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

March 23, 2001

Air Date: March 23, 2001




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Bush on the Environment

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Health Update

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DC Sprawl

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Green Architecture

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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Space Junk

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Technology Update

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Toxic Legacy

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Puerto Rican Parrots


Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Bush administration is putting the brakes on regulations that would sharply reduce the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water. EPA chief Christie Whitman says the current standard does need to be tightened, but she wants a further review of the science before taking action. Long-term exposure to low levels of arsenic has been linked to increased risk of cancer, vascular disease, and diabetes. But science couldn't say why until now. Toxicologists at Dartmouth College have discovered tiny amounts of arsenic disrupt the functioning of hormones with a mechanism never noted before. Josh Hamilton led the team. He says arsenic disrupts glucocoriticoid, a hormone that regulates a wide range of activities in our bodies.

HAMILTON: Glucocoriticoids are involved in normal blood vessel function. They regulate the immune system. They regulate glucose in our blood. They regulate cell growth. It has many, many roles, and so sorting out how this plays out in terms of the kinds of health effects that arsenic causes becomes very complicated.

CURWOOD: So, arsenic mimics the hormone we commonly call cortisone, in the cortisol family. Or, does it block it from fitting into a receptor? Or, what does it do?

HAMILTON: It actually doesn't do either of those things. Arsenic has a rather unique mechanism, which hasn't been described before. Most pesticides and other organic pollutants like that either bind to the receptor and look like the hormone or block its action. Arsenic doesn't block the binding of glucocoriticoids to the receptor, and it doesn't act like a hormone. The thing that it does is that once the receptor goes to turn on or turn off genes, it fails to function that way. So arsenic is blocking the ability of the receptor to work, but not through hormone binding.

CURWOOD: What does this hormone disrupting process have to do with skin or lung cancer? I guess those are two cancers that are closely linked to arsenic.

HAMILTON: Well, there are two animal models that have been looked at for the cancer process. And in skin, it was shown that if you give a very strong carcinogen directly onto the skin, and then you give a second chemical called a tumor promoter, which would increase the probability of cancer, applying glucocoriticoid hormone to that area would completely block the cancer process. Very similar story in the lung, where you give a carcinogen. If you give the hormone during the process, you can completely block that tumor process. So, this suggested to us that if arsenic can block the actions of this receptor, you still need probably some other driving force to get cancer, but you'll probably get many more cancers in the absence of this receptor than if it were functioning properly.

CURWOOD: In other words, it's possible that if someone is exposed to arsenic, it compromises their body's own natural ability to fight off a cancer.

HAMILTON: Exactly.

CURWOOD: Talk to me about dosages and possible endocrine disruptor effects.

HAMILTON: The studies we did were on cultured cells, so it's hard to directly compare the doses that we use there with doses that a whole animal or a person would be exposed to. But the doses that we're using in cell culture that cause these endocrine-like effects are well below any levels that caused any signs of toxicity in the cells. In fact, we were down in what's called the nanomole range, or parts per trillion, and still seeing these effects. Now, if you look at what people are exposed to, it suggests to us that we could see these endocrine effects quite reasonably, probably, at the levels that people are exposed to here in the U.S.

CURWOOD: So there are some pretty broad implications here. Arsenic is everywhere, isn't it?

HAMILTON: Yes, it is. It's in the air, water, soil. We used to focus on manmade sources of arsenic, but I think we're coming to the realization that natural sources of arsenic are probably a much bigger human health problem.

CURWOOD: What kind of sources of so-called natural arsenic should people be concerned about?

HAMILTON: Well, primarily in drinking water. There are certain types of rock that are heavily arsenic-laden. If you happen to live in one of these areas and you drill a well, the groundwater will be contaminated from the arsenic that leaches out of these rocks.

CURWOOD: How can somebody protect themselves and their family from the effects of arsenic in the drinking water?

HAMILTON: I think the big issue, the underside of the iceberg, really, is people on private wells. Some of these wells exceed 500 parts per billion, which is levels that we see over in areas like Bangladesh and Taiwan. These levels are too low for people to feel sick or have other signs of poisoning. But at these levels, we expect that it's going to significantly increase the risk of cancer, diabetes, vascular disease, and other problems. People have to be told about the arsenic issues so that they can go ahead and test their water, and then they have the information to do something about it. Either to buy a remediation system for their house or switch to an alternative water source.

CURWOOD: Bottled water.

HAMILTON: Bottled water.

CURWOOD: What's your take on the need to lower the allowable level of arsenic in our drinking water?

HAMILTON: I believe that we should do that, and that there is very solid scientific and medical evidence to do so. I think the reason that it was blocked is because of financial concerns. We're the only Western country that still has a water safety level of 50 parts per billion for arsenic. The rest of Europe and Japan and other Western countries have moved to five or ten parts per billion in recognition of the fact that we think that 50 is not protective.

CURWOOD: Josh Hamilton is a professor of toxicology at Dartmouth College. Thank you so much for taking this time with us.

HAMILTON: Thank you.

Related link:
For a map of arsenic in ground water in the United States:

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Bush on the Environment

CURWOOD: The EPA's announcement on the arsenic regulations is the latest in a flurry of actions on the environment by the Bush administration. Most of the moves, so far, are consistent with Mr. Bush's campaign promises and some have drawn criticism. Here to analyze the environmental impact of Mr. Bush's first 60 days in office is Lynn Scarlett, president of the California-based Reason Foundation and a political observer for Living on Earth. Hi, Lynn.

SCARLETT: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, at some point you were serving on Bush's environmental policy transition advisory team. I imagine that's just about over now.

SCARLETT: Just about wrapped up, that's right.

CURWOOD: Tell me what happened in these early days on these environmental issues. Let's talk about the roadless initiative that Clinton had put in that the president wants to roll back, and the drilling in ANWR.

SCARLETT: You know, a lot of folks have thought that, perhaps, some of these comments that Bush has made recently about drilling in ANWR or backing away, perhaps, from the roadless initiative, is somehow a big veering back toward a very conservative old-style Republican agenda. But, in fact, we saw roots of these policies back in the campaign. Bush made it very clear in his campaign speeches that he supported drilling of ANWR. That the United States, he thought, needed to develop its energy supplies. The roadless initiative, likewise. This was something that always had been of concern to many conservative Republicans, and there had always been expressed by Bush's campaign folks that, gee, maybe we ought to re-look at that. And then, there was the monuments issue, too, which the Bush campaign had always expressed concern about the top-down fashion that those monuments had been set aside under the Babbitt regime at Interior.

CURWOOD: Let's look now at the carbon dioxide decision. This is something he campaigned on. He said that he was going to include carbon dioxide as a pollutant for power plants, along with things like sulfur dioxide and particulates. But then he abruptly reversed himself. What happened there?

SCARLETT: I think what happened is that Bush began to realize that, perhaps, particularly in the context of an economy that's slowing down and the energy problems that the nation seems to be increasingly facing, that, gee, maybe it was premature to go on an aggressive strategy that would implicate or affect energy and electricity supply. You know, a couple things came to light. One was an Energy Department report that suggested that a multi-pollutant strategy that regulated carbon dioxide would actually be quite a bit more costly than they had originally anticipated. I think that really was kind of a wake-up call to President Bush to say, gee, let's take a deep breath here and not completely ignore this issue or not step away from it forever, but let's take a pause and see whether this is really the right approach or not.

CURWOOD: A pause. So, where do you think things will be going in the future?

SCARLETT: You know, it's really hard to say. I think that this presidency would like to find an approach that would be more incentive-focused, perhaps would inspire the development of cleaner technologies, perhaps inspire energy efficiency, but do so without kind of rates and dates regulatory approach. But again, I think we don't know, because frankly, we had him first expressing a desire to, perhaps, go a multi-pollutant strategy, but then a kind of reversal. And I don't think we know where, exactly, the presidency will go in the future.

CURWOOD: Now, one of the people who was out there in the reversal, of course, was Christine Todd Whitman, who went to the climate change negotiation informal session for that, but representing the U.S. government, said "Hey, we're going to do this." And now she looks pretty bad. What will happen with her? She's lost some authority, one would think.

SCARLETT: I think in the near-term, this, of course, has been very difficult for Christie Todd Whitman. She obviously was out there on the front line talking about the multi-pollutant strategy, and so she's the one that looks a little bit like she was out ahead of the game. And yet, all of the things she were saying were rooted in campaign documents. What she's going to need to do, in my view, is in the whole array of other environmental issues that are out there, I think she's going to need to target a few top visibility issues -- mercury, something -- and set a fairly aggressive agenda, and get the backing of the White House, so that she can regain some of her environmental authority at the agency and externally.

CURWOOD: Now, what about Gail Norton? Environmental activists really pounded on her during the confirmation hearings. How is she doing? What's she been talking about?

SCARLETT: It's funny. A lot of the media continue to just hammer on her statements about ANWR, that is the drilling up in the Arctic area. But when you listen to what Gail's saying, her real message is really quite different. I was at an event in Washington last week, and the main theme she spoke of was, gee, how can we bring farmers, environmentalists, ranchers, Native Americans, all together to the table to address things like grazing problems, species protection? She gave an example of the Aplomado falcon and an experiment that had gone on in Texas, in which ranchers worked with environmentalists, with the state agents, in a kind of incentive-based program to work to preserve the Aplomado falcon. I think this is where Gail's heart lies. And yet, oddly enough, people are sort of not paying attention to that central message that she's putting out.

CURWOOD: Let's look ahead. What do you hope to see out of the Bush administration on the environment? What do you expect to see?

SCARLETT: You know, I don't think this is going to be a reg relief Rollback, peelback, early 90s agenda. I think what we're going to see instead is some of this flexibility, some of this attempt to work with local folks using incentives, using cooperative decision making. I would hope that what we would see is an agenda that moves towards a performance-focus, for example. In my greatest dreams I'd like to see national performance indicators developed, so that we can take the pulse of environmental performance at the national level. I'd also like to see a move toward much more flexible approaches. I mean, after all, a lot of knowledge resides out there on the farms and in the factories, and you need to tap into that knowledge. I'd like to see that happen. I'm not sure that it will.

CURWOOD: Lynn Scarlett is president of the Reason Foundation and a commentator for Living on Earth. Always a pleasure, Lynn.

SCARLETT: Thanks, Steve.

(Music up and under: James, "Watering Hole")

CURWOOD: Coming up: The Small Business Administration comes under fire for financing sprawl. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: The Centers for Disease Control has released its first-ever national report card on our exposure to pollutants. CDC scientists analyzed blood and urine samples from 3,800 people considered representative of the U.S. population. Levels of 27 chemicals were measured, and the good news first. It appears blood levels of a marker for nicotine have dropped 75 percent in the past decade in non-smokers. Researchers also found children's lead levels continue an overall decline, although some children are still exposed to dangerously high lead levels. But ten percent of women of childbearing age have mercury levels close to amounts that might cause fetal damage. And two types of phthalates, which are toxic chemicals used in things such as soaps, shampoo, and nail polish, were found in much higher levels than expected. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

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

Related link:
CDC Report">

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DC Sprawl

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you've ever tried to start a small business in this country, chances are you've heard of the federal government's Small Business Administration. The SBA helps entrepreneurs borrow money for everything from rent payments to new equipment. But according to lawsuits filed by two environmental groups, SBA loans worth millions of dollars in the Washington, D.C., area and elsewhere are encouraging sprawl. From Washington, Tom Lalley reports.

LALLEY: Small businesses are the backbone of many communities in the Washington, D.C. area. And together, they're a powerful political force. So when Friends of the Earth and the Forest Conservation Council sued the Small Business Administration, or SBA, small business leaders leapt at the chance to defend the source of about $12 billion annually in small business loans. The suit asked that SBA stop making loans that contribute to sprawl.

ALFRED: Well, I saw the lawsuit as frivolous...

LALLEY: Harry Alfred is the president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Members of his organization rely heavily on SBA loans.

ALFRED: They're cutting off the tap for business revitalization and business growth. It's crazy. It is crazy and that's why we're going to fight this thing with all of our resources.

LALLEY: At a conference for budding small business people in Washington, D.C., Alfred and other speakers detail the nuts and bolts of how to get a business started. That includes taking advantage of SBA loans. To Alfred, small businesses are beautiful, whether they're in the heart of the city or in a strip mall at the edge of town.

ALFRED: Development should not be perceived as bad growth. What's wrong with growth? Growth is good, if it's proper and if it's manageable.

LALLEY: But to others, small businesses are a problem if they're located in sprawl. Some environmentalists say sprawl leads to reduced open space, increased traffic and auto pollution, and development that impacts water, air quality, and ecosystems. So the suit asks that SBA focus its loans in urban areas and away from undeveloped land. The legal hook for doing that is a federal law called the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Among other things, NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their actions, and then consider less environmentally harmful options. The law has mostly been used for large public works projects like highways and dams. It's never been applied to controlled sprawl. But John Talberth, a lawyer with the Forest Conservation Council, says the law covers SBA loans as well.

TALBERTH: The law is very clear in this regard, and I think the agency is aware that the law requires this. They just simply haven't been implementing the law at all.

LALLEY: SBA won't say whether or not it's complying with NEPA. Eric Benderson is the assistant general counsel for litigation for SBA.

BENDERSON: I'd rather leave that to the litigation.

LALLEY: Benderson says he can't say whether SBA is following the law, because, he says, one person's sprawl is another person's progress. It can also be hard to tell which loans might cause sprawl. For instance, SBA rarely gives loans to housing developers. But SBA does give loans to cabinetmakers hired by housing developers. So, does the cabinet maker contribute to sprawl? Another problem is that SBA doesn't employ environmental experts who can assess the agency's impacts, and Benderson worries that if SBA turns a loan applicant down over sprawl, that applicant might have good cause to sue SBA.

BENDERSON: It's kind of hard for SBA to set itself up as the final arbiter on what urban sprawl is, you know, in terms of clean air. And therefore, for us to come in at this point and say "Well, wait a minute, you know, we don't think you should develop it there, we think you should develop it five miles down," those aren't questions that SBA has really expertise in. So, it's a very kind of elusive issue, easier said than done.

LALLEY: But it's not as elusive for others who point to the fact that many parts of the federal government routinely do environmental assessments to comply with NEPA, including some agencies that give out loans, like the U.S. Economic Development Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. James Kunsler is the author of Home From Nowhere and an outspoken critic of sprawl. He says the federal government needs to acknowledge the role it plays in creating sprawl.

KUNSLER: Between the regulations and the amount of real estate that's controlled by the government, there are really huge impacts on our everyday environment. The government needs to get signals from somewhere that it's doing things the wrong way. You know, this is the form of an official notification through the courts that the citizens are unhappy with the way that the government is doing something.

LALLEY: Friends of the Earth and the Forest Conservation Council are sending that signal to other federal agencies, as well. They filed two more suits, one against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whom they say give too many permits for sprawl development that destroys streams and wetlands in the D.C. area. They've also sued the Government Services Administration, which builds and leases property for federal workers. Again, John Talberth.

TALBERTH: Forest Conservation Council and Friends of the Earth, as part of our program, are undertaking a review of all the urban growth and development programs of all federal agencies. And we found a widespread pattern of violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

LALLEY: Friends of the Earth and the Forest Conservation Council are now engaged in talks with SBA to settle the case out of court. If that happens, it could entail requiring SBA to come up with smart growth guidelines for their loans. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Lalley in Washington, D.C

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Green Architecture

CURWOOD: In recent years the notion of sustainable architecture has become as commonplace as compost piles and sidewalk recycling. But commentator Jane Holtz Kay has been watching the eco-architects and green building codes flourish, and she's wondering what it's all sustaining.

HOLTZ KAY: Excuse me if my use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without New England origins are showing. But I am wondering about the true state of sustainability. I am wondering, for instance, if Home Depot's new growth only tree planks and Ford Motor Company's plan for a water collecting roof can really save our planet. One reason for my skepticism is a clipping on my desk of the Sonoran Preserve master plan for Phoenix. It is a postcard-pretty image, cactus to the fore, rocks posed to show their good side. The plan, to set aside 21,000 or so acres of public open space and wildlife habitat, won a major landscape architecture award. And why not praise it? The why not lies in the numbers. For the acres set aside amount to less land than the metropolis loses to development in a scant three years.

Phoenix is not alone in such myopic unsustainability, as Americans gallop across the last chance landscape, shooting 30 percent of global warming's CO2 with their car emissions plus another 30 percent with their building. Consider a recent conference of the Bureau of Land Management, now calling itself the Open Space Agency, where, according to High Country News, a speaker at the Las Vegas Imperial Palace complained that the gambling Mecca is chronically under-golfed. Under-golfed?

Consider older metropolises where poor planning produces free-for-all home and road building, swallowing farm land and wetland. In the hour it takes to listen to this program, roughly 40 acres of such undeveloped land will have gone under the bulldozers and backhoes, gone forever.

Not that all our earnest recycling and water-scrimping showers are futile, but such larger lapses raise the fundamental question of where and how, and yes, whether we should be building anew. Certainly, we should not be scattering mega-subdivisions on our greenfields when 600,000 toxic brownfields await restoration. Nor should we allow the $58 billion car-based transportation budget to split more neighborhoods, spit more carbon, and suck more space. There is no such thing as green sprawl. We need to step beyond our recyclable rugs. We need to look at the world outside our double-glazed windows. Above all, we need to plan to conserve as much as create. If we do not do so, if we merely lounge in smug content behind our airtight doorways, we are no more than environmental aliens, hammer-wielders, building little green islands in a sea of subdivided nature.

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Holtz Kay is the author of Asphalt Nation.

(Music up and under: Mythos, "Kaleidoscope")

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Oak Foundation supporting coverage of marine issues; and the Turner Foundation.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: It's a bird! It's a plane! Naah, just a piece of space junk. And we meet the man who collects it. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: XTC, "Another Satellite")


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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Forty years ago one brave pooch went where no human had gone before. On March twenty-fifth, 1961, Soviet space dog Zvezdochka--that's Russian for Little Star -- and her companion, a dummy in a spacesuit, called Ivan Ivanovich, were blasted into space on the satellite Sputnik 10. Scientists monitored the dog's vital signs during the craft's once-around- the-planet mission and gave her a special treat upon her return. It was the final rehearsal for Yuri Gagarin's first man to orbit the Earth flight three weeks later. Little Star was the eleventh of thirteen Cold War canine cosmonauts, mostly former strays recruited from the streets of Moscow. Strays were used for their resilience to cold and hunger. Perhaps the most famous pup to venture into the final frontier was Laika, the first living creature to orbit Earth aboard Sputnik 2 in 1957. Her ship was not designed to withstand re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, but Laika's mission earned her a worldwide reputation as a space hero and a nickname in the press, Muttnik. But space exploration isn't just for the dogs. Nearly all modern shuttle flights have animals on board, so scientists can study how zero gravity affects them. Recent multi-nation biosatellite test flights have carried white rats, newts, fruit flies, fish, and monkeys. And in 1990 a Japanese journalist even brought green tree frogs aboard the space station Mir. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Space Junk

CURWOOD: By the way, we won't be sending any more tree frogs, or, for that matter, anything or anybody up to Mir any more. On Friday, the space station came hurtling to Earth in a carefully-monitored descent. Mir's plummeting trajectory had people from Japan to Australia ready to dodge for cover, should any post-orbital litter from Mir end up in their back yards. But remnants of Mir aren't the only pieces of space junk cluttering the galaxy, and one man has made it his life's work to collect as much of that junk as he can. Jim Bernath is an amateur astronomer in British Columbia, where he's known as the Mr. Space of Canada, and where he owns a traveling museum of space junk. Hello, sir.

BERNATH: Yes, hello. Greetings.

CURWOOD: As I understand it, you have quite a collection of space junk. What is space junk?

BERNATH: Well, for me, it's anything that is a reject and is not used by the space program any more. But also, I have some pieces that came back from the sky. Some of these pieces are very big, of course. Some of these are satellites that are going to just slowly degrade in their orbits and come down. But others are spent pieces, half-sized pieces, and wrenches and the like.

CURWOOD: Now, how much junk is there floating out there in orbit, still?

BERNATH: Oh, boy. When I was first getting the numbers ten, fifteen years ago, it was on the order of 4,000 or 5,000 pieces. And now it's on the order of 7,000 or 9,000. So the number is going up.

CURWOOD: What kind of damage can this space junk cause when it's up there?

BERNATH: Well, the shuttle came home once with a quarter-inch crater, a quarter-inch crater in the windshield. And the pilots heard it when it hit. They heard the smack. Subsequently, as they fished in there and examined what, what, what, it turned out that that was caused by a little chip of paint.

CURWOOD: A fleck of paint?

BERNATH: A little chip of paint is what they traced it to. The little chip of paint. So these things, as they burn up and come home, or as they are hit and suffer abrasion in space, the paint gets chipped off or the metal burns, but the paint flakes stay behind or something like this.

CURWOOD: I imagine somebody must be keeping track of all this space junk up there, so that our spacecraft can navigate. Who's doing that and how do they do it?

BERNATH: Well, NASA certainly does that, and they all cooperate on that. So rather than harvest these things and get them swept up again, so far they're successfully able to deal with the problem by just monitoring where they are and knowing how close we're going to be with whatever flight.

CURWOOD: How much junk have you amassed from outer space?

BERNATH: I have 200 pieces.

CURWOOD: Wow, 200 pieces. Tell me what some of these pieces are.

BERNATH: Well, this fuel tank is Exhibit A. It's the size of a basketball and I've got it in front of me here now. And as you look at it, you can see the twisted, melted metal as it splattered across the front of it as it came down. It came down in a farmer's field in northern Saskatchewan.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

BERNATH: And he found it in plus or minus 1980, a stone's throw away from the log cabin he was born in.


BERNATH: And if you think of that for a minute, you know, when he was born nobody was even dreaming of space in northern Saskatchewan. And there, in his own lifetime, a piece comes down.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, how did the farmer feel about the prospect of getting beaned by this thing? I mean, it was just right next to his house.

BERNATH: Being a hollow sphere, the wind would slow it down; coming down through the air would slow it down a great deal because it's not heavy enough to force a path. And so, it would have hit the ground and bounced around a bit, and there it was. So, I don't think that he was really worried about being beaned by it. But if you carry it around long enough (laughs) I have this feeling every now and again that I might get something through the windshield because of its brother or sister in the back seat of my van.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Now, where do you keep all your space junk when you're not out on exhibition?

BERNATH: Wow, you can't walk into my house. (Laughs) I have more space in my house than anybody else on the continent, and yet you can't walk into it. How's that? Literally, you have to go sideways down the hall, just like the collection of debris in space. And instead of getting smaller, this area, you know, it's gotten worse.

CURWOOD: How do you go about collecting all this space junk?

BERNATH: Well, there are 200 of these artifacts we're talking about, things, space junk. And I travel across the country with this exhibit, which takes me literally from the Pacific to the Atlantic every year. So, it's Japan, China, India, Russia, the Arctic Circle, the Equator, and Houston, and whatever. And gathered everything that I could gather, and came home with whatever pieces I could come home with.

CURWOOD: Mr. Bernath, before you go, tell me, what's your favorite piece of space junk?

BERNATH: Well, this isn't space junk, but one of the spinoffs that I have is a mechanical heart valve. Now, this is right out of the space program. It's the carbon-titanium complex of stuff that they put together to make a heart valve. I've got this in my heart and you can listen to it and hear it running. Some people have their heart in their work. I've got my work in my heart.

CURWOOD: Jim Bernath is an amateur astronomer in British Columbia and a full-time collector of space junk. Mr. Bernath, happy hunting, and thanks so much for being here.

BERNATH: Thank you very much for having me. It's been a great pleasure. Good luck to you.

CURWOOD: And just ahead: Beautiful, green, and nearly extinct. The Puerto Rican parrot makes a bid for survival with some human help. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

Related link:
NASA's Orbital Debris Research Center at the Johnson Space Center">

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Technology Update

GRABER: You may soon hear the question "Paper or plastic?" down on the farm. Today, more than 300 million pounds of black plastic mulch are spread on fields across the nation to warm the soil and discourage weeds. But the plastic sheets are bulky and often coated with herbicides and pesticides, so most landfills won't accept them. It's illegal to burn or bury the plastic mulch, but that's what many farmers wind up doing anyway. So one government researcher is working on a ground cover that can be plowed into the soil. It's made out of brown kraft paper covered with a layer of hardened vegetable oil. The oil helps keep moisture in and keeps the paper from biodegrading in the rain. But by the end of the growing season, the paper is starting to break down and can be composted into the ground. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

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 letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.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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Toxic Legacy

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. You may never have heard of it, but your grandparents probably did. For more than a hundred years, manufactured gas kept street lamps burning and buildings warm. Now, don't think gasoline. Manufactured gas was a product created by roasting coal. Unfortunately, though, this process also produced a number of nasty byproducts. By the time the manufactured gas plants closed down in the 1950s, thousands of tons of toxic waste had been dumped throughout the United States. It remains a health and environmental hazard to this day. I'm joined now by Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. She's been covering one Wisconsin dump site that has already resulted in the largest environmental damage verdict in state history. Ms. Nohl, take me back to that day when investigators first uncovered this waste. What did they find?

NOHL: There was a blue, oily scum on the surface of Underwood Creek, and it was percolating up to the surface, bubbling away. They followed this through a sewage pipe, a drainage pipe, and came out at a small pile of what looked like burnt wood chips. The Department of Natural Resources investigator detected a very strong, rancid odor, and they took a rusty old shovel and poked it into the pile of these apparently burnt wood chips, and pulled it out, and it came out shining clean metal. The entire rusted old surface had been eaten away.

CURWOOD: Oh, my. So what was in this stuff?

NOHL: Well, it turned out to be sulfuric acid. And the thing that was bubbling to the surface was cyanide, hydrogen cyanide gas, the same gas that's used in the gas chamber.

CURWOOD: You've seen and smelled samples of this stuff. What's it like?

NOHL: It really has an awful odor. A little bit of the sulfur dioxide, the rotten egg smell. But in the case when I smelled it, and it was only a very small sample in, like, a baby food jar, it burned my nose. The skin under my nose and even into my throat. And that was a single whiff.

CURWOOD: Uh. Now, how were these substances produced in the first place?

NOHL: Up until the 1950s, the way that utilities manufactured gas was to heat coal at very high temperatures, and the gas would come off as a byproduct. But the gas contained cyanide, arsenic, sulfur dioxide, and other chemicals that were so corrosive they would eat through the metal pipes that they'd use to pipe this gas into houses, where it would be used for heating and lighting. So, the government required them to clean the gas first, and the way they did that was to pump it through large boxes that were filled with what looked like Brillo pads, little metal fibers, layered between wood chips. And what it did was, the toxic chemicals adhered to the wood chips and to the metal filings, and the clean gas passed through these boxes and went into homes. But eventually, the wood chips and the metal filings would become exhausted and they would absorb no more of the contaminants, and they'd have to get rid of them and replace them. The problem was that they were highly flammable and city dumps wouldn't take them. So what happened is, a lot of the utilities would use them for fill.

CURWOOD: Just dump them someplace.

NOHL: Right. Cover them up with dirt to keep them from bursting into flames.

CURWOOD: How prevalent is this around the country? Manufactured gas was produced in just about every one of the continental United States. I'm just wondering how many toxic sites like the one outside Milwaukee are still here today.

NOHL: By some estimates, the EPA estimates, the number is 2,000 or 3,000 sites nationally. But some experts place that number actually as high as 52,000 sites. One facility in Racine, Wisconsin, the one that is believed to have been responsible for this, Produced, by itself, 36 million tons of waste. You multiply that by all of the other facilities that were producing it at the time, it's just an incredible number.

CURWOOD: Mary, it's been years since the manufactured gas problem was first discovered in the Milwaukee suburbs. What's the current status of the situation?

NOHL: Well, in this particular site, there were 155 gallons of cyanide-contaminated water that was hauled away to a treatment facility, and they were able to clean that water and remove the dangerous contaminants. As far as the tons and tons of the wood chips and the contaminated soil around them, those were hauled away to a landfill that had a clay liner and monitoring wells so that they could keep track of whether this stuff was migrating through the soil, whether it was approaching a water source, and, basically, keep an eye on it and babysit for it forever.

CURWOOD: Mary Van de Kamp Nohl is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. She wrote a cover story on manufactured gas plant waste in Wisconsin. Thank you so much for filling us in on the situation, Ms. Nohl .

NOHL: You're welcome. It was a pleasure.

Related link:
Former Manufactured Gas Plants

Back to top


Puerto Rican Parrots

CURWOOD: The Puerto Rican parrot is one of the most endangered birds in the world. Thanks to habitat loss and poaching, its numbers have dwindled from about a million at the time of Columbus to just a few dozen in the wild today. Puerto Rico's Caribbean National Forest, just 45 minutes from San Juan, is home to those last remaining birds, and a few months ago, they got some company. That's when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service released some captive-born Puerto Rican parrots into the wild, hoping to replenish the population. Reporter Hector Douglas was there and has this story.

(Bird calls)

DOUGLAS: Deep in the rainforest, ten Puerto Rican parrots sleep soundly as biologists creep up and cut an escape hole in their chicken wire cage.


DOUGLAS: A month ago, these parrots were carried from their aviary to this acclimation site. Now it is time for them to go. In the darkness, we cannot see the parrots' brilliant green plumage, but in the daylight they are dazzling.

(Parrot squawks)

DOUGLAS: At dawn, the parrots begin to scale the cage, lured by feeders hung just outside the escape hole. These birds are about to venture out into what is officially known as the Caribbean National Forest. Puerto Ricans call it El Yunqué, for the ancient volcanic mountain that towers over northeastern Puerto Rico. It is a spiritual Mecca for some, but this morning it is a Mecca for journalists who stumbled through mud at 3 AM to bring back the story for the evening news. The parrots clamber over the top of the cage and cock their red foreheads from side to side as they survey the surrounding forest. A thin line of white feathers rings each eye, giving the birds a spectacled appearance. One by one, the parrots open their wings, leap into the air and flutter up into the canopy. As they go, the birds display rows of powdery blue flight feathers that make their wings and long tails look
phosphorescent in the early morning light. And their loud squawks make them seem larger than their eleven-inch, ten-ounce frames.

(Parrot squawks)

DOUGLAS: Now, perched in the thick green canopy of the rainforest with their wings closed, the parrots are completely camouflaged. It is just a short flight from the cage to the forest canopy, but in reality, this has been a much longer journey. One that can be measured not in distance, but in years. To Dr. Francisco Vilella, it has been a dream come true.

VILELLA: It was so satisfying to finally see, in flesh
and blood, something that I had relived in my mind's eye so many times. There was a mixture of satisfaction, excitement, and just pure pleasure.

DOUGLAS: Three years ago Dr. Vilella and his
colleagues began working out the methods for today's release in the forests of the Dominican Republic. There, they used a surrogate species, the Hispaniolan parrot, to develop a training program that prepares captive parrots for survival in the wild. That program includes a daily exercise regimen that begins four months before the birds are released.


MAN: Hey, hey, hey. Hey, hey, hey.

DOUGLAS: A technician bangs on their cage with a long-handled net, moving the parrots from one side to the other.

MAN: Hey, hey, hey.

DOUGLAS: The birds are also given wild foods to eat and even introduced to wild parrots.

MAN: Hey, hey, hey.

VILELLA: They start interacting with local wild birds
that are in the area because they make a racket, they make a noise, and that attracts wild birds. They end up coming near the vicinity of the release cages to investigate, because they're curious.


DOUGLAS: After a final physical exam, each parrot is fitted with a radio collar. Finally, the birds are given a lesson in predator avoidance from the biggest bird in the forest, the red-tailed hawk.

VILELLA: We brought a red-tailed hawk to the release
site, a red-tailed hawk that was trained by a falconer to basically fly at the cage, fly at the parrots. The parrots responded tremendously with an alarm call. And all the birds basically hush and stay together in a group.


DOUGLAS: The birds released today were part of a group of 70 Puerto Rican parrots reared in an aviary high on the slopes of El Yunqué. Meal time here is run like a school lunch plan, with food prepared in large quantities and then measured into trays. Wildlife technician Hernan Abreu explains that variety is the
key to feeding the fussy birds.

ABREU On some days they have carrots and popcorn.
You know, this is good, popcorn is good. It's crunchy. They like to
play with it. Some birds like some things better than others; they are very particular with their food.


DOUGLAS: Dr. Vilella views the reintroduction of the
Parrots not only with the eyes of a scientist but with those of a native Puerto Rican, as well. The 44-year-old says his earliest and fondest memories are of the times he spent observing nature near his home in San Juan. In 1989, Dr. Vilella took over management of wild and captive populations of the Puerto Rican parrot for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In September of that year, Hurricane Hugo blasted El Yunqué with winds of 150 miles per hour. In just
a matter of hours, the wild parrot population was cut in half. Only 23 birds survived.

VILELLA: We didn't see the first birds until about
five days after the storm. So, it was a feeling of one time of dread, but at the same time of a challenge that was coming. And we as biologists and especially as Puerto Rican biologists, we were darn ready to meet it.

DOUGLAS: Like a giant pair of pruning shears, Hurricane Hugo sliced the tops off many of the Palo Colorado trees used by the parrots, who nest in cavities in their trunks. So, the biologists began a program of home improvements. They installed drain pipes in some of the cavities to keep the nests from getting soggy. Others received new floors, and some cavities were completely renovated.


ABREU: You make a hole first, you know, and stick in
kind of a chainsaw in the middle, make kind of a crust. So we'll pop, you know, a little bit, and then with a chisel we go and cut it off piece by piece, you know...

DOUGLAS: Hernan chisels a donut-shaped nest entrance
from a slab of wood. This natural facade lures the parrot into a PVC pipe that leads down into the nest.

(Footfalls, squawking)

DOUGLAS: Early the next morning, we visit a parrot nest. First, we
monitor the cavity from afar with a tiny microphone that's been placed inside. This allows the biologists to detect and remove parasitic flies or killer bees that can kill parrot chicks.


DOUGLAS: Next we climb the tree on a ladder of telephone spikes and open a small manmade door in the trunk to check on the parrot chicks.


DOUGLAS: Inside are two fully-grown chicks ready to leave the nest. More chicks survive to this stage now than in the past, thanks to the innovations of Vilella's team. Even so, by the
beginning of this year, there were only 47 parrots in the wild. In three decades of management efforts, the wild parrot population has never exceeded that number.


DOUGLAS: This morning we descent down the Rio Espiritu Santos, the River of Sacred Spirits. We trudge through an obstacle course of slippery boulders and fallen trees.

(Calls of "Ow!" amidst running water)

DOUGLAS: It's been three days since the parrots were released, and parrot number ten has flown far from the release site. The team is trying to pick up the signal from her radio collar.

(Static; conversations in Spanish)

DOUGLAS: Is this the one you've been trying to locate?

WOMAN: Mm hm. Still very weak signal.

DOUGLAS: El Yunqué has more red-tailed hawks per
square mile than just about anywhere else on Earth. Biologists have long suspected that the hawks hunt the parrots, and biologist Britta Muznieks wonders if foul play has brought parrot number ten to an untimely end.

MUZNIEKS: If there's a hawk in the area that likes to
prey on unwary parrots, then he's got a feast for him.

DOUGLAS: We didn't find the parrot that day. A construction crew did, when the parrot flew out of the forest. That evening, parrot number ten led the Fish and Wildlife Service on a long chase before it flew back to El Yunqué on its own. But in a stark example of just what this reintroduction effort is up against, two days later, parrot number ten was found dead. Researchers believe the bird was killed by a mongoose, an animal not native to Puerto Rico but one that has wreaked havoc on the wildlife here. In fact, mongooses have killed most of the wild parrot chicks this year. Like parrot number ten, they made the mistake of going down to the forest floor. Follow the river down from the slopes of El Yunqué and you come upon the town of Rio Grande.

(Salsa music plays in the background)

DOUGLAS: Like many towns in Puerto Rico, Rio Grande has a patron symbol that reigns over the annual carnival. Here, at the foot of El Yunqué, the patron is a parrot, and so human-sized cardboard parrots are being hung from utility poles in preparation for the festivities.


DOUGLAS: But it's safe to say that few people in this town, or anywhere else on the island, have ever seen the real thing, at least not in recent times. But this week, in conjunction with the release, a breeding pair of Puerto Rican parrots are on display at the El Yunqué visitor's center.
Today, 500 visitors flock to this exhibit. Many take photos of the birds. Some actually cry upon seeing them. Dan,
a transportation worker from San Juan, took the afternoon off to come here. Until now, these birds for him were only the stuff of stories.

DAN: They're great mythological parrot. This is something that you've heard about and you've read about, but when it comes down to it, you can actually see it here for the first time. At least, for me at least, I'm Puerto Rican and I've never seen a Puerto Rican parrot, and it's pretty sad.

(A women sings to organ music)

DOUGLAS: During a special ceremony held to celebrate the parrot release, the Puerto Rican government announced plans for a new parrot reserve in the island's central highlands. Dr. Vilella says the
70,000-acre tract will protect many other endangered species who also call the forest home. But Vilella emphasizes that
Puerto Ricans have to take the conservation ethic a step further.

VILELLA: Like we say in Spanish, en carne propia, you know, in
flesh and blood, that conservation is everybody's job. And we don't do really conservation for nature or for
the parrots. We do it for ourselves so we will have an island with
natural resources that not only sustain wildlife but can sustain human populations, as well.


DOUGLAS: For Living on Earth, I'm Hector Douglas in the El Yunqué rainforest of Puerto Rico.

(Squawking up and under)

CURWOOD: In the months following the release of these Puerto Rican
parrots, researchers report five of the ten birds were killed, mostly by
red-tailed hawks. But the restoration effort will continue with the
planned release of 16 more birds into the forest of El Yunqué in May.

(Music up and under: Thievery Corporation, "Samba Tranquille")

Back to top


CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week: The story of Ishi. Nearly 100 years ago California's last hunter-gatherer, the sole survivor of his tribe, came down from the mountain speaking a language that no one understood, and telling stories linguists are still trying to decipher today.

(A recording plays)

MAN: Here we have his own words, sitting there on the wax cylinders. And it's just vital for us to use every method at our disposal to crack those open and see what's there.

CURWOOD: Ishi speaks 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, Jennifer Chu, Nathan Johnson, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. We had help this week from Stephen Belter. Our interns are Merav Bushlin, Dawn Robinson, and Evie Stone. 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.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity; www.wajones.org; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting coverage of western issues.

(Music up and under)


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