September 29, 2000
Air Date: September 29, 2000
Mercury and Loons/ Naomi Schalit
Researchers have said for some time that particles from coal-fired power plants may cause as many as 30,000 premature deaths among humans each year in the United States. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is highlighting another health hazard from coal-burning and incinerators: mercury. Burning coal and trash sends mercury into the atmosphere, where it can be carried hundreds of miles until it falls into lakes and streams. By year's end, the EPA says there will be new rules to limit mercury emissions. The rules will be phased in, but as far as the state of Maine is concerned they can't come too soon. Lakes there already register some of the most toxic levels of mercury in the nation, with a telling impact on one particular bird. Maine Public Broadcasting's Naomi Schalit reports. ()
Ethanol By-Products/ Jonathan Ahl
Ethanol is the active ingredient in booze, but it can also make cars and trucks go. So, for years ethanol made from corn has been touted as a renewable alternative to gasoline. More people are using it in their vehicles, but gasohol still relies on a heavy government subsidy to remain competitive. But now ethanol is finding another, and potentially profitable, use. Jonathan Ahl of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports. ()
Animal Update/ Maggie Villager
Bees and pest control. (00:59)
Australia's Ancient Landscape/ Alex Chadwick
The Olympic Games may be the shining moment of Australia's recent history. But the continent's past is just as exciting. It's an old, old land that, geologically-speaking, people have only recently discovered. Earlier this year on the National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Alex Chadwick looked beyond kangaroos and koalas to see what makes Australia so different from everyplace else. ()
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about the origins of agricultural fairs. (01:30)
The U.S. Justice Department calls it the biggest case of laboratory fraud in the nation's history, and the scandal affects 59,000 toxic clean-up sites in the U.S. After a two-year probe of the Intertech Laboratory in Richardson, Texas, 13 former employees had been criminally charged in connection with widespread falsification of environmental test reports. The defendants deny the charges. The reports called into question influenced clean-up decisions at a range of government and private toxic spills, including leaky underground fuel tanks and Superfund sites. Paul Coggins is the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas. He explains the indictments. ()
Health Update/ Diane Toomey
Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports about asthma’s connection to the Olympic games. (00:59)
Scientific analysis of climate changes shows the world is warming up, but not in a uniform way. There are hot spots. And one of the hottest is the western Arctic, around Alaska and the northwest corner of Canada. Temperatures there have risen four to eight degrees Fahrenheit in recent decades. That's three to five times faster than the rest of the world. The people who live in the north are now telling dramatic stories of changes they are witnessing on land and in the sea. ()
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Naomi Schalit, Jonathan Ahl, Alex Chadwick, Bob Carty
UPDATES: Maggie Villiger, Diane Toomey
GUEST: Paul Coggins
FIRST HALF HOUR
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
When someone turns on a light using power from a polluting generator in the Midwest, plants and wild animals hundreds of miles away are at risk of mercury poisoning. High on the list: the haunting loon.
MAJOR: We're looking at about 30 to 33 percent of the population in Maine having mercury levels high enough to actually impair their reproduction. It's a fairly strong argument that you should probably do something to lessen the impact.
CURWOOD: Also, Australia. Its landscape is ancient and one humans have only recently come to know.
FLANNERY: You've really got to get back to the age of dinosaurs, you know, to Jurassic Park to find cold-blooded reptilian killers of that size anywhere in the world. But here in Australia, they have been an element of the fauna right up until the time people arrived on the continent.
CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this round-up of the news.
(NPR News follows)
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Researchers have said for some time that particles from coal-fired power plants may cause as many as 30,000 premature deaths among humans each year in the United States. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is highlighting another health hazard from coal-burning and incinerators: mercury. Burning coal and trash sends mercury into the atmosphere, where it can be carried hundreds of miles until it falls into lakes and streams. By year's end, the EPA says there will be new rules to limit mercury emissions. The rules will be phased in, but as far as the state of Maine is concerned they can't come too soon. Lakes there already register some of the most toxic levels of mercury in the nation, with a telling impact on one particular bird. Maine Public Broadcasting's Naomi Schalit reports.
SCHALIT: Once mercury reaches water, it's turned into a highly-toxic organic form called methyl mercury. Fish in mercury-laden lakes become contaminated with it, and humans who eat those fish are at risk. The methyl mercury can use neurological and developmental damage in fetuses and young children. But what does methyl mercury do to the wildlife that ingest it?
(Items drop into boat; voices)
NEAL: We need a bigger boat.
SCHALIT: For the last decade, biologists at Falmouth, Maine's Biodiversity Research Institute have been studying the effect of mercury on loons. They are interested in loons because the fish-eating birds are the top of the aquatic environment's food chain, and the biologists believe the loons are thus the best indicators of a particular water body's environmental health. High-mercury loons mean a high-mercury lake, for example. And they are interested in what mercury does to loons. Institute founder Dave Evers was the first person to develop an effective way of capturing the elusive birds in order to take blood and feather samples. Tonight, loon researchers Chris DeSorbo, Brian Olsen, and Maria Neal prepare to cast off and leave this dock at the foot of Lake Aziscohos in northwestern Maine.
DeSORBO: Do you want to start off? First, Barry will go in. You drive. Maria will light. Then we can switch around; maybe I'll drive, you net.
NEAL: [Okay. That's good.
(Motor starts up)
SCHALIT: It's a chilly night, about 9:30. We're at the southern end of the lake, heading north. The biologists are thankful that the night is clouded over and the bright moon is obscured. They don't want to be seen by the loons they've come here to catch.
(A loon calls)
SCHALIT: DeSorbo edges the boat into a cove on the lake's western shore. He was out on reconnaissance earlier today and knows there's a loon pair and their chick here.
DeSORBO: My guess is, that bird has a chick, so let's go for this bird first.
SCHALIT: DeSorbo edges further in. Maria Neal perches in the aluminum boat's bow, scanning the water with a huge searchlight. Bats sweep in and out of the darkness, flitting about her head. Brian Olsen plays tinny-sounding loon calls from a megaphone.
(Loon calls; the boat moves over water)
SCHALIT: Bat brings the birds closer. Finally, the researchers dazzle one with a searchlight, and move quickly to scoop it out of the water with a huge salmon net. If it wasn't being done in the name of science, this would be called loon-jacking.
(Splashing; the loon complains)
SCHALIT: Towels are thrown over the bird and he quiets down, but not before the frightened loon defecates all over us. Something he will do several more times before the night is over.
NEAL: Hey, found your gloves. Let's get out of here.
(The engine starts up)
SCHALIT: Over in a nearby cove, they beach the boat. The loon's brought ashore and Olsen holds it firmly in his lap.
OLSEN: We're going to take some blood, feathers, and band him so we can ID him later without having to catch him. And take a few measurements, and let him go.
SCHALIT: The blood and feathers they take will be used to measure the amount of mercury in this loon's system. Tonight's the first time they've worked up this bird, but earlier this year Biodiversity Research Institute scientists analyzed five years worth of data they'd collected on loons throughout northern New England and New York State. And they came up with an alarming statistic that for the first time showed concrete effects of mercury on loon reproduction in the U.S. Birds with the highest levels of mercury, found on lakes that like this one have high mercury levels in the water, reproduce at half the rate of birds with low mercury levels. Biologist Chris DeSorbo.
DeSORBO: If we look at all the high-mercury birds of our study and compare how many birds hatched, and then of those how many fledged, actually survived, for high-mercury birds it's 55 percent lower than the low-mercury birds.
SCHALIT: About a third of Maine's loons show those high mercury levels. In New Hampshire and Vermont, about one-fifth of the birds show those levels. Drew Major is an environmental contaminant specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Concord, New Hampshire. He says the documentation of loons’ reproduction problems is just the ammunition regulators and environmentalists need to take action.
MAJOR: We're looking at about 30 to 33 percent of the population in Maine having mercury levels high enough to actually impair the reproduction. It's a fairly strong argument that you should probably do something to lessen the impact.
SCHALIT: Major says the data must be used to press for limits on mercury emissions. Emissions that fall on New England's lakes from downwind sources like coal-fired power plants and municipal incinerators in the Midwest and Northeast.
MAJOR: We need to actually be able to document that there are effects to wildlife, so that when both the states and EPA approach these emitters they have data to show them that, yes, what you're putting in the air is damaging our environment, so you need to actually decrease the amount of emissions that you allow to escape.
SCHALIT: There's a deadline looming. The Environmental Protection Agency must decide by year's end whether or not to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.
SCHALIT: Just after midnight, vials of blood and feathers are labeled and stashed. It's time to return the bird to the lake.
DeSORBO: You got a good grip on him? Okay. So, if you can get him in real deep so his feet don't touch, okay, that would be good. And you want to light the boat so he doesn't run into it.
SCHALIT: Loons may not be the only animals affected by the mercury in fish. Scientists are now embarking on studies of other fish-eating wildlife, such as mink and otter, to determine whether they, too, are being harmed by methyl mercury.
SCHALIT: Silky water stretches for miles around us. The northern lights drape pulses of green and white across the far-away sky.
SCHALIT: But there's something wrong with this picture. Scientists say that unless the unseen mercury out here can be reduced, the essential sound of this place, the thrilling call of the loon, will be heard less and less over time.
(Splashing; loon calls)
SCHALIT: For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit.
(Loon calls, echoing; fade to music up and under)
CURWOOD: Ethanol is the active ingredient in booze, but it can also make cars and trucks go. So, for years ethanol made from corn has been touted as a renewable alternative to gasoline. More people are using it in their vehicles, but gasohol still relies on a heavy government subsidy to remain competitive. But now ethanol is finding another, and potentially profitable, use. Jonathan Ahl of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports.
AHL: Several massive iron cylinders spin around in a barn-sized building at Williams Bioenergy in Pekin, Illinois. The machines are drying a fluffy substance made from the shavings of corn kernels. The same stuff that gets stuck between your teeth when you eat popcorn. Williams’ Business Development Officer Jack Huggins says the plant makes tons of this fibrous ethanol byproduct each year and sends it overseas.
HUGGINS: And in Europe, they blend it into their animal feed rations, so we get back somewhere between $50 and $60 a ton right now.
AHL: That barely pays for the shipping, and it's one of the reasons why making a profit on ethanol is difficult right now. But that could soon change.
AHL: At the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Peoria, Illinois, researchers are using a household coffee grinder to mince the corn kernel shavings into a fine fluff. This is the first step in extracting a sweetener called xylitol from the fiber, which contains two sugars: glucose and xylose. Dr. Tim Leathers says all it takes to change xylose to xylitol is to add a special kind of yeast. But there's a problem: the yeast would rather eat the glucose, like it's supposed to, but by then it's too full to react with the xylose.
LEATHERS: To address this problem, we've developed a two-stage fermentation, in which an initial set of yeast strains is used to consume the glucose. Then those cells are removed and the second team of yeast is introduced that now more efficiently converts the xylose to produce xylitol.
AHL: Xylitol can sweeten candy, gum, and mouthwash. It tastes like sugar. It's safe for diabetics. It doesn't cause tooth decay. And it sells for about 100 times more than the ethanol byproduct it's made from. That's gotten the attention of ethanol producers. Bob Scott is a professor of economics at Bradley University. He says making ethanol byproducts like xylitol could make up for the low profit margin on the corn-based fuel.
SCOTT: If the price of corn were too high, or the price of gasoline were too low, then ethanol wasn't economically as advantageous. But when there are these other products that could be made from the same corn while ethanol is being made, it takes some of the weight off ethanol, makes it a healthier product economically.
AHL: Making xylitol from corn may also have environmental benefits. Currently, xylitol is manufactured by adding harsh chemicals to birch tree bark at high temperatures. Larry Cunningham is a Vice President at agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. He says his company is always looking for more natural ways to produce food products.
CUNNINGHAM: I think that's got to be a much more efficient, and at the end of the day, environmentally friendly way to go about it than taking down forests of birch trees.
AHL: The USDA has not yet convinced companies to invest staff and equipment to make xylitol. Ethanol producers, meanwhile, may have to develop several other profitable byproducts to make the corn-based fuel a strong economic alternative to gasoline. For Living on Earth, I'm Jonathan Ahl in Peoria, Illinois.
CURWOOD: Coming up: a radio expedition to the land down under explains why Australia's landscape is unique to the planet. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Now this environmental update with Maggie Villiger.
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VILLIGER: Farmers may soon have some new beasts of burden buzzing around the fields: bees. Researchers discovered that bees can deliver fungicide to growing crops more efficiently than traditional mechanical sprayers. They found out by forcing bees to walk through a tiny foot bath of an organic fungicide as they left the hive. Then, while the bees foraged in strawberry blossoms for pollen, they would inadvertently leave behind the anti-mold particles. By the end of the growing season, strawberries targeted by the bees were almost half as likely to be afflicted by gray mold than their mechanically-sprayed neighbors. The bee-treated fruit was substantially bigger, too. And the bees didn't seem to mind being put to work, though honeybees were said to be prone to work stoppages on cool or rainy days. That's this week's environmental update. I'm Maggie Villiger.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Olympic Games may be the shining moment of Australia's recent history. But the continent's past is just as exciting. It's an old, old land that, geologically-speaking, people have only recently discovered. Earlier this year on the National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Alex Chadwick looked beyond kangaroos and koalas to see what makes Australia so different from everyplace else.
CHADWICK: The first time I found his work, I knew I wanted to talk with a particular Australian, who has written powerfully about the land. How to see it. How to hear it. A man who writes music. Peter Sculthorpe.
(Sculthorpe's music up and under)
SCULTHORPE: Once upon a time, when people would ask me what kind of a composer I am, I'd say I'm a religious composer. And then people would say oh, Catholic or Methodist or (laughs) Anglican? But of course I didn't mean it in the denominational sense. I meant that my music seeks the sacred in the Australian landscape, and the sacred in nature.
(Sculthorpe's music up and under)
CHADWICK: Their landscape is about the size of ours, but it's all Oregon 'round the edges and Utah on the inside. Desert-dry, sand, and rock. Parts of the east have forest, and the tropical north: hot, humid, rainy. In Darwin on the north coast, I met a geologist, Jamie Burgess.
BURGESS: It's very old. I think that's the main point that I probably want to make to your listeners, is that it's an exceptionally old continent geologically.
CHADWICK: All the continents have young parts, he said, and old parts. But Australia is so little young, so much old. Look what's missing: the geologic ages of change and catastrophe.
(Sculthorpe's music up and under)
BURGESS: You don't see any active volcanoes today on the Australian continent. There are very few earthquakes in places. It's a fairly stable mass, the Australian continent.
FLANNERY: Those earth processes are fundamental to the existence of life, and the diversity of life.
CHADWICK: The director of the Museum of South Australia in Adelaide, Tim Flannery, also writes natural history. Australia has native animals that look very strange to outsiders. But compared to other places, it does not have a lot of variety. Geology and biology are linked, Dr. Flannery says.
FLANNERY: New soil gets created through volcanoes and through glaciers, and through rifting and erosion and mountain-building. It's just fundamental to life.
CHADWICK: He's just returned to Australia from a year in the U.S. He's writing a book about ecological change on our continent, as he has about his own. To understand how different Australia is, he said, just compare the two time scales.
FLANNERY: If you consider North America and look at the Grand Canyon, that enormous excavation has all happened in the last five million years. If you look at this landscape here, we still have features on the landscape, small stream channels that were created 60 million years ago, and they might only be a couple of feet deep. But they're still there. I mean, it's just been so unchanging. And it's that incredible comatose geography and geology that's given Australia its ancient, unchanging aspect, I think.
CHADWICK: We had walked down through a eucalyptus forest in the hills east of Adelaide. The naturalist naming birds we saw, lizards, trees, as easily as I drive by Washington landmarks for friends from out of town. But now I asked Tim Flannery for a tour through history.
FLANNERY: Well, if I can paint a bit of a word picture for you, say, of what this area might have been like, what we see here today is this eucalyptus forest with kangaroos and wombats and iguanas and the kind of smaller fauna of Australia. Now, if we go back to before the arrival of humans, the Aboriginal people in this area, which probably occurred about 50,000 years ago, you've got to imagine a much richer forest. And in that richer forest, we'd have these very large marsupials, things the size of a rhinoceros, and they would be preyed on by not lions and tigers or anything like that, but truly gigantic lizards, as much as 20 feet long. So, you've really got to get back to the age of dinosaurs, you know, to Jurassic Park to find cold-blooded reptilian killers of that size anywhere in the world. But here in Australia, they have been an element of the fauna right up until the time people arrived on the continent.
FLANNERY: Mm hmm.
CHADWICK: I wouldn't have come.
CHADWICK: People did come, of course, following the string of islands that led away from Asia, almost like sliding downhill to bump into Australia. We may never know for certain when Aboriginals arrived. Thirty thousand years ago? Sixty thousand? Maybe more. But we know what they found: the welcoming green shore. The forest region beyond, creatures in it so unlike anywhere else. And then, the immensity beyond. Bare, bleached interior, the rock. There are no earthquakes in Australia, the geologist had told me, because the subsurface rock is so thick, so incredibly hard, it has defied change for eons.
(Sculthorpe's music up and under)
SCULTHORPE: The Australian landscape is very flat. This is in the center of Australia.
CHADWICK: Composer Peter Sculthorpe.
SCULTHORPE: There's very little change. I mean, you can go for a walk in the morning, and what you see at lunch time is much the same as what you saw when you left.
FLANNERY: This is the most difficult continent to make a living in. It really is. There are no shortcuts. There are no great windfalls. It's a very marginal existence.
CHADWICK: It is the oldest continent, but it was the last big place the rest of the world discovered. European colonists didn't get here until 1788, and found perhaps the world's oldest civilization, the Aboriginals. Tim Flannery.
FLANNERY: I don't see those Aboriginal people as being in any way primitive. In fact, I think if we disregard material culture and just look at those people as they're interacting with the land, with each other, and the sort of groups they're living in, we can see that they're the most specialized people ever to have evolved on Earth, because they're have to adapt to this most extreme of continents. But they were doing things in such an alien way that the Europeans failed to see the significance of their actions. This continent was just too different for the Europeans to really comprehend.
CHADWICK: They have come to understand it better now. Geologists know how ancient Australia is, how worn away. Ecologists can see that when the Aboriginals did get here, those 20-foot lizards were no match. Biologists warn that modern-day Australians are making their own changes, many of them troubling. Creatures brought from other places go wild here and overwhelm local species. Forests are cut. Meager farming soils are further weakened. Australians seem to love their hard, dry landscape nonetheless. The scientists and the artists, too. Peter Sculthorpe named this piece for an Aboriginal sacred place: Nourlangie, in Australia's great Kakadu National Park. Nourlangie. It's a rock.
(Sculthorpe's music and bird calls up and under)
SCULTHORPE: I climbed up on top of the rock, Nourlangie, this massive rock. And just stood there, and I imagined that I could hear local music of the Gagaju tribe. That I could hear sounds hanging in the air from early Colonial settlement. That I could hear indigenous music from Torres Strait, and even gamelan music from Indonesia coming in on the wind. It wasn't only the music, of course. It was thunder and bird sounds, everything seemed to come together.
(Sculthorpe's music and bird calls up and under)
CHADWICK: Composer Peter Sculthorpe on the landscape of his native country. For Radio Expeditions in Australia, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR news.
(Sculthorpe's music and bird calls up and under)
CURWOOD: Our report on Australia's ancient landscape was produced by Carolyn Jensen and recorded by Manoli Wetherell. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR news and the National Geographic Society.
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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, supporting reporting on western issues; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.
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CURWOOD: You're listening to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: An environmental testing scandal raises questions about the clean-up of thousands of toxic sites. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: Ferris wheels, giant pumpkins, and straining tractors. They're all standard fare at today's modern agricultural fair. But the scene was a bit tamer back in 1807. That's when Elkanah Watson tied two Marino sheep to an elm tree in the village square of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in an effort to show off the breed. People were so intrigued that Mr. Watson thought: "Hey, if two animals are capable of inciting so much attention, what if there were more animals and different animals?" And so it was that 190 years ago this week, Berkshire County in Massachusetts put on what's reputed to be the first American agricultural fair. Of course, people have gathered since time immemorial at trading events, but Elkanah Watson's fair had a new goal: sharing agricultural improvements among the farmers of the day. Prizes were awarded for the best yoke of working oxen, the best piece of woolen cloth, the best field of corn. Eventually, parades, plowing matches, and social events joined the schedule. These days, though, only a tiny portion of the U.S. population makes a living in agriculture, and the plowing matches have been replaced by tractor pulls. Still, more than 3,000 agricultural fairs in North America aim to be inexpensive family fun these days, bringing the rest of us such exotic creatures as cows, chickens, and pigs. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: The U.S. Justice Department calls it the biggest case of laboratory fraud in the nation's history, and the scandal affects 59,000 toxic clean-up sites in the U.S. After a two-year probe of the Intertech Laboratory in Richardson, Texas, 13 former employees had been criminally charged in connection with widespread falsification of environmental test reports. The defendants deny the charges. The reports called into question influenced clean-up decisions at a range of government and private toxic spills, including leaky underground fuel tanks and Superfund sites. Paul Coggins is the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas. He explains the indictments.
COGGINS: This lab at one time had been part of a chain which was the second largest environmental testing chain in the country. And there had always been sort of allegations out there that this particular lab, the Richardson lab, was a lowball bidder. It got prices below its competitors. But at some point, the Air Force actually sent them a sample which had already been tested. It contained nine contaminants, the sample did. The lab failed to detect seven of the nine contaminants. So, the Air Force was investigating that. The lab started investigating it itself, and it turned out they had a major problem not just with that one test, but with literally thousands of tests.
CURWOOD: Tell me, exactly, what kind of problems did you find during this investigation?
COGGINS: One of the major expenses of any environmental testing is making sure that the machines are properly maintained and properly calibrated. When they're calibrated, that means basically the machine's offline. And you're not generating the kind of analyses that you get paid money for. The culture arose in this lab in which the idea was: just get the paperwork out. Even if we know the paperwork is faulty, even if we know there's a high danger of false negatives. In other words, a negative report getting out there, no contaminants, when there well could have been contaminants. These people were playing Russian roulette with our environment. With our air, with our water, and with our soil.
CURWOOD: What happens now to these sites? I mean, talking about 60,000 sites, 60,000 clean-ups that the information is now unreliable from.
COGGINS: Well, that's one of the problems that the EPA and the Air Force and the municipalities and all the clients have got to get together and determine how best to get information out to the end-users. In certain cases, it's likely that simply the tests cannot be run, because of what's been developed on the site. In other cases, the test may not be valid now, because the contaminants have migrated. But to the greatest extent possible, the word has got to go out to end-users of this Richardson lab that they need to be suspicious. They need to contact EPA and determine with the EPA what can be done to re-test these sites now, to make sure that there's no environmental harm.
CURWOOD: Why didn't the EPA warn the public two years ago when they first learned about this?
COGGINS: Well, I think the EPA, and I hate to speak for the EPA because I don't work for them, but I've worked with the EPA on this case, I think they were concerned to some extent that there was a federal grand jury investigation going on, and, you know, I guess they were concerned that some of the information might be protected by grand jury secrecy, and how they draw the line between getting the word out to the public and yet preserving the viability of an ongoing criminal investigation.
CURWOOD: Let me ask you this. If the XYZ airplane manufacturing company had an employee blow the whistle, and say that the gizmo that's being put in their 123 plane is faulty, and we think that they fudged the papers and this is a lot of fraud here, should the FAA step forward and warn people who are using this aircraft, or wait for the grand jury to be done with its business?
COGGINS: Absolutely. In effect, we've had cases like that. The FAA steps forward early.
CURWOOD: So where's the EPA here, then?
COGGINS: Well, I'm not sure that the EPA sees its job in the same way the FAA sees their job. But clearly, what you're talking about, the FAA goes public early, does not wait for the criminal investigation. And I think, you know, the EPA will probably say we're not going to wait for the criminal investigation, either. And didn't wait for the criminal investigation to the extent that we took these steps. Should they have gone public earlier is something really, I think, the EPA has to address.
CURWOOD: The defendants in this case, and others, have raised the question about the timing of these indictments. They say boy oh boy, this is right next to the presidential elections, in an election where the governor of Texas has taken some heat for his environmental record. What kind of politics, if any, are being played by the timing of this indictment?
COGGINS: None. I've been pushing this case for two years. Every time we thought we were ready to indict, something else came up that we needed to look at. So bottom line, we turned it over to the law enforcement professionals and said we want to go just as soon as you feel we've got a handle on this. And that turned out to be now.
CURWOOD: What is the way of further indictments should we expect to see?
COGGINS: You can expect to see an aggressive investigation that will take a look at other actors, try to determine how widespread this problem was, both within this lab and outside this lab. Who knew what was going on. Who sanctioned it. Who took steps to try to obstruct the investigators, if that was done. So you will see a very, very aggressive investigation conducted outside of the one that has already produced indictments of 13 individuals, including five supervisors and the highest-rated official at the Richardson lab.
CURWOOD: Paul Coggins is U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas. Thank you, sir, for taking this time.
COGGINS: Well, thank you.
CURWOOD: Just ahead, a look at what happens to people and animals in Canada's far north when the climate shifts. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.
(Music up and under)
TOOMEY: Olympic athletes are not always the picture of health. In a study of all Americans who participated in the 1998 winter Olympics, more than 22 percent said they took asthma medication or had been diagnosed with the condition. It's thought that breathing cold air might trigger asthma when the airway is cooled and then re-warmed. Another theory is that the loss of fluids from the airway, which happens in cold weather, can spur an asthma attack. Participants in Nordic combined skiing, cross-county skiing, and speed-skating were most at risk, with nearly 61 percent of those Olympians reporting asthma conditions. Does having asthma affect performance? Well, that's unclear, but what is known is that about 11 percent of Olympians who had asthma took home a medal. That's compared to 18 percent who didn't have asthma and won the bronze, silver, or gold. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.
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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth. You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at email@example.com. Once again, firstname.lastname@example.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Scientific analysis of climate changes shows the world is warming up, but not in a uniform way. There are hot spots. And one of the hottest is the western Arctic, around Alaska and the northwest corner of Canada. Temperatures there have risen four to eight degrees Fahrenheit in recent decades. That's three to five times faster than the rest of the world. The people who live in the north are now telling dramatic stories of changes they are witnessing on land and in the sea.
MAN 1: We started noticing the changes long before the southern people came up here and did a climate study. Back then was a lot colder, summers were a lot shorter.
MAN 2: There were even no mosquitoes, but now lots of mosquitoes.
R. KUPTANA: I've seen thunder and lightning here, which I never saw before.
MAN 2: The ice is receding quite a bit over the years here. In the summer, permafrost is melting. There are mudslides.
MAN 1: I think something permanent has changed.
CURWOOD: Producer Bob Carty recently journeyed north on a trip across Canada's uppermost reaches, and sent us this report on the impact of climate change on the people, the wildlife, and the way of life in the north.
KASSI: We're on the Porcupine River. Back there around the bend by the poplar tree, that's where I harvested four bull caribou this spring when they were heading up to the coastal plains, to feed our families.
CARTY: On an early fall afternoon, Darius Kassi is taking me up the Porcupine River to see where the caribou cross. His rifle is stowed safely at his feet, just in case we get lucky. The Porcupine River here surges through forests of pine trees and fields of tundra flowers as it passes a hamlet called Old Crow. Old Crow was one of the most isolated villages in the top northwest corner of Canada, just 30 miles east of the Alaska border. This is the home of the Gwitchen Indian people, and Darius Kassi is their first native conservation officer. But he's more worried than a young man in his 20’s should be. Darius says the Gwitchen rely in the caribou for food, for clothing, for natural medicines. They call themselves "the people of the caribou." But this year, and for the past half-dozen years, the caribou have not been acting the way they used to.
KASSI: This part of the Porcupine River, we call it caribou lookout. It's been a traditional migration route of the Porcupine caribou herd. They've crossed here for thousands of years, the end of August and September. Sometimes the caribou are crossing with such great numbers and with such great strength that we have to park our boats on the side of the river, because we can't maneuver through. They're so thick crossing. We don't see no caribou today. Our people are tense right now, because we don't know if the caribou are going to come this year or we're going to have food for the winter.
CARTY: Darius Kassi may be worried about the winter. Others are concerned what the lack of caribou says about climate change. Don Russell is the Regional Director of Wildlife Services for Environment Canada.
RUSSELL: What all the scientists say is that really the north will be the canary in the coal mine, because that's the area that's going to see the most dramatic warming. What happens to those environments are a precursor to what may happen in the south. So, the more we can learn about the northern impacts of climate change, the more we're going to be able to say something about the south. And there's no better barometer than these caribou herds.
CARTY: Twelve miles up the river, we beach the boat beside a rack of drying salmon. Darius and I climb up the bank and into the camp of a traditional hunter, Georgie Moses.
Have you gotten any caribou?
MOSES: We've seen a few caribou around, you know, stray ones, I guess. So far I've got a couple there.
CARTY: Want to show me?
KASSI: My smokehouse, where we smoke the meat.
CARTY: So where did you get this caribou?
MOSES: Right in front. Right in the front yard. (Laughs)
CARTY: How much caribou do you need to take to get by with your family over the winter?
MOSES: I usually look at five caribou to eat.
CARTY: How many have you taken this summer?
MOSES: This summer? Well, we got three so far.
CARTY: Is that normal?
MOSES: Well, it's not -- the main herd is not here, so….
KASSI: For the past five years now, their migration behaviors have not been consistent from past years. It's raining in December. It's causing a crust of ice throughout the whole country that's affecting all the animals. You know, you see blood trails from the animals cutting their shins, having to walk through this thick layer of ice that's all on the land. Because of the deep snow that the cows have a very hard time crossing the Porcupine River. They didn't even cross it until the ice went, which is very unusual, and the calves weren't able to cross the Porcupine River. So 15,000 calves died.
CARTY: Trails of blood in the snow. The death of thousands of newborn caribou calves. These kinds of events are consistent with climate change, according to Don Russell of Environment Canada.
RUSSELL: With climate change, not only is there predicted warming, but the variability between years is supposed to increase. So this year was just the opposite of warming. It was a very cool spring, very late snow melt period, and animals were forced to remain back on the winter range. They can't change the timing of their calving, so as they move north they were late, they were having calves on migration. I suspect the calves are not being able to keep up, or they have to cross a lot of ice-filled streams and rivers and drown.
CARTY: As we continue our trip up the Porcupine River, Darius Kassi points to other signs of climate change. The riverbanks are collapsing into the water as huge slices of permafrost melt. Water levels are always high in summer, perhaps the result of glaciers receding in the mountains. And people are complaining about insects they've never seen before. Biologist Don Russell points out that insects are one of the most important impacts of climate change, especially for caribou.
RUSSELL: They're blood donors to the mosquitoes, as much as 100 cc’s of blood a week. So that drives them around and keeps them looking for wind and windswept slopes. So they greatly reduce the amount of time they spend feeding, and an increased amount of time they spend walking and standing up on windblown ridges.
CARTY: After two hours on the Porcupine River, Darius Kassi and I still haven't seen a single caribou, where usually there are hundreds, sometimes thousands.
KASSI: Our people are anxious. They're nervous. They're worried that they won't be able to harvest the caribou this year and feed our families. People are having to go farther and farther upriver and downriver to try to get just a few, just a few caribou to feed our people. We feel the effects of climate change now.
(Splashing water; wind)
CARTY: Two hundred miles northeast of Old Crow, there is more evidence of the impact of climate change. This is Tuktoyaktuk, a village on a narrow peninsula looking out into the Arctic Ocean. Here, the impact is not on how people live off the land. It's on the land itself.
KLINGENBERG: My name is Charles Klingenberg. I'm the Land and Development Officer with the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk. And we're standing on the coast of the Beaufort Sea and we're standing on the exact spot where the community curling rink used to be.
CARTY: What happened?
KLINGENBERG: It got washed out.
CARTY: It washed out? How?
KLINGENBERG: The bottom got eroded, all washed out from the backwash and storms. The beach where we're standing on, there is maybe about 40 to 60 feet has washed out.
CARTY: As the Land Officer for Tuktoyaktuk, Charles Klingenberg has less and less raw material to take care of each year. The problem is erosion. This summer a severe storm washed away yards of Tuk's Peninsula. It's impossible, of course, to say that any one weather event is proof of anything. But more storms on the Arctic Ocean fit the predictions of climate change, and Charles Klingenberg is not prepared to sit by and do nothing. The hamlet of Tuk is getting ready, building a sea wall.
KLINGENBERG: What we see right now with our beaches, we've got sort of like a limestone rock. Big boulders, and we haul them, we place them on the beach as, like our permanent shoreline protection.
CARTY: How much have you spent trying to put up this rock breakwater?
KLINGENBERG: The last couple years, pretty close to a million dollars.
CARTY: A lot of money.
CARTY: And if there's global warming, have to spend more?
KLINGENBERG: Probably, if we want to save our peninsula.
McDONALD: Tuk does face a big challenge from loss of shoreline. Some of the places around the delta there have had erosion rates in excess of ten meters a year.
CARTY: Rob McDonald is an oceanographer with Canada's Institute of Ocean Sciences. Experts like McDonald say that without massive investments, the peninsula of Tuktoyaktuk will eventually weather away. And it will happen all the more quickly if there is climate change. Partly that's because sea levels here are expected to rise from one to three feet in the next 50 years, according to Canadian government scientists. But it's also because each winter, less and less of the Arctic Ocean freezes over. Rob McDonald.
McDONALD: One thing we do know is that if the water stays open longer in the fall, it gives the opportunity to have more storms over open water. And that's the crucial thing, because when the storm comes over an ice-covered sea, you don't tend to get the waves. And the result is, you don't tend to erode away the coastline. So, if you leave the water open, you could very easily double the erosion rate just by doing something like that.
CARTY: Five hundred miles north of Tuktoyaktuk is an example of just how far climate change reaches. This is the village of Sachs Harbor. Population: 120. Just 36 houses on the tree-less tundra shores of an island in the Arctic Ocean. Sachs Harbor is a Inuvialuit community, and today there is a bustle of activity. People are getting ready for winter. Boats are coming in with seal meat and Arctic fish. And Floyd Sidney is fattening up his dogsled team with the meat of the musk oxen he's just shot.
(Dogs bark and whine; a knife is sharpened)
SIDNEY: Yeah, it was a bull musk oxen. Seen the black creature there, to the east of the island, and got the rifle and bingo. One shot, just like in the Clint Eastwood movies when you're hunting for the bad, then the ugly gets in the way, then the good only survives. (Laughs)
CARTY: People here love their way of life, living off the land. And they never expected that way of life could be so deeply shaken by climate change.
SIDNEY: Your seasons become shorter. It will be hard to judge your harvesting times of year for whatever species of mammal you have to go after.
MAN 1: The first effect is going to be the ocean animals. If it's changing too fast, if it's melting too fast, seal pups are going to be really affected by warm weather.
MAN 2: See a lot of thunderstorms. Never had that here before. I see these musk ox, after that lightning crack, the musk ox, you know, they just take off and they don't know where to run. They run one direction, and then the other. It was something else, yeah. They didn't know what was going on.
R. KUPTANA: In the last ten years especially, when we were going to go out hunting and when the geese are supposed to come back, and they don't, that's the hardest part. Uncertainty.
CARTY: The behavior of the wildlife is not the only thing people are worried about in Sachs Harbor. There are also the new critters that they've never seen before. The Pacific salmon that recently showed up in the fish nets. And the birds discovered by Roger Kuptana.
KUPTANA: I just happened to be outside working about, and a robin came around. A robin redbreast, I guess. And he started feeding on these flies that were flying around.
CARTY: What's the word in your language for robin?
KUPTANA: I don't know if there is -- in Sachs Harbor I don't think there is a word for robin. None that I'm aware of anyway. So it is a robin. (Laughs) They are so rare here, we don't have names for them.
CARTY: Jim Bruce smiles when he hears the story of Roger Kuptana's robin. Jim Bruce is a Canadian scientist who helped set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He explains that some species will try to move north as southern climes get warmer. But in the long term, he's not sure they will succeed.
BRUCE: The plants, the trees, the plant life have great difficulty moving northward rapidly. They can move over a very long period of time, and they have in the past. But the rate of climate change that we're now experiencing and expect over the next few decades far exceeds what they'll be able to accommodate. How that affects the animals, of course, is that in many cases the animals depend on plant life, and where the plant support disappears, so will the animals.
CARTY: There is an irony here in Sachs Harbor. These people have contributed little to the cause of climate change, though they may be the most affected by it. Yet, one of the community leaders, Rosemarie Kuptana , says no one should feel sorry for her people. They are survivors. They know how to adapt.
R. KUPTANA: We're an evolving culture anyway. We're not living in igloos. I was born in an igloo. (Laughs) You know, like, I've gone from being nomadic to setting up satellite channels for native people. We've just got to do what has to be done, you know? There's nothing that we can do about it. We'll make the best of what we can with what we have.
CARTY: There are really two messages the weather of the western Arctic is giving the world. One is a warning about the extent of climate change impacts, how they can be dramatic and unpredictable. The second message is really a question. People who live in the Arctic already have decades of practice adapting to new environments, figuring out what part of their way of life to discard, what to hold onto. The question for those of us who live in the south is: How well are we prepared to do the same? For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Sachs Harbor in the Canadian Arctic.
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CURWOOD: In the coming weeks, we'll look at how rising temperatures in the northern polar regions could affect global ocean currents, and change the weather for billions of people in the south.
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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: politics and how the Green Party in California is determined to make its presence felt in this year's elections.
MAN: The time has got to the point where we'll swing that green hammer, you know, nonviolently. But we'll swing that green hammer to the point where our impact is felt.
CURWOOD: On the campaign trail with the Green Party on the next Living on Earth. We leave you this week with the sound that began our program, the cry of the common loon. Reporter Naomi Schalit recorded these calls on Lake Aziscohos in northwestern Maine on a moonlit summer night.
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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and Bree Horwitz. We had help this week from Carly Ferguson and WCBU in Peoria, Illinois. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our Technical Director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our Western Editor. Diane Toomey is our Science Editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our Senior Editor. And Chris Ballman is the Senior Producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, Executive Producer. Thanks for listening.
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