Air Date: April 23, 1999
North Slope Slide/ Terry FitzPatrick
As oil companies push to expand their frontiers in the Alaskan arctic, Living On Earth’s Terry FitzPatrick travels to the region to examine the environmental impact of North Slope oil production. He reports on recent convictions for illegal dumping of toxic waste, admissions of skewed environmental studies, and promises by the industry that they've entered a new era of openness and responsibility. This report is part of our continuing coverage of oil in Alaska ten years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. (14:00)
Weekly Environmental News Wrap
Steve talks with author and journalist Mark Hertsgaard [HURTS-guard] about the environmental impact of the war in the Balkans, as well as disturbing news about a vulnerable nuclear stockpile outside Denver, Colorado. (05:45)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about... the common lawn and the environmental effects of our obsession with having the greenest, lushest lawn in the neighborhood. (01:30)
Search and Rescue, on Whose Dime?/ Laura Lynch
Laura Lynch reports from Vancouver, British Columbia, on efforts to find ways to pay for the rising cost of search and rescue for people in trouble in the outdoors. More and more skiers, snowboarders and hikers are venturing into restricted areas, getting into trouble and having to be rescued. Ski areas and outdoor equipment retailers are chafing at a proposed special tax to pay for the service. (05:15)
Gore Walks a Fine Line/ Emilia Askari
Next week, 3,000 people will descend on Detroit, Michigan, for the "environmental equivalent of the Super Bowl": a National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America. Hosted by Vice President Gore, the meeting is being criticized by those who call it nothing more than industry "greenwash." Steve talks with Detroit Free Press reporter Emilia Askari [a-SKAR-ee]. (04:25)
Steve reads a letter from an environmental engineer who objected to being called a "knothead" by former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus, during last week’s roundtable discussion about the future of the American West. (01:55)
The Eco-Canoeist/ Sy Montgomery
Living On Earth contributor Sy Montgomery profiles Steve Nordlinger. This ex-Marine and martial arts expert has a secret life. He canoes Florida's rivers, streams and lakes, removing everything from those plastic six-pack rings to boat toilets. The Eco-Canoeists' weekly trash-collecting outings have inspired a unique following among residents and visitors to the Sunshine State. (09:10)
Florida Beach/ Susan Shepherd
Commentator Susan Shepherd reflects on how one particular stretch of beach in Florida took on life-and-death meaning in her life. (03:15)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Terry FitzPatrick, Laura Lynch, Sy Montgomery
GUESTS: Mark Hertsgaard, Emilia Askari
COMMENTATOR: Susan Shepherd
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Twenty years after the great Alaska pipeline started bringing oil down from the North Slope, the wells are running dry. But industry says it can keep oil flowing if it's allowed to expand drilling further out from Prudhoe Bay.
CHAPPEL: We're doing everything we can to squeeze all the oil we can out of our existing fields. But if this nation is going to continue to produce a significant portion of the oil it consumes, we're going to need access to new areas.
CURWOOD: Critics say big oil companies are nibbling away at the Arctic.
ROETHE: They view it little piece by little piece, and so what's happened over time is this tremendous stretch of development that no one has stepped back and taken a good look at.
CURWOOD: The Alaska oil wars this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this summary of the hour's news.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Recent mergers in the oil industry are raising alarms about the power these mega-companies will have when they seek approval for drilling in sensitive areas. The merger between British Petroleum and Arco is focusing attention on one such place: the North Slope of Alaska. BP-Arco claims its current fields there are running dry, and pressure is building to expand into surrounding wilderness. The firm contends that new technology allows it to coexist responsibly with nature. But environmental activists point to some problems with wildlife and illegal dumping of waste to argue against expansion. As part of our continuing special coverage of oil in Alaska, we sent Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick to the drilling fields near Prudhoe Bay.
FITZ PATRICK: An oil rig is a dirty and noisy place, a juggernaut of machinery that juts 15 stories above the treeless tundra.
FITZ PATRICK: Outside it's impossibly cold, but inside this derrick a crew of roustabouts in grimy coveralls is aiming for a fresh pocket of oil thousands of feet below.
INGRAM: We're getting ready to start drilling here.
FITZ PATRICK: Drill rigs are stark intruders in this remote landscape. And in years past, protecting the fragile environment wasn't a high priority. Driller Bob Ingram has worked the Arctic fields for 22 years.
INGRAM: Back in the old days, when we first started, it was just cram and jam, get the hole done and go about your business. But it's just a much cleaner environment nowadays.
FITZ PATRICK: One improvement involves the chemical soup used to lubricate the drill bit. A slimy fluid known as mud. Thousands of gallons of mud are needed to drill a well, and in the past Mr. Ingram says used mud was dumped in open pits.
INGRAM: Yeah, used to be at the end of a well, when we got done with the mud we'd just dump it and go out on reserve pit. It was just a big mud hole.
FITZ PATRICK: Lead, benzene, mercury, and other chemicals often leaked from the pits onto the tundra. But these days things are different. When a new well is drilled, the used mud is disposed of thousands of feet underground.
INGRAM: We inject it. There's no reserve pits, there's no dumping. It's a lot more environmentally clean.
FITZ PATRICK: Another advance involves the drills. Rigs can now drill diagonally, snaking for miles in every direction, from a single spot on the surface. The industry claims these innovations have helped shrink the typical drill site by 90%.
CHAPPEL: The goal is to minimize the number of disturbances that you see on the surface of the Earth, so that our impact on the wildlife that use the areas is rightly reduced. So fewer footprints and smaller footprints.
FITZ PATRICK: Ronnie Chappel is a spokesman for Arco. The smaller human footprint he describes is vital to the industry's future. The oil fields of Alaska's North Slope have been the richest strike in American history. But after 2 decades of production the active fields are beginning to play out. The only way to keep the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and related facilities profitable is to open new frontiers.
CHAPPEL: We're doing everything we can to squeeze all the oil we can out of our existing fields. But that's not going to keep us supplied for the long term. And if this nation is going to continue to produce a significant portion of the oil it consumes, we're going to need access to new areas.
FITZ PATRICK: The problem is those new areas are environmentally sensitive. And many people simply don't trust big oil. The industry has a long record of problems, the most recent black mark being a probe into the illegal dumping of toxic waste: the first criminal prosecution in North Slope history. A contractor for BP, British Petroleum, illegally injected hundreds of barrels of solvents and other toxic wastes into the ground. Deborah Smith prosecutes environmental crimes for the US Justice Department.
SMITH: It costs over $1,000 a barrel to ship them off and dispose of them properly. So, rather than that cost being borne, it was put down the well.
FITZ PATRICK: British Petroleum reported the problem to authorities. Ultimately the drilling contractor pleaded guilty to 15 charges, and paid a $3 million fine. One employee went to prison. BP contends the episode was an isolated mistake, as the company changed the way it deals with waste. BP's director of environmental policy, Steven Taylor, points out that the dumping was exposed by an employee who attended a BP class about proper waste disposal.
TAYLOR: We had gone from a situation where most wastes were just thrown into pits, over to a system whereby we had achieved zero discharge. Now true, there was a violation of environmental law, but I regard it as somewhat positive when the training you provide can identify those kinds of deficiencies and bring them to light so they can be corrected.
FITZ PATRICK: But court records reveal that's only part of the story. The FBI found the dumping had been happening for years and might have been widespread. And a whistleblower turned over a cache of secret tapes, revealing that all along supervisors knew they were breaking the law. Tim Burgess is an assistant US attorney who prosecuted the case.
BURGESS: The whistleblower had originally tied to talk to his immediate supervisors on the North Slope, to have the practice stopped. And I think he was somewhat frustrated, and a little concerned that the practice continued. So he hid this tape recorder on him.
FITZ PATRICK: The tapes have not been released, but one supervisor is quoted as saying, "It's illegal but all the rigs are doing it." Another is quoted ridiculing the oversight of waste disposal by a BP technical. Quote, "He's got to be an absolute idiot not to think that it's being sent somewhere. And in our case, down hole." Despite this evidence, British Petroleum denies illegal dumping is widespread. But the case is not closed, and the criminal probe continues.
(A car engine starts up)
FITZ PATRICK: Waste isn't the only environmental problem on the North Slope. This region is one of America's last bastions of wilderness, home to wolves, polar bears, and caribou.
(Car drives off)
FITZ PATRICK: But driving through the sprawling oil fields, you now pass mor than 2,000 wells and 1,500 miles of pipelines. There are landfills, airports, power plants, even a ramshackle trailer town called Dead Horse.
JOYCE: We do have an industrial complex here in Prudhoe and Kaparik. You see facilities...
FITZ PATRICK: My tour guide is Arco wildlife expert Mike Joyce. He began doing work on the North Slope when none of this was here.
JOYCE: I remember fondly having to camp on the tundra. And I liked the night sounds. You'd hear the caribou calves, you'd hear the loons. It was just a great time to lie there in your sleeping bag and listen to all those sounds sort of sing you to sleep.
FITZ PATRICK: And now we've had a generation of oil production up here. Have you noticed any difference?
JOYCE: I have not seen any change in caribou or bird populations that we've been monitoring over the last 24 years, in the way they behave or distribute and move around the coastal plain.
FITZ PATRICK: In fact, Mr. Joyce says caribou populations have increased, due largely to a warming Arctic climate. Now, if you think that sounds too good to be true, that these oil fields have zero impact on wildlife, then there are plenty of government and university scientists who will say you're right. Professor David Klein of the University of Alaska.
KLEIN: It's not valid to say well, there's been no impact on the caribou. It's so easy to say well, population increased; therefore, there was no impact. It's not that simple.
(Running water and bird song, caribou)
FITZ PATRICK: During summer, the North Slope is a magnet for wildlife. Caribou come here to give birth. So do migratory birds who fly here from throughout the hemisphere. This is one of North America's biggest maternity wards.
(Birds and caribou continue)
FITZ PATRICK: But Professor Klein says the oil fields have displaced some animals, particularly caribou, from some of the best habitat.
KLEIN: Cows that are about to calve, and right after they have their newborn calves, stay away from roads, pipelines, and oil field facilities. And as a consequence, they have abandoned much of their old calving area.
FITZ PATRICK: This has caused decreased body weight among mothers and babies. Oil industry researchers say these changes aren't significant because overall the herd has grown. But Dr. Klein says the problems might affect the caribou's long-term survival.
(Bird songs continue)
FITZ PATRICK: It's the same for birds. There's no conclusive evidence that the oil fields have harmed bird populations overall. But certain species are avoiding parts of the region, and predators, such as foxes and ravens, may be moving in because of garbage dumpsters and handouts of food from workers. Dr. Klein says these subtle impacts are glossed over in studies conducted by industry.
KLEIN: Sometimes I don't think their science is objective, and I think they do make an effort to design studies not as good science but to try to counter some of the other studies that have been done, for example, by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, showing that avoidance is occurring.
FITZ PATRICK: Surprisingly, Steven Taylor, British Petroleum's environmental director, agrees.
TAYLOR: In the past, what he is saying was true. In other words, the oil industry has been guilty of doing extensive scientific studies and then using those studies in the PR arena. BP made a conscientious decision to stop that practice.
FITZ PATRICK: Not everyone agrees the practice has stopped, and the conflicting studies raise what may be the most important question about oil's impact in the Arctic: whom to believe. Critics complain that for 20 years regulators have allowed the oil fields to expand 1 facility at a time, without ever evaluating the cumulative impact. Ann Roethe directs the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska.
ROETHE: They view it little piece by little piece, and so what's happened over time is this tremendous stretch of development that no one has stepped back and taken a good look at. No one has really stepped back and taken a look at the big picture.
FITZ PATRICK: Ms. Roethe's group has filed a lawsuit to stop the latest new development until a cumulative assessment is conducted. Meantime, the oil companies are taking their case for expansion to the public.
(Singing: "Yeah, we can make it happen, we can make it happen. Yeah!" Music up and under)
FITZ PATRICK: Commercials like this one are running frequently these days on Alaska television. Against a backdrop of birds and butterflies, an Arco employee promises a new way of doing business.
(Singing continues: "We can make it happen!" Voice-over: "It's good for the environment. It's good for Arco. It's good for the state. It's a win-win situation, and that makes me feel pretty darn good." Singing continues: "We can make it happen, yeah!")
FITZ PATRICK: Critics complain that slick ads like this distort oil's true impact. Sylvia Ward directs the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.
WARD: This endless stream of half-truths has saturated public opinion up here. Ad after ad after ad that make you want to feel the oil industry is doing so much good, and that they recognize problems they've had and they're doing better.
FITZ PATRICK: Despite the industry's changes, Ms. Ward says Alaska still can't have both a pristine environment and an endless oil boom. But the hearts and minds effort has brought results. The Clinton Administration recently okayed limited oil development on Federal land to the west of the current fields. And Alaska politicians continue to argue for opening what may be the biggest North Slope prize: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east.
FITZ PATRICK: Whatever happens, both sides agree Alaska's Arctic is at a critical point, possibly as important a moment as the original debate over building the Alaska Pipeline a generation ago. The question is will the oil companies ever leave the North Slope? Or will they stay, until they've pumped out the last drop?
FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
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CURWOOD: Next month we travel the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which brings oil from the North Slope to the tanker terminal in Valdez. Once considered an engineering marvel, there are worries that the aging pipeline could cause a major spill. You can also listen to our extensive coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill anniversary, which occurred just a few weeks ago, at our Web site: www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth all one word -- .org.
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CURWOOD: Just ahead: the ecological horrors of war in the Balkans. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. NATO's air war against Yugoslavia has been underway for more than a month now. Among the recent targets: an oil refinery and a petrochemical plant just outside of Belgrade. To talk about this and other news on the environment, I spoke with journalist Mark Hertsgaard. He told me that the environmental damage from the war in Yugoslavia is likely to be serious and long-lasting.
HERTSGAARD: There's certainly every reason to think that these explosions could have major consequences, because you're talking about blowing up into the atmosphere some very noxious toxic chemicals. Probably chlorine is coming out of one of those plants, and so that's now been spread across the countryside, and doubtless is causing a lot of civilian discomfort.
CURWOOD: And what about water pollution? If we're hitting oil refineries over there, is it getting into the water there?
HERTSGAARD: Apparently it is. There's been oil slicks along the Danube that are several miles long. The Belgrade officials have also said that because of the bombings, that they have begun to release some of the gas from the petrochemical facility into the river in order to keep it from being blown up into the atmosphere, making the best of a bad situation. It's important, I think, to realize that these are the kinds of inevitable consequences that you're going to have in a war of a modern type. The NATO forces are trying to cut off the Yugoslav supply of fuel, and so therefore you hit oil refineries. But that is going to have an impact on the surviving people in the area who have to breathe that air, the civilians who are caught in harm's way.
CURWOOD: There's another huge ecological impact, some would say perhaps the most important, and that's from the people who are trying to flee this. The refugees who are trying to get out of Kosovo. What kind of impact do you see happening there?
HERTSGAARD: I see 2 there. One is, of course this is beyond the human misery that is being experienced by these people, which is horrendous. But in terms of the environmental impact, you're going to have just -- whenever you have large numbers of people moving in refugee fashion across borders and camping out in the wild, you have problems of sanitation. And indeed, this is one of the oldest problems that we as a species have had, is to somehow try and keep our drinking water separate from our own bodily wastes. It's interesting, though, that I think in the 21st century, many environmental experts say look, if you want to see what the 21st century is going to look at, look at Kosovo now. But the refugees of the 21st century will be environmental refugees. They will be fleeing lack of clean water. They will be fleeing countries that have no forest left, like Haiti. That's part of the reason the people are running out of Haiti so fast, is that there is no way to really support a family there because all the forests have been chopped down. In China, now, we're going to begin seeing that. There's 300 cities in China that don't have enough fresh water for their inhabitants. Those people are therefore going to be on the move. And this is going to be a major issue for the international community in the 21st century.
CURWOOD: Now, there are concerns about a stockpile of uranium just outside of Belgrade, and that perhaps one of the NATO weapons could land on top of it. How serious do you think that threat is?
HERTSGAARD: It sounds quite serious. It's not a great deal of uranium that we're talking about here. There's an institute of nuclear science called the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Science about 10 miles from Belgrade. It has 60 kilograms of highly enriched uranium there, which would be enough only to make a bomb or 2. But on the other hand, if it gets hit with one of these high explosives by a NATO missile, it could certainly disperse that over the atmosphere and cause quite a bit of havoc. Now, of course, NATO says we don't have any intentions to target that. But NATO didn't have intentions to target the civilian train a few days ago that was hit, either. There are mistakes that happen in war, and you have to hope that this uranium lab is not one of them, in the same way that the petrochemical complex was hit. These kinds of facilities get hit in a conflict, and you have to realize that there is going to be serious environmental consequences from that.
CURWOOD: You know, along the lines of uranium, I wonder if we could talk about something that's a little closer to home. Outside Denver, in a place called Rocky Flats, there's a pretty serious story going on now, isn't there?
HERTSGAARD: Yes indeed. If international nuclear inspectors are worried about Vinca, they really should check into Rocky Flats. Rocky Flats is one of the 12 major nuclear weapons complexes in the United States, run by the Department of Energy. And there are 7 tons of plutonium stored there. There are 13 tons of enriched uranium. Takes about 15 pounds of plutonium to make a Hiroshima-strength bomb, so you're literally talking about an incomprehensible amount of nuclear material there inside of Rocky Flats. And the danger is that it is highly susceptible to terrorist attack, apparently. We know this because the Department of Energy's top official in charge of protecting the nation's nuclear materials says that he had been trying to get his superiors in Washington to take this seriously and had failed. And he was captured on tape actually talking to a whistleblower, who he was urging to go talk to the press. And so now some of us reporters have begun to cover the story and to try and raise a red flag about it, so that the officials in Washington can take the appropriate measures to protect that plant at the extent that it needs it.
CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is a journalist and author of Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future. Thanks so much for taking this time with us this week.
HERTSGAARD: Happy to cheer your day.
CURWOOD: We welcome your comments on our program. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or send us an e-mail at LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can find our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth -- all one word -- .org.
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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: Coming up: Vice President Al Gore gets ready to hold a national Town Meeting on sustainable development, but some people say it'll be too focused on big business and not enough on little people. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt: if the planet's health isn't our business, whose is it?
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: With spring in full swing, lawns are coming back, with grass and of course a touch of crabgrass. In the US more than 46 million acres of yards, golf courses, cemeteries, parks, and sports fields are now blanketed with the high-maintenance artificial monoculture we call the common lawn. The mowed lawn has its origins in 18th century France, when areas were designed for the palace at Versailles. The practice was adopted by the English aristocracy, and then later by American colonists in an attempt to transform the wildness of the New World into the sophistication of the old. With the increasing numbers of lawns comes concerns about environmental effects. Operating a gas-powered motor for 1 hours pollutes as much as driving a car for 350 miles. Pesticide use often fouls both the air and groundwater. And although farmers use pesticides more widely, homeowners apply them 20 times more per acre, even though weeds do somehow manage to survive. Lawn clippings are another concern. They constitute nearly 21% of all material added to municipal waste dumps each year. And in some parts of the nation, during the driest months of the year up to 60% of urban fresh water is used, you guessed it, to water lawns. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: The recent ski season in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada has been nothing short of spectacular. Record amounts of snow have lured more and more people to the region's mountains to ski, snowboard, and hike. But as more people head for the great outdoors, more of them are getting into trouble after trekking into dangerous areas where they can't find their way out. Now the government of British Columbia is moving to make those who have to be rescued pay for the service. But as Laura Lynch reports from Vancouver, that idea has its opponents.
ROYSTON: If the person was buried, then in all likelihood there's a very minuscule chance of anybody surviving.
LYNCH: At Gross Mountain, British Columbia, just minutes from downtown Vancouver, an exhausted Ron Royston talks to reporters about the search for a man who's been buried in an avalanche. Four others were successfully rescued after they all ignored posted warnings to stay off a snow-covered hiking trail. For years British Columbia has boasted of its mountain and ocean playgrounds, labeling itself "Supernatural" in advertising. But the same things that make it so attractive for the adventurous are also creating a super headache for search and rescue operations. The number of people being plucked from mountainsides or pulled out from remote areas has been climbing. Tim Jones is the leader of the North Shore Search and Rescue Team.
JONES: We had 2 calls last week, back to back, one on Sunday night and one on Tuesday night, and it pretty well tapped out the resources of 3 rescue teams. Complicated searches, medical rescues actually, in high avalanche hazard and winter storm conditions.
LYNCH: Those few days are a poignant refection of what's happening across the province. Statistics show the numbers of search and rescue operations increasing nearly every year for the last decade. Government officials say there are 3 reasons for that. BC's population is growing, tourism is booming, and more and more people are participating in risky outdoor sports: hiking, backcountry skiing, and snowboarding. It all adds up to more work and more costs for the local volunteer search and rescue teams, and Tim Jones says increased demand for their services also means more time spent on fundraising, since search and rescue teams in BC have to raise nearly all of their own money. He wants someone else to pay.
JONES: Somebody's got to make a move here to fund search and rescue. Like, we should not be out groveling for money.
LYNCH: Now, the government is floating a new package of proposals to deal with the problem. One measure calls for fining or seizing the lift tickets of skiers and snowboarders who venture out of bounds. But the most contentious move is a plan to slap a half percent tax on outdoor equipment, and a 25 cent charge on ski tickets to help pay for search and rescue squads.
(Shouts and sounds of skiing)
LYNCH: Yet even as the skiers and snowboarders flock to the mountains, and as resorts report some of their best earnings ever, owners are rejecting the government's ideas. Stuart McLaughlin is the president and general manager of Gross Mountain. He says that only a small percentage of rescues are carried out for skiers and snowboarders.
MC LAUGHLIN: To single out what are for the most part responsible people, who are utilizing ski areas and staying within the boundaries and playing by the rules, I don't think the rule abiders are going to want to be paying for the rule breakers.
LYNCH: It's hikers who top the rescue list. Year after year they are the single biggest group needing help. Still, stores which sell hiking equipment don't like the proposal, either. Rick Conn works for a leading outdoor equipment chain, Mountain Equipment Co-op.
CONN: The connection between a member coming into our store and buying something and then the activities of search and rescue, for most of the things we sell there isn't a very close connection there. And we sell a lot of products to a lot of our members that will never be used in a search and rescue-type situation.
LYNCH: Instead, the industry has other ideas. It wants BC to start encouraging people to buy insurance when they venture into the outdoors. Rick Conn says it's a variation on a plan that works in Europe.
CONN: If you're engaged in an outdoor activity that is likely to require search and rescue, that you take a precaution by buying an insurance policy that effectively guarantees that you'll be supported with a search and rescue activity should you need it.
LYNCH: Yet, even the proposal's backers admit there could be problems persuading people to pay for insurance voluntarily, especially since rescues are free right now. And the idea of making people who need to be rescued pay out of their own pockets has been rejected by nearly everyone, including the government. Most say that would simply discourage people in danger from seeking help, perhaps resulting in more deaths. Meanwhile, almost everyone agrees on one thing which should be done: educate people not to take risks in the wild. Stuart McLaughlin says staff at Gross Mountain run their own workshops every season. He believes government has a role to play, too.
MC LAUGHLIN: The Ministry of Education ought to use its powers to get into the school system and start to teach young people at a very young age about how to enjoy the outdoors safely.
LYNCH: The BC government is promising new measures within months. Whatever action it takes, it can't come too soon. With spring coming, hikers will start heading out, and inevitably search and rescue teams will have to follow. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Lynch in Vancouver.
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CURWOOD: It's being billed as the environmental equivalent of the Superbowl. There will be some big players there, but it remains to be seen if the cheerleaders and fans will show. Beginning on May 2nd, Vice President Al Gore will host a 3-day National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America in Detroit. Supporters say the event is further evidence of a viable smart growth anti-sprawl movement that is taking hold across the nation. Critics call it greenwash. Emilia Askari follows the environment for the Detroit Free Press and she joins me now on the line. Emilia, tell me, what are the plans for this meeting?
ASKARI: It's a real big shindig here in Detroit. They're going to bring about 3,000 people from around the country to downtown Detroit to sit around for about 3 days in a big convention center talking about sustainable development.
CURWOOD: Emilia, I'm wondering if you could share with us some of the local initiatives and models, some concrete examples of what some people might be bringing to this conference.
ASKARI: Well, there will be people from Portland talking about the greenbelt ring that they have set up around their city many years ago, and how that is working. There will be people from Minneapolis talking about the ideas that they have on redistributing local property taxes from wealthy suburbs to less-wealthy inner-ring communities closer to the core city, and how that is working. There will be people from Vermont talking about their bike paths, so there are going to be thousands of different conversations around this general topic of how do we keep the economy growing in this country and the world, while we're really trying to husband our environmental resources and bring social justice.
CURWOOD: So who's paying for all of this, and what do they expect to get out of it?
ASKARI: Well, it's a mixture of government and private funding. A lot of the money is coming from General Motors, which was very instrumental in getting this organization that's officially sponsoring the meeting, the President's Council on Sustainable Development, to bring the meeting here to Detroit. And I think that companies like General Motors and Ford and Dow, that are putting up money for this event, they have a multifaceted agenda here. I think very much part of the reason why they're doing it is to get some good publicity. And we have to keep in mind that a lot of these companies are major polluters. In addition, though, I think that they are very concerned about their future in terms of building sustainable companies into the next century, and I think that they're looking for some answers.
CURWOOD: Now I understand there's a $250 registration fee. That's pretty high-priced for, you know, local grassroots activist types, don't you think?
ASKARI: Yes, I do, and the organizers have received a lot of criticism about that. They did offer some scholarships and some reduced registration fees to people who could prove need. But in the end I think that most of the people here will be, it's going to be a group of professionals looking at this topic, rather than folks from the neighborhood.
CURWOOD: I can't leave you without asking what this does for Vice President Gore's campaign in Michigan. Do you think that pushing for sustainable development is compatible with him, you know, raising the money he needs to raise to run for president?
ASKARI: I do, if he does it in the way that he is doing it here in Detroit. And that's why he's seeing some criticism from the environmental community. His brand of environmentalism here at the President's Council on Sustainable Development's National Town Meeting is going to be pretty business-oriented, and he's going to be standing there with his partners from General Motors and Ford and Dow, and I think that he's trying to make himself as unthreatening as possible to them while he's still talking about these issues that he cares about a lot, and that a lot of America really cares about.
CURWOOD: Now, there was another vice president under a 2-term president, I think his name was Richard Nixon. He reinvented himself as a new Nixon. Are we seeing a new Al Gore?
ASKARI: Well, we might be. He's certainly a lot less of a firebrand on the environment than he was when he was a Senator Al Gore.
CURWOOD: Emilia Askari follows the environment for the Detroit Free Press. Emilia, thanks for joining us.
ASKARI: You're welcome, Steve.
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CURWOOD: And now, time for comments from our listeners.
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CURWOOD: Our discussion about the changing American west provoked a response from Edward Curtis, who hears us on WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Mr. Curtis, an environmental engineer who worked on the Columbia River Dam, took exception to former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus describing people who built dams as "knotheads," because they didn't take environmental concerns into account. "The Governor," Mr. Curtis wrote, "forgets that these dams were built in response to flooding that killed thousands of people in the 1920s." Mr. Curtis also pointed out that hydropower is a clean source of energy. "To replace the dam on which I worked," he wrote, "you would have to build 1 nuclear reactor or build a coal plant that burns 14,000 tons of coal every day. Ask the Governor which he would prefer."
And our story on big game hunts in Pakistan sponsored by conservation groups caught the ear of Anita Harrison, who listens to Living on Earth on WCQS in Asheville, North Carolina. The goal of the programs is to help preserve the species, but Ms. Harrison wondered if anyone was paying attention to the genetic diversity of the animal population. She writes, "Numbers are not always an accurate indication of genetics. And it could be that killing just a few of these animals could greatly jeopardize the long-term well-being of these species."
You can call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to 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.
Just ahead: a man, a boat, and a paddle make a powerful example in Florida's waterways. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. They are out in force now, groups of people cleaning up their neighborhood beach, tilling the community garden, planting flowers and trees in the corner park. They are volunteers and volunteerism is said to be the backbone of the environmental movement. It is also said to be contagious. That's what Living on Earth contributor Sy Montgomery found after spending an afternoon with one Florida man who's turned collecting trash into a water sport of sorts, and inspired a dedicated core of followers in the process.
NORDLINGER: We're hitting an area that was destroyed by tornadoes, and we're expecting to see some pretty big stuff in the water.
MONTGOMERY: Steve Nordlinger unloads 6 canoes from his big white van. He's ready to launch them near the spot where Highway 46 spans the St. Johns River in Orlando, Florida. Despite the urban setting, this waterway teems with wildlife. Alligators, turtles, fish, egrets, herons, and eagles are all here. But that's not why Steve Nordlinger is here.
NORDLINGER: When I came to Florida, it just totally offended me to no end that this beautiful environment that needs to be protected is being stomped on by litter and trash, fishing line, beer bottles. Different things you find in the water.
MONTGOMERY: Steve Nordlinger is a self-appointed river keeper. Each Sunday he leads a small fleet of volunteers on a mission: hunting for trash, and not just the plain old litter you find lying on the ground. We paddle the St. Johns today to grapple with garbage in the water.
NORDLINGER: Here's a plastic bag. Water in it.
(Items moving, dripping)
MONTGOMERY: Trash collecting from a canoe demands skill, endurance, and a sense of adventure.
NORDLINGER: It's kind of like doing 3 things at once. You're kind of balancing yourself, you're watching out for the motor boats while watching for trash, you know, watching for alligators. All at the same time.
MONTGOMERY: Steve Nordlinger isn't just out to make the river look pretty. Trash in these waters can be dangerous. Animals like turtles can mistake Styrofoam for snail eggs and can stuff themselves to death on the ultimate junk food. Discarded fishing lures, lines, and hooks can entangle and maim animals from manatees to pelicans. Even innocent-looking stuff can kill out here. Just ask volunteer Scott Vorkopick.
VORKOPICK: I didn't really have any idea how bad it was until one of the trips I was out with Steve and I think we cut down -- how many dead anhingas from trees?
MONTGOMERY: Anhingas are those big black birds so characteristic of Florida's waterways who swim under water and spread their wings out to dry in the sun.
VORKOPICK: That one day we cut down 2 anhingas, and it wasn't even from fishing lures or fishing line, it was from string like this.
(A motor runs)
MONTGOMERY: Along the reedy shore, volunteer Carl Medard finds a piece of trash almost as big as his canoe. The casualty of a boat wrecked in a recent storm.
MEDARD: You want me to describe this, a toilet, right? Bathroom. You know, commode. (Laughter in the background.) It is in a nice shade of green, so it goes with the environment as well. (More laughter.)
MONTGOMERY: This quixotic quest to clean up Florida's millions of miles of rivers, lakes, swamps, canals, and ocean began on the tea-colored Little Okonolahatchee River that flows through the Cypress Swamps of Orlando's Jay Blanchard Park. Steve Nordlinger started coming here when he first moved to Florida, fresh out of the Marine Corps. And when Park Ranger Dale Hatch first encountered this 6-foot wiry guy practicing martial arts on the soccer field, he was a bit apprehensive.
HATCH: When I first saw this guy up in his Marine fatigues, and so I'm out there with those defense weapons, I said, "Uh oh." (Laughs)
MONTGOMERY: For the next few months, park rangers kept finding wet muddy garbage in trash cans, and they couldn't figure out where it was coming from. But then, Ranger Hatch discovered that like Clark Kent, Steve Nordlinger had an alter-ego: the ego-canoeist.
HATCH: And all of a sudden I just happened to be by the river one day, and this guy comes paddling up in a little canoe, just with all sorts of trash hanging out of it that he pulled out of the river. And it was Steve, and I recognized him once I got closer. And we had to catch him accidentally, cleaning our river.
MONTGOMERY: During the last 10 years, Steve Nordlinger says he'd single- handedly removed about 240 tons of garbage from Florida's waters. But that, he felt was not enough. Two years ago, he came to a turning point.
NORDLINGER: I go out, I work really hard, I'm having these wonderful experiences with the birds and the alligators and the snakes and the plants. No one knows about it. I'm not motivating anybody else to do it. I needed to have some kind of a record.
MONTGOMERY: That's how the Eco-canoeist Journal was born.
HOLLENBECK: Hi, happy to meet you.
WOMAN: Nice to meet you.
HOLLENBECK: Welcome to the eco-store.
MONTGOMERY: Part diary, part natural history, part instructional guide, the Eco-canoeist Journal is a hand-lettered, hand-illustrated record of Steve's trash-collecting adventures. Four volumes detailing more than 100 trips in the past 2 years. Beth Hollenbeck sells the books here in College Park, at the Eco-store.
HOLLENBECK: I do know that some people have reacted simply because there are line drawings on the cover, that they think they're children's books and they're coloring books.
MONTGOMERY: The eco-canoeist exploits are worthy of a comic book superhero. Wrestling with sharks, retrieving giant tires, rescuing birds choking on discarded fishing line. But these are real life adventures, and that's the message. Anyone can be an eco-hero, and the Eco-canoeist Journals show how.
HOLLENBECK: And did you bring more books? Because Joe just bought us out.
MONTGOMERY: The Eco-canoeist Journals are so effective, the Orange County school system uses them in environmental education classes. The county public defender was so impressed with the books, he sent one to every commissioner in the county. At the Eco-store, owner Beth Hollenbeck was so moved that she joined the clean-ups herself.
HOLLENBECK: Every time we pull a 6-pack ring or a fishing line or a piece of Styrofoam out of the water, I can remind myself that this is a wild animal that's not going to be injured, that isn't going to have to be rehabilitated. That will not be killed, whose life is not threatened.
MONTGOMERY: And for volunteers, who can now sign up at the Eco-store, each trip is an adventure. Sometimes more adventure than they bargained for.
ANNOUNCER: Rough surf and high winds caused several canoes to capsize this afternoon. The people on board had to struggle to stay alive. Six environmentalists were trying to clean up the Indian River in Brevard County...
MONTGOMERY: One person was hospitalized for hypothermia, and another's legs were badly scraped. But today, only 7 days after the accident, every one of the volunteer crew is back battling the tide of trash.
MONTGOMERY: Why? Most are committed to the clean-up effort. Some come for the free canoe ride. Others have no choice.
MEDARD: Yes, admittedly, I was a naughty boy. (Laughs) I got 50 hours community service. As it happens, I do quite enjoy it.
MONTGOMERY: A judge assigned Carl Medard to the canoe fleet for a motor vehicle violation. But somewhere along the line, this convict became a convert.
MEDARD: I think I've decided, yes, when I finish my 50 hours I will be doing more of it. Now there's only 6 of us doing it, roughly 6. But every little bit helps.
MONTGOMERY: Today's haul: 3 huge blocks of Styrofoam, a toilet, a 5-foot-tall plastic seat, a 6-foot plastic pipe, 2 chairs, 3 huge plastic bagfuls of trash, and 1 giant bag of recyclables.
MONTGOMERY: And tomorrow, there'll be more. Steve Nordlinger knows this. He knows, too, that trash isn't the only problem for Florida's wildlife. Every motorboat deposits oil in the water. Every day developers build on hundreds of acres of habitat. But each clean-up has its epiphany. Today, during our lunch break, we looked up to see a bald eagle circling overhead. Earlier, a creature Nordlinger had yearned to see for a dozen years popped up directly in front of his canoe. It was a green sea turtle, and it looked him straight in the eye. For the eco-canoeist, the message in these moments is eloquent and profound.
NORDLINGER: I really get the feeling sometimes that it's -- that nature itself is telling me that no matter what happens, we need you in particular to be out here helping us.
(Motor in the background)
MONTGOMERY: For Living on Earth, I'm Sy Montgomery on the St. Johns River in Orlando, Florida.
CURWOOD: Our portrait of eco-canoeist Steve Nordlinger was produced by Kim Motylewski.
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CURWOOD: Florida is a place where waterways play an inextricable part of everyday life. And in this aquatic environment, people often form strong bonds with lakes, rivers, and oceans. One such person is commentator Susan Shepherd.
SHEPHERD: When I was 13, my family moved from Philadelphia to Florida. In August. It was so hot the air shimmered and the cacophony of frogs screeching in the trees nearly drove me mad. Even the plants steamed. I swore I could see vines crawl like snakes over trees and devour them whole.
We were not good children, any of us, and I thought my parents wanted to take a long, hard look at what hell might be like. Thank God for the nearby beach. It became my refuge. On the sharp, brilliant days of winter, the ocean danced crashing and foaming. I learned to surf. Paddling out scared, I'd feel the sea below me become enormous and deceptively flat. Then a wave would form and rush toward me, growing and growing, sweep me up and toss me on the beach.
Struggling with undertow I'd stand, gasping, my hair and bathing suit full of sand. Shaken but excited I'd repeat the dance again and again until, too exhausted to make it home, I'd fall asleep in the sand.
When I played hooky from school, I'd spend all day swimming and exploring. Once I walked down to the inlet and made my way out the slippery, moss- covered jetty where a fisherman cast his line from the rocks. We stood silently, watching a huge, black shadow drift toward us. At first we couldn't place it, but then the telltale coffee-scoop snout gave it away: a manatee mother with her baby. I found myself slipping into the water and swam toward them. The baby stayed snug against its mother's side, but they didn't seem to mind me intruding. They were hungry and the jetty was covered with food. As I treaded water within several feet of them I realized: this Florida wasn't hell, after all. It was heaven.
The best times on the beach were full moon tides. The water receded so far I could walk for miles on exposed reefs. In tidal pools I watched stranded fish dart frantically in a last-ditch effort to save themselves. And the crabs. They'd pop out of their tiny holes, look me jauntily in the eye and stand their ground, lifting their useless pincers. Heaven.
But as it turns out, it was also hell. About the time I was getting set to leave Florida for college, my younger sister Leigh died in a car crash. After the funeral my family walked down to the inlet. We made our way out the long jetty and shook her ashes into the sea, where they plunked like pebbles.
I like to imagine my sister's soul down there on the ocean floor, where the fish poke and the grasses wave, as she rides the tide heavy and warm as a mother's love back and forth like an eternal rocking chair.
Years later, after giving birth, I held my daughter against my chest, pondering this new heaven. My midwife sat beside me with a puzzled look and asked, "Why did you keep shouting the word, 'beach'?" I couldn't explain it to her then, but later I realized: it's the one and only place that really soothes me.
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CURWOOD: Susan Shepherd is a member of the staff of Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week the story of Cynthia Wiggins, a teen from the city who got a job in the suburbs and lost her life trying to get there.
MAN: They knew the transportation system didn't operate and didn't function. They knew that blacks had trouble getting all over the place. And they thought that was okay.
CURWOOD: The links among race, sprawl, and transportation, next week on Living on Earth. Our program is produced by Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindike, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horowitz, and Barbara Cone. We also had help this week from Alison Dean, Aly Constine, Chris Burnick, Paul On, Maury Lowenger, Kathy Turco, and KPLU Seattle. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. 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.
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