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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

August 20, 1999

Air Date: August 20, 1999

SEGMENTS

Pollinating Insect Experiment / Terry FitzPatrick

A golf course in Oregon has launched a unique project to install native flowering plants to help stem the decline of the wild insects that pollinate them. If successful, it could become a nationwide model for restoring the habitat of some of nature's most important creatures. From our Northwest Bureau, Living On Earth’s Terry FitzPatrick reports from Pendleton, Oregon. (07:45)

Garden Spot

Living On Earth’s traditional gardener, Michael Weishan (WYS-han), shows host Steve Curwood some techniques for propagating plants during the summer months. (04:30)

Electric Car Trial Run / Jeff Hoffman

In California, which has the strictest air pollution standards in America, the private electric car is seen as one solution. Reporter Jeff Hoffman spent a day with a Bay Area family who took part in a pilot program to test-drive Honda's electric car. (08:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... that American summertime tradition, the bar-be-que. ()

The Thirst for Safe Water, Part 3: Mississippi Drinking Water: Epic Danger / Brenda Tremblay

The Mississippi watershed drains more than a million square miles of forests, farmland and cities in North America, often carrying with it a heavy load of pesticides and other pollutants. For the people who have to draw their drinking water from the river, the high concentrations of toxic chemicals are a cause for concern. Brenda Tremblay (TROM-blay) travels down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans for this report. (15:15)

Just One Child

A few years ago, writer Bill McKibben and his wife agreed that their daughter, Sophie, would be their one and only child. He discusses this decision in his book, "Maybe One." Mr. McKibben tells host Steve Curwood, population is the most important ecological issue of our day, yet one of the least discussed. (06:10)

Throwaway Society / Josh Gerak

Commentator Josh Gerak (juh-RACK) sent us this account of his experiences in the consumer product marketplace. Mr. Gerak lives and writes in Seattle. (03:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Terry FitzPatrick, Jeff Hoffman, Brenda Tremblay
GUESTS: Michael Weishan, Bill McKibben
COMMENTATOR: Josh Gerak

(Theme music intro)

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

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(Music up and under)

Pollinating Insect Experiment

CURWOOD: In summer, the sound of tee shots is a constant rhythm heard out on the nation's golf courses. But if a group of ecologists is successful, this course in Oregon could also be buzzing with the sound of bees. The Wildhorse Resort has launched a unique project to install native flowering plants to help stem the decline of the wild insects that pollinate them. If successful, it could become a nationwide model for restoring the habitat of some of Nature's most important creatures. From our Northwest Bureau, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.

(Another golfball heads for the fairway)

FITZPATRICK: Golf courses are among the most manicured landscapes on Earth, requiring endless attention by the grounds crew.

(shoveling)

FITZPATRICK: However, workers at the Wildhorse Resort near Pendleton, Oregon, are trying to create a little chaos amidst the lush fairways.

(Metal scrapes on rock)

FITZPATRICK: With picks and shovels, they're transforming out-of-bounds sections into a jungle of native flowering plants, the kinds that bees and other pollinating insects depend on.

(Scrapes, thuds, taps, pats)

DAVIS: If you look to your left and right, most of this is farmed. And there's very few native plant communities left, and so the insects don't really have a place to be.

(Shovel delving)

FITZPATRICK: Landscaper June Davis says wildflowers were common before farmers and urban developers plowed them under. This pilot project will determine if native bee populations can recover when the natural plants are restored.

(Scrape, rattle, brushing off of hands. Woman's voice: "All right, here you go, baby!," then, pat, pat)

FITZPATRICK: Ms. Davis is installing a diverse assortment of plants, such as yarrow, choke cherries, sumac, wild grape, and woodsy rose.

(Shovel sounds, pats)

FITZPATRICK: Each one attracts a different type of bee. (Energetic soil firming sounds. Woman's voice: "...get that packed down..."

DAVIS: There, we have a nice little basin, that we can come and water.

FITZPATRICK: There are more than 4,000 species of bee in North America, and while there are no firm statistics on their decline, many ecologists sense there has been an alarming drop. Melody Allen of the Xerces Society for invertebrate conservation, blames the lack of native vegetation, such as the vast expanses of grass, on golf course like this.

ALLEN: Without the plants, the insects die. Then, without the insects, the remaining plants don't regenerate. And then you have fewer and fewer insects. So it's a vicious downward spiral.

FITZPATRICK: Unchecked, this spiral could threaten the pollination of thousands of species of plants, even plants that people depend upon for food. The domesticated honeybee hives that farmers rely on, have been devastated in recent years by parasites, and scientists think native bees might offer a solution. Ms. Allen and other back yard gardeners have noticed that on a small scale, planting wildflowers helps wild bees to rebound.

ALLEN: I went from a back yard that had grass to a back yard that is filled with native plants, and this is in urban Portland. And it is absolutely alive with insects. I mean you walk into my yard, it's just amazing. They are so busy and they're so productive and they're so beneficial. And it's a pleasant sound; it's equivalent to the sound of bird song in the morning, to go out in the afternoon, on a sunny afternoon, and hear. It's like a music of insects. It's just beautiful.

FITZPATRICK: Ms. Allen believes her back yard experiment can work on golf courses nationwide, where there are millions of acres of land that is out of play. The Wild Horse course was picked to go first, in part because the Indian tribes that built it have a special nursery to reintroduce native plants. Monica Sanchee is the nursery manager for the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes.

SANCHEE: We're trying to complete a cycle. It's a circle. We're trying to put back into the circle all living things that create a whole. This is what makes the land work for itself.

FITZPATRICK: Still, some tribal members weren't sure they could embrace the return of bees and wasps on their new golf course resort. But superintendent Sean Hoolehan says people came around when they learned the project does not involve the swarming, stinging honeybees that people are familiar with.

HOOLEHAN: The key is to say pollinators, not bees. When you say bees, people's eyes rise and -- for instance, on my staff I have some people who are allergic to bees. But when we talk about it and tell them, explain to them what really we're talking about, about a more solitary kind of species and their importance, everybody kind of buys off. I haven't had any negative comments.

FITZPATRICK: In fact, many people wouldn't recognize a wild bee even if it did come up and try to sting them. They're nothing like the honeybees people commonly think about.

(Many buzzing bees)

FITZPATRICK: Honeybees live in huge colonies, with thousands of individual insects. (Buzzing continues)

FITZPATRICK: Actually, though, honeybees are not native to North America. They were brought here by pilgrims centuries ago.

(Buzzing continues)

FITZPATRICK: Most naturally-occurring bees in the US do not live in hives. They live alone. They're far less likely to sting, and their venom is weaker.

(Opening boxes)

TEPEDINO: We have 51 species of bees and 32 species of wasps.

FITZPATRICK: In a lab at Whitman College in nearby Walla Walla, Washington, Vince Tepedino is opening boxes with specimens of native pollinators. Dr. Tepedino is with the US Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Center in Utah. He tells students who will monitor the Wild Horse golf course that pollinators come in all shapes and sizes, and colors.

TEPEDINO: Blues, bright greens, some purplish reds. Some of them are amazingly beautiful. They're like jewels.

(Creaking Styrofoam)

FITZPATRICK: The specimens are pinned to a styrofoam panel. These are absolutely amazing. But even with a magnifying glass, I couldn't recognize them as bees. (To Tepedino) They look more like big flies, or dragonflies.

TEPEDINO: They're far too beautiful for flies.

FITZPATRICK: (Laughs) You're not a fly fisher, are you?

TEPEDINO: No, I'm not.

(Wooden boards being hammered)

TEPEDINO: Want to come help? (A woman speaks in reply.)

FITZPATRICK: Out on the golf course, Dr. Tepedino is helping the experiment by erecting nesting blocks for native pollinators to call home.

(A drill runs)

FITZPATRICK: Atop a 3-foot stake, he attaches several boards with small holes where females can lay eggs.

(More hammering)

FITZPATRICK: Like a bird house, bees will come to a bee house?

TEPEDINO: Oh yeah. Yeah. These are bee condos.

(More drilling)

FITZPATRICK: In a natural setting, fallen logs would provide nesting habitat like this. But for now, Dr. Tepedino says the blocks will do. (To Tepedino) So it seems your strategy right now is sort of the field of dreams strategy?

TEPEDINO: (Laughs) Yeah, that's exactly right. Build it and they will come.

FITZPATRICK: It will take all year to learn if the bees do come in sufficient numbers to make this effort worthwhile.

(A golf ball is hit)

MAN: That's a good ball.

FITZPATRICK: It will also take time to assess if golfers will accept an audience of insects.

(Another ball is hit)

FITZPATRICK: But if the project is a success, native plant restoration could expand to public parks, corporate campuses, and highway medians, providing a mosaic of habitat where people and pollinators can coexist. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon.

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(Music up and under; fade to traffic sounds, and digging)

Garden Spot

(Music up and under; fade to traffic sounds, and digging)

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

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

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

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

CURWOOD: Okay.

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

CURWOOD: Yeah.

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

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

WEISHAN: Exactly.

CURWOOD: Okay.

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

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

(Footfalls and bird song)

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

(Scraping sounds)

WEISHAN: We still have another process that we can show you, and it's as simple as doing cutting, so let's step into the greenhouse. Okay, right here in the greenhouse I have cut up some tips off the boxwood. And what I've done is simply filled a number of small, little pots with a good potting soil, and dipped them in a growth hormone, a common variety, it's called Rootone. And put it in the container, and put them in a damp, cool place. Keep it out of direct sunlight; it's important to keep the cuttings in the shade until they're fully rooted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Music up and under)

Your range may be limited, but you also have no tune-ups, no oil changes, no radiator troubles. The positives and negatives of battery-powered electric cars are next. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Electric Car Trial Run

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Private electric cars, out of vogue since the turn of the century, are coming back on the market in California. The state is under a mandate to reduce polluting vehicles over the next 4 years. Range is still the big problem, but these cars do boast sharply improved high-tech batteries. And with a small number of working parts, electrics are easy to maintain. Most car makers are selling or leasing to government or corporate fleets, but there's also a pilot program aimed at ordinary consumers. Reporter Jeff Hoffman spent a day with a San Francisco family helping to pioneer the EV market.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Right. Now, Jean is picking you up in half an hour, at 8:30; no, in 15 minutes.

HOFFMAN: It's breakfast time at the Braunstein's. Steve, Willa, and their two sons live on a quiet street of Victorian houses 5 miles from downtown San Francisco. As with most young families, the logistics of getting to work, school, and the grocery, is a big part of daily life.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: (Speaking above her small son) If Alice gets dropped off at Chris's house, then you have Alice, Max, and Chris, and then you can't take Ely.

HOFFMAN: But morning conversation here hasn't quite been the same since last February, when the Braunsteins decided to sell one of their two Volvos and lease a Honda EV-Plus minivan.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: The person that's driving the furthest within the range of the EV on that particular day is usually the person that gets the EV, because it's much cheaper to run and we just want to put as many miles on it as possible.

HOFFMAN: That might seem counter-intuitive, since the EV-Plus goes only about 100 miles on an overnight charge of its batteries. But Steve, a bassoonist for the San Francisco Symphony, says that's more than enough to meet their needs.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: It's very rare that a day will pass when we drive more than 75 or 80 miles, which is well within the range of the car.

HOFFMAN: Today Willa will drive the EV across the San Francisco Bay to a Berkeley clinic where she works as a part-time X-ray technician. It's about a 30-mile round trip. Steve goes to get the EV ready.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Push the button.

(Opening and shutting sounds)

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Close the little hatch. And we're ready to go. That's easier than stopping at a gas station.

HOFFMAN: Oh yeah. For sure.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: (Laughs) I haven't stopped at a gas station since February 27th.

HOFFMAN: The EV-Plus dashboard provides continually-updated information on charge and range to make sure the driver doesn't get stranded. Honda does provide free towing with the $450 monthly lease, but the Braunsteins have never run out of juice on the road. Steve says not burning fossil fuels makes him feel better about driving.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: You know, I'm not out there in the inflatables with Greenpeace, but we try to do our part. When I make lifestyle decisions I try to think about the environmental consequences.

HOFFMAN: The EV charges with what looks like a big paddle that connects to an industrial- strength device the local utility installed in the Braunsteins' garage. Under the hood it has an electric motor and a pack of batteries where the gasoline engine would be. It has no gears, just a stick for forward and reverse. And of course there's no tailpipe. Otherwise, it looks and performs like any well-designed van. Honda built it from the wheels up as an electric. Earlier EVs were mostly converted internal combustion vehicles with extremely limited range and questionable reliability.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: I wanted to do a conversion 10 years ago, but that didn't quite work out. It was a lot of work to end up with a vehicle that was homemade, basically.

HOFFMAN: Honda pays for insurance and takes care of all maintenance. Subtract the cost of gas, add about $40 to the electric bill, and the EV-Plus ends up costing about $350 a month to operate. About the same as Honda's conventional Odyssey minivan. With the kids' lunches under control, Willa's set to go.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Ready for the big boom? Here it comes.

(The key turns in the lock, some beeps sound)

W. BRAUNSTEIN: We're ready to run. That's it.

(Electric powering up)

HOFFMAN: Indeed, the first thing one notices riding in an EV is how quiet it is. There's just a gentle whirring noise so pedestrians and other drivers often don't hear you coming.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Steve and I have both tried to be very aware when we drive the car that people are programmed for a certain rumble of an engine, and that you don't have this rumble. And you're not programmed to listen to this high-pitched sort of dentist squeal of this EV.

HOFFMAN: Willa says she's been extremely happy with the EV, which is surprisingly powerful and great for getting up San Francisco hills. But she concedes that because of limited range and size, the car isn't for everyone.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: You do have to have a certain driving profile for this car to work for you.

HOFFMAN: And the Braunsteins aren't about to give up their internal combustion habit altogether. For long trips and vacations, they still rev up the Volvo.

W. BRAUNSTEIN: Hopefully they'll figure out a way to make these batteries a little more long- distance.

HOFFMAN: That advance could be a number of years away. While technology is improving, batteries remain the Achilles heel of electric vehicles. The nickel-metal hydride batteries in the EV-Plus are the best available, but they cost $20,000, more than a third of the vehicle's theoretical sticker price. That's one reason Honda and other auto makers are heavily subsidizing their EV lease programs.

BENENFELD: We consider this really to be tuition.

HOFFMAN: Robert Bienenfeld is EV Program Manager for American Honda, which has put several hundred EV-Pluses on the road in California. Despite the losses the company takes on EVs, he says it's learning about consumer interest, which will help design and marketing. Car makers must sell thousands of zero emission vehicles, not only in California but also in New York and Massachusetts. Mr. Bienenfeld says selling that many EVs to consumers is going to be a challenge.

BIENENFELD: With the limited range which is offered by the batteries that are available today and in the near future, it does, unfortunately, look like a fairly limited market.

HOFFMAN: In fact, experts say the new EVs would make perfect commute vehicles or second cars for around-town travel. The average car only gets driven 35 miles a day, says Daniel Sperling, Director of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis.

SPERLING: The real challenge is for households to make some minor adaptations in their lifestyle, in their perceptions of how they use vehicles.

HOFFMAN: Honda's Robert Bienenfeld agrees that EVs would meet most people's driving needs. But that's a moot point for auto makers, he says.

BIENENFELD: We can tell them all we want about how it meets most of their needs. And although that may be true, they still have the perception that it's less function for more money. They may need not need that functionality, but we buy cars for our maximum need, not our minimum need.

HOFFMAN: Other technologies in the pipeline may resolve the battery and range problems while meeting the mandate for cleaner air. Toyota and Volvo will soon introduce hybrid electrics, which run on batteries in city driving and switch to gasoline power on the highway. Car makers are also at work on clean-burning fuel cells that power electric drive motors. Transportation scholar Daniel Sperling says EVs are an evolutionary step, and they'll share the road with other low-emission vehicles.

SPERLING: Right now we have essentially a transportation monoculture: all vehicles have to serve all purposes and have to go on all roads. And what we need to do is, and in fact we're moving in this direction already, is thinking about vehicles being more specialized. It's very uncertain at this point in time which of these technologies will be superior, which will dominate, and it will probably be a mix of those.

(Ambient voices)

HOFFMAN: It's afternoon and Steve is out doing some errands. The EV is getting a lot of attention. People honk, wave, and ask all kinds of questions.

MAN: You have the motor's going?

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Yeah, want to hear me rev it up? (No change in quietude) That's it.

MAN: That's pretty cool. (Steve laughs) How is it when you're driving it? Is it fast? I mean, can you go 60?

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Oh, sure. It's electronically governed to go no faster than 86.

HOFFMAN: Honda might fret about how to sell EVs to other drivers, but the Braunsteins are sold on theirs. Ironically, they can't keep it; Honda wants it back for research. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman in San Francisco.

MAN: Mind if I ask how much?

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Four-fifty a month.

MAN: That's the same as my Suburban.

S. BRAUNSTEIN: Is that right?

MAN: But a little worse gas mileage in the Suburban. (Steve laughs)

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(Music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up: the Mississippi is the mightiest river in North America and it can be one of the most dangerous to drink from. Millions of people have to, and often do, risking their health. Our series The Thirst for Safe Water continues in just a few minutes here 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 Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Though many Americans use them year-round, summer is prime time for back yard grills. More than three quarters of American households now own a barbecue, and together will light up about 3 billion times this year, twice as much as a decade ago. In the US, barbecuing got a boost in 1920, when Henry Ford accidentally invented the charcoal briquet, using wood scraps and sawdust from his car factory. Now we buy more than $400 million worth of charcoal each year. But the increasingly popular way to barbecue these days is also the more environmentally friendly way, with a gas grill. Charcoal grilling causes a lot more air pollution, mainly because of the volatile organic compounds found in charcoal lighter. Manufacturers who sell these products in California have had to reformulate lighter fluid to meet the state's low VOC emission rules. The origin of the word barbecue is unknown. Some say it comes from barbacoa, the word Taino Indians use for their meat smoking apparatus. Others say it's French. Barbecue means "whiskers to tail," or the parts you're supposed to cook. Well, either way, the craze has spread quickly. Today barbecue contests are held not only in the United States but also in Ireland and even Estonia. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

The Thirst for Safe Water, Part 3: Mississippi Drinking Water: Epic Danger

CURWOOD: It's part of Pittsburgh and Denver. It stretches from Alberta to New Orleans. It's the Mississippi watershed, one of the world's great river systems that drains more than a million square miles of forests, farmlands, and cities in North America. The Mississippi watershed is home for a great variety of wildlife, and a key waterway for shipping. But it also carries a heavy load of pesticides and other pollutants. And for the people who have to draw their drinking water from the river, the high concentrations of toxic chemicals are a daily cause for concern. As part of our series The Thirst for Safe Water, Brenda Tremblay traveled down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans.

(River sounds)

TREMBLAY: It's easy to see why they call it the "Big Muddy." A few miles north of St. Louis, the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet to form a wide and breathtaking expanse of water. The murky brown river churns and foams at the banks where large limbs tangle in the brush and bald eagles swoop down to pluck fish from its rapids.

(Churning, splashing)

Here at the place called The Chain of Rocks, two hundred thousand cubic feet of water rush by every second, carrying sediment that has washed off the farms, forests, and mining operations of eleven upstream states. (More river sounds to a water treatment plant) For people who live and work along its banks, like St. Louis water commissioner David Visintainer, the river is an irresistible force.

VISINTAINER: We look on it as almost a living entity. It's constantly changing. It can be very calm and peaceful at times. It can be rampaging and destructive at others, though.

TREMBLAY: The destruction is unleashed at times like the floods of 1993, when the Mississippi wreaked havoc on towns and cities along its banks. But even in calmer years, the river brings dangers that drinking water officials from Minneapolis to New Orleans must confront; dangers like partially-treated sewage and urban run-off, industrial waste and pesticides washing off thousands of farms.

(Sounds of water treatment plant motor humming)

David Visintainer deals with these problems every day here at the St. Louis water treatment plant. Huge pipelines pump the river water into treatment basins where chlorine is added for disinfection. Then the water runs through forty filters to remove mud and other solids. There's even a special system for dealing with one of the thorniest problems: pesticides. It mixes carbon with the river water in huge vats.

VISINTAINER: It's very, very fine, fine carbon particles. It will then absorb organic type contaminants. It's a process that isn't 100 percent effective but is very effective in removal and we will use extensive amounts of that carbon during the spring runoff periods when for us agricultural run-off is the big issue.

TREMBLAY: Mr. Visintainer says he's frustrated. The carbon treatment equipment alone cost the city of St. Louis almost a million dollars to install, and every spring, during what's known as 'the spring flush' when high concentrations of pesticides wash off Midwestern farmland, he spends seven thousand dollars a day on powdered carbon. St. Louis officials manage to meet federal drinking water standards most of the time, but only at a huge cost, and Mr. Visintainer wishes that he had less contaminated water to begin with.

(Sounds of rushing water)

Altogether, eighteen million people drink out of the Mississippi River system. And cities from Cincinnati to St. Paul to Omaha spend millions every year to make the water drinkable. But in a way, big cities are lucky. They can afford sophisticated treatment equipment to remove high concentrations of pesticides. Often smaller communities, where four million people live and drink out of the Mississippi, can't afford it. So anywhere people can avoid drawing their drinking water from the river, they do.

(Sounds of children playing and counting) Two hundred miles south of St. Louis, Memphis, Tennessee sits on a bluff above the Mississippi. River commerce used to be Memphis' lifeblood. Here the Mississippi is even more vast than at St. Louis. It's been joined by the Ohio and the Tennessee. Twenty-four million gallons of water a minute flow past this city, but its inhabitants don't drink a drop of it. Memphis draws its drinking water from deep wells.

WEBB: I tell you, for Memphis, we're so thankful for the kind of water that we have.

TREMBLAY: James Webb works for the Memphis utility company. He says Memphis is lucky to be sitting at the center of the Mississippi Embayment, a vast, oblong trough that holds 150 billion gallons of water that's seeped down through thick layers of clay and sand. Mr. Webb says that this water is two thousand years old and it has no trace of any man made chemical in it. Unlike surface water drawn from the river, he says, water from the aquifer needs very little treatment.

WEBB: That's another advantage that we have over the surface water people. Most have crypto spirillim. Most of them have high bacterial counts and uh they have algae blooms with which have taste and odor and we just don't have those problems in Memphis. We're really blessed.

TREMBLAY: Drawing water from the aquifer is expensive. Each new well in the fast-growing Memphis area costs a quarter of a million dollars. And there are concerns about over-pumping the aquifer. But the costs are far less than having to clean up the river water.

(Waves, barges)

On the riverfront in New Orleans, enormous, rusty barges slide up the river, belching acrid smoke and leaving the brown waves foaming in their wake. The swirling river is a mile wide here, and it carries three times as much water as in St. Louis. Every second, six-hundred thousand cubic feet of water flows south. On the final stretch of the river's journey to the Gulf of Mexico, eighty miles away. This is the end of the giant pipeline.

WILEY: What we're getting here is a gumbo of different kind of chemicals.

TREMBLAY: Darryl Malek-Wiley is the president of the Mississippi River Basin Alliance, which tries to raise awareness about river pollution. By the time the river reaches this point, it's laden with PCBs, pesticides, volatile organic compounds, oils, heavy metals, and dioxins. Between Baton Rogue and New Orleans alone, industries release half of all toxic discharges to surface water in the United States. Despite the pollution in the water, Mr. Malek-Wiley finds solace here at the riverfront. He comes to relax and watch the barges, ships, and tugboats chug by.

MALEK-WILEY: This is the river of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Mark Twain, Faulkner, uh, and we have allowed this river to become trashed.

TREMBLAY: Mr. Malek-Wiley says one of the main problems is the lack of accountability for the pollution. The watershed drains parts of thirty states and two Canadian provinces. But the main branches of the river only flow through a few states.

MALEK-WILEY: Every place else, it's the boundary, so Kentucky can say, it's not our problem, it's Missouri's problem or Iowa can say, it's not our problem it's Illinois' problem. We wanna have a voice for the river.

TREMBLAY: So Mr. Malek-Wiley talks about the river up and down the Basin, trying to infect other people with his enthusiasm for restoring the Big Muddy. He also worries about the people who drink out of the river. In New Orleans alone, that's a million and a half people.

MALEK-WILEY: The sewage and water board here in New Orleans does a great job of getting things out, making the water taste good, but I still have the concerns about the low levels of chemicals in there.

TREMBLAY: He's not alone. Although the federal government sets standards for drinking water, even some policymakers think those standards aren't good enough. Researchers are concerned about the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of chemicals. They are especially concerned about the possible effects of the combinations of different chemicals often found in rivers like the Mississippi. And even with extensive treatment, spikes of contaminants make it through people's tap water here in New Orleans. In 1995, drinking water violated federal standards for pesticides for an entire month. And then there's the occasional industrial spill.

STINGHAM: Phenyl spill, chemical spill up river.

(Footfalls)

TREMBLAY: Tom Stingham walks into his garage in a well-to-do suburb of New Orleans. When a Louisiana chemical company spilled toxic phenyl into the Mississippi a few years ago, the retired fireman headed for his local home water treatment center, bought a system and installed it in the corner of his garage.

STINGHAM: People were complaining about the taste. I had none with this. This took it all out.

TREMBLAY: How much did that cost?

STINGHAM: I guess about a thousand dollars when I bought it.

TREMBLAY: It's hot outside today, so Mr. Stingham is cooling off, watching TV, enjoying the comfort of his central air conditioning and sipping ice water.

(TV, faucet runs, sips)

STINGHAM: It's wet, it's cool, it's delightful.

TREMBLAY; But not everyone in southern Louisiana can afford to shell out big money for safe water.

HASTEN: I say can you smell the water?

TREMBLAY: Albertha Hasten tries to cool off by sitting in the breeze in front of the screen door in her small, cypress-sided house. She lives in the town of White Castle where the average household income is seventeen thousand dollars a year. In her kitchen, Mrs. Hasten draws a glass of water from the tap and holds it up to the light. It looks like weak tea, and it smells like rotten eggs.

HASTEN: Now try drinking this water. See, look the particles comin' down? Ah, see the particles? Can't you smell it? This is what people have to do . . . it looks so pretty and nice but just look at the water. And that's a good day.

TREMBLAY: She dumps the water down the drain in disgust.

HASTEN: That's a real good day. Some days it's blacker than me.

TREMBLAY: Mrs. Hasten says most of the people in White Castle are forced to buy bottled water because their tap water looks and smells so bad. She, too, is repulsed by the taste and smell of the water, but she's more worried about the health effects of chemicals in her water, especially on her kids.

HASTEN: C'mere, Wilber!

TREMBLAY: Albertha Hasten's son, Wilber, arrives home with his shoulders slumped. He got into trouble again, and picked a fight with his older sister.

HASTEN: How do you act at school?

WILBER: Somebody make me mad I get uh, like, I'll come here to watch TV like a person, a person, and my sister she got mad. Everytime she start running to my mama and I get mad.

TREMBLAY: Mrs. Hasten says Wilber goes into these rages and gets into fights. His grades are too low, and she thinks he's being affected by herbicides in their drinking water.

HASTEN: In this community children have been known to be very hyperactive, having behavior problems, going into rages, fighting, not learning well, writing backwards, cannot comprehend, having low scores, and CAT testing, etc. So that was a concern as a parent. Hearing other parents and communicating with them and hearing what is going on with the water.

(Car bell, door slams)

HASTEN: A hundred and fifteen years old...

TREMBLAY: We get into the car and head west toward the middle of town.

HASTEN: I'm giving you a tour of White Castle town.

TREMBLAY: We drive past the river levy, by the basketball court, and past the public housing tract to main street.

HASTEN: Those boys be waiting on the people to bring them dope money.

TREMBLAY: You think so?

HASTEN: I know so. Every last one of them quit school when they was in the seventh grade. Hey Ruth!

RUTH: Hey.

TREMBLAY: Along the way Mrs. Hasten greets everyone we meet. Suddenly, she spots the mayor and orders me to stop the car so she can confront him. As she approaches, mayor Maurice Brown throws up his arms and rolls his eyes toward the sky. He knows what he's going to hear about: pesticides in Mrs. Hasten's drinking water. He's heard it all before.

HASTEN: It's the aquifer because of the atrazine and the river is high now, I'm concerned because it seeps, it come through the levee and through the water and that's a concern that we have and we've been saying it for over, how many years now, mayor? Seven years?

MAYOR BROWN: Yeah. To be honest with you, I can't agree with that. I just totally can't agree with that. There might be behavioral problems, but I don't think it's associated with the water. You know, water supply having something to do with behavior problems? I mean, how is that associated?

TREMBLAY: The mayor thinks Albertha Hasten's theory is preposterous, but she may be onto something. Researchers have linked some pesticides and other manmade chemicals to hormonal, neurological, and reproductive problems in animals. Researchers conducting studies in the Great Lakes and the Netherlands have found that hormone disrupting chemicals seem to be causing learning and behavioral problems in children.

(Sounds of children playing outdoors)

TREMBLAY: Albertha Hasten wants answers about her own kids. She's written letters to state officials, urging them to conduct a health survey in her town. She goes to public meetings and challenges her local officials to spend more money on water treatment. For seven years she's been trying to get help for her community.

HASTEN: There are problems with people having allergies, having respiratory problems coming from the spraying of pesticides, coming through the water supplies. They're still problems out here with these children that need to be addressed and it has to start with the water supply.

TREMBLAY: A block from the river levee, Mrs. Hasten watches her son Wilbur playing with his friends. The levee separates White Castle from the Mississippi, and she says that no one is even allowed to walk on it anymore. Instead of enlivened by its water, she feels cut off from the river and threatened by its pollution. And she's finding out that scientists know more about the effects of river pollution on fish than they do about its effects on people. For Albertha Hasten and her son Wilber, for Tom Stingham, Darryl Malek-Wiley, for James Webb and David Visinthainer, dealing with the water of their river, the nation's greatest river, is a daily challenge full of fear and uncertainty. Or at least expense, every time they turn on the tap. The "Big Muddy" of today is a long way from the river of Mark Twain. And even with better laws and stricter vigilance, it'll be a long way back. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in White Castle, Louisiana.

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(River water running)

CURWOOD: Next week, we look at ways individuals and societies can use new and traditional technologies to assure clean water supplies. The results may quench the nation's thirst for safe water. Our special series wraps up next week on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: one couple's decision to have just one child. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Just One Child

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A few years ago writer Bill McKibben and his wife Sue Halpern made what they say is the most important decision in their lives. They agreed that their daughter Sophie would be their one and only child. Bill McKibben then decided to write about it. Population, he says, is the most important ecological issue of our day, yet one of the least discussed. His book is called Maybe One.

McKIBBEN: For each of us, there's probably no more fundamental decision then whether or not to have kids and then whether or not to have another kid. Because each one is so important. And in terms of our environmental impact, there's certainly no choice we make in the course of our lives that's as important as how often and whether we reproduce.

CURWOOD: Was it difficult for you and your wife to decide to stop at just one kid?

McKIBBEN: Well, on the one hand it was hard because Sophie is so wonderful that we were sort of eager to see what might come next. And on the other hand it was kind of easy, because Sophie is so wonderful.

CURWOOD: And you got out the scissors, right? You went snip?

McKIBBEN: Well, I didn't actually do it myself. I had a doctor do it, which I highly recommend. But that's right; I had a vasectomy and it was an odd feeling. And in some ways sad to put yourself out of the evolution business.

CURWOOD: If you consider this the most important decision that you've made, Bill McKibben, what were the factors that went into making this decision?

McKIBBEN: Well, I'll tell you. I'm not such a good environmentalist that if I'd thought that it was going to do damage to Sophie, it's not a decision I think that I would have made. So I began by making sure that those myths and stereotypes about only kids, that they're spoiled, lonely, unhappy, asocial, to make sure that those really were myths. I mean, the most interesting part of the whole book, Steve, was going back and figuring out where these myths had come from. At the end of the 19th century there was a man named G. Stanley Hall, the first child psychologist. And he did this big study of what he called "peculiar and exceptional children." He collected a thousand case studies. Some of these were children he'd met, some of them were children people had described to him, some of them were children that he had read about or people had read about in novels. And he broke them down by what their peculiarity was. Some of them were ugly. Some of them had birth marks. Some didn't like to share their candy with other children. So on and so forth. He just grouped all those children together as peculiar and exceptional and then he said, "What can we tell about these children?" Well, the two things he thought stood out were that there were a lot of children of immigrants in that group, and that there were a lot of only children. And from this he drew the conclusion, as he put it, that "being an only child is a disease in and of itself." Well, needless to say, this was about as useless a study as one could possibly have done, but it was the only study anybody did on this topic for the next 35 years. And newspaper after newspaper, I mean hundreds of them, quoted this study and its findings, and over the course of that time the series of myths and stereotypes were embedded deeply in our culture. So deeply that the flood of studies that have come since have done little to dislodge them, because they've all been in obscure psychological journals and things. What I want to do is get some of those findings out to people, to show them that only children achieve at as high or higher a rate than other children, probably because they have a certain amount more undivided parental attention. And then in terms of personality, they're no more spoiled, selfish, bratty, unhappy, than any other child. In terms of personality adjustment, they're indistinguishable.

CURWOOD: So you decided it was safe psychologically for Sophie to be an only kid. What else went into your decision?

McKIBBEN: What really brought it home to me was just understanding that the way in which we live made population in some ways more of an issue for us than it is even in places with much faster growth rates, places like sub-Saharan Africa. You know, a Somalian can cause all sorts of problems in Somalia by having lots and lots of kids. And you run out of firewood, you run out of cropland, there's not enough school buildings for all the kids, so on and so forth. But they live at such a low level that they don't do fundamental damage to the world's ecosystems. They're not, among other things, releasing the vast clouds of carbon dioxide that trigger global warming. They're not -- you don't meet a lot of Somalians driving Ford Explorers.

CURWOOD: You're on the record, you've written in the New York Times and elsewhere, as being in favor of stricter limits on immigration. Isn't it true, in fact, that virtually the entire projected rise in the US population really is a function of immigration rather than people having babies?

McKIBBEN: No, it's about half and half.

CURWOOD: Okay.

McKIBBEN: I've taken a kind of middle position on this. I don't think that we need or should have the severe cuts to virtually no immigration that some people, including some environmentalists, have called for. That strikes me as somewhat piggish. On the other hand, we cannot let unlimited numbers of people in forever. Our country is a great idea. It's also a physical place that can support so many people, and it lives, exists on a planet that can support so many people. There's a real environmental cost that comes with making other people into Americans.

CURWOOD: What if we follow your advice and have just one child per couple here in America? Or many people do. How would things change?

McKIBBEN: In some ways what would be most obvious is that things wouldn't change so much. Instead of going to 400 million people our population would plateau. We wouldn't have to build the next ring of suburbs, the next, you know, 2 or 3 rings of malls and everything else. We'd be pretty much where we are, still in a hard place, still coping with a lot of environmental problems, but have some margin to deal with those.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

McKIBBEN: Well, Steve, thanks as always.

CURWOOD: Bill McKibben's new book is entitled Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Throwaway Society

GERAK: We live in a throwaway society, and it really makes me sick.

CURWOOD: Commentator Josh Gerak sent us this account of his experiences in the consumer product marketplace.

GERAK: One day our telephone answering machine broke. The tape wouldn't wind. It was a fancy machine, so rather than sending it to a landfill I was determined to fix it. As I called repair shop after repair shop, I found to my dismay no one would touch it for less than $50. Panasonic, the manufacturer, wanted $69 plus parts, and I would have to wait several weeks for return shipping. I could buy a new machine for that. It seemed hopeless.

On my final, desperate call, I asked the repairman, "Should I dump this in the trash or fix it?"

"That Panasonic is a good machine," he replied. "First generation digital tape combination, and in many ways superior to the junk sold today." Then he added, "It could be a belt, but we charge $50 to look."

I had nothing to lose now. I tried fixing the machine myself. Sure enough, flopping between 2 pulleys was a small broken rubber band. I tried replacing it. The tape wobbled slightly. It made my 14-year-old nephew sound like a street wino. On hope, I visited the last shop that gave me the repair hint. "Can you sell me a replacement?" I asked.

"I'm sorry, we can't sell parts to customers."

He remembered I had just called. I begged. "My only alternative is to wait a week with no answering machine, or pay 50 bucks for someone to turn four screws and replace this rubber band," I said smugly, holding up the thin black belt.

The repairman winced. "It's not that I don't want to help you. I'm just following the rules."   He thought a few seconds, then said, "Let me see if I have one in stock." When he came back to the counter, he apologized. "I'll have to charge you $8. Business is not very good. It's not worth it for most people to fix their machines, and it's getting worse."

"Do all parts cost this much?" I was feeling a little sorry for him.

"You can't repair nothin' these days," he grumbled. "Companies would rather you buy a new answering machine than get an old one fixed. I see this everywhere with all kinds of goods: toasters, vacuums, you name it. We don't fix them any more because they're so cheap to replace. And the old ones end up in the dump." I'd unleashed an ally but my victory seemed so hollow after talking to the disgruntled answering machine repairman. Maybe I could fix this one, but how about all those other broken answering machines?

CURWOOD: I don't know, Josh. Maybe it's all part of a plot to get us to use voice mail. Commentator Josh Gerak lives in Seattle where he imports handmade products from Central America and fixes answering machines.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff includes Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graeber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, James Curwood, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Alison Dean, Maggie Villeger, and Maury Lowenger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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