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

December 31, 1999

Air Date: December 31, 1999


Recycling Christmas Trees in the Bayou / Jesse Wegman

The rich and vital wetlands south of New Orleans are disappearing faster than almost anywhere in the world. While the state struggles to find a way to stem the erosion, local residents are taking matters into their own hands -- literally. They’re donating used Christmas trees to help save the wetlands. Living On Earth’s Jesse Wegman reports. (07:25)

A World Under the Ice / Sy Montgomery

Living On Earth commentator Sy Montgomery walks on the frozen ponds near her home in New Hampshire, following in Thoreau's footsteps to search for life through the "icy window." (02:45)

Restorative Eco-Business

Steve Curwood speaks with Ray Anderson, author of a book called "Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise" and the founder and CEO of Interface, Inc. Mr. Anderson speaks about the need for industry to explore ways to achieve more sustainable practices, such as solar energy, zero waste, and harmless emissions. (09:25)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about...Joseph Stalin’s great plan for the preservation of nature. (01:30)

Garden Spot: Holiday Leftovers

Host Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth Gardening Expert Michael Weishan about long-term care of all those poinsettias you got over the holidays. (05:00)

Navajo Uranium Miners / Sandy Tolan

Uranium mining in the southwest shut down a generation ago, but not soon enough for dozens of Navajo and other miners who died of lung cancer and many others suffering from respiratory diseases. A new mining company wants to start up uranium mining again and has promised it can do it safely. Living On Earth’s Sandy Tolan, who covered the uranium mining story in 1982, returned to Navajo country for an update. (20:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jesse Wegman, Sandy Tolan
GUESTS: Ray Anderson, Michael Weishan
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Coastal Louisiana is eroding faster than almost anywhere on Earth, and while government agencies quarrel over who's responsible, local residents are taking matters into their own hands.

CORMIER: The Gulf is at our door right now. If we don't do anything to save that we'd just as well start building houses on stilts in New Orleans, just like you see these camps up high. Because it's coming this way, it's just moving moving moving moving.

CURWOOD: Also, we talk with the CEO of a billion-dollar company who is convinced that saving the planet is his bottom line.

ANDERSON: I learned that we had taken 1.224 billion pounds of earth, stored natural capital. And I realized what a hellacious contribution our little company was making. And I convicted myself at that moment as a plunderer of the Earth.

CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth, first the news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Recycling Christmas Trees in the Bayou

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth. Millions of Americans will toss their Christmas trees out on the curb this week. But in Louisiana, they'll be tossing them into the water in an attempt to save the state's fragile coastal ecosystem. Every 15 minutes, an area of wetlands the size of a football field disappears, and this in a region that supports two thirds of the state's population, the nation's largest fishing industry, and provides up to a quarter of the country's oil and natural gas supply. Decades of mineral extraction and levee construction have seriously altered the nature of coastal Louisiana. While the state scrambles to put a recovery program into place, some citizens have been coming up with inventive ways to fend off the rising tide. From Jefferson Parish, Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman has our story.

(Boat motor runs)

CORMIER: That's a shrimp boat, and that guy lives there. I mean, that's his home, which is in the true tradition of the Cajun. Live on the bayou.

WEGMAN: In Goose Bayou, south of New Orleans, Art Cormier stands on the back of a swamp boat pointing out the sites. With his white goatee and deep belly laugh, Cormier could pass for a Cajun Santa Clause.

CORMIER: Wow, look at the ducks. Shoulda brought my shotgun and my duck call, man, look at them birds in there! (Laughs) Coot, man!

WEGMAN: There's a warm, gentle breeze on the water as Cormier and his friends motor slowly through the murky waters of the bayou, inspecting the erosion of the region's wetlands. On the shore, strings of Spanish moss drape over the branches of cypress trees. Art Cormier is retired now, but he has hunted and fished these wetlands since he was a boy. He points out how much land has already disappeared as the boat enters a waterway that's maybe 200 yards wide.

CORMIER: I'm estimating this thing, this may have been 50 yards across. So you can see the difference, you see the land loss we've had. It's incredible.

(Motoring continues)

WEGMAN: Stretching south from New Orleans down to the Gulf of Mexico, the wetlands of the Mississippi River Basin are one of the fastest eroding regions in the world. Since 1930 a quarter of the state's coastal wetlands, more than one million acres, have dissolved into open water. And they continue to disappear at rates of up to 35 square miles a year.

(Motor stops)

WEGMAN: As the boat pulls up to a long, straight channel of water, Art Cormier leans over and points to a key cause of the erosion.

CORMIER: Is that a pipeline? It might be.

MAN: Yeah, that's one of them.

(Climbing from boat)

WEGMAN: Over the past 50 years, straight, man-made waterways and navigation channels have seriously altered the natural flow of fresh water to the wetlands. To get at the vast mineral reserves lying just below the surface, oil and gas companies have dredged more than 10,000 miles of canals like this one.

CORMIER: A lot of times they just abandon them and leave them there. And all of this is what exasperates the loss of land, because then it gives a way for salt water to come in and kill the freshwater interior, and that's a big part of your erosion right there.

WEGMAN: Add to this the fact that the wetlands are slowly sinking. This is a natural process, and in the past it had a natural check. When the Mississippi flooded its banks every spring, its sediment replenished the wetlands. But today, levees keep the river from overflowing, so almost all that sediment, more than half a million tons every day, empties directly into the Gulf.

(Bird calls)

WEGMAN: Louisiana began coordinated efforts to protect and restore the marsh just over a decade ago, and today it uses some of the most advanced technology available. But one of the most well-known techniques was borrowed from the Dutch, who have been using it to protect their coasts since the 1920s.

SMITH: Hold on, hold on, if you can.

WEGMAN: Jason Smith, coastal programs supervisor for Jefferson Parish, pulls our boat up alongside a stretch of submerged wooden fences stuffed full with old, brown Christmas trees.

SMITH: Jeez, that's way over 1,000 feet. (Other man speaks, inaudible) Yeah, I like this one, this one's doing good.

WEGMAN: The trees protect existing marsh by acting as a wave buffer, and their tangle of branches and needles trap sediment, directing it into calmer water on the other side of the fences. This site is only a couple years old, but you can already see the results.

SMITH: See the vegetation behind it? Well, that was solid water. You can see it works. Last year I didn't see that vegetation; that wasn't there last year.

WEGMAN: Growing marsh: that's the idea of the tree fences, which after nine years hold almost a million trees. In a region known for its environmental laissez-faire, the program has inspired public awareness and involvement like nothing before, at a fraction of the cost of larger-scale projects.

HOUCK: Dead trees don't save the coast.

WEGMAN: Oliver Houck directs the Environmental Law Program at Tulane University. He says efforts like the Christmas Tree program, as well as larger projects, are steps in the right direction, but they're nowhere near enough. A major problem, Houck argues, is Louisiana's historical over-reliance on the oil and gas industries and its reluctance to make them pay for their mistakes.

HOUCK: And now it's letting the oil and gas companies walk away from the table without paying a dime towards the restoration. And these are companies that have bled Louisiana out of oil, I mean dry out of oil, for 40, 50 years.

WEGMAN: Energy companies say they already pay enough in taxes and royalties to compensate the state. And that river levees have already caused much more erosion than dredged canals ever will. For the state's part, assigning blame is not a road it wants to travel.

CALDWELL: Frankly, we don't have the time to sort out who's liable and who's not.

WEGMAN: Jack Caldwell is secretary of Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources. Whatever the primary cause, Secretary Caldwell says, Louisiana simply doesn't have the billions of dollars it's expected to cost to protect and restore the wetlands.

CALDWELL: We know how to do it. Give us the money. We will do it. Without the money it can't be done.

WEGMAN: And money isn't the only obstacle. The region's ecology has been altered so drastically, Oliver Houck says, real restoration must include full-scale diversions of the Mississippi, known as letting the river out. But wherever you try to do that, people get in the way.

HOUCK: And that's tough. You're going to have to move people. You're going to have to move towns. You're going to have to decide that this gets developed and that doesn't. And nobody has come near making those rather mega-political decisions.

WEGMAN: And, it seems, no one will be coming nearer any time soon. Natural Resources Secretary Jack Caldwell.

CALDWELL: I doubt seriously if they're going to find any major population displacements in the name of building diversions. I don't think it's a politically attractive alternative.


WEGMAN: Attractive or not, displacement is already happening. In wetlands less than ten miles from downtown New Orleans, hunters and fishers like Art Cormier have built small camps with names like Bayou Therapy and Gator Hole. Cormier points to one that's up on stilts.

CORMIER: Right here, the guy moved this camp four times, back and back and back, to try to save a place for himself. I'll show where he finally rebuilt, he give up. This camp here is not long for this world...

WEGMAN: Even in this quite enclave, the New Orleans skyline looms on the horizon. And, coastal scientists say, what's happening here is an omen for the city. If current trends continue, some say, New Orleans could one day be beachfront property. That's not far-fetched. After all, half the city's metropolitan core already sits below sea level. Without the wetlands there to absorb storm surges, New Orleans can flood in a matter of hours, as it did last fall during tropical storm Frances.

CORMIER: The Gulf is at our door right now. If we don't do anything to save that we'd just as well start building houses on stilts in New Orleans, just like you see these camps up high. Because it's coming this way, it's just moving moving moving moving.

WEGMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jesse Wegman in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

Back to top

(Crickets up and under; fade to music up and under)

A World Under the Ice

MONTGOMERY: It seems we oughtn't be able to do this: to walk on water.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery spends a lot of time each winter on the frozen ponds near her home in New Hampshire.

MONTGOMERY: But as I walk out onto the surface of the ponds I canoe and swim in each summer, I, too, experience a miracle. The ice serves as a window into lives both above and below it, now vastly different than in warmer seasons.
Some pond creatures spend the winter hovering, coma-like, between life and death. A carp can survive embedded in a block of ice. A natural antifreeze keeps its cells from freezing and bursting. On the soft mud of pond bottoms, frogs, toads, and salamanders overwinter in a sort of suspended animation, living without drawing a breath or eating a meal. The mud is always a few degrees warmer than water, so these animals don't freeze. Like the carp, they subsist on oxygen dissolved in the water, absorbed directly through the skin.

But not all is still beneath the ice. Sometimes, when a slow freeze creates ice that's clear and free of bubbles, I can see down through the ice as clear as looking through a glass-bottomed boat. I've seen fish swimming under my feet. A friend once looked down and saw a muskrat swimming beneath him, holding his front feet under his chin and trailing a stream of pea-sized bubbles. If you're lucky, you might get to see a mink swimming down there, too. He's probably looking for the muskrat.

Even when the ice is thick and clouded, you can still use it as a window into other lives. Look at the surface. Especially after a light snow, tracks show up brilliantly on the ice of a pond. You might see the webbed prints of beavers. They leave their warm stick-and-mud lodges to harvest more trees and then drag them back under the ice to their underwater passageway into the lodge. You might see the neat tracks of foxes by February, often in pairs as they find mates, who can now take the shortcut across the pond instead of around it.

You'll notice the absence of hoof tracks here. A slick surface is no good if you have feet permanently encased in high heels. Predators know this and sometimes try to drive deer across frozen ponds. If this has happened, you can read the whole story in the snow over the ice.

The ice at Walden Pond inspired one of Thoreau's most moving realizations. "Heaven," he wrote, "is under our feet as well as over our heads." Or, as Paul Simon put it, "One man's ceiling is another man's floor."

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery writes to us from her home in Hancock, New Hampshire, and comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.

Back to top

(Music up and under: "One man's ceiling is another man's floor. One man's ceiling is another man's floor...")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Doing well by doing good. A billion-dollar industrialist sets out to help save the biosphere by doing his job. Keep Listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Restorative Eco-Business

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A company called Interface is the world's largest producer of carpets and fabrics for commercial interiors. In 1994, over 20 years after founding Interface, chief executive officer Ray Anderson embarked on what he's called an eco-odyssey. It has been a journey to make Interface the first truly sustainable industrial company in the world. And, he says, sustainable is not quite enough. He also hopes that his company will be restorative, by giving back more than it takes from the Earth. Ray Anderson recently wrote a book called Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise. It's about his personal and corporate journey toward the next industrial revolution. For this revolution to be truly revolutionary, Mr. Anderson says that industry will have to make several major shifts, like shifts to solar energy, zero waste, and harmless emissions. Ray Anderson joins me now in the studio. Glad you could come here today, Ray.

ANDERSON: Oh, thank you, Steve. Delighted to be here.

CURWOOD: I'd like to read a few lines out of your book, okay?


CURWOOD: You say, "By our civilization's definition, I am a captain of industry. I am a kind of modern-day hero, an entrepreneur." But you say, "By my own definition I am a plunderer of the Earth and a thief." Could you explain those statements?

ANDERSON: When I first asked my technical people to analyze what we and our suppliers together had taken from the Earth to produce our sales in 1994, I learned that we had taken 1.224 billion pounds of earth, stored natural capital. And we're tiny, we're just tiny in the grand scheme of things. And I realized what a hellacious contribution our little company was making. And I convicted myself at that moment as a plunderer of the Earth.

CURWOOD: This is a crime against nature, huh?

ANDERSON: A crime against nature.

CURWOOD: What prompted you to do this inventory in 1994?

ANDERSON: Well, I had been asked to make a speech that I really didn't want to make. Our customers were asking our salespeople, "What's your company doing for the environment?" Our salespeople didn't have good answers, and they asked the manufacturing people who asked the research and development people, and none of us had good answers. And our R&D people decided to convene a task force and bring people together from all of our businesses around the world to assess the company's worldwide environmental position. And they asked me to give that group a kickoff speech, to give them an environmental vision. And I didn't have one. So I was sweating with what to say to that group, when I read Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce. And it was a convicting experience. I've described it as a spear in the chest. And from that reading flowed not only that speech, which stunned that little group of people and set us all on a course that has -- I've described it as a pebble in a pond, it's grown into a tsunami -- that led to analyzing what we were taking from the Earth.

CURWOOD: What was Paul Hawken’s message? What did you hear from Paul Hawken?

ANDERSON: Well, that every life support system that comprised the biosphere is in decline. That's the first message. Second message is that business and industry is the biggest culprit in this. And the third message is that only business and industry is large enough, pervasive enough, wealthy enough to lead our civilization away from the abyss toward which we are hurtling.

CURWOOD: What would you say are the top goals of Interface?

ANDERSON: Well, we have an immediate purpose, which is of course to make a profit, to stay in business. But we have, beyond that immediate proximate purpose, an ultimate purpose. And that ultimate purpose might well be to invent the next industrial revolution. We want to move away from product dependence, more toward service. So we've created something called the Evergreen Program. Under an evergreen leaf our customers don't have to buy the carpet. We retain ownership of the product. And we retain that liability for the product at the end of its useful life, intending to convert that liability to an asset by closing the loop and giving those products life after life.

CURWOOD: Well, perhaps some businesspeople listening to us, investors, would say, "Mr. Anderson has some nice, you know, sort of pie-in-the-sky ideas, but how do you pay for it?"

ANDERSON: We began this whole effort by concentrating on waste and driving waste out of our business. In the process, now 3-3/4 years we've been at it, we've saved 77 million dollars. I mean real money, hard dollars, and that's paying, really, for the rest of this revolution that we're engineering. The share price has moved up as earnings have moved up, so our shareholders have fared well in all of this.

CURWOOD: How is Interface responding to the threat of climate change?

ANDERSON: Well, we recognize it to be real. So, we've undertaken to reduce emissions, to reduce the use of fossil fuels. In fact, in our waste elimination effort, we've declared all fossil fuel-derived energy to be waste. Consequently, we focused on energy efficiency to reduce that usage to its minimum. And then we've begun to invest in photovoltaics as a renewable source of energy, a very modest investment to this point. But we are about to produce the world's first solar-made carpet. And when I ask audiences with interior designers and architects, would you specify solar-made carpet?, every hand in the room goes up. So I know that this will sell. And nobody will really care that the electricity cost a little bit more.

CURWOOD: So, what is a solar carpet? Is it something that you make with machines powered only by solar electricity?

ANDERSON: Yeah, we're harnessing that fusion reactor, that marvelous fusion reactor that's just 8 minutes away at the speed of light. Harnessing that current solar income.

CURWOOD: But you say it'll cost you more to do this than if you were to just buy it from the local power company.

ANDERSON: In the beginning it will. But in time, as the usage of photovoltaics increases, the cost will continue to come down. They've come down orders of magnitude from the inception of solar voltaics years and year ago. One of these days they will be competitive with fossil fuels. That day will come sooner if our Congress could just adopt an enlightened tax policy and begin to get the prices right on that barrel of oil. When the price of a barrel of oil reflects its true cost, I mean, for example, the cost of military power projected into the Middle East to protect the oil at its source, it's not reflected in the price of a barrel of oil any more than cancer is reflected in the price of a pack of cigarettes. The market is good at establishing price but seems to have no notion of cost. So the market needs to be constantly redressed to keep it honest. That honest marketplace will facilitate this whole move toward sustainability.

CURWOOD: In America there is this tendency for companies to want to get bigger and bigger and bigger. Do you have any desire or interest in doing that yourself?

ANDERSON: We've grown by acquisition over the years. And we intend to continue to grow. And I think that even in a no-growth world it's possible for the resource-efficient company to grow. It will grow at the expense of the resource-inefficient competitor. I mean, that's nature's way, is it not?

CURWOOD: In this process of converting to a more sustainable company, what was the moment where you had the biggest doubts? When did you wonder if you were maybe nuts?

ANDERSON: After that kick-off speech. I talked for a year to our people every chance I got. And there was a lot of skepticism. It was this the program of the week, the program of the month? Was Ray convinced about this? Was this for real? Had he gone round the bend? And I said well, yeah, you know I've gone round the bend to see what's there. Come on, this is what's around on the other side. And gradually people began to come aboard, one by one. And then after about a year, we began to gain traction.

CURWOOD: So how far have you been able to go toward your big goals of, what? You want zero waste, you want closed-loop production.

ANDERSON: Well, we've taken a macro view of that and gone back to that original calculation. And we've seen that number decline in three years, from 1.55 pounds of stuff, natural capital, per dollar of revenue, to 1.20 pounds of stuff per dollar of revenue. That's a 22-1/2 percent improvement in resource efficiency. So if you begin with the presumption that we were 100 percent unsustainable in 1994, which is a base year for us in this whole effort, we would say that we're now 22-1/2 percent of the way. That's just the foothills, though, of the mountain. And the real part of the mountain looms ahead. But when you get all faces of that mountain climbed, we'll be at that summit, from which the view, I think, will be wonderful. That's the view I want to live to see.

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

ANDERSON: Oh, I've enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Ray Anderson's book is called Mid-Course Correction. He's co-chair of the President's Council on Sustainable Development and founder and CEO of Interface, Incorporated, which had over a billion dollars in sales last year.

Back to top

(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; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity, www.wajones.org; and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth.

(Russian music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: In 1948 Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin launched his so-called Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. With central Russia facing dust bowl conditions similar to what hit the American West in the 1930s, Soviet scientists believed trees would shield their topsoil from getting dried out and blown away. Great arborways would be created and extend thousands of miles across the plains of Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine. In all, an area four times the size of Germany will be protected. By the end of 1949, trees had been planted on 1.2 million acres. But two years later, nearly half of them were gone. Workers found it hard to keep up with the pace, the rate of planting declined, and the trees were left untended. The program ended shortly after Stalin's death in 1953. It's estimated that only ten percent of the trees survive today. Modern China also faces colossal environmental problems, and last year officials there announced a massive tree planting program to combat erosion and flooding. But the Chinese say they hope to employ a greener thumb. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Russian music up and under)

Garden Spot: Holiday Leftovers

CURWOOD: Well, it's January now, and households around the country are still recovering from the holiday season. New toys, hopefully not too many of them broken all over the place, and plenty of Christmas plants to water. Living on Earth's traditional gardener Michael Weishan is going to help us with those plants. Hi, Michael.

WEISHAN: Hey, Steve, how are you?

CURWOOD: Tell me, did you give a lot of plants this year?

WEISHAN: No one appreciates plants from me because they think it's too easy. It's like, what did he give you this year? A plant. Oh, that was a real tough gift. So I don't give any plants at all.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay. Now, what's the most popular Christmas plant?

WEISHAN: Well, by far the most popular Christmas plant and ones that are now sitting in the millions around the United States are poinsettias. They are the most popular potted plant in the United States bar none, Christmas or otherwise.

CURWOOD: Of course every at my house there seems to be a lot of poinsettias. I never really thought about it. I figured we get them because they're red and green, the Christmas colors. But is there more of a story to poinsettias than that?

WEISHAN: The plant had tremendous religious significance to the Aztecs. They left it in place wherever it was growing, and thought it was a gift from the gods because of its beauty. When the Spanish arrived to South America and to Central America, they saw this plant and they associated the red color with the blood of Christ. And so, it became associated with Christmas because it turns red about this time of year. It didn't become popular in this country until a man named Joel Poinsette [phonetic spelling], who was a Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren and sort of a roving ambassador down in Central America. He stirred up a tremendous amount of trouble down in that part of the world. Fomented political rebellion and actually had to flee for his life, appropriately enough, on Christmas day (Curwood laughs). But before he did that, he sent back to his home town, Charleston, some of the first samples of this plant. And actually, subsequently, became very wealthy, breeding them. There's a movement afoot to try to get it renamed away from poinsettia, because it's not very PC down in the Spanish-speaking countries. As a matter of fact there's a word, pointsentissimo, which means meddling in other people's affairs (Curwood laughs) without being warranted. So it's not a very good history, and they certainly don't want to call it a poinsettia by any means of the imagination.

CURWOOD: Is it true that these poinsettias are highly toxic? That you shouldn't let your pets anywhere near them?

WEISHAN: According to the research I've done, that's not true. They definitely will give you an upset stomach, however, but they won't kill you.

CURWOOD: Of course, the poinsettia isn't the only plant that gets given at the holiday season. What are some of your other favorites?

WEISHAN: I personally am a big fan of Christmas cactuses. They come in a tremendous variety of colors these days. They've been doing a remarkable amount of breeding. This one still has a few blooms left on it, And you can see it's --

CURWOOD: Ooh, look at that. They're a beautiful pink.

WEISHAN: Yeah, huge flowers. Almost like orchids. Not a lot of scent but just absolutely beautiful. And it's been blooming like that since November.

CURWOOD: Now help me with the Christmas cactus for a moment. I have one of these things, and you know, it puts out beautiful flowers but darn it, I never get them to come out at Christmas.

WEISHAN: The problem is that most plants that bloom at this time of year, the bloom is triggered by the shortening days. And so, if they are in a house where there is a lot of extra light, or if they're in an office space or somewhere where there's a lot of artificial lighting, they're not going to sequence the bloom correctly. The days will be too long, the days will be short. If you turn on the lights the days are long and if you don't they're short. The plant gets confused in other words. Here in the greenhouse where it's just totally natural light, they come into bloom all by themselves without any help. But in a household environment, what you want to do is put them down in a dark place or cover them, and the poinsettia the same way, for about 14 hours or so, a day, nighttime included, so that you'll have a very long period of darkness for the plant. And then they'll come into bloom automatically, at the right time.

CURWOOD: So what other plants are people likely to get at the holiday season?

WEISHAN: Gardenias are another great favorite, and they're certainly one of my favorites. Certainly for the fragrance. Actually, I have a gardenia right here I can show you. Let me pull this one over.

(Shuffling sounds)

WEISHAN: This is a problem with gardenias. They need to be kept constantly moist. But if you keep them overly moist like this one, you can rot the whole bottom off. So this and azaleas are (laughs) it's not a place to start, let's put it this way, if you're interested in keeping over your plants from one year to the next. This is an advanced subject in plant care.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks for the help, Michael.

WEISHAN: My pleasure, Steve. Here, I'll even snap off this little glass gardenia blossom for you for your lapel there. You can take it back with you.

CURWOOD: Mmm, thank you. (Inhales) Just beautiful.

WEISHAN: The last of the season.

CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's traditional gardener and is publisher of the magazine Traditional Gardening. Find out more about gardening and any gardening questions you have. You can send to Michael via our Web site. The address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. When you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.

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(Music up and under)

Navajo Uranium Miners

CURWOOD: One day in 1950, a Navajo man named Paddy Martinez picked up a few yellow rocks while herding sheep east of Crownpoint, New Mexico. His handful of ore turned out to be uranium. And the find, together with discoveries in Utah, sparked a series of mining booms that changed life forever in the Southwest. By the mid-50s the entire region was firmly entrenched in the nuclear age. But as hundreds of families who mined the uranium would later find out, the yellow ore was poison. In the generation since the old mine shut down, dozens of Navajo miners and others have died of lung cancer. Many more suffer from debilitating respiratory diseases. And recently, a new mining company has been approved to go after the yellow rock. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan covered the uranium mining story in 1982. Sixteen years later he returned to Navajo country.

(A jazz band plays "All of Me")

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Band continues playing; fade to highway sounds)

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

(A tape plays; voices)

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

(A man speaks in Navajo)

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

(Second man speaks in Navajo)

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

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

(A man speaks in Navajo)

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

(Second man speaks in Navajo)

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

(First man speaks in Navajo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

JONIE: Chlodonatzeeyee, they call it.

TOLAN: How does that translate exactly?

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

(People call out "Hello.")

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

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

(A car door shuts)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAN: Why can't you guys mine in Beverly Hills or New York, or some other place?

(Audience applauds) Why does it have to be our land? Why?!

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

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

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

(Paper shuffling)

MAN: Okay, go on to the next place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAN: No, neither do we.

MAN 2: No, and neither do they.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cricket song)

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

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

(Footfalls along the highway)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Silverware clanks)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Since we first aired this story, the judge has ruled that at least one of HRI's proposed mines does not pose a threat to human health or the environment. And that the company may go ahead and mine there. But because of a weak uranium market, mining has not begun. The issue remains alive on Capitol Hill. Two members of Congress recently asked President Clinton to sign an Executive Order, which would mandate that no future uranium mining be allowed without the express consent of the Navajo nation.

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 production staff includes Jesse Wegman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Miriam Landman, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Russell Wiedemann, Hannah Day-Woodruff, and Kaneed Leger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert is our western editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Happy New Year.

(Music up and under)

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

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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