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

April 27, 2001

Air Date: April 27, 2001


Animal Yenta

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Animal Update

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Goldman Winners

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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Health Update

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Hudson Dredging

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

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Animal Yenta

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A handful of scientists around the world are leading the high-tech effort to keep the planet's most endangered animals from going extinct. These reproductive physiologists encounter failure far more often than success, but when success does come it can mean headlines. One of the leaders in this field is Dr. Barbara Durrant of the San Diego Zoo. From member station KPBS in San Diego, reporter Erik Anderson has this profile.

ANDERSON: Behind the scenes of the giant panda exhibit at the San Diego Zoo, keeper Dallas Ripsky pulls down a large metal latch, opening a door to a car-sized cage on wheels.


ANDERSON: She urges the zoo's female panda to enter.

RIPSKY: Come on, buddy.

ANDERSON: The 215-pound Bai Yun waddles into the squeeze cage, sniffing for the apple and carrot snacks that she knows are coming. This morning, Ripsky has company.

RIPSKY: Hello, Barb.


ANDERSON: Since the giant pandas first arrived from China four years ago, Barbara Durrant has been a regular visitor. This morning, she's here to check in on the first-time mom. Barbara and Dallas use a noisemaker and the lure of food to position the black and white bear.

RIPSKY: The other way.

DURRANT: Over here.

RIPSKY: No, that's not the way we do it now.

DURRANT: Well, we're going to do it this way today.

ANDERSON: Bai Yun sits up and eagerly accepts a freshly-cut carrot. Durrant kneels at the side of the cage. She has no trepidation about putting her hands inside, even though the seemingly cuddly animal sports huge claws and formidable teeth. Durrant is here to collect a pap smear. She puts a medical Q-tip on the end of a glass tube and reaches into the cage. Bai Yun is sprawled on her back with feet spread. The panda is far more interested in the carrots than helping Durrant.

DURRANT: Down. All the way down. I'm going to strap that leg to the side of the cage. (Ripsky laughs) We could use some stirrups. Be all the way down.

RIPSKY: Nope, nope, nope. Doggone it, she got it again. All right, let's try one more -- okay, I think I can - this one's okay.

ANDERSON: Durrant says the birth of Bai Yun's cub Hua Mei in 1999 was the highlight of her scientific career. Captive births are crucial for the future of the black and white bears because habitat destruction has reduced the number of wild pandas to less than a thousand. Her colleagues jokingly call her Hua Mei's dad, and last year she got cards on Father's Day. That's because Durrant was responsible for harvesting sperm from the reluctant male Shi Shi and artificially inseminating Bai Yun at precisely the right moment. No small feat, considering that pandas go into heat only a few days each spring. In tribute to that accomplishment, Durrant's ordered but cramped office, which she shares with several of her technicians, is filled with panda knickknacks. But it's a small handful of gag gifts that quickly draw a visitor's eye. A ceramic sperm bank. A wind-up sperm toy. And a small brass statue of two rhinos locked in a mating embrace.

DURRANT: I've been a reproductive physiologist for 21 years, and there is absolutely nothing that anyone can say that will embarrass me any more.

ANDERSON: But that wasn't the case when she arrived at the zoo as a young and shy postdoctoral researcher in 1979. Back then, she says mischievous animal keepers did everything they could to embarrass her, and they succeeded. Now, Durrant keeps things in perspective.

DURRANT: Collecting semen from a bull elephant, for instance, is very serious business, and also a little frightening. But when you go back and review the photos that people have taken while you're very earnestly doing this procedure, you find that you have to laugh. It's pretty ridiculous.

ANDERSON: That's one reason she can talk candidly about her latest project with the giant pandas. Recently, she's been working with Shi Shi in hopes of collecting a sperm sample, much the way she does with some of the zoo's other endangered animals, without anesthesia. Back at the panda exhibit, keeper Dallas Ripsky calls out to the aging male.

RIPSKY: Come on, Shi Shi! Shi Shi! (Bangs on drum) Good boy, you Mr. Smarty-Pants. Come on!

ANDERSON: Shi Shi plops down and watches as Durrant pulls out a small medical vibrator.

DURRANT: Hear this?

RIPSKY: Has he ever touched it with his nose?


RIPSKY: What did he do?

DURRANT: Nothing. (Laughs)

RIPSKY: Already doing the Indian seat.


ANDERSON: Shi Shi hasn't responded yet, but Durrant hopes that will change. That's because there's always a risk when an animal is anaesthetized. So right now, Durrant is only able to harvest panda sperm when vets knock the bear out for a medical procedure. That's particularly frustrating because the aging Shi Shi holds a special place in the captive panda community.

DURRANT: Genetically, he's very, very valuable, because he's a wild-caught animal. He would be known as a founder animal. It's the assumption that we have to make that they are the most genetically diverse.

ANDERSON: The giant pandas have landed most of the headlines, but Durrant's work doesn't stop there. She's helped bring hundreds of threatened species into the world, including rhinos, birds, snakes, and cheetahs. In fact, the San Diego wild animal park's cheetah breeding program is one of the most successful in the world. At the cheetah compound, a handful of cats are lounging in the midday sun. Large wire-enclosed pens surround a small stand of thatch-roofed buildings and trailers. Keeper Therese Everett has just mixed a specially-enhanced meal for one of the pregnant cats, and with food in hand it only takes a moment to get the cheetah's attention.

(Durrant whistles, a gate clanks open. The cheetah purrs)

DURRANT: Yeah. You a hungry girl? Wait. Okay. Good girl.

ANDERSON: Keepers, veterinarians, and Durrant are working together to maximize the cats' breeding cycles. Because their numbers in the wild are dwindling, there is a sense of urgency to bringing new cheetahs into the world. The team says it can't rely on natural breeding patterns because they don't guarantee conception.


ANDERSON: Near the center of the compound, where an industrial-sized outdoor refrigerator hums in the background, Durrant leans over a row of wooden crates. Always looking for a better technique, she's now in the process of trying out a new cheetah breeding box. It's a handmade wooden crate that stands about three feet tall. One side is open and the other closed, except for a small hole.

DURRANT: And someone will be dropping cheese down through this hole.

ANDERSON: The food will keep the cheetah busy and minimize risk to keepers.

DURRANT: He'll be preoccupied with eating the cheese, and then we can come around this way and put an artificial vagina on him.

ANDERSON: Durrant says each animal has to be treated as an individual. For instance, there is a mandrill at the zoo that has developed, shall we say, an interest in humans with a certain hair color. When keepers visit him for a sample collection, they make sure there is a blonde in the crew for the baboon to focus on. Durrant says you can tell a lot about her life by her first memory. It's of the family dog. That early affinity for the animal world was with her as she grew up and wandered the wooded hills of upstate New York. Her passion eventually led her to study animal science in college.

DURRANT: That's all about domestic animals, which I also like, but I couldn't see myself working to increase reproduction in domestic animals just then to send them all to the slaughterhouse.

ANDERSON: She says it was her first look at a microscopic mouse embryo that cemented her desire to become a reproductive physiologist. Despite her groundbreaking research with many endangered species at the zoo, Durrant is likely to be remembered publicly for her work with giant pandas. Her scientific legacy, however, is much larger. But it's located in a small room near her office. There, she keeps a modern version of Noah's Ark.


DURRANT: This is the frozen zoo. It's a little cold in here. We like to keep it that way. But the freezers also keep it that way. You can see a large tank outside the window, and that's our store of liquid nitrogen.

ANDERSON: The nitrogen cools eight waist-high freezers that ring the small chamber. Durrant leans over and unseals the top of one of them.

DURRANT: You have to be very strong. There.

(Air whooshes)

ANDERSON: As she lifts one of the garbage can-sized lids, a six-inch-deep fog covers the room's floor.

DURRANT: Inside we have these racks, these aluminum racks. And in each rack we have boxes. You can hear the liquid running off the boxes. And within each box there are 100 samples.


DURRANT: I have to put this right back down into the liquid because you don't want these samples to be, to warm up.

ANDERSON: The samples represent sperm and eggs for more than 250 endangered species. Durrant uses some of them for her current reproductive work. But perhaps more importantly, she's also using part of each sample to develop methods to safely freeze, store, and thaw each species' sperm and eggs. For instance, two years ago no one was freezing panda sperm, so Durrant had to figure out how to do it. She had to pick a solution, a cryo-preservative, to freeze the sperm in, and then work out a host of other factors.

DURRANT: How long we will cool the sample before we freeze it. How fast the freezing rate can be. How fast the thaw rate can be. And what we have to do after the sample is thawed to get that cryo-preservation out of the solution, because it's toxic to the sperm.

ANDERSON: Her frozen zoo collection is pretty impressive. With more than 19,000 samples, Durrant says there is enough material here to keep reproductive physiologists busy for decades after she's gone. Despite a career firmly rooted in the reproductive world, Durrant has no children. That may seem ironic, perhaps, until she's asked why.

DURRANT: The reason that we have so many endangered species is because we have way too many people. That is the core of every extinction that we are experiencing now: the human population.

ANDERSON: Durrant's next major project centers on the giant pandas. This spring she'll try to make sure that Bai Yun conceives again. Despite the zoo's best efforts to recreate an environment that's the panda equivalent of soft lights and music, the male Shi Shi has shown no romantic interest in his mate. That means Durrant will likely be called upon to step in where nature has fallen short. For Living on Earth, I'm Erik Anderson in San Diego.

(Music up and under: Do Make Say Think, "If I Only")

CURWOOD: This update from the San Diego Zoo: Dr. Durrant has now managed to artificially inseminate Bai Yun, the panda, a number of times this spring, but it's still too soon to tell if the bear is pregnant.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: Two investigative reporters win the nation's top environmental prize for blowing the whistle on censorship by Fox TV. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this animal update with Maggie Villiger.

(Music up and under: Marvin Pontiac, "In A Big Car")

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Animal Update

VILLIGER: Blind mole rats are furry little rodents that spend their entire lives in elaborate subterranean dwellings. How they navigate these complicated tunnel systems has long been a mystery. They have no eyes so they can't see, and their hearing isn't great, either. Now, researchers say mole rats rely on the Earth's magnetic field to orient themselves. Scientists set the mole rats up in a lab where the direction and strength of the magnetic field around them could be altered. The rodents consistently built their sleeping nest and stored their food in whichever location corresponded to magnetic south. The blind mole rats also use magnetic field cues while learning how to run a maze. When researchers flipped magnetic north and south, the confused mole rats lost their bearings. Now scientists are trying to figure out the location of their magnetic sensors and how they work. That's this week's animal update. I'm Maggie Villiger.

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

(Music up and under: Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, "Cup of Dreams")

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Goldman Winners

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ever since bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, entered the nation's dairy supply back in 1994, genetically-modified foods have been making headlines. You may remember activists dumping milk in the streets and consumer groups calling for labels on milk. Today the Food and Drug Administration does not label genetically-modified products like rBGH. And food never intended for human consumption, including Starlink bioengineered corn, is making its way into the food supply. Two journalists who were fired by a Fox television affiliate in Florida over their story about the Monsanto Corporation and the nation's milk supply were among this year's winners of the Goldman Prize. The Goldman Prize recognizes environmental activists around the world with a $125,000 award. Joining us now are Jane Akre and Steve Wilson. Welcome to Living on Earth.

AKRE: Thank you, Steve.

WILSON: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, there are really two issues here. One is the potential danger of bovine growth hormone itself. The other, of course, is the censorship in the newsroom. But why don't we start, actually, with looking at rBGH, this genetically-modified hormone? What did your investigative reporting turn up that had Fox and Monsanto so scared?

WILSON: I think Monsanto's biggest fear was that we were blowing the whistle on the fact that promises that had been made to consumers, that this stuff was not going to be used on dairy cows, it was not going to find its way into the public milk supply, those promises had been broken. And nobody ever told the consumers. It wasn't put on the label. They just quietly, behind the scenes, started injecting cows. And here we were, about to tell consumers that there is a little bit of this in every jug of milk you bring home from the store.

CURWOOD: How is the milk different?

AKRE: There is, in milk from a treated cow, more of something called IGF1, insulin-like growth factor one. And that's because of the BGH use. IGF1 is found in nature. It's found in mother's milk because its role in nature is to help cells proliferate and divide. And, unfortunately, what it does in various studies, one out of Harvard, another one printed in Lancet a couple of years ago, is it helps cancerous cells proliferate and divide. And this is what scientists around the world have concerns about. Why do we want to increase the consumption of IGF1? Why do we want to put more of that in our diet?

CURWOOD: Now, what happened to you is, of course, every investigative reporter's nightmare. That just as they are going to air or print with the hot story they've developed, it gets killed. And your story was killed just before it was to be broadcast. How did you find out, and what were the reasons given to you?

WILSON: Well, late Friday afternoon, just before it was supposed to air on Monday, they called us to the news director's office and they handed us the latter that Monsanto had faxed to Roger Ailes at Fox News in New York. And they said, "Have you seen this?" And we looked at it, and we said, "Oh, well, you know, this isn't right, this isn't right, that's not true." And that's how we found out about it. We actually saw the letter at that time.

AKRE: And asked the news director, is this why you're pulling the story? And he said yes.

CURWOOD: And Mr. Ailes is?

WILSON: Roger Ailes is the former Republican political operative who is now head of Fox Network News in New York, the Fox news channel.

CURWOOD: It's not all that unusual for an editor to kill a story from time to time or ask for extensive rewrites. Explain to me how it is that what happened to you is different from the kind of routine editorial decisions that are made in newsrooms every day around this country.

AKRE: It was so clear that this was not an even-handed editorial process. This was: Take out the substance of the story. Remove any discussion about cancer. Remove that word completely. Call it human health effects. Take out any discussion about IGF1 and how it's found in milk. Take out the credentials of the critics, so we don't know who these people are that are raising concerns around the world. And also, I think what's important here is that this editorial process was being conducted by lawyers. And it's very, very dangerous when lawyers are fully in charge of the editorial process, because they are not there as journalists. They are there working for their corporation. It should never happen that way.

CURWOOD: I'd like to play for you one of the last versions of the story, and maybe you could explain how the lawyers watered it down. So, this clip is from Part Three of your four-part broadcast. And again, this was never broadcast, but this was the version mandated by Fox management.

AKRE: Grocers and the dairy industry know synthetic BGH in milk worries consumers like Jeff and Janet LeMaster. A whopping 74 percent of those questioned in this University of Wisconsin study released just last year expressed concern about unknown harmful human health effects which might show up later.

COLLIER: What they need to know is that the milk hasn't has changed. And that's the important thing here. The milk hasn't changed.

WILSON: That was the cornerstone of what we told our editors was the big lie. Monsanto has said consistently, "This does not change the milk that you pour on your child's corn flakes every morning. It's the same safe, wholesome product it's always been." That is a lie. It's not spin. It's not interpretation. It's not somebody trying to give a different look. Because Monsanto was well aware that the content of that milk has changed. Now, you can argue that the change isn't significant, it won't give you cancer, it won't lead to antibiotic residues in your milk. You can make all those arguments. But you cannot say to people that the milk is the same. Obviously, from Monsanto's point of view, if they could convince consumers that there's no difference in the milk, none of us has to worry. If the milk is the same, how could there be a problem? But that is not true.

CURWOOD: What was the influence of the Monsanto Corporation on your story? What do you know and what do you suspect?

AKRE: Well, we actually saw the letters that they wrote, and the first letter came on the Friday before the Monday air date. And it said that we were terrible reporters and we had our facts all wrong, and the sort of thing you would expect from a corporation. And the second letter one week later made a not-so-veiled threat that there would be dire consequences for Fox News if the story is to air in Florida.

CURWOOD: What does your experience tell you about the state of America's media today?

WILSON: It's a disaster. And what has happened is, these large corporations that have now acquired news organizations look at the news just like they look at their light bulb division or their jet engine division. It's another place to make money. And stories that used to be judged based on their importance and based on the public's need to know and the public's right to know are now being judged just like they judge any other business decision. The attorney for Fox Television looked at us when we were trying to get this story on the air, and they said to us, "Look, we just don't think it's worth it." We said, "How can you say that? We're talking about milk." And she looked at us and said, "Look, the bottom line here is, we just don't feel that it's worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars to go up against Monsanto."

CURWOOD: We're just about out of time, but let me ask you this. What's the situation now for the use of bovine growth hormone in milk in Florida? And what has Fox Television told the people of Florida about that?

AKRE: Well, Steve, it isn't just Florida. I mean, what happens in Florida happens all around the country. If you are drinking milk from your grocery store, it is likely coming from cows injected with bovine growth hormone. You don't have the labels to know that, but that's likely what's happening. And the only way you're not getting it is if you're buying organic milk and spending two to four times the price.

WILSON: And what they told the viewer was essentially what Monsanto all along wanted the viewer to know: that there's no difference. That the milk is the same. That the United States government has approved this, without a whole lot of detail about the fact that the United States government doesn't test anything. Monsanto did all the tests, or hired people to do it. Monsanto decided which tests would be submitted for the approval process, and if a test didn't work out exactly the way they wanted, they could just simply redo the test so that they'd get the results they want and submit that. So, the people of Florida were told that, essentially, your government is there to protect you. You don't see anybody dropping dead from cancer drinking milk, do you? That's one of my favorites. As though if you smoke a cigarette today and you don't drop dead, tobacco must be fine. All that worry about cancer down the road? Oh come on. And that's essentially what the viewers were told: that the government is protecting you, that there is no difference, there's nothing to worry about.

CURWOOD: Jane Akre and Steve Wilson used to work for Fox Television in Florida, and they're winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize. Thank you both for joining me.

AKRE: Thank you.

WILSON: Thanks.

(Music up and under: Turtle Island String Quartet, "Jaco")

CURWOOD: Other winners of this year's Goldman Prize include a Rwandan who risked his life to save the last of that country's mountain gorillas. And a Bolivian labor leader who stood up to a U.S. corporation and his own government over attempts to privatize the public water system.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Rockefeller Foundation; 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 come back: The return of the golden lion tamarin. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Star Light Mints, "The Bandit")


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

(Music up and under: Danny Gatton, "Nit Pickin'"

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Most people go out of their way to avoid rattlesnakes. But gather a couple hundred of the poisonous vipers together, throw in a contest or two, a flea market, a unique photo-op, and people will come. At the end of each April the annual Rattlesnake Derby in Mangum, Oklahoma, draws thousands of spectators to demonstrations on everything from snake handling to snake meat recipes. But tours provide the uninitiated with an up-close look at rattlesnake catching, and registered snake hunters also venture through local farms with four-foot metal tongs poised to grab and bag native rattlers. Cash prizes go to the largest snake, the most pounds of snakes, and the greatest number of snakes. And the winning serpents get their picture taken with the reigning derby princess. Rattlesnake round-ups are common across the rural South, but some rattlers aren't as common as they used to be. One viper, the Mexican ridge-nosed rattlesnake, is listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And although they're not officially listed, the timber rattlesnake and the Massasauga swamp rattler are each considered endangered in some states. So, with numbers dwindling, a snake in the grass may be worth more than two in the bag. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

(Music up and under, with rattling; fade to chirps up and under)

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CURWOOD: Okay, so these chips and chirps are not the sounds of thrashing rattlers. They're not birdcalls, either. But they are the songs of golden lion tamarins recorded in the wild. The squirrel-sized orange monkeys live only in the Atlantic coastal forests near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. By the 1980s, deforestation and the pet trade had reduced their numbers to just a few hundred in isolated patches of private forest. But today the population is up to nearly a thousand in the wild. Dr. James Dietz, associate professor of biology at the University of Maryland, worked on the first reintroduction attempts back in the mid-1980s. He says the project got off to a slow start.

DIETZ: We began with a focus on training tamarins before they were released. We built large halfway houses in the jungle. And the tamarins supposedly became adapted to the jungle in those halfway houses. And then when we opened the hatches, they didn't want to leave. They were much more secure in their cages and they didn't deal well with traveling on small branches and foraging in the wild environment. In fact, even when we tore down the halfway houses, they tended to remain on the wood and wire rather than face the jungle.

CURWOOD: So, what do you do? What have you learned? How do you do this right?

DIETZ: Well, the formula has to do with feeding the animals enough and providing them with a secure nest box with which they're familiar. So, imagine that a family of golden lion tamarins goes to sleep in its nest box in a zoo in Australia, and then a day or two later wakes up in a forest in Brazil. It still has its nest box. It's still receiving enough food to survive and reproduce. And that's the key.

CURWOOD: So, it's kind of a perpetual halfway house, then.

DIETZ: It is for the first generation. The animals that are zoo-born never really become as adept in traveling through the forest as their wild relatives. However, the second generation of tamarins is virtually indistinguishable from wild-born monkeys, and they interbreed with the wild-born monkeys.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering about the numbers here. You say that you have a thousand golden lion tamarins. Is that enough to ensure the survival of the species?

DIETZ: No, probably not. I think we need at least two thousand individuals, and those are two thousand individuals that are all interbreeding. It was easy enough to get the first ones, the first thousand. The next thousand is going to be much more difficult because the habitat doesn't exist. We have to create it. What that means is linking forests that already exist. It means planting areas which might be suitable for golden lion tamarins. That's going to take a tremendous amount of financial resources, a tremendous amount of human resources. It's a huge project.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what happens about rebuilding these corridors among these fragmented areas? What's the status of it?

DIETZ: Now, these forest islands are separated by cattle pasture. Maybe there are streams that link them. And what we're trying to do is work with the landowners in order to convince the landowners to allow reforestation in narrow corridors that would link these forest habitats. And we've also worked with the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden to develop the techniques to reforest degraded areas.

CURWOOD: How have the attitudes of the people there changed about this?

DIETZ: When we began working on golden lion tamarins there was no conservation ethic in the region. People were neutral about golden lion tamarins. In fact, some people caught them and kept them as pets in their houses. And now, if you travel in the region where golden lion tamarins are found, you'll see them as a status symbol. They are animals that people are proud of. They point to them and say, "We have them on our land. They're nowhere else in the world. And we're proud of it." You won't find any as pets, and you'll find a high level of collaboration with the folks that are doing the reintroduction and the basic science. In fact, all of those people are Brazilians. It's a Brazilian thing.

CURWOOD: What kind of eco-tourism possibilities are there for these monkeys? I mean, people just adore seeing them in zoos. What about the wild?

DIETZ: There are several of the local ranchers who have established more or less formal eco-tourism projects on their land. And when I say more or less, what I mean is, some of them actually have bed and breakfasts and they bring a few people in, and seeing golden lion tamarins on their property is part of the attraction. In terms of the less formal applications, that might just include having friends and family come over and see golden lion tamarins on your land. Again, it's a status symbol. Some people exploit it economically. Others just for their own purposes.

CURWOOD: Dr. James Dietz is associate professor in the biology department at the University of Maryland, and has researched golden lion tamarins for almost 20 years. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

DIETZ: And thank you.

(Music up and under: Millencolin, "Monkey Boogey")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Opposition to dredging PCBs from the Hudson is running as strong as the current in some parts of the river. To find out why, stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under: His Name Is Alive, "Across Every Fjord")

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Health Update

TOOMEY: Over the past few decades, the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has increased at a dramatic rate. As a result, more human diseases are becoming difficult to treat. Now there is evidence farming practices may be a contributing factor. Researchers focused on two pig farms that routinely feed their animals the antibiotic tetracycline to promote growth. They tested samples from the wastewater lagoons on these farms and from the surrounding soil and groundwater. They were looking for changes in the bacteria that occur naturally in the soil and water, and found antibiotic-resistant genes nearly identical to those in the guts of the pigs. In other words, bacteria in the pig waste had transferred the resistant genes to bacteria in the environment. Researchers suspect people might be acquiring these genes, since a significant portion of the U.S. water supply comes from groundwater. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

(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. (Music up and under)

(Music up and under: Tiki Tones, "Monkey Farm")

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Hudson Dredging

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Hudson River flows from the Adirondack Mountains for 300 miles to New York Harbor. Its magnificent scenery and rich history have inspired legends like Rip Van Winkle and The Last of the Mohicans, as well as an entire school of painting. The river is also rich in chemicals. Chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls. Decades ago the General Electric Company's manufacturing plants in the upper Hudson released massive amounts of PCBs. They still contaminate the river. The federal plan to clean up the Hudson has inspired one of the most contentious and costliest environmental debates in history. But it may be nearing an end. The public comment period on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to dredge PCBs from the river has just concluded. The agency is expected to decide this summer on a final course of action. We sent North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann to find out why opposition to dredging runs so strong in the upper Hudson Valley.

(Footfalls, bird song)

MANN: On a bright April afternoon, Andy Mele picks his way along a muddy path that follows the upper Hudson.

MELE: We're in a river valley, fairly flat, low rolling hills. It's very early spring, and there's still some snow on the ground. The ground's muddy from snow runoff. We're looking out at the Thompson Island Pool.

(Flowing water)

MANN: The day is gorgeous. On the far shore, wood ducks move in a line under budding trees. Nearby a trickle of snowmelt forms a waterfall. Then, Mele points to where the brown, silty water mingles with chunks of ice.

MELE: Sitting literally at our feet is probably 150,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls. We're looking at ground zero of America's largest Superfund site.

MANN: Thompson Island Pool lies at the head of the 200-mile stretch of contaminated water, one of the legacies of America's postwar industrial boom. In the late 40s, polychlorinated biphenyls were considered an essential chemical, used to make a wide range of electrical equipment. For three decades, General Electric's factories here poured untreated PCBs directly into the Hudson. More than a million pounds of the chemical washed downstream, reaching as far as New York Harbor. Most scientists now think PCBs cause cancer, and the substance was banned in 1977. In the years since, environmental groups like Andy Mele's Sloop Clearwater have called for GE to remove the PCBs. The corporation has resisted that idea, lobbying for decades to block a series of clean-up plans. Then, five months ago, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that leaving PCBs in the river is a hazard to the environment and to people's health. Richard Caspe, head of the EPA's Superfund program, made the announcement at a public hearing in Saratoga Springs.

CASPE: We know that PCB is a serious health threat. We know that over one million pounds of PCBs were discharged into the Hudson River. We know that there's unacceptable fish contamination. We know that people are eating the fish despite the "eat none" advisories. We know that birds and animals obviously are eating the fish as well. So after a ten-year study, where are we?

MANN: The solution, Caspe says, is a massive dredging operation designed to suck PCB-laden sediments from the river bottom. In one of the biggest environmental clean-ups in U.S. history, a fleet of dredging barges would fan out over 40 miles of the upper Hudson. For five years the dredges would work round the clock. They'd haul out nearly three million cubic yards of contaminated mud. General Electric would be forced to pay for the cleanup, with a price tag of nearly half a billion dollars. GE has responded with an aggressive PR campaign designed to convince the public that dredging would slow the river's natural recovery. Television ads like this one show the Hudson as a pristine river, busy with families swimming and boating.

(Commercial music, splashing, children shouting)

VOICE-OVER: These wonderful moments on one of the richest rivers on Earth could be interrupted for the next 20 years if the EPA orders the Hudson dredged.

(Sounds of heavy machinery)

MANN: The company's ads and infomercials have aired in heavy rotation on dozens of Hudson Valley TV and radio stations. GE even plastered its anti-dredging message on billboards and buses. Pro-environment groups say the campaign may have cost as much as $60 million. GE officials put the figure between $10 and $15 million. At a recent shareholder meeting, GE's management fought a proposal that would have forced the company to open its books, showing exactly how much it spent on legal fees, advertising, and lobbying efforts to block the clean-up. Spokesman Steve Ramsay.

RAMSAY: Company doesn't talk about how much it spends in terms of public information or advertising in any area.

MANN: Could you say why? What's the company's motive for that?

RAMSAY: Well, I mean, that's information that we just generally don't share with the public. We don't think that that's the issue. The issue here should be, what's the right remedy for the Hudson River?

MANN: To help make its case, General Electric's ads have featured local residents, like Judy Dean, who runs the Schuyler Yacht Basin.

DEAN: As you can see, this is not only our business, this is our home. We live here, we have invested everything. Our entire lives are here.


MANN: Schuylerville is a small town that sits in the middle of the Hudson's most polluted stretch. There are PCB hot spots to the north and south. But Dean says she doesn't worry about her health. Walking along the snowy river bank, she points to the dock where her customers tie up their boats.

DEAN: The risk to the average person living here, working here, traveling through here, is nil. If you don't eat the fish and if you don't eat tons of fish, you will not become contaminated at all, period.

MANN: Dean is vice president of CEASE, a group that opposes dredging the Hudson. The organization has support from General Electric. But like a lot of people here, Dean says she's ambivalent about the company. She says she agreed to appear in GE's ads only to get her own message to the public.

DEAN: This has nothing to do with General Electric. I really have no interest in General Electric at all, except that yes, I happen to agree that dredging is not the way to lower the levels of PCBs in fish.

MANN: GE's campaign has been effective. Many residents think dredging will actually stir up the PCBs, making the river less safe. After decades of recession, the upper Hudson's economy has seen a revival driven by tourism and a boom in vacation homes. People here say the huge cleanup operation will drive visitors away. There are lawn signs everywhere calling for the federal government to leave the Hudson alone. More than 50 communities have passed resolutions opposing the EPA plan. Ernest Martin is mayor of Stillwater, where General Electric is a major employer.

MARTIN: I am definitely against dredging in the Hudson River.

(Applause and cheers)

MARTIN: It would take too many years to clean it under the dredging proposal by EPA. Our future for tourism, employment, new business, will be lost forever. You want to do what's right? Don't dredge the Hudson. You don't like our valley? Then stay in Washington, D.C.


MANN: At times the public hearings turned into shouting matches like this one, with EPA officials and locals trading accusations.


CASPE: I'm sorry you felt it necessary to use that rhetoric, to believe that we have a vested -- (Shouting in the background) Well, does the truth hurt?

MAN: You've got a good teacher.

CASPE: Well, I'm sorry that you believe that's the best your government can give you.

MAN: It is! It is!

MANN: This hearing in Queensbury was cut short when a bomb scare forced a thousand people to clear the auditorium. Andrea Rychlenski is a public affairs specialist with the EPA, who has worked on the Hudson River project for ten years. She says the level of bitterness is a surprise.

RYCYLENSKI: Generally it's a matter of what we have proposed is not clean enough. People want it even cleaner. They want guarantees of safety and guarantees for their health. This is quite unique, in that we have a portion, a considerable portion of the Hudson Valley that does not want a contaminant taken out of their midst.

MANN: Rychlenski says public opposition to the clean-up formed in the 1980s when New York State proposed building toxic waste dumps for the PCBs here in the Hudson Valley. The EPA's plan now calls for the sludge to be shipped to dumps as far away as Texas, but the ill will remains.

RYCHLENSKI: There is a fundamental distrust, and I think this has certainly been taken advantage of by General Electric with the ad campaign. It plays on all those historic fears. If you've been with this as long as I have, you see it very, very plainly.

MANN: The EPA and environmental groups say GE's anti-dredging campaign is inaccurate and manipulative. But some scientists also worry that the ads cause people to ignore health advisories. Studies show that many folks still eat fish taken from the Hudson. They ignore warnings that contaminated fish could cause cancer. PCBs might also damage the thymus gland, leading to immune deficiencies. And researchers also suspect the chemical of causing birth defects. Dr. David Carpenter is a professor of toxicology at the University of Albany. He studied the effects of PCBs for the last 15 years.

CARPENTER: In my judgment there is definitely a risk to humans from the PCBs that are in the river. A lot of the distrust has been fed by the General Electric attempts, and blatant attempts, to influence the outcome by casting doubt on the objectivity, the credibility, of EPA. But on the basis of everything we know about human populations exposed to PCBs elsewhere, we have reason to suspect that there are health effects in those people as well.

MANN: A report issued last month by the National Academy of Sciences echoed Carpenter's concerns. The study found that PCBs are statistically associated with liver and thyroid disease. Also, behavioral and developmental deficits in children. General Electric, meanwhile, has funded its own research, which found no definitive link between PCBs and human disease. Spokesman Steve Ramsay calls those who argue otherwise irresponsible.

RAMSAY: The studies that have looked at electrical workers and the people who are the most highly-exposed to PCBs have simply shown that despite the fact that PCBs do cause tumors in laboratory animals at very high doses, those same results are not seen in human beings.

MANN: General Electric claims that the Hudson River is restoring itself. For a decade the company argued that PCBs would biodegrade, breaking down into less-toxic compounds. That hasn't happened. GE now argues that the toxins are being captured, buried safely under layers of river sediment. This company ad shows a parade of geese and white-tailed deer with the shining river as a backdrop.

(Commercial music)

VOICE-OVER: The Hudson. It's made a remarkable comeback. Wildlife is thriving. The river continues to clean itself....

MANN: GE concedes that PCBs in fish are still well above the EPA's permissible level. But the company says the problem isn't contaminated sediment. In a twist, GE now claims that a residue of PCB sludge is still leaking into the river from the company's factories in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. Spokesman Steve Ramsay says a cleanup at those sites is underway.

RAMSAY: Source control will achieve all of the same reductions in fish of PCBs that the dredging program will. That's a given. We know that they will achieve equivalent results. And then you take a look at the negative impacts of dredging and you begin to say, "What's the balance here? Why are we doing something that's going to essentially destroy the river in an attempt to save it?"

(Flowing water)

MANN: The EPA doesn't agree that source control is the answer. Flooding and frequent ice jams stir sediments in the Hudson each spring, bringing PCBs to the surface. A study released this month by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation found that chemicals dumped decades ago are actually moving beyond the river. PCBs are leaching into soil here along the Hudson's bank. Contamination in people's yards and nearby fields is now six times above EPA's recommended level. Ann Secord is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

SECORD: I've spent a lot of time on the Hudson River, and I really love the Hudson River. Physically it appears to be a very normal, healthy ecosystem. But I know that this is a very contaminated ecosystem.

MANN: Secord studies tree swallows on the upper Hudson, where the birds feed on contaminated insects that hatch from the river. The PCB concentrations found in the swallows here are the highest she's ever seen in the species. For the most part, Secord says, the effects are subtle. Some tree swallows start building their nests wrong, or they abandon them altogether. Secord thinks that could be the result of altered hormone levels, a PCB side effect shown in lab studies. In rare cases, the tree swallows Secord examined were actually deformed.

SECORD: We did find one nestling with a cross-bill. We found two nestlings with deformed legs. And we found one with a small eye. We also did know a few tree swallow nestlings that had swollen abdomens, which may have been an indication of edema.

MANN: Biologists are also seeing high levels of PCBs in turtles, mink, and otter, which eat contaminated fish. Studies like these have made headlines in the bigger cities down-river, where the cleanup plan has more support. But in the small towns along the upper Hudson where the dredging would take place, many people reject or simply ignore the government's findings.


MANN: Here in Hudson Falls people say the river looks clean. Floating garbage and raw sewage, common sights a generation ago, are gone. River otters and blue herons have returned. The PCBs that remain near GE's waterfront factory are invisible, so tiny that they're measured in parts per million. The health study funded by New York State is trying to determine whether the chemical is making residents sick. But John Mattison, a GE worker who handled PCB-laden oils for 35 years, says the research is a waste of time.

MATTISON: I personally feel a lot of people like to talk. They don't understand what they're talking about.

MANN: What would it take to convince you that there was a health risk here?

MATTISON: Nobody's going to convince me, because I know better. I know it's a pack of lies. You've got to realize that this is a beautiful river. The wildlife just came back. It would be a horrible thing to destroy this river now.

MANN: Andy Mele, head of Sloop Clearwater, agrees that the Hudson is cleaner. He credits federal programs like the Clean Water Act that stopped the dumping of untreated waste. Restoring the Hudson has already cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Mele says it's time for General Electric to pay its share.

MELE: GE's media strategy has been to get you to distrust government, to distrust science. They've turned this whole area into the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. I think every polluter is out there watching General Electric on this one, going to school on it.

MANN: If the EPA doesn't order dredging, Mele says the decision will set a precedent for other clean-up sites around the country. The stakes are high for GE as well. If the company loses this fight, it could also be forced to remove its PCBs from dozens of onshore landfills that neighbor the Hudson. The cost of that cleanup could run into the billions of dollars. The Environmental Protection Agency will announce its final ruling in mid-August. For Living on Earth, I'm Brian Mann in Hudson Falls, New York.

(Music up and under: Jay Ungar & Molly Mason, "Brother's Keeper")

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: A visit to one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.

MAN: What's remarkable about the Tongass National Forest, that sets it apart from almost anywhere else in North America, and what ranks it with the great wild places anywhere in the world, is that every species of plant and animal known to have been here as far back as we can trace a human presence is still here. There is nothing missing here.

CURWOOD: Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the Ark of North America, next week 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, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. We had help this week from Steven Belter and Dave Freeman. And thanks to KQED in San Francisco. 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 Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Turner Foundation.

(Music up and under)

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