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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

May 14, 1999

Air Date: May 14, 1999

SEGMENTS

Wear and Tear on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline / Terry FitzPatrick

Living On Earth’s Terry FitzPatrick travels along the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline to assess safety and environmental controls on one of America's most important--and remote--energy lifelines. Critics are concerned that years of delayed maintenance and staffing cutbacks on the aging pipeline have increased the chances of a dangerous spill. Pipeline officials admit there have been problems, but insist the environment is not at risk. This report is part of Living On Earth’s continuing special coverage of oil and Alaska, marking the tenth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. (15:05)

The Singing Garbagemen

For the past year, residents of Tacoma, Washington, have been hauling out their trash and recyclables to the tunes of The Collectors, a five-man singing group of real Tacoma garbagemen. The Collectors were formed to ease the transition to, among other things, new trash days. It's been a success -- recycling has already increased 300% in the city. Living On Earth offers this sound portrait of the tuneful trashmen. (06:10)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the nightingale. Fewer and fewer nightingales are returning to the English countryside each spring, so this year the British Trust for Ornithology has launched a nationwide nightingale appeal. (01:30)

Are Chemical Plants Ready for Y2K?

If a chemical plant is hit by the Y2K problem at midnight on December 31st, toxic chemicals could escape. Host Laura Knoy talks with Jerry Pogy, a member of the federal Chemical Safety Board, who says that large corporations are getting prepared for the new year but he’s worried that many small and medium companies could have problems. ()

Road Kill Redemption

Flattened frogs and squished squirrels come back to life as teaching aids in classrooms across America. Students charting road kill share their data on the Internet and learn important lessons in animal behavior, migration patterns and the perils of development. Wendy Nelson reports. (05:35)

Alabama's Eco-Rebels / Samuel Hendren

They call themselves "rednecks," but these three crusaders use sophisticated tactics to successfully battle polluters in the deep South. The group, called WildLaw, is racking up an impressive record, winning law suits and protecting bio-diversity in what they describe as a "good old boy" style. Samuel Hendren reports. (11:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: Terry FitzPatrick, Wendy Nelson, Samuel Hendren
GUEST: Jerry Pogy

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy.

This week we tour the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It's 800 miles long, 48 inches across, and delivers 48 million gallons of oil a day. Some call it an engineering marvel.

GREEN: It is something that hasn't been done anywhere else in the world, and it was done so well and so safely.

KNOY: Others say it's a pipeline in peril.

FEINBERG: It's now 21 going on 22 years old, and as it ages the risk of a spill increases.

KNOY: Also, a recycling rondo: meet the singing sanitation engineers called The Collectors.

THE COLLECTORS: (Singing) It's so easy to recycle. It's so easy to recycle...

KNOY: That's this week on Living on Earth. First news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Wear and Tear on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Perhaps no one facility is as vital to America's domestic energy supply as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Twenty percent of the oil produced in the US flows through this pipe from Alaska's North Slope to the loading harbor in Valdez. Critics contend, though, that perhaps no other oil facility poses a bigger environmental risk, and they complain that decades of neglect have increased the chance of a major spill. Pipeline officials admit there have been problems, but insist the environment is safe. As part of our continuing special coverage of oil in Alaska, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick takes a closer look.

(Footfalls on snow)

FITZ PATRICK: When you first see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline snaking across the snow, you can't help but be impressed. It's a single silver thread on stilts above the frozen tundra, 4 feet wide and 800 miles long.

(To Green) Wow. It just goes and goes and goes.

GREEN: Yeah. This being the start of the pipeline and it, you know, being such a flat surface up here on the North Slope, you can really see for a long distance.

FITZ PATRICK: Tracy Green is a spokeswoman for Alieska, the industry consortium that operates the pipeline.

GREEN: You can see a pretty good example of the zigzag of the pipeline from up here. And that allows for movement from either earthquakes or seismic movement or changes in the temperature of the oil.

(Footfalls continue)

FITZ PATRICK: Ms. Green is my tour guide on an oil odyssey along the length of the pipeline from the Arctic coast to the tanker terminal at Valdez Harbor.

(Voice on speaker)

FITZ PATRICK: Our first stop is Pump Station 1, where jet engines push 48 million gallons of hot, pressurized oil down the line every day.

(Jet engines)

FITZ PATRICK: Here I can't help but think how dangerous the pipeline can be. While walking through a maze of plumbing, I discover I'm one spark away from disaster.

(Horn, followed by beeps)

FITZ PATRICK: Before I can enter the pump room with my tape recorder, technician Rick Weinrich must test the air with a safety sniffer.

(Beeps continue)

WEINRICH: We want to make sure that we're not going into an area where there's a combustible mixture of gas, because of there is and you move a switch in that tape recorder, you could actually trigger an explosion.

(A door shuts; fans, beeps)

FITZ PATRICK: Today the pump room is safe. But I wonder what would happen if something did go wrong? Mr. Weinrich says the station is equipped with special valves and tanks, just in case.

WEINRICH: These 3 valves behind you here can go to full open in 2 seconds. So all of the oil goes into the tanks instead of down the line.

FITZ PATRICK: Two seconds?

WEINRICH: Right.

FITZ PATRICK: So when things happen, they happen fast.

WEINRICH: They sure do. They sure do.

FITZ PATRICK: This idea stays with me during my journey along the line. This is no simple drain pipe. It's a complex machine designed to delicately pass through some of the most spectacular wilderness on Earth.

(Wheels on the road)

FITZ PATRICK: In its 800 miles the pipeline crosses 3 mountain ranges and 34 rivers.

(Beeps)

FITZ PATRICK: I'm traveling beside it in a heavy-duty 4-wheeler on an icy ribbon of gravel. It's 14 below zero, and ice fog has coated the radio antenna so heavily it hums like a tuning fork.

(Humming, road sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Before construction, environmentalists said it would be too dangerous to run a pipeline through such a rugged and hostile landscape. But Alieska's Tracy Green says they've been proven wrong. And a generation later, she says, workers still feel a sense of accomplishment.

GREEN: There is a real sense of pride, because it is something that hasn't been done anywhere else in the world. And it was done so well and so safely, and with a lot of the Alaskan environment in mind.

(Voices on radio; road sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Construction didn't go quite as smoothly as Ms. Green suggests. And in the first 5 years of operation there were several big spills totaling more than a million gallons of oil. But since then, nothing major has gone wrong. Still, some Alaskans worry that could change in an instant.

FEINBERG: It's now 21 going on 22 years old. And as it ages, the risk of a spill increases.

FITZ PATRICK: Richard Feinberg is a former oil policy analyst for the Alaska Governor's Office, and author of a report called Pipeline in Peril. It was prepared 3 years ago for an environmental watchdog group, and it catalogues a history of problems. Everything from corroded pipe and faulty wiring to sloppy repairs and risky operating procedures. Mr. Feinberg says these problems arose primarily because for years, maintenance wasn't a priority.

FEINBERG: The fact that the pipeline had been engineered and designed very carefully carried it through nearly 20 years where they cut corners on their maintenance and didn't pay that much attention to the line. It allowed for complacency.

FITZ PATRICK: Complacency on the part of Alieska was one factor that turned the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill into a disaster. And when it comes to assessing the state of the pipeline, Mr. Feinberg was not alone in sounding an alarm. A Federal inspection in 1993 uncovered dozens of places where the pipe was unlikely to withstand an earthquake. Also, electrical wiring was not up to code. The spill detection system was inadequate. And firefighting equipment was poorly maintained. Federal inspectors said some of these problems were severe enough to create an immanent threat of an oil spill. "It is generally only a matter of time," they wrote, "before some relatively benign accident sequence expands into a catastrophic event."

(Wheels on road, beeps)

FITZ PATRICK: Since the inspection report, Alieska says it has spent millions to correct nearly all the problems and work continues on the rest. During my trip I could see maintenance crews out with bulldozers and backhoes, even in the bitter cold of winter. Alieska Vice President Bill Howett admits the company did fall behind on some safety measures. But he says the most important component of the line is as sound today as the day it was built.

HOWETT: The 48-inch tube, the actual pipe, is extremely strong. It has suffered very little degradation. We have ever-improving ways to monitor that and to know whether it's corroding, whether it's settling. I don't believe the risk of a spill will ever increase if we keep maintaining the pipeline.

FITZ PATRICK: However, a recent incident raises serious questions about the quality of Alieska's ongoing maintenance and repair operations. And its commitment to safety. It involves the most important environmental safeguard on the pipeline: the 62 remote control valves that shut like watertight doors of a ship during an emergency. Because the pipe holds enough oil to fill 8 supertankers, these valves are vital to prevent the entire line from draining onto the tundra. Last fall Mr. Howett abruptly suspended a project to upgrade the valves when company inspectors found wiring that was not up to code. The complaints led to open feuds among workers in the field and harassment of the inspectors. Mr. Howett ultimately replaced the project managers and clarified inspection standards and the work is set to resume soon. He insists the incident should not be cause for concern.

HOWETT: For me, in reality, shutting down some work should inspire confidence. You know, ideally the work should be perfect right from the start. But the fact that we have the guts to say I'm stopping the work because it's not the way I need to have it actually is, for me, if I was looking at another industry, that would inspire a lot of confidence.

FITZ PATRICK: But the incident also suggests that a poisonous atmosphere lingers inside Alieska. Eight years ago a Congressional investigation revealed a pattern of harassment and intimidation of employees who blew the whistle on safety concerns. Jerry Braze, who direct a Federal-State oversight task force called the Joint Pipeline Office, worries that atmosphere hasn't completely changed.

BRAZE: The corporate culture at Alieska is still such that 35%, 40% of the people are afraid to report safety, integrity, environmental problems. So that indicates to me that the mindset and attitude is still a little shy of what it ought to be. If we were in the nuclear business, I don't think you'd feel very good if 35% or 40% of your employees were afraid to report a safety problem.

FITZ PATRICK: Environmentalists say the situation is serious enough to warrant another top to bottom independent audit at the pipe to determine if it is safe. Meantime, they're focusing on another unknown: is Alieska prepared if a spill does occur? After the Exxon Valdez, Alieska was forced to improve spill response on water. Now, its oceangoing team is widely regarded as the best outfit anywhere. On land, though, it may be a different story.

(Footfalls on snow)

KREINER: This is part of our oil spill equipment. We've got one vacuum truck located at each facility that we could use to actually pick up the oil that's set up. These, you'll see these a lot of times...

FITZ PATRICK: Back on the line, at Station 5, just above the Arctic Circle, Alieska's Jim Kreiner walks me through one of the pipeline's largest spill response centers.

(Echoing voices, followed by clinking)

FITZ PATRICK: The garage is packed with riverboats and snowmobiles. A helicopter and crate after crate of specialized hardware.

(To Kreiner) You could lead an expedition with all this stuff.

KREINER: Oh, just about. Some of this is actually some pretty high-tech stuff you wouldn't expect to see.

(Clinking continues)

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Kreiner takes spill response seriously.

KREINER: Being an Alaskan you really take it personally. You want to make sure nothing happens to affect this area up here, because it's beautiful country. It's my home. I was an Alaskan a long time before I became an Alieska employee.

FITZ PATRICK: However, recent volatility in oil prices has prompted Alieska to make deep budget and staffing cuts. And because production has fallen on the North Slope and the pipeline is running far below capacity, Alieska has mothballed 4 of its 11 pumping stations. That means that along several stretches of pipe, there's virtually no one left to respond to a spill. This has left the state of Alaska uneasy. Ed Megert coordinates spill prevention and response for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

MEGERT: You can only streamline so far. And then the chances of something happening start to increase, and the chances that you can't react properly also increase at that point. And I think we're at that point.

FITZ PATRICK: Alieska was ordered to draw up a new spill response plan that includes more personnel, more equipment, and a dramatic increase in the number of training exercises. But Jerry Braze at the Joint Pipeline Office says it wasn't easy to get the oil companies to agree to the improvements.

BRAZE: There's been belt-tightening and more questioning and more back and forth negotiating on various items. For example, this oil spill plan was a year and a half overdue, and it's a simple fact, what are the companies [who are] going to spent the money, and do they have the people to get things done?

FITZ PATRICK: Environmental analyst Richard Feinberg says the new spill plan, completed last fall, looks good on paper. But the bruising battle to complete it leaves him skeptical Alieska will make it work.

FEINBERG: This company has a lousy history of not living up to its promises. I hope that they will at this point. There are those in Alieska trying to change the culture. Their president Bob Malone deserves great credit for the openness and the effort. But clearly, something is still wrong.

(Fans)

FITZ PATRICK: At my final stop along the line, the Pipeline Command Center in Valdez, things look well under control. Operators keep close watch on a complex network of computer terminals, responding to even the slightest alarm.

(Beeps)

MAL: This is Mal.

DAVID: (On speaker) Mal, this is David at 12.

MAL: Yes, David.

FITZ PATRICK: But in the end, the company's ability to prevent and handle a spill depends on when and where there's trouble. The growing reliance on technology instead of people underscores what many environmentalists complained about even before the line was built. For 800 miles oil surges across the heart of Alaska, a vast region where often there's not a single soul for miles to watch over it. The fear remains that a tiny glitch could escalate into a tragic chain of events. And due to the Arctic interior, what the Exxon Valdez did to the waters of Prince William Sound.

(Beeps)

FITZ PATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick at the Control Center of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in Valdez, Alaska.

(Beeps)

KNOY: For additional reports about oil's impact on Alaska, visit the Living on Earth Web site: www.livingonearth.org.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

The Singing Garbagemen

KNOY: Singing barbers are nothing unusual, and their quartets have become world-renowned. But can fame and fortune await a group of singing garbagemen?

MAN: (To music, chorus joining in) Talkin' trash....Talkin' trash...

KNOY: This is the sound that residents of Tacoma, Washington, have been hearing a lot of recently, courtesy of The Collectors: 5 sanitation engineers whose job description now includes singing the praises, literally, of their work. Gail Greenwood, a community relations specialist for Tacoma's Solid Waste Utility, came up with the idea of singing garbagemen. The city was making big changes to its solid waste and recycling programs, and Ms. Greenwood thought it would be a good idea to make the transition as easy and fun as possible.

GREENWOOD: Actually, a lot of the changes were really good changes. It was just, what would be the most efficient, best, most fun way to get the message out? We thought, let's have fun with it. Government doesn't have to be boring. Not only has it been fun, it's been very effective. Recycling's increased 300% in Tacoma.

KNOY: So, how did you find these guys?

GREENWOOD: Well, we did 2 things. First we did a talent interview of everyone at the Solid Waste Utility. We thought we might end up with singing garbagemen, but we weren't sure. Maybe we would have dancing garbagemen or juggling garbagemen. So, we surveyed all the people who work at Solid Waste Utility, and we found out that we have a lot of singers. So, we scheduled them for next day to audition, and there's a little bowling alley down the street, and in the dart room of a bowling alley The Collectors were born.

MAN: (Singing) Well, it started from the dump with a thing that they call a ditty. (Chorus: "A ditty!") So they took 5 guys and had them sing for the city. (Chorus: "The city!") Spreadin; the news...

GREENWOOD: One of the changes we had was, 80% of the people in the City of Tacoma were going to change the day that their garbage and recycling were collected. So we thought, how could we get that news out? Because people, some of them had the same garbage day for 20 years. So we got a flatbed truck, we put The Collectors on the back of it, and on a Monday they went to the new Tuesday neighborhood, and they sang to them, "We'll pick up your trash tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow..." I won't sing it for you. "We'll be back." And that was a real -- it was a fun day and it was a neat success. They literally, having your garbagemen go through town and serenade you. People loved it, they were out on their porches.

THE COLLECTORS: (Singing) We'll pick up your trash tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, we'll be back. Just set out your cans tomorrow. Separate the garbage and recycle. Join the fun.

SOLOIST: When we're stuck with a can that's old and grimy, we just stick out our chin...

GREENWOOD: They weren't real thrilled when we came up with that idea, but it was just funny to think of these big, burly garbagemen singing "Tomorrow" of all things. They kind of still roll their eyes when we talk about it. But I said look, it's a one-day thing that you need to do. And something about having your garbagemen singing "Tomorrow," it really worked.

SOLOIST 1: Tomorrow!

SOLOIST 2: Tomorrow!

SOLOIST 1: We'll be back --

SOLOIST 2: Tomorrow!

SOLOIST 3: It's only a day away.

CHORUS: Aaaaaaaah, tomorrow, tomorrow, we set out tomorrow, 'cause you've got a brand new day.

KNOY: L.C., I'd like to ask you a question.

L.C.: Yes.

KNOY: How has this made you feel about your job?

L.C.: Well, it's a lot more fun. You know, this whole idea, the whole campaign, it just brought a little fun into the job, you know, and made it enjoy -- I mean, actually, you have to like garbage to do garbage. And so it's enjoyable there. But you get recognition there all of a sudden: hey, weren't you in the paper? Aren't you one of those singing garbagemen? Nobody's asked for the autograph yet (Knoy laughs)...

KNOY: T-Bone, I'd like to ask you a question. What was it like the first time you went out and sang in front of people? How'd you feel?

T-BONE: Nervous. Anxious. The only thing running through my mind was, don't mess up. (Laughs with Knoy)

KNOY: Did you have any previous singing experience?

T-BONE: Only in the church. Sang there for a few years. So, it's a little bit different.

MAN: Okay, here we go.

THE COLLECTORS: (Singing) It's so easy to recycle. It's so easy to recycle. It's so easy, it's so easy -- yes, so doggone easy, doggone easy, yeah -- seems so easy, seems so easy, seems so easy -- let's recycle to get less solid waste. Yeah! It's so easy to recycle. It's so easy to recycle...

T-BONE: Well, it's more fun with people out. Like, yesterday I was out on my route, and customers are coming out and they say, "Wasn't that you in the paper I saw the other day?" And I'm sitting there, "Yeah, it was me." "You know, I looked at that and I said, I'm pretty sure that's my garbageman." So he came out and he said hello, and we talked for a little bit, and I continued on. And that feels pretty good.

THE COLLECTORS: (Singing) Yeah! It's so easy to recycle. It's so easy to recycle.

L.C.: Yeah.

KNOY: Tony T-Bone Ailed is a member of Tacoma, Washington's singing garbagemen, The Collectors. His partners are Lawrence L.C. Gray, James Cool- J Braggan, Dan Owens, and Hiram D.J. de Jesus. We also heard from Tacoma Solid Waste Utility spokeswoman Gail Greenwood.

(Music up and under, and beeping)

GREENWOOD: I would always just tease them about it. I would say okay, you guys, before you come to practice, you know, do me a favor, if you don't mind. Make sure you take a shower. I'm just kind of teasing them, but they always would do it. It was kind of a change in the life of the average garbageman.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

KNOY: You're listening to Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. KNOY: In a growing number of grade school classrooms, the fundamentals of an environmental education include reading, writing, and roadkill. The story is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

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

(Theme music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. This month, all England is listening for a sound the nation has celebrated for more than a millennium: the nocturnal song of the nightingale.

(Nightingale calls)

KNOY: After wintering in West Africa, thousands of nightingales return to England in May to nest and breed. But disruption of the birds' habitat in the English countryside has caused their numbers to decline. So this year, the British Trust for Ornithology has launched a nationwide nightingale appeal. One of the appeal's chief rundraisers will be a recording of a duet first broadcast 75 years ago. The performance featured the famous British cellist Beatrice Harrison playing in her garden, accompanied by the trilling of a nightingale.

(Harris on cello, with nightingale: "Oh Danny Boy")

KNOY: On May 19, 1924, the late-night BBC broadcast drew more than a million listeners. It was the BBC's first live outdoor broadcast, and it was repeated each year until Ms. Harrison moved away in 1936. After that, the nightingales were broadcast solo until 1942, when a BBC engineer picked up the sound of RAF bombers bound for Germany flying overhead, and stopped transmitting so as not to tip off the Germans.

(Nightingales backdropped by bombers)

KNOY: And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Are Chemical Plants Ready for Y2K?

MAN: Hey, what we do here is we neutralize, we have biological treatment. One of our divisions is a biochemical company, actually, where we sell specially-adapted bacteria for the use...

KNOY: Earlier this month, a special US Senate committee went on a fact-finding tour of industrial New Jersey. Under investigation was the so-called Y2K computer problem, and whether it could pose a threat at facilities where toxic chemicals are used or manufactured.

MAN: (Speaking to audience) I apologize for our late start from our earlier- advertised time. Even though Y2K has not struck yet the planes were still late coming out of Washington. (Audience laughs)

KNOY: Following the tour, the committee gathered in the state capitol, Trenton, to discuss the safety of the chemical industry. Among the speakers was Jerry Pogy, a member of the Federal agency that investigates chemical plant accidents. I asked him why these facilities pose a Y2K concern.

POGY: You can imagine that there are industrial facilities in our midst that handle thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals or flammable chemicals. Some of them go through an industrial process where they are heated, where they could be pressurized. And the control of the heating and the pressurization is governed by devices and computerized equipment that is susceptible to the Y2K failure. We could have a failure that leads to a runaway reaction, an over-pressurization that blows out a pressure relief valve, an overheating of a vessel that leads to the elimination of a safety control system, and eventually you could lose containment of that highly-hazardous material, resulting in its release into the surrounding environment.

KNOY: So what type of chemical facilities are we talking about, Dr. Pogy? Are we talking about oil refineries or pesticide factories?

POGY: There actually is a large gamut of such facilities. In fact, we're urging people to understand that chemical handling is a lot more of the chemical sector than chemical processing or manufacturing. In fact, a food storage area that uses large amounts of ammonia refrigeration will have a very toxic chemical, ammonia, in high amounts, at their facility. But we wouldn't generally recognize them as part of the chemical sector.

KNOY: So your concerns are widespread.

POGY: Concerns are enormously widespread. In 1996 the US Environmental Protection Agency, in preparation for a major rulemaking on accident prevention, identified that there are 66,000 facilities in this country that handle sufficient amounts of highly-hazardous chemicals. That they're likely to fall into this regulatory regimen. And within a 5-mile radius around those 66,000 facilities resides 85 million Americans.

KNOY: Nationwide, how do you think plants are doing?

POGY: Our investigation to date in the chemical sector indicates that larger corporate entities by and large have some rigorous programs that they've been employing, and that they've been accounting for the work that they've done to date. But we're fearful that small and mid-size enterprises in particular may have lesser capital resources and fewer technical human resources for addressing these Y2K problems.

KNOY: Has a computer failure ever caused a general failure at a chemical plant before?

POGY: There's one example that's widely quoted in the literature. At the end of the year on December 31, in Tewy, New Zealand, as they transited to the new year, 660 process control units shut down simultaneously on an aluminum smelting operation. That resulted, unfortunately, in a very unsafe situation. It ultimately resulted in over a million pounds New Zealand sterling worth of damage. And ultimately the problem was found out to be that the computer programmers had failed to recognize that the year 1996 had 366 days in the year, because it was a leap year.

KNOY: Is anyone talking, Dr. Pogy, about the possibility that Y2K could cause a situation like the catastrophe in Bhopal, India, where the pesticide plant released a toxic cloud and thousands of people were killed?

POGY: Certainly in the back of all of our minds is the big concern that we avoid any kind of mishap like the terrible tragedy that occurred in Bhopal. Just 2 months ago we began an investigation into an incident with a relatively small facility, had fewer than 30 workers, that had a catastrophic explosion. It killed 4 of the workers within the workplace. Also killed a worker in a business that was nearby, destroyed over 11 buildings, and was felt more than 15 miles away in the surrounding community of Allentown, Pennsylvania. So such events, unfortunately, are occurring even without the Y2K stress added to the system of chemical safety.

KNOY: Jerry Pogy is a member of the US Chemical Safety Board. Dr. Pogy, thanks a lot for talking to us.

POGY: Thank you so much, Laura. It certainly is a pleasure to be here.

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Road Kill Redemption

KNOY: It's not unusual for volunteers to help collect information for environmental studies. That's how much of the data for frog surveys or bird counts is gathered, for example. So perhaps it's not too surprising that grade school students in places like Granville, Michigan, have volunteered to investigate one of the great mysteries of the modern age. It's all part of a project that puts a new spin on the old question: Why did the chicken cross the road? The answer: Sometimes he doesn't. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson explains.

NELSON: Over the years 12-year-old Jamie Terrell and her mom have worked together on many school projects. They've collected butterflies and identified flowers. But now, they're looking for something different.

TERRELL: What do you think it looks like? Does it look like a feathered friend or a furry friend?

JAMIE: A squirrel.

TERRELL: Think so?

JAMIE: Mm hm.

TERRELL: Car go by. Real slower.

NELSON: After 3 drive-bys they determine this flattened tuft of fur is indeed a squirrel. But it was kind of hard to tell at first, since it had been run over so many times. Jamie makes some notes about the location of the squirrel, the speed limit on the road, and the weather conditions. Then they drive on.

(Children's voices indoors)

NELSON: The next day Jamie and her classmates report their findings during the Roadkill Roll Call.

MAZUREK: Okay. Roadkill participants: any new -- yes.

GIRL: A rabbit.

MAZUREK: Rabbit. Where at?

GIRL: Thirtieth Street.

MAZUREK: Thirtieth Street? Okay, today we'll enter it on the computer.

NELSON: Blake Mazurek's sixth grade class is one small part of a much larger project. Thousands of students in more than 35 states are helping to collect data about roadkill. The participants can be in any grade but they all have to follow the project protocol. Each day they travel an assigned stretch of road, usually a mile or 2 long. When they spot a dead animal, they record pertinent data. Now, kids being kids, they're naturally intrigued by all things grotesque, including dead animals in the road.

(To child) What did it look like?

BOY: Well, it was all smashed up, and bloody and stuff like that.

GIRL: All I saw mostly was the tail. It looked like it's been there for a day or 2.

NELSON: At this point you might be wondering what kids could possibly learn from a flat cat or a squished squirrel. As it turns out, plenty. They learn about migration patterns and different habitats, and the conflicts between humans and animals that development causes. This is the first year Blake Mazurek has used the roadkill project with his class at Prairie View Junior Middle School in Granville, Michigan.

MAZUREK: I think what we'll be finding is that there'll be some differences between our suburban areas of our district and the rural areas, as far as the types of animals and also the frequency. And I think they're also going to find a higher concentration, of course, on those roads that have higher speeds and more traffic. So what I'm anxious to see is how the kids pull that out. And I think it'll be really helpful once we have our plotting and our maps.

NELSON: The Roadkill Project got its start 6 years ago. It was the brainchild of Brewster Bartlett. Bartlett, or Dr. Splat, as he's better known, is a 9th grade science teacher in Derry, New Hampshire. He says at first most kids think the concept is crazy.

BARTLETT: They have no idea what they're getting themselves into. They're interested, and eventually they start to piecemeal the project together as saying well, there are a lot of animals being killed. What can we do to stop that?

NELSON: The project started small, mostly in New England. But now there's an entire Web site devoted to it, where classes from all over the country post their findings. Dr. Splat says sometimes even he's amazed at the lengths the kids make, like the student in Florida who found a correlation between roadkill and litter.

BARTLETT: She noticed that a lot of kids apparently were throwing apples, after they eat the apple, on the road. And she came up with the idea, well, if you throw food outside onto the road, it's going to attract other animals.

NELSON: Last year, Dr. Splat's students in New Hampshire saw the effects of El Nino firsthand, by studying roadkill. They noticed the fatality count was way down compared to previous years. So, they did some digging and discovered the unseasonably warm weather caused the animals to migrate early, before the students started monitoring the roads. Dr. Splat says almost any teacher can find a use for flattened animals in their lesson plans. Students can track data by making charts and graphs. They can look up information from previous years to trace the historical patterns of roadkill. And they can debate ideas for reducing animal fatalities, like encouraging drivers to slow down. The Roadkill Project is expanding all the time. There are now classes participating in such far-flung places as Montreal, Moscow, and Hong Kong. And if that means another lesson they learn is one about the potential for global cooperation to combat roadkill, Dr. Splat says that's just fine with him. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson in Granville, Michigan.

(Music up and under, banjo: "Crossin; the highway late last night, he should'a looked left and you should'a looked right. He didn't see the station wagon car, the skunk got squashed and there you are. You got your dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinkin' to high heaven...")

KNOY: To find out more about the Roadkill Project, visit our Web site at www.livingonearth.org.

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(Music up and under: "Take a whiff on me, that ain't no rose. Roll up your window and hold your nose. You don't have to look and you don't have to see, 'cause you can feel it in your olfactory. You got your dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk in the middle of the road. Dead skunk of the middle of the road, and it's stinkin' to high heaven...")

KNOY: Armed with legal briefs and the latest in electronic surveillance gear, 2 lawyers and a trapper go hunting for abusers of Alabama's environment. We profile the wild bunch called Wild Alabama next, on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Alabama's Eco-Rebels

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. It's a bit unusual for an environmental group to boast that its members can shoot straighter and drink harder than any other naturalists around. But that's the claim of 3 Alabamians who've organized a small yet effective group. Its aim is to preserve and protect some of the nation's most unique flora and fauna. Producer Sam Hendren profiles Wild Alabama, and what it's up against in a state vying for the title of America's Extinction Capitol.

(Engine running, stops. A door opens.)

HENDREN: When Ray Vaughan, Lamar Marshall, and Ned Mud head into the Alabama outdoors, they always go well prepared.

(Footfalls)

MAN 1: I have my gear, maps, and everybody got a firearm, I assume.

MAN 2: Right. Digital camera, digital video, 357, tequila...

HENDREN: With their cameras, these 3 friends document Alabama's dwindling wilderness. Vaughan and Mud are both attorneys who often back up their environmental lawsuits with dramatic photographic evidence. Lamar Marshall is a champion trapper whose modern-day trading post helps support his activist environmental organization, Wild Alabama. On today's outing Marshall is carrying a pair of handguns in case one jams, he says.

MARSHALL: I carry 2 Colt 45s (clicks). I'm a naturalist and I look around here in nature and I see that God has armed almost every creature. Rattlesnakes have got fangs, porcupines got quills, skunks got the sprayer, and God Almighty gave Man the ability to invent the Colt 45 as his defense.

HENDREN: Endless pressure, endlessly applied, is Wild Alabama's motto. But its firepower is legal action and its battlefield is the courtroom. Together, Marshall's Wild Alabama and Vaughan's Wild Law generate 90% of environmental lawsuits filed in the state. Such activist lawyering, according to Ray Vaughan, has created hard feelings.

VAUGHAN: We've all been threatened. My office has been broken into and people try to go through my files. When you really stand up for the environment and you take on the power company, the paper mills, the timber industries, multi-billion-dollar corporations, not just 1 or 2 of them but dozens of them, certain people don't like that. And violence is part of the repertoire of people who despoil the Earth, that they don't mind using from time to time.

HENDREN: Ray Vaughan's Wild Law gets by on 2 and a half full-time attorneys and a $150,000 a year budget. Yet its legal activity is phenomenal, bringing as many as 60 lawsuits in Alabama last year and filing many more administrative appeals. Wild Law's success rate is even more remarkable, winning more than 80% of its cases during the last 2 years. But in spite of its courtroom successes, it still faces tremendous hurdles, says Ned Mud.

MUD: The fact is the 3 of us live in the black hole of biodiversity here in America. And this is one of the most spectacular places, or it could be, and we're up against incredible odds.

HENDREN: More species go extinct in Alabama than anywhere else in the country except Hawaii and California. But the state's biodiversity remains tremendously rich, due to the most part to the many rivers that flow through to the Gulf of Mexico. The landscape, though, has changed greatly in the past 200 years. Botanist William Bartram wrote of a very different Alabama, one filled with magnificent forests, on a trip to the Gulf in the mid-1770s.

MAN: (Reading) Advancing forward from the river and penetrating the awful shades passed between the stately columns of magnolia granda flora, and came to the ascents supporting the high forests and expansive plains above. What a sylvan scene is here. I recline on the verdant bank and view the beauties of the groves.

HENDREN: Progress came to Alabama in the early 1900s and its impact, says biologist and Alabama native E.O. Wilson, was great.

WILSON: The mass extinctions suffered by the fauna of the state occurred when the great rivers were dammed, particularly the Tennessee River, beginning in the 20s. And of course that brought great benefit to the people of Alabama. It helped to raise a lot of rural Alabama from a Third World country to a quite prosperous and rapidly-advancing state it is today. But the price for generations to come and the loss of its biodiversity was very, very steep.

HENDREN: Industry soon had a firm hold on Alabama, and according to Ray Vaughan it continues today with the help of the state's politicians.

VAUGHAN: We're a source of cheap lumber, cheap coal, cheap hydropower that's exported out of the state, natural gas. We have a lot of wonderful natural resources which we sell to anybody for virtually any price. Just, you know, please give us 5 minimum wage jobs and we'll let you destroy an entire county with your chip mill.

HENDREN: Even the Federal Government, it seems, whether by accident or intent, is at times a danger to the state's natural resources. Several months ago, at Little River Canyon National Preserve in northeast Alabama, a bulldozer operator hired by the National Parks Service destroyed a portion of a bog where the endangered green pitcher plant was growing. Wild Law has filed suit over that incident, also charging that the Parks Service is polluting the nearby Little River, the only virtually pristine river left in the state. The US Forest Service, which harvests timber in Alabama's national forests, is a more frequent target of Wild Law litigation.

VAUGHAN: Well, we're in what I call the crown jewel of Alabama; it's the Bankhead National Forest in northwest Alabama. There's about 400 miles of canyons here, and it appears as though a piece of the Smokey Mountains were transplanted into this part of Alabama. And we just walked approximately a mile back into the Bankhead, across what used to be native hardwood ridges.

HENDREN: But the Forest Service is systematically cutting the Bankhead's hardwood trees, selling that valuable timber, and replanting pines. It's a practice that, according to Ray Vaughan, endangers rare species.

VAUGHAN: We're sitting in the middle of a recent timber cut right now. But this area ought to be a wilderness area. If this were left alone and the Forest Service quit micro-managing it, the hardwoods would take over these planted pines and they'd put the place back. Nature knows what to do. These forests even, as badly mangled as many parts of them are, still are the refuges of our last remnants of biodiversity in this state.

(Waterfall, a whoop)

HENDREN: Vaughan, Marshall, and Mud have walked a half-mile further, descended into a canyon, and have arrived at sheltered pool below the Caney Creek Falls.

VAUGHAN: They have this mystique about them, blowing out of these big hemlock trees. That was a sandstone bluff. This is a very ancient place. Some of the Native Americans called it a place of power. It like rejuvenates you to get down here and these negative ions that are churning around in the mist that are coming out of the water here.

(Waterfall continues)

HENDREN: Wild Alabama and Wild Law have been fighting the US Forest Service for years. They've charged the Forest Service with destroying Native American archaeological sites and with failing to conduct adequate impact studies before timber cuts. A recent report by the Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General seems to validate those claims. The report says that surveys for threatened, endangered, and sensitive species in the South have not been performed, and that too many trees are being harvested.

(Voices indoors)

MARSHALL: Yeah, it would be great to get a shot of the wilderness.

DAVENPORT: Yeah, I figured you'd want to do a few shots within the boundaries of the Bankhead.

HENDREN: At times, Mud, Vaughan, and Marshall use guerilla tactics and clandestine operations to gather photographic documentation. Today's mission is somewhat easier, as Marshall, a photographer, and pilot Hume Davenport take to the air.

(Engines run)

HENDREN: Hume Davenport heads South Wings, which provides flight services to southern environmental groups. During the next 3 hours he'll fly Marshall and his photographer over several hot spots in north Alabama.

(Engines)

MARSHALL: One of our strategies is to show the public the utter contrast between beauty and destruction.

HENDREN: At an altitude of 2500 feet, Davenport flies along the Tennessee River for photographs of a paper mill, chip mills, and a nuclear power plant.

(Engines)

DAVENPORT: Lamar, is your group protesting all this development along the river here?

MARSHALL: Absolutely. Everything from water pollution to air pollution to deforestation.

HENDREN: Many of the photographs taken today will appear in future issues of Wild Alabama magazine. Marshall places majestic scenes side by side with photos of strip mines and clearcuts. But the 3 don't always win their cases. Citing a potential threat to endangered mussels in the Tennessee River, they tried to stop the building of a natural gas pipeline through the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. James Cleary, General Counsel for Southern Natural Gas, says his company will minimize adverse impacts on the environment by tunneling 80 feet below the river bed, using a sophisticated directional drill. He says Wild Law's objections are without merit.

CLEARY: Indeed, after hearing the evidence and hearing argument from counsel from both sides, a Federal judge here in Birmingham agreed that Mr. Vaughan and his group were unlikely to prevail on the merits of the case, and that they hadn't shown a threat of irreparable harm to the mussel species.

HENDREN: There's little doubt that Marshall, Vaughan, and Mud have embittered some corporate opponents with their litigation, forever losing any chance at compromise through negotiation. The 3 may also have ruffled the feathers of mainstream environmentalists, whom they call "eco-weenies." But that tough guy talk, according to the Alabama Environmental Counsel's Ken Wills, may do a lot to save Alabama's environment.

WILLS: Lamar, Ray, and Mud definitely represent the kind of interest of, you know, your poster-boy Alabamian. And I think that if we're going to save the environment in Alabama, we've got to appeal to the guys who are more interested in the hunting and the fishing, just getting in the outdoors, than understanding the deep ecology of the forest.

HENDREN: Marshall, Vaughan, and Mud do understand the perils that surround Alabama's few remaining wild places and endangered species. And they say they're willing to use just about any tactic to save them.

VAUGHAN: You wouldn't go out and say, "Hey folks, we need to save the snail, because it's biologically important." Nobody cares about that in Alabama. But what people do care about is where their grandmas and grandpas grew up, the mountainside they killed their first deer on, and where they caught their biggest bass. They are about the natural resources, and it's a cultural thing. An example, this old man once said, "The blood and the bones of my ancestors nourished those old trees that they're clear-cutting up there." And that'll fire people up.

HENDREN: For Living on Earth, I'm Samuel Hendren in the Bankhead National Forest, Alabama.

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(Music up and under)

KNOY: And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

(Music up and under)

KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, the building material asbestos was banned in the US more than a quarter century ago, but its health effects still linger. Today many of the people exposed to the carcinogen long ago are only now showing symptoms of illness.

MAN: Even if we -- no one else in America was exposed to asbestos again, starting tomorrow, we would still have a marked increase in the number of cases over the next 10 to 15 years.

(Music up and under)

KNOY: Asbestos, the dilemma that won't disappear, next time on Living on Earth. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff includes 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 had help this week from Alison Dean, Cynthia Graber, Chris Burdick, Paul On, Maury Lowenger, KPLU Seattle, and New Hampshire Public Radio. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel. Chris Ballman is the senior producer, and the executive producer is Steve Curwood. I'm Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.A. Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Surdna Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.

 

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