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

February 8, 2002

Air Date: February 8, 2002



Freedom Car

View the page for this story

The Bush administration recently revealed its Freedom Car Initiative, with plans to wean cars off of petroleum in the next decade. Host Steve Curwood spoke with David Garman, Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. (07:00)


View the page for this story

How far should American automobiles go on a gallon of gas? Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum talks with host Steve Curwood about the debate in Washington over fuel efficiency standards. (04:30)

Health Note: Preventing Alzheimer's / Diane Toomey

View the page for this story

Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a study that shows a common Indian spice might play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. (01:15)

Almanac: Chinese New Year

View the page for this story

This week we have facts about Chinese New Year. Before the start of every year, the streets of Taiwan are lined with more than lanterns and ribbons. (01:30)

Fresh Kills / Amy Eddings

View the page for this story

The Fresh Kills landfill in New York’s Staten Island was closed last year after a long and contentious battle between residents and city and state officials. But after the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11, the site was re-opened to collect and sort through the massive amounts of debris barged over from the WTC site. As Amy Eddings from member station WNYC reports, Fresh Kills has taken on new meaning for those who live in Staten Island. (06:05)

California Drilling / Deirdre Kennedy

View the page for this story

The California coast near Santa Barbara is a breathtaking stretch of beach. Governor Gray Davis says no one can force California to let oil companies keep exploring there. But the Bush administration says it's not for states to decide. Deirdre Kennedy reports from Santa Barbara. (06:30)

Green Olympics

View the page for this story

Host Steve Curwood talks to Diane Conrad Gleason of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee's Environment Program about programs that strive to make Winter Olympics 2002 the greenest games ever. (03:00)

Animal Note: Musical Fish / Maggie Villiger

View the page for this story

Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on fish that can classify music by genre. (01:20)

Chernobyl Revisited

View the page for this story

The world’s worst man-made disaster is now fifteen years old, but the people who live with Chernobyl’s aftermath are still suffering the consequences. Host Steve Curwood talks with Patrick Gray, lead author of a United Nations report that found significant social and psychological effects in the resettled areas around Chernobyl. (05:30)

Yucca Mountain / Jon Christensen

View the page for this story

The Department of Energy recently announced it will push ahead with plans to build a high level nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. State officials and environmental groups oppose the plan. But as Jon Christensen reports, many residents who live closest to Yucca Mountain have grown fatalistic about living in a nuclear environment. (09:40)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Amy Eddings, Deirdre Kennedy, Jon Christensen
GUESTS: David Garman, Diane Conrad Gleason, Patrick Gray
UPDATES: Diane Toomey, Maggie Villiger


CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. President Bush has a plan to end toxic pollution and eliminate greenhouse gases from tailpipes. It's called the Freedom Car. It's based on the hydrogen fuel cell. And the challenge is to make it affordable.

GARMAN: If we can do that, we will be in a position to have a fuel cell vehicle that is roughly comparable in price and performance with the kind of vehicle that you can buy today.

CURWOOD: Also, the administration moves ahead with plans to store deadly nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. But, some Nevadans seem nonchalant about the whole thing.

MCCRACKEN: People in rural southern Nevada have had experience historically with nuclear technology. I mean, the, we used to get up in the morning and watch the a-bombs go off.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth right after this.


Back to top


Freedom Car

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We begin our program today with a look at an item from the latest budget proposals from the White House. The president is asking for more than one hundred and fifty million dollars for a new program called The Freedom Car initiative. The aim is to develop affordable fuel cell technology that would replace the internal combustion engine and thus, eliminate the need for fossil fuel to power cars.

Joining me now to talk about the Freedom Car is David Garman. He's the Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Welcome

GARMAN: Thanks, Steve, good to be here.

CURWOOD: David, the Freedom Car initiative replaces a Clinton administration program called The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. You say yours will be a better approach to creating cleaning cars. How so?

Photo courtesy of Ballard Power Systems(Photo courtesy of Ballard Power Systems)

GARMAN: The old Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle Program was trying to design a family sedan that could get eighty miles per gallon. But, of course, this year Americans bought more sport utility vehicles, trucks and mini-vans than they did family sedans. So, we really need to break through some technology barriers and find the kinds of technologies that can be employed in all kinds of vehicles. And most of all, the vehicles that Americans want to buy and drive.

And because we're oriented toward hydrogen fuel cells that frankly don't need petroleum at all, we're really talking about a revolutionary and dramatic step that would free us from our dependence on petroleum. It would free us from admissions. Hydrogen fuel cells don't emit anything, except for water vapor. And, at the same time, it would maintain the ability and the freedom of Americans to buy and drive the kinds of cars they want to buy and drive.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you about existing technologies now. David, I'm thinking particularly of the hybrid technology.

GARMAN: Right.

CURWOOD: Now, this is something that the Japanese have applied to very small vehicles. But, as I understand it, this is something that would work pretty well with much larger vehicles, as well.

GARMAN: It would. And, in fact, Ford will come out-- in fact, all the major automakers will come out with a hybrid technology in sport utility vehicles beginning in 2003. I have seen and, in fact, crawled all over, the Ford Escape SUV, and there's hopes that it could achieve up to forty miles per gallon.

As for the vehicles that are on the road today, the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight, and soon, a Honda hybrid Civic model, those are excellent vehicles, too. I actually own a Prius. That's the car that I use and my family. It does a great job for us. But, you know, candidly, it's a small car and not everybody wants a small car. We're still doing a lot of work in hybrids. And Freedom Car includes work on hybrids.

CURWOOD: It does? Can you give me-

GARMAN: -- yes, absolutely.

CURWOOD: Can you give some details on that, please?

GARMAN: Sure. And, in fact, the president's budget request just came out on Monday. And we're still funding ninety-three percent of the work that we were doing in hybrids., we're continuing.

CURWOOD: One thing about the previous administration's program to get a more efficient car, there was a goal that was, what, eighty miles to the gallon by the year 2004. That hasn't happened. But the Freedom Car program that your administration has announced doesn't have a date, so far, that I've been able to see as a goal. How can you ensure that the improvements and innovations that you're seeking will make it to market?

GARMAN: We have a series of technology goals and milestones. And they're specified and they're quite detailed, and they're quite technical in their orientation for the next decade. And, in fact, what we've done is to incorporate the advice that's been given to us by the National Academy of Sciences when they did their peer reviews of the old program. They told us that a couple of real key things.

Number one, it was inappropriate for the government to be involved in a pre-production prototype with manufacturers. We should be involved in pre-commercial technology. Another thing they told us was that the goals were wrong. Trying to focus on a particular kind of car, a particular platform, the eighty mile per gallon family sedan, was the wrong approach. We should, instead, be focusing on systems and components that can be arrayed in cars, a variety of cars. That's how we'd make a bigger difference in terms of saving petroleum.

CURWOOD: If you were to look back a decade from today, what would you have hoped that the Freedom Car initiative would have accomplished?

GARMAN: A decade from now we will be able to have fuel cell stacks that, instead of lasting three thousand hours the way they-the durability that they have today-- they'd be able to last five or six thousand hours. And instead of costing on the order of three hundred dollars per kilowatt, which is what they'd cost today if we mass produced them, they'd cost more on the order of thirty-five or forty dollars a kilowatt.

If we can do that, we will be in a position to have a fuel cell vehicle that is roughly comparable in price and performance with a kind of vehicle that you can buy today. And we'll still have some very interesting infrastructure problems to overcome. How will a consumer purchase the hydrogen and put it in the car? How will the car store the hydrogen on board? And we have a lot of goals that try to address those things as well.

CURWOOD: I've heard a bit of criticism of your Freedom initiative by some who say, "Oh, these guys are just stalling for time." They don't want to move forward now with corporate average fuel economy standards, so-called CAFE standards, that is the fleet of vehicles , their performance. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?

GARMAN: Increasing CAFE standards can be employed over the short term. And that's perfectly appropriate to consider those things. But, wouldn't it be a tragedy if twenty or thirty years from now we were still arguing about CAFE standards and what regulation we should impose on vehicles. Rather than being working toward the technology that would make that whole discussion unnecessary because we removed automobiles and trucks from the environmental equation altogether. That's what we're going after. It's a dramatic vision, but we think it is within the realm of our grasp.

CURWOOD: David Garman is Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Thanks for taking this time, David.

GARMAN: Thank you, Steve.

Back to top



CURWOOD: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is among the critics on Capitol Hill who say that while the Freedom Car is a noble idea, they also believe the administration is using it as a stalling tactic to avoid tougher fuel standards under CAFE. In a recent speech, Senator Kerry offered these words of skepticism.

KERRY: No one knows yet in this budget climate what the level of their commitment will be. And second, the administration's initiative is no substitute whatsoever for modernizing our CAFE standards. We need and should have both.

CURWOOD: Joining me to discuss the debate over CAFE standards is Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington. Anna, could you please bring us up to date?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, CAFE standards are now at twenty-seven and a half miles per gallon for passenger cars, and at 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks. This includes SUV's. These rules were introduced in the 70's, and they haven't been changed significantly since then. At this point, in 2002, our average fuel economy as a nation is actually at its lowest point in twenty years. Now, the Department of Transportation is supposed to reconsider the standards every year. But, since 1996, Congress has basically put a hold on the department that blocks it from doing that.

CURWOOD: Now, Anna, I understand that this year Congress lifted that ban, but then the Department of Transportation itself came out with the results of its reconsideration and is now saying it will not seek to raise CAFE standards for 2004.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's right, Steve. And just last week in a letter to Congress, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta says he wants to change the CAFE program itself. So, there are pretty strong signals here, I think, that the administration is not looking to raise CAFE standards, at least not within the current system.

CURWOOD: Well, what does the administration want to do?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, they've put a few possibilities on the table. One is that fuel economy targets would be based on a vehicle's weight and size, and not on the broader categories they have now. You know, just passenger vehicle or light truck.

They're also talking about allowing auto manufacturers to trade fuel economy credits so that one company that makes more high efficiency vehicles could, for instance, sell its credits to another company that makes more less efficient vehicles like trucks and SUV's.

CURWOOD: Now, what about the people who want to see CAFE raised, how are they responding to this?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, on Capitol Hill, as you might imagine, lawmakers are calling this a sort of shell game. They say the administration has seen the momentum that's been building in the Senate for a CAFE increase as part of the energy bill. And that it's, basically, trying to avoid that by changing the topic, changing the system altogether. Environmental groups echo this.

They also point out that in the Clinton administration the auto industry wanted to keep the president and his folks out of the fuel economy debate. Now, they want this administration to get involved. And the administration seems to be doing that. Here's David Friedman. He's a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

FRIEDMAN: Our greatest concern is that the administration is seeking to take over this process from a congress that is looking towards more aggressive and more realistic fuel economy standards.

CURWOOD: So, what about the auto industry? They've been resisting any kind of increase for years. What do they make of the secretary's proposal?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I think they see that Mineta is suggesting changes here that could really address some of the aspects of CAFE that they've been objecting to for a long time. One of their chief complaints has been that to hit the CAFE standard, they have to sell lighter and, what they say are, less safe vehicles that consumers just don't want to buy. Here's Josephine Cooper. She's the CEO and president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

COOPER: There are probably thirty features that consumers ask for when they go into dealer showrooms. Number twenty-six down on that list is fuel economy.

CURWOOD: So, Anna, what happens now with the debate over CAFE in the next few weeks?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I think first, Steve, you're going to see senators like John Kerry who we heard from before. Also, Arizona Republican John McCain, coming out with a bill to raise CAFE standards. It looks like they're going to propose something in the area of a thirty-seven mile per gallon standard for all vehicles. That would include light trucks. It's pretty ambitious.

But, even if it gets to the floor as part of the energy bill, it's going to face a hard fight from some of the auto industry's champions. And then, of course, whatever comes out of the Senate would have to go to conference with the House. We saw last fall that this House is quite unwilling to see much of anything in terms of a CAFE increase.

So, while I do think we're going to soon see the first significant CAFE debate in Congress in a long time, whether that will translate into an actual change in the standards, I think that's a long shot at this point.

CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum covers Washington for Living on Earth. Thanks, Anna.

GREENBAUM: You're welcome, Steve.

[MUSIC: Steve Roach, "Love Magick", SOMA (Hearts of Space - 1992]

Back to top


Health Note: Preventing Alzheimer's

CURWOOD: Coming up, New York City's old dump acquires new dignity in the aftermath of 9/11. First, this environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: There's evidence to suggest that anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen may help protect against Alzheimer's disease since they reduce brain inflammation. But, excessive use of these substances can cause intestinal liver and kidney damage. Now, a study suggests there might be an alternative.

India has one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer's disease. It also has one of the highest rates of curry consumption. Turmeric is an important ingredient in curry, and turmeric contains curcumin, a well-known anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory herb. So, using mice specially bred to develop Alzheimer's, researchers at UCLA fed one group a normal diet. Another group of mice received the same diet, but with a low dose of curcumin added. After six months, brain biopsies showed the curcumin eating mice had less inflammation compared to mice that didn't eat the spice.

These mice also had less oxidative damage to brain cells and produced smaller amounts of a protein associated with Alzheimer's disease. Researchers caution that while the study is promising, there's no research to suggest that curcumin would have similar effects in humans.

That's this week's Health Note. I'm Diane Toomey.

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

[MUSIC: Chet Baker, "Isn't It Romantic?", MY FUNNY VALENTINE (Capitol - 1994)]

Related link:

Back to top


Almanac: Chinese New Year

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

[MUSIC: Shan Wen Tong, "The Mountain Village Peddler", CHINA: SOUNDS OF OUR STOREIS (Ellipsis - 1998)]

CURWOOD: This week marks the start of the Chinese New Year. So, watch out for dancing dragons and firecrackers. And look out for piles of garbage, too.

NURU: Couches, refrigerators. You know, we have stoves. And then, you know, sometimes some electronics, TV's and computers.

CURWOOD: That's Mohammed Nuru. He's with the San Francisco Department of Public Works. And he says he braces for this holiday every year. That's because Chinese tradition says what happens during the holiday foretells the rest of the year. So, nobody puts garbage out for the first three days of the New Year. And that means New Year's Eve is a garbage collector's nightmare.

In Taipei last year the city picked up four times the normal amount of trash. This year Taipei officials are extending the pre-New Year's pickup schedule to seven days. And all those old refrigerators, washing machines, computers and TVs will go straight from the streets to a recycling facility. The program has already salvaged almost five thousand tons of metal, enough for ninety-one million beer cans. Happy New Year!

And to get off to a good start in the Year of the Horse, eat fish for long life, oranges for luck, and dates to get rich. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.


Back to top


Fresh Kills

CURWOOD: The collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11th created an enormous pile of debris. New York officials selected the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island as the repository.

Staten Islanders never much liked being the major dump for Manhattan. And when Fresh Kills closed last year, after 54 often malodorous years, they thought they could breath easier. But, now as Fresh Kills has taken on its new role, feelings about the old city dump have changed. Amy Eddings of member station WNYC in New York reports.


EDDINGS: Fresh Kills is a series of large, fenced in, grassy swells...the contours of approximately two billion tons of trash. Most of these hilltops are devoid of activity. But, this 175 acre section rumbles with action. Trucks cart in debris from the collapsed World Trade Center, and a backhoe sorts through a pile of twisted steel reinforcement rods.

Nearby are more than a dozen trailers that form a kind of on-site forensic anthropology lab. None of this was here before. Fresh Kills had received its last barge of garbage and was declared closed on March 22nd, an historic day for Staten Islanders who had been told in 1948 that the landfill was temporary.

But, September 11th was another historic day. While the Twin Towers' huge steel beams are being sent to recyclers, Fresh Kills has been reopened to take everything else.

ALLEE: This is the area where over the fire apparatus, most of the fire apparatus ends up.

EDDINGS: William Allee is Chief of Detectives of the New York City Police Department. He stands near a line of about thirty demolished fire engines and ladder trucks.

ALLEE: You can see the condition of the trucks. And these are the people that responded. And this is the vehicles that they came in. There's other trucks that are unrecognizable. These are recognizable.


Photo: Staten Island Advance/Irving SilversteinA sifter's conveyor belt carries World Trade Center debris past investigators.
(Photo: Staten Island Advance/Irving Silverstein)

EDDINGS: Chief Allee oversees about three hundred investigators at Fresh Kills. They work nearly twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Dressed in white Tyvex suits and respirators, they stand next to six conveyor belts that have so far handled one million tons of debris. They pick out personal items, such as credit cards, ID's, rings and watches, and they look for human remains.

At least 46 victims have been identified through remains found here. Some family members have complained about their loved ones being found at a garbage dump, but Chief Allee sees it differently.

ALLEE: I'm tired of hearing about this is a people are coming to a dump. This isn't a dump; this is a special place. And it was closed. There is no garbage here.

EDDINGS: Twelve miles from Fresh Kills is a cluster of buildings that make up the Stapleton Homeport, an old naval base. Shortly after September 11th, its recreation center was transformed into a staging area for the workers at Fresh Kills. The center's operations were closed in mid-December after federal and city officials developed areas at the landfill for workers to shower, eat and get equipment. All that remains of the Homeport's role are large, gray cabinets filled with donated supplies, which volunteer Fran Auruti goes through.


AURUTI: Toothbrushes...Toothbrushes and toothpaste. Yeah, we had a lot of that.
And then people were sending us-you know, the soaps you rob from the hotels and stuff-We got boxes and boxes of that.


EDDINGS: Donations of food, medical supplies and clothes poured in from people and businesses across the country and on Staten Island. So did volunteer workers. Flower bouquets and an American flag were placed near the landfill's entrance. And Staten Islanders, who had been very vocal about their hatred for the dump, suddenly found themselves re-thinking that term.

Ronnie Micciula who spearheaded the Homeport Support Services was one of them.

MICCIULA: A lot of the volunteers would come in and when they first came in they'd say, "We need to do something. We need to work with the people from Ground Zero." And I'd say, "Well, we don't work with that, but we work with people from the hill." And they'd look at us, and they say, "You mean the dump?" And I said, "We don't call it the dump here. It's not a dump."

EDDINGS: A spokesperson for the Staten Island Borough President's office which had long lobbied to shut Fresh Kills down, says, "There's been no complaints about it being temporarily reopened." Fran Auruti is a real estate broker who loathed showing people homes near the landfill. Even her outlook has changed.

AURUTI: Prior to September 11th if some of the people would have asked me the questions, "What is the landfill?", oh, I would have given them an earful. But, after that, what it is is so different than what it was.

EDDINGS: While the city needs Fresh Kills now, officials have once again promised that the need is temporary and that the landfill will once again be closed when the World Trade Center cleanup is completed. The promise is an expensive one. New York City used to spend about 43 dollars per ton to dispose of its 11,400 daily tons of garbage at Fresh Kills. It now pays about 63 dollars a ton to have private haulers take its garbage to incinerators and landfills in Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia.

Meanwhile, the city faces an estimated four billion dollar budget gap this fiscal year. But, Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty says reopening Fresh Kills to save money is not an option.

DOHERTY: As the commissioner and a Staten Islander, I have no intention of reopening it. I don't even think about that, even in the worst conditions. I think the mayor will find ways of handling the budget that do not include reopening Fresh Kills. I mean, that is out of the question. That is not going to happen.

EDDINGS: While the city rethinks the future of its long term garbage export plan, it's also considering what to do with Fresh Kills. Commissioner Doherty says the city is reviewing three plans on what kind of parks, recreational facilities, or development might be appropriate. He did not rule out some way of honoring the landfill's role as the final resting place of remnants from the World Trade Center.

For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings in New York.

[MUSIC: Peter Gabriel, "Of These, Hope", PASSION (Geffen - 1989)]

Back to top


California Drilling

CURWOOD: Californians have long viewed their central coast as a paradise for recreation and tourism. But, energy companies see it as a treasure trove of natural gas and oil reserves. For years, state and federal officials have been locked in a legal battle over who may grant oil and gas exploration rights. Now, a federal appeals court will decide if the Bush administration will get the final word. Deirdre Kennedy reports from Santa Barbara.


KENNEDY: Thirty-three years ago, the scenic Santa Barbara coast was devastated by the largest oil spill in the lower forty-eight states. An offshore oil well blew out, sending a tide of crude oil bubbling onto one hundred miles of beaches from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo.

Santa Barbara resident, Joe Babine, went down to the shore to see the damage the day after the spill started.

BABINE: Everything was black as far as you could see. There was a seal that was lying on the beach with its head sticking up in the air an its eyes closed. And it was like a statue, it didn't move at all.

KENNEDY: The slick killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, fish and mammals. It was many years before the oil was completely cleaned up. And even now, there are still traces of tarry residue on the beaches. Thirty years later, the wildlife is flourishing once again. The coast has become home to more than two hundred species of seabirds, and a breeding ground to southern otters and harbor seals. Blue, gray and humpback whales regularly migrate through its waters.


KENNEDY: The 1969 spill galvanized the U.S. environmental movement. It sparked protests and thousands of letters to Congress against offshore oil drilling. In the 1990's, both the Bush and Clinton administration signed a moratorium on any new drilling off California. But in 1999, the Clinton administration decided it would allow companies that already own offshore rights to look for new oil and gas. The move alarmed environmental groups which teamed up with the state to block the federal government in court. The state easily won, says Environmental Defense Center attorney Linda Krop.

KROP: The judge held that the state of California, through its Coastal Commission, has a right to review those leases and, perhaps, even deny them if their development would violate our state's coastal act.

KENNEDY: The administration says it's a federal decision, not a state's. What happens in ocean waters three to ten miles offshore, the government is arguing the issue before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Officials would not comment on the case for this story. But, at a recent conference in San Francisco, Interior Secretary Gail Norton said President Bush is fully aware of California's opposition to new drilling.

NORTON: The president supports the moratorium on leasing offshore California. That has been a consistent position that he has taken. There are existing leases that go back for many years. And essentially those are private property interests that have developed. Those are currently in litigation.

KENNEDY: California officials are united on the issue. "It's a no-brainer in this traditionally conservation minded state," says environmental attorney Linda Krop.

KROP: Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, was one of the most anti-oil governors we've ever had. The California Congressional delegation also has traditionally involved a lot of Republican opposition to oil. So, it's a real state versus federal, David versus Goliath type of battle.

KENNEDY: And California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols argues that bringing up the remaining oil off the central coast won't significantly lesson U.S. dependence on foreign oil. She says it would be more of an environmental hazard than the drilling that's already occurred.

NICHOLS: Basically, what we're talking about here is something that is closer to asphalt than something that you would put in your car. The stuff is viscose. It forms blobs if in the ocean. If it spills, the impact on seabirds is devastating.

KENNEDY: Even if the oil isn't fuel grade, it still has plenty of other uses, according to John Romero, spokesman for the Federal Mineral Management Service.

ROMERO: There are many items that are byproducts of oil. You have the obvious, the gasoline, kerosene, diesel, asphalt. But, again, the petrochemical components which go to making a lot of the items that we, as Californians, and Americans use on a daily basis, for medicines, cosmetics, to everyday household items.

KENNEDY: Supporters of oil drilling also say it's hypocritical for Californians who spend so much time in their cars to try to shut down drilling on their coast. Environmentalists would like to settle the issue by canceling the leases once and for all. And Congresswoman Lois Capps of Santa Barbara has written legislation that would ban any additional drilling.

Even today, Santa Barbara's beaches are covered in globs of tar that stick to your feet, and a smell of petroleum hangs in the air. State officials even blame some of the air pollution around Santa Barbara on current oil and gas operations. But, geologists say the tar balls and the acrid smell are caused by natural oil and gas seepage from the undersea shelf. Mineral Management Service spokesman, John Romero, says since the '69 spill the federal government has developed extremely tight safety regulations.

ROMERO: If you look at the spill record over the last 30 plus years, spills from platforms off California have equaled just over eight hundred barrels of oil. In comparison, in that same time period, over one million barrels of oil that have seeped into the marine environment from natural oil seepage.

KENNEDY: If the Bush administration wins its case in the Ninth Circuit, the oil companies could go ahead with underwater mapping to locate additional gas and oil reserves. California governor Gray Davis has vowed to take California's opposition all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the feds lose, the California Coastal Commission, for the first time, could decide whether to bar new oil exploration.

For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in Santa Barbara.

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

Back to top


Green Olympics

CURWOOD: It's official, after sport and culture, environment has taken its place as the third governing principle of the Olympic movement. Now, the Salt Lake City Olympics are billing themselves as the greenest games ever.

Diane Conrad Gleason directs the environmental program for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. Diane, tell me what are some of the eco-friendly achievements that went into planning for these winter games?

GLEASON: The biggest one now is that we were just certified climate neutral by the Climate Neutral Network. It's a program we've been working on for over a year now, Olympic Cleaner and Greener. And it means we have no impact on global warming whatever. So, we're quite proud of that one.

CURWOOD: How do you pull that off?

GLEASON: Basically, what we did was quantify all of our emissions from anything associated with the games. Even air travel for the three weeks of the games and the two weeks of pair Olympics. All the transportation, chair lifts, the torch relay, torches themselves, anything you could possibly think of, we quantified. And then we asked the local and national businesses to donate emission reduction credits to us. And then we retire the credits.

So, we have a footprint of about three hundred and thirty thousand tons of CO2 and criteria pollutants, and we've offset five hundred thousand tons. So, we'll actually leave the air in Salt Lake cleaner for having hosted the games.

CURWOOD: What are some of the other programs to make these Olympics green that you have in place?

GLEASON: We have a zero waste program. Wherein we're going to be recycling and composting everything we possibly can out of the waste stream. We expect now we've just added compostable dishes back of house. So, with that addition, we expect we're going to get in the ninety percent recovery range. Basically, unheard of for an event. That's never happened before.

And then we have a very large urban forestry program. We've planted through six programs a hundred thousand trees in Utah, and eighteen million around the world.

CURWOOD: We read some press accounts that said that some folks there were dismayed that there will be so little mass transportation of spectators and athletes. That there were rather large parking lots created and that thousand of sport utility vehicles and vans are being used for this. Why does the transportation plan rely so heavily on private cars in that area?

GLEASON: Well, actually, of our SUV fleet, about thirty percent of that is compressed natural gas vehicles so they're alternative fuel vehicles. And about seventy percent of the Olympic traffic load will be handled by mass transit. We've got a transit fleet about the size of the city of Chicago. So, it's really a huge transit system.

In terms of mass transit, we're a western city. And it's pretty typical for western cities not to have very well developed mass transit. I think it's improved some over the Olympic planning years. For instance, we have light rail now, both north, south and east west. So, I think that's helped some. There will be a lot of private cars used in these Olympics. And that's one of the reasons we wanted to do the Olympic Cleaner and Greener Program to offset the use of those cars.

CURWOOD: Diane Conrad Gleason is the Director of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee Environment Program. Thanks for your time today, Ms. Gleason.

GLEASON: Thanks very much.

[MUSIC: Jim Henson as 'Kermit the Frog', "It's Hard Being Green", THE MUPPETS]

Back to top


Animal Note: Musical Fish

CURWOOD: Just ahead, the surprising fallout from the Chernobyl disaster: the psychological scars of being forced from your home. First, this page from the Animal Notebook with Maggie Villiger.


VILLIGER: Fish don't get a lot of credit for being exciting pets. But, after hearing about this bit of new research, you may give the family goldfish a second glance. It turns out that fish called koi, members of the carp family, are quite the little music critics. One scientist set out to investigate just how discriminating their musical ears are. She played snippets of music for three koi named Beauty, Oro, and Pepi. The selections were Blues music by John Lee Hooker, and oboe concertos by Bach.

Photo: Staten Island Advance/Irving Silverstein(Photo courtesy of Coloradokoi.com)

With the incentive of food pellets, the fish learn to tell the difference between the two composers. The fish would press a button with their snouts to ask for food whenever they heard the blues, and swim tranquilly while classical was played. Now, researchers upped the ante, presenting the fish with new tunes by different blues artists and classical composers.

The koi continued to classify the pieces by genre. Now, scientists hope to further investigate exactly what musical qualities the fish were using to classify what they heard. But, so far, experiments suggest that they don't rely on rhythmic cues, timbre or timing. No word yet on which type of music the fish preferred, though Franz Schubert's "Trout" and Muddy Waters were part of the rotation. That's this week's Animal Note, I'm Maggie Villiger.

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

[MUSIC: Leo Kottke, "One Guitar, No Vocals"]

Back to top


Chernobyl Revisited

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coming up, we meet the people of the neighborhood where America wants to dump its nuclear waste. But, first, it's been 15 years since a little known nuclear power station in northeast Ukraine became the site of the world's worst manmade disaster.

The 1986 nuclear explosion of Chernobyl contaminated more than thirty-six hundred towns and villages near the reactor. The former Soviet government relocated hundreds of thousands of residents to try to diminish the risk of health effects from the radioactive fallout. With me now is Patrick Gray. He's the team leader of a new United Nations study about Chernobyl. And he joins me now from his office in Oxford, England. Welcome, Mr. Gray.

GRAY: Hello.

CURWOOD: From your study, what have you found to be the largest, the most important consequences of Chernobyl?

GRAY: There have been important health consequences caused by radiation. But, also, the fact that some four hundred thousand people were evacuated from their homes has had very serious consequences. It's disrupted the lives of these people. Many of them are now unemployed. And it's had effects on their health as well as a result of breakup of families, breakup of communities.

CURWOOD: Were these consequences anticipated 15 years ago?

GRAY: No, I think they weren't. I think at the time people did what was right. People had to be moved away from the area of Chernobyl because of the level of radioactive contamination. But, I think, it wasn't understood the severe effects it would have on people's well-being, uprooting them and taking them away like that. And, of course, the problems were made infinitely worst by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the economies, and particularly in the agricultural sector, which these people depended upon.

CURWOOD: Could you tell us, Mr. Gray, the story of a family or some people that have had to deal with the aftermath of Chernobyl that illustrates the points that you're making here?

GRAY: Well, we've met many families in the course of our study. We went to villages and farms and talked to people. I'll give you the example of one woman who was evacuated from the town of Pripiat who's in the immediate vicinity of the reactor. She was pregnant at the time of the accident, and she had to leave and go and live in Kiev. And she and her husband weren't able to find work when they moved into the city. They're basically village dwellers, and they would like to go back to their homes.

CURWOOD: Chernobyl is considered the worst manmade disaster in history, and is said to have affected tens of thousands of people. Tell me what your results show of the medical effects of the radioactive spill.

GRAY: Well, I think, it's very important to remember that the full effects are not fully understood yet. I mean, some of the cancers will take decades to develop. I think it's certainly also true that people who live in the area have an exaggerated estimation of the effects. I mean, we know how many people, for example, have developed thyroid cancer. And it's possible to project on the basis of epidemiological evidence the likely pattern of developing thyroid cancer in the future.

But, the belief that almost any conditions is linked to Chernobyl is mistaken. And, for example, there is no evidence of increase in leukemia resulting from the accident. And, also, there is no internationally recognized evidence of an increase in birth deformities. This contradicts what's generally believed in the areas. And also, I think, probably in the rest of the world.

So, the accident didn't have as serious a health effect as many people believe. And it's very important that people living in the area get that message. Because many people feel that they're condemned. And most of those people, in fact, their life chances haven't really been affected by the radiation.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you this. Based on your findings, should the former Soviet government have evacuated the three hundred and sixty, almost four hundred thousand people from the region of Chernobyl from their homes?

GRAY: I think probably many of them needed to be evacuated because of the health hazard caused by the radiation. But, really the problem was that too much was done too late. And, I think that, in retrospect, a smaller number of people would have been evacuated, and more effort would have been made to, first of all, give people the choice themselves whether they continue to live in these areas. And secondly, to support people who chose to stay in their homes, for example, with access to food which was from uncontaminated areas, and with gas supplies so that they didn't have to depend on burning local wood for heating and cooking. And some of the people who were evacuated could safely have continued to live in their homes had they had that support.

CURWOOD: I must say there's a bit of controversy over your study, Patrick Gray. Some people say that your team is downplaying the actual radiation effects of the spill and the dangers of nuclear energy. And that it encourages people to move back to their homes near Chernobyl. How do you respond to those criticisms, concerns?

GRAY: Well, we're criticized from both sides. I mean, it's true that many people believe that there were much wider health effects. For example, there have been many in the past, many press reports, of huge numbers of people dying of the accident. That's simply not correct. And there was very extensive monitoring of the health of people who were affected. Some seven million people in the three countries are kept under review. So, a great deal is known about the health effects. And we think it's very important that good research is done so that the people in the area can have a balanced judgement on the like effects on their own and their children's health. And secondly, that the rest of the world community draws the lessons that need to be drawn from the accident, and doesn't encourage misunderstandings.

CURWOOD: Patrick Gray is Director of the economic development company, Oxford Research Limited, and team leader for the report on the human consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Mr. Gray, thanks for being with us.

GRAY: Thank you.

Back to top


Yucca Mountain

CURWOOD: The new White House budget calls for five and a half million dollars to prepare Nevada's Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste disposal. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says he's pushing ahead with a plan to build a high level radioactive waste repository at the desert site, ninety miles north of Las Vegas.

Nevada's Congressional delegation, and a broad coalition of environmental groups, firmly oppose the idea and a battle is looming in Washington. But, as John Christensen reports, some folks who live in the shadow of Yucca Mountain have grown a bit fatalistic about living in a nuclear landscape.


CHRISTENSEN: Yucca Mountain's reputation looms large in Southern Nevada. But, even from nearby Amargosa Valley Yucca Mountain is hard to pick out among the jumble of low lying ridges on the eastern horizon. Amargosa means "bitter" in Spanish. The name is taken from the Amargosa River, which is really not much more than an ephemeral creek in some places, a dry wash in most that drains toward Death Valley to the west. So, it is something of a surprise to find a small farming community thriving in this vast, desolate place.


GOEDHART: We like to say it takes a real farmer to be a farmer within the shadows of Death Valley National Park. Someone who has has a little bit-a little bit crazy, I guess.

CHRISTENSEN: Ed Goedhart stands on the edge of an emerald green field, while a giant center pivot sprinkler slowly turns around a circle. Goedhart is the manager of the Ponderosa Dairy, home to six thousand cows. He points to the site of the proposed nuclear repository.

GOEDHART: Yucca Mountain will probably be about fifteen or twenty miles north of where we are right now.

CHRISTENSEN: Goedhart wears a t-shirt that says, "Yea, though we live in the shadows of Death Valley and Yucca Mountain, we will not fear. We will be happy, make milk and prosper." But he is more concerned than the bravado on his back might suggest. The Ponderosa Dairy produces thirty-two thousand gallons of milk a day. The organic milk is distributed throughout the southwest. The cows are fed hay grown here in Amargosa Valley on fields irrigated with water from the same aquifer that runs under Yucca Mountain.

GOEDHART: At the point in which the Yucca Mountain went through, if there was a problem with, say the containers leaking nuclear waste, there would be a concern that it could migrate down and hit the water table.


CHRISTENSEN: A journey into Yucca Mountain begins at the entrance to a tunnel where a tram waits to carry workers into the dark depths where the U.S. Department of Energy plans to entomb the nation's deadliest nuclear waste forever.

Photo: Jon ChristensenA tram waits at the entrance to a tunnel to carry workers into Yucca Mountain.
(Photo: Jon Christensen)

KOVACH: Make sure you keep your arms inside because we've got some walkways on mine power centers that stick out. So, just keep your arms in.

CHRISTENSEN: Richard Kovach, the construction manager for Yucca Mountain, is our guide. This five mile tunnel is the home of some of the last studies that are being conducted to try to determine whether the mountain can safely contain spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors, and high level radioactive waste from atomic weapons plants.

The Energy Department has spent almost four billion dollars studying Yucca Mountain, making it the most intensively scrutinized piece of ground on the planet. The initial attraction was obvious. Yucca Mountain is on the edge of the Nevada test site, not far from where hundreds of atomic bombs were exploded above and below ground between 1951 and 1992. Less than four inches of rain a year falls on this bone dry ridge, made of ancient volcanic ash laid down thirteen million years ago. But, what scientists have found inside Yucca Mountain has been surprising: water.

KOVACH: And that's the issue here at Yucca Mountain, is the movement of water from the surface down through the potential repository, down into the water table. And then from the water table where it goes from there. Because the water table moves from the north to the south, it goes into the Amargosa Valley which is populated.

CHRISTENSEN: Inside the tunnel it is cool, dry and dusty. But, there is water trapped in tiny pockets in the matrix of the volcanic rock. And water slowly percolates down through fissures and faults in Yucca Mountain. The tram descends about a mile down a gradual slope that takes us to the very middle of the mountain not far from where the waste would be stored.


KOVACH: At that point we're about seven hundred feet from the water table, and about the same distance from the surface. The potential repository is in that direction.

CHRISTENSEN: The tram has stopped at a side tunnel where mock waste canisters, heated by electricity rather than radiation, have been installed to simulate what will happen inside Yucca Mountain when real radioactive waste is stored here.

KOVACH: You can see the heated drift, there's nine simulated canisters. The canister temperature is 392 degrees; it was pretty close 200c. So, they're simulating in eight years what if we were to go to a hot repository, what we would see in maybe a thousand years.

CHRISTENSEN: The Energy Department predicts that no one will be harmed by any leaking radionuclides for hundreds of thousands of years. That prediction is based on a computer model called a Monte Carlo Simulation, that combines all of the data from these tests in every possible way to determine a range of possibilities of what will happen inside the mountain: How fast water will drip onto canisters. How fast the canisters will corrode. How much of the radioactive waste will be absorbed by the rock. And how much will leak down to the water table.

The Energy Department says its canisters, made of a high tech metal alloy, will last for at least ten thousand years. By that time much of the most dangerously radioactive material will have decayed. And when the mountain eventually leaks, it will be diluted enough not to be hazardous.


KOVACH: It looks like some bums or somebody come in-See, these were all stacked up over here, and this is not like this. Somebody's come in and probably spent the night and used these mattresses here....

CHRISTENSEN: About twelve miles away in Lathrop Wells, Jim Hooton owns the closest place to Yucca Mountain. It is a couple of acres of desert scrubs scattered with surplus equipment scavenged from the Nevada test site.


HOOTON: They put this stuff up for bid. And I bid on electronics and computers. And these are little houses that they had for air sampling and monitoring devices.

CHRISTENSEN: There's not much around Hooton's junkyard. Two gas stations, a small restaurant, bar and store, and a brothel are all of Lathrop Wells. But, Hooton has high hopes. If radioactive waste is going to be buried here, local county officials want to build a science and technology center at this crossroads to take advantage of the enduring notoriety Yucca Mountain is likely to bring to Amargosa Valley. And Hooton's place sits right in the middle of the plan.

Photo: Jon ChristensenJim Hooton owns the closest place to
Yucca Mountain, a junkyard in Lathrop Wells.
(Photo: Jon Christensen)

HOOTON: And the economic development that's going to go on in this area in the future is going to be pretty good, from what I understand. As far as them developing Yucca out there, I think it's probably, in my opinion, the best place to put it. And it's already been messed up for the next twenty thousand years, so why put it someplace else in somebody else's backyard, you know?

CHRISTENSEN: Hooton worked out at the Nevada test site for twelve years as an electronic technician preparing for atomic bomb test. Like Ed Goedhart, he wears a Ponderosa Dairy t-shirt proclaiming he has no fear. And he means it.

HOOToN: You know, we've been living here under the shadow of a test site for years and years and years, and we've had no problems. Nuclear energy is just like a gun; it's only as dangerous as the human being with his finger on the trigger, you know. That's my opinion.

MCCRACKEN: People in rural southern Nevada area around the Nevada test site have had experience historically with nuclear technology. I mean, the-- We used to get up in the morning and watch the a-bombs go off.

CHRISTENSEN: Local historian, Robert McCracken, has conducted oral histories with dozens of residents of Amargosa Valley and other small towns surrounding the Nevada test site. He says many residents view the location of a national high level radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain as another challenge to be met for the good of the whole country, as well as a boon for the local economy. Here he reads from the conclusion of his book, "The Modern Pioneers of Amargosa Valley."

McCRACKEN: The new pioneers in the Amargosa Valley believe that nuclear technology and the desert, with its freedom and incredible beauty, can co-exist productively and harmoniously.


CHRISTENSEN: But out at the Ponderosa Dairy, Ed Goedhart is not so sure.

GOEDHART: I really can't make a prediction how they're going to implement this, and what impacts it could have. I mean, so it's kind of tough to say. I think we can live with it, but who knows.


CHRISTENSEN: No one can be sure whether Yucca Mountain can contain the radioactive waste long enough for it to be rendered harmless. A recent report by the independent Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board said scientific uncertainties make it impossible to ensure the safety of the site. But, the Energy Department is pressing ahead with the project. The state of Nevada now has an opportunity to voice its objections. But, the ultimate fade of Yucca Mountain will be in the hands of Congress.

For Living on Earth, I'm John Christensen in Amargosa Valley, Nevada.


[MUSIC: Mike Oldfield, "The Lake"]

Back to top


CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week: the laws have been passed and the money's been allocated. Now, it's up to the varied interests of South Florida to figure out how to fill all of the Everglades with water once again, even in the midst of a severe drought.

MAN: We've never all come together and agreed one hundred percent, one hundred percent of the time. But, I think, we all realize that if we don't get it right, we're all going to suffer. And there's a lot of folks sitting around this table that recognize that.

CURWOOD: Restoring the River of Grass, next time on Living on Earth.



CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a feast of sound. On the Itrong Plains in Kenya, recordist Chris Watson found a dead zebra in the cold mist just before sunrise. He placed some tiny microphones inside the carcass, found a hiding spot a few hundred feet away, and waited. In the mid-day heat, nine vultures arrived. Here's a sampling of the lunch counter chatter.

[Chris Watson, "Vultures", OUTSIDE THE CIRCLE OF FIRE (EarthEar - 2002)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, Jessica Penny and Gernot Wagner--along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Bree Horowitz and Milisa Muniz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Rachel Girshick and Jessie Fenn. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Ingrid Lobet 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.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation supporting reporting on western issues. The Oak Foundation; the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded internet service.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR. National Public Radio.


This Week's Music


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth