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

November 12, 2004

Air Date: November 12, 2004



Greening Cars

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California car manufacturers will have to start retooling their models to meet the state’s vehicle emissions standards by 2016. Host Steve Curwood talks with two researchers who are looking at this debate from opposite sides. Louise Bedsworth represents the Union of Concerned Scientists, and says there are cheap ways to cut tailpipe emissions by as much as 40 percent, while Tom Austin, consultant to the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, says outfitting cars with more efficient technology is ultimately up to the consumer. (12:47)

Enviros Re-group / Jeff Young

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Several leading environmental groups invested heavily in making the environment an election issue to vote George W. Bush out. Now they're wondering what went wrong and where to go from here. Jeff Young reports from Washington. (05:00)

State Initiatives

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Drowned out in the barrage of election news and analysis were several small, but noteworthy, state and county initiatives. From Alaska to Louisiana people spoke up on the right to hunt, cyanide gold mining and genetically engineered agriculture. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports. (05:00)

Gender-Bending Fish

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There’s something fishy about Colorado’s South Platte River. Researchers there have found increasing numbers of mutant fish – male fish with female attributes. And they suspect wastewater carrying estrogenic compounds like birth control pills might be the source of the mutations. Host Steve Curwood talks with head researcher David Norris, of the University of Colorado, about the downstream implications of these mutant fish. (06:00)

Environmental Health Note/Moderation is Key for Vita-E / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on research that suggests too much vitamin E might be bad for your health. (01:20)

The Cyanide Canary

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In August of 1996, Scott Dominguez was given what seemed to be a standard task at the fertilizer plant he’d been working at for the past several years. What would happen in the next few hours would land him in the middle of a landmark environmental case and put his health on an irreversibly detrimental course. Host Steve Curwood talks with Joe Hilldorfer, special agent for the EPA and author of the book “Cyanide Canary: A Story of Injustice – One Man Caused it, One Man Fought it, One Man’s Life was Destroyed by it.” (15:30)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Louise Bedsworth, Tom Austin, David Norris, Joe HilldorferREPORTER: Jeff Young, Ingrid LobetNOTE: Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. As California moves towards restrictions on global warming gases from cars, some carmakers warn consumers will have to pick up the tab.

AUSTIN: Our analysis is that the average cost of cars go up by about 3,000 dollars in order to comply with these regulations by using these kinds of technologies across the board.

CURWOOD: But others say those costs are exaggerated. It’s the fight over the sticker price for a cleaner car, this week on Living on Earth.

Also, after the election some see a mandate for the market-based approach to the environment favored by President Bush, but not everyone agrees.

CALLAHAN: The presidential election nationally was not a referendum on the environment and so I don’t think that the Bush administration should take it as such in their second term. I don’t believe that the people gave them a mandate to roll back and weaken environmental protections.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more coming up, so stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Greening Cars

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

California has made new rules that require passenger vehicles to reduce their emissions of global warming gases, such as carbon dioxide and air conditioning chemicals, by some 30 percent over the next 12 years. Now, assuming the measures survive expected court challenges, it means that carmakers will be compelled to redesign SUVs like the Ford Explorer and other popular light trucks and cars. All this will cost consumers a lot of money, the carmakers contend, but some environmental activists aren’t so sure.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has calculated that modifications that cut global warming gas emissions by as much as 40 percent will be offset by savings at the pump. Joining me now are two consulting engineers with diverse views on this debate. Louise Bedsworth is a vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, in Berkeley, California. Louise, hello.


CURWOOD: And also joining me is Tom Austin. He’s a senior partner for Sierra Research, a consulting group for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Sacramento, California. Tom, hello.

AUSTIN: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, Louise, the Union of Concerned Scientists has a model SUV that you guys have created, I guess, really on the computer rather than reality, and you compare this to the Ford Explorer. What are the elements that you think a Ford Explorer could reduce its emissions by 40 percent?

BEDSWORTH: Well, there we’re talking about making more engine changes and going from the type of engine that we have today, where air and fuel are injected into a chamber and mixed prior to entering the cylinder, to a direct injection engine. We further streamline the vehicle and we also add low-rolling, we use low-rolling resistance tires on the vehicle. We also do the six-speed transmission; but, in this case, you do a transmission without a torque converter.

We’ve looked at making changes to the vehicle’s air conditioning system, as well. In the long term, what we’ve looked at doing is using a refrigerant in our air conditioning system that has a much lower global warming potential. So, in the case of our current refrigerant, we have a global warming potential of 1,300; looking in the longer term we could be using a refrigerant that still has a fairly high global warming potential but is more on the order of 120. So it’s 120 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

CURWOOD: Explain for me please, how you can save fuel with tires?

BEDSWORTH: Well, tires…when you move along the road, your tire has to overcome friction with the road. It also loses heat by the flexing of the side walls of your tire; it doesn’t stay completely rigid. So tire companies have really been working hard to improve the materials of their tire to cut down on the losess both of the flexing of the side walls which causes that heat loss which is essentially loss of energy, and then cut down on the friction between the tire and the road.

And this has nothing to do with how well your tire grips the road. It just has to do with how it’s moving along the road. And so, for instance, Michelin has made a commitment to halve the rolling resistance of most of their tires by 2020. So we’re seeing great strides from tire companies in making these types of improvements in their tires.

CURWOOD: And when you talk about streamlining the vehicle, car companies spend an awful lot of money on the design on that shape of that vehicle. It would cost them a lot of money, I would think, to make changes. What are you proposing that wouldn’t cost that much money?

BEDSWORTH: Well, when you redesign a vehicle you’re making changes to the body. For instance, when the Toyota Prius was redesigned from its first generation that was available here in the United States to the one that’s currently available, the 2004, they reduced their drag coefficient by over ten percent, just in a redesign of the vehicle. And that’s just in making it smoother, moving through the air more easily.

We’ve also seen great strides in SUVs. Things like the Acura MDX, the Volvo XC90, the Lexus RX330. These all are vehicles with very low drag coefficients. Making smarter decisions that will improve your aerodynamics in the design process is not going to cost a lot of money.

CURWOOD: Okay. So at the end of the day your vehicle that would reduce the prototypical Ford Explorer’s emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, by 40 percent, would cost car companies how much?

BEDSWORTH: We’ve looked at retail price increase, so we’re looking at the cost to the consumer, and we come up with a cost of just under $2,000 for that type of a change. But I think it’s important to point out that these are some of the most cost-effective emission reductions we can make. Many of these changes on the vehicle will actually result in less fuel usage.

And so we’re seeing that these technology changes – while you’re paying more when you purchase your vehicle – will pay for themselves over the life of the vehicle. For instance, the Ford Explorer, if the price increased by just under $2,000, you would make up that in reduced operating costs in just about three years.

CURWOOD: All right, Tom Austin, let me turn to you now. You’ve looked at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ prototypical vehicle claiming to have this 40 percent reduction. How much do you think it would cost automobile manufacturers to make these changes?

AUSTIN: Just about twice what Louise estimates. When we look at the technology that would actually be required to achieve a 40 percent reduction, we think the retail price is probably going to be about 4,000 dollars higher. And that’s because we have some fairly substantial differences in our estimates of how much it would cost, for example, to do an all new transmission. The cost estimate that is in Louise estimates for this all new transmission is essentially zero. And when you take a look at trying to do this in time to comply with these new standards that have just been adopted in California, there would have to be a lot of retooling. And we’re going to be talking about several hundred dollars cost to do a modified transmission.

I agree that the streamlining costs would be low. The problem there, manufacturers have known how to streamline vehicles for a long time, but they also know what sells. And there’s a limit to where we can go with reducing the aerodynamic drag coefficient of vehicles. Vehicles with boxier styling are selling better these days, and that’s resulted in an increase in the aerodynamic drag coefficient of several models in recent years that are selling quite well.

CURWOOD: Now, the automobile industry has to think about making some changes in order to meet the regulation that the California Air Resources Board is promulgating in the next 12 years. So, which of the suggestions that Louise is making here might the industry feel comfortable responding to?

AUSTIN: Well, how the industry is going to respond is really unclear at this point. To a certain extent these new standards for carbon dioxide emissions, or greenhouse gas emissions, in California, I think, are a replay of the electric vehicle mandate that was adopted in 1990. GM had developed the most advanced electric vehicle ever produced, then called the Impact, later called the EV1, and the Air Resources Board passed a regulation essentially forcing ten percent of all production to be electric vehicles by 2003. But when the reality of what the costs would be sunk in, the mandate had to be watered down.

I think the same thing is going to happen with this mandate they’ve just passed for radically improving fuel economy. When the reality of the costs sinks in, I just can’t see that this mandate is ever going to stand – assuming it passes a court challenge.

BEDSWORTH: Steve, I would just like to add, you know, I think there’s a stark difference between this regulation and the electric vehicle mandate. Which is, the electrical vehicle mandate for zero-emission vehicles was really dependent on making some technological breakthroughs in battery technology, and getting those vehicles on the road. Those did not materialize. These regulations are based on technologies that are all currently available.

Even when you look at some of the advance technologies we’re already starting to see them in the marketplace. And so I think, you know, we’ve seen a pattern of this overestimation of cost and underestimation of potential from the industry. And I think there is a real difference with this regulation – these technologies are available, they’re in use. And what the Air Resources Board is really asking for is for these technologies to be put on vehicles.

CURWOOD: Let’s explore the middle ground. Tom Austin, what do you think, what kinds of collaborations do you think could be struck with the environmental and regulatory communities on this question of greenhouse gases in cars?

AUSTIN: Well, I think the real concern here is balkanization of fuel economy standards. While it’s true there’s a law in California that says the Air Resources Board is supposed to set standards, it’s also true that there’s a federal preemption for states adopting standards that are related to fuel economy. My view is that the standard that’s been adopted here in California is preempted, and I think we’re going to end up seeing a court step in and set it aside. There’s no question there’s going to continue to be development of fuel economy technology. There’s going to be higher fuel economy vehicles in the future. But I don’t think we’re going to end up seeing state by state terminations as to exactly what the level of fuel economy should be.

CURWOOD: So, until the courts tell you you have to, you ain’t gonna.

AUSTIN: Well, if the courts end up deciding that the California reg can stand, then obviously there’s going to be compliance. But it’s not going to be compliance based on the assumptions that Louise is talking about and that the Air Resources Board is talking about. There are going to be radical changes in the kind of vehicles that are made available for sale in California and the public is not going to like it.

CURWOOD: Can you explain more?

AUSTIN: Well, when you take a look at what is the most cost effective way to respond to this regulation if it stays in place, there are going to have to be certain very popular models of vehicles that are withheld from the market. It is not going to be feasible for manufacturers to invest many thousands of dollars in meeting these standards with aggressive hybrid technology when they know full well that the public is not going to be willing to pay the price. As a result, we’re going to have some significant changes in the kind of cars that are available in California and the public’s not going to stand for it. And, if for no other reason, that’s why the regulation will eventually fall.

CURWOOD: All right, we’re just about out of time here. But fast-forward again: the year 2016. Somehow this question has been resolved between regulator and regulations and cars. Could each of you describe the typical, or the replacement SUV that you think would be on the road? Louise, I’ll talk with you first.

BEDSWORTH: Well, I think, hopefully, we’ll see a mixture of vehicles. I think we’ll see vehicles such as the one we’ve discussed today, with improved engine and transmission and other vehicle features. We have an improved conventional technology vehicle. I think we’re also going to see a large number of hybrid electric SUVs available, we’re seeing them come out on the market now – by 2016 there should be even more. And by 2016 we should be seeing some fuel cell vehicles, as well. So, hopefully, there will be a diverse mix of solutions out there in 2016.

CURWOOD: Tom Austin?

AUSTIN: Well, I think that by 2016, if this regulation stays in place, we will see some new technologies on vehicles. There’ll be more sonar deactivation. There’ll be more variable valve lift in timing. But there’ll be fewer large heavy vehicles.

I would disagree about fuel cell vehicles. I don’t think there is any chance that by 2016 we’re gonna have any fuel cell vehicles in mass production. The cost of hydrogen is far beyond what you often read. It’s likely to be in the cost of the vehicles themselves has not yet been brought anywhere close to what’s going to be commercially feasible.

CURWOOD: Louise Bedsworth is a vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkley, California. Tom Austin is senior partner for Sierra Research, a consulting group for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Sacramento, California. Thank you both for speaking with me today.

AUSTIN: Good talking to you.

BEDSWORTH: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Clint Mansell pr2 p MUSIC FOR THE MOTION PICTURE (Thrive – 1998)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: the morning, after for many environmental advocates who gambled on the Democrats and lost. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Albert King “Drowning on Dry Land” YEARS GONE BY (Stax – 1983)]

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Enviros Re-group

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Some of the country’s largest environmental groups had hoped their issues would help defeat incumbent George Bush and elect John Kerry as president. Now in the wake of a bruising partisan fight in which environmental issues were largely ignored by both the major presidential contenders, these groups are looking both at what went wrong, and a long four years on the outside. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our report from Washington.

YOUNG: Back in January, League of Conservation Voters President Deb Callahan was confident President Bush’s environmental record would so outrage people that they would vote him out of office.

CALLAHAN (ARCHIVE): It’s going to be a sea change for the environmental movement this election. And I frankly think that the White House has wakened a sleeping giant and it isn’t very jolly.

YOUNG: Callahan’s group spent 8 million dollars to sound the alarm, but that environmental giant never really woke up. Not only did the president win, his party expanded its control in Congress. Sierra Club President Carl Pope, whose group spent nine million in the election, says Senator Kerry should have made more of the issues.

POPE: I would rather have seen John Kerry talk more about the environment, particularly about the connection between our vulnerability in the Middle East and the lack of an energy policy to break our addiction to oil. I thought that was a major theme he sounded early, he came back to it occasionally, he didn’t really invest enough in it to break through that, and I’m not honestly sure whether he could have.

YOUNG: Pope doubts the national media focus on Iraq and terrorism would have shifted. Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund President Roger Schlickeisen agrees. His group jumped into partisan politics for the first time this year, only to see its issues largely ignored.

SCHLICKEISEN: I think this was an election determined primarily by fear, fear of external events and especially terrorism. And environment and conservation and a host of other domestic issues couldn’t play against that.

YOUNG: So Senator Kerry did not win on the environment. But the LCV’s Callahan says President Bush didn’t either.

CALLAHAN: The presidential election nationally was not a referendum on the environment, and so I don’t think the Bush administration should take it as such in their second term. I don’t believe people gave them a mandate to roll back and weaken environmental protections.

YOUNG: The administration, however, appears eager to put its new political power to work on environmental matters. Two days after the election, the president’s top environment official, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt, told reporters the vote was “a validation of our philosophy and agenda.”

Conservationists and their counterparts in industry expect the administration to now pursue an aggressive agenda and environmentalists like Callahan will have to decide between compromise and combat.

CALLAHAN: In politics you always are looking for common ground. That said, the kinds of proposals we’ve seen come forward from both the Congressional leadership and the White House in the last four years haven’t been trying to meet us in the middle. So we’ll look for compromise where we can, we’re prepared to fight where we need to.

YOUNG: Callahan says conservation groups might cooperate on some parts of the energy bill likely to return soon to Congress. But she pledges to fight any renewed attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Schlickeisen at Defenders of Wildlife heard a call for compromise in the president’s acceptance speech, and his desire to be a president for all Americans regardless of how they voted.

SCHLICKEISEN: If he’s gonna be a president of all the people, he’s gotta take note of the fact that the vast majority of Americans out there care a lot about environmental protection and conservation. And, hopefully, he will have an opportunity now to show that in his policies in his second term. They certainly weren’t there in the first term.

YOUNG: Industry groups say the new political terrain compels environmentalists to reconsider some of those policies from the first term, and think about market incentives instead of strict enforcement.

Scott Segal leads a power industry lobby called the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. He points to two air quality items nearing completion: the administration’s proposal to cut the mercury coming from power plants, and its interstate air quality rule aimed at sulfur and nitrogen emissions. Segal says both would reduce power plant pollution, though not in the way environmental groups prefer.

SEGAL: It’ll be a real test for environmental community to look with honesty and clarity at both the interstate proposal and the mercury proposal. If they still reject them on the fundamental basis that they are not circa 1980 command and control regulations, we’ll know that they have not come to be constructive. And that’ll be too bad.

YOUNG: Environmentalists say those proposals would take decades to cut pollution that could be reduced much sooner through enforcement of existing law.

The conservationists see one positive result of their unprecedented election year effort. By focusing on door-to-door canvassing instead of mass media advertising, they’ve reached a few million potential new conservation voters. They hope that network will help in the 2006 Congressional elections, and in state level politics where environmental issues enjoyed some attention and success—some of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak election year for environmentalists.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

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State Initiatives

CURWOOD: One success story claimed by environmental groups in the elections unfolded in Colorado, where people said “yes” to more wind and renewable energy for the Centennial State. Voters in several other states also had their say on environmental questions, and Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports.

LOBET: Let's start in Washington State. In a strong rejection of current federal policy, people there voted overwhelmingly to stop the Department of Energy from sending more radioactive waste to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation until the site is cleaned up. Residents await construction of a plant that will solidify millions of gallons of leaking radioactive liquid left over from Cold War bomb making. But, meanwhile, the government has recently allowed more waste to be sent to the site, sometimes putting it in unlined dirt trenches.

CARPENTER: People out here have said enough is enough

LOBET: Tom Carpenter is with the Seattle office of the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group. He tracks Department of Energy activities.

CARPENTER: They don't have the authority that they once had to simply decide where waste goes and how it should be put into the ground or disposed of. We have some say-so, as a state, to mandate that they do dispose of waste in particular ways, in ways that are protective of the environment and certainly that comply with the law

LOBET: A spokesperson for the Department of Energy says it's studying options in light of Washington's vote. It is expected to sue the state. A federal court could well see this measure as an intrusion into the government's right and responsibility to manage a national problem. But Michael Robinson Dorn who heads the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Washington says the state could prevail.

DORN: It's going to be tough sledding. Courts are generally hostile to what they view are actions that impinge upon federal powers, or that interfere with federal purposes or block the free flow of commerce. That said, if such a case can win, and I believe it can be won, it certainly presents that case.

LOBET: Moving over two states to the east, voters in Montana for the second time rejected a common method of mining gold that uses cyanide. Montana is the only state where cyanide leach mining is banned. One company in particular, Canyon Resources, wants to build such a mine there and put 3 million dollars into reversing the ban. It had many backers, including local chambers of commerce and county farm bureaus, but voters forcefully said no, they’ll keep their ban in place.

In California, residents of Marin County decided to outlaw the planting of any genetically modified seed. That makes three California counties that now prohibit planting seeds whose genetic material has been altered in the laboratory. But Californians in two other counties where there is more agriculture voted to keep the door open to biotechnology.

Jamie Johansen was one of them. He has 40 acres of olive trees and 20 cows in Butte County, California, and he says he hopes one day he'll be able to stop using chemicals against the olive fruit fly and use a biotech method instead.

JOHANSEN: What if we could put trees or a plant in our orchard, say three or four plants every acre, that attract the fruit fly and handled them that way, instead of having direct contact with the food supply that we provide to the consumers, as far as pesticide use and all that. So, it's that sort of dreaming that’s going on in agriculture.

LOBET: Nevertheless, activists in a dozen other California cities and counties are still working for GM bans or moratoria. Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, says too much is at stake for organic growers who don't want their fields contaminated by the natural drift of pollen from GM crops. Strategy, though, for the GM-free movement in the United States may be shifting away from bans which can be locally divisive, and toward food labeling laws. Cummins is working on a proposal to require labels on all GM food in California.

CUMMINS: The practical impact, we believe, of having mandatory labeling pass in a large state like California will be to basically cripple the industry. Because, as in Europe, large food corporations and supermarket chains are not going to be willing to sell genetically engineered foods or foods that have genetically engineered ingredients if they have to tell their consumers that this unpopular technology is part of their product line.

LOBET: And finally, in this election voters came out for hunters' rights in four states--Alaska, Montana, Maine and Louisiana. Alaskans and Mainers affirmed the right of bear hunters to use treats to lure bears to traps. And Montana and Louisiana overwhelmingly passed measures to enshrine in their state constitutions the right to fish and hunt. They join seven other states that have made similar pre-emptive moves to protect hunters in anticipated clashes with wildlife authorities and animal rights activists.

For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet

[MUSIC: David Holmes “No Man’s Land” p MUSIC FOR THE MOTION PICTURE (Thrive – 1998)]

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Gender-Bending Fish

CURWOOD: Millions of gallons of municipal wastewater are released into the nation’s rivers every day. Although most of it is filtered and treated to remove impurities, some pollutants still float into waterways downstream.

Researchers in Colorado have been looking at fish populations downstream of Denver and Boulder. In two waterways, the South Platte River and Boulder Creek, the scientists have made some surprising discoveries which they attribute to estrogenic compounds contained in the wastewater.

David Norris is the head of the research team. He teaches at the University of Colorado and joins us now from Boulder.

CURWOOD: So Professor Norris, tell me what exactly have you find in the fish populations of the South Platte and Boulder Creek?

NORRIS: Well, upstream from the sewage treatment plants, what we’ve noticed is a relatively normal sex ratio of roughly 1:1, males to females, and a mixture of adult and juvenile fishes and we don’t find any inter-sex fish. Downstream, we find many more females than males, roughly ten to one, and among the juveniles we find a number of inter-sex fish.

CURWOOD: Now, inter-sex—what do you mean by that?

NORRIS: Inter-sex is a situation where you find both the egg-forming tissue, and you find sperm-forming tissue in the same organ.

CURWOOD: That sounds like a mess downstream.

NORRIS: We were quite alarmed to see the amount of disruption in the downstream fish. When we first saw the inter-sex fish, we were sort of excited because we had hypothesized that they would be there, based on what we knew was in the water and what we knew from laboratory studies and the studies elsewhere. And we were just surprised at how much disruption there was.

CURWOOD: How long have you been looking at Boulder Creek and South Platte River?

NORRIS: We started about three years ago, looking at the fish because of the reports of estrogens in the water, both in the South Platte and in Boulder Creek, and in reference to studies that have been reported in England where below sewage effluence – usually mixtures of industrial and domestic sewage – they have found inter-sex fishes.

CURWOOD: What exactly are the sources of these compounds that lead to these inter-sex fish?

NORRIS: Many of these come from plastics. Nonaphenol is one of the most estrogenic ones, and it’s used in the softer plastics to make them more flexible.

CURWOOD: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: And we know that these compounds can leach out of the plastic containers. For example, culture dishes used to culture breast cancer cells, were discovered to actually activate those breast cancer cells. Compounds like bisphenol A come from your polycarbonate plastics. And this particular compound is also found in dental sealants which are used quite a bit with children, and they’re used to line metal cans that we put food in. And we know from a number of studies that these compounds leak out of these plastics and can produce estrogenic effects on organisms.

CURWOOD: Now, if these estrogenic compounds are in the water and there’s an effect on people, what’s going on for the folks who are downstream from these sewage treatment plants that you’ve looked at in Boulder Creek and the Platte River there? There must be some cities and towns that take their water from that river.

NORRIS: There are quite a number of them, I would guess, and I imagine that as you go further downstream you’re having more and more people dumping in as well as taking out. And I think that we should be concerned about more downstream. The fact that we’re seeing inter-sex fishes in Boulder Creek, for example, we’re pretty far upstream. People come to Colorado in the mountains because they expect really clean water, and it’s already fairly well-contaminated.

And this is a domestic source. We’re not looking at industrial sources here. It’s primarily what I and other residents of Boulder are choosing to do every day—what detergents we’re using, personal care products, things of this sort—and then we’re dumping them down the drain.

CURWOOD: Now, with these estrogenic compounds that wind up in the water, what can be done about this? How easy is it to remove this stuff from the water?

NORRIS: Well, apparently the technology exists, through filtration and reverse osmosis, that we could remove these materials. But to retrofit every sewage treatment plant would be an expensive proposition, at least to begin with, as well as it will take time. But we have the technology that we could be returning perfectly clear water back into the river.

CURWOOD: So what would you say are really the most significant aspects of the data that you’re coming up with in the fish populations there?

NORRIS: Well, I think there are certainly important questions related to the fish themselves and the ecosystem. But I think a more important question is the fact that this is not an isolated phenomenon; it’s probably occurring all over the country. And because of the additive nature of these chemicals and the many multiple sources, especially the populations that are downstream that are recycling this water and this material are at risk.

CURWOOD: David Norris teaches at the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

NORRIS: You’re welcome.

[MUSIC: Gus Gus "Anthem" p MUSIC FOR THE MOTION PICTURE (Thrive – 1998)]

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Environmental Health Note/Moderation is Key for Vita-E

CURWOOD: Just ahead: move over, Sam Spade and the Maltese Falcon, for a new breed of real life detective stories, starting with an EPA cop and the cyanide canary. First, this Environmental Health Note from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: People typically take vitamins to improve their health. But when it comes to the popular supplement vitamin E, a group of researchers have found that too much of a good thing might be bad. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University reviewed a number of clinical trials into the effects of vitamin E. What they found is that people taking more than 400 international units of the supplement every day had higher rates of mortality than those taking a lesser dose, or none at all. An international unit is roughly equivalent to a milligram.

Previous studies suggested that vitamin E could help prevent ailments such as heart disease and cancer. But the current study posted this week on the Annals of Internal Medicine web site finds that such high doses of the supplement might actually encourage the onset of disease. Scientists say high doses of Vitamin E may act as a “pro-oxidant” in the body and can damage proteins, DNA, and other health-regulating functions. This could leave people more susceptible to illness.

Based on the study’s findings, researchers advise people to avoid high doses of vitamin E until more is research is competed. That’s this week’s Environmental Health Note, I’m Jennifer Chu.

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

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Ford, maker of the Escape Hybrid, a full hybrid S-U-V able to run on electric power alone at certain speeds. Ford vehicles dot com back slash environment; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at w-k-k-f dot org. This is NPR -- National Public Radio.

MUSIC: Sonny Rollins & Co. “Night and Day” THE STANDARD SONNY ROLLINS (RCA Victor – 1965)]

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The Cyanide Canary

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. On August 27, 1996, 20-year-old Scott Dominguez went to work as he’d done every day for the previous two years at Evergreen Resources. This was a plant in Soda Springs, Idaho that converted mining waste into fertilizer. What would happen in the next four hours would forever change Scott’s life and would place him in the middle of a groundbreaking criminal case.

Joe Hilldorfer not only chronicled this story – he was part of it. A former FBI agent, he’s now a special agent for the Environmental Protection Agency, based in Seattle. He co-authored a book called “The Cyanide Canary: A Story of Injustice: One Man Caused It, One Man Fought it, One Man’s Life was Destroyed by it.”

Joe Hilldorfer joins me now from KUOW in Seattle. Joe, could you first describe the situation that Scott entered into the day he told his fiancé that he was afraid to go to work?

Author and EPA agent Joe Hilldorfer (Photo: Gabe Palmer © Palmer/Kane Inc.)

HILLDORFER: In August of 1996, he was working in a plant called Evergreen Resources. Almost all the employees I interviewed over the course of a two or three year investigation didn’t call the place “Evergreen Resources.” They called it “Everdeath.”


HILLDORFER: And that was because so many of the employees suffered terrible injuries there. Scotty was working there on August 26 of 1996 and he was ordered to go into this tank. The tank was rusted like almost everything there. It was about feet 36 long, 11 feet high. And the only way into this – what turned out to be a death chamber – was a small aperture, kind of like a manhole, at the top of the tank. There was no safety equipment so they used an old ladder, picked up the ladder and climbed into the hole the night before Scotty was hurt.

The reason for them doing this was the owner, Allan Elias, a millionaire from Hollywood, CA, ordered them into the tank to clean out the tons of sludge that was at the bottom of it, about knee-deep. The reason he wanted it cleaned out was he had railroad cars stacked up against the plant with sulfuric acid and he wanted to have the tank cleaned and put the acid into the tank. Scotty and another young man by the name of Darren Weaver had a difficult time breaking up this sludge. They worked in there for just, oh, five minutes or so on the night before the terrible event that occurred the next day.

Scotty went home. Even though he was this outdoorsman, an avid athlete, his fiancé, Theresa Cole, told me and my partner, Bob Wojnicz…she sat on his couch that night, he could barely move, he was lethargic, there just wasn’t something – there was something terribly wrong going on in his body. But when he went back to the plant that next day, he was terribly frightened to go into that tank. But he was ordered to do so.

CURWOOD: So, he goes into the tank and what happens next?

HILLDORFER: He goes into the tank, he’s in there about 30 minutes with Darren. They have a fire hose and rods trying to break up the sludge. All of a sudden Scotty turns to Darren in this black tank – they can barely see each other – but he says to Darren, “I can’t breathe.” Darren feels himself being overwhelmed by something, he didn’t know what. He runs up the ladder, falls off the top as he screams to Brian and Gene.

Probably the only good thing that may have happened that day was the truly heroic efforts by the co-employees and the volunteer fire department in Soda Springs. They each risked their lives going into the tank. They would put Scotty over their shoulder and carry him through this knee-deep sludge. The last time Brian Smith got out of the tank he’s caught a whiff of bitter almonds. He managed to get to the top of the tank and he fell off, ran to the trailer, called for the fire response. Darren Schwartz, the incident commander, got there, as did the owner, Allan Elias.

Amazingly, according to both Schwartz and his lead fireman that day, Matt Christiansen, they never came across at any accident scene before someone as uncooperative as Allan Elias. They repeatedly asked him what was in the tank. Elias continued to maintain there was nothing in the tank but sludge and water. They finally cut a three-foot hole. Two of the firemen, one being John Sture, climb into the tank, and he screams out, “Oh my God, he’s alive, he’s alive!”

CURWOOD: What was the extent of damage that he had to his body?

HILLDORFER: The problem, I’ve come to learn, with cyanide poisoning is it binds with your mitochondria and you can no longer use oxygen. As time continues to go by, this young man’s brain is eating itself. There were a number of holes in the basal ganglia portion of his brain, which is a specific injury for cyanide poisoning. He has serious difficulties speaking, moving – but inside there is someone trapped. And that’s probably the worst thing. He knows what happened to him and what was taken away from him.

CURWOOD: Scotty Dominguez was in a hospital … and at what point do you get involved with this story?

HILLDORFER: I was involved the next day. That’s when I came and interviewed Allan Elias and we started the criminal investigation. It wasn’t till March of the following year though until I met Scott, after he’d got out of a long rehabilitation in a clinic in Salt Lake City.

CURWOOD: When you met Allan Elias, what did he tell you had happened at his plant?

HILLDORFER: Mr. Elias told me he had a tank cleaning operation going on, that he had all the safety equipment that anyone could ever think of needing. He said he ordered one of his employees to do a confined space permit. He ordered the employees to do this one by the book, as safe as possible, even though he thought the material in the tank was as safe as shampoo. But he said the only reason anyone got hurt that day – and he was almost in a rage when he expressed this – he said it was because there was no managing of stupidity, and you just can’t account for the actions of stupid employees.

What made Mr. Elias such a difficult defendant to investigate and prosecute, he was always one step ahead of us. He would manufacture evidence, and he got to our most important witness, Darren Weaver, and got him to submit an affidavit which changed Weaver’s earlier story to the state police, blaming the problem on Scott and the other employees.

CURWOOD: So, when does it finally come out that there is cyanide in this tank?

HILLDORFER: It comes out the next day when I talk to Elias. But the problem is going to prove that Mr. Elias knew there was cyanide in the tank and didn’t, in fact, test it as he said he did for the presence of cyanide. If Mr. Elias would have tested it for cyanide at a legitimate lab, he would have had a strong defense as far as having the mental intent to commit this terrible crime.

Of course, Mr. Elias didn’t give us his lab results. Bob Wojnicz and I tracked down the lab somewhere in Salt Lake City. The owner of the lab, Kyle Schick, said “yes, you’re correct, Mr. Elias did send us a sample before those young men went into the tank.” But Mr. Elias had it tested for one thing and that was silver content. Once it didn’t have silver, he had the waste buried.

CURWOOD: So, in fact, it never had been tested?

HILLDORFER: No, not until after the EPA does their first search warrant. He knows he’s in the crosshairs of an investigation. And then he sends another sample after the fact to the same lab, and for a lousy fifty bucks they test it for cyanide. And it has tremendous levels of cyanide in it.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, so far, what you’ve described to me sounds like pretty much an open and shut case. A man goes into a place unprotected by safety equipment, becomes deathly ill as a function of that, it turns out that there is, in fact, hazardous material in this tank. It seems that this has all happened in violation of the law, and yet I gather from your story it wasn’t open and shut. Why?

HILLDORFER: There never seems to be, especially in a high profile case, an open and shut matter when it comes to the prosecution of an environmental crime. The bare bone element you need to prove in one of our cases, for a dumping case, is that the waste is a hazardous waste. We obtained a sample from the site when I met Mr. Elias that day, we had it tested by the EPA lab – shockingly, the test results came back that it didn’t designate as a hazardous waste.

CURWOOD: Wait a second. You’re saying you test the stuff, it comes back and it doesn’t test as hazardous waste, and yet this guy’s in the hospital near death? How do you figure that?

HILLDORFER: I couldn’t figure it and I was beside myself. And without being able to prove that this was a hazardous waste there was no case. What I came to learn, and the reason we managed to get this into a courtroom, the preeminent scientist in the United States for environmental matters is the chief deputy scientist for the EPA, Dr. Joe Lowry. He told me that when the government wrote up the regulations for how to test cyanide-bearing waste for the mining industry – it was called HSW 846 – basically, they got the decimal point wrong. And he said no matter how high – you could have pure sodium cyanide, you could have pure sulfuric acid, and you still would never have the waste designate under this faulty test as hazardous.

CURWOOD: So the law doesn’t say it’s hazardous waste, this particular amount and yet, obviously, the effect is hazardous. So to bring this case you have to prove that the law is wrong?

HILLDORFER: We had to prove that the EPA law was faulty. And the only way we had a chance of convincing a federal judge that this was a death chamber was Dr. Lowry used the small sample of sludge I received from Mr. Elias. He made a scale model of that tank, he mimicked the conditions in that tank that faced Scotty and his employees that day, and he extrapolated backwards to show how deadly that atmosphere was.

CURWOOD: Okay, there you are with your expert witness devising a model, really, to show how deadly this is. And Mr. Elias had some of the best counsel, lawyers, that he could buy, I’m sure. How did you bring this forward in court?

HILLDORFER: Like any case, we have to bring in witnesses. The employees that worked there, particularly Darren and Gene, not only were they incredibly brave men on the day of the accident – it really wasn’t an accident – but they basically gave up their jobs at Evergreen, came in the court, and they told of the horrific working conditions that were there. We tracked down employees that worked there over the years, all of them told us of the dismal working conditions. And based on their testimony and Dr. Lowry’s analysis of it, we managed to get the case to a jury in Idaho.

CURWOOD: What happens when you go in front of the jury?

HILLDORFER: The jury really riveted on the testimony of the witnesses. The most powerful witness in that case – it’s something I’ll never forget. Scott Dominguez had the courage to come in the court. He managed to confront Elias, and the jury was only out four hours before they returned a guilty verdict on all counts.

CURWOOD: So, the jury finds Mr. Elias guilty.


CURWOOD: What does the judge do?

HILLDORFER: Both of our prosecutors argued strongly for incarceration that night. The judge says no. Mr. Elias turns the justice system on its head. He hires a new dream team of appellate attorneys, they manage to get a number of the charges thrown out of court…

CURWOOD: And then?

HILLDORFER: I fly back, as do our prosecutors, in March. This is 1999. The day before Mr. Elias is sentenced, the judge reinstates the charges. And we have one of the most amazing sentences that I’ve ever witnessed in my life.

CURWOOD: And that was?

HILLDORFER: Judge Winmill sentenced Allan Elias to 17 years, the longest sentence imposed in the history of environmental crimes.

CURWOOD: So, the law has the wrong levels for cyanide as hazardous waste. What progress, if any, have you been able to make to get that regulation fixed, to move the decimal point to the right place?

HILLDORFER: From day one, when this injury occurred, Dr. Lowry was immediately aware of it. He was working for years to change this law, and he used this case to force the changes through both the EPA and the legislative bodies.

CURWOOD: How does this case set precedent in environmental law?

HILLDORFER: It set precedent in a number of ways. It made a big difference with the length of the sentence – it shows that if we treat environmental crimes like other crimes, there’s real consequences for the defendants in our case. It made a tremendous difference to my fellow EPA CID agents across the country. We suffer far more defeats than we have victories because it is hard to convince everyone, from the prosecutors to the jury to the judge, that our crimes are real crimes. It was a morale boost to my fellow agents.

CURWOOD: Joe Hilldorfer is a special agent for the Environmental Protection Agency based in Seattle, co-author of a book with Robert Dugoni, called “The Cyanide Canary: A Story of Injustice: One Man Caused It, One Man Fought It, One Man’s Life was Destroyed by It.” Joe, thanks for taking this time with me today.

HILLDORFER: Thank you very much, Steve. It was great to tell our story.

[MUSIC: Alloy Orchestra “Lust” SILENTS (Accurate – 1997)]

Related link:
The Cyanide Canary

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CURWOOD: Coming soon on Living on Earth – The Greeks, the Romans and the Ottomans are just a few of the civilizations that have occupied the ancient city of Butrint, Albania over the past three thousand years. That makes Butrint an archeological treasure to be preserved for posterity and prosperity.

TARE: There’s no point in having a dead museum here where just you buy a ticket and walk in and walk out. This should be a living place where people can live and they can profit from the heritage without destroying it.

CURWOOD: Sharing and protecting a nation’s legacy – coming up on Living on Earth. And remember you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot o-r-g.


CURWOOD: We take you now to Kali Vrissi, a village in the mountains of northern Greece for the festival of Babouyera.


CURWOOD: Steven Feld recorded the event whose highlight is a procession of men and boys costumed in heavy bells.

[EARTHEAR: Steven Feld “Kali Vrissi, Greece” THE TIME OF BELLS (VoxLox – 2004)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Christopher Bolick, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, and Susan Shepherd - with help from Carl Lindemann, and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Jennie Cecil Moore, Jenn Goodman and Steve Gregory.

Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. Al Avery runs our website. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood, thanks for listening.

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