab in New York City.

(More traffic sounds; a horn honks)

RAUCH: But it's not the same. When Mr. Martinez says he's going to fill up his car with gas, he really means it. Instead of regular liquid gasoline, he uses compressed natural gas. And he notices the difference.

MARTINEZ: This car rides very like a railroad car. Because natural gas is stronger than gasoline.

RAUCH: Mr. Martinez says natural gas fuel, which is the same stuff many people use in their stoves, is more powerful than the highest octane gasoline. That means better pickup and better performance in rough city driving. He also gets better mileage, and natural gas costs less than gasoline, the equivalent of about $1.00 a gallon: a bargain for New York City. But even more important to Silvio Martinez is that it's good for the environment. So in 1995, he was one of the first owners to convert his cab to natural gas.

MARTINEZ: If you want to have healthy children tomorrow, we 've got to do something today for them.

RAUCH: Compressed natural gas is like regular gasoline, a fossil fuel. So it does add pollution to the air, including carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. But it burns much cleaner than gasoline. Richard Kassel, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says new natural gas vehicles emit 80% fewer hydrocarbons and particulates than regular gasoline cars, and cut in half carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides emissions.

KASSEL: When you're standing on Madison Avenue and you're looking downtown, you see a sea of yellow cabs. When you breathe on Madison Avenue you're breathing some of the highest pollution levels east of the Mississippi. If you can clean up those cabs, you've gone a long way to cleaning up the whole problem.

RAUCH: New York State's new incentive package is not the first attempt to encourage owners to switch to natural gas. Since 1995, the city has allowed owners to keep their natural gas cabs on the road 2 years longer than regular taxis before being required to replace them. Yet there are only 175 natural gas cabs currently in use. The alternative fuel has been slow to catch on for several reasons. It takes longer to refuel and there are only 14 natural gas stations in the entire city. Fill-ups are also more frequent, unless you have a larger gas tank, which takes up half the trunk space. But probably the biggest hurdle is the fact that it costs an extra $6,000 to outfit a new cab with natural gas, and just about as much to convert a gasoline model. So the state put together a public/private incentive plan to defray the additional expenses. Most of the money comes from Federal funds. About 20% is being provided by the private sector. New York Governor George Pataki announced the package at the New York International Auto Show.

PATAKI: The conversion can be accomplished without any cost to the owner of the cabs. A cab company purchasing a new natural gas cab will not have to pay one penny more than they would if they were buying a conventionally- fueled vehicle.

(Auto shop noises)

RAUCH: That's an offer that Shalom Burstein couldn't refuse. He owns Winner's Garage in Queens and purchased 100 new natural gas cabs from Ford. He likes the cars because, he says, they're easier to maintain.

BURSTEIN: Given that this is a relatively clean kind of fuel, there's less in the way of oil changes, tune-ups, less problems with catalytic converters, overheating in the summer. It's [inaudible].

RAUCH: Mr. Burstein wanted to try natural gas cabs for a long time. But it wasn't feasible until the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey lifted its ban on those vehicles on its bridges and in its tunnels. The Port Authority had been concerned about the explosive potential of compressed natural gas, or CNG. Tests convinced the agency of the new cars' safety, and Diane McGrath McKeckney, chairwoman of New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission, says any lingering doubts were put to rest after a natural gas taxi was in an accident.

McKECKNEY: This cab was rear-ended by a New York City bus that went out of control. There were some real tragic incidents that came out of that. But one of the positive notes was the CNG cab held up very, very well.

RAUCH: There was no fire, no leak, even though the cab was totaled. As it turned out, the taxi belonged to Pioneer Natural Gas cab owner Silvio Martinez. Because he liked his alternative vehicle so much, he bought a new one before the current incentive package was put into place.

(Traffic sounds)

MARTINEZ: Since that bus hit me at the wrong time. The bus was supposed to hit me now.

RAUCH: New York is not the first US city to get natural gas-powered vehicles. Atlanta has a fleet of 70 taxis. But New York is different. The Natural Resources Defense Council's Richard Cassel says the city's high concentration of taxis makes it the ideal place for natural gas fuel to make a difference in air quality.

CASSEL: The combination of New York City Yellow Cabs, buses, city public agencies, United Parcel and other private delivery vans moving toward natural gas, there's really no other city that's taking that multi-fleet approach to clean vehicles, and it makes sense. Because other than Los Angeles, maybe Houston, there is no other city that has New York-style air pollution.

RAUCH: But any change in air quality will come slowly. The Taxi and Limousine Commission's goal is to have 600 natural gas cabs on the street by the year 2000. That leaves more than 11,000 yellow cabs and some 40,000 livery cabs still using gasoline. And most of New York City's 5,000 buses will still be diesel-powered for the foreseeable future. All of which will continue to spew pollutants into the city's air. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

KNOY: Coming up: a halt to clear-cutting in most of Canada's coastal rainforests, and your letters. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Canada Clearcut Halt!

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

(Buzzsaws)

KNOY: In the coastal rainforest of British Columbia, a massive red cedar tree trembles, sways, then collapses onto the ground.

(Tree falling loudly)

KNOY: The clear-cutting of British Columbia's virgin forests has angered many Canadians and prompted consumer boycotts of the giant timber producers Macmillan Bloedel. Now, in a dramatic change of course, the company says it will stop clear-cutting old growth forests in British Columbia. From Vancouver, Laura Lynch reports.

(Helicopter propellor)

NIESSEN: All of the wood that you see harvested here in this particular area is being taken out with a helicopter.

LYNCH: Macmillan Bloedel vice president Craig Niessen laid it all out on videotape. Starting immediately, the timber giant, which owns cutting rights to much of British Columbia's coastal rainforest, will phase out clear-cutting and switch to high-technology selective logging. It's a dramatic reversal for the company. Macmillan Bloedel has been targeted for years by environmental groups. They complain its logging practices have ruined wildlife habitat and disrupted the forest's ability to regenerate itself. Greenpeace helped Macmillan Bloedel achieve infamy several years ago when it held raucous protests against logging in an area called Clayoquot Sound. Eventually, the environmentalists organized a boycott of the company's products, particularly in Europe. As the story gained international attention, Macmillan Bloedel began losing sales abroad. Greenpeace's Karen Mahon says the company's about-face is a vindication.

MAHON: Clayoquot Sound put British Columbia on the international map, as a place where there was huge environmental problems. Ever since then, the world has been watching. And Macmillan Bloedel has finally realized that the world marketplace is really changing. It's time to take our head out of the sand, listen to what our customers are saying, and give them what they want.

LYNCH: The company refuses to explicitly acknowledge the link between the boycotts and its change of direction. But recently-appointed president Tom Stephens left little doubt that both he and the company's board of directors knew they had to change course.

STEPHENS: We have some pretty hard-nosed business types that aren't known for being touchy-feely. Not only did they applaud the forestry project team and the plan that they came up with, they expressed a great deal of pride that their company could demonstrate such outstanding leadership.

LYNCH: Whether it is in fact a bold stroke or a faint attempt to reposition itself as an environmental leader remains to be seen. Greenpeace points out the plan will only be phased in over 5 years, as well, it says there's no new commitment to restore streams damaged by logging. And in the end the company will still be cutting old growth, just in a more selective way. That's why Karen Mahon and her colleagues will continue to be wary.

MAHON: They've made some pretty big promises today, so we and others will be watching very closely to make sure that these statements really do translate into real change on the ground.

LYNCH: And now Mahon says Greenpeace will be shifting its focus to other companies, pushing them to follow the same path. So far the competition seems content to wait and see whether the newer, greener Macmillan Bloedel is also the more profitable one. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Lynch in Vancouver.

Back to top

 

Planting Native Trees

KNOY: In your travels these days, you may have noticed a bumper sticker that says, "Trees are the Answer." The idea is to make us all aware of how important planting trees is to the environment. But commentator Andy Wasowski says that while the basic premise is right, the methods can be very wrong.

WASOWSKI: The plant-a-tree movement is vast, well-organized, and necessary, if for no other reason than that every year developers and the logging industry take a heavy toll on our tree population. Go to an environmental conference, an Earth Day gathering or an Arbor Day celebration, and at least one speaker is addressing the issue of reforestation. There's also usually a booth nearby where you're encouraged to adopt a tree or 2 for your yard. All you have to do is promise to plant these trees and give them lots of TLC.

So what's wrong with this admittedly noble effort? Well, just this. My wife and I once received a mailing from a plant-a-tree group. In it we were offered a choice of 10 saplings. Seven were unsuited to the soil and climate where we lived and would ultimately die. Now, this organization either assumed homeowners would know which trees to reject and which to use, or maybe they just didn't think it mattered.

Well, it does. For instance, a conifer that lives in acid soil would be totally wrong for a setting with alkaline soil, yet I've seen well-meaning groups, including an arboretum that should have known better, distributing acid-loving pines in totally unsuitable area. And swamp chestnut oaks in areas too dry to support them.

Then there are the trees that seem to be right and that they are the correct species for a region, but because they're genetically adapted to another and very different part of the country, they're wrong for your growing conditions. For example, a burr oak is native in both Texas and Vermont, but the one genetically suited to Vermont winters will not be thrilled with Texas summers and vice versa. To successfully reforest America, we can't be planting any old tree any old place. That just creates new problems. That bumper sticker needs to be revised. It should read, "Native Trees are the Answer."

KNOY: Commentator Andy Wasowski lives in northern New Mexico, surrounded by native pinons and ponderosa pines. He's coauthor of Gardening with Native Plants of the South and Native Gardens of Dry Climates.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Audience Letters

KNOY: And now, time for your comments.

(Music up and under)

KNOY: Tom Brennan lives near San Francisco and listens to our program on K-A-L-W. As a professional in the field of environmental health and toxicology, he closely followed our series The Thirst for Safe Water, and he was particularly interested in our report on bottled water. He writes, "When I moved to this town in northern California, I called up the local municipal water department and asked for information on contaminants in the tap water after treatment. They sent me a data sheet in a couple of days listing levels of chemicals that existed and the corresponding permissible levels, all of which were met. So why can't I get the same thing from bottled water companies, and why don't labeling laws apply to these companies?"

And John Brooking, who hears us on Maine Public Broadcasting, wrote to comment on our interview with Bill McKibben, who wrote a book advocating single child families. "While I largely agree with Mr. McKibben," he writes, "there is another aspect to this subject that I kept waiting to hear mentioned in the interview, but it never was, and that is adoption. There are so many children already on this planet and in need of homes, and a conscientious environmentalist can adopt as many as he or she wants to, without impacting the current population."

Let us know what you think about our program. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or e-mail us at LOE@NPR.ORG. Again, that's LOE@NPR.ORG.

Back to top

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

KNOY: In the Year of the Ocean, President Clinton draws mild praise for his efforts to protect the marine environment. But some say they're just a small part of what's needed to shore up the nation's greatest natural resource. An assessment of the Monterey Ocean Summit is just ahead. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt. If the planet's health isn't our business, whose is it?

(Theme music up and under)

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

KNOY: With the weather getting warmer, ice tea is making its annual comeback. As the story goes, ice tea was concocted on a scorching summer day at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. One vendor discovered that no one was buying his tea, so he dumped ice into it and voila: a new taste sensation. Legend also has it that tea as a hot beverage was serendipitously discovered by the Chinese emperor in 2737 BC. Some leaves blew off an evergreen shrub called Camellia Sinensis and fell into his pot of boiling water. Teas fall into 3 main categories: black, green, and oolong, but they all come from this same plant. The different flavorings are due to variations in how the leaves and buds are processed. Almost all the tea Americans drink is some type of black tea. Herbal infusions made from plants other than the Camellia are often called tea, but are known by tea afficionados as tisanes. With the increasing variety of specialty teas and recent reports of tea's anti-oxidant, anti-cancer properties, the drink's growing more popular. Today, tea is second only to water as the most consumed beverage in the world. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

(Sounds of surf)

1998: Year of the Ocean

EARLE: More of the United States is ocean than land. Consider the territory out 200 miles. So, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, more of your constituents are fish than people. (Audience laughter)

KNOY: A lesson about the oceans for President Clinton and Vice President Gore. It came from explorer Sylvia Earle on the shores of California's Monterey Bay, where the nation's top ocean experts gathered recently to brainstorm about protecting the marine environment. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick was there, and he joins us now to explain what happened. Hi, Terry.

FITZ PATRICK: Hi, Laura.

KNOY: What did the environmentalists and marine scientists gathering in Monterey say? What were they trying to accomplish?

FITZPATRICK: Well, the United Nations has declared this the "Year of the Ocean," and for some time folks have complained that the oceans don't get nearly the attention we give to natural resources on land. So, they've been struggling to figure out how to change that. I think the most important thing that they've come to realize recently is that ocean protection groups have failed to unify into a cohesive political force, sort of an oceans movement that would make the oceans a national priority.

KNOY: There are lots of oceans groups out there already.

FITZPATRICK: Yes. Well-respected, well-funded. There's Save the Whales, Save the Bay and so on. But many observers think these groups haven't worked as closely with one another as they ought to. At least that's true in the past; I think that is beginning to change. And that change is an important development because there is an emerging sense now among scientists that all of these problems we read about in the oceans are actually closely-related themselves.

KNOY: How so?

FITZPATRICK: Well, scientists have begun to notice some fundamental changes in both the physical and the chemical makeup of the oceans. They say the fishing nets, for example, are literally destroying the ocean bottom, kind of like strip mining does on land. And they say that nitrogen pollution is changing the basic chemistry of the water, kind of like carbon dioxide in the air is causing climate change. In many cases, of course, this is happening out in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes it's happening at the microscopic level. But some scientists believe these changes are actually responsible for the problems that we do see. Here's how Dr. Jane Lubchenco, from Oregon State University, put it when she spoke in Monterey.

LUBCHENCO: The litany is large and growing. Harmful algal blooms, demise of fisheries, dead zones, loss of species, coral bleaching, mass mortalities of marine species ranging from whales to urchins. We have responded to each incident as an individual problem, isolated from the others. We have treated symptoms, not the underlying problems. The nation needs more ocean awareness, and a more comprehensive enlightened ocean policy.

KNOY: A comprehensive ocean policy. What does she mean by that, Terry?

FITZPATRICK: Well, there's a push right now in Congress to create a task force, a special task force that would conduct a sweeping assessment of the ocean health. And then do what's being called a stem to stern overhaul of the government's ocean policies. There was a commission like this about 30 years ago and that led to coastal protection laws and the creation of NOAA: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The scientists and environmentalists say that the oceans are under assault right now, though, in ways that weren't true 3 decades ago. So it's time for another overhaul. There's a bill to create this task force in Congress right now; it's called the Oceans Act, but it's stalled in committee.

KNOY: Now, President Clinton got lots of visibility when he spoke in Monterey. Did he acknowledge the need for the task force?

FITZ PATRICK: He did. He stressed the importance of making ocean protection an apple pie cause.

CLINTON: Like every other great leap forward in environmentalism in the last 35 years, we have to make this an American issue that transcends party and other philosophical differences, that is at the core of our own humanity and our obligation to our children and our grandchildren.

FITZPATRICK: Despite the rhetoric, though, all the President could offer was a grab-bag of initiatives that seemed tailored to specific groups, instead of doing something comprehensive.

KNOY: What was in the grab-bag of initiatives?

FITZPATRICK: There were quite a few, actually. There was a 10-year extension on the ban on offshore oil drilling along most of the US coast, and the ban is made permanent inside marine sanctuaries. The President banned the sale or the import of undersized swordfish because their population has been collapsing. He announced a program to restore coral reefs and fund deep sea exploration. There's even a new Web site at the EPA to warn people when it's unsafe to swim at a particular beach or to eat fish from certain waterways.

KNOY: Was that enough, Terry, to satisfy the environmentalists at the conference?

FITZPATRICK: They were certainly pleased to see such high-level recognition, and there certainly was a collective sigh of relief that Mr. Clinton didn't show up in Monterey empty-handed. He had been warned against doing that. But many environmentalists feel that these Clinton initiatives are a mere drop in the ocean; that's the term they used. And some openly wondered if the Administration will really follow through. Jean Michel Cousteau, for example, told me the whole event reminded him of the Earth Summit in Rio a few years back, where there were also plenty of promises.

(Milling and music in the background)

COUSTEAU: I have concern, because I've seen it fail so often in the past. The Rio conference was a great, great expectation, and it hasn't really worked. There's been no follow-up. There were a lot of promises, and very few have been kept. And that's a big disappointment.

FITZPATRICK: Those disappointments are why environmentalists want this task force, which could get ocean protection beyond these periodic hand-outs from the White House at major events. You know, I think there's a feeling that America is on the cusp of a great awakening about the seas, and all sorts of organizations are trying right now to ensure that happens.

KNOY: Okay, Terry. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

FITZ PATRICK: My pleasure.

KNOY: Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick joining us a couple of hours drive from the beach at our Northwest Bureau in Seattle.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Talking Rules

KNOY: Our host, Steve Curwood, has been on assignment in Bonn, Germany, covering the latest rounds of negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol. That's the international agreement designed to combat global warming. The pact requires the industrialized nations of the world to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by about 5% over the next decade or so. But negotiators have not finalized the rules for implementing the accord, and some prickly issues have yet to be resolved. In Bonn some observers say the United States is trying to use the rulemaking process to soften the impact of the Kyoto agreement. Here's Steve's report.

(Milling in the background)

CURWOOD: Fear, money, and power. Those big 3 factors appear to be driving the 10 days of climate change talks here in Bonn, and they no doubt will come into play in November, when the process of putting the Kyoto agreement into action continues at a high-level conference in Buenos Aires. Fears about the price tag for fighting global warming seem to be behind the US call for rules permitting trading schemes so Americans could buy their way out of any real cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. And fears that such trading rules would gut the treaty and give the US even more economic power have prompted strong protests by the European community and developing countries.

Each side to this conflict blames the others. Environmental activists say business is fretting too much about profit margins when the survival of life as we know it is at stake. They say trading schemes would still allow too many emissions. The poorer countries say their gap with the richer nations is already widening, and that greenhouse gas trading would give affluent countries a way to make even more money from pollution. And behind closed doors, the Europeans angrily declare the US certainly can afford to make major cuts domestically, and doesn't need unlimited rights to trade emissions credits. But Ambassador Mark Hambley, head of the US delegation in Bonn, says the rest of the world is unduly suspicious of the US request for no limits on trades.

HAMBLEY: Well, I think it's ludicrous to think any country's going to be able to do anything 100%. I think close to that, I think the nature of the problem, the aggressiveness of the targets, will demand a real effort domestically by all parties, including the United States.

CURWOOD: Power and money are also key here, and the US has plenty of both. The Kyoto Accord will only go into effect when those countries with a combined total of at least 55% of all industrialized countries' emissions ratify the agreement. In the baseline year of 1990, the US had about 35% of the industrialized world's emissions, and Russia had about 20%; so together the US and Russia can simply block any accord from going into force.

Russia's emissions have since dropped 30%, so with trading it would have plenty of emissions credits to sell. With Russia standing to profit so handsomely under the trading scheme that the US has proposed, it appears the rest of the world will have to go along if any kind of global warming protocol is to become binding. The Clinton Administration has pledged to sign the Kyoto agreement, but the key, of course, is ratification. And the US Senate's unwillingness to sign on is giving the US tremendous bargaining power, again because of that 55% rule. And here, delegates and others say the Clinton Administration has been outflanked by the fossil fuel industry.

GELBSPAN: Disinformation has basically paralyzed the American public and the press, too, in terms of the political process.

CURWOOD: So says author and climate change analyst Ross Gelbspan, who came to Bonn for the talks. Even though none of the 150 or so governments at the negotiations raises fundamental doubts about the science of climate change, says Mr. Gelbspan, many in the fossil fuel lobby have worked hard in the US to discredit the science.

GELBSPAN: They have maintained a relentless drumbeat of doubt in the public mind through a series of disinformation campaigns, which are designed to persuade the public and the press and policy makers that the issue is terminally stuck in uncertainty, which it is not.

CURWOOD: Many on Capitol Hill are holding a hard line against spending on global warming mitigation, saying the science is unproven. And the fossil fuel hard-liners have also taken advantage of fears and resentments among the developing country delegations at the climate negotiations, diplomatic officials say off the record. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other members of the oil- producing cartel, are officially classified as developing nations despite their wealth, and are part of the developing nations caucus. Led by Saudi Arabia, these oil countries have been able to fan and finance the flames of resentment among other developing nations against the United States. It's a brilliant two-pronged strategy, the diplomats here say privately. On the one hand, major fossil fuel producers are seen as pushing the US Senate and the Clinton Administration to include, quote, "meaningful participation by developing nations in the Accord." And at the same time, big oil producer money is reportedly enticing members in the developing country caucus to stay out of the agreement. It's an impasse that could scuttle implementation of the whole Kyoto deal.

Despite these obstacles, many at the Bonn negotiations say they are still looking for progress in Buenos Aires in November. Environmental activists say the developing nations will likely sign on if they are granted emissions rights on a basis that is linked to population size rather than past pollution. such an arrangement, they say, will be profitable for both the industrialized as well as the emerging countries. What is needed, they say, is strong leadership in both camps. For Living on Earth I'm Steve Curwood, reporting from Bonn.

Back to top

 

West Antartica Ice Sheet

KNOY: Some climate researchers now say global warming will alter weather patterns and ocean currents in years to come, and with severe consequences. One focal point of their concerns is in Antarctica, where they say part of the continent's ice cap will melt, dramatically raising sea levels. A recent article in the British journal Nature concludes the threat is real. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman has our story.

GROSSMAN: The article is the first attempt in more than a decade to bring together scientific research from climatology, oceanography, and glaciology, to predict the impact of global warming on the west Antarctic Ice Sheet, the western side of the South Pole's glacial cover. If the ice sheet melted, it would release enough water to raise sea level by 14 to 20 feet, flooding low-lying areas like Bangladesh, southern Florida, and many of the world's largest cities.

OPPENHEIMER: It would basically mean the end of coastal civilization as we know it.

GROSSMAN: That's the article's author Michael Oppenheimer, an atmospheric scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. He says global warming could bring on this catastrophe, but not in the way you might imagine. The threat comes not from warmer air, but from ocean currents. To understand why, it's necessary to learn a little glaciology. The west Antarctic Ice Sheet is a hunk of ice larger than Alaska anchored to a bedrock base. It doesn't float, but around much of its perimeter are floating tongues of ice sticking out into the sea, called ice shelves. Now imagine this land-based ice sheet is the sauce on top of a hot fudge sundae. Ice streams flow toward the ocean, depleting the ice sheet, the same way fudge dribbles down a sundae into a puddle in the bowl. Michael Oppenheimer says the ice shelves significantly control how fast the ice streams move.

OPPENHEIMER: The ice shelves are jammed up against the coast of Antarctica, and that's buttressing the land-based ice. And should the ice shelves disintegrate, that could cause the land-based ice to slide into the ocean.

GROSSMAN: And recent research shows the ice shelves are at risk of disintegrating. Changing patterns of precipitation expected with global warming could alter the ocean's network of deep currents, bringing more warm water to the South Pole. Michael Oppenheimer.

OPPENHEIMER: Warming over the next century could lead to the disintegration of the ice shelves, which would then over the succeeding 5 to 7 centuries lead to a loss of most or all of the land-based ice.

GROSSMAN: But Dr. Robert Bindschadler, a leading glaciologist at NASA, says Michael Oppenheimer might be overstating his case, since it's not only the ice shelves that keep the ice sheet in check.

BINDSCHADLER: Because he has focused on the buttressing force and tended to ignore the frictional forces at the base of the ice sheet, the numbers may not in fact be correct.

GROSSMAN: Michael Oppenheimer agrees other forces are at work and could hold the ice sheet back. But he says as an environmental advocate, he'd rather be safe than sorry.

OPPENHEIMER: It may turn out in the end that the ice shelves weren't important at all. But I don't think, from today's perspective, that we'd be very safe in saying that.

GROSSMAN: And given science's sometimes glacial pace, Dr. Oppenheimer says the ice sheet may be irreversibly headed for destruction by the time scientists understand how it works. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

KNOY: For a tape or transcript of this program, call 800-218-9988. That's 800- 218-9988 for transcripts and tapes. Coming up: the promise of prosperity goes up in smoke when a small town in North Dakota accepts a hazardous waste incinerator. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Dakota Disaster

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Desperate for jobs, a small community embraces a potentially dirty industry, which other towns might turn away. Promises of a clean operation are broken and the town ends up with far more than it bargained for. It's an old story, but one that's taken a new twist in an isolated corner of North Dakota. There, in the small city of Williston, local and state governments became financial partners in a company which built an incinerator to recycle hazardous oil refinery waste. As environmental problems mounted, regulators seemed to do little to address them. Before long the company collapsed, leaving a legacy of toxic waste, bad debt, and environmental crimes. Eric Whitney of the High Plains News Service reports.

(Children yelling)

WHITNEY: Kids linger on the playground before heading home from McVeigh Elementary School in Williston, North Dakota. Rising beyond the monkey bars less than a mile away is the slender smokestack of Dakota Catalyst Products, leaning crookedly on guy wires.

HAUSER: When the plant was operating, especially there just before it shut down, we noticed quite a large amount of emissions coming off there as black smoke.

WHITNEY: Dave Hauser is the principal of McVeigh Elementary.

HAUSER: The plume was very long and black, and that's when our kids were experiencing a reddish in the eyes and hurting a little bit, irritation in the eyes, that's basically what it was. Especially when the wind was coming right across our playground.

PALMER: What exactly were the emissions?

WHITNEY: Julie Palmer was among the first Williston residents to start asking questions when her daughter Brittney started coming home from school with teary eyes and sick to her stomach. But she didn't get many answers.

PALMER: Up to this point we'd been told by not only Dakota Catalyst but the state health department, the bottom line is we don't know what's in the emissions.

WHITNEY: Today, Dakota Catalyst is shut down, bankrupt and facing stiff fines for environmental crimes. But Williston residents still don't know what was in that plume and why, for too long, no one who could seemed interested in finding out.

(Traffic sounds)

WHITNEY: Few complained when Dakota Catalyst came to this small city on the banks of the Missouri River 7 years ago. It promised good jobs doing good work, recycling toxic oil industry waste into valuable products. The company brought 60 new paychecks to a town still reeling from the region's oil bust of the 1980s. Founder Robert Howard remembers getting a warm welcome.

HOWARD: It was really an ideal business start in that you had the city, Williston, as an investor. You had an unbelievable level of cooperation between the city, the state, and the Federal government. It was a textbook case of cooperation between the city, the state, and the Federal government.

WHITNEY: The city of Williston and the state of North Dakota both became part owners of Dakota Catalyst. The city invested $100,000; the state invested $600,000. Economic incentives to new businesses are common in this remote state, so it wasn't until things began to go wrong that this financial relationship raised any eyebrows. The problems began with air quality violations inside the plant itself. Then, rail cars full of hazardous waste were found to be leaking into groundwater. One day, a foul-smelling gas cloud leaked from the doors of the building, blanketing the town and nauseating dozens of residents. And then there was the smokestack plume. Company officials blamed the mounting troubles on financial problems. The state issued a few reprimands for minor pollution violations, but said there was no reason to be concerned about the plant's emissions.

WRIGHT: Thank you all very much for coming this evening. My name is John Wright. I'm the director of the North Dakota Department of Health...

WHITNEY: But angry residents weren't convinced. When state officials called a meeting to address residents' concerns, they were nearly shouted off the stage.

MAN: We are sick and tired of this. (Many other people shout) Let's get to work!

WHITNEY: Not long afterwards the pressure cooker burst. Without warning, Dakota Catalyst laid off most of its workers and shut down. Two weeks later Federal investigators descended on the plant, surrounded it with armed guards, and started carting off boxes of documents and scores of chemical samples.

(Wind and rain)

WHITNEY: Today, cold prairie rain batters the lifeless Dakota Catalyst plant. A year after the raid, few details of the investigation have emerged, but enough to confirm the fears of many residents. Federal agents have told a court that they believe Dakota Catalyst brought illegal hazardous waste to Williston and then illegally re-labeled it as non-hazardous. Former company president Rob Howard, who was forced out before the shutdown, believes Dakota Catalyst took the waste in a desperate attempt to generate cash. And Bill Dellmore, a former North Dakota assistant attorney general familiar with the case, says the substances involved were definitely bad news.

DELLMORE: It was clear from after the fact they were burning inappropriate material. We've got some wastes out there that we believe are hazardous for arsenic and were hazardous for benzene. And high levels of those and we're starting to get into some minerals: the cadmiums, and chromiums and leads. Those were not the kinds of materials that they originally in their application and the original test had to do with.

WHITNEY: The evidence gathered so far has been enough to push Dakota Catalyst to strike a deal with the government. The company recently pled guilty to 2 criminal charges: storing unpermitted hazardous waste, and dumping a truckload of benzene-contaminated water into Williston's wastewater system. And it's been fined $700,000. But for local residents, big questions remain. Primarily, whether the state's financial relationship with Dakota Catalyst led it to overlook serious problems.

(A beeper sounds; hinges)

WHITNEY: Andy Anderson, who owns a store across the street from the plant, says financial deals and the town's desperate straits at least led to a lot of wishful thinking.

(Noises and conversation in the background)

ANDERSON: A lot of people wanted it to work out, and as a result nobody wanted to be the bearer of bad tidings when it didn't work out exactly like it should. There was a lot of money coming from a lot of different places, and Lord only knows what it all really meant. And what it really took to make people aware of it.

WHITNEY: There is no evidence that the state's financial investment led to pressure on the health department to go easy on Dakota Catalyst. But even the department's former head, Dr. John Rice, admitted that his office wasn't interested in getting really tough with the company.

RICE: It's a business that makes sense, to us makes sense as a recycling business. And so we encouraged the business to continue to function and to make money it needs to continue to operate and to make product. And so we did encourage it to continue...

WHITNEY: Meanwhile, until the criminal investigation began, the Federal government wasn't watching very closely either. The Environmental Protection Agency had given Dakota Catalyst an exemption from Federal hazardous waste laws because the operation was supposed to be recycling the waste rather than disposing of it. Rich Fortuna, a hazardous waste industry consultant and critic of the EPA, says Dakota Catalyst was an accident waiting to happen.

FORTUNA: I think Dakota Catalyst is an example of where everybody's been asleep at the switch from EPA to the state and whatever. Dakota Catalyst is a harbinger of things to come, and is one example of a broader problem that's occurring with increasing frequency throughout this country, which is communities being victimized by bad recyclers because of EPA's inattention to the dark side of recycling.

WHITNEY: But to Julie Palmer, the second-guessing, and even the company's guilty plea, are little solace. She scoffs at the $700,000 fine assessed on a firm that's already bankrupt. And she worries that even though the plume is gone, its effects could linger.

PALMER: We as individual citizens who have lived through what that plant put us under. May not know for many years the ramifications to our health. I feel like I have a cloud hanging over me.

WHITNEY: For the time being, Julie Palmer continues to watch the clean-up of the polluted site. But she says she's worried about talk that new investors may buy the Dakota Catalyst plant. If it ever starts up again, she says, she'll probably just pick up and leave town. For Living on Earth, I'm Eric Whitney in Williston, North Dakota.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We are produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff includes George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, and Miriam Landman, along with Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Jim Frey, Elsa Heidorn, and Rebecca Slatdek-Knowlis. Thanks to KPLU in Seattle, New Hampshire Public Radio, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Joyce Hackel is the senior editor. The senior producer is Chris Ballman, and our executive producer is Steve Curwood. I'm Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.