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

May 14, 2010

Air Date: May 14, 2010



The Dispersant Discussion

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BP is using hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersants to keep the Gulf oil slick from reaching the coast. But there is little data on the ecological impacts of these chemicals. Host Jeff Young talks with Dr. Nancy Kinner of the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center about why important questions about dispersants remain unanswered. (05:30)

Gulf Spill Impacts Ecosystem Services

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Much attention has been paid to the detrimental effects that the Gulf oil spill will have on the fishing industry. But David Yoskowitz says other monetary impacts are not as easy to calculate. Professor Yoskowitz is a researcher of Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. He tells host Jeff Young about the financial damages expected from the loss of ecosystems such as marshes and wetlands. (05:15)

Splitting the Difference

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Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is reorganizing the Minerals Management Service, the government agency responsible for overseeing offshore drilling. He wants to divide the agency in two: one arm to collect royalties and the other to enforce safety rules. (02:00)

Climate Bill Hits Capitol Hill / Mitra Taj

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Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman unveil a long-awaited climate bill which places a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, and encourages states to support offshore oil and gas drilling. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports on the Senators’ attempts to get both industry and environmental lobbies on common ground with the American Power Act. (06:15)

Cool Fix: Algae from Wastewater / Bridget MacDonald

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Algae is a promising source of renewable fuel, but producers often use greenhouse gas-producing fertilizers to feed their aquatic crops. Living on Earth’s Bridget Macdonald reports on the potential for using wastewater as an alternative for growing algae. (01:55)

Pushing the Envelope for Clean Air / Ingrid Lobet

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The Port of Los Angeles is the largest seaport in the United States and a major source of diesel pollution. It wants to turn drivers into employees so the burden of buying new clean trucks falls on companies and not on low-income drivers. As Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, the issue is now before a federal judge. (04:15)

Earth Poetry

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William Wordsworth wrote that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. Poet Natasha Trethewey opens the door to a memory of her mother, in her poem "Liman." And poet Ross Gay celebrates the redbud tree. (02:20)

The Freshest Food in the Hood / King Anyi Howell

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Obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol all disproportionately affect the African American community. Studies show that a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables is often a major factor. Planet Harmony’s King Anyi Howell visits a farmer’s market in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw neighborhood that’s working to make vegetables more accessible. The farmers are finding that making vegetables available may be easier than getting customers to buy them. (05:30)

Making a Novel out of an Anthill

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E.O. Wilson is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and a world famous biologist. Now in his eighth decade, he took on a new challenge: writing a novel. Wilson talks with host Jeff Young about "Anthill," a work of fiction that was inspired by his childhood. (10:30)

This week's EarthEar selection
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The spring peepers are out in force at Horse Pond in Madison, Connecticut.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Jeff Young
GUESTS: Nancy Kinner, David Yoskowitz,
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Ingrid Lobet, King Anyi Howell, E.O. Wilson
SCIENCE NOTE: Bridget Macdonald


YOUNG: From Public Radio International- this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. The race is on to limit damage from the Gulf’s oil gusher. But one of the weapons against the oil, chemical dispersants, could be a double-edged sword.

KINNER: I don’t think that our knowledge of dispersants is adequate. There’s still just a lot of unknowns that remain out there and frankly the funding for this work has been very, very limited which is why a lot of those questions are still unresolved.

YOUNG: And we’ll hear from one of the nation’s most distinguished scientists going back to Alabama in spirit at least.

WILSON: After fifty nine years at Harvard, all of my adult life, I wanted to go home. So along with the novel I’ve written a history of that part of the south.

YOUNG: E.O. Wilson and his novel about ants. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!


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

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The Dispersant Discussion

A Satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico shows part of the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizons explosion. (Photo: DigitalGlobe)

YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young.

Federal officials say it’s an all hands on deck, 24/7 effort against the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. But one of the main tools to minimize the oil’s impact raises its own set of problems. Some 400 thousand gallons of chemical dispersants have been sprayed on the surface and injected deep in the sea to speed breakdown of the oil. In a press teleconference EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said those dispersants have their own drawbacks and scientists aren’t sure how they might affect marine life.

JACKSON: Dispersants are not the silver bullet. They are used to move us toward the lesser of two difficult environmental outcomes.

YOUNG: A 2005 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded, “In many instances the understanding of key processes is inadequate to confidently support a decision to apply dispersants.” We contacted Dr. Nancy Kinner for more on this. She directs the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center; it’s a clearinghouse for information on oil-spill response.

KINNER: I don’t think that our knowledge of dispersants is adequate. There’s just a lot of unknowns that still remain out there, and frankly the funding for this work has been very, very limited, which is one of the reasons why a lot of those questions are still unresolved.

YOUNG: Why have we had limited research into this because I know this issue of whether or not to use dispersants came up back during the Valdez spill during 1989—you’d think we would have studied this by now?

A plane sprays chemical dispersants over the oil slick created by the Deepwater Horizon explosion. (Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

KINNER: There was a lot of funding that was authorized in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to do research, but as often times happens, when you have kind of a catastrophe like the Exxon Valdez, the actual appropriation of the funds never occurs.

YOUNG: So, Congress in theory wanted these studies to be funded, but never really came through with the dough?

KINNER: Well, not only Congress. Industry has also cut back on its R&D programs, so it really has been a problem across the board. And the comment always has been made that we don’t have big spills anymore.

YOUNG: Now, BP has been using large amounts of these chemical dispersants to try to break up the oil. How do those dispersants work, and what are some of the drawbacks with using them?

KINNER: The whole concept of the dispersant is that it basically is kind of a substances that we call a surfactant—part of it is soluble in the oil and another part of the molecule is soluble in the water. So what they do is they use these large airplanes with the dispersant on them, they have nozzles that spray it out over the water, and then the water action actually acts as the turbulence to pull that oil droplet out of the rest of the slick and put it into the water. The other key factor about this is that the degree of turbulence actually determines the size of the droplets.

YOUNG: And then what does that do in terms of the oil’s effect on the ecosystem there, where the oil is broken up out at sea?

KINNER: If you have those very small droplets for some of the organisms at the very base of the food chain they may ingest those particles. And that may not be good because you then get them being ingested by other organisms, etc. On the flipside of that, the smaller, very tiny droplets have a lot of surface area to them and by having a lot of surface area that means that you may be able to get faster colonization by bacteria and those bacteria can then use the oil as a food source and break it down. So there are kind of trade offs there.

Mexico shows part of the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizons explosion. (Photo: DigitalGlobe)

YOUNG: Now the dispersants themselves are also toxic to some degree—how big a concern is that?

KINNER: There has been some work done on the toxicity of the dispersants, and the idea has always been that the toxicity is not a big factor because most of the dispersant becomes associated with the oil, and you don’t have very much free dispersant in the water. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of data on this to really show what proportion especially in a spill like this where were putting on so much actually does become associated with the oil, and what effect the toxicity could have.

YOUNG: I’m guessing that in most other spills where they used dispersants, it was just that, a spill; a certain known volume came out of broken tanker, for example. How was that situation different from what we’re dealing with now in terms of the decision on whether or not to use dispersants?

KINNER: Well, when you use dispersants in a spill, that’s very different situation than what we potentially have here because there’s a continuous use of dispersant, there’s a continuous release of oil for potentially a fairly long period of time. And so there’s a potentially continuous exposure of organisms, and that can have a lot more implications, impacts, for an ecosystem.

YOUNG: Then, what’s your recommendation when folks responding to this bill come to your center and say ‘What should we do?’ What do you tell them?

KINNER: Well, I don’t think that our knowledge of dispersants is adequate. However, having said that, right now the Coast Guard and the federal agencies and the industry folks are dealing with a spill that is very, very large and has no sign of abating.

And the decision has been made that the best course of action is to keep that oil as much as possible off of the marshes, out of those sensitive areas and the only way that they have of doing that, especially when the weather doesn’t cooperate and you have wind and waves is to add dispersant. There are going to be accidents, I mean, it’s just—if you do drilling the probability is that you are going to have an accident. The question is, can you live with the consequences of that accident?

YOUNG: Dr. Nancy Kinner directs the Coast Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Thank you very much.

KINNER You’re very welcome, thank you for talking with me.

Related links:
- Coastal Response Research Center
- To hear more about the Bucket Brigade click here
- To hear more about e-birding click here.
- Living on Earth’s Face Book Page

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Gulf Spill Impacts Ecosystem Services

Dr. David Yoskowitz from the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. (Courtesy of Dr. Yoskowitz)

YOUNG: The spill has already shut down some fishing areas and all along the Gulf coast people who make their living from the sea are anxiously waiting. In Alabama, conservation scientist Jeff DeQuattro is watching oyster reefs.

DEQUATTRO: I am extremely worried about this because oysters are under the surface of the water most of their lives. Tarballs—if they get into an oyster reef they will suffocate those oysters.

YOUNG: Seafood is a multi-billion dollar business in the Gulf. But it’s just one of the valuable services the coast’s marshes and estuaries provide. Professor David Yoskowitz is working at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi Texas to put a dollar figure on what are called ecosystem services. He looked at some 500,000 acres of marsh that might be affected by the spill.

YOSKOWITZ: We estimate that the impact on ecosystem services would be in the range of one point two billion dollars per year. And in terms of this oil spill, if the biological impact on those marshes is significant, this could be something that doesn’t take place in just one year, but in several years.

YOUNG: Now, when you say ‘services’, what are we talking about here?

YOSKOWITZ: Well, ecosystem services are those direct and indirect contributions that the environment makes to us humans and impacts our human wellbeing. And we focus just solely on wetlands and the services of waste treatment and storm protection.

YOUNG: So, this is not looking at fishing, which is the immediate economic benefit we think of when we think of these areas, this is just looking at this kind of hidden things that the wetlands do for us and we take for granted?

Dr. David Yoskowitz from the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. (Courtesy of Dr. Yoskowitz)

YOSKOWITZ: That’s exactly right. I mean we have a pretty good handle on the impact on commercial and recreational fishing. I mean that—those are really well represented in the markets. What we’re looking at is that those goods and services that aren’t represented in the markets that are hard to calculate, but in a lot of cases much more valuable than the market goods.

YOUNG: How does this ecosystem service work? How do the marshes do that for us?

YOSKOWITZ: Well, marshes are really, really efficient in taking out nitrogen and phosphorous, as well as other nutrients and essentially cleaning them or embedding them. In fact, a lot of wastewater treatment plants around the country and the world use constructed wetlands as a final processing point for their waste.

YOUNG: And what about as a storm barrier—how do they do that?

YOSKOWITZ: Well, if you can think about the miles and miles of wetlands that are in front of the city of New Orleans. If you get a significant storm surge for every mile of wetlands it’s estimated that the storm surge would be reduced by about a foot. So, if you take that away, then you would have to engineer something that would be comparable and that would be significantly expensive.

YOUNG: And Katrina taught us a painful lesson on that.

YOSKOWITZ: That’s exactly right, and in fact, you know where the dykes held—and this is what colleagues of mine had told me this on the ecology site—where the dykes held is where we had marsh built up in front of it, and where they didn’t hold was where we didn’t have marsh built up in front of it.

YOUNG: How do you see figures like this being put to use—what would a policymaker use this for?

YOSKOWITZ: Well, that’s a good question, I think you know, if you’re looking at it a local and a regional level, lets say you have some developer that wants to come in and put in a marina, which could potentially displace marsh and sea grass, as well as dig channels into barrier islands—if we’re going to do a cost-benefit analysis, you know, the decisions are incomplete if they don’t include all costs and all benefits provided by that environment. And so to make more complete decisions we have to begin to incorporate
these certain services that the environment is providing us.

YOUNG: The spill coming just a few months before we will mark the fifth anniversary of Katrina, it really gives you a reason to stop and think about how all this comes together, doesn’t it?

YOSKOWITZ: It sure does. You know, it’s a one-two punch that’s unfortunately happened to the Gulf coast. And the first punch was Katrina, and this second punch with the oil spill. It’s imperative that we begin to take some action and start to really talk about what we receive in terms of the benefits from our natural environment.

YOUNG: David Yoskowitz at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. Thank you very much.

YOSKOWITZ: Thank you.

YOUNG: Well, the Gulf spill is also inspiring innovative use of social media on the Internet to focus citizen response. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade has a map that shows instant reports of oil. Bucket Brigade director Anne Rolfes says it’s a form of crowd sourcing.

ROLFES: Imagine you’re in a crowd and somebody starts to give away free beer how the whole crowd rushes to the beer; that’s what we’re trying to replicate except what we’re trying to identify is places where there are problems with the oil spill.

YOUNG: The map shows beaches with tarballs and places where the smell of oil is strong. The Cornell Ornithology Lab’s E-bird program maps citizen sightings of Gulf coast birds—to help wildlife response teams on the ground. There’s more about this at our website l-o-e dot org and speaking of social media, we have a new Facebook page—look up PRI’s Living on Earth on Facebook.

[Bernard Purdie “Touch Me Again” from LiaLeh (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) ( Light In The Attic Records Reissue 2008)]

YOUNG: Just ahead—the Senate launches a climate change bill in an uncertain political climate. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

Related link:
The Harte Research Institute

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Splitting the Difference

YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young. While the Gulf coast is bracing for the oil’s impact the spill is already having an effect in Washington D.C. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced major changes to the agency that regulates offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service.

As Living on Earth and others have reported, MMS, as it’s known, has long been criticized for ethics problems and lax oversight. hIt didn’t even require a full environmental analysis of the drilling plan BP submitted for the rig that exploded April 20th. And Jeff Ruch, who directs the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told us that Minerals Management’s dual mission put the agency in a bind.

RUCH: There is a conflict. Their primary role is to collect the government cut, the royalties, and they're also supposed to make sure that the operations are done according to law. And the principle laws involve protecting the environment from many effects, principally, oil spills.

YOUNG: In other words Minerals Management was both policing and promoting offshore drilling. Well, not anymore. Secretary Salazar is splitting the Minerals Management Service in two.

SALAZAR: I believe the job of ensuring that energy companies follow the law and protect safety of workers and environment should be independent from MMS’ leasing and revenue collection and permitting functions.

YOUNG: Secretary Salazar also wants to give Minerals Management more authority, resources and time to review drilling plans that companies submit. The announcement drew applause from many watchdog groups. But in Alaska, there are still questions about plans for new drilling already in the works. Alaska Wilderness League’s Kristen Miller says Minerals Management was operating under its old rules when it considered plans for drilling in the Beaufort and Chuckchi Seas.

MILLER: For the Arctic that means there is a drill rig that as we speak is heading up and is prepared to start exploratory drilling in less than 50 days. We strongly believe the administration has to suspend that activity because many of the questions that are raised in the Gulf are the same questions that are surrounding the development that’s expected in the Arctic.

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Climate Bill Hits Capitol Hill

YOUNG: Secretary Salazar says he will complete a review of the drilling plans for Alaskan waters and make a recommendation within a month. On Capitol Hill, six senators from Pacific coast states introduced legislation to permanently ban drilling off the west coast. Well, the drilling dispute has roiled the political waters just as a long awaited bill on climate change was finally launched in the U.S. Senate. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports from Washington.

TAJ: It’s taken eight months, but it’s finally ready: Senate legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions. And the bill’s co-sponsor, Democrat John Kerry, says it aims to do much more.


KERRY: This is a vote for clean energy. This is a vote for billions of dollars for the next generation of jobs in clean coal and safe nuclear power. This is a vote to end America’s addiction to foreign oil and to safeguard the air that our children breathe and the water they drink...

TAJ: The American Power Act’s biggest ambition is a hard target—cut climate change pollution by 17 percent in ten years and by 83 percent in 40 years. To get us there the proposal puts a price on carbon dioxide…and helps consumers pay for higher energy bills.

KERRY: It’s the polluters, not the people who should pay.

TAJ: But the unveiling of the Senate climate change bill wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Kerry and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman were supposed to release it weeks ago, with a Republican co-sponsor, and standing beside them—representatives of the oil industry. Instead Kerry faced this question from a reporter at the press conference:

KERRY: Why are no oil companies here today? Because one CEO of an oil company is very busy dealing with what’s going on in the Gulf, and the others had board meetings—we have a number of executives who are not here today...

TAJ: The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico might have nixed the planned photo op with oil executives, but the industry’s mark is still visible in a few of the thousand plus pages of draft legislation. It offers states that sign up for oil and gas drilling off their shores 40 percent of industry royalties. That could mean billion-dollar incentives for some very revenue-hungry states, which worries Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth.

PICA: It doesn’t take long for oil money to seep into states and states to realize they can make more money off this before you kind of see the greasy slope of oil money encouraging these states to open up the offshore. And I think the Gulf of Mexico spill proves the oil industry doesn’t know what it’s doing and runs the risk of sacrificing communities and fisheries around the United States if they mess up. And they will mess up and they do mess up.

TAJ: After the BP oilrig accident, some environmental groups and legislators hoped the offshore provision would be tossed from the bill, but it’s remained, albeit with a caveat: any “directly impacted state” can veto an offshore drilling project within 75 miles of its shores. That doesn’t impress Pica:

PICA: 75 miles? The oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is over 200 miles right now. An oil spill travels. And so—we’re disappointed by the Kerry Lieberman bill.

TAJ: But that’s not all groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace don’t like about the proposal. The bill also strips the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, and overrides state plans to cut their own emissions.

But more than 20 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have decided to endorse the bill, though their support runs a little lukewarm. Dan Lashof is director of the climate center at NRDC.

LASHOF: We think that incentives for states to expand offshore drilling have no place in the bill, but what makes this bill important is its fundamental limits on carbon pollution. You know, obviously deeper reductions faster would be better but it’s a good start on what we need to do.

TAJ: It’s not just green groups that are divided over the bill. It’s also industry. Kerry and Lieberman have struggled to get all relevant energy interests on board with loan guarantees for new nuclear plants, research money for a cleaner way to burn coal, and expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling.

Representatives of utilities and nuclear industries have been vocal about their support of the climate bill, but the response from oil is mixed. BP and Shell have endorsed it—others remain silent. The oil refining industry is pretty clear in its position:

SCOTT: We are strongly opposed to it.

TAJ: Greg Scott is vice president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association.

SCOTT: Clearly, we are emitters. From our point of view if we are going to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, it is going to harm our industry and it’s going to harm consumers.

TAJ: Under the bill the oil industry would have to buy a limited number of allowances in order to pollute, and that, Scott says, is bad for business. But the bill’s support for more offshore drilling does make it more appealing.

SCOTT: Certainly having increased access to domestic resources is a great positive step. It heats up competition and competition brings down prices and that’s good for all of us. But it is a positive step—it is not enough.

TAJ: All eyes are now on the Senate’s swing votes—especially the handful Republicans that Senators Kerry and Lieberman have been courting. Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the climate bill’s former Republican co-sponsor.

David Jenkins, the political director for Republicans for Environmental Protection, says it’s time Republicans come on board.

JENKINS: We released a poll that showed that 52 percent of Republicans support a bill that increases domestic energy production and at the same time puts controls and limits on carbon dioxide pollution, and actually more Tea Party supporters are in favor of this kind of comprehensive approach to energy legislation than are opposed to it right now. You know, this is an opportunity, and you got to seize it.

TAJ: The draft of the American Power Act will probably pick up additional pages when the Senate takes it up for debate and more compromises are struck. But whether it will also pick up enough votes—remains to be seen. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.

[Brian Auger “Happiness Is Just Around The Bend” from Closer To It (Fuel 2000 2006)]

Related links:
- To read all or part of the bill, click here.
- For more of the mixed reaction to the bill...click here for a response from the Union of Concerned Scientists...
- Response from the Southern Environmental Law Center.
- Response from the American Lung Association.
- Response from Dan Lashof of NRDC.
- Response from Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth.
- Response from NPRA.
- Response from Republicans for Environmental Protection.

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Cool Fix: Algae from Wastewater

(Courtesy of Higetiger/Flickr)

YOUNG: Just ahead—trying to clean up the polluted air at the Port of Los Angeles—but first, this cool fix for a hot planet from Bridget Macdonald.


MACDONALD: Wastewater treatment plants are designed to make sewage clean, but they could have an added benefit: growing algae for fuel.


MACDONALD: Using algae to make fuel is not a new idea—these photosynthetic organisms are efficient factories that convert sunlight to energy. Algae have fatty cells that are loaded with oil, so they can produce more energy than other biofuels crops on an acre-per-acre basis. But the tiny green plants have a relatively large carbon footprint when they’re cultivated on an industrial scale.

Commercial algae ponds are pumped with Co2 bubbles and nitrogen fertilizer—ingredients that stimulate algal growth, but also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers at the University of Virginia say algae producers can make the process greener by using wastewater to grow their crops. Billions of gallons of sewage are processed in the U.S. every year, and many facilities use open lagoons in the treatment process. If algae producers set up shop next to these wastewater ponds, they could tap into readily available organic nutrients. It’s a win-win situation.

(Courtesy of Higetiger/Flickr)

Nitrogen and phosphorus must be removed from wastewater before it can be released into the environment - a process that is costly. The algae provide a public service by absorbing these unwanted elements from the water. Pond scum has never sounded so sweet. That’s this week’s Cool Fix for a Hot Planet. I’m Bridget Macdonald.


YOUNG: And if you have a Cool Fix for a Hot Planet, we'd like to know it. If we use your idea on the air, we'll send you a sleek electric blue Living on Earth tire gauge. Keeping your tires properly inflated can save hundreds of dollars in fuel. Call our listener line at 800-218-9988. Or email coolfix—that's one word—at loe dot org. Or post your idea on our new Facebook page – PRI’s Living on Earth.

Related link:
Research Paper from University of Virginia

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Pushing the Envelope for Clean Air

Trucks lined up at the Port of LA (Photo: Port of LA)

YOUNG: The Port of Los Angeles is the largest seaport in the western hemisphere, receiving nearly a quarter of all the nation's imports. Heavy-duty diesel trucks pass through its gates some 15 thousand times a day.


YOUNG: That helps make it the most polluted part of a notoriously polluted region. Now the trucking industry and the city of Los Angeles are awaiting a decision in a case that's just the latest to test how far authorities in California can go to clean up dirty air. Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.

LOBET: The Los Angeles basin has the worst small particle or soot pollution in the country. Most of that soot comes from diesel: diesel-burning ships, diesel road equipment, diesel trucks. At seaports, ships, trains and trucks all converge in a choking haze. So two years ago the Port of Los Angeles banned old, dirty trucks from coming in to pick up containers.

But the Port didn’t stop there: It required that trucking companies purchase their own trucks and hire on truckers as employees, instead of contracting with independent owner-operators. Port leaders believed that companies, more than hard-pressed owner-operators, could afford to maintain trucks in clean running condition.

DIGGES: There couldn’t be a clearer example of a local government imposing regulations that upset and disrupt the marketplace.

Trucks lined up at the Port of LA (Courtesy of Port of LA)

LOBET: That's attorney Bob Digges, who represents the American Trucking Associations. The group sued the Port, saying this rule turned their business model upside down, because most trucks serving the Port were owned by independent operators. Digges spoke on the federal courthouse steps.

DIGGES: If Los Angeles is allowed to basically re-regulate the trucking industry, then every other jurisdiction in the country can wholly disrupt interstate commerce.

LOBET: The trucking association also says Los Angeles is disingenuous when it claims this is all about clean air. It says under the law, trucking companies have to maintain trucks they contract with—just the same as if the trucks belonged to them. Digges says the city has an ulterior motive: to help organized labor.

DIGGES: For years the Teamsters have been try for to organize the independent contractors—they can't do it, so the only thing to do is turn them into employees—that's the real issue here.

LOBET: But leaders at the Port of Los Angeles says it is all about air pollution. Government research shows residents in the port area have a 60 percent higher risk of developing cancer than people in the rest of the city, and their risk is increasing while risk decreases elsewhere in the city. Environmental groups, citing this data, kept suing the Port and they kept winning. They brought port expansion to a dead halt, admitted Port executive director Geraldine Knatz.

The Port of LA shares the neighborhood with several schools. Kids exercise and breathe the exhaust of port-bound diesel traffic. (Courtesy of Caltrans District 9)

KNATZ: We got a situation where were dead in the water on doing anything at the Ports here because we had so many environmental issues to deal with.

LOBET: Forced to act, the Port banned all trucks built before 1994 and instituted the employer rule. It also insists it has the right to revoke the port license of any trucker who repeatedly arrives at the gate with an old truck spewing black smoke. Attorney David Pettit is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, once the Port's nemesis, but now is its partner in this suit. Pettit says the Port needs the power to revoke a license, even if no other port in the country has it.

PETTIT: You have a trucking company that sends 100 dirty trucks in a row to the Port. LA can start a proceeding saying 'we're going to pull your ticket to come to the Port. You have to prove to us what you're going to do to clean up.' And that is going to enforce cleaner trucks a lot faster than relying on the feds.

LOBET: Federal law already allows Los Angeles to inspect trucks. But Pettit says existing federal law doesn't begin to help Los Angeles bring its air up to healthy standards.

PETTIT: The trucks at the port have been filthy. If the federal system worked we wouldn't have been in this situation.

LOBET: Now it's the job of a federal judge to decide whether LA's clean truck program is constitutional. For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles

[Hot Tuna “Keep On Truckin” from The Best of Hot Tuna (BMG Music 1998)]

Related links:
- Interactive Cancer Risk Map from Southern CA Air Authorities
- Port of Los Angeles Clean Trucks Program
- American Trucking Associations
- Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports

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Earth Poetry

Natasha Trethewey (Courtesty of Natasha Trethewey)

YOUNG: We’ve been occasionally featuring some poetry inspired by—or reflecting—Nature on our program in the last few weeks. Today, we have two poets—we’ll hear Ross Gay reading his poem “Red Bud”, but first here’s Natasha Trethewey with “Liman”.

TRETHEWAY: It began for me one day hearing a woodpecker outside of my house and how that sound carried me to another place. A place in memory, in which I recalled my mother doing some domestic work out in the yard. And what’s interesting to me about this poem was the discovery of a word I hadn’t known. And a liman is the actual threshold of a door, but it’s also the threshold to an emotional or psychological state. This is “Liman”:

All day I listen to the industry of a single woodpecker worrying the Catalpa tree just outside my window. Hard at his task, his body is a hinge, a doorknocker to the cluttered house of memory in which I can almost see my mother’s face. She is there again, beyond the tree, its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves, hanging wet sheets on the line. Each one a thin white screen between us. So insistent is this woodpecker I’m sure he must be looking for something else, not simply the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift the tree might hold. All day he’s been at work, tireless, making the green hearts flutter.

GAY: I grew up in the Northeast and for some reason I never saw red buds, and I’m not sure how much they are around there, but where I am now in Indiana there’s just a ton of red buds. And they call them Judas trees out here, and they’re so beautiful. Ode to the red bud:

You trilling hallelujahs, you jump up silly and scream, you luscious, you luminous, you firebrand blazing, you sugar knot and swagger, you bird hive, you TnT, you blood stream’s thousand tons, you hemoglobin ton boat and gut throttle, you, you teeth dragged across a scapula, you pelvic, you pushing down and howling up, you florid muscle of the mouth and pink house, you slick dream and holler machine, you lap for washing my face clean.

[Christian Scott “Isadora” from Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (Concord Music 2010)]

YOUNG: As well as writing poetry, Ross Gay teaches creative writing at Indiana University at Bloomington. Natasha Trethewey is a professor of English at Emory University—where she also holds the Phyllis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in poetry.

[Christian Scott “Isadora” from Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (Concord Music 2010)]

YOUNG: Coming up: E O Wilson’s novel observations on society—both ours and ants—that’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

Related links:
- For more on Natasha Trethewey Click here
- Click here for more on Ross Gay

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The Freshest Food in the Hood

The Harambee Farmer's market attracts only 15-30 customers every Saturday. (Photo: King Anyi Howell)

YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth—I’m Jeff Young. We have just launched a new online initiative called Planet Harmony, where young people who have often been left out of the environmental debate can report on the issues affecting their communities. Today’s story comes from Los Angeles. California’s Department of Public Health says less half of African Americans in the state eat enough fruits and vegetables—often because fresh produce simply isn’t available where they live. A farmer's market in LA's predominantly black Crenshaw neighborhood is finding that if you build it, they won't necessarily come. Planet Harmony's King Anyi Howell reports.


ANYI: Out here at the Harambee Farmer's Market, its crazy empty! I've been here since maybe 12—it's almost 2:30—there's nobody here, I maybe saw one person go get some fruits.


ANYI: It’s an average Saturday morning at the Harambee Farmer’s market. Baskets of bright red tomatoes and strawberries settled next to fresh picked greens and okra all compete for attention in the area saturated with fast food chains and lesser known grease depots.


ANYI: The market is at the busy intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson, at a former Fire Station tucked between a bank and an auto paint shop. Michelle Guillaume lives in South Central. She says the farmer’s market is in the perfect location to attract customers.

GUILLAUME: It’s where commercial business meets hustlers and street vendors and with Crenshaw Boulevard being what it is, just everybody—it’s a main vein in our city, so you get some of everybody and we all mingle on these corners.

ANYI: Guillaume buys fresh strawberries to add to lemonade, green onions and lettuce for her taco truck that operates right outside the market. Nearby a customer is buying oranges.

MAN: We have oranges three for a dollar.

ANYI: But apart from them there are very few shoppers. The African Firefighters in Benevolence Association or AFIBA that organizes the Market is really trying to attract more customers and expand the market, which currently only has seven stands. They’ve hung a large banner advertising the market’s hours for the thousands of cars that drive by daily; they telephone local residents, and they also try to lure customers with a live band.


ANYI: But even that doesn’t seem to be working. The market remains largely empty.
Shoppers pass the market by and head for the neon-emblazed, Ralph’s Supermarket. I walked across the street to ask a Ralph’s customer, Ladine, why she didn’t come to the Market.

The Harambee Farmer's market attracts only 15-30 customers every Saturday. (Photo: King Anyi Howell)

LADINE: Mostly everybody buys their produce here because they want to go to one place to get everything you need.

ANYI: The big supermarket may not have quality produce but it is convenient and familiar. While the farmer’s market remains hidden in plain sight.

LADINE: I didn’t know about the market and now that I know I will go.

ANYI: Vegetables at Harambee go straight from the ground to the community. The food here provides nutrition that is missing from the fast food chains and bodegas that line these streets.

ROBINSON: Today we have grapes.

ANYI: That’s vendor, Etea Robinson.

ROBINSON: We have corn grown in the Williamson farm up in Merced.

ANYI: The lack of customers puts Farmers like Larry Williamson, who labor to make fresh produce available to the black community, in a tough spot.

WILLIAMSON: I could probably run this, struggle along for another five years.

Larry Williamson's farm in Merced, Californina is four hours away from LA. (Photo: King Anyi Howell)

ANYI: Williamson is a native of Los Angeles, but farms about a four-hour drive away in Merced, California. He told me that he is in a unique position to help provide healthy options to the African-American community.

WILLIAMSON: I don’t think that I’m gonna never garner the Italian Market, the Hispanic market or the Asian Market. I’ve made it very clear that I’m in a better position to help the black market because we’ve always had the argument from the ‘80s to the ‘90s that the food that comes to our stores is old; it’s tainted and all these things.

ANYI: His farm grows 150 to 200 thousand dollars worth of produce annually but he has to give away most of his unsold crops or feed them to the chickens and goats that graze on the farm, so he barely turns a profit. However, Williamson keeps coming back to the farmer's market. He's committed to providing competitively priced healthy alternatives to the cheap junk food that's so common here. For Larry it's about more than just green, he has a vision.

WILLIAMSON: I have enough land and seeds that I can make probably an extra 20 to 30 thousand dollars and put it in my pocket and be totally satisfied but that’s not my goal, that not my objective. My goal is to in the next five years I want to own 100 acres and lease 1,000 acres. With that amount of land, I can feed every black family in California!

ANYI: And maybe Williamson’s enthusiasm is starting to catch on. Traffic at Harambee is slowly picking up. The people who organize the market have added more regular activities like live music and self defense workshops. They also accept WIC vouchers. With the help of farmers like Larry Williamson and the AFIBA center that supports the market, Harambee may slowly start to shift inner city eating trends. Drop by if you are ever in LA on a Saturday afternoon.


ANYI: Let me get some of these grapes! For Planet Harmony and Living on Earth, I'm King Anyi Howell

YOUNG: King Anyi Howell reports for our brand new online offering Planet Harmony, which welcomes all, and is designed to have special appeal for young African Americans. Check it out and join the discussion at My Planet Harmony dot com. That's my planet harmony dot com.


Related link:
Planet Harmony

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Making a Novel out of an Anthill

Antill is E.O. Wilson’s first work of fiction. (Courtesy of W.W. Norton and Company)

YOUNG: E.O. Wilson is probably one of the best-known living scientists. The Harvard professor’s study of ants and conservation work has made him practically a household name. Now at the age of 81 Edward Osborne Wilson is trying something new—fiction. His latest book “Anthill” is his first novel. It has ants in it, as the title implies. But it’s inspired by his boyhood spent roaming the woods round Mobile, Alabama.

WILSON: After 59 years at Harvard, all of my adult life, I wanted to go home. And I couldn’t do it easily, physically, but I could do it spiritually. So along with the novel I’ve written a history of that part of the South. So this novel that I wrote, “Anthill”, comes together as a recreation in part of my early childhood, but also of the culture as I perceive it now. I see the crisis phase the South is in now is in the land, and how we in the South would use the land, whether we will introduce the idea of sustainability, whether we’ll save our natural resources, and how much of our original environment we will save.

YOUNG: Well, that is the central conflict in the novel is your main character, Raff—Raphael Semmes Cody, who decides to try to save his beloved local tract of woods. Tell me about your character here—Raff.

Jeff Young interviews E.O. Wilson in the Living On Earth studio. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

WILSON: Well, he’s actually a lot like me…

YOUNG: Really? I hadn’t noticed that!


YOUNG: Let’s see, he grows up in Alabama, he likes ants and nature and he goes to Harvard that does sound vaguely familiar now that you mention it.

WILSON: Well, you know a novelist, particularly a first novelist should go along the best-worn paths of his personal experience.

YOUNG: Write what you know, they say.

WILSON: And Raff has a history that resembles mine just about up to the time he goes to college, but then after that his life veers off radically. He goes into the study of law.

YOUNG: But he never loses sight of his main goal, and that is to save that tract of woods that is so important to him. And what I find interesting is he chooses to return to and work within the social institutions that are kind of part of the problem, that are the developers who might destroy this tract of woods.

WILSON: Yes, Raphael is I admit like me, he is what could be call an agitated moderate, or a radical centrist. Comes to realize that the best way to solve seemingly intractable problems is by win-win solutions.

YOUNG: Here’s what occurred to me though, is you’re clearly arguing the moderate incremental approach to trying to conserve nature. However, if areas like your home in the South are in crisis mode, as you put it, with the way we’re treating our lands—do we have time for a moderate, incremental approach, or does it call for a faster and more radical approach to conservation?

Scientist, researcher, professor and author E.O. Wilson. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

WILSON: Actually, it calls for a strategic, smart mix. I am well aware, now being deeply involved in conservation in the South Alabama and Florida panhandle area myself. The best thing to do is to buy the land, but this is not a wealthy part of the country. Alabama as a state does not have the wherewithal to buy new parks. When we find a priority area the best thing to do is to get them all put aside—all of it put aside and reserved. But if you can’t achieve that, then you take the next option, which is to actually work with developers.

YOUNG: Along the lines of writing about what you know—you write at length in here about ants. There’s a sizable section called “The Anthill Chronicles” where ant colonies essentially become your characters for a good quarter of the book there.

WILSON: Mm hmm, that’s true, in fact they are characters in the novel. And the whole point of the novel is that we will be examining three worlds that exist simultaneously, and one of them is the ants, which builds civilizations in the dirt.

The other is of the humans, and the third is the ecosystem. I chose the most abundant insects on earth and ones with the most highly evolved social systems—the ant. They make up more than half of the biomass of insects on the earth, ants. They are the most socially evolved; they have the most complex system of any creatures outside of humans. And being organized into colonies, many species in a way are constantly at war. They have many of the problems that humans have, in competition among groups, in the way they develop loyalty to their groups and the way they keep the groups tightly organized.

YOUNG: One of these colonies undergoes some genetic mutation, which allows it to greatly expand what would normally be its restrictions—does that actually happen with ant colonies?

WILSON: Yes, supercolonies happen. A very simple change in the genetics—one gene change can bring them about. In the fire ant, the case we know best, there was one mutation and what that mutation did was silenced the tendency of the colonies to distinguish one another, so they fused. It also impaired or silenced the ability to tell how many queens it had.

And the result of that was these colonies then fused into supercolonies, and sometimes they can have millions—well, tens of millions. Where in one extreme case that we know of in Japan, a hundred million workers. Then you have lots of little queens all scattered through the colony, as well, and the risk to the environment is that supercolony can saturate the environment more effectively then can a conjures of colonies that are spaced well apart from one another.

YOUNG: And in this case, they completely overwhelm their natural surroundings and exhaust their resources—

WILSON: They overwhelm the other colonies when the other colonies didn’t have that gene, so they were following the rules, so to speak. The supercolony overwhelmed them, it just had all the advantages, but in doing so it then started overusing the environment and difficulties lay ahead.

YOUNG: Now, in the book “Anthill” the anthill is the analogy for human society to some degree. So is it your view that’s what going on in humanity, that some genetic mutation is responsible for us—

WILSON: Yeah, I like to put it in terms of what we call parallel evolution, or convergent evolution, and it’s true that many of the problems that arise in the human condition come from having strict group identity, it appears to be a deep instinct of people to belong to a group and the tendency then for us to not only belong to a group and get the security of belonging to a group, but for groups to be in contest with one another in one form or another. And for us to have powerful emotional response to our group—

YOUNG: Not just us, but us versus them is the—

WILSON: Us versus them is the binary—ants have a parallel.

YOUNG: You know the novelist Margaret Atwood, she reviewed your books in the New York Review, and she points out that taking on a novel is not without its risks. And here’s what Ms. Atwood, who’s written a few books herself in the realm of fiction, has to say: “Those of us who have been at this for a while might have warned him off—stick to what you know, we might have said, rest on your considerable laurels, don’t risk having the literati point and jeer. What have you got to gain?” Were those questions nagging at you, do you have any second thoughts about having gone down the route of fiction?

Antill is E.O. Wilson’s first work of fiction. (Courtesy of W.W. Norton and Company)

WILSON: It doesn’t nag on me at all; I already have tenure at Harvard!


YOUNG: How much damage can they do?

WILSON: More than that, I’d already retired. Besides, I thought I could pull it off pretty well. I got very excellent reviews from the New York Times book reviews and so on from novelists, and I feel vindicated. There’s some that may have given me a bit of slack because I was a scientist coming over with the right attitude, but I wasn’t afraid of doing that and felt that had something very substantial to offer and that is the deeper scientific insights we have of nature.

Most novelists don’t go that far, they want—they have dark woods through which people pass to get to the lighted house, a marsh in which they are in danger of their boat sinking. And they describe nature as that or a little bit better detail, but never the way I’ve tried it, and in such depth.

YOUNG: Do you think you’ll write more fiction?

WILSON: Nope, I don’t think so. I’ve got several books in the pipeline now that are absorbing my attention, and they’re nonfiction and one of them is on the evolution of social behavior—new insights into it. And these are very absorbing to me, and after all, I haven’t got that much more time to spin out novels one after the other.

YOUNG: E.O. Wilson—Ed Wilson, thank you very much for coming by, it’s a great pleasure.

WILSON: Thank you, it was a great conversation.

Related links:
- E.O. Wilson’s Biodiversity Foundation
- Homepage for Anthill

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YOUNG: We leave you this week with a little night music.


YOUNG: It’s dusk at Horse Pond in Madison, Connecticut and the spring peepers are out in force. These tiny nocturnal frogs have large vocal sacs in their throats. They draw air into the sac so it fills up like a balloon, and then push the air out quickly to make their eponymous peeps. Producer Mark Seth Lender crouched at pond’s edge with a parabolic microphone to record this amphibian chorus.


YOUNG: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, and Mitra Taj, with help from Sarah Calkins, Marilyn Govoni and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Emily Guerin and Bridget Macdonald. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. Our executive producer is Steve Curwood. You can find us anytime at l-o-e dot org. I’m Jeff Young. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use artificial hormones on their cows. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from you, our listeners. The Ford Foundation, the Town Creek Foundation, The Oak Foundation supporting coverage of climate change and marine issues. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dedicated to the idea that all people deserve a chance to live a healthy productive life. Information at Gates Foundation dot org. And Pax World Mutual Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at pax world dot com. Pax World, for tomorrow.

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