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

May 13, 2005

Air Date: May 13, 2005



Water for the World / Jeff Young

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Congress is considering ways the United States can get more clean water to the developing world. Some lawmakers want the private sector to help. But private water companies are stirring unrest in some developing countries. Jeff Young reports from Washington (05:00)

Reducing the Carbon Footprint

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Environmentally conscious investors are starting to use the power of their purses to force corporations and Wall Street to address the issue of climate change. Host Steve Curwood talks with Mindy Lubber, president of the organization Ceres, about efforts to use nearly $3 trillion in assets from large pension funds as a carrot and stick to prompt industry to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. (06:30)

Setting Standards for Organic Seafood / Rachel Gotbaum

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The demand for organic food is growing, and US sellers of fish and seafood want to jump on the bandwagon and certify their products organic. Currently, there are no organic standards for seafood but that's about to change. As Rachel Gotbaum reports, setting regulations for healthy fish is no easy process. (10:30)

Mind Your Mercury

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Saying she had a toxic glow, Salon.com writer Katharine Mieszkowski wrote a commentary for Living on Earth three months ago about her surprise at finding she had high levels of mercury in her body. Now, after cutting fish from her diet entirely, she joins host Steve Curwood to talk about her new test results. (04:00)

Sorry, Charley

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Dale Bengston and his family from Madison, Wisconsin were so incensed over the high levels of mercury in tuna, they sent their uneaten cans to the White House as a protest. Host Steve Curwood talks to Bengston about his protest. (02:00)

Emerging Science Note/On the Stick / Katie Zemtseff

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Living on Earth's Katie Zemtseff reports on a study that suggests monkeys consider tools an extension of themselves. (01:30)


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The Department of Homeland Security will be free of any environmental constraints in border control under a little-noticed provision just passed by Congress. Molly Peterson reports from the Arizona border what the change could mean. (07:00)

The Long Walk

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Bill McKibben spent three weeks backpacking from Vermont to New York, and along the way, discovered the people who lived on the land had very different ways of life, depending on which side of Lake Champlain they lived. Host Steve Curwood talks with McKibben about his new book, "Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape." (09:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Mindy Lubber, Katherine Mieszkowski, Dale Bangston, Bill McKibben
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Rachel Gotbaum, Molly Peterson
NOTE: Katie Zemtseff


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Organic food is a booming business and these days, you can get organic meat, produce and dairy products. Now, in the hunt for new markets, there’s a push to create organic labels for seafood.

BUSH: Our consumer is, especially on the Lean Cuisine side, they are health conscious. And Nestle’s moving toward a wellness company. We don’t even want to be called a food company anymore; we’re a wellness company, health and wellness.

CURWOOD: But just because that fish is labeled “organic” doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat.

GOLDBURG: The organically certified fish that’s imported may be fed diets that are relatively high in contaminants like PCBs and dioxins. So there isn’t even a guarantee that you are getting a healthy product when you buy so-called “organic seafood” at store in the United States.

CURWOOD: Seafood safety and organic standards. Fresh this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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Water for the World

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

There are few things more basic to life than water. Our bodies are mostly made up of water and we can’t go very long without it. Even so, some two-and-a-half billion people on this planet do not have ready access to clean water. Many call it a global crisis, both in terms of public health and threats to international security. Now, the U.S. Congress is considering ways the government and private sector can help. International aid agencies say they welcome the attention. But some folks in the developing world worry about letting private water companies control such a valuable natural resource. Communities from South America to Sub-Saharan Africa are rebelling. They say privatization all too often raises the price of water beyond the reach of the poor. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: You don’t hear Republican Bill Frist and Democrat Harry Reid agree on much of anything these days. As leaders of their respective parties in the Senate the two are usually locked in Washington’s partisan political combat. But look atop at a little noticed piece of legislation on water and you find the names Frist and Read side by side as cosponsors.

HOAGLAND: It is amazing in some ways and yes, I think, it’s just an indication that this is a non-partisan issue.

YOUNG: Frist aide Bill Hoagland says it shows that senators are serious about bringing clean water to the developing world. The numbers are sobering. The UN says more than 9,000 children die each day due to waterborne disease. The Frist-Reid Safe Water Act was unveiled at a Capitol screening of the documentary film, “Running Dry.” Water companies paid for the film, which seeks to draw public attention to the world’s water crisis.

FILM EXCERPT: In Africa, we have quite a lot of water, but it’s not always where we need it….

YOUNG: Frist also sees a looming national security threat as social disorder from disease and competition for water stoke global conflicts. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development three years ago, the U.S. and other wealthy countries committed to cut the number of people without water and sanitation in half by 2015. The Frist and Reid bill calls for the U.S. to make that commitment a priority in international development aid and to come up with a strategic plan. But because the budget is tight in Washington, Hoagland says the bill also looks to the private sector for help.

HOAGLAND: There are ways to provide quick clean water that the private sectors have helped develop those technologies. We should not run away from them; we should embrace them to help us address this problem.

YOUNG: Some water activists say private companies have raised rates in a push for profit, pricing water out of the reach of the poor. Maj Fiil-Flynn coordinates the water program for the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen.

FLYNN: We shouldn’t be paying our tax dollars to large corporations who eventually will turn around and create systems where the poor do not get access because access has to be combined with affordability.

YOUNG: Flynn points to Bolivia where high water prices sparked violent street demonstrations. Residents of the city El Alto say the French company Suez charges exorbitant rates and does not serve the poorest. Community organizer Abel Mamani spoke to us from a hotel in Paris where he traveled to protest a meeting of Suez shareholders.


VOICEOVER: More than 200 thousand people in El Alto at this moment do not have potable water. They are drinking water from wells they have dug and there is much diarrhea among the children because the water is clearly not potable. There are children who have died as a result of drinking this water.

YOUNG: The private water companies say such complaints are overblown and ignore the increased water access they’ve made possible. But the private water controversies keep piling up in the Philippines, Ghana and some U.S. cities, sparking reaction in Congress. Illinois Democratic Representative Janice Schakowsky introduced a resolution she calls “Water for the World.”

SCHAKOWSKY: There are some things that I think belong rightfully in the public sector because we believe that access to water is a human right. Therefore, it should not be owned in private hands.

YOUNG: Two dozen of Schacowsky’s House colleagues have signed on. Others look at the enormous challenges of providing water and opt for a more pragmatic approach. Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer’s bill is a companion to the one from Senators Frist and Reid and also includes a role for private companies.

BLUMENAUER: There is a sort of a philosophical notion on the part of some that water comes from God; it should be free. It’s true, but God doesn’t deliver it. And delivering water and treating it is quite expensive.

YOUNG: Blumenauer says his bill pairs incentives for private sector work with safeguards aimed at making sure water remains affordable. And he says the issue of water scarcity is too pressing to be bogged down by the dispute over private water and the public good. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

Related links:
- Public Citizen’s Water for All Campaign
- WHO water and sanitation information
- World Water Day
- "Running Dry" project site
- British group Water Aid

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Reducing the Carbon Footprint

CURWOOD: Global warming is likely to hurt businesses if they don’t respond and adapt, more and more investors are saying. But they also point to the profits to be made in developing energy-related technologies that ward off the effects of climate disruption. That was the theme of a recent meeting of a recent meeting of investors at the United Nations, as well as the rationale behind recent announcements by Duke Energy and GE pledging to increase efforts to address global warming.

Spearheading the movement are managers of public employee pension funds that represent some three trillion dollars of investor capital. Mindy Lubber is president of Ceres--that’s a coalition of investors, corporations and environmentalists and she joins us. Mindy, your group got involved with this issue at a summit at the UN in 2003. What’s been happening since then?

LUBBER: Well, an enormous amount. When we pulled people together at the United Nations in November of 2003 and included 200 Wall Street money managers and 100 pension funds, not one of them had been thinking about, in a serious way in terms of what they do everyday, why global warming was their responsibility, as well. And since then, not only did they realize it’s time for them to act, but the pension funds have engaged with two dozen companies urging them and in many cases succeeding to change their practices on how much carbon they emit. Since then, those large pension funds have told their money managers, we want you to start understanding and assessing the risk. And since then, those treasurers have gone to Washington, asking for regulatory change and asking the SCC to require that companies disclose this risk in every legal filing. Investors are now engaged. There’s nobody companies are going to listen to more than their own owners. If the government doesn’t act, it’s the marketplace that has to act.

CURWOOD: Mindy Lubber, what are the top two or three financial risks of global climate change?

LUBBER: Let’s give some very specific examples. That’s a good question. Take the electric utility industry. Right now, there’s consideration of building by a number of countries around just the United States--a hundred new coal-fired plants. Now, those plants are the largest emitters of carbon, carbon causing global warming. If, in fact, half of those are built, if, in fact, tens of billions of dollars are put into building new coal-fired plants and a law passes in two years or three years in Congress it can cost the companies who have built the coal-fired plants either hundreds of millions of dollars to retrofit, to put new technology on those plants, or it may make billions of dollars worth of investments obsolete. Well, for an investor, investing in a company today that four years from now may lose or may have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars is just not a smart investment.

CURWOOD: What companies are most at risk of getting dropped from your group’s portfolios and which ones have the good prospects to get included?

LUBBER: Well, it’s not, it’s partially getting dropped and it’s partially just getting a knock on the door by the people who own them. A number of the pension funds who we work with, before they say to a company we’re going to get you out of our portfolio, what they say is, we’re a major owner of you, we’re a shareholder of Duke Energy, American Electric Power, Synergy, General Motors or Ford. We own a large portion of your stock and we are now telling you we want you to begin to assess the risk of your company from not addressing climate risk. And we want to plan for how you’re going to deal with it and I will tell you when large investors speak, companies listen and in many instances they act.

Last year, a group of investors filed 31 shareholder resolutions with some of the largest emitters of carbon--ChevronTexaco, American Electric Power, TXU, Southern Company. And what happened was, in the case of American Electric Power, the second largest emitter of carbon, they sat down with their investors and with a group of environmentalists over a four-month process. They dug in, they did what the investors asked. They studied the risk from carbon. They put out a study articulating what that is and they set out a plan for how they are going to bring their carbon footprint down.

Duke Energy did something similar. Synergy did something similar. The companies listen to their investors.

CURWOOD: What’s next here?

LUBBER: Well, the pension funds are quite serious about staying with this. They believe there’s a risk in their portfolios and they’re going to make sure they get that risk out and what are they going to do, they’re going to engage with 30 or 40 more companies. That’s number one. Number two, they’re going to speak a little bit more loudly to Wall Street money managers. Wall Street money managers somehow think if a problem doesn’t show up in quarterly earnings, it doesn’t exist. Pension funds are one of the largest clients of Wall Street money managers so they get to be listened to. They’re going to say when you evaluate a company for their short-term earnings, their long-term profitability, when you look at all of the risks facing those companies, we want you to factor in the risk from climate, from carbon-emitting pollutants.

CURWOOD: Wall Street’s a pretty tough nut to crack on something like this.

LUBBER: The reason why I think we’ve got a shot and it’s only a shot is because they want the business of these large pension funds. We’ve got a trillion dollars worth of assets being managed by large pension funds who are being extremely responsible, saying to those Wall Street money management firms, ‘if you want our business we want you to do the right evaluation of companies. And somehow thinking you could continue to ignore the risks from global warming in our portfolios isn’t going to cut it any more. If you want to manage our money, we want you to develop the competency for assessing climate risk and that’s the way it’s going to be.’

CURWOOD: Now, on the other side of this equation, with climate change as a need to change how we make energy, that seems to me that there’s a lot of economic opportunity in that. What are the potential investment opportunities to respond to climate change?

LUBBER: Well, as right as you are, I’m going to say it’s an understatement to say there’s a lot of opportunity. I’m going to say it’s a hundred times bigger than that. The world is changing. One of the largest problems we face that being global warming which is the envelope in which all other environmental issues fit is bringing us to a new question. Can we continue to produce energy in the same way we can? Can we continue to keep going the same direction we’ve been going and I think every major scientist has said the answer is very definitely not. That doesn’t mean we need to change our lifestyle, it doesn’t need to be negative. We just need to be conscious that we need to move to a different mix of energy not only here in the United States but around the entire world.

CURWOOD: Mindy Lubber is the president of the organization Ceres. Thanks for taking this time with me, today.

LUBBER: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Coming up: how to help consumers navigate the waters of organic marketing at the seafood counter. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Related link:

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[MUSIC: Lynn Patrick “California Zephyr” Winnie’s Guitar (Lynn Patrick/Little Karoo Music) 1998]

Setting Standards for Organic Seafood

OceanBoy Farms in Florida grows shrimp and is the only U.S. seafood company to receive USDA organic certification. They received the certification under the livestock rules.

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The organic food industry is the fastest growing segment for food sales in the U.S., rising by 20 percent a year. Produce, poultry, dairy and meat can be certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And now, purveyors of seafood are trying to cash in and get their products certified organic, as well. But, as Rachel Gotbaum reports, creating organic standards for fish is a complicated matter.

GOTBAUM: Though it looks like an ordinary farm with sprawling acres of greenhouses, OceanBoy Farms in Clewiston, Florida is different. For one thing, it’s the only farm in the country where shrimp are grown inland. There’s also no polluting run-off; the water in the 24 manmade ponds where the shrimp are raised is treated and recycled.

OceanBoy Farms in Florida grows shrimp and is the only U.S. seafood company to receive USDA organic certification. They received the certification under the livestock rules.


GOTBAUM: On a spring afternoon, vice president of production Michael Mogollon drives his black truck around for a tour of the 900-acre property.

MOGOLLON: These paddle wheels are important because it moves the water in a circular motion and concentrates whatever waste are generated in the pump toward the center drain.

GOTBAUM: All visitors must wear protective white lab suits to keep from contaminating the shrimp stocks. That’s because these shrimp are not treated with antibiotics or other additives. If they get sick, the whole batch must be destroyed. And they’re fed what Mogollon calls 100 percent organic feed made from tilapia cultivated on the farm.


GOTBAUM: Inside the greenhouse, millions of tiny translucent shrimp are growing in large tanks that look like bathtubs—the water is algae green.

MOGOLLON: These little lines that you see—this is the vein of the shrimp, what most people like in an adult shrimp to take out. That’s the intestine and as you’ll see that all these animals have full guts, which means they’re fully fed. Part of that food is the organic formula that we give them.

GOTBAUM: OceanBoy Farms is the only seafood company in the United States to receive USDA organic certification. The owners hope that their 50 million-dollar business investment will pay off because they’re banking on consumer demand for organic products continuing to grow.


GOTBAUM: No where was that demand more obvious than at the International Seafood Show held recently in Boston. This is the largest trade show for seafood in the U.S. For the first time in its history, among the hundreds of fishmongers from around the globe, a handful were selling organic products. The largest seller is Emerald Organics, a two-year-old company which markets fish certified organic in Europe and South America. Michael Mcnichols runs the company and was showing off his products to a buyer from China.

MCNICHOLS: The one in the back is crocker; that’s farmed in the Mediterranean. In front of the cod is salmon, which is farmed in Ireland. In front of that is sea bass and seabreem. We have number of other products, organic sturgeon and caviar, which are farmed in Spain.

GOTBAUM: At the other end of the hall, a buyer from one of America’s largest food companies gave his pitch to the salespeople at the OceanBoy Farms Organic Shrimp booth. Bill Bush is a purchasing manager for Nestle USA.

BUSH: Our consumer is, especially in the Lean Cuisine side, they are health conscious. And Nestle’s moving toward a wellness company. We don’t even want to be called a food company anymore; we’re a wellness company, health and wellness.

GOTBAUM: It seems almost every company is interested in getting in on the wellness craze. The buzz about organics doesn’t surprise Howard Johnson. He runs his own seafood marketing and research firm called HM Johnson and Associates.

JOHNSON: More and more you’re gonna see in these trade booths words like wild, natural, organic, sustainable. People are starting to get the message that there’s market for this. And I’ve been in this business for 30 years and that’s sort of a sea change. It’s exciting for the industry because the organic food market in this country is growing by 19, 20 percent a year--has been for the last five years. So the seafood people see that and they would like to become a part of that and the retailers and consumer would also like to see that.

GOTBAUM: There are still no organic standards for seafood in the U.S. OceanBoy Farms received its certification under the livestock rules and the USDA is currently challenging that decision made by one of its contracted certifiers. Currently, U.S. consumers can buy fish that has been certified organic from Europe and other countries. But that worries some people.

GOLDBURG: The upshot is that when consumers in this country buy seafood that is labeled organic in a grocery store, they really don’t know what they are getting,

GOTBAUM: Becky Goldburg is senior scientist for Environmental Defense in New York.

GOLDBURG: The organically certified fish that’s imported may be fed diets that are relatively high in contaminants like PCBs and dioxins. So there isn’t even a guarantee that you are getting a healthy product when you buy so-called “organic seafood” at store in the United States.

GOTBAUM: Goldburg helped the government develop its current national organic standards. She says certifying farm-raised or even wild fish is much more complicated and expensive than organic livestock or crops.

GOLDBURG: If you have a farm, you own that piece of land, you can control what goes on in that piece of land. For the most part, you can create an organic system that most people would be comfortable with. But it’s different with the ocean which is held in the public trust. It’s everybody’s and so no individual who is farming a fish in the ocean has nearly as much control over what goes on.

GOTBAUM: Goldburg worries that politics and market pressures to certify certain species of fish will end up watering down organic standards. For example, organically raised livestock must be fed an organic diet. But salmon are carnivores and are fed on other ocean fish that may be contaminated. Would salmon farmers be willing overhaul production methods and invest in new technology needed to create organic fish feeds? Current organic standards also call for strict waste and reuse protocols. Most farm-raised fish are grown in nets out in the ocean. How would fish farmers recycle waste and keep pollutants from entering the ocean’s ecosystem? Those are questions that remain unanswered.


GOTBAUM: On a recent afternoon, the Whole Foods market in Swampscott, Massachusetts is quiet. There are a few people at the fish counter where farmed and wild fish from waters near and far are displayed.

WOMAN: Hi. Can I get a pound of the haddock? Can you take the skin off?

GOTBAUM: Whole Foods is the largest retailer of organic food in the U.S. The market chain’s fish sales grew by 15 percent last year—but none of the seafood was labeled organic. Dave Pilat is the northeast regional seafood director for Whole Foods. He says until USDA standards are developed for seafood, placing an organic label on fish is confusing to consumers.

PILAT: When organic seafood started coming out into the marketplace we took a look at the different certifying bodies and it was easy to notice that certain bodies in Europe all had different standards. So we said for now it would be fairest not to use the word “organic.”

GOTBAUM: In 2003, at the urging of Alaska lawmakers, Congress gave the USDA authority to develop organic standards for wild fish. Alaska sells 95 percent of all wild salmon in the U.S. Recent reports that farm-raised salmon can be contaminated with PCBs and other toxins gave the Alaska fishing industry a boost and sales of wild salmon reached 235 million dollars last year. Alaska fishermen don’t want to lose that market edge and are pushing to get their products certified organic, too.

WOLF: Wild salmon is exactly what consumers are thinking of when they think of the word “organic.”

GOTBAUM: Bill Wolf is a legislative assistant for Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska.

WOLF: A wild salmon that is spawned in absolutely pristine fresh waters swims out to sea in the cold waters of the north Pacific. It is not picking up any contaminants and swims back to the same pristine stream to spawn and is caught at the absolute peak of condition. That’s the most natural that I can imagine from anywhere in the world and yet the organic food industry says, ‘oh no, you can’t use our label.’

GOTBAUM: Wolf says in order to give wild fish and some types of farm-raised seafood an organic label new standards may have to be adopted. And that’s exactly what environmentalists and those in the organic community worry about. Whole Foods fish buyer Dave Pilat.

PILAT: If it’s decides that wild fish is determined organic, I think that would set a dangerous precedent. I think folks, when they buy organic, it’s all about the source. They want to know where it came from, what feed, what’s in the feed, how it was raised and with wild fish it’s almost impossible to know. Fish can swim for thousands of miles. Fish are migratory so to label any seafood organic could be, I think at the least a tricky situation.

GOTBAUM: That’s one of the tricky situations the USDA is just now beginning to grapple with. The agency is currently assembling a task force to begin work developing organic standards for aquatic animals. Consumers can expect to find fish with the USDA certified organic label in markets sometime next year. For Living on Earth, I’m Rachel Gotbaum.

Related links:
- OceanBoy Farms
- Environmental Defense
- USDA on Organic Fish

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Mind Your Mercury

CURWOOD: Certifying organic seafood is a complicated matter. And so is finding out if the fish on your plate is safe to eat. Toxins can be the problem. Farm-raised salmon, according to a recent study reported in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives may have as much as ten times the amount of dioxins found in wild-caught salmon. And even wild caught predator fish, such as tuna, swordfish and shark can have unhealthful levels of mercury.

Joining me is Katharine Mieszkowski, a senior writer at the on line magazine Salon. Several months ago Katherine wrote a commentary for us about being tested for mercury and finding - to her surprise - levels of mercury in her body well above those considered “safe” for a woman her age. Hi there, Katharine.


CURWOOD: Now, you’re at your desk there in San Francisco. I imagine the same place that you got the news after you wrote a commentary for us a few months ago and had yourself tested for mercury. And you had what, 1.08 micrograms of mercury per gram of hair, which is well above what’s considered safe, right?

MIESZKOWSKI: That’s correct.

CURWOOD: Then you got yourself re-tested after several months of fish abstinence. What was in the letter that came to your desk after that?

MIESZKOWSKI: The new letter said that my level was 0.91 micrograms of mercury per gram of hair. So that was a 16 percent reduction in a very short amount of time, in just three and a half months.

CURWOOD: Now, when we eat something that has mercury in it, how does it come out of our bodies?

MIESZKOWSKI: Well, as much as you might not like to think about your hair as an excretion product, as one doctor called it to me, that’s what it is. I mean the heavy metal comes out of your hair, as well as out of your fingernails, your toenails. That’s why a hair test is one way to get a screen and measure how much your body is sort of emitting.

CURWOOD: To do this, to get this reduction, I gather you stopped eating fish pretty much altogether, huh?

MIESZKOWSKI: Yeah, I developed something of a fish phobia. What a doctor would tell you is to avoid the top predator fish, the fish that live longest and consume the most other fish that also have mercury in them. So those fish are like swordfish, shark, tilefish, tuna. But my reaction was to be a little bit grossed out by all seafood. So I really just didn’t eat almost any seafood for about three and a half months. I only had it twice and that was when it was served to me and it would have been rude to refuse it.

CURWOOD: Weren’t you worried that what you were eating instead was maybe equally unhealthy in other ways?

MIESZKOWSKI: That is an issue because people say that, you know..oh, this is a good story, here I reduced my mercury level so quickly. But, in fact, it’s rather a sad story because fish is one of the best sources of lean protein and omega three fatty acids. So it’s not exactly a tale of hope and courage.

CURWOOD: You know, a lot of people in the world get fish for subsistence stock. All it costs them is some time and a hook and some bait and they can eat.

MIESZKOWSKI: Exactly. So that’s why it’s kind of a red herring to just have these lists of fish that people should avoid because that really only helps out people who have the means and the education and the access to different food sources in order to make a switch. That’s why I think it’s so important to actually try to get the mercury out of the environment as opposed to, you know, just have the most elite people modifying their diets in these refined ways.

CURWOOD: Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.com. Katherine, thank you so much for joining us.


Related links:
- Katharine Mieszkowski's commentary on LOE
- Katharine Mieszkowski's article in Salon about her latest mercury test results
- Greenpeace order form for mercury test kit

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Sorry, Charley

(Courtesy of Dale Bengston)

CURWOOD: Salon recently published a letter from Dale Bengston who lives in Madison, Wisconsin about what he did to cut the mercury levels in his family. And we have Mr. Bengston with us now on the line. Hello, sir.


CURWOOD: So, tell me about your mercury saga. How did you cut it out of your family’s life?

BENGSTON: Well, we looked at the numbers that the National Resources Defense Council had come up with, analyzing the EPA’s data, and found that we really couldn’t feed our young daughter tuna fish any more. So we cut it out of our diet completely, which is a shame. Both of my children really enjoyed tuna fish. And my wife got so mad about it she said ‘let’s send our cans of tuna to the president in protest.’ So we did.

CURWOOD: And what did the post office say when you had this addressed to the White House?

BENGSTON: Well, the window attendant asked us if there were any toxic or hazardous substances in our package. And I had to hold my tongue because I wanted to say, ‘not if you ask the EPA or the president,’ but I wanted to make sure my package got through so I kept my tongue held there.

CURWOOD: But if you ask the president he says he has a plan to take care of the mercury problem.

BENGSTON: Well, his plan lowers the amount of mercury coming out of coal power plants to a weaker standard than if he would have just left things the way they were. And it takes another, I believe, eight or ten years to get there.


BENGSTON: And I think considering this is a neuro-toxin that we should probably work a little faster to get it out of the things our kids eat.

CURWOOD: What did you want the White House to do with this? I gather you don’t think it would be good for them to give it away to poor children or something like that.

BENGSTON: Well, I don’t know, I guess they could take it and eat it themselves. If they think it’s okay, they’re welcome to eat it. My wife, Laura, and I thought that if the corridors of power were clogged with tuna fish then maybe some action might be taken. So we’re doing our part and we’re encouraging other people to do the same.

CURWOOD: Dale Bengston lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

BENGSTON: Thank you.

CURWOOD: We called the White House to find out what they had done with the Bangston family’s tuna fish. Spokeswoman Dana Piriton said they could not find any record of the tuna arriving at the White House. She told us, quote, ‘no one’s seen the cans.’

To find out more about mercury levels in fish and how to get your own mercury levels tested, go to our Web site, living on earth dot org. That’s living on earth dot o-r-g.

Related links:
- Pocketguide to fish and their mercury content
- EPA's guidelines for mercury in seafood

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[MUSIC: The Johnny Nocturne Band “Lemon Twist” Wild & Cool (Rounder) 1998]

Emerging Science Note/On the Stick

CURWOOD: Just ahead, the environment as a casualty of the immigration conflict. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Katie Zemtseff.

ZEMTSEFF: We know that monkeys are a lot like humans, but who would have thought they’d like video games too? They not only like them, but after being trained to play; the monkeys actually consider the joystick another limb.

Researchers at Duke University taught two female rhesus monkeys to use a joystick to play a video game where they moved a cursor over a target. They also installed microelectrodes into the monkey’s brains and studied how their brain signals controlled their arm movements. Researchers then added forces to the cursor such as resistance and momentum, so the monkeys actually felt like they were lifting and pushing the cursor as they would a real arm. Then scientists took the joystick away and electronically connected the monkey’s brains to a robotic arm that controlled a second joystick. When the monkeys then tried to move the cursor, they first waved their arm, but soon realized their brain could do all the work.

Turns out some of the brain cells that had formerly controlled the monkey’s real arm had figured out how to control the robotic arm using only brain signals. Scientists think the monkeys recognized the joystick not only as a tool, but also as an extension of their own arms. These researchers believe humans, like monkeys, are good at using tools because our brains think of tools as extensions of our bodies, although this theory has yet to be tested on people.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Katie Zemtseff.

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

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[MUSIC: Mason Williams “Overture” The Mason Williams Phonograph Record (Warner Bros) 1968]


The endangered pygmy owl (Courtesy of National Park Service)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood and coming up: writer Bill McKibben takes the long way home. But first, in a move that's been little noticed, Congress is giving the Department of Homeland Security the power to dispense with environmental laws when it builds barriers and roads along the nation’s borders. Lawmakers who support this provision in the so-called “Real ID Act” say it’s needed to finish a three-mile length of border fence near San Diego. But the law applies to all 7,500 miles of border with Canada and Mexico. Producer Molly Peterson traveled to Arizona to see what change the law may bring and found public lands managers already hard pressed to maintain a balancing act.


DJ: And you’re listening to the Waila Generations Mix, right here on KHON, 91-point-9, Tohono O’odham Nation.

PETERSON: The music of the Tohono O’odham Indian nation is Waila, a blend of polka and Mexican Nortena. It flows freely across the U.S. Mexico border that divides this native land.


PETERSON: Border control efforts successful elsewhere have funneled migrants here -- half a million people a year.


PETERSON: Sergeant Ann Miguel started with the Tohono O’odham Police Force 11 years ago. Now on patrol, she sees more travelers, more garbage. Some of it makes her nervous.

MIGUEL: The dirty diapers that they leave here, the clothing that they come in--lotions, medications, or whatever, syringes, all types of stuff in these backpacks that aren’t really healthy to us. But we have to search them before we put them in the vehicles and we have to come into contact with them

PETERSON: She stabs her finger at the truck’s window as we drive by an open water tank, a village’s drinking supply surrounded by trash. And Miguel says more often now residents on both sides of the border report serious attacks in their homes. Citing this traffic, crime and the risk of terrorism, lawmakers like Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter argue for more border walls, including the one he’s helped bring to San Diego.

HUNTER: We stopped those 300 drug trucks a month. Stopped them dead. We eliminated the ten murders a year, mostly of undocumented workers because we built that fence. If the extremists had had their way, they would have gone to a sympathetic federal court, tied us up in lawsuits and we wouldn't have had the fence.

PETERSON: So Congress is giving the Director of Homeland Security the authority to waive all environmental and other laws in the vicinity of the border. Surprisingly, perhaps, along the southern border, chain link fences and concertina wire are the exception, not the rule. For hundreds of miles between entry points no physical barriers exist. Arizona borderlands include protected lands, a dozen of them, where environmental laws shield plants and animals. Border patrol agents say they work hard to minimize damage. But public lands liaison David BeMiller says national security is his agency’s priority.

BEMILLER: It is our call in how we operate and deploy forces. We do have statutory authority to patrol within 25 miles of the border if we deem necessary.


TIBBITS: Gila woodpeckers, that’s a gilded flicker…


PETERSON: Bird songs greet biologist Tim Tibbits as the sun rises in Organ Pipe National Monument.


PETERSON: But he also has safety on his mind. We may be watched from brush areas by scouts for smugglers. A ranger was killed here two years ago.


TIBBITS: That’s the pygmy owl calling back.

The endangered pygmy owl. (Courtesy of National Park Service)

PETERSON: Tibbits calls for a cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. It’s the size of his fist and hard to hear. This canyon, its saguaro cactus, and mesquite, is prime territory for the owl, endangered under federal law. But foot trails, pounded down by hundreds of people and off road driving, worry the owls and Tibbits.

TIBBITS: I have had a couple of these nest territories that were active and they were feeding young, or they were incubating eggs, and then we saw some of this illegal activity occur in the territory, literally within 50-100 feet of the nest site. And then the territories have been abandoned.

PETERSON: Other animals, some of them rare, migrate across the border. Walls would prevent that, so local agencies have worked together for barriers that block people but not animals. This is one of them. Metal posts, set in concrete, sit on an 18-mile stretch at the park’s border. They’re crossed with railroad ties three feet up. Animals get through. Cars can’t. Organ Pipe’s Chief of Resources Mary Kralovec says public involvement–currently required for the National Environmental Policy Act–isn’t a burden. It got the barrier built.

KRALOVEC: The biggest most important part of the NEPA process is the public involvement. So if you get rid of that process you get rid of the public involvement process. The public has the opportunity to comment on the federal action.

PETERSON: But even a lengthy process couldn’t counter the push north. Border jumpers stymied by the vehicle barrier now head next door, into Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. A fleet of abandoned cars rust there, near the Palo Verde trees. Smugglers have cut roads across river washes and through creosote. Last month, 13 migrants, lost, without water, set signal fires hoping for rescue. They were rescued, but the fire tore through 1,000 acres of land. The park’s superintendent, Roger DiRosa, seems astonished as he walks to a lookout over these lands under assault.


PETERSON: He says border patrol has lately requested more access.

DIROSA: Unlimited access, cross-country access, four wheel drive, wherever they need to grow. Any kind of infrastructure necessary anywhere–and our contention was, ‘whoa, we support you but this is unnecessary.’

PETERSON: DiRosa has to walk a fine line. He wants to stay part of what border patrol is doing, so he’s worked out compromises with them. These local compromises are hard work. With the new law, they’ll be unnecessary or they could be overruled by Washington. Di Rosa may find himself negotiating the environment with a more powerful partner.

DIROSA: The problem is, it’s a bit like being governed by a dictator--is he going to be benevolent or is he going to be malicious? As long as he’s benevolent, it’s great.

PETERSON: Especially because the ecosystem is an unforgiving one. Three years ago, Arizona’s population of Sonoran pronghorn, a fast, deer-like animal, crashed. Just 18 survived a harsh drought year. Cabeza Prieta biologist Mike Coffeen manages pronghorn recovery. He says with drought years ahead there’s little room for error.

COFFEEN: What we worry about is when we get into the next severe drought cycle there’s so much activity now that it could have a serious impact on the pronghorn when they’re already stressed.

PETERSON: He points out a breeding enclosure, surrounded by electric fence. Concerned that helicopters would drive pronghorn to panic inside, biologists asked border patrol to keep clear. They have. This spring, ten fawns were born. David BeMiller says there’s no danger that kind of collaboration will disappear.

BEMILLER: At no time are we going to patrol the border without consulting other folks. It’s not worth protecting if it’s destroyed in the meantime.

PETERSON: Consultation could continue. But if it doesn’t, aggrieved parties will have little recourse. The new law will limit the basis for court challenges. For Living on Earth, I’m Molly Peterson.

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[MUSIC: Mason Williams “Here Am I” The Mason Williams Phonograph Record (Warner Bros) 1968]

The Long Walk

CURWOOD: Author Bill McKibben spent three weeks in the summer of 2003 backpacking from the hillsides of Vermont's Champlain Valley through the heights of New York's Adirondack Mountains. Along the way, he met up with locals who helped him scrabble up hillsides and raft down rivers. They also taught him the meaning of living locally and how they've come to inhabit the wilderness without taming it. Their words of wisdom are chronicled in McKibben's new book, “Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape.” Bill McKibben, thanks for joining us.

MCKIBBEN: Hello, Steve.
CURWOOD: Now, Bill, you love the wild, but you grew up in the suburbs, I think, around Boston. So what drew you into the wild? In fact, I think, that as a writer you’re kind of like Alistair Cooke. You come from one place and you go to another and you tell the story.
MCKIBBEN: Well, in a sense that’s true, you know. My roots, as a writer, are quite urban. When I left college, I went off to Manhattan and wrote the “Talk of the Town” column for the New Yorker for five years and my boast at one point was that I’d been out at every subway stop in New York City. But, for a variety of odd reasons, I ended up living in the late 1980s in the Adirondacks, in the great wilderness of the East and instantly knew that that’s the landscape of my heart in some way.
And not only do I love this neck of the woods, I mean, this book really is in certain ways a love letter for me and a break from my usual grim dispatches from the world of large-scale environmental problems. I also think that it’s, you know, there’s all sorts of beautiful and lovely places, but what makes this one so interesting to me is this cheek by jowl contrast on the Vermont side of the lake, of Lake Champlain, a kind of emphasis on husbandry, cooperation, you know, is sort of evidenced by the town meeting tradition. And in the Adirondacks, the great recovered wilderness of the entire world--an emphasis on a kind of self-restraint on human beings knowing how to leave some land alone, which seems to me like a pretty grand thing as well.
CURWOOD: Bill, there’s a passage in your book that really sets up your journey. Could you read about your time on the peak of Mount Abe?
MCKIBBEN: Absolutely.
Tonight a scrim of rain clouds advanced toward me, a gauzy curtain of gray that only made the lake and mountains behind gleam the shinier. It was clearly about to rain, but the worst of it seemed set to pass just north and south. A slight gap in the line headed toward my perch on Mt. Abe. Hearing no thunder I stayed put. Sure enough, the cloud washed up over me. For a few moments even as the world turned gray, I could still make out the reflecting mirror of the lake. Finally, it too vanished and all was gloom. But then, even more quickly than it had descended, the cloud swept through and behind it the world was created fresh. No scrim, now, just the fields, the lake, the peaks. When a double rainbow suddenly appeared, it was almost too much, a Disney overdose of glory. But then a rainbow pillar rose straight into the southern sky and east of that a vaporous twin appeared and then a kind of rainbow cloud to the north--soon, seven rainbows at once. Then the sun reached just the right angle so that the mist, whipping up the face of the peak flashed into clouds of color as it washed over me. A rose cloud. A cloud of green. And all this behind it, the same line of lake, the same jag of mountain. All at once it struck me. Struck me hard that this was one of those few scenes I would replay in my mind when I someday lay dying.

CURWOOD: Up on Mt. Abe here, this vision of seven rainbows, seems like a hard act to follow. How do you top that?

MCKIBBEN: Well, of course, one doesn’t, I mean there will never be a moment in my life again when I see seven rainbows at once I don’t think so that was the aesthetic highpoint perhaps.

CURWOOD: Bill, so much of your book compares the two different kinds of people on the different sides of Lake Champlain. You have different folks, one lake. What are the differences you observed?

MCKIBBEN: Well, I mean, the Adirondacks has been defined by its climate and its harshness. It’s higher up and colder and tougher to farm than Vermont and so it never successfully was. You can find plenty of stone walls deep back in the woods that showed where people tried for one generation to farm that land but it didn’t work. And so, though they’re roughly the same size, Vermont and the Adirondacks, the population of Vermont is 600 and some thousand and the population of the Adirondacks is barely 150,000. And in many ways, you know, once you cross the lake, once you leave New England, you’re headed west, you’re in the sort of unrulier rest of America where no more beautiful you know beautiful town greens with white churches, no more town meeting. The look and the feel is more Appalachian. That has a whole other take on how the world might be.

CURWOOD: Well, let’s talk about some of the characters you met along the way in your trek here. So let’s start with Chris Grandston. He’s the Vermonter who owns this winery near Middlebury College and he has a pretty practical outlook on farming, I guess. Tell me a bit about your time with him.

MCKIBBEN: Well, he’s a classic example of people who are trying to figure out how to make it farming. It’s almost impossible to make it farming growing commodity food. You’ve got to look for other things. What’s he’s hit on in recent times is wine grapes, hard to grow in Vermont, but he went on a web site called LittleFatWino.com….

CURWOOD: (laughter) Okay.

MCKIBBEN: …and found somebody who had these sort of northern varietals and he’s making a go of it and he’s not a romantic about it. You know, I remember talking with him one day and he was saying ‘look, you know, how am I going to control the weeds under these vines?’ Well, I just talked with one guy who’s trying to do it organically, the weeds got a little out of control and now he’s taking out pigweed with a chainsaw.

CURWOOD: Oh, my.
MCKIBBEN: So what I do is once a year with a backpack sprayer, I put a little bit of Roundup up and down the rows.
CURWOOD: Montesanto’s?
MCKIBBEN: Montesanto’s a big evil company as he put it, but one of the things that’s emerging here is a whole cadre of growers who call themselves ecological or sustainable farmers who don’t promise never ever to use pesticides, but say that ‘we’re your neighbors. We will use these things incredibly sparingly if we have to and that allows them to grow food on a scale and for a price that can begin to offer them some hope of survival.’
CURWOOD: Now, toward the end of your journey you meet with Don Armstrong who’s lived in the Adirondacks all of his life. How different was his lifestyle as compared with those on the Vermont side of the trail?

MCKIBBEN: Well, Don is an old friend of mine in the town where I’ve lived most of my adult life in the Adirondacks. And he’d grown up working in the woods in some of the old lumber camps and then working in the mines, which were the two great economic engines of the Adirondacks before tourism. And so his life was very different from the pastoral life of Vermont, so his set of skills and things was more western, but his sense of community was very, very strong in a New England way.

I remember once we were changing the storm windows on the church in town and though he was advanced in years, took me up through this sort of set of jerry-rigged ladders and things to see the steeple of the church. And he showed me the place where he had carved his name 60 years before along with the initials of his then girlfriend, now wife Velda and it really gave me the powerful sense of what it meant to be rooted in a particular place. I read a poll the other day that showed that three quarters of Americans didn’t know their next-door neighbor. Well, there’s not anyone who lives in Indian Lake or Chomsburg or Tupper Lake or those places who don’t know their next-door neighbors because you wouldn’t get through the winter if you didn’t. There’s still some real dependency on each other and that’s an awfully good thing I think.

CURWOOD: Bill McKibben is author of “Wandering Home–A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape.” Bill, thanks.

MCKIBBEN: Thank you Steve. What a pleasure.
CURWOOD: We leave you this week in Bill McKibben’s backyard. Andrea Lockwood recorded the cascading waters found at the Gorge at Blue Ledge, high in the Adirondack Mountains as part of her work called: A Sound Map of the Hudson River.

Related link:
Bill McKibben’s homepage

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