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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

October 9, 1998

Air Date: October 9, 1998

SEGMENTS

New Green D'Amato / Richard Schiffman

There's probably no tighter, nor more acrimonious race for public office this year than the contest between New York's three term Republican Senator Alphonse D'Amato and his Democratic challenger, Representative Charles Schumer. Everything counts in this duel to the finish, including the environmental records of the combatants. Mr Schumer gets higher marks from environmental activists than Mr. D'Amato, but the conservative senator is not about to concede the ecology vote. Indeed as Richard Schiffman reports, Senator D'Amato seems to be turning a brighter shade of green. (08:30)

Election Season: Mean, Green, and Dirty

Steve Curwood talks with Living on Earth's Peter Thomson about the many senate and congressional races heating up this political season where pro and anti green seats are in close contest. (05:18)

Estuaries 3: How Farming Impacts Salmon Territory / Terry FitzPatrick

A new battle is emerging over salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Efforts to save certain species of the fish from extinction have focused largely on the damage caused by logging, dams, and urban development. But now, scientists are assessing agriculture's toll, in particular, the impact of farming on estuaries, the places where rivers flow into the sea. In the next installment of our series on America's estuaries, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick explores efforts to reclaim land for the benefit of fish. (06:25)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Fifty years ago this week, oceanographers on the Albatross III completed the first large-scale exploration of the ocean floor using modern sonar techniques and announced to the world that the bottom of the sea is covered with vast mountain ranges, rolling valleys, and immense plains. (01:30)

Navajo Uranium Miners: Giving Their All / Sandy Tolan

One day in 1950, a Navajo man named Paddy Martinez picked up a few yellow rocks while herding sheep east of Crownpoint, New Mexico. His handful of ore turned out to be uranium. And the find, together with discoveries in Utah, sparked a series of mining booms that changed life forever in the southwest. By the mid-fifties the entire region was firmly entrenched in the nuclear age. But as hundreds of families who mined the uranium would later find out, the yellow ore was poison. In the generation since the old mines shut down, dozens of Navajo miners and others have died of lung cancer. Many more suffer from debilitating respiratory diseases. Now, a new mining company wants to go after the yellow rock. Last month at a hearing held by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Navajo citizens heard promises that, this time, extracting the uranium will be safe. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan covered the uranium mining story in 1982. Last month we sent him back to Navajo country. (20:10)

Listener Letters

And now it’s time to hear from our listeners, with responses to our story on the mass shooting of double-breasted cormorants in upstate New York, our coverage of the Green Party race for congressional seats in New Mexico, and commentator Michael Silverstein’s proposal that environmentalist activists learn how to play political hardball. (02:15)

Leave the Leaves

Host Steve Curwood decides to dispatch with the task of leaf raking this year... and enjoy the ecological benefits. (02:25)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Richard Schiffman, Terry FitzPatrick, Sandy Tolan
GUEST: Peter Thomson
COMMENTATOR: Steve Curwood

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

In a tight race to defend his Senate seat against Democratic Congressman Charles Schumer, New York Republican Alphonse D'Amato is chasing environmental votes. D'Amato scores low with many environmental organizations, but he's getting the green light from activists fighting an incinerator on Long Island.

KAYMAN: I don't know anything about voter scorecards or tallies that might have been taken. What I know is that I had a real problem, and he took care of it for us.

CURWOOD: Even green politics is local politics. Also, new research on the perils of polluted estuaries for salmon.

CAGNEY: They need areas to change their physiology from a freshwater environment to a saltwater environment, and estuaries are where they need to do that.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this round-up of the news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

New Green D'Amato

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. There's probably no tighter, nor a more acrimonious race for public office this year, than the contest between New York's 3-term Republican Senator, Alphonse D'Amato, and his Democratic challenger, Representative Charles Schumer. Everything counts in this duel to the finish, including the environmental records of the combatants. Mr. Schumer gets higher marks from environmental activists than does Mr. D'Amato, but the conservative Senator is not about to concede the ecology vote. Indeed, as Richard Schiffman reports, Senator D'Amato seems to be turning a brighter shade of green.

(A milling crowd)

D'AMATO: Good to be with you, thank you.

SCHIFFMAN: Senator D'Amato is walking down the aisle of a Brooklyn synagogue in the heart of his opponent's Congressional district, working the crowd of recent Russian immigrants.

D'AMATO: Thank you. Thank you, God bless you.

SCHIFFMAN: This type of older, more traditional ethnic audience has been one of the mainstays of Senator D'Amato's support in previous elections. But the Senator knows that this year he'll have to reach out to some groups not usually sympathetic to his conservative politics. With polls showing the race a statistical dead heat, the New York Republican is courting moderate Democrats as well as voters who are concerned about the environment.

(Commercial voice-over with dramatic music in the background: "New York's Number-One polluter is hundreds of feet tall and lives in the Midwest. They build their smokestacks tall to send their pollution here...")

SCHIFFMAN: During the last 2 years Senator D'Amato has spent over a million dollars on television commercials like this one, which show him fighting for New York State's environment.

(Voice over with music: "Al D'Amato makes a difference because he gets things done. Al D'Amato: fighting and winning for you."

SCHIFFMAN: But some of the Senator's critics wonder whether Mr. D'Amato's enthusiasm for protecting the natural world marks another election year conversion.

(People milling outdoors)

WOMAN: The Democrats claim that you're running away from your record. That you're using high-profile issues and that you've changed your position on the environment, on HMO reform.

D'AMATO: Totally, total nonsense. First of all, the record speaks for itself. I am proud of a record that has fought to stop the bombardment of the pollutants, airborne terrorism. It was my legislation and now joined with Senator Moynihan and I together that takes them on. And I encourage the cleaner standards and they should have been applied longer and before.

SCHIFFMAN: Senator D'Amato is referring to a bill that would force industries in the Midwest to reduce windborne pollution that drifts over state borders and causes acid rain in the Northeast. Environmental activists praised the Senator's leadership on this bill and on certain other air pollution issues that affect New York State. But some charge that his support for a few well- publicized green issues has been used to camouflage an otherwise poor record.

DAVIDOFF: Senator D'Amato would like to be known as an environmental hero.

SCHIFFMAN: Linda Stone Davidoff heads the New York League of Conservation Voters.

DAVIDOFF: Our role is to test those claims that are made by politicians as to whether they're really environmentalists or not, and to test them against the record. The National League of Conservation Voters rates the United States Congress, House and Senate, on every environmental vote of importance. and while Senator D'Amato's record tends to wander all over the map, it is, overall, embarrassingly and consistently low with a lifetime voting average for 18 years in the Senate of 32%: a failing grade, I think, by anybody's calculation.

SCHIFFMAN: And it's the worst environmental record of any senator in the Northeast, according to Linda Stone Davidoff. Alphonse D'Amato's offenses, she says, include moving to slash the Environmental Protection Agency's budget, and to gut its regulatory authority. Senator D'Amato's staff disputes the way the League tallies their scores, and they say that the Senator has a solid record of helping constituents with environmental complaints. Constituents like Anne Kayman.

KAYMAN: The problem was that we had a 200-ton-per-day municipal garbage incinerator, mass-burn incinerator, that was the oldest and dirtiest on Long Island.

SCHIFFMAN: Anne Kayman was a leader in the fight to close down the Long Beach incinerator, a stone's throw from Senator D'Amato's birthplace on Long Island's South Shore. It operated illegally, she says, burning hazardous and medical wastes at night in order to avoid detection. But it wasn't until Senator D'Amato personally intervened that New York's Department of Environmental Conservation shut it down.

KAYMAN: I don't know anything about voter scorecards or tallies that might have been taken. What I know is that I had a real problem, and this affected real people in a small corner of Long Island, and he took care of it for us.

SCHIFFMAN: Senator D'Amato's well-known enthusiasm for dealing with voter complaints has earned him the title Senator Pothole in the New York press. But activists, like attorney Larry Shapiro of the New York Public Interest Research Group, say that the Senator's praiseworthy actions on the local level do not generally translate into support for laws to reign in polluting industry and to expand consumer protections.

SHAPIRO: He has developed, in a really clever but I think somewhat cynical way, this ability to gain environmental points by being on the right side of high-profile, local fights. Yet his role as a Senator in voting on or proposing legislation has mostly been a negative one.

SCHIFFMAN: The Environmental Working Group in Washington tracks contributions to all US Senators. According to their data, Senator D'Amato has received over $700,000 since his last election from political action committees affiliated with companies that have lobbied against strong environmental regulation. Almost half of this money came from insurance and industry groups working to weaken the Superfund law on toxic clean-ups. In 1995, Senator D'Amato voted for an indefinite moratorium on listing new Superfund sites. And he also voted to weaken a community right-to-know law, which forces industry to disclose toxic chemicals released into the air and water. The connection between Senator D'Amato's votes and his corporate contributors has been a theme of the Green Party candidate for the New York Senate.

KOVEL: Hi, there, I'm Joe Kovel running for the US Senate. This is about global warming and Al D'Amato, how he's not dealing with it.

WOMAN: Uh huh.

KOVEL: It's very important. Your future depends on it. I'm serious.

WOMAN: Global warming.

KOVEL: Yeah, you know how the planet's getting warmer? All these storms...

SCHIFFMAN: Green Party members are distributing leaflets outside of Senator D'Amato's office in midtown Manhattan.

KOVEL: Senator D'Amato says he's senator of the potholes. I say let's be the senator of the globe, okay? Let's take the whole world into account. And so we're going to go up there and present this petition to him to let him know that you want...

SCHIFFMAN: The Green Party's petition calls on Senator D'Amato to take a stand on the Kyoto Accords to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Environmental activists say that the Senator has been evasive on this issue in the past.

(To D'Amato) Some scientists say that if global warming continues, in the 21st century parts of Long Island and New York City will be underwater. If the Kyoto Accords come up for a vote, how do you plan to vote on that?

D'AMATO: To be supportive. I've indicated that in the past. Notwithstanding there are some claims that may place a disproportionate burden. We have to see to it that within this country and other nations reach those standards.

SCHIFFMAN: But some of the Senator's critics say they're not convinced that his election year sympathy for the accord on global warming will translate into a vote on the floor of the Senate. Mr. D'Amato joined with most of the rest of the Senate last summer in supporting a resolution to shift the onus for limiting greenhouse gases away from the industrialized nations. Global warming may not be the leading issue in the race for the New York Senate seat, but in one of this year's most hotly-contested elections, the block of swing voters who put the environment first may hold the key to Senator D'Amato's political future. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman reporting.

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Election Season: Mean, Green, and Dirty

CURWOOD: The New York Senate race is only one of a number of Congressional races around the country on which the balance of power on environmental issues could turn. Environmental policy watchers of all stripes are following a half a dozen very close races in the Senate and more than a dozen in the House. Joining us now to talk about some of these races is Living on Earth's senior correspondent Peter Thomson, who joins us on the line now from San Francisco. Hi, Peter.

THOMSON: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Well, Peter, it looks like one of those big races is right there on your home turf.

THOMSON: That's right. It's the race between Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who's been a real leader on many environmental issues, and California Secretary of State Matt Fong, who's a fairly traditional pro-business Republican. We heard in Richard Schiffman's piece about the League of Conservation Voters. Well, Barbara Boxer to them is about as close to perfect as you can get in this Senate. Meanwhile, the League's conservative counterpart, a group known as the League of Private Property Voters, has put Boxer on its enemies list. Barbara Boxer's making environmental issues a key part of her campaign, but she's having a hard time differentiating herself from Fong on the environment, because as Secretary of State he just doesn't have much of a record there. So, the race is likely to turn on other things, and one of those things could be the Lewinsky affair. Barbara Boxer's daughter is married to Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother. She's been very slow to criticize the President on the whole Lewinsky affair, and a lot of Republicans have really gone after her over that issue. So, she's in a real dogfight right now.

CURWOOD: And she was very quick to raise her voice on the whole Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill affair. In fact, a whole bunch of fairly progressive women were swept into the Senate after that. How are the rest of them doing?

THOMSON: Well, at least a couple of them are in real trouble. Carol Mosely-Braun of Illinois is probably the Senate's most vulnerable Democrat. Her challenger is a State Senator named Peter Fitzgerald, who's pouring millions of his own money into the race. She's been a reliable ally for greens, but she has serious political and ethical challenges, and she could be gone. The other member of that Class of '92 is facing a stiff challenge back here in the West, and that's Senator Patty Murray of Washington. Like Moseley-Braun, she's been more of a follower than a leader on the environment, but she has been a steady vote for the greens. She's never generated much excitement in Washington, though, and she's up against one of the shining stars of the conservative Republican wing. That's representative Linda Smith. The League of Private Property Voters considers her a champion of conservative environmental positions, and they've put Murray on their enemies list.

CURWOOD: Now, any other races we should be talking about here?

THOMSON: Well, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada is also in a tough fight. He's another strong green voice in the Senate, and he's facing a stiff challenge from conservative Republican Representative John Ensign. Meanwhile, there are open seats that have been long-held by pro-green Democrats, and they can go to much less pro-green Republicans in Ohio, Kentucky, and Arkansas.

CURWOOD: Is this all bad news for pro-environment liberals? Or is there any good news out there in the Senate?

THOMSON: Well, they could perhaps take heart in Indiana, where they may pick up a seat in the Senate. Perhaps the long shots in North Carolina, Colorado, and Georgia. But those are all uphill fights for green Democrats, in large part because the political trends in those states clearly favor Republicans. So at best, it will probably be a status quo election in the Senate for liberal greens. They'll be lucky to hold onto what they've got.

CURWOOD: Okay, quickly, we should go over to the other side of the Capitol Building. How do things look for races in the House of Representatives?

THOMSON: Well, percentage-wise, the difference between Republicans and Democrats is not as great there as it is in the Senate, and the change that's likely to come about as this election season plays out is not likely to be as great as well. Having said that, conservatives are hopeful of picking up a number of seats. One of them is right here in California, where a long-time incumbent, strong environmentalist George Brown is facing a tough race from a developer, Elia Perozi. The Sierra Club is running pro-Brown ads there, as they are in a number of other races. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are actually gunning for a couple of conservative Democrats in Alabama and Texas. In both of those cases, a state-wide trend toward Republicans could actually work in the liberals' favor. Meanwhile, conservatives hope to knock off environmentalists in Oregon and Maine.

CURWOOD: Okay, Peter, at the end of the day what's hanging in the balance here? Are there big issues that could be decided one way or the other depending on the outcome of this election?

THOMSON: Well, we'll keep on seeing actually the same old battles. There's nothing really new coming up, but there's a lot of old business that hasn't been resolved. Endangered Species Act reauthorization, Clean Air and Clean Water legislation, Superfund, Federal Lands debates, climate change, the Kyoto Protocol. Nothing really new, but a lot of unresolved battles still being fought. One thing to remember, though is that whatever happens to President Clinton, there will still be a Democrat in the White House willing to wield his veto pen against any legislation that comes out of Congress that he doesn't like.

CURWOOD: Thanks, Peter. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson.

THOMSON: Thanks, Steve.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: We welcome your comments on our program. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15.

Coming up: dams may offer the biggest threat to endangered salmon, but farming also poses a major risk. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Estuaries 3: How Farming Impacts Salmon Territory

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A new battle is emerging over salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Efforts to save certain species of the fish from extinction have focused largely on the damage caused by logging, dams, and urban development. But now, scientists are assessing agriculture's toll. In particular, the impact of farming on estuaries, the places where rivers flow into the sea. In the next installment of our series on America's estuaries, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick explores efforts to reclaim land for the benefit of fish.

(A boat engine; traveling through water)

FITZ PATRICK: The Skagit River north of Seattle is one of the West's most important salmon streams. Fish begin their life in cold clear headwaters in the Cascade Mountains, and during their journey to the ocean pass through a wide muddy estuary on the shores of Puget Sound.

CAGNEY: I think we're still up here somewhere.

FITZ PATRICK: Biologist Pat Cagney of the US Army Corps of Engineers has come to this estuary because of the critical role it plays in salmon survival. At the point where the river currents converge with saltwater tides, salmon must accomplish one of nature's most difficult transformations.

CAGNEY: They need areas to change their physiology from a freshwater environment to a saltwater environment, and estuaries are where they need to do that.

(Boat engine continues)

FITZ PATRICK: The change happens at the cellular level, and ideally fish have weeks, even months, to complete the switch. An estuary's mix of fresh and salt water makes it a type of halfway house where salmon can also grow larger and stronger as they prepare for life in the ocean. However, for nearly a century, many fish have been unable to make this gradual transition, and instead have been swept out of the river into the sea before they're ready. That's because in the early 1900s, more than half the tide lands of the Skagit were diked and drained by farmers.

CAGNEY: This is what the West, how the West was built. The cities that grew up around here were built around that kind of a philosophy that we can live in the floodplain areas as long as we build our levees high, and all this will be improved land that has a commercial value.

FITZ PATRICK: Biologists consider the loss of estuary habitat to be one of the key reasons salmon are on the brink of extinction. Fish that make the fresh-to-saltwater transition too quickly aren't as likely to survive. Because they also miss out on the nurturing environs of an estuary, they wind up smaller and weaker, more likely to be eaten by predators. So, Mr. Cagney's team is planning to restore parts of the river to the way it looked before farmers arrived. They're surveying key sections of the Skagit estuary and will soon blow up parts of the dike.

(Boat comes to a halt; engine's cut. Sexauer unfolds a map)

SEXAUER: So, here we are.

FITZ PATRICK: Engineer Bruce Sexauer outlines the plan on a map. The area that's involved is no longer used by farmers.

SEXAUER: What we're going to do is we're going to create levee breaches down here in this area, in this area. And that's going to restore tidal inundation, daily tidal inundation to this entire area. The whole goal is just to restore it back to nature and let the currents and the conditions out here do all the restoration itself.

(A distant plane engine)

FITZ PATRICK: The Skagit River project is one of 2 dozen restoration efforts involving every major waterway in Puget Sound. Reclaiming habitat is one of the newest techniques in the struggle to rescue the Northwest's dwindling supply of wild salmon. The pilot project for this effort is proving that restoration does work.

(Surf and gulls)

FITZ PATRICK: This is Spencer Island at the mouth of the Snohomish River. The island's interior looks like a typical salt marsh with clusters of vegetation surrounded by mud flats. The water level rises and falls with the tide 12 feet every 6 hours.

(Splashing)

FITZ PATRICK: Biologist Curtis Tanner of the US Fish and Wildlife Service slogs through the mud to evaluate how the tides are affecting the kinds of plants that grow here.

(More splashing)

TANNER: The plants are really telling you what's happening to the environment. The plants are really sort of an indicator of the hydrology of how wet the place is, of the salinity, how salty it is. And the plants are certainly important by their own right, but they also provide the structure, the habitat that the fish and wildlife sources rely on.

FITZ PATRICK: There have been important changes in plant life since engineers breached the dikes that separate Spencer Island from the tides of Puget Sound. Invasive grasses and cattails that thrived on freshwater are giving way to salt-tolerant sedges and bullrush. They attract the kinds of insects that juvenile salmon consume.

TANNER: Insects are growing on the plants and falling in the water when the tide comes in. And salmon are sucking them up like little vacuum cleaners.

(Dripping water)

FITZ PATRICK: Tides are also carving a maze of waterways. Some are spacious channels. Others are rivulets just a few inches deep.

(To Tanner) Salmon will come up this?

TANNER: Absolutely, that's plenty of water for salmon. We're not talking about adult fish here returning to spawn. We're talking about juvenile fish that are an inch and a half to 2 inches long. They'll come in here during high tide when this area is underwater, do their thing, eat, feed, hang out, that used to be in an estuary, and they'll move back down into these channels as the tide goes out.

FITZ PATRICK: It's been 4 years since the dikes were breached at Spencer Island, and though fish are recolonizing the region, complete recovery may take a decade. Still, Mr. Tanner is convinced Nature can reclaim the marsh without more help from people. Scientists say restoring estuaries won't in itself bring salmon back from the brink. That will require a broader effort to limit fishing and protect upstream spawning grounds. There's even an experiment underway in one of the region's largest estuaries, Padilla Bay, to prevent eroded soil from washing off farm fields and damaging a sensitive marine reserve. These efforts are important because experts say salmon will never fully rebound without healthy estuaries, where fish can prepare for their perilous journey to the sea. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(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.

Our series on estuaries is funded in part by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: race, radioactivity, and redemption. The legacy of the Navajo uranium miners. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Stonyfield Farm and Living on Earth are partners in the 1998 Planet Protector Contest, and we want to hear from kids 8 to 14 about what they're doing to protect the planet. To enter, kids can send a 1-page essay about their efforts to build a healthy planet. Look for contest details on our Web site. That's www.livingonearth.org. Or, on Stonyfield Farm Planet Protector quart containers.

(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: Fifty years ago this week, oceanographers on the Albratross 3 made a big splash when their expedition ended in Sweden. They had just completed the first large-scale exploration of the ocean floor, using modern sonar techniques, and announced to the world that the bottom of the sea was covered with vast mountain ranges, rolling valleys, and immense plains, just like on dry land. Since then, scientists have found underwater volcanoes 3 miles down. At that depth it is completely dark and close to freezing. We still don't know much about life down there, except that most of the creatures discovered so far are less than 12 inches long, swim with their mouths permanently open, and have long, protruding limbs. And almost all of them possess specialized light-producing organs. These are good for recognizing mates and warding off predators. At that depth you don't want to be without your flashlight. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Navajo Uranium Miners: Giving Their All

CURWOOD: One day in 1950, a Navajo man named Paddy Martinez picked up a few yellow rocks while herding sheep east of Crownpoint, New Mexico. His handful of ore turned out to be uranium. And the fine, together with discoveries in Utah, sparked a series of mining booms that changed life forever in the Southwest. By the mid-50s the entire region was firmly entrenched in the nuclear age. But as hundreds of families who mined the uranium would later find out, the yellow ore was poison. In the generation since the old mine shut down, dozens of Navajo miners and others have died of lung cancer. Many more suffer from debilitating respiratory diseases. And now, a new mining company wants to go after the yellow rock. Last month at a hearing held by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Navajo citizens heard promises that this time, extracting the uranium will be safe. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan covered the uranium mining story in 1982. Last month we sent him back to Navajo country.

(A jazz band plays "All of Me")

TOLAN: Late afternoon, at an open-air steak house just north of Navajo Country, in Mexican Head, Utah, a veteran uranium worker wraps large calloused hands around a can of Coors, remembering the boom days.

HOWE: There was a market for uranium, and people were just making a living with it. Basically go out and find one and get a lease on it and go mine it.

TOLAN: Clint Howe drove the uranium trucks from the mines to the mills. He hauled his rig to the good ore seams, drilling into the belts of uranium up in Utah and Colorado and down in the Navajo reservation.

HOWE: All over the Four Corners, west of Blanding and down along the Grand Canyon, Arizona.

TOLAN: Clint Howe looks south to the San Juan River and Navajo country just beyond. There lie the old mines and the piles of radioactive waste tailings from the mills. Mr. Howe drilled many mines on Navajo land. It seemed like good work back then, he remembers, when jobs were otherwise scarce. That was before the sickness came.

HOWE: Well, things were pretty lax back then (laughs). They didn't have a lot of safety standards. They were dusty, they were smoking, the air was bad. A lot of this on the reservation was done that way. If you breathe dust you breathe rocks, and it's got the uranium in it, and it embeds in you and it stays there. And that's where a lot of that problem come from.

(Band continues playing; fade to highway sounds)

TOLAN: Across the river the air turns warm. So does the color of the land. Red buttes rise out of the desert floor. In the distance, lines of rain arc gently to land like a soft white brush. I recall the first time I traveled this country 16 years ago on my first real reporting assignment.

(A tape plays; voices)

TOLAN: I dug out my old tapes from that journey. Driving through Monument Valley, I listen again to Big John and Tommy D., former uranium miners. Strong men they were, with powerful shoulders and hacking coughs.

(A man speaks in Navajo) TRANSLATOR: We used to blast the rocks just before lunch break. But when we went back in, we could still smell all the dust. There was no ventilation in the tunnel. There were no safety masks. Coveralls were not required.

(Second man speaks in Navajo) TRANSLATOR: When I was on the job, only white men dressed for safety and went down into the tunnel. They never told us, they never asked us to wear these things. We did talk about it; maybe it's dangerous. Why is he wearing all those protective clothes. Why don't they do the same for us?

TOLAN: I was 26, fresh out of college, and astounded. Big John and Tommy D. had worked in the narrow shafts bored into the sides of hills. In all a thousand mines were dug across the reservation. In these dusty, unventilated dog holes, miners breathed in radon gas, whose decay elements cause cancer; and silica, which can lead to deadly respiratory disease. The government wanted the ore for nuclear arms. They contracted with small companies and big ones like Kerr McGee, but no one told the miners it was dangerous. I remember Big John and Tommy D. back in '82, both sitting there looking stunned.

(A man speaks in Navajo) TRANSLATOR: We'd go home with our clothes stained yellow with uranium. To us it looked like the corn pollen we used in our ceremonies. We used to drink the waters from the mines. It was cool.

(Second man speaks in Navajo) TRANSLATOR: When I started working for the mine I was normal, healthy, and young. Now my lungs are no good any more. I cannot do a job as a man, a normal man, any more. A lot of my coworkers have died, and now the doctors tell me that there is a lot of big spots on my lungs, the size of golf balls, all over my lungs.

(First man speaks in Navajo) TRANSLATOR: People tell me not to take it so hard, but sometimes, when you're in so much pain, it's hard not to think about it. To think about your grandchildren, your wife, your family, and the suffering you are going through. Sometimes I cannot bear these things.

(More voices speak on tape; a voice says, "I'm very, very sorry.')

TOLAN: September 1998. I switch off the old tapes and turn off the main road and into a deep red valley. Pinion and juniper cling high to steep rock bluffs. This is Cove, Arizona, ground zero of the old Navajo uranium district. Dozens of mines are scattered through the hills above us. My guide is Dorothy Jonie with the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers.

JONIE: I know a lot of people are sick, and I wish I would help them out, like, cure them, but there's nothing.

TOLAN: In the 16 years since I met Big John, a lot of people have gone, like Dorothy's father and the fathers of her coworkers. They've succumbed to diseases with no names in the Navajo language.

(To Jonie) What's the word for cancer, that people use for cancer in Navajo?

JONIE: Chlodonatzeeeyee (Shlo-do-not-see-hee), they call it.

TOLAN: How does that translate exactly?

JONIE: No medicine or method will ever cure that disease...

(People call out "Hello.")

TOLAN: Our first stop in Cove is the new senior and daycare center. In the cafeteria we meet Rosalyn Aguirree. She's 38. She just lost her father.

AGUIRREE: There was no cure, no cure for this disease that he had. All that fiber stuff was just penetrated in his lungs. He was spitting out blood, and all his bone got infected. He was built big, he was built real strong and muscular, and real healthy to 18, like, 20 years and just a few short months. I think he went down like maybe 8 sizes in his clothes. He just looked like a skeleton with the skin over it. You just watch him die and there's nothing you can do.

(A car door shuts)

TOLAN: At the Cove chapter house, the local body of government, Dorothy and I go to look for miners. But there aren't any around. Travel worker Nelson Yazzie says most of them are gone.

YAZZIE: 'Cause I lost a lot of good people around here, and there's only a few left, men are living around here.

TOLAN: We stand in front of a hand-drawn map of the Cove chapter. Nelson traces his hand through the valleys, down the dirt roads in the canyons. He rests his finger on the map, right where his mother's house is, and turns toward me.

YAZZIE: My dad passed away when I was 2 years old. I never knew him. I think most of his time he spent time in the hospital. A lot of these elderlies that we have, there are a lot of widows. My mama is a widow; 2 of my aunts are widows. Most of them, the ladies, the elderly women that live in here, they're widows. And because of the mine. There's only mostly, like, 10 or 20% left.

TOLAN: Of course, not all of those deaths were from uranium. A lot of miners just got older, died from other causes. But lung cancer rates for Navajo miners, like other underground miners, are more than triple what they should be. And most Navajo miners didn't smoke. Death rates for tuberculosis and respiratory diseases are more than 2-1/2 times the average.

YAZZIE: We didn't know what we were really going against.

TOLAN: Cove feels like a place ravaged by war. In fact, the men of Cove were footsoldiers in a global conflict. Speaking little or no English, they worked the dogholes, picking and shoveling and carting out radioactive rocks to be ground into a powder called yellowcake, placed inside nuclear warheads and pointed at the Soviet Union. It was medieval labor in the nuclear age.

YAZZIE: I feel real bad about it. Real bad about it. There's a real, real big scar in the heart, that the Federal Government never told us what kind of effect it was going to have on our fathers. So we see that we've just been used. For us I stare, and there's a scar in the heart.

TOLAN: In the tremendous quiet out on the land, the widows of Cove have had a lot of time to think.

BENNALLY: I was just mad and mad at the government, saying what in the world is going on with those people? Whoever are the governments? Boy, they really got me.

TOLAN: Anna Mae Bennally lives in a country of sage and loamy soil. To the south a rough butte juts out like a red face; Rock Nose, the Navajos call it. It's near Black Horse Wash, up from Crying Mexican Rock.

BENNALLY: Our flesh and blood are the same as they are in this government, and I can't see why they want for us to suffer more and die of the cancer; they call it uranium cancer. So I want for them to do something for us, pay us back for what they have done to our good lives.

TOLAN: In 1979 a group of miners sued the US Government, claiming negligence and demanding compensation. Repeated medical studies overwhelmingly linked underground uranium mining to increased cancers. But the United States argued it was not responsible, even though it was government demand for uranium that sparked the boom. The case went to the Supreme Court. The miners lost. Eventually, Congress stepped in, authorizing compensation to families of uranium workers. But the government told Anna Mae Bennally her case wasn't strong enough. Her claims were denied, along with dozens of others. Now, Congress may pass another law to make the payments come easier. Mrs. Bennally hopes for her share as partial compensation for the dark, gaping holes in her community.

BENNALLY: One time we went down into the mine. It was just scary down there. It seems like there's something going to grab you. And yet it was something that grabs everybody, that I was thinking you know, all that uranium thing.

TOLAN: In 1992, Navajo president Peterson Zah signed a moratorium on uranium, declaring the ore would not be mined again on Navajo land until the process can be proved safe. But now, a generation after the last mine closed, there's a new proposal to mine uranium in the Navajo communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint. And it's pitting Navajo against Navajo.

MAN: If you take the time to study the history of my people, you will see all the lies, all the backstabbing, all the destruction and death that non-Indians have caused against my people.

TOLAN: Navajo citizens faced each other at Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings on a proposed new mining operation this fall in Crownpoint.

MAN: Why can't you guys mine in Beverly Hills or New York, or some other place? (Audience applauds) Why does it have to be our land? Why?!

WOMAN: We want progress. We do not want to stay being poor the rest of our lives. I believe the mine is safe using the new technology, in contrast with the old conventional minings that they had in the past.

TOLAN: The new mines, by HRI Corporation, would be different from the days of Big John and the dogholes. With the new technique, oxygen and sodium bicarbonate would be injected underground into uranium-bearing rock. The uranium would dissolve out of the sandstone and be pumped back to the surface. No miners and no mounds of radioactive tailings waste. HRI President Dick Clement.

CLEMENT: Any thinking person has to be compassionate about what happened in the past, and there were a number of people that worked in those old mines that didn't get proper ventilation. And people, a lot of people got lung cancer from the radon gas that was present. But this type of mining, it mines uranium without having the presence of radon at all. So consequently, the concerns that people have had in the past are not present in this type of operation.

(Paper shuffling)

MAN: Okay, go on to the next place?

MAN 2: Do you want to look around this property at all? Would you like to go have Sal show you...

TOLAN: HRI officials lead supporters, the NRC judge, environmental groups, and anxious citizens on a site tour. We come to a stop between a pair of giant pits lined with black rubber, which would serve as evaporative ponds for the uranium-laced water. Some wonder whether HRI will take a single pound out from under here. Right now there's a glut in the uranium market, and it costs a lot more to mine uranium than it's worth right now. But HRI says the market will pick up, and they want to be ready. So do opponents. They remember the big uranium spill in 1979 in Church Rock. They worry about HRI transporting uranium down a mountain road, about the processing plant being so close to 2 churches and an elementary school. And especially, one woman tells the HRI representatives, about the water supply.

WOMAN: Well you know, when they had this mine in here several years ago in the 1970s, just 15 miles out of here, Smith Lake, it's true, you know, the water was good at one time there. And now people don't drink it. They come to Crownpoint and haul water, because their water's not good.

MAN: That was a different kind of uranium mining, wasn't it?

MAN 2: Yeah, that was a different kind of uranium mine.

WOMAN: And I guess, you know, that's a big thing for us, too. We don't want that to happen here.

MAN: No, neither do we.

MAN 2: No, and neither do they.

TOLAN: HRI promises it will clean up the underground water contaminated in the leach mining process, and that Crownpoint's water supply will remain untouched. Environmental groups and many residents are skeptical.

LOVEJOY: Even with the best technology they claim will prevent any water contamination, I don't believe that.

TOLAN: On a flat stretch of land west of town, Linda Lovejoy, New Mexico State Representative, stands near the house where she was raised. Her family leases this land from another Navajo family. Beneath our feet lie rich seams of uranium. If the mine does start up, Ms. Lovejoy says her landlords and other Navajo landholders here could stand to make millions of dollars.

LOVEJOY: They're just interested in this whole uranium development for money. And I don't blame them for thinking that way. We are in a very depressed area. Crownpoint and the entire Navajo nation. And people do look for sources, other sources, just to buy food, just to buy clothes for their children. So when somebody offers them money, they'll take it, and they won't think of the future.

JOHNSON: They assured me that everything would, you know, be safe, because otherwise I wouldn't have signed the lease.

TOLAN: Across the fence from Ms. Lovejoy's home, Wilbert Johnson stands near his house amidst 2 dozen broken-down cars in a kind of open-air garage. Mr. Johnson says he's reassured by the company's promises.

JOHNSON: If it's so bad, why is everybody using it? You know, the Japanese have it and the French are using it, you know. I mean, if we're going to be like you, then, you know, at least give us a break, you know? I mean, if it's safe and if they say it's safe and they've assured us. They have all these people that are engineers and, you know, deal with the mining. To me, it's opportunity for the community. I fix cars for a living, see, and jobs are scarce.

TOLAN: Spark plugs and U-joints and solenoids are scattered on makeshift wooden tables. Mr. Johnson says he and his fellow landholders could use some help for their dreams.

JOHNSON: Here's where I plan to put my shop, see. Be a 2-bay shop. Maybe I can have a couple of people working, you know, at that time when things get rolling. I do valve jobs, I do -- if the cylinders aren't bad I go ahead and overhaul, do some overhauls.

(Cricket song)

TOLAN: As we talk the sky turns to fire, then dulls to charcoal. Mr. Johnson says he shouldn't be made to pay for the mistakes of the past.

JOHNSON: Just mining is a lot different from them days. And that's why I feel like, hey, yeah, they should be compensated for what happened to them in them days, yeah, but gee, you can't hold it against everybody else, you know, for the rest of your life. We got to get somewhere, and this is an opportunity.

(Footfalls along the highway)

TOLAN: I remember, back in '82, driving around on certain windy days and seeing yellow sand blowing across the lonely roads. Uranium dust from the piles of tailings that used to lie exposed like great yellow scabs. One day, traveling with an old friend, a photographer, I climbed atop one of those piles, 800,000 tons of uranium waste at the old Rare Metals Mill near Tuba City.

PHOTOGRAPHER: This is like we're on top of the main pile right now. Kicking around tailings. You're kicking around tailings. (Laughs)

TOLAN: We found an old sign face-down in the dirt next to the broken down fence at the rare metals mill. We picked it up and brushed it off. A skull and crossbones stared at us and the words, "Danger: Radioactive." Sheep grazed amidst green pools at the edge of the pile.

PHOTOGRAPHER: I just don't think we should stick around up here too much longer.

TOLAN: Now those tailings have been covered. A lot of the dogholes have been sealed. And many Navajos would like never again to use the word for the yellow ore.

WOMAN: I hate to mention uranium. I know uranium's not good for us. If we start this mine and what are we going to do? If we're not careful, we're going to make this Crownpoint a ghost town one of these days.

(Silverware clanks)

TOLAN: Before leaving, I had breakfast with the NRC judge who will rule on the new mine proposal. Some worry that the NRC, with its long history with the nuclear industry, can't make a truly independent decision. But over bacon and eggs, the judge told me he knew what had happened here, and how people feel about it. He said he had a special responsibility in this case to make the right decision. Whether to allow uranium to once again be pulled out of the ground beneath the feet of the Navajos. A decision on the proposed new mine is expected some time next year. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting near Crownpoint, New Mexico.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners. Our story on the mass shooting of double-creasted cormorants in upstate New York prompted a response from Michael Armstrong, who listens to us on KUAR in Little Rock, Arkansas. Mr. Armstrong writes that we need to take into account the human activities that have increased the cormorant population in recent years, such as the elimination of certain pesticides and the growth of the aquaculture industry in the birds' wintering range. He writes, "We have created this problem through the artificial creation of habitat favored by the bird. The solution will require an artificial method to control bird population levels at the breeding grounds. Until officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service come to grips with this concept, more tragic and meaningless situations such as the one in New York will continue."

Our coverage of the green influence on Congressional races in New Mexico drew a response from Bob Anderson, a Green Party candidate for the state's first Congressional district. Mr. Anderson, who hears us on KUMN in Albuquerque, took us to task for implying that Green Party candidacies always help elect Republicans.

ANDERSON: That reflects a whole local bias in the Democratic party, and it doesn't reflect what's going on here in the Green Party and people in the environmental movement. And I just think you have really, really hurt the environmental movement, if that's what you're concerned about, by engaging in such partisan politics.

CURWOOD: Alan Cooper, who hears us on WCPN in Cleveland, disagreed strongly with commentator Michael Silverstein's proposal that environmental activists learn how to play political hardball. "Silverstein has it all wrong," Mr. Cooper writes. "His prescription is a suicide pact that we environmentalists should become unforgiving zealots who must have the whole pie, or else. Environmentalists are not blind followers, and our leaders are not extremists espousing the one revealed true way."

We welcome your comments on our program. Call our listener line any time at 1-800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15.

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Leave the Leaves

CURWOOD: Recently, I've noticed a more pronounced desire to stay in bed just a little later in the mornings. To get to bed a bit earlier in the evenings and crave that second helping at mealtimes. As winter approaches, I confess, I'm getting lazier. Now, that wouldn't be so bad if I were a bear or other such hibernator. But as a 20th century hominid, I'm expected to continue with my various chores, despite the dipping temperatures and longer hours of darkness each day. So you can imagine my delight when my sister-in-law Micki suggested a way I could quickly and ecologically dispatch with the task of leaf-raking this year. Now, usually I love to rake leaves. When I lived in a house with a small yard, I'd take a few minutes with a bamboo rake to pile up the leaves, and then feel deliciously paternal as my kids and their friends jumped in the big mounds and collapsed in laughter. And we'd all swoosh the leaves over to a composting corner by the back fence.

But I moved to a house bordered by a wonderful stand of huge old maple trees and a yard about the size of a soccer field or 2. Raking by hand claimed too many weekends. So, this year, I was tempted to rent one of those noisy and polluting leaf-blowing machines to make quick work of my chore and the mother of all compost piles. But Micki, who is a professional plant person, said, "Don't. Since you're talking about polluting anyway, just run the leaves over with your mulching lawn mower. You'll feed your lawn, you won't have to drag the leaves or compost anywhere, and it'll take a lot less time."

"You're kidding," I said.

"I'm not," said Micki.

"And this is okay for my lawn?" I asked skeptically.

Micki just gave me one of her looks. So, I tried it. I got some funny stares from a couple of passers-by, but more than one neighbor nodded knowingly. I got the feeling that a lot of you figured this one out a long time ago. And when I was done, the lawn looked just fine. The tiny bits of chopped up leaves blended right into the green carpet with gold flecks that mirrored the fall colors. I did have to rake an especially heavy section to spread out the shreds. It's not perfect, but no bags, no piles, and no lost weekends.

I guess it's like so many things in life. What's best is what's simple and what flows with the season. Hominid or not, when the days get shorter, the right flow is nice and lazy.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman, and our senior editor is Joyce Hackel. Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau and Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Our production team includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. We had help from David Winickoff, Anne Perry and Laura Colbert. And KPLU in Seattle. 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.

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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.

 

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