October 11, 2002
Air Date: October 11, 2002
Clean Water Act
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The Clean Water Act is thirty years old this week. Host Steve Curwood talks with Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, about some of the Act’s accomplishments, and the challenges that lie ahead. (05:15)
Don’t Drink the Water/ Tamara Keith
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You don't have to go to a foreign country to find places where the water is undrinkable. Tamara Keith reports from a town in Central California where water is not only dirty and intermittent, but where the arsenic levels are a health threat. (06:00)
Business Note/Paper Wizard/ Jennifer Chu
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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on an online environmental calculator for the magazine industry. (01:20)
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This week, we have facts about the Navy's elite MK6. Fifteen years ago this week these highly trained dolphins were deployed in the Persian Gulf. (01:30)
House Raising/ Peter Thomson
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If you are thinking of building your own home, but afraid of the expense and contractor nightmares, then think about having your friends help you build it. That’s what one couple did in upstate New York. Peter Thomson tells us how it all came together. (10:00)
Shirt Scraps/ Linda Tatelbaum
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Sometimes when we harvest a garden, we take down more than fruits and vegetables. Commentator Linda Tatelbaum tells her story of the memories that are tied up in her crops. (03:00)
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New developments in stories we’ve been following recently. (03:00)
Health Note/ Nursing Home Sleep/ Diane Toomey
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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on research looking into ways to help nursing home patients get a better night's sleep. (01:20)
Silver Valley/ Guy Hand
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In Northern Idaho's Silver Valley mining country, some residents complain the EPA has practically taken up residence. A century of mining waste coats this valley, but some residents believe the health threat is small and wish the EPA would leave. Guy Hand reports. (15:00)
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Sounds of a stream running through British Columbia’s Carmanah Valley. ()
HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTERS: Tamara Keith, Peter Thomson, Guy HandGUESTS: Anna Solomon-GreenbaumNOTES: Jennifer Chu, Diane ToomeyCOMMENTATOR: Linda Tatelbaum
CURWOOD: From NPR News it's Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Almost two decades ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to northern Idaho to clean up the aftermath of some major mining operations. At first local residents welcomed the attention of the federal government, but the goodwill didn't last.
BOND: The original EPA guys that came up here to do this cleanup were decent, honorable people. They were good, good people. What you've got now is a bunch of little Gestapo and I would not suggest that anybody not use any means available constitutionally or otherwise to oppose them.
CURWOOD: It's the Silver Valley Superfund stigma this week. And we look at the progress and problems of the Clean Water Act 30 years after it first became law. We'll have those stories and more on Living on Earth coming up right after this.
[THEME MUSIC UP]
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Clean Water Act turns 30 this week. Some of us are old enough to remember the crisis facing the nation's waterways in the late 60s and early 70s. Record fish kills were commonplace. Rivers, including the Hudson in New York and the Charles in Boston were dying, and what became the most enduring symbol of that era, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, caught fire. When Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the goal it set was ambitious – "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters." Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum joins me now from Washington. Anna, here we are some three decades later. Tell me, how effective has the Clean Water Act been?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, we have made progress. There's no question our waters are cleaner today than they were in the 1970s. Much of that's due to the effort that was made right away to get point sources of pollution cleaned up. These are places like factories, chemical plants, paper mills, also water treatment plants that treat raw sewage.
Initially, the major push was getting these types of facilities to cut down on their discharge, to use better technology to control their waste. And all of it made a difference. There are rivers that are swimmable today that weren't 30 years ago. There are lakes that are now fishable. The problem is, over the past ten years or so, the progress has sort of plateaued. And actually, the EPA just came out with its latest Water Quality Inventory report that finds our waters were actually dirtier in 2000 than they were in 1998. Overall, about 45 percent of the nation's waters aren't meeting water quality standards. Now that's down from about 60 or 70 percent 30 years ago, but it's still a substantial number.
CURWOOD: Well Anna, if all those sources have already cut down on their pollution, why is there still such a problem?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well there are plenty of people, both at the EPA and among environmental groups, who tell you that there are many facilities and factories that are still violating the Act. There is also a major problem with funding for water programs. But beyond the direct sources I've mentioned are also all the other sources of pollution that don't come from a particular pipe or plant. Here we're talking about things like agriculture, construction sites, suburban yards or urban storm water; all the diffuse sources of oil and chemicals and nutrients that drain off into the watersheds. These are called non-point sources, and in general, they're not as simple to identify and control. Yet the EPA estimates they account for at least half the water pollution in the U.S. today.
CURWOOD: My understanding is that there is a component of the Clean Water Act that's meant to deal with these so-called non-point sources.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, you're right. There is a program called the Total Maximum Daily Load program, or TMDL, and the basic idea there is after all the best technology has been put into place on the direct sources of pollution, states are supposed to take a look at their waters, determine which ones are still impaired, and develop a plan of action to clean them up. That could mean looking at different land use plans for suburbs. It could mean requiring animal feed lots to handle their waste differently. Really, Steve, the TMDL program was meant as a sort of mop-up, so to speak, for the Clean Water Act.
CURWOOD: And how well is this working?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, it hasn't come that far. Many of the states have listed their impaired waters, but as far as coming up with a plan and implementing it, there hasn't been much progress. There's a lot of opposition to the TMDL program, in particular from the farm industry and local and state water officials, who say the program isn't flexible enough. And so the Bush administration has now stepped in. It says it wants to address these concerns. It's proposed a slew of changes to the TMDL program. One change, for instance, would allow a state to reclassify certain water bodies. If the goal for one particular river has been to make it drinkable, for example, the state could change that goal to fishable, which would lower the water quality standards and make them easier to reach.
CURWOOD: Anna, can you give us a quick run down of the other changes that the Bush administration has pushed for in the Clean Water Act over this past year?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, probably the first major change came a year ago last October, when the Army Corps of Engineers announced it was changing what's known as the No Net Loss policy for wetlands. Basically, No Net Loss requires developers to replace every acre of wetland they fill with at least another acre of wetland. Now the Army is waiving that requirement, which will make it easier for developers to build in and around wetlands.
Then this spring, the Corps issued a new rule that makes it legal, under the Clean Water Act, to fill water bodies with mining, and other types of wastes.
And then just this last month, the Administration announced what could potentially be much more far-reaching changes. It said it's looking to clarify which types of water bodies the Clean Water Act actually has jurisdiction over. In particular what they're questioning is whether water bodies like isolated wetlands or intermittent streams are included under that umbrella. One EPA official I spoke with said it's likely they're going to recommend leaving those water bodies to the states to manage. So really what they're talking about is a major change in the way the Clean Water Act works. Needless to say, I think you can expect a pretty big fight from the environmental community as this moves forward.
CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum is Living on Earth's Washington correspondent. Thanks, Anna.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You're welcome, Steve.
EPA’s Office of Water
CURWOOD: One Clean Water rollback the Bush administration decided not to pursue was to weaken the arsenic standard in drinking water. According to the EPA, as many as 11 million people nationwide are drinking water contaminated by arsenic. Among them, residents of the farming community of Alpaugh in central California. Six months ago they were told their town's well was contaminated. From member station KQED Tamara Keith reports on life without clean water.
KEITH: If you lived in tiny, dusty Alpaugh, California, you'd probably have to do what Maria Barajas and her family do – drive 15 miles to the closest large town twice a week to purchase water.
[SOUND OF WATER JUGS IN THE BARAJAS’ CAR]
Four empty water jugs bump around in the family's 1987 Toyota Corolla. Outside it's stifling. The car doesn't have air conditioning, and Barajas, her husband, and two kids are baking in the cramped car.
[SOUND OF CHANGE AND WATER MACHING]
Outside a gas station mini-mart, the Barajas kids feed coins into one of those big blue dispensing machines. At $1.40 a bottle, it costs about $55.00 a month to buy water for drinking, cooking, and brushing teeth.
[BARAJAS SPEAKING SPANISH]
VOICEOVER: We come here because we have to eat. We have to cook. Even if there is nothing else we have to buy here, we still have to come two or three times a week just to buy water.
KEITH: The family has been making this trek ever since Barajas received a health warning that Alpaugh’s water contained such high levels of the heavy metal arsenic that it was unsafe even to cook with it. One reading of the town's well showed arsenic levels at more than seven times the national standard. Barajas has a bubbly personality, but there is only so much she can take. Not only is the water contaminated, she says the supply is unreliable.
[BARAJAS SPEAKING SPANISH]
VOICEOVER: It contains bacteria, arsenic, it smells foul, there's no pressure, and they don't even tell you when they're shutting it off. You're left in the shower half-bathed.
KEITH: Since last Spring, virtually all of Alpaugh's 700 residents have relied on bottled water. Ironically, a recent study found some bottled water contains arsenic too. And Alpaugh isn't alone in its water problems. Last year, 9 percent of the nation's water suppliers reported violating at least one health standard. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that now that its new arsenic standard has gone into effect, 20 to 30 percent of water districts in the Southwest are probably out of compliance. The mineral occurs naturally here. Aaron Colangelo with the Natural Resources Defense Council says people shouldn't have to question the safety of their tap water.
COLANGELO: Everybody has a right to clean, quality, safe drinking water, and there are many places throughout the country – not just in the west, but throughout the country – where people don't have safe drinking water.
KEITH: Arsenic has been linked to several illnesses, including lung, skin and bladder cancer. It's also thought to cause diabetes, skin lesions, and other ailments.
[SOUND OF DOG BARKING]
KEITH: On the outskirts of town, I talked with Betty Kimball, who was very worried about the possible health effects. She said she'd been drinking the water for years until she happened upon a notice from the local water district.
KIMBALL: We knew it smelled bad, and you know, we had no water pressure, or anything like that. But we just kind of chalked it up to where we are, country living.
KEITH: After finding out about the arsenic, Kimball's doctor tested her and her husband, and both had elevated levels of the heavy metal in their urine. She showed me sores on her legs and said her skin itched constantly.
KIMBALL: Everything about this water is bad. If I had kids, I wouldn't give them this water, so I won't give my dogs this water either.
KEITH: Shortly after this interview, Kimball died suddenly at her home. Her husband tells friends when she passed, she was at her desk writing a letter to water officials saying she couldn't pay their bill.
Kimball wasn't the only one writing letters. Alpaugh's residents are furious that despite the fact their water is undrinkable, the local water district recently tripled their rates. Water district may sound official, but in small communities like Alpaugh, the people in charge of providing clean, safe water are often volunteers with no special training, and almost no money. Steve Martin, president of the Alpaugh Irrigation Board says the town's long-time rate of $20.00 a month just couldn't last.
MARTIN: This is based on 295 connections. That's not very many connections to cover all the cost. We cannot collect enough money out of the $20.00 to pay our bills is what it amounts to.
KEITH: The rate increase covers operating costs and past debts, but does little to tackle Alpaugh's primary problem, arsenic contamination. Some residents are so angry about the increase, they're refusing to pay. Mariana Astorga and three other residents have gone to court, not for damages, just to stop the rate increase. She says she can't afford to pay for both bottled water and tap water.
[ASTORGA SPEAKING SPANISH]
VOICEOVER: I'd rather have my water service cut-off than have to stop buying the clean water I am giving to my children.
[SOUND OF WATER PUMPING]
KIMBALL: But at least in this one community, things are beginning to look up. Governor Gray Davis just signed a bill that will give Alpaugh two million dollars to drill new wells. Even so, improvements are still months away. And that means many more trips to town to buy clean water, spending scarce cash on what others take for granted.
For Living on Earth, I'm Tamara Keith in Alpaugh.
[MUSIC: Balkan Tribes, "Zurle" BALKANS WITHOUT BORDERS (Omnium, 1999)]
CURWOOD: Coming up, how to make a house a home, from the very first board and nail. First, this environmental business note from Jennifer Chu.
CHU: These days you can figure out your own ecological footprint with a variety of online environmental calculators. Personal air pollution and greenhouse gas contributions can be quantified by plugging in a few lifestyle facts and figures.
Now there's a new calculator for computing the eco-impact of your favorite magazine. The Paper Wizard is a non-profit online venture. To compute a magazine's yearly tree consumption, the Paper Wizard asks for a variety of details, including page size, paper weight, page count, paper grade and the number of issues published per year. The Wizard calculates the number of trees consumed – and the number of trees that can be saved – if a magazine used a percentage of recycled paper.
Today, less than five percent of U.S. magazines contain recycled paper, and the industry as a whole consumes about 35 million trees per year. Initial results on several popular magazines showed that the fashion monthly Cosmopolitan consumes about 328,000 trees per year, while National Geographic uses about 500,000. The Paper Wizard plans to market the free online service to major magazine publishers in the next few months.
That's this week's business note. I'm Jennifer Chu.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Mad Professor, "Black Orpheus Dub" RED HOT AND RIO (Verve, 1996)]
The Paper Wizard
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
[MUSIC: Henry Mancini, "Peter Gunn" GREATEST HITS, RCA]
CURWOOD: Fall, 1987. The Navy Command Vessel USS LaSalle docked in the Gulf of Bahrain on a mission to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers. The Navy dispatches a team of highly trained underwater security experts called MK-6 to guard this highly visible target. MK-6 turns out to be a pod of bottlenose dolphins that were part of the Navy's Marine Mammal Program.
The program to study dolphin's sonar and navigation began in 1960, but the Navy soon realized it couldn't design a system better than the dolphin's extraordinary navigating and swimming abilities. So dolphins were sent to locate under water mines, lost torpedoes and enemy saboteurs.
They scanned the water with their natural sonar for divers. Once targeted, the dolphin sneaks up behind the diver, and attaches a small strobe to him so that Navy personnel can intercept the intruder. It all happens so quickly and silently the diver may not even know he's been marked. Navy dolphins first saw active duty during the Vietnam War when they guarded the ammo pier in Cam Rahn Bay.
The Navy is currently developing new sonar systems that may one day replace the dolphin's mission. But until then, the dolphins just keep on swimming. Their latest operation? A NATO mine clearing exercise off the coast of Denmark. That's this week's Living on Earth Almanac.
[MUSIC: Henry Mancini, "Peter Gunn" GREATEST HITS, RCA]
US Navy Marine Mammal Program
CURWOOD: If you're looking for a brand new home these days, you could look in a showroom, or a catalog, or even online. For the most part, new houses are commodities, no different than cars or computers. They are built by people who will never live in them. But once in a while, a house is built in a way that hearkens back to a time when people relied more on community than on the market. Producer Peter Thomson recently found himself involved in such a project.
THOMSON: I'd seen my friend Stefan only once in the last dozen years or so, and maybe only three or four times since he moved away when we were 14. But I'd always missed him, and I finally tracked him down to invite him to a big party I was having.
I got an almost instant reply. "We'd love to come." But before my party, he was having one of his own. "We've bought a piece of land outside Ithaca," he wrote. "We're having a house raising party. Want to come?" Ithaca is 400 miles away from my house in Boston, and I can't remember the last time I touched a 2 by 4. But I knew I had to be there. The plan was to raise the house from the foundation to the roof in three days.
THOMSON: It sounded ambitious, but when I arrived late in the first day, the walls of the first floor were already up.
[RADIO MUSIC AND CONSTRUCTION SOUNDS]
THOMSON: Hey Liz!
LIZ: It's happening. There was no house here this morning. It's like time-lapse photography.
(Photo: Peter Thomson)
THOMSON: Liz is Stefan's wife. We stood before a swarm of activity; a human anthill rising up between a patch of woods in a big, empty upstate New York cornfield. Thirty or so people were sawing boards, hauling lumber, taking measurements, firing nail guns like pistols at a carnival midway, all to the beat of a classic rock soundtrack. Before long, I spotted Stefan amid the swarm as well. He'd grown a beard since I'd last saw him, and was roaming the site in what seemed an almost ecstatic state – a kind of focused frenzy. He looked like some sort of shaman.
STEFAN: Hi Peter.
THOMSON: Hi Stefan.
STEFAN: Let's see. Okay, follow me.
THOMSON: Like I said, we hadn't seen each other for years, but this was no time to catch up. He put me right to work with a bunch of other guys.
STEFAN: Peter, Peter, John, Tim.
JOHN: Hi Peter, John.
THOMSON: How are you doing?
TIM: How are you?
JOHN: Here is the job.
STEFAN: We've got to get all of the plywood, all of that plywood onto those horses. The lines facing out, and up.
STEFAN: So work in pairs.
THOMSON: We set to work stacking sheets of plywood on saw horses next to the house. Another crew hauled the boards up above our heads, where they would become the walls of the second story. Around the corner, still others were framing a mudroom.
THOMSON: A good deal of the group seemed to be greenhorns like me. It felt like a fantasy camp for novice builders.
[SOUND OF GROUP VOICES AND DOG BARKING]
THOMSON: But some people clearly knew what they were doing. The house was going up fast, and they were all working for free. At every turn I was introduced to somebody new.
RANDY: I'm Randy, hi.
THOMSON: Hi Randy, I'm Peter.
ROSE: Oh, I'm sorry.
THOMSON: That's okay.
RANDY: Hi Peter, good to meet you.
THOMSON: Nice to meet you.
ROSE: Lucy Rose.
THOMSON: Hi Lucy Rose.
It went on like that all weekend. I was working alongside a bunch of people I'd never met, building a house for people I hadn't seen in years, in a place that I'd never been. And it seemed that others here had a similar story. What united us were only our ties to Stefan and Liz. There were old friends of theirs from Boston, family from Canada, DC and Massachusetts, local friends and colleagues, and new neighbors from across the street. The disparate threads of 40-plus years of Stefan and Liz's lives were being wound together into one single strand, for one weekend, for this one purpose: building their family a house, and helping to bring them home.
[SOUND OF BIRDS]
THOMSON: This part of the story, about home, as well as a house, only became clear after I arrived. When he'd invited me, Stefan had told me only when and where, nothing about how this had come about. But over the course of the weekend, he and Liz began to fill me in.
[SOUNDS OF BIRDS CHIRPING]
THOMSON: They'd come to Ithaca when Stefan entered grad school at Cornell. Liz says they fell in love with the area and the local community, but that when Stefan finished school, they left.
LIZ: He got a job at the University of Michigan two and a half years ago, and we went out, and realized pretty quickly that for us it was a mistake. We really – we missed being here.
THOMSON: Sometimes a place beckons you back when you leave. Liz and Stefan, and their two young kids heard the call of their place, but at first they didn't feel able to respond.
[SOUND OF BIRDS]
THOMSON: Stefan had a good job in Michigan, but no prospects for anything like it back in New York; nothing that could support buying or building a house.
But as they tell it, this place wouldn't take "no" for an answer.
[SOUND OF DISTANT NAIL GUN]
THOMSON: A year or so after they left, they returned for a friend's anniversary party.
LIZ: At this party, this whole incredible series of conversations took place, in which someone told us about some land that was for sale. Someone else offered to lend us the money to buy it. Jeff Lange who's here this weekend, who is a builder who has done a lot of work with Habitat for Humanity said ‘well, if you buy that land, then I'll help you build your house. We'll have a house building party.’
[SOUND OF BIRDS]
THOMSON: Stefan says it was a remarkable moment.
STEFAN: I experienced it as an erotic encounter with the universe. It was like just a feeling of embrace, and opening. We would just be standing there and someone would come and say ‘sure, I'm there.’ [Laughter] You know? And so we, I think we experienced it as an ongoing outpouring of love. It was really extraordinary.
THOMSON: So how could they refuse? Before long, Stefan and Liz had used their friend's loan to make an offer on the land, cast their fate in with the depressed economy of upstate New York, and set to work planning to build their house, relying in large part on the donated labor of friends and family.
[SOUND OF HAMMERING]
THOMSON: And a year later, the limb they'd gone out on was starting to bear fruit. By sundown of the first day, the second story was well underway, and by the end of day two, the rafters were up. The labor was demanding. The pace was frenetic. And before the weekend was over, much of the crew had worked itself nearly into a delirium. Stefan in particular was past the point of exhaustion, and his shaman spell began to break.
Near the end of the final day, Stefan shot himself in the wrist with his nail gun. Amazingly, the nail missed the tangle of veins and tendons, and just hung there, limply. But it was enough of a warning. Stefan realized it was time to slow down. But the work continued. And by the end of the third day, we had finished the roof.
THOMSON: And as we worked through the weekend, people talked about why they'd come, and what it meant to them to be here.
[SOUND OF GROUP VOICES]
MALE: People used to do this all of the time, and what do you get in return for it? Satisfaction. You get something in return, but it's not tangible, yet, and you don't know what it's going to be. People should do more stuff for free.
THOMSON: So what are you actually contributing to this construction project?
MALE: Oh, I've been hammering nails right beside you all day. Don't you remember? [Laughter]
THOMSON: Oh, that was you?
MALE: Yes. [Laughter]
[SOUND OF HAMMERING]
FEMALE: They're the sort of people who know they can call on friends, because they have been that kind of friend to other people. So you know, when you put the call out, nobody would hesitate. You just put out – well, you've got e-mail now. You can put out the word on e-mail, and bingo bango. If you can't live like that, there is not a lot of point. Not a lot of point.
FEMALE 2: It's very moving. I cried five times yesterday, just watching everybody work together, and getting to know each other, and sitting on the first floor, watching the sun set. A very, you know, warm feeling, that people would come and help.
[SOUND OF DRILL AND SAW]
THOMSON: Something happens when people are joined by a common experience or purpose. They start to know and care about each other in a different way, and the bond lasts far beyond the moment itself. By the end of the weekend, along with the house, a community of sorts, had risen out of the cornfield as well, one which would last even as its members returned to their own far-flung lives. And as long as the house stands, and Stefan and Liz's family live in it, Liz says that community will never quite dissolve.
[SOUND OF HAMMERING]
LIZ: The house is much more than a collection of wood and nails. And you know, if ever a house was borne out of good feeling, this is it. And so there is the changing of this thing from just shelter to, you know, a representative of all of these relationships.
THOMSON: Of course, it wasn't just good feeling all around. Stefan says some people that they invited didn't want to come. They didn't see why they should help build someone else's house for free. But among those who did come, there seemed no question that this was the right thing to do.
The house was nowhere near finished by the end of the weekend, and Stefan and Liz are hiring contractors for the months of work that remain. But the communal effort provided the crucial margin which allowed this family to come home to the place that they love, and it likely won't be the last time that something like this happens around here. The builder who gave birth to the idea that friends could help Stefan and Liz build their house hopes to make it a regular thing in this part of the world.
[SOUND OF HAMMERING]
THOMSON: The community which came together to help create this home won't entirely dissipate either. We've all been invited back for an anniversary party in the finished house next summer. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in Mecklinberg, New York.
[SOUND OF HAMMERING]
CURWOOD: With fall settling in, commentator Linda Tatelbaum has been undoing her garden at her home in Rockland, Maine, and finding it can mean more than canning and cleaning.
TATELBAUM: Today I'm taking down my tomato plants. It's not as simple as it sounds, because with them I'm taking down the shredded evidence of my past. The plants have been staked to my past all summer, festooned with strips of torn cloth. Here is the flannel ripped from one of many plaid shirts I've given my husband for his birthday. Here's the pink flowered nightgown that comforted me when I was a student, freezing in Paris. I stuff the scraps into a bag. The empty plants flop to the ground.
I kneel to loosen a knot from the old crib sheet. It's dotted with Disney characters; not the garish ones that march across a lunch box or a video screen today, but the modest, 1950's version. The sheet was already a hand-me-down when my little boy landed on it in October, 1979. Now here it is October again, the row of maples turning red as when he was born. After all these decades, this threadbare piece of Mickey Mouse has done its time. I toss it into the compost heap along with the uprooted Big Boy tomato plant it held aloft.
All things go down to dirt in the end, but there is still more wear left in the strips of a lilac T-shirt my husband bought for me at the Rochester Airport in the early eighties. It says, "I'd rather be in Rochester" which isn't exactly true, and never was. But that day, I was a sad young mother leaving my parents’ help with the baby. I wanted to raise my son in the country, but I was crying at the daunting prospect of my return with a baby on my back, to the toil of our Maine homestead – tending vegetables, carrying water, cooking on a wood stove.
I shove a T-shirt scrap into the bag, and yank the tomato plant from the soil. Maybe it's I who am anchored to the stake, tied to tomatoes, believing that nothing changes. I tend the same vigorous plants year after year. We don't say they're aging, but ripening. We don't call it death but harvest, as they pass into our mouth, our blood, our thoughts.
Next fall the same fruits will stream into the basket and onto the table, under the knife and into the jars. I do not mourn for passing vegetables. This perpetual abundance deceives me, though. Here I am, still myself, and my same husband too. But my mother lives in a nursing home. My father is dead. My son is a man. Every year the pine trees on these acres grow taller. How many hints will it take?
I reach back into the bag and pull the scrap out again. I run the faded strip through my hand. This lilac ribbon connects me to Mom, recalling how much a young mother needs a mother, and how much an old mother needs a daughter. In all the days between my need and hers, face it, we are ripening. The ripening of tomatoes ends in the joy of eating. Soon it will be winter, then spring again. Mom will not be here forever. But as long as I am here, hanging out with tomatoes, dragging my scraps around in a bag, I'll be tethered to her.
CURWOOD: Linda Tatelbaum lives in Maine, and is author of "Writer on the Rocks – Moving the Impossible." You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Time now to follow-up on some of the news stories we've been tracking lately.
A federal judge is giving a green light to the first offshore wind farm plan for North America. A coalition of environmental groups and residents of Cape Cod, Massachusetts filed suit to block construction of the wind power research tower in Nantucket Sound. They claim the tower would cause irreparable damage to marine life. But Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind, the company in charge of the project, says the proposed wind power is needed.
GORDON: This wind farm will produce 420 megawatts of clean, renewable energy. It will contribute to lower electric costs, and less reliance on imported energy.
CURWOOD: If all goes as planned, the wind farm will be up and running by 2005.
CURWOOD: The U.S. government is assisting the Colombian military in keeping oil flowing through the Occidental Petroleum Pipeline. Since the 1980's, rebel groups have bombed the pipeline nearly a thousand times. But Steve Lucas, a spokesperson for the U.S. Southern Command, says the U.S. will help the Colombian military adopt proactive tactics.
LUCAS: What we hope to do is encourage them to take the offensive against these illegal armed groups, instead of simply being in the defensive role and trying to protect hundreds of kilometers of pipeline.
CURWOOD: During the next two years, U.S. Special Forces will train about 4,000 Colombian officers in military skills and intelligence gathering.
LUCAS: A team of students from the University of Colorado at Boulder is the first prize winner of the Solar Decathlon held among fourteen schools on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Each strove to design creative, efficient, and livable homes. Mathew Henry was the project manager for the construction on the UC Boulder winning team.
HENRY: Everybody is really excited, and passionate about bringing solar and sustainable, and really other energy uses, to the public and to the legislature. I mean, we were there, right on the doorstep of the Capitol building.
CURWOOD: The house featured solar water heating and a modular design that would make it easy to replicate and conform to any region of the country.
CURWOOD: And finally, in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of the teddy bear, the auction house Christie's will hold a special sale. Some of the more exotic stuffed bears include one made to mark the period of national mourning in England after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. But if you go, you'd better bring a bear-sized wallet. The fanciest teddies are expected to fetch as much as $45,000.
That's this week's follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Just ahead, the story of what happened when the Superfund stigma came to Silver Valley, Idaho. First, this environmental health note from Diane Toomey.
TOOMEY: In recent years, there has been a move to make nursing home environments more pleasant and healthy by introducing quality of life enhancements. Those improvements include the addition of such things as plants and animals.
Now researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology want to help nursing home residents get a better night's sleep. They studied sleep disruption in 92 nursing homes, and found that when people woke up during the night, almost one-fifth of the time the cause of that disruption was loud noise.
To alleviate the problem, acoustical engineers working in several nursing homes are testing noise reduction technologies. They're hanging sound-absorbing panels in hallway walls, replacing noisy metal curtain hooks with silent ones, and wrapping sound-deadening blankets around motorized equipment.
Researchers are also trying to reduce television noise by imbedding speakers in headboard and bed pillows. The researchers will study the results, and they'll also examine what effect behavioral interventions have on sleep, such as increased daytime activity, and light exposure. Researchers say they think it will take a combination of behavioral and environmental interventions to improve the sleep of nursing home residents. That's this week's health note. I'm Diane Toomey.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Cesaria Evora/Caetano Veloso, "E Preciso Perdoar" RED HOT AND RIO (Verve, 1996)]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. When the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, its mandate seemed clear, if daunting: to cleanse America of past environmental sins, to resurrect dead and dying rivers, industrial sites, and toxic towns.
Yet when the EPA announced plans to expand a Superfund site in northern Idaho, many locals railed against the Superfund stigma being stamped on their towns and businesses. Idaho's governor threatened to throw the EPA out of the state. And a local resident suggested shooting Superfund officials found trespassing on private property.
From Idaho's Silver Valley, producer Guy Hand explains why the EPA's campaign to clean up a century's worth of mining debris sounds less like noble work than warfare.
HOPPER: The EPA is probably the worst thing that's ever happened to America.
HAND: Bob Hopper takes a long, hard drag on his cigarette. He owns a mine here in the Silver Valley.
HOPPER: You, as an individual, you have lost every right that you think you have. You have none because of the EPA. And the only reason that you don't know it, is because nobody has jumped on you yet.
Bob Hopper, owner of the Bunker Hill mine, thinks the EPA is the worst thing that ever happened to America. (Photo: Guy Hand)
HAND: Hopper feels jumped on. EPA workers are prowling around outside his office, inspecting his waste water line.
HAND: And that's got the veins in Hopper's neck bulging, and his dog barking. This mine, the Bunker Hill mine, was once one of the most productive silver mines in the world. Now, it's part of a Superfund site. And even though Hopper didn't own the mine during its polluting heyday, he's inherited its toxic legacy. It's an inheritance he thinks he doesn't deserve.
HOPPER: You have to understand, there is no private property as far as the EPA is concerned. They have things called unilateral administrative orders, and all they have to do is issue you one. They can come right through the middle of your house.
[SOUND OF RAIL CAR DECENDING INTO MINE]
HAND: To understand why 20 years ago the EPA declared a large chunk of the Silver Valley the Bunker Hill Superfund site, why they now plan to expand that site to an area of Idaho larger than Yosemite, and why locals are so upset, it helps to get underground. In the dark, the complicated history of western mining is easier to see.
[LOUD CLANKING OF RAILS]
HAND: As the rail car descends through level after level, you begin to see the sheer size of the undertaking. You begin to see how the hundreds of mines that dot this steep-walled valley could pull more than five billion dollars worth of silver and other minerals, out of these mountains, and how they could bring prosperity to isolated towns, build schools and hospitals. And how a mere hole in the ground could sprout a fierce, unconditional kind of loyalty.
[RAIL CAR STOPS; SOUND OF DRIPPING WATER]
GROTH: We just came in a little over two miles, and we're in the area now that's called the load-out area. This is kind of the heart of the mine.
HAND: Jon Groth is too young to have worked here during the Valley's boom times, but his grandfather did. So did his father, until he died in a mining accident. Still, Groth likes it down here, surrounded by cool, wet stone.
[SOUND OF STEPS ON WET GROUND]
GROTH: This is where the hoist operator spent his day. Right now, this hoist is much larger than anything we need, so for now, it's just kind of on standby here. We've got it in mothballs.
HAND: You can see a mix of pride and sadness on Groth's face. You see it on lots of faces here in the Silver Valley; a pride in having been at one time part of the most productive silver mining region in the world, a sadness that it's gone. Some blame the EPA, yet not all the region's miners feel good about the work they did here.
PIEKARSKI: I spent 27 years and 23 days in that hellhole.
HAND: Eighty-six year old Pete Piekarski worked in the smelter during the boom times.
PIEKARSKI: They polluted this valley for all the years that that smelter operated. As soon as you'd get on swing shift, they'd kick up the air blast and the valley would fill plumb full of smoke. Wake up the next morning, and from here to St. Marie's was smoke. So they polluted this valley steady from 1917 until the day they, until they shut down.
HAND: What finally brought the valley's pollution problem to national attention was the bag house fire of September, 1974. The bag house was the smelter's smoke filtration system, and Mitch Killebrew saw it catch fire.
KILLEBREW: And we were out on the track field when the bag house went up.
HAND: He was just a kid then, attending school a stone's throw from the burning building.
KILLEBREW: And it just turned this whole area here just black, just black, you know? And they just had us go into the school. I mean hey, you could hardly, you could hardly breathe. It was terrible.
HAND: Huge clouds of lead-tainted smoke erupted from the smelter's stacks, but Gulf Resources, the Texas-based company that owned the Bunker Hill mine at the time, just kept the smelter running.
OSBORN: The board of directors for Gulf Resources met, and we know what they did, because they actually wrote it down in their board minutes. They calculated how much it would cost per child if they got caught polluting the community.
HAND: John Osborn is a physician who's worked to clean up mining pollution for years. He says children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning.
OSBORN: And they used the figure of $4,000 per kid, according to their notes. And they concluded they stood to make a lot of money if they continued operating. So they did. And the result was this incredible amount of lead was dispersed over these people's homes, over their yards. And by April, some of the highest lead levels ever recorded in children were being recorded in the families of those families who lived downwind from the smokestacks.
HAND: It took months before the state of Idaho, a mining-dependent state, shut the smelter down. By that time, an estimated 20 years' worth of unfiltered heavy metals had rained down on mining communities. In 1983, the EPA declared a 21-square-mile rectangle within the Silver Valley, an immediate health emergency and a Superfund site.
[SOUND OF COEUR D' ALENE RIVER]
HAND: But lead-tainted air wasn't the only problem. The valley's metallic past has left behind mountains of mining debris. It's heaped on the banks of creeks and rivers. It clogs old mines. And with every rain, those heavy metals flush downstream. That's why the EPA frequently inspects mine owner Bob Hopper's waste water line, despite his resentment.
GRANDINETTI: That water needs to be treated. It's at a pH of about two.
HAND: Cami Grandinetti is an EPA Project manager. She believes there are compelling reasons why the agency frequently visits Bob Hopper's mine.
GRANDINETTI: And just to put this in perspective, the load of zinc that comes out of that mine untreated is the single largest source of metal load to the river, to the entire system, in the entire basin.
HAND: Millions of pounds of heavy metals flow from Silver Valley mines every year. They kill fish, plant life, water foul, and threaten human health all the way into Washington state. That's why the EPA wants to expand its Superfund site through the whole watershed, the Coeur d' Alene Basin. But the communities including in this new plan don't want the headaches they've seen inflicted on the Bunker Hill site. Cami Grandinetti.
GRANDINETTI: When we first showed up doing our investigation in the 80s, there was not the intense negative feeling about EPA. There was really a sense that things had gone wrong at the smelter, that there was a lot of lead contamination that was hurting the local populations, and people were happy that we were there, and doing something about cleaning up the area.
HAND: But after years of Superfund work, years of bulldozers and bureaucrats, many locals lost patience with the EPA.
GRANDINETTI: It's so in their face. It's happening in their yards. It's happening at the complex. The mines are shutting down, and EPA is right on the tails of all of that. So it's easy to point to EPA and the environmental cleanup as the source of the problem.
HAND: A local writer literally targeted the EPA as the source of the problem when he wrote a fiery editorial in the local paper.
GRANDINETTEI: Where he recommended that people arm themselves, and shoot EPA and state people if they tried to come on their property.
[SOUND OF MUSIC IN BAR]
HAND: David Bond is the freelance writer who wrote that, and many other anti-EPA articles. He sits on a barstool in one of his favorite Silver Valley hangouts.
BOND: I said it tongue in cheek, but you know, bloody hell. Whatever it takes. These guys are Nazis. They're coming in here like a bunch of Gestapo, jack-booted thugs, and are screwing over people that are my friends.
HAND: Bond takes a sip of beer. He's tired of this fight and it shows. He says everybody in the Silver Valley is tired, afflicted with a kind of Superfund fatigue.
BOND: God damn it, don't misunderstand me, okay? The original EPA guys that came up here to do this cleanup were decent, honorable people. And I swear to god [laughter] if you don't include this, I'll hunt you down and kill ya. They were good, good people. What you've got now is a bunch of little Gestapo and I, I would not suggest that anybody not use any means available constitutionally or otherwise, to oppose them.
HAND: Bond, and other EPA critics, believe the agency has overstated the environmental and health threats present in the Silver Valley, labeling it, in Bond's words, the Valley of Death, merely to keep themselves employed. Ron Roizen, another EPA critic, agrees.
ROIZEN: When you create a national bureaucracy or a national institute organized around a problem, there is a tendency for that research to exaggerate and enhance the scope of problems that it purports to be addressing, because that institution has to beg for money from Congress.
HAND: Roizen says he's ploughed through a mountain of the EPA's own documentation to come up with that conclusion. He's confident that lead poisoning poses no risk to his eleven-year-old daughter. In fact, he plans to defy the EPA if they try to remove the soil from his yard.
ROIZEN: Now, if they come here, I'll tell you right now, they can't do my property. I refuse. I'm just going to flat-out refuse.
HAND: EPA toxicologist Marc Stifelman doesn't understand people like Roizen. He says there's overwhelming scientific evidence that proves a health risk to children in this watershed.
STIFELMAN: It's just silly to argue about lead health effects.
HAND: He says the data the EPA uses to justify its Superfund program are widely accepted.
STIFELMAN: They're accepted by CDC. They're accepted by EPA, ATSDR, the World Health Organization. They're accepted by the AMA and the Academy for Pediatrics.
HAND: Stifelman says the effects of lead poisoning are seldom obvious – lowering IQ and other cognitive functions in real, but subtle ways.
STIFELMAN: Because the effects are subtle and somewhat silent in nature, you can deny their existence, but there is really no scientific basis to that today.
HAND: Yet Roizen is unconvinced. He says you only have to look outside to see the truth.
ROIZEN: And I would actually ask you to just look out the window. I mean, if you look out the window and you see this lovely, beautiful, green, lush and historically rich town and the valley it's in, it just doesn't ring. I mean, it doesn't ring that you're in a Superfund site.
[SOUND OF CAR DRIVING]
HAND: Yet there are people in this valley who see plenty of environmental problems.
MILLER: On the left what we're seeing, this little knoll, it's where the Bunker Hill Mine and Smelter dump their raw mine waste.
Barbara Miller thinks the EPA isn't doing enough to protect the children of Idaho's Silver Valley. (Photo: Guy Hand)
HAND: Barbara Miller is driving through Kellogg Idaho, past a mile and a quarter long mound of mining debris – 70,000 tons of cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead. It sits smack in the middle of town, and right on the banks of the Coeur d' Alene River.
MILLER: Technical advisors have pointed out to us that EPA's containment of this site is not acceptable; that it's causing leaching, still, into the river.
HAND: She believes the Silver Valley is filled with similar examples of how the EPA has not overstated the problems, but in many cases minimized them.
MILLER: I think that EPA is allowing the politics and the special interests to set the agenda. I believe that the tourism industry that is strongly backed by the mining industry, are having their say with mostly what does not get done here.
HAND: Miller says the EPA has set standards for the clean-up much lower here than they set them in other Superfund sites; that they haven't cleaned up the interior of homes. That they even hesitate to put up signs warning children not to play in contaminated soils.
For her activism, the national press has called her the Erin Brockovich of north Idaho. The Ford Foundation has awarded her organization a large grant. But here in the Silver Valley, her home, she gets less praise.
MILLER: I've been jailed.
HAND: Miller says she's been jailed, received death threats, had people sneak into her yard and destroy property, even steal her dog. All because she wants the EPA to do the job it's been mandated to do. But Dick Martindale of the EPA thinks the agency is doing exactly what it's been mandated to do.
MARTINDALE: There are entire towns that are cleaned up now. I mean, they are now safe to human health. And what more can you ask for? Ecologically we're going to be cleaning up areas that are going to improve the fisheries. It's going to improve water foul habitat. It's just unreal. It's just an absolute benefit for the greatest number of people over the longest period of time, and we're in it for the long haul.
[SOUND OF COEUR D' ALENE RIVER]
HAND: For the EPA, the long haul is another 30 years. That's the additional time it wants to take to clean these rivers, streams and mountain towns. For the agency's critics, that's far too long. And now they'll have a say. EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman recently agreed to hand majority control of the project to a commission dominated by Idaho political interests. It's an unprecedented move that will likely limit the scope of the cleanup. Yet scientists say 30 years is nothing. Time, when it comes to hard rock mining, is better expressed geologically. They estimate that cleansing this watershed of toxins could take 500 years. From the mines of north Idaho, I'm Guy Hand for Living on Earth.
EPA - Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical
CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, a proposal to ban smoking in all bars and restaurants gets its first public hearing in New York City. Many folks say the ban will clear eateries of tobacco stench. But smokers think it's the proposal itself that stinks.
MALE: When fascism comes to America, it will come with a white coat and a stethoscope. We're a free country, I hope. And this city cannot turn it to LA East.
CURWOOD: A slow burn in the Big Apple, next time on Living on Earth. And don't forget, that between now and then you can hear us any time and get the stories behind the news by going to LOE.org. That's LOE.org.
[SOUND OF STREAM AND FROGS]
CURWOOD: We leave you this week with the hypnotic rhythms of a stream that runs through the vast stillness of the Carmanah Valley in British Columbia. It's from Hildegard Westerkamp's recording "Beneath the Forest Floor."
[MUSIC: Earth Ear, "Hypnotic Stream/‘Beneath the Forest Floor’" (Earth Ear Music, Spring 2001)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff includes Maggie Villiger and Cynthia Graber, along with Al Avery, Susan Shepherd, Jessica Penney and Carly Ferguson. Special thanks to Ernie Silver.
We had help this week from Andrew Strickler and Nicole Giese. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.
[SOUND OF WATER, BIRDS AND FROGS]
Our technical director is Chris Engles. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. 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 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include: the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for coverage of western issues, the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded internet service, the Educational Foundation of America for coverage of energy and climate change, the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity, www.wajones.org, the Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues, and the Town Creek Foundation.
ANNOUNCER 2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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