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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

July 31, 1998

Air Date: July 31, 1998


The Healing Powers of Chainsaws / Terry FitzPatrick

The chainsaw is often the symbol of forest destruction, but in the Pacific Northwest it's being used to recreate wildlife habitat in clear-cut areas. Forest ecologists are using chainsaws to create standing dead timber, or "snags," to provide nesting spots for a number of birds that would otherwise be displaced. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports. (07:45)

The LOE Garden Spot

Living on Earth garden guru, Michael Weishan, shows host Steve Curwood some techniques for propagating plants during the summer months. (04:30)

Commentary: Valuing Land

Commentator Jane Brox has taken over the management of her family's farm. Sifting through some old papers recently, she came across the original deeds to the land. The experience got her thinking about the different ways land has been described and valued through the centuries. (02:50)

Great Gull Island / Jim Metzner

Great Gull Island, off the coast of Southern Connecticut, is a nesting place for thousands of terns. They migrate there annually from South America in order to raise their young. This has enabled scientists to study a single colony of terns for the past thirty years, yielding a wealth of information about their behavior. Jim Metzner recently visited the island with his family. He relates his experience, and how the visit was experienced by his seven-year old daughter. (04:40)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about...Chile Peppers. (01:30)

French Nukes / Sarah Chayes

Despite its typically pro-nuclear stance, the French government has decided to shut down its Superphenix nuclear power plant: the world's largest fast- breeder reactor. The plant has been controversial since its birth, and its troubles aren't over yet. As Sarah Chayes reports, the plant's closure promises to be one of the most costly and difficult shut-down operations ever. (08:45)

Energy Deregulation in California

Across the United States, states are slowly deregulating their energy markets. Already, some consumers are able to choose an electricity generator the same way they choose a long distance telephone company. California is one of the first states to try this. Host Steve Curwood talks to Kirk Brown, who tracks the energy business for the Center for Resource Economics in San Francisco. He says a number of Golden State firms are selling renewable power. It costs more, but some consumers are willing to pay more for the sake of the environment. (04:30)

Love Canal: Then and Now / Vince Winkel

It was twenty years ago this August that President Jimmy Carter ordered an evacuation of Love Canal, a peaceful suburb in Niagara Falls, New York. At the time, many residents had just discovered that their homes were built on a toxic waste dump. It was a rallying moment for the environmental movement. Toxic dumping became a big issue, igniting many passions. As the anniversary of the evacuation approaches, Vince Winkel takes a look at the history of Love Canal, as well as the present-day concerns of its current and former residents. (10:05)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Terry FitzPatrick, Jim Metzner, Sarah Chayes, Vince Winkel
GUESTS: Michael Weishan, Kirk Brown

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The chainsaw is the symbol of forest destruction, but in the Pacific Northwest it's being used to heal clear-cut areas by creating standing dead timber for wildlife habitat.

(A chainsaw buzz)

REED: It's sort of like going out here and trying to decide which one of these vigorous young trees we're going to take the top off, kind of "Off with its head!"

CURWOOD: Also, some thoughts on the changing meaning of land ownership over the years. And how to make your garden grow, and grow, and grow during these hottest days of summer.

WEISHAN: There's many different ways that one can go about getting new plans for the garden without having to go to the garden center and plunk down a lot of money. And one of the easiest ways to do that is through division.

CURWOOD: Also, a father looks at nature through the eyes of his child. We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first the news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

The Healing Powers of Chainsaws

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

There's plenty of life to be found in dead trees. A stump or rotting log is home for many species, and standing dead trees, called snags, are the preferred nesting spots for a number of animals. So, when logging clears away all the dead trees, some species in the area go as well. Instead of waiting 100 or more years for snags to reappear on their own, some forest ecologists are now using chainsaws to recreate snag-style habitat. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.

(Walking through thicket)

FITZ PATRICK: In the hills along the Sauk River in Washington's Cascade Mountains, a team from the U.S. Forest Service is looking for a tree to kill.

REED: I was thinking that second tree back.

BROWN: So that first tree, the one right behind that?

REED: Correct.

FITZ PATRICK: The workers plan to cut the top off a 70-year-old Douglas Fir. That will create something this forest has lacked since it was clear-cut decades ago: standing dead trees known as "snags." Forest Service biologist Lisa Norris says snags are essential for a diverse assortment of wildlife.

NORRIS: Overall, about a third of all the wildlife species across the United States utilize snags or downed logs for nesting, breeding, feeding, foraging, denning. So it's a large, large number of critters we're talking about. We'll lose them if we don't have these kinds of habitat.

(River sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Old growth forests are filled with trees in various stages of death and decomposition--victims of wind or fire or lightning. The snags provide a niche for fungus and insects, even eagles and endangered spotted owls.

(Gear being moved)

FITZ PATRICK: But second-growth forests like this one are too young to contain many naturally-occurring snags, which means they can't support the same diversity of wildlife.

(Gear moving continues, clanking sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: So, freelance tree-faller Tim Brown is gearing up to turn a living tree into a snag.

BROWN: There's more life in a dead tree than a live tree. Once a tree dies, its life span is half over. It's still going to be a home for many, many, many, many species.

(More clanking)

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Brown straps on his climbing spurs and harness. The tree to be sacrificed is 80 feet tall and 2 feet thick.

(More clanking)

BROWN: It's big enough in diameter to support a pilleated woodpecker, which is the biggest of the woodpecker family. And it's along an open road, so it's a great flyway corridor for bats.

(Climbing sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: As he works his way up the tree, Mr. Brown communicates with the ground via radio.

(More clanking.)

BROWN (on radio): So, I'm gonna throw this tree down the hill, is that all right?

REED: Okay.

(A chainsaw starts up and cutting begins)

FITZ PATRICK: As the cut begins, Forest Service biologist Phyllis Reed watches from a road nearby. She looks uneasy.

(To Reed) Does it bother you to see a tree go down?

REED: Oh, yes. It always sort of is like, you know, going out here and trying to decide which one of these vigorous young trees we're going to take the top off, kind of, "Off with its head!"

(Chainsaw continues)

FITZ PATRICK: It takes just 90 seconds for the top half of the tree to come crashing down.

(Chainsaw buzz continues; tree crashes)

FITZ PATRICK: All that's left is a limbless trunk 40 feet tall.

(Chainsaw revving continues)

FITZ PATRICK: But Mr. Brown's work has really just begun. Next, he carefully carves jagged edges into the tree top to make it look more natural and expose more surface area to the elements. Then, he slips partway down, where he roughs up the bark for sapsuckers and chisels an elaborate cave for bats.

(Chainsaw buzz continues)

REED: The work that Tim does for us in the wildlife tree creation is really artistic. Hopefully the pattern of scarring that is on the tree is very natural looking and will attract some of the wildlife species that we're targeting.

(Chainsaw buzz continues, then stops.)

BROWN (on radio): That look okay from down there?

REED: Yeah, it looks like the tree snapped off in a wind storm.

BROWN (on radio): This slit here has the capability of holding about 30 bats comfortably. I wanted these bats to have a different micro-climate that they could select from during cold weather, as well as protection.

(Chainsaw starts back up)

FITZ PATRICK: Tim Brown single-handedly created the practice of sculpting trees like this for wildlife. Biologists have known about the importance of snags for some time, and have experimented with crude attempts to blast the tops off trees with dynamite. But Mr. Brown has elevated the work to an art form, with more than 1,000 specific chainsaw techniques, tailored to help everything from bears to salamanders. He's a self-taught woodsman and former logger who believes people have a role in restoring the forest to health.

BROWN: I never was happy cutting timber because most of those were huge clear-cuts. They went across streams, rivers, right down to the lake.
And it was agonizing. And as the environment began to get squeezed more and more, I felt this moral obligation to assist.

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Brown went into business for himself, and at first concentrated on dead trees that threatened roads, power lines, or homes.
Instead of taking the entire tree down, he persuaded clients to leave as much of the trunk standing as possible. Then, he turned to clear-cut areas that were starting to grow back. Mr. Brown convinced government officials that, as the forest returned, a man with a chainsaw could do some good.

BROWN: Chainsaws: sure, they're viewed as a weapon of destruction, you know, in the forest. They wipe out the forest, they kill the trees, and so forth. But they also can be viewed as a tool of healing on the landscape.

(Clanking and boring sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Brown spends part of his time evaluating how well his chainsaw creations have worked.

(Loud squeaking sounds of boring through tree)

FITZ PATRICK: On this 200-year-old cedar, he's boring a core sample to gauge the extent of decay. This tree was left behind by loggers because its center is hollow.

(Sliding out core sample)

BROWN: You can see here how rotten it is. So it's a low value for lumber, but it's a high value for wildlife.

(More clanking sounds, climbing up the tree)

FITZ PATRICK: Four years ago, Mr. Brown cut a 3-foot hole that opened up the tree's chimney-like interior. Now, he's climbing back to the opening to see what's inside.

BROWN (on radio): I think I see a squirrel up in here that just went into its nest in here.

(More clanking sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: The cavity is home to 2 squirrel nests. And the bark has numerous claw marks, a sign that bears have been investigating this tree as a future den for hibernation. The results were encouraging to the Forest Service's Lisa Norris.

NORRIS: I think it's very successful when we can come back and actually find critters there. That to me tells me it's a success as a technique, and we just need to expand the use of the technique.

FITZ PATRICK: American and Canadian officials have sponsored seminars where Tim Brown has taught his chainsaw techniques to unemployed loggers. His hope is that snag creation will one day become an important source of habitat restoration jobs in communities that once depended on cutting trees.

(Chainsaw starts up)

FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest near Seattle.

Back to top

(Chainsaw continues; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: Each year the terns return to nest in southern Connecticut. This year, they shared their mysteries with a young child.
Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

The LOE Garden Spot

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Traffic sounds, and digging with shovel)

CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's traditional gardener.
Michael, it's about 100 degrees in the shade out here. What are you doing?

WEISHAN: I'm unfortunately, I'm out here by the road in the road garden here, digging up some iris, because we're going to talk about dividing plants, because it's the perfect time of year.

CURWOOD: You don't mean mathematics, do you? Because I'm not so good on division.

WEISHAN: No, we're talking about propagating plants. There's many different ways that one can go about getting new plants for the garden without having to go to the garden center and plunk down a lot of money.
And one of the easiest ways to do that is through division. I mean, we're out here by the iris garden and I want to show you how we go about starting some new plants.


WEISHAN: Here we have a very large clump of iris, and things are starting to get a little crowded. And if I wanted to get additional iris, for instance, for another area of the yard, all I need to do is take my shovel (digging sounds) and cut in-between the plants. And you see how I've just now popped these two up?


WEISHAN: Well, (grunts) I pull them out of the ground here, and you just cut the leaves off, so that they have a little less of a strain here to get re- established.

CURWOOD: So you've left about 6 inches of green stuff on this.

WEISHAN: Exactly.


WEISHAN: And there we have two new plants ready to roll.

CURWOOD: All right. Well now, let's head back into the other part of the garden where we can look at some other things we can do on a hot July day.

(Footfalls and bird song)

WEISHAN: Dividing, of course, isn't the only way you can start new plants. There are several other ways. And one of the least-known is a process called layering. Essentially, layering is the process of getting roots established on a branch that's still attached to the mother plant.
And you can use layering on a large number of plants. Old roses are one of the easiest ones to do it on. And it's a really simple process. You dig a very shallow hole, and you take the branch and bend it down to the ground. And then you cover it with soil, like this, and you put a weight or something on top of it, like this stone. And the roots will slowly form here where we've buried this. And when it's fully rooted, we'll snip it off the mother plant and have a whole brand new rose. The nice thing about this is that plants that are very hard to propagate by seed, to have come true to seed like roses, can be propagated this way through layering.

(Scraping sounds)

WEISHAN: We still have another process that we can show you, and it's as simple as doing cutting, so let's step into the greenhouse.

(Opens greenhouse door)

Okay, right here in the greenhouse I have cut up some tips off the boxwood, and what I've done is simply filled a number of small, little pots with a good potting soil, and dipped them in a growth hormone--a common variety, it's called Rootone--and put it in the container, and put them in a damp, cool place. Keep it out of direct sunlight; it's important to keep the cuttings in the shade until they're fully rooted.

CURWOOD: Okay, so you have about, oh, 4 inches or so, 4 to 6 inches of new growth that you snipped off to do this.

WEISHAN: Exactly. We just snipped off about 4 or 6 inches of the tips of the branches, and put it right in the soil, buried it about an inch deep.

CURWOOD: So this is really a way to save dough.

WEISHAN: Yeah, you can save a lot of money. Now, what's required is a bit of patience, because obviously you have to wait for them to root and you have to wait for them to grow, but if you have the patience and not the checkbook, this is a method for you.

CURWOOD: Okay, Michael, how do you know which plants are good for cuttings, which can be divided, which can use this layering technique?

WEISHAN: (Laughs) Well, some I know from experience, and most of them I don't. So I do what everyone else should do, which is to consult a good propagation guide. And there are two great ones to start with. One was published a few years ago in the mid-'80s by Story, called The Secrets of Plant Propagation. The author is Louis Hill. This has a terrific index in the back telling you exactly when and how various plants can be propagated. Another one that came out with terrific illustrations just recently, a very easy, step by step guide, is the Taylor's Weekend Gardening Series. It's another wonderful book, and you can really save a lot of money by propagating your own plants.

CURWOOD: All right. I want to thank you for taking all this time with us today, Michael.

WEISHAN: Oh, my pleasure. A little hot, but you're always welcome, Steve.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's traditional gardener, and publisher of Traditional Gardening magazine. If you have a question for Michael or a comment, you can reach him through our web site. It's www.livingonearth.org. And click on the watering can.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Commentary: Valuing Land

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Brox has taken over the management of her family's farm. Sifting through some old papers recently, she came across the original deeds to the land. The incident got her thinking about the different ways land has been described and valued through the centuries.

BROX: When I pore over old deeds of the farm, I feel as if I am gazing into another world--one in which the contents of the barns and sheds were considered more valuable than the land itself. In 1901, the nails, the feed bags, the harnesses and hose, the hens and chickens and blind horse, were painstakingly accounted for, while the acreage was only vaguely marked by stones and trees and by fences that then stood. The low-lying fields that stretch southward from the road are called "tillage land" in those papers, and are said to contain "15 acres, more or less."

Now that the barn contents have cracked and dried and the land itself is valued beyond belief, there are many words in the older deeds that no longer apply. "More or less" hardly fits modern requirements for exactitude, and the term "tillage" can't exist alongside the current concept of highest and best use, where for final worth the assessors reimagine fields and orchards and woods as house lots of one acre, no less.

Perhaps least applicable of all to our time is the term "vacant land," which you sometimes see on the old assessors' records, and which marks woods inaccessible by road. It's land that had once been the poorer pasture let go to pines. Land that has largely been ignored all down this century.

What does it mean, vacant? As if of no worth, abandoned, empty? Or free? Whatever it means, this vacant land has recently come to light as some of the last open space in town. Realtors and developers tireless, their voices bright with desire, are inquiring about rights of way to these interior woods, which they call "land-locked properties."
"Land-locked," meaning hemmed in, limited, hindered places. These woods that have grown again from a handful of seeds that were buried or blown in or dropped by migrating birds to become the dark sway of pines.

Listen closely and you can still hear the call of the owl, that rounded and hollow, night-haunted sound that's older than the first name this place ever had. Augumtoocooke, the Pawtuckets called it, for who knows how long? Augumtoocooke, which the English took the mean the wilderness north of the Merrimack. A place apart. A place for all kinds of imaginings.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Brox lives in Dracut, Massachusetts.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Great Gull Island

CURWOOD: Great Gull Island, just off the coast of southern Connecticut, is a sanctuary for thousands of terns. These sea birds migrate there from the south Atlantic each year to nest and raise their young. Scientists from the American Museum of Natural History have been studying these terns for the past 3 decades, and that's a long time to study a single colony of birds. But a new look can also offer a refreshing perspective, especially if the eyes and ears belong to Sarah, the 7-year-old daughter of Jim and Dolores Metzner. The family recently visited Great Gull Island.

(Gulls call)

J. METZNER: On our first day at Great Gull, Lance, one of the volunteers who work on the island, takes us on a path towards the area where the terns nest. Almost as soon as we near the path, birds start circling overhead, telling us in no uncertain terms that we're on their turf.

(Screaming gulls and footfalls)

LANCE: When we walk through, we need to try to stay on the path and avoid the clumps of grass, because the smaller birds will hide down in there among the grass. I'll show you when we get down the way.

(Footfalls and more screaming gulls)

LANCE: One of their main defense mechanisms is to drop fecal matter on us, as you may have seen already. So we'll probably get hit a couple of times, but we'll try not to worry about it too much.

(More footfalls and screaming gulls)

They're pretty good shots, too. Let's take a look and check here.
This is about, I'd say, 2 weeks old.

SARAH: Cutie!

LANCE: Yeah.

SARAH: Can I hold him?

LANCE: Well, he's a little feisty. He might jump out of your hands, so--

SARAH: Can I try?

LANCE: You can pet him, though.

SARAH: Can I try? Can I try to hold him?

LANCE: Okay. Here you go.

SARAH: Hi, sweetie. He's so cute!

LANCE: We'll put him back here where he's safe. See how well they hide?
They get right back in there.

SARAH: Yeah.

LANCE: Yeah.

METZNER: With 20,000 birds nesting on the island this season, the scientists and volunteers have their hands full trying to observe the terns' behavior, catalogue every nest, and band every bird. They're under the direction of Helen Hayes, who's been coming to Great Gull for nearly 3 decades.

HAYES: There's a pipping egg.

METZNER: I'm sorry?

HAYES: The pipping egg, you see, has a little hole? And you can see the bill moving. You might even hear it.

(More screaming gulls throughout)

METZNER: Can we show this to Sarah?

HAYES: Yeah.

METZNER: Sarah, something very special to see.

HAYES: Could you hear it in there? Cheeping and it's pecking at the shell to get out.

(Cheeping sounds)

HAYES: Sarah, you see this is the little chick inside the egg, it's making a hole.

SARAH: Oh, oh, oh! It's hatching, it's hatching!

HAYES: Uh huh. With its egg tooth, that little capped area.

SARAH: So that means I can keep the egg?

HAYES: Oh, well, I don't know about that.

D. METZNER: It's going to take him a while to get out of there, sweetie.

HAYES: Listen to it. You want to listen to it? You can hear it.

(More cheeping sounds)

HAYES: Can you hear it?

SARAH: Cutie.

HAYES: There. It's a lot of work to get out of the egg.

J. METZNER: Well, this egg even has a number on it.

HAYES: Uh huh. That's the first egg in the clutch, and it will hatch first. Then the other one will hatch either tomorrow or maybe later today. Okay, we'll put it back now.

SARAH: It's bigger, it's bigger.

HAYES: Mm hm. Yeah, the hole is getting bigger and bigger, and soon the chick will pop right out.

SARAH: Maybe when we come back in 5 minutes, he'll be out.

HAYES: That's true. Maybe it will be. We'll see.

METZNER: The chicks, which hatch in July, are usually flying by the end of August and ready to depart on the trip to South America by the end of September. Helen Hayes and her volunteers depart shortly thereafter and return the following spring, just before the first terns arrive in May. Although we are guests on the island for only a few days, we genuinely feel at home there. It's easy to share the sense of unbridled enthusiasm expressed by the scientists -- and my daughter. From Great Gull Island, I'm Jim Metzner for Living on Earth.

SARAH: Mom, now I can show you all the wonderful rocks I found on the beach.

LANCE: There you go.

Back to top

(Tern calls simultaneously with music up and under: Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition)

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

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; The Bullitt Foundation; 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.

CURWOOD: When bigger is not better. France's white elephant of the nuclear age is shutting down. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt's profits for the planet, supporting initiatives that protect the Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: The San Diego Natural History Museum will soon host one of the year's hottest events. August 12 is the date of the first annual Celebration of Chiles. That's chiles as in chile peppers, spelled c-h-i-l-e like the country, as opposed to c-h-i-l-i like the stew. And one things that attendees might learn is that growing chiles in hot, dry weather, with minimal fertilizer, will yield the highest levels of capsaicin. That's the alkaloid that makes peppers taste so hot. The more yellow coloring found in the band around the chile's inner wall, the hotter the pepper. Chiles are green if harvested in August, and turn red when they ripen in September. Either way they're an excellent source of vitamins A and C, as well as potassium, calcium, and heartburn. With chiles' popularity on the rise, chile specialty stores are popping up across the country. They stock a plethora of sauces, with colorfully wicked names like "Smokin' Tonsils," "Crying Tongue," and "Hellish Relish." Or my favorite, "Fire Mud." And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

French Nukes

CURWOOD: Nuclear reactors generate about three quarters of France's electricity needs--the largest such percentage of any major industrialized nation. And the French have pressed ahead with nuclear power even after many other nations have cut back their programs. So, it came as something of a surprise when France recently announced it was shutting down the world's largest fast-breeder reactor, called the Superphenix. The controversial facility never lived up to its name. Let alone rising from its ashes, operations at Superphenix barely got off the ground. And as Sarah Chayes reports, the plant's closure promises to be one of the most costly and difficult nuclear shutdowns ever.

CHAYES: Superphenix is a squat cylinder of concrete with yellow trim, plunked down between hamlets in the green valley of the Rhone in east- central France.

(Music plays)

CHAYES: Visitors to the plant are ushered into a plush auditorium to see a film strip.

(Music continues; amplified film narration in French)

CHAYES: The proud voice tells the story of Superphenix, not letting on it's the biggest white elephant France has ever produced: a $10 billion nuclear plant that worked at capacity for only a few months in the decades since it was first switched on, and will cost a billion more dollars to dismantle. The story begins in the early 1970s. It was during the oil crisis when western nations woke up to the problem of energy dependence. The French solution was to turn to nuclear power. It now accounts for three quarters of the country's electricity with only rare public opposition. Superphenix was designed to be especially efficient by using a common variety of uranium that ordinary reactors can't use. It burned some plutonium, too, and produces plutonium fuel as a byproduct.

(Film narration continues)

CHAYES: What the film strip also doesn't mention are the violent anti-nuclear demonstrations during the early phases of construction in 1975. Many protesters came from neighboring countries to the east of France, arguing the plant and its plutonium were an environmental threat to them, too.

(Metal doors slamming closed, footfalls)

CHAYES: A visit inside begins with elaborate security measures.

(A woman speaks in French: "Ca c'est une dosimetre, je vais vous expliquer...")

CHAYES: First, you're given a dose meter, a mini-Geiger counter you clip into your pocket. Then, you dress up.

(Footfalls and a woman speaking in French: "Donc, la on va s'habiller...")

CHAYES: A helmet, a cotton doctor's coat, disposable cotton gloves and overshoes. They'll be treated as nuclear waste. Caution is key here.
Among government officials, too, these days, when it comes to Superphenix. Repeated requests to the industry ministry met with a refusal even to talk about it. In private, officials admit the plant kept breaking down and damaged the credibility of the nation's entire nuclear industry. Superphenix had a prototype, Phenix, one-fifth as big.
Maybe we missed an intermediary step, they say.

(Mechanical sounds)

CHAYES: An elevator takes you up to a circular metal walkway. A forest of brightly-painted tubes and pipes spreads out before you. The radioactive core is below, under three yards of reinforced concrete.

(Ventilator noise)

CHAYES: Piercing the walkway vertically at regular intervals are dark blue tubular machines.

(WOMAN: "Ce que l'on voit, c'est le moteur auxiliare, principale d'une pompe primaire. C'est-a-dire, ce qui va faire circuler le sodium...")

CHAYES: They are the motors of the primary sodium pumps. That's another special feature of fast neutron reactors like Superphenix. The heat from the nuclear reaction is transferred not to water, as in traditional plants, but to liquid sodium. The problem is, if liquid sodium touches air, it catches fire. If it touches water, it explodes. Superphenix was shut down for four full years after a sodium fire in 1990. Aside from such technical problems, France's energy situation has also changed since the '70’s. The national electric company is actually producing too much current because conservation measures slowed down the energy demand. Oil is cheap, for now. And uranium turns out to be plentiful, admits Superphenix director Bernard Magnon.

MAGNON: ["Les raisons du choix de creer Creys-Malville..."] TRANSLATOR: The reasons for creating Superphenix are no longer valid.
We were afraid uranium would get very expensive, and that hasn't been the case. Perhaps we moved too fast. Still, everyone agrees this type of reactor will be interesting and useful some day in the future.

CHAYES: In fact, technological or economic considerations are not what prompted the decision to close Superphenix. It was a political commitment. France's tiny Green Party made it an inviolable condition for joining the Left coalition that won last year's parliamentary elections. Green National Secretary Jean-Luc Benhamias is clear about his party's motivation.

BENHAMIAS: ["Comme nous voulons de toute facon que la France..."] TRANSLATOR: Since we want France to abandon the nuclear option in 10, 12, 15, or 20 years, fast-neutron generation has to be stopped.

CHAYES: With 56 reactors around the country and 2 under construction, it's hard to imagine France giving up nuclear energy entirely. And Superphenix's predecessor, Phenix, has just been allowed to restart after being idle for 2 years. Still, the efforts of the Green Party and other activists have begun to crack the wall of silence that has always surrounded France's nuclear choices. A policy debate has timidly begun.

(Ventilator sound; woman: "Elles sont terminees, ces machines de transfer, par trois droits, comme une pince a sucre.")

CHAYES: Danielle Perotto, who's been taking visitors through Superphenix for 15 years, now adds an explanation on how the plant will be dismantled. What looks like 2 gray stand-pipes contain pincer-like machines that will reach down and grab the fuel rods and load them onto a pivoting ramp. They'll be deposited in a container to get the sodium off, then stored in water. This process will begin next year. In the meantime, the sodium bathing the reactor core has to be kept liquid. That means the pumps have to keep turning to keep it hot. That means the plant, even though it's turned off, has to buy electricity. The regiments of pylons marching across the valley with their thick cables now buzz with current going into Superphenix, not out of it.

(Perotto speaks in French)

CHAYES: Danielle Perotto points out that all French nuclear facilities have basic shutdown plans written for them when they're built. But the details are usually worked out beginning 5 or 6 years before the plant is actually retired. Super Phoenix managers are expected to complete these studies in only 2 years, but worse, to Perotto, is that there's a whole unused core in stock.

PEROTTO: [Speaks in French: "Il est neuf, on l'a achete, il est neuf..."]

CHAYES: "It's a new one. We bought it; it's new," she says. Price tag: $200 million. Energy value: 24 billion kilowatt hours. It's going to be reprocessed, just like spent fuel. No country has ever done that before.

(Milling voices)

CHAYES: In the nearby stone and blue slate village of Morestel, the mayor recently called a gathering and a minute of silence to mark the plant's passing. Most villagers now know the decision is irreversible. Only a few dozen came to the ceremony.

THE MAYOR: [Speaks in French]

CHAYES: Still, they and their mayor are traumatized by the likely economic impact of the closure. The shutdown means that over the next several years, 700 electricity company employees and their families will be relocated, not to mention subcontractors.

THE MAYOR: ["La centrale fonctionnait tres bien..."]

CHAYES: Besides, says the mayor, it's not true Superphenix didn't work. It generated enough electricity to break even in 1996.

(Loud motors)

CHAYES: But though the decision to halt these motors is meant to be symbolic, shutting Superphenix down is not likely to signal the speedy end of nuclear energy in France. For Living on Earth, I'm Sarah Chayes in Creys-Malville.

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Energy Deregulation in California

CURWOOD: In the U.S., states are slowly deregulating their energy markets.
Already, some consumers are able to choose an electricity generator the same way they choose a long-distance telephone company. California is one of the first states to try this, and Golden State power companies have designed a variety of energy products to appeal to residential and business customers. Kirk Brown tracks the energy business as assistant director of the Center for Resource Economics in San Francisco. He says a number of firms are selling renewable power, which costs more. And some consumers say they are willing to pay more for the benefit of the environment.

BROWN: Typically speaking, a third of customers say they'll spend at least 10% more to get electricity that's better for the environment. An overwhelming percentage of customers, 70 or 80%, say that the environment would factor into their decision as far as purchasing electricity. What we don't know, though, is under an open market condition where people actually have the chance to choose, how many people actually vote with their dollars to protect the environment and buy renewable energy products. Our experience so far in California has been: though there are customers signing up, there is a lot of inertia in the marketplace. That people aren't used to thinking about electricity as a choice, and they're certainly not used to thinking about it as a choice that can be good for the environment.

CURWOOD: Well, what incentives do you have to offer people to consider buying renewable?

BROWN: Well, the state of California offers some -- they're offering a rebate program to help cover some of the additional costs of buying renewable energy for renewable energy resources that are produced in the state of California. I really personally think that the major incentive is that producing electricity is the single greatest thing that we do to pollute the environment. And for the first time ever, people can make the choice to not harm the environment in such a significant way through their use of electricity.

CURWOOD: Is it possible to get 100% renewable energy?

BROWN: Right now there are a number of different products being offered to the residential market that are 100% renewable energy. Edison's source in Los Angeles is offering a 100% product. PG&E energy service is offering a 100% renewable energy product. Green Mountain Energy Resources, though they're not offering a 100% product, is offering two different 75% products. Now, that's just for households, for individuals at the household level. Even companies are entertaining this thought of buying renewable energy, and in fact Toyota Motors Sales in Los Angeles has just opted to buy 100% renewable energy for 13 of their facilities in Los Angeles. That's enough energy, that's the equivalent of 4,000 households buying 100% renewable energy.

CURWOOD: A common concern about renewable energy, among some customers at least, is that well, you know, the wind and sunlight depend more on the weather than your local coal-fired plant. Do customers have to worry if the output of renewable energy is uneven? I mean, could I have a blackout if I'm dependent on wind?

BROWN: No, you can't. And that's where the metaphor of drawing water from a lake is very helpful. The way we get electricity is that we all share a big lake of electrons that provides all the electricity for all our households. And that lake of electrons is built up from different streams that are feeding into the lake. And the question with restructuring now is that you can vote with your dollars and choose to direct your energy dollars towards a clean stream or a clean stream of resources going into the lake. The system, however, though, this integrated pool of electrons, still is as reliable and still will be as dependable regardless of the seasonality of renewables, because of that undifferentiated pool of electrons that we all receive.

CURWOOD: If you could give us an assessment, please. Deregulation: good for renewable energy? Bad for renewable energy?

BROWN: Hmm. That's a very good question, and I think it's too early to say right now. Every state is different. In the state of California, right now, we get 11% of our energy from renewables. The national average is maybe 1 or 2%. But many states get none of their energy from renewables. My hope for restructuring is that we can focus public attention through restructuring on energy, focus it in a fresh way, in a new way, on the fact that you can buy renewables. And my hope is that that is going to be very good for the environment.

CURWOOD: Kirk Brown is assistant director of the Center for Resource Economics in San Francisco.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: If you have a comment or a question about our program, please call 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or e-mail us at LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. You can also write us through the Postal Service. The address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Coming up: the Love Canal controversy 20 years after. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Love Canal: Then and Now

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Twenty years ago this August, residents of a quiet, leafy suburb in Niagara Falls, New York, were ordered to evacuate their neighborhood. Their homes and schools, it turns out, sat atop a hazardous waste dump. Love Canal was a defining moment in history, one that catapulted toxic waste into national worry. Americans pressured lawmakers to create Superfund, the multi-billion-dollar program designed to clean up the most hazardous waste sites. And across the country the fight against toxic dumping grabbed the headlines. But the saga isn't over for former and present-day residents of Love Canal. Vince Winkel has our report.

(Electric mowers)

WINKEL: A landscaping crew is trimming a lawn along 101st Street in Niagara Falls. The grass is green and lush. But the small house is boarded up; sheets of plywood cover the windows here and on dozens of other nearby homes east of the Love Canal. In the thriving north side of the canal just 100 yards away, children are playing on a swing set.

(Squeaking swings and shouting children)

WINKEL: That's because 8 years ago, New York State officials started selling the houses here after they received a green light from the state's Department of Health. But a debate still lingers today about the legacy of Love Canal. What motivated the evacuations of 1978 and 1980? And is it now safe to live there? Joanne Hale is one of countless former residents asking those questions.

HALE: When you put your head down on your pillow at night, that's the last thing you think about: Love Canal. I mean, it's the first thing and it's the last thing. If your kid is sick, it can be a common cold, but the first thing you do is you panic, and you think oh my God, this kid is from Love Canal.

WINKEL: Joanne Hale didn't always live in fear. She says before 1978, this quiet corner of Niagara Falls was a great place to raise a family.
But during the summer of 1978, residents began asking what lurked under the ground in their neighborhood, and the problems it could cause.

WOMAN (T.V. spot): I carried a child for 9 months. Our little Julie was stillborn.
(Cries) The loss of our child may be a direct result to the chemicals.
Please don't allow this to happen to anyone else before you get them out.

WINKEL: The story made television headlines after Niagara Gazette reporter Michael Brown revealed to residents that their homes had been built adjacent to a toxic waste site that measured some 3,000 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. Hooker Chemical converted an old canal, dug by William Love in the late 19th century, into a waste site. It was eventually filled with 22,000 tons of waste, including hundreds of chemical compounds. The canal was covered with dirt. An elementary school was built almost directly above it, and rings of modest homes slowly grew out from the canal site. Michael Brown explains how the residents reacted when they learned that chemicals were seeping into their basements and lawns.

BROWN: There was a seething anxiety. I mean, you could feel things like a volcano of emotion ready to erupt, because they knew now that -- because of what I'd written -- that there was benzene in the air. They knew that there were people who felt that their health was affected, including birth defects among youngsters.

WINKEL: On August 2, 1978, state health officials ordered all pregnant women and children under the age of 2 to leave the neighborhood. Panic set in as residents watched their story play out on national television.

WOMAN (T.V. report) (shouting): Could you please tell me, do I let my 3-year-old stay?
She has a birth defect now. What do you expect of us? That is my child! Where is the difference?

WINKEL: A week later President Jimmy Carter called for the permanent evacuation of the two rings of homes around the canal, 239 houses. A fence was put up around the houses and the school. The structures were demolished and buried. Those whose homes weren't within the first two rings of houses were left in a sort of limbo. Sam Giarizzo lived a few blocks from the north end of the canal and still lives there today.

GIARIZZO: When the canal issue broke out it was an awful feeling. It was all panicky around here. Neighbors were fighting among themselves. You didn't know what was going on. The news media was hyping everything up.
And everybody was worried sick.

WINKEL: The intense media focus aggravated some residents, but Love Canal brought others together in their demands for change on both local and national levels.

LEVINE: I think that it revived the environmental movement very, very much.

WINKEL: Adi Levine is a sociologist and author of Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People.

LEVINE: The environmental movement sort of came to one of its little peaks in the early 1970s with Earth Day and the passage of the environmental protection laws. And after that initial burst of a lot of popular interest, it then became very much the topic of professionals: attorneys, for instance, and scientists. Along came Love Canal with real people that you could see, who could tell their story.

WINKEL: Among those real people was Lois Gibbs, a housewife and mother in Niagara Falls who led her neighborhood's revolt against the toxic dump.
She says the human dimension of the crisis is still felt today.

GIBBS: People died, both from the diseases and from the stresses. People got divorced as a result of the stresses. People committed suicide because we created a media circus. And the media circus was because that was the only way to put the political pressure on those who were in power. And, you know, we created some problems as a result of our organizing and our work. But we also saved many lives, and it's just -- it's really sad in this country that you have to organize this way.

WINKEL: The efforts of activists like Lois Gibbs led to a second evacuation of the Love Canal neighborhood in 1980. Authorities ordered families to leave 550 homes. Some residents and experts now question that decision. Dr. Kitty Gelberg is a New York State health inspector.

GELBERG: The second evacuation may not have been necessary. At the time, people were scared. They definitely had chemicals rising up in their areas. Their back yards, they had smells in their basement.

WINKEL: Even the journalist who broke the Love Canal story, Michael Brown, still wonders whether the press may have overstepped its bounds.

BROWN: There were some results released that some journalists from other parts of the country couldn't put into proper perspective. So, I think in some ways that they may have gone overboard in 1980. As a result, the government went overboard, too.

WINKEL: Lois Gibbs thinks those potential dangers remain. She laments the decision to resell the houses that the state bought in 1978 and '80.

GIBBS: It makes me sick when they say we're selling these homes in the northern end. What is going on? There's another agenda that the State and Federal government has that they're willing to kill people for.

WINKEL: But officials with New York's Department of Health in Albany say the chemicals are contained and that the surrounding area has been tested. Dr. Ed Horn is an epidemiologist for the state.

HORN: These studies laid out what was felt to be the best science in terms of whether there is or is not a risk--additional risk to living in these neighborhoods, because of chemicals from the Love Canal. And the studies said that the areas which were declared habitable have no additional risks as a consequence of being close to the Love Canal.

WINKEL: State health official Dr. Gelberg admits that an all-encompassing health study involving former Love Canal residents has never been done.

GELBERG: There are a number of studies that have been conducted and all of those studies have generally indicated that there is no association, but there are problems with all of the studies. Epidemiology was a relatively new science at the time, and there are a lot of issues that we know of today, that we didn't know of at that time, that really make the results questionable.

WINKEL: Those who oppose rehabitation of the neighborhood point to anecdotal evidence. They say there was a marked increase in birth defects, miscarriages, and severe skin disorders in the area during the 1970s. Two hundred and thirty once-empty homes north of the dump have been resold. For Sam Giarizzo, who never left the neighborhood and for 15 years was the only resident of his block, the resettlement is a form of vindication.

GIARIZZO: People are moving back in, you know why? Because after all this testing they found that this place is safer than any place in the country. I feel safe. I know what I got.

(Demolition machinery)

WINKEL: This summer the Environmental Protection Agency gave approval for demolishing the last 63 uninhabitable houses east of the canal site. An area which, unlike the north, did not receive a clean bill of health for residential use. Instead, an office park is in the works.

(Calling crows)

WINKEL: Today, Love Canal's empty streets are home to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of crows. Pat Brown, who still lives nearby, visits the old neighborhood frequently to gaze at the spot where her home once stood behind the fence. She says she can't help but return to the site.

BROWN: They left me a tombstone. My driveway is still there. I can drive down the street and that's what I think of it as. Just like when you lose a loved one and you bury them, you go back and see a tombstone. And they left me my tombstone. Behind the big green fence.


WINKEL: For Living on Earth, I'm Vince Winkel reporting.

Back to top

(Crows; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. We bid farewell to Peter Christianson, who will be missed. We had help from Jim Frey, Elsa Heidorn, Rebecca Slatick-Knowles, and Jody Kirshner, and member station KPLU in Seattle. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Joyce Hackel is our senior editor, and our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. 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 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; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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