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

October 27, 2000

Air Date: October 27, 2000


Ballot Referenda

Host Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about various environmental ballot initiatives coming up in this fall’s election. (06:00)

Vote Gore / Carl Pope

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope tells us that Al Gore’s accomplishments, and his plans for the future, would make him the best environmental president ever. (02:45)

Vote Bush / Bob Smith

New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith, Chairman of the Senate Committee of Environment and Public Works, says George W. Bush’s record in Texas, along with his ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans, make him the best environmental candidate for president. (02:45)

Technology Update / Cynthia Graber

Living On Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on a new pavement technology that has streets literally eating car exhaust. (00:59)

Ginseng Poaching / Leda Hartman

The southern U.S. is prime ginseng territory. But, the medicinal herb has become so valuable that poachers are picking it out of existence. Leda Hartman reports on how federal officials are trying to protect ginseng on public land. (08:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about Punkie Night. This ghoulish celebration in England includes a parade of children carrying carved out and glowing vegetables called punkies. (01:45)

Coal Spill

A reservoir burst this month, spilling millions of gallons of coal waste into rivers in Kentucky and West Virginia. Ken Ward, a reporter with West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette, talks with host Steve Curwood about what caused the disaster and why it could have been prevented. (05:30)

Health Update / Diane Toomey

Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports that a new study shows Chinese herbs may be effective against prostate cancer. (00:59)

Ohio Swings

The predicted close election hinges on swing voters and host Steve Curwood talks with some of the “undecideds” in the battleground state of Ohio about how their environmental concerns influence their choice for president. (16:10)

A Wish for Kings


Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Leda Hartman, Steve Curwood
UPDATES: Cynthia Graber, Diane Toomey
GUESTS: Mark Hertsgaard, Ken Ward
COMMENTATORS: Carl Pope, Bob Smith, William Shutkin

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth. (Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. The public may be lukewarm about the race for the White House, and the environment is getting only modest attention on that campaign trail. But when it comes to green ballot questions, especially about sprawl, the feelings are running hotter.

HERTSGAARD: This is something that has been boiling up over years here across the country. Vice President Gore tried to make a big issue of it earlier in the presidential campaign, precisely because it attracts a lot of those suburban, prosperous, so-called swing voters that both parties are doing so much to try and appeal to this year

CURWOOD: Also, while ginseng is a potent and popular tonic for all kinds of ailments, it's so popular that cops are going high-tech to keep folks from stealing the plants from public lands.

GARRISON: And if you're taking them illegally, beware. We will prosecute you for this.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Ballot Referenda

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This year's close presidential election is remarkably free from passion, despite a number of issues that are at critical crossroads, including the environment. But at the state level, feelings are running high over a number of green ballot measures. Joining me now is Mark Hertsgaard, Living on Earth's political observer. Mark, there are about three dozen voter initiatives that could be considered environmental. And let's start by talking about what's happening in Florida. Now, do I have this right? Voters there are being asked if they want to fight sprawl and congestion by building a high-speed train service?

HERTSGAARD: Yeah, and this is pretty unusual. I was actually just down there in Florida, and voters will be asked whether they want to order the state government to begin construction of a high-speed rail network within Florida beginning in November of 2003. The network would link Florida's five biggest cities, intended to try to get around severe problems that sprawl and the over-reliance on automobiles has caused down in Florida.

CURWOOD: Why don't elected officials want to build such a system there?

HERTSGAARD: Well, Governor Jeb Bush actually scuttled a proposal for a multi-billion dollar project when he first became governor, and he explained it by saying look, I'm afraid that the train will not attract enough riders and that this will put the state into deficit. Interesting, Steve, the guy backing this is a businessman named Doc Dockery. He spent a million and a half dollars of his own money to collect 600,000 signatures to get this on the ballot. He chaired a commission on this for the state ten years ago, got turned down by the government officials, and said okay, I'm not going to take no for an answer; this time I'm going to take it directly to the people.

CURWOOD: Sprawl is a hot button issue in a number of places this year. Where else is it turning up on the state ballot?

HERTSGAARD: Well, the other place that's really going to be big, Steve, is in Colorado. There is a battle royale there on an initiative, anti-sprawl initiative, that would basically require local governments to put the development plans that they have in front of voters every year, and voters would have to approve it. That means before you can expand the suburbs, before you can build a new sewage system and road systems and all of the extra costs that that's going to involve, that the voters have to approve it. And this initiative, so far, is running narrowly ahead, about 54 percent in the recent polls. Of course, that's a poll by the League of Conservation Voters, which is one of the backers. What's interesting, though, is that they are being outspent eight to one by the pro-development forces, the real estate interests and so forth. They've raised five million dollars to try and turn this back.

CURWOOD: Anyplace else in the west concerned about sprawl?

HERTSGAARD: Well, also Arizona. A similar measure there where citizens would be requiring developers to pay for roads and schools in the new subdivisions in advance and would, again, set development limits. You know, these are the states where it's coming up this year, Steve, but this is something that has been boiling up over years here across the country. And Vice President Gore tried to make a big issue of it earlier in the presidential campaign, precisely because it attracts a lot of those suburban, prosperous, so-called swing voters that both parties are doing so much to try and appeal to this year.

CURWOOD: Of course, there's a lot more to the environment than sprawl. What other issues do the state ballots address on the environment this year, Mark?

HERTSGAARD: A number of things, Steve. I think one I'm going to be interested in watching is up in Maine, an anti-clear-cutting measure. This is not the first time this has come to a vote in Maine, but the environmental groups there are putting forward a measure that would essentially limit clear-cutting, would require the state not only to issue permits to anyone who tries to clear-cut, but through the wording of the ballot make clear-cutting all but impossible. There's also a plan in Missouri that would ban billboards. In Alaska, there's a measure that's going to try and ban the hunting of wolves via airplane. And in Washington and Oregon, another animal protection measure that would ban trapping and poisoning of animals during hunting. So, there's a lot of this that's going on around the country, and, of course, here in California we've got a measure that will basically require a two-thirds vote before we could increase environmental taxes in the state. This is again something that's being pushed by the oil companies and the tobacco companies, and opposed by environmentalists. But it hasn't gotten much attention in the press, and so most of the public doesn't really know about this, and it's very confusingly worded. We'll have to see if people are able to see their way through this.

CURWOOD: It's a very tight presidential race, and yet people don't seem terribly passionate about this race. Will any of these ballot measures put some spark into voters' interests here, do you think?

HERTSGAARD: Well, you know, it's hard to know. I think in places like Colorado or Florida, where the excitement level is very high and passions are running very deep on these initiatives, that might pull more people in. Obviously, we're seeing -- nobody out there in the public seems to be overly excited about voting for either Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore. But let's say in Florida, for example, if you've got a lot of people going in to vote from an environmental perspective, chances are that might help Mr. Gore a little bit. So, we'll have to see how this plays out. But, you know, at the end of the day, it's the president that you're voting for, I think.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark, for the tour through the states.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

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Vote Gore

CURWOOD: As Mark mentioned, at the end of the day it is the president you're voting for. Neither of the two major party candidates, Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush, has put the environment at the top of his platform. But issues of environmental protection did draw fire in two of the debates and have come up from time to time on the campaign trail.

BUSH: If you own your own land, every day is Earth Day. (Cheers from the crowd)

GORE: I'll bet you, I wasn't the only one who paid extra attention to the study that came out showing that within 50 years there will be no ice at the North Pole in summer. Hello. (Audience laughter)

CURWOOD: As election day draws near, we ask supporters of the Democrat and Republican to tell us why their man has the best environmental platform. We begin with the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope.

POPE: I support Al Gore for President. So do the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and grassroots environmental leaders all over America. Al Gore will be the most committed, best qualified environmental President ever. On November seventh we decide the air we breathe, the water our children drink, and the land our grandchildren inherit. Those who see no real difference between Gore and Bush, who say they're Tweedledee and Tweedledum, are ignoring their records on our environment. When science showed we needed tougher soot and smog standards, Al Gore challenged every major industrial lobby in Washington and battled successfully for stronger air standards. Al Gore fought to clean up emissions from cars and trucks. He closed the smog loophole for SUV's. When the oil industry tried to derail clean gasoline, he fought them in Congress and won. Under George W. Bush, Texas has the worst air quality in the nation. Schools in Bush's hometown Odessa have air pollution monitors to measure if kids get recess, or if it's too dangerous to play. Al Gore has fought for clean water. When Newt Gingrich tried to weaken the Clean Water Act, Gore led the fight that stopped him. When the Republican Congress tried to block enforcement of drinking water standards for arsenic, Gore stood in their way. Politicians in both parties wanted to weaken these standards. Gore just said no. Texas leads America in dumping toxics in streams and lakes. When a paper mill threatened to pollute Lake Sam Rayburn, Governor Bush wanted to let them. Small businesses and Texas fishermen had to turn to Al Gore for help. Teddy Roosevelt told us to measure our civilization by the landscape it leaves behind. Al Gore has defended that landscape. He supported new national monuments on the California coast and the giant sequoias, and in the mountains of Oregon and Washington. He pledged to protect our wild and ancient forests from logging and road building. He'll quadruple federal funds for open space and wildlife. Bush opposes each and every one of these land protection initiatives. Finally, Al Gore held the first hearings and led the struggle against global warming. He flew to Kyoto himself to rescue the global warming treaty. Gore is fighting for the largest financial package for energy conservation and renewable energy in history. Ralph Nader has taken similar stands, but Nader is running for five percent, not 51 percent. If we want to elect a strong environmental President, there is only one choice. Air, water, land, and the integrity of the globe's climate itself, four good reasons to vote for Al Gore. Four ways to reply when someone tells you, "They're all the same."

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Vote Bush

SMITH: I'm Senator Bob Smith from New Hampshire and Chairman of the Senate, Environment and Public Works Committee. I support George W. Bush for President, and I'm confident that he will be a strong leader and a good bipartisan partner in promoting environmental protection and conservation for this country. Governor Bush believes, as I do, that we need an environmental agenda based on cooperation, not confrontation, and that we must work in partnership with states and local communities to develop new, innovative, flexible, and cooperative approaches to protecting our environment. George Bush supports more innovation and less regulation to achieve environmental results. But one thing is clear: We can only achieve environmental progress through working together in bipartisan action. Governor Bush has a record of working with Republicans and Democrats alike, and that will be necessary if we are to continue our progress toward conservation and a healthy environment. And I give you an example: in my committee on the Environment and Public Works, I worked in a bipartisan fashion with the Democrats to craft an Everglades bill. Much has been said by his opponent, Al Gore, about the environmental record of the Governor of Texas. Unfortunately, like many other statements Mr. Gore has made during the campaign, what has been said is not quite the complete truth. In fact, during George Bush's tenure, spending on natural resources in Texas has actually increased 30 percent. Today, Texas leads the nation in reducing toxic pollution. Let me repeat that: Texas, under the leadership of George W. Bush, is the number one state in the nation at reducing toxic pollution. Texas was one of the first three states in the nation that required older electric utilities to reduce emissions. With regard to clean water, the amount of available clean drinking water has increased nearly ten percent since Governor Bush took office. And Texas has also been at the forefront in cleaning up and redeveloping old abandoned industrial facilities known as brownfields. By redeveloping old sites, it's possible to preserve more open space, a true conservationist approach to economic development. Political opponents will always try to paint a negative picture, but the bottom line is simple: the environment in Texas, under the leadership of George W. Bush, is cleaner and healthier than it was the day he took office. That is a fact. It's unfortunate that there are those who wish to make the environment a political issue. And too often, environmental politics only serve to delay environmental protection. I support Governor Bush for President because he believes as I do that we are all stewards of this earth. And as the Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee in the United States Senate, I'm looking forward to working on an environmental agenda with President Bush that focuses our priorities on future generations, not the next election.

CURWOOD: Bob Smith is a Republican Senator from New Hampshire. We also heard from Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. If you want to hear our recent interview with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, you can go to our Web site, www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: big business in rare contraband herbs. Meet the ginseng detectives, next on Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: Now, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

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Technology Update

GRABER: In London, the streets may soon help clean the air. Nitrogen oxide, a component of car exhaust, contributes to acid rain, smog, and low-level ozone. But new pavement slabs being developed can take the pollutant right out of the air. The slabs are coated with a thin layer of titanium dioxide. And in the presence of sunlight, titanium dioxide breaks down nitrogen oxides into oxygen and a much less polluting form of nitric acid. The concrete neutralizes some of the acid. Some is washed away by rain. The blocks are currently being tested on sidewalks in Osaka, Japan, where they reportedly neutralize about a quarter of the nitrogen oxide spewed out by cars. The first road pavement is expected to be laid out in London this spring on Oxford Street and Cromwell Road. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Ginseng Poaching

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ginseng is one of the most popular medicinal herbs. It's said to prevent disorders ranging from diabetes and cancer to sexual dysfunction. Acres of ginseng once carpeted the forests of the eastern United States until massive exports to Asia began in the 1800's. Today, the herb is exceedingly scarce in the wild. Most of what's left is found in the southern Appalachian Mountains where some collectors resort to poaching ginseng from protected public lands. Fall is the traditional time to harvest wild ginseng and the time when the ginseng police go on alert. Leda Hartman has our story.

(Ambient sounds in a store)

HARTMAN: Ginseng is easy to come by if you're a consumer. Walk into any health food store or drug store and there it is on the shelf.

QUINN: I've got a blend of four ginsengs here. We've got red ginseng. We carry, you know, the Chinese Panax ginseng, American ginseng, Siberian ginseng...

HARTMAN: Angie Quinn is the nutrition department manager at a natural food store in Carrboro, North Carolina. She says ginseng is a pretty popular herb.

QUINN: It's definitely in the top ten. It's one of those superstars that the media has hyped up to the degree that there's a lot of awareness out there about it.

HARTMAN: Much of the ginseng consumed in the United States is cultivated on farms or in people's back yards. But the ginseng reputed to be the most potent, the kind that brings top dollar on the international market, grows in the wild. The eastern United States is one of the few places left in the world where you can still find wild ginseng, and that's only in protected areas like the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.

(Breezes and flowing water)

HARTMAN: One part of the forest, just southwest of Asheville, is so rife with herbs it's a veritable pharmacy. This cove is protected from the elements. A stream runs through here, providing moisture. And the rich, dark soil hosts medicinal plants that have been used for generations by both Native Americans and white settlers. There's black cohosh, blood root, sarsparilla, and the time-honored herb legendary for boosting strength, stamina, and even virility.

KAUFFMANN: See there? That is American ginseng, Panax Quincafolius.

HARTMAN: That's Gary Kauffmann, a botanist who monitors plant life throughout much of North Carolina's national forest lands. The ginseng plant he points to looks pretty unassuming, five leaves radiating from a stem about a foot tall. But its root, which takes at least five years to mature, can fetch anywhere from $300 to $600 per pound. It's especially in demand in Asia, where there's practically no wild ginseng left. And that's why Kauffmann finds signs of possible poaching nearby.


KAUFFMANN: There's been something dug here. They've put some roots back. Everything's been scuffed up. The soil is a little bit looser.

HARTMAN: It is legal to harvest ginseng from most national forest lands, but only in the fall, after the seeds to produce new plants have fallen to the ground. It's never legal, however, to take ginseng from national park lands, such as the nearby Smokey Mountains National Park. Nevertheless, poaching occurs on both types of public lands. And that, says Kauffmann, is a big reason ginseng has become so scarce, even where it's supposed to be protected. A couple of centuries ago, things were quite different.

KAUFFMANN: In Kentucky, Daniel Boone, one year he collected between seven and fourteen tons. In fact, one year I guess he lost a whole boatload of ginseng. He just went back and got another. Right now, you know, throughout the 1990's in North Carolina, the whole harvest was between 9,000 to 10,000 pounds. In the last two years it's dropped down to between 6,000 to 7,000 pounds.

HARTMAN: It took two big busts in 1993 to alert park and forest officials to the seriousness of the poaching problem, which has devastated the wild ginseng population. The crime took place in one of the most remote sections of the Smokey Mountains National Park. The poachers stole about 8,000 ginseng plants. They took everything, down to the seeds and the young plants, making regeneration impossible. John Garrison, a U.S. park ranger with the Blue Ridge Parkway, says the incident revealed a much larger problem.

GARRISON: And that's when we began to discover that, while ginseng may be the most widely-known plant in this area, that it's being taken for the herbal medicine market, that there were other markets and many, many other plants that were being taken.

HARTMAN: That includes everything from common ferns to rare Appalachian orchids. But by far, ginseng is the most lucrative plant to steal.. And that means that the traditional way of collecting it, part of the mountain culture, has gone by the wayside.

GARRISON: For many years, what I saw here growing up in these mountains was that folks that were harvesting plants were local people. Usually went out as families, as a family outing, or would harvest it while they were out scouting for the upcoming hunting seasons. And it was taken merely as an incidental way of making a little cash. Christmas money is what is was always called.

HARTMAN: These days, Garrison says, illegal ginseng collection has become an industry. And poachers, he says, have become increasingly sophisticated. Here is one example.

GARRISON: These people had parked along the parkway in a legal area, had set up all the appearances of a picnic, blanket, basket, the works. And went off into the woods. But this ranger just had a feeling, and he then began to track them.

HARTMAN: And he caught them red-handed, digging up ginseng roots and stuffing them in a bag. Still, poaching hasn't always been easy to prosecute, especially when an arrest is made after the fact. Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, says a way was needed to positively identify the ginseng that comes from protected public lands.

CORBIN: We decided we needed something that was going to work, that we could deter this with as well as get greater convictions. Because in court they were getting beat in court on a regular basis.

HARTMAN: So a few years ago, Corbin, Garrison, and others devised a marking system for vulnerable plants. One that's permanent, but harmless. At first, they tagged the plants with a tiny stainless steel ribbon encoded with microscopic Navajo pictographs, which indicated where the plants were from. Now they use two other methods. One is a neon orange dye that is absorbed directly into the root of a plant and can't be scrubbed off. The other is an undetectable plastic laminate containing microscopic bits of ground up plastic, each with a special color-coded sequence.


HARTMAN: Along the trail on national park land north of Asheville, John Garrison sprays adhesive and then dusts the ground-up plastic on a stand of galax leaves, which are used as filler in floral arrangements.

GARRISON: Very adaptable, you can see, in the field. It's a very fine texture, like fine sand. There's no way in the world that we can not now identify this particular leaf as coming from the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park Service.

HARTMAN: And you can't see a thing.

GARRISON: No, you can't tell it's there.

HARTMAN: Garrison says federal officials can't mark every single plant that's vulnerable to poaching. But they have marked enough plants to be able to intercept many of the ones that are stolen. Although a black market for ginseng, the most lucrative plant, does exist, all ginseng that ends up on the commercial market must be inspected before it leaves the state. But above all, says John Garrison, the marking system serves as a deterrent.

GARRISON: If people know they are digging on areas that are closed to plant harvest, there is a good chance that they will dig up and take with them a plant that can be 100 percent identified as coming from a protected area. And if you're taking them illegally, beware. We will prosecute you for this.

HARTMAN: And convictions will bring not just fines but also jail time. North Carolina's marking program has been adopted on other federal lands and the Canadian province of Ontario. Meanwhile, the Park Service and the Forest Service hope to determine exactly how much legal harvesting the embattled ginseng population can stand. They're also trying to pinpoint public lands that are best suited for replanting efforts. Both botanists and rangers say if ginseng poaching isn't curbed, the wild herb, for so long a part of traditional medicine, may some day become extinct. For Living on Earth, I'm Leda Hartman in Asheville, North Carolina.

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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; Town Creek Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues and the environment; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio.

When we return: Appalachian coal country gets hit with a disaster that's being compared to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In England, the last Thursday of October is called Punkie Night, a time of celebration and song.

(Music up and under: punk rock)

CURWOOD: No, no, no, not that Punkie Night song. This one:

GILLMAN: It's Punkie Night tonight. It's Punkie Night tonight. Give us a candle, give us a light, it's Punkie Night tonight...

CURWOOD: That's Cecil Gillman. We reached him at his home in Chiselborough, England, where he is the Master of Ceremonies of the Punkie Night celebration. Each year, he leads the children of the village in a ghostly procession through unlighted streets, singing the traditional Punkie Night song.

GILLMAN: It's Punkie Night tonight. It's Punkie Night tonight. Eee, eye, diddley dee, it's Punkie Night tonight.

CURWOOD: A punkie is a lantern carved from mangolds, a vegetable similar to a turnip but the size of a small pumpkin and the same color orange. Legend has it that Punkie Night commemorates a day of drunken revelry at the Chiselborough Fair. Having imbibed too much hard cider, the men of the nearby village of Hinton St. George failed to return home. But after dark, their women went out to round them up. They used carved-out mangolds fitted with candles and hanging from strings to light their way. From afar, the punkies resembled their namesakes, eerie flames of marsh gas believed to be the souls of unbaptized children. A sobering sight indeed. Punkie Night lives on today in Hinton St. George and Chiselborough. The annual festivities conclude with the punkie judging contest, in which the most grotesque designs are rewarded for their ghoulishness. And with thanks for a bit of punkie music from Albert Avery, that's this week's Living on Earth Almanac.

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Coal Spill

CURWOOD: An estimated 250 million gallons of a thick lava-like coal mining waste is ruining drinking water supplies and killing aquatic life along 75 miles of the Big Sandy, the river bordering Kentucky and West Virginia. The disaster is also threatening the Ohio River and the city of Cincinnati. The coal mining waste, called slurry, broke out of a reservoir at the A-T Massey Company in Inez, Kentucky. Technicians say it will take at least six months to clean up the spill, but they're making no predictions about long-term effects. Ken Ward is covering the story for West Virginia's Charleston Gazette. He says in many ways this spill is the Appalachian version of the Exxon Valdez.

WARD: We had a photo the other day of a frog covered in black coal dust, and it was like the photos you'd see from the Exxon Valdez. And you'd see birds covered in oil and things. And it's very similar. But volume-wise, this is certainly bigger than that.

CURWOOD: Ken, how did this happen? What led to the spill?

WARD: As odd as it seems, coal companies build these dams on top of old underground mines. Old underground mines have a habit of doing what's called subsidence, which is where you've mined under something so the ground that was underneath isn't there any more to hold up the ground above, and the ground above collapses into the underground mine workings. In this case, what they believed happened is that the underground mine collapsed, water and slurry from the impoundment poured into the underground mine workings and broke out of the hillside in two spots into these streams. The force, the energy force from the weight of all of this water when it breaks through like that, is so powerful, it will just break through the side of a hill and flood whatever happens to be on the other side of that hill.

CURWOOD: Ken, this is not the first time this has happened in West Virginia. There was another big one. What was it called, Buffalo Creek?

WARD: In 1972, in a place called Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia, about an hour or so south of Charleston, a Pittston Coal Company dam broke and sent millions of gallons of water and slurry pouring through that valley. A hundred and twenty-five people were killed, 500 or more homes were destroyed, hundreds and hundreds of people left homeless. It was a complete and utter disaster for that community.

CURWOOD: Now, you wrote an article in the Charleston Gazette in 1997 that basically predicted that an accident the size of this Massey disaster could happen. Why did you come to that conclusion?

WARD: Well, we were doing a series of articles for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Buffalo Creek disaster, and we wanted to go and see if these dams were still a problem. And in 1997, when we were doing this, there had been two of these breakthroughs in Virginia. And we found out that the agencies that were supposed to regulate these things, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Office of Surface Mining, didn't really know at that point what the potential for this to happen was. And it had clearly happened in Virginia in two instances, that caused some pretty big environmental problems. So we thought that it was pretty serious and needed to be looked at some more.

CURWOOD: So, you wrote this article. Your article suggests that it could likely happen again. What happened after you wrote the article?

WARD: After some inquiries from us and after these two incidents in Virginia, MSHA decided that it was going to do a study of this potential. And they went out and looked at all the impoundments that they were aware of. That's where they came up with the figure that there were 225 that were built above underground mines. From those, they went out and looked at mine plans and permits and things, and concluded there were 45 that had what they called a high potential to cause this sort of a problem.

CURWOOD: So, as we speak today, there are what, 45 other places where it very easily could happen.

WARD: Certainly. And MSHA, further, as part of their study, they were supposed to take the dams that had a high risk of having this happen and go out and require mine operators to either prove that their dams were safe, or to take additional steps to make them safe. In at least half of the instances where MSHA concluded that there was a problem and the company should do something, nothing has been done yet.

CURWOOD: What has the federal response been so far in the wake of this disaster?

WARD: The Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is run by a fellow named Davit MacAteer, has already announced that it's going to do another nation-wide investigation of these dams and try to make sure that they're all safe. There is a Congressman from Kentucky, Hal Rogers, who is trying to get a two million dollar appropriation from Congress to have the National Academy of Sciences study not only the safety of the dams that exist, but also study whether there is an alternative way for coal companies to dispose of their slurry so that they wouldn't have these dams in the first place.

Probably the most outrageous response to this thus far has been that of the federal Office of Surface Mining, which is part of the Department of the Interior. You know, that agency was formed because of and after Buffalo Creek, but yet it has done almost nothing nationwide, or particularly in the coal fields of Appalachia, to regulate these dams, and thus far has really done nothing since the Inez Kentucky accident, to go out and make sure that other dams are safe.

CURWOOD: Ken Ward is a reporter with the Charleston Gazette. Thanks for taking this time with us today, Ken.

WARD: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead: voters who are concerned about the environment and who are still trying to make up their minds about whom to pick for President. We'll meet some of them in just a few moments. Stay tuned to Living on Earth. Now, this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: PC-Spes is a Chinese herbal remedy that contains, among other things, saw palmetto and chrysanthemum. It's marketed as effective against prostate cancer, and doctors at the University of California, San Francisco, have taken the unusual move of researching this commercial product. They fed PC-Spes to a group of almost three dozen patients and found that more than 80 percent of them showed dramatic improvement in a blood test used to indicate the presence of prostate cancer. This test isn't foolproof, but it is used as a marker to indicate life spans of prostate cancer patients. Since prostate cancer is stimulated by the male hormone testosterone, researchers think the herbs may be combating the disease by mimicking the female hormone estrogen. But doctors caution they don't know how long PC-Spes would work in a patient. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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(The UCSF page about PC-Spes )

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Ohio Swings

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And let's consider a few facts about the upcoming presidential election. There are 148 million registered voters in the United States. A hundred and three million of them are likely to go to the polls on November seventh. And most have already decided whom to vote for. Now, if we don't count the states in which the race is already decided, and those states with few electoral votes, we're left with less than a million undecided voters in a few crucial swing states who will choose our next president. Less than a million people, and most of them live in the nation's heartland.

MAN: You're standing on a map of the state of Ohio, okay? How many counties do we have in Ohio, how many?

CHILDREN: Eighty, eight-five? MAN: You're close.

CHILDREN: Eight-six? Eighty-eight?

MAN: Eighty-eight, eighty-eight. Good answer, 88 counties. All right...

CURWOOD: These school kids touring the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus are getting a civics lesson about their state. And if they delve a little deeper into Ohio's voting history, they'll learn that in the last 25 presidential elections, Ohio has picked the winner 23 times. No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio, and the state's 21 electoral votes make it a valuable prize in a tight race. So candidates spend a lot of money and time here.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: In other news tonight, after the first presidential debate last night in Boston, the candidates were back on the road today. For Governor George W. Bush, it included a stop right here in central Ohio...

CURWOOD: Ohio leans to the GOP but went for Bill Clinton in '92 and '96. Republicans control most statewide offices. Democrats rule most cities.

ASHER: Ohio is a very strong two-party state.

CURWOOD: Herb Asher teaches political science at Ohio State University.

ASHER: I think everybody expects that here in Ohio, by and large, Gore and Bush will do a good job in holding onto their base, and then it's down to a relatively small number of swing voters. Some of those swing voters, I think, might be moved by environmental concerns. So I think the environment has the potential in certain areas, in certain communities, to make a difference.

CURWOOD: That's why we've come to Ohio, to the Columbus area, the very middle of middle America. We're here to talk with undecided voters about how their environmental concerns might make a difference in the presidential race. Our first stop: the Columbus suburb of Worthington.

(A horseshoe is tossed, clinks)

MAN 1: A ringer, isn't it?

MAN 2: Yeah, rebounds don't count.

CURWOOD: When we meet Emily Briscoe and her husband Don Steckell, they are pitching horseshoes with their neighbor Jack Arnold in the back yard. It's a generous lot bordered by walnut and cottonwood trees. And out back, a creek runs along a railroad track. (Horseshoes clink; a train whistles)

CURWOOD: Emily and Don moved into their modest white Cape a few months ago. Their infant son Max is napping inside. Emily, Don, and Jack are thirty-something professionals. They all say the environment is not their only issue. But along with education, abortion, and welfare reform, it ranks high on their list.

BRISCOE: I would say they're in my top ten issues. They've been less important to me in the past, but I have a young child now. And so they're becoming increasingly important.

CURWOOD: How about you, Jack? Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?

ARNOLD: I suppose. I like to hunt and fish, so I'm very concerned about deforestation, air and water quality. Especially water quality, because I fish more often than not.

CURWOOD: All right, Don, you're on the hook now.

STECKELL: My turn?

CURWOOD: Yeah, your turn. You know the questions.


CURWOOD: So, in what ways would you consider yourself to be an environmentalist?

STECKELL: These are all going to sound like petty things, but they're the small things that we do every day. We recycle. Emily takes the bus and I drive the car that's old but gets better than 30 miles to the gallon. I don't drive an SUV. Just the small things. We try to be conscious of how much waste we produce.

CURWOOD: Emily, Don, and Jack claim no party affiliation. But all three voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. Emily and Don went for Clinton again in '96, but regarding that election, Jack confesses.

ARNOLD: I have to admit I sat that one out.

(Emily gasps)

Part of the reason why I made sure to register to vote early and get involved this time around is because I guess I'm becoming more of an environmentalist. The more I fish, the more I see that I can't eat almost any of the fish in the state of Ohio, at least if I catch them in streams. The more upset I get. And I feel like I sort of dropped the ball by not getting involved last time around.

CURWOOD: How about for you, Emily? What difference do you think the President of the United States can make for the environmental issues that you're concerned about?

BRISCOE: I'm looking for some pressure on the auto industry to make more efficient cars, less polluting cars. To sort of give economic incentives to develop new energy sources. To give some economic incentives to businesses to stop polluting. To limit their waste. I'm looking for a lot out of the president.

CURWOOD: Have you picked a candidate for President yet?

BRISCOE: I am waffling at this point between Al Gore and Ralph Nader. I'm waffling because we're in a swing state, being in Ohio, and the fear that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush is pretty, pretty powerful.

CURWOOD: So how do you decide?

BRISCOE: I'll decide probably the day before I go to the voting booths, what the polls show. If it's neck and neck between Gore and Bush, I'll vote for Gore, just to try to help swing it. If Gore's got a comfortable lead, I'll vote for Nader because I want to send a message to the Democratic Party that they've got to support the agenda of the progressives or they'll lose the vote.

CURWOOD: If Ralph Nader were here right now, what would you need him to say or do to firmly get your vote?

BRISCOE: I don't know that he could say anything that would take me out of my quandary. I don't know that he could say anything that would make me support him any more than I do.

CURWOOD: If Al Gore walked in the door, what could he tell you that would convince you to vote for him?

BRISCOE: He would have a lot of explaining to do about the past eight years. And he may be able to do it with saying ãlook at the Congress we had to work with.ä I guess what I would like to hear from him, the one issue that could slant me, is if he came out and said he was going to do some major campaign finance reform, public funding of campaigns. That could turn me.

GORE: And I wish Governor Bush would join me this evening in endorsing the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill.

MODERATOR: Governor Bush?

BUSH: You know, this man has no credibility on the issue. As a matter of fact...

CURWOOD: If the recent round of debates did anything, they showcased differences between the two major candidates, and the sharpest divides were on the environmental front.

GORE: Governor Bush is proposing to open up some of our most precious environmental treasures like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the big oil companies to go in and start producing oil there. I think that...

BUSH: And you bet I want to open up a small part of Alaska, because when that field is on line it will produce a million barrels a day. Today we import...

CURWOOD: So, while debates have their limitations, they do help some voters make up their minds. Voters like Ed Bane.

BANE: I really haven't paid real close attention to the issues all across the board. But when Bush said that he wanted to drill in the National Wildlife Refuge that pretty well set the hammer down for me, to make me feel that Al Gore is the one to vote for.

CURWOOD: We meet Ed Bane in the Columbus neighborhood called Clintonville. He manages a small natural foods co-op here. Smells of incense, candles, and ground coffee greet you when you open the door.

(Bells ring)

BANE: I'd say this is ground zero for the folks in the neighborhood, especially, who put the environment as their top concern.

CURWOOD: Like many of his fellow shoppers at the Clintonville market, Tom Ernie is split between voting for Al Gore or Ralph Nader. We caught him in mid-stream.

ERNIE: As I'm leaning toward Al Gore now, I don't think I'm voting for the lesser of two evils between George Bush and Al Gore. Which is sometimes, when I'm talking with my friends, this is the discussion we get into. They say, "If you don't vote for Nader, you're just voting for the lesser of two evils." I don't think that's the case. I don't consider Al Gore to be evil. I agree with the guy 75 percent of the time. But I'm concerned about the environment. That's what makes my dilemma. This would be easy if I could trust him, because he's made the environment a centerpiece of his campaign. I trust him on the other issues and where he stands on education. I trust him where he stands on gun control. On the other issues that are very important to me. When it comes to the environment, this is the one I'm concerned about.

CURWOOD: Why do you distrust Al Gore so much on the environment?

ERNIE: Well, I think because we had this uranium plant in Ohio, that he came and said that he would close down, and it did not close down. The Clinton administration, I think, had wonderful opportunities to really punish corporate polluters. And I think had an opportunity to refocus our agenda and to empower environmentalists again to work for good in their communities. And I think they missed that opportunity. I think they compromised too much.

CURWOOD: It's the day after the election. Al Gore has won. He's won by ten points, the polls were wrong. And you voted for Al Gore instead of Ralph Nader, whom you feel closer to. How do you feel then?

ERNIE: I feel good. I feel good about it. I don't think there's anyone out there who really believes that Ralph Nader is going to win this election. But I think this is laying the groundwork for future elections. And this gives him an opportunity, if he gets enough of the vote to obtain federal funds, to build the kind of movement that could happen from this point. I just don't think that our country is ready for that movement right now. I'm ready for it; I've been ready for it for years. But I don't think (laughs) that the rest of the neighborhood of Clintonville is ready for that movement, to be honest with you. It would be a difficult decision to make not to vote for Ralph Nader. He's long been a personal hero of mine. If I do vote for Al Gore and he does win, then I'll feel like I did the best, made the best decision possible.

CURWOOD: Make the best decision possible. That's a phrase we heard more than once as we spoke to shoppers at the Clintonville market about what they'll do on election day. As we left the store, Noreen Mulkayhee told us she'll have no regrets regardless of the outcome.

MULKAYHEE: I went out and did my civic duty, you know. I voted my conscience. But I would feel like the people who didn't get out and vote are really the ones who should be, you know, feeling guilty.


(Bird song)

KING: My name is Denise King. We're on the banks of the Sciota River in central Ohio. It's a beautiful fall day. We'll probably see some osprey and great blue herons fly by while we're sitting here.

CURWOOD: Denise King is a woman who loves the land, especially this stretch of it near her workplace.

KING: I can put in my kayaks four-and-a-half miles upstream at the O'Shaughnessy Dam and paddle through ten small riffles to the office. It's a very meaningful part of living here. It's a very beautiful part of living here.

CURWOOD: Here is Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. And Denise King is a suburban soccer mom. She's pro-choice and supports gun control, but she favors a flat tax and doesn't want U.S. troops overseas. She's what political pundits call a ticket-splitter. She mostly goes Republican but voted for Bill Clinton in '92 and '96. This year, she's split between Al Gore and George W. Bush. And she's slowly, carefully, almost methodically plotting her choice. She knows that whom she sends to Washington will affect what happens at home.

KING: I work with natural resource management issues, and I have an opportunity to see every day the impact of decisions made by public policy makers on the world we live in. Sometimes they're very, very direct, such as passing a low that allows more pollution to streams or less pollution to streams. And other times, they are indirect, like when our local Congressman would keep a bill from coming up that would have set us back rather than improving the world in which we live. I think it's critical for people to take the preservation of natural areas, the preservation of these really special places, whether it's in Ohio or any other state, into account when they make decisions about who they want to elect.

CURWOOD: How do the two candidates stack up on that issue?

KING: I was pleased to see that Bush had come up with some incentives for land conservation, working through the public-private partnership. That was a very good thing to see. Gore has his land legacy program, which is also along those same lines. But with both of them, I'd like to have a better understanding of which threads they're likely to pull out of the environmental carpet. Which parts of the environmental fabric are they going to undermine? That's what concerns me.

CURWOOD: You have your reservations about Mr. Gore being the best candidate to do conservation because...

KING: I'm more focused on land conservation and preventing sprawl, and he seems more focused on energy, transportation, global warming, some of those cosmic issues.

CURWOOD: And you doubt Mr. Bush being good on land conservation issues because...

KING: Actually, I think he has pretty good incentives for a land conservation program that he announced on the shores of Lake Tahoe back some time ago. I found that when I was reading the Vote Smart Web site. It involved private incentives for landowners to participate, and I think that has a lot of merit. But I'm concerned that there are enough people in the party who believe in the rights of individuals over the rights of the community, that he might have a tough time supporting land conservation. Especially in an area like Ohio, where the land is already so chopped up. I worry about people in his own party supporting him.

CURWOOD: Ohio is considered to be a swing state, so your vote may end up counting a lot more than in a place, say, like Texas, which probably Mr. Bush is going to carry; or Massachusetts, where Mr. Gore is very likely to carry. Does that affect your decision?

KING: Yes. I relish the fact that Ohio is a key state, and that I am a swing voter. It's nice to be sought after. And, quite frankly, the candidates need to care about ticket-splitting women like me.

CURWOOD: By election day, the candidates will have spent sizeable fortunes in Ohio, wooing undecided voters like Denise King, Tom Ernie, and Emily Briscoe. It's a huge investment, but the candidates know Ohio is a valuable prize. They also know, no matter how much time and money they spend here, there are no guarantees.

WHITE: He moved through Ohio six times in the course of the campaign. On his last trip, on October seventeenth, campaigning from Middletown through Dayton through Springfield through Columbus. It had been such a day of marvel and splendor as is reserved only for heroes and gods.

CURWOOD: Assessing the size and enthusiasm of crowds that turned out to greet John F. Kennedy in 1960, Theodore White chalked up Ohio as a certain Kennedy victory. But Ohio went to Richard Nixon by nearly 300,000 votes. It was the biggest upset of the election, and as White wrote in The Making of the President 1960, a bitter pill for Jack Kennedy to swallow.

WHITE: The candidate had listened as the profile of Ohio's preference traced the biggest disappointment of his campaign. And slowly he rolled back his sleeve. His right hand, by the end of the campaign, had swollen with the handshaking of the months to grossly disproportionate size, and he displayed it now: calloused, red, the scratches reaching as far as his elbow. He held up the inflamed hand, bared to the elbow, and said, "Ohio did that to me. They did it there."

(Music up and under: "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing")

CURWOOD: Our story on Ohio's swing voters was produced by Chris Ballman, with help from Jennifer Chu and Carly Ferguson.

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CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: pushing the borders of anthropology. We learn about the man who saw the bigness of humanity in the pygmy society of Africa.

MAN: Colin Turnbull was destined to become a traditional anthropologist, but he did nothing of the sort. He became one of the most unusual anthropologists of this century.

CURWOOD: The life and times of Colin Turnbull, next time on Living on Earth. We're 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, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and Bree Horwitz. We had help this week from Jessica Camp. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our Technical Director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our Western Editor. Diane Toomey is our Science Editor. And Eileen Bolinsky is the Senior Editor of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, Executive Producer. Thanks for listening. (Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on sustainable development and environmental issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting reporting on western issues. (Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


Special: A Wish for Kings

CURWOOD: For yet another perspective on the coming election and the role of third parties in the electorate, we turn to commentator William Shutkin.

SHUTKIN: As the presidential race enters its final, painstaking stages, many of us are still scratching our heads about who to vote for. Sure, a few so-called free market environmentalists will vote for George W. Bush. But for most of us, the choice is between Democrat Al Gore and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Vice President Gore has been an outspoken environmentalist for nearly 20 years, and his book ãEarth in the Balanceä is an eloquent plea for the planet. Meanwhile, Nader is a hero to many and brings a formidable record of reform and achievement to his candidacy. By most accounts, Nader really is the greenest candidate, from his austere personal habits -- he doesn't even own a car -- to his global environmental vision. But the dominance of the two major political parties makes the likelihood of a Nader win extremely low, which leaves environmentalists, especially in the predicted tight race, with something of a Hobson's Choice. To vote for Nader is to vote for Bush. Not to vote for Nader is to fail to make the most environmentally responsible decision. The situation doesn't allow for an easy solution, but does point to a deeper problem with our politics. Despite our more democratic populist leanings, many of us still wish for kings. We claim to want the people to have the power, but look to individuals to save the day, to embody and enforce all our hopes and dreams for a better world, whether in a president or a pop star. We look to them for the authority and purposefulness we seem to lack in ourselves as a citizenry. But we have no Moses, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Owing to the corruption of our political process by big money, we are foolish to expect an American president, produced by that self same process, to be able to enact the kind of far-reaching environmental reforms many of us want. At best, we can and should expect principled and accountable leadership, but not necessarily visionary leadership. As poet Langston Hughes exhorted over half a century ago, it is we the people who must redeem the land, the minds, the plants, the rivers, the mountains, and the endless plain, all, all the stretch of these great green states, and make America again. It is we who must change our habits and practices, who must make better environmental decisions in our everyday lives. As the saying goes, when the people lead, the leaders will follow.

CURWOOD: Commentator William Shutkin is President of New Ecology, Incorporated, and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He comes to us via the Web magazine TomPaine.com


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