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

April 1, 2011

Air Date: April 1, 2011



Fukushima Disaster Makes Japan's Coastal Waters Radioactive

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Radioactive water has leaked out of Japan's crippled nuclear reactors and into the Pacific Ocean. Living on Earth's Bruce Gellerman talks with University of Michigan nuclear engineering professor Kimberlee Kearfott, about how the radioactive water might affect marine life. (06:40)

President Calls For more US Oil & Gas Drilling / Mitra Taj

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Nearly a year to the day after announcing a broad expansion in offshore oil drilling, President Obama is again pushing for more domestic production. As Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports, this time, instead of inviting oil and gas companies to drill in new locations, the president wants them to get the oil and gas from unused leases they have access to now. (06:00)

Should we Recycle Spent Nuclear Fuel?

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One proposed way to deal with the nuclear waste that comes out of reactors is to reprocess it into a new usable fuel. France and Britain are currently reprocessing fuel, but Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman talks with professor Charles Forsberg from MIT about why this process may not be a solution for the U.S. (06:00)

A Deadly Spill For Cetaceans? / Jeff Young

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Scientists are struggling to measure the full effect of the BP oil spill. A new study says the impact on marine mammals has been greatly underestimated. And as the government builds its case against BP, it wants scientists to stay quiet about what’s killing dolphins. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports. (05:30)

Breakthrough Discovery For Cystic Fibrosis Treatment

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Ten years ago, a team of scientists set out to identify the Red Tide toxins that wreak havoc on Florida wild life and residents. Along the way they discovered an antitoxin that is proving to be a promising new treatment for the debilitating pulmonary diseases cystic fibrosis. Dan Baden, lead scientist on the Red Tide study, gave host Steve Curwood all the details. (06:00)

The Drive to Improve Mass Transit / David Freudberg

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The United States is a car-based society but more people, in rising numbers, are turning to public transportation. In his special series “Passengers, producer David Freudberg shines the spotlight on the factors that are driving change in American’s travelling habits and how communities across the nation are trying to find sustainable transportation solutions. (09:00)

Living on Earth Marks 20 Years On the Air

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Twenty years ago in April, oil wells in Kuwait were burning and Living on Earth looked at the environmental and human effects of the Persian Gulf War in our very first broadcast. Host and founder Steve Curwood and host Bruce Gellerman listen to archival tape and reminisce about Living on Earth's origins. (08:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood, Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Kimberlee Kearfott, Charles Forsberg, Dan Baden, David Freudberg
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Jeff Young


CURWOOD: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. Radioactive water is flowing out to sea along the coast of Japan and may enter the food chain.

KEARFOTT: Radionuclide could get into algae. Little fish could eat the algae. Bigger fish could eat the little fish. Generally, however, fish and other organisms are less sensitive to radiation than humans are.

GELLERMAN: So what happens when we eat the fish?

CURWOOD: Also, a new study says the number of whales and dolphins killed in the BP oil disaster may have been vastly underestimated.

KRAUS: So using strandings as a proxy for estimating the damage from something like the oil spill is a fool’s errand. It simply will not work.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week, as we light 20 candles on the Living on Earth birthday cake

GELLERMAN: Stick around!

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

Fukushima Disaster Makes Japan's Coastal Waters Radioactive


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

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. Despite heroic efforts by workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, at least one containment vessel has ruptured and radiation is spreading.

To cool the reactors and spent fuel rods, workers continue to pump and pour tons of water on the ruins. But radioactive steam has escaped into the air and radioactive water is finding its way into the ground and flowing into the Pacific Ocean. Kimberlee Kearfott is a professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan. Hello Professor!


GELLERMAN: So, professor, what happens when you put radioactivity into water, into the ocean - what happens to it? What happens to the water?

KEARFOTT: What happens is very complicated. And it depends both on physics, chemistry, and biology. It won’t change the water, per se, but it gets transported around the planet in interesting and complicated ways. There’s a large current similar to the Gulf Stream called the Japan Stream, and this is a very strong current that runs from the east coast of Japan all the way to Alaska. The main Japan Current turns east well before it reaches Fukushima. Even if fish got into that stream and were carried up to Alaska, that dilution would be high.

Kimberlee Kearfott is a professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan. (University of Michigan)

GELLERMAN: Well you have, yeah, the old saw, “The solution to pollution is dilution.” You got the biggest diluter in the world - you got the Pacific Ocean.

KEARFOTT: That’s correct! The Pacific Ocean has about 200 billion, billion gallons of water in it. That’s a lot of water. But physics isn’t everything. There’s also a little bit of biology at play.

GELLERMAN: What would these radioactive particles do to the biota of the ocean?

KEARFOTT: Marine life can accumulate or concentrate some chemicals. An example is mercury in fish. This is a rather extreme example. Although the levels of mercury in water may be very low, they can reach significant levels in fish.

Iodine is something that’s concentrated in seaweed and shrimp. Caesium has also been found to concentrate in sea life. Strontium, which is a bone-seeking radionuclide in humans, can concentrate in the shells of seafood. So it depends on what the form is, the chemical form, but also what is going on with the food chains.
Radionuclide could get into algae. Little fish could eat the algae. Bigger fish could eat the little fish. And pretty soon you have a fair amount of radioactivity in a given organism. Generally, however, fish and other organisms are less sensitive to radiation then humans are.

The Tsukiji fish market is the biggest wholesale seafood market in the world. It has been closed or restricted since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Photo: Josh Berglund)

GELLERMAN: What would happen if I ate one of those fish?

KEARFOTT: Because there would still be a lot of dilution, we would not be talking about you getting radiation sickness or radiation syndrome. Here we would have a case of lower level health effects. Those effects would include a risk of cancer and a risk of genetic defects.

We’re only talking in terms of risks, and the total risk depends upon the total amount of seafood that you eat and also how contaminated that seafood is. In general, risks are so small that we can only calculate them. We can’t go and count that there were 15 of this type of cancer caused by exposure to radiation. There are a lot of uncertainties associated with those calculations.

GELLERMAN: Could this stuff get into the groundwater and the aquifers in Japan?

KEARFOTT: Yes it could, given enough time. That’s what’s on our side with groundwater…is that there’s time to figure out where any radioactive water is, and time to attempt to intervene.

GELLERMAN: I know in Chernobyl what they did is they had coal miners dig under the reactor and then inject liquid nitrogen and froze the ground so that they would prevent the radionuclides and radioactivity from getting into the groundwater.

KEARFOTT: That is one approach. There are also new chemicals that have been developed since Chernobyl that could be laid down that would bind to the radionuclides and prevent them from moving so much in the environment.

The Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan. (Photo: Arnoldo Riker)

GELLERMAN: Any advice for what the Japanese can possibly do at this point?

KEARFOTT: I’m very concerned about the people of Japan. If there are additional airborne releases, my advice would be: don’t drink rainwater. Public water supplies would be much more diluted in terms of the radionuclides in them. If someone is taking rainwater and drinking it, their risk may be much higher than that of tap water.

I’m not worried, sitting here in the United States, about my own personal safety. It’s simply not conceivable that we would have radionuclides here that would be high enough to pose a health risk to anyone in the United States.

GELELRMAN: Well, Professor Kearfott, thank you so much, I really appreciate it!

KEARFOTT: You’re very welcome, Bruce!

GELLERMAN: Kimberlee Kearfott is a professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan.

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[MUSIC: Brian Eno & David Byrne “I Feel My Stuff” from Everything That Will Happen Today Todomundo Records 2008).]

President Calls For more US Oil & Gas Drilling

CURWOOD: With uncertainty in the Middle East and general nervousness in energy markets, the prices of oil and retail gasoline have been rising. Stepping forward on the issue, President Obama made a major speech on energy security. He called for more domestic drilling, advanced bio-fuel production, and made a forceful case for cutting America’s dependence on foreign oil. From Washington, Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports.

TAJ: In his speech on energy security, President Obama spoke passionately about the need to use less foreign oil. He also made a strong case for drilling more domestic oil to do so.

OBAMA: Meeting the goal of cutting our oil dependence depends largely on two things: first, finding and producing more oil at home; second, reducing our overall dependence on oil with cleaner alternative fuels and greater efficiency.

TAJ: A year ago—minus one day—the President said almost the same thing:

OBAMA: The answer is not drilling everywhere all the time. But the answer is not, also, for us to ignore the fact that we are going to need vital energy sources to maintain our economic growth and our security.

TAJ: Obama might have thought his message in support of domestic oil needed repeating. His speech last year was followed by BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which pitted many conservationists and much of his Democratic base against the oil industry and the pro-drilling crowd.

The President's interest in drilling - together with his ongoing support for bio-fuels, electric cars, and natural gas - tries to bridge those competing interests by setting a popular goal: cutting imports of foreign oil.

OBAMA: By a little more than a decade from now, we will have cut that by one third. That is something that we can achieve.


TAJ: But Obama’s speech got mixed reviews from both energy and environment lobbyists. Jack Gerard is the president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

GERARD: The President's message - it doesn't add up. It's difficult to say, ‘I'm for the development of American oil and natural gas,’ and then the proposal you put on the table increases the cost on American oil and gas - but that’s not consistent.

TAJ: Gerard says the slow pace of giving permits for offshore drilling since the BP spill has taken a financial toll on the industry. If the administration were serious, he says, it would allow for more offshore drilling in places currently off-limits. That was a part of the President’s proposal last year before the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and now he wants oil companies to drill the leases they already have. A recent Interior Department report found that more than 70 percent of offshore oil and gas leases are inactive, but some say pointing to them is playing politics.

LEVI: The reality is, just because you bid for a lease doesn't mean there's economic oil there - you're buying an option.

TAJ: That’s Michael Levi, an energy and climate analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.

LEVI: Politically, any opportunity the President has to blame oil companies for sitting on their hands helps blunt criticisms from people who claim, incorrectly, that he is blocking oil development by sitting on his hands too much.

TAJ: The President pitched both incentives and disincentives to get the oil flowing from idle leases. His new proposal would give companies less time to produce oil and gas on their leases and reward them for rapid development with fewer fees and royalty payments.

The idea of feeding more carrots to the oil industry seems to go against Obama’s repeated calls to cut subsidies. And it disturbs Anna Aurilio, the Washington director of the green group Environment America.

AURILIO: The oil companies already get more than four billion dollars a year in subsidies from the US government, every single year, so I don't know why we need to give oil companies any additional or different incentives.

There are no quick fixes," Obama told a crowd at Georgetown University. "And we will keep on being a victim to shifts in the oil market until we finally get serious about a long-term policy for a secure, affordable energy future."

TAJ: Aurilio says domestic drilling aside, she's pleased with the President’s long-term plan for cutting oil consumption. The President emphasized that real change requires time to develop low-carbon alternatives, like advanced bio-fuels, and called on politicians not to get mired in short-term posturing on rising gas prices.

But analyst Michael Levi says it’s probably no accident that Obama decided to deliver his energy speech, like last year, just ahead of the season of high gas prices.

LEVI: We all know that everything else being equal, gasoline prices rise in the summer. And the president I’m sure would like to position himself as having offered solutions in advance of that happening.

TAJ: But the president was clear that no energy policy enacted now, including more domestic oil drilling, can lower gas prices immediately.

OBAMA: We can’t rush to propose action when gas prices are high and then hit the snooze button when they fall again. We can’t keep on doing that. The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity, our long-term security, on a resource that will eventually run out.

TAJ: That’s a message that might need repeating. After the President’s speech, Republicans on Capitol Hill pointed to rising gas prices in a new push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and Democrats responded: there’s plenty of oil in idle leases. For Living on Earth, I'm Mitra Taj in Washington.

Related links:
- The President's energy security blueprint.
- Read or watch the speech.
- Check out Michael Levi's blog.

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[MUSIC: Beatlejazz “Fool On The Hill” from All You Need Is Love (Lightyear 1999).]

CURWOOD: Just ahead - weighing nuclear energy’s 3 R’s: should we Recycle, Reprocess, Reuse? Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Donald Harrison: “New Hope” from Nouveau Swing (Impulse Records 1997).]

Should we Recycle Spent Nuclear Fuel?

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

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. One of the doomed reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant uses what’s called MOX, or mixed oxide fuel. It’s produced by reprocessing spent fuel rods. Instead of using the rods just once in reactors, the old fuel was sent to special reprocessing plants, shipped back as MOX, and re-used.

President Carter abandoned efforts to build a reprocessing plant in the United States because in making MOX, you produce plutonium - and there's a danger of nuclear weapons proliferation. But now, with nearly 50 years of nuclear waste piling up at reactor sites around the country, reprocessing is getting a second look. Charles Forsberg is a research scientist and Executive Director of MIT’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study.

FORSBERG: When you take nuclear fuel and you put it in a reactor, the reactor is not capable of burning up all of the fuel value. And so the spent fuel has residual fuel value, and reprocessing is a way to recover the fuel value and recycle it back to the reactor.

A photo of the Savannah River Site in South Carolina in September of 1982. At this site bombs are reprocessed into fuel for nuclear reactors. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: How is this reprocessing or recycling of the spent fuel rods done? How is it actually accomplished - is it very difficult?

FORSBERG: In chemistry terms, it’s a fairly simple process, but because everything is highly radioactive, it has to be done by remote control. It has to be done in shielded facilities. What you’re talking about is chemically dissolving the fuel in nitric acid and selectively extracting the uranium and plutonium, which is then converted into solid oxides, which in turn is converted into brand new fuel assemblies for reactors.

GELLERMAN: Now when you reprocess a spent fuel rod, what about the stuff that’s left over - what do you do with that? And is it radioactive?

FORSBERG: The stuff that is left over is extremely radioactive, and that is converted into a high level waste glass - very similar to the Pyrex glassware that you find in a kitchen for pie tins or for measuring cups. And that waste, of course, must go to a geological repository.

GELLERMAN: And it’s being done today, isn’t it?

FORSBERG: Reprocessing is done in some countries - France, in particular; some in Britain, and the Japanese are starting up a reprocessing plant. But we do not do reprocessing in the U.S.

At the current time, it is uneconomic relative to using uranium as a fuel in nuclear reactors, which is why it is not done in the United States commercially. France and Great Britain and Japan, for a variety of policy reasons, have chosen to reprocess spent fuel, but it’s not for economic reasons.

GELLERMAN: So these sites around the world - are they using the same process to re-process their nuclear fuel?

FORSBERG: Yes, everybody’s using the same process that was developed in the 1950’s. It’s been refined, but there’ve been no fundamental changes in how it is done.

GELLERMAN: So should we be opening up these old fuel rods, casks, and these pools and be recycling our spent fuel?

Yucca Mountain was the designated deep geological nuclear depository for U.S. nuclear waste - but funding for development has been withdrawn. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

FORSBERG: Our recent study, which I’m the executive director of, came to the conclusion that today we do not have sufficient incentives or knowledge to make a decision to commit to reprocessing. It would take about 20 years to begin a reprocessing industry, and until we have a better vision of the future, it is premature for us to go to reprocessing today.

GELLERMAN: So - and the United States does have plans to build a new reprocessing plant, am I right? They’re going to recycle old plutonium from nuclear weapons.

FORSBERG: That’s a little bit different. There is a non-proliferation agreement with the Russians to take this very special, very clean weapons-grade plutonium, and convert it into fresh fuel assemblies. However, in that case, the starting material is literally a nuclear weapon, rather than a spent fuel assembly. They will take the weapon apart, take the plutonium out, process it, clean it up, and convert it into a fuel assembly that’d be then sent to a utility, like any other fuel assembly, to be burnt and produce electricity.

GELLERMAN: But since we have so much waste in our spent fuel pools and these dry casks that are sitting on sites, should we be - not throwing it away permanently - but kind of, maybe, banking it for the future?

FORSBERG: I would certainly agree that we should bank it for the future, and in that context we have three options. We can store it at the reactor sites in what we call ‘dry cask storage.’ We could store it in a centralized storage facility. Or we could place it in a geological repository, where we have carefully designed it to allow future recovery if we change our minds and decide we need that spent fuel back.

MIT Professor Charles Forsberg. ( MIT)

In short, we can dispose of it today with the option that we can recover it if it turns out that we need it in the future. It’s the way to preserve our options so that we have, essentially, a ‘no regrets’ policy.

GELLERMAN: Right now we don’t have, seemingly, any policy. Yucca seems to be off the table - is that the right site or should we be looking some place else?

FORSBERG: Well, I would make two observations. First, we do own a geological repository for defense waste. A waste isolation pilot plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico - this geological repository has been operating for a full decade. The fundamental reason we do not have a commercial repository today is it’s simply not been of sufficient importance for both political parties to come to agreements.

When we begin to get a consensus on the need for a geological repository, I think we can site one fairly quickly and build it, but the requirement is a bipartisan consensus, rather than each party trying to dump the repository on somebody else. What does not exist is a strong, bipartisan consensus on the path forward, which hopefully the Blue Ribbon Commission will help make happen.

GELLERMAN: And that Blue Ribbon Commission comes out this summer, if I’m not mistaken.

FORSBERG: That is correct.

GELLERMAN: What do you think they’re going to say?

FORSBERG: My suspicion is they will say two things. First, we should maintain the option of reprocessing the fuel for the future - not do it today, but maintain the option. And second, I think they will make a set of very strong recommendations on how to build a repository gaining a political consensus to make it possible.

GELLERMAN: Well Professor, thanks so very much - I really appreciate it.

FORSBERG: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: Charles Forsberg is a research scientist and Executive Director of MIT’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study.

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[MUSIC: Conjure “Foolology” from Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed (American Clave 1983).]

A Deadly Spill For Cetaceans?

GELLERMAN: A new study by marine mammal scientists says the number of whales, dolphins, and porpoises killed by last year's BP oil disaster may have been greatly underestimated. The study points out the difficult job scientists face as they struggle to measure the full effect of the oil on the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem. And as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, that job is even more complicated because of government secrecy that’s keeping some scientific data from public view.

YOUNG: It seems like a simple question: how many whales, porpoises, and dolphins died during BP’s oil spill? NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a detailed online map showing when and where every carcass washed ashore or was found floating at sea during the spill. The total: 101 of those “strandings,” as they’re called. But as a new study points out, that number does not answer the question.

KRAUS: Using strandings as a proxy for estimating the damage from something like the oil spill is a fool’s errand. It simply will not work biologically.

YOUNG: That’s Scott Kraus, who leads research at the New England Aquarium and who co-authored the study in the journal Conservation Letters. The study looked at population estimates for Gulf species, and past research on how the number of strandings compares with actual mortality rates. As Kraus describes it, it’s a little like an episode of CSI with sea creatures, only most of the bodies are missing.

KRAUS: The animals that come up on the beach are animals that happen to float after death. They also happen to be carried by currents or winds toward shore. So the occurrence of a whale or a dolphin on a beach is serendipitous in many ways. So stranding data may capture 2% of all mortality in a wild population - it may underestimate actual mortality by 50 times.

YOUNG: Fifty times the body count during the spill would mean as many as five thousand fifty dead whales, dolphins, and porpoises. For sperm whales, a highly endangered species, Kraus and his coauthors conclude as many as 29 deaths would be plausible. But the study’s main point is: no one knows the real numbers. And highlighting those that happened to wash ashore can give a false impression of the spill’s impact.

NOAA map of dead dolphins that have washed ashore this year. (Map created by NOAA) NOAA is making public data about where dead dolphin calves have washed ashore this year, but they agency is withholding information about the possible cause of those deaths.

KRAUS: We can wave our arms in the air all we want about how this was a minimal oil spill or it had minimal impact. It’s just not - you couldn’t say that with a straight face as a scientist.

YOUNG: Another mystery surrounds the high number of animals washing ashore in recent months. One hundred thirty four dead bottlenose dolphins, mostly calves, have been found so far this year - many times the average from years past. Scientists are analyzing carcasses and tissue samples to see if there’s any link to the oil spill.

However, the public might not learn what those scientists learn. The government sent a letter asking scientists not to talk about their findings. The reason: dead dolphins could become evidence in a potential criminal case against BP. NOAA public affairs officer Ben Sherman says that requires some secrecy.

SHERMAN: We are party to civil and criminal cases that are filed on behalf of the American public against responsible parties. And as such, you have to be selective in what information you release publicly in advance of a potential legal case. The public’s right to know is important. But the public’s right to also collect damages from the responsible party is equally important.

YOUNG: Why is it necessary to withhold certain information?

Researchers document one of the many dead dolphin calves that have washed ashore this year. Scientists searching for a cause have been told not to talk about their findings. (Institute for Marine Mammal Studies)

SHERMAN: Well it’s kind of like a card game. You don’t show your cards to your opponent until you’re ready to collect the chips off the table if you’re playing poker.

YOUNG: Some advocacy groups and scientists say the government is withholding too much information. John Kostyack is vice president for conservation at the National Wildlife Federation.

KOSTYACK: Well there is an unfortunate tendency toward secrecy. And we have a freedom of information law in this country that says there’s a presumption that government records would be made available to the public. So we’ve been scratching our heads, wondering why basic scientific information about the cause of dolphin deaths would interfere with their criminal prosecution down there, and we just don’t see it.

YOUNG: Some secrecy also applies to scientists helping compile what’s known as the Natural Resources Damage Assessment. That tally of harm from an oil spill - required under the Oil Pollution Act - helps determine the fines the government collects. Scientists contributing to that effort are frequently asked not to publish or discuss their findings until the official assessment is complete. Stan Senner of the Ocean Conservancy says that’s creating some tension in the scientific community.

A whale swimming in an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.(Photo by John L. Wathen Flight provided by SouthWings)

SENNER: The scientists - they’re used to sharing what they’re doing with their colleagues, bouncing results off each other, and proving their studies and the like. And so to be constrained by a legal situation was not something that they were happy about.

YOUNG: Senner has seen this before. He worked for the Alaska government’s restoration program after the Exxon Valdez spill. He struggled then to strike a balance between prosecutors asking to keep evidence confidential and the public asking for more information about their environment.

SENNER: I would say with the Exxon Valdez that the confidentiality in those early years left a bad taste for a lot of people that continues to this day twenty years later. I still go back and get questions from people about, you know, why was that necessary and they’re still angry about it today.

YOUNG: Striking the right balance between the legal and scientific goals is just part of the monumental task of proving the spill’s damage. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

Related links:
- Study on whale and dolphin deaths
- NOAA numbers on dolphin deaths
- NOAA interactive map of marine mammal strandings during the spill

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Breakthrough Discovery For Cystic Fibrosis Treatment

CURWOOD: There are good news stories and there are bad news stories. This is a wonderful news story. After a decade of study, a team of scientists has discovered tantalizing new information about the mysterious microorganism that causes red tide. Among the hundreds of findings is one that holds promise for people whose lives are cut in half by the disease cystic fibrosis. The lead scientist of the red tide team that made all these discoveries is the Director of Marine Science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Dan Baden.

BADEN: We found twelve different toxins that the organism produces, and this is the Florida red tide dinoflagellate that causes severe bronchial constriction - your nose runs like crazy, you wheeze under worse conditions, and we’ve also found that asthmatics are sometimes very, very sensitive to the effects of these inhaled toxins.

CURWOOD: So you had - at the end of the day, there are just hundreds of findings coming out of this study - how much of it did you think you’d probably find, and maybe the more interesting question is, well, how much did you find that you had no idea?

BADEN: We’ve spoken the last few years within group about the serendipity of this - of finding the things not in search of. The first five years, we found all of these different 12 toxins and had pretty much characterized that they all had little bit different effect and different kinds of potencies in humans.

The second five years, we had run out of toxins, and we said: you know, when the organism lyses, or ruptures, in the environment, anything that’s in that cell gets airborne and gets blown ashore - let’s look for other things. And that’s where we found the antitoxin, produced by the same organism that produces the toxins.

CURWOOD: So tell me, why would an algae produce an antitoxin when it’s about producing these toxins to begin with?

BADEN: Yeah I think the corollary is why does the organism produce toxins in the first place, and it is a subject that is continually being debated by the harmful algae community. We think in this particular case that the molecules may act as regulators, and if the toxin is a regulator for the organism, then the antitoxin perhaps is a modulator of the regulator.

And so the reason that they’re toxic in humans may simply be by blind luck. For all the small molecules in the world made, and all the large target receptors made, some of them are going to interact. And when they interact in a good way, it’s a nutrient; when they interact in a bad way, it’s a toxin.

CURWOOD: So what kind of health benefits did you find?

BADEN: The antitoxin itself, known as brevenal - it promotes a series of physiologic effects known as mucociliary clearance. And the easy way of saying that is it makes your mucus thinner, and it makes it to be expulsed from the lung much more readily.

Dan Baden in the Red Tide Study’s culture room. (Photo: UNCW/ Jamie Moncrief)

Put the two together, and it should be a therapy for anything that has thick, ropey mucus that can’t be cleared from the lung. And that is cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. In our case, our molecule interacts at a new therapeutic site that is unlike any other therapeutic site that’s currently being exploited or treated with any current drug on the market. So a very unique finding.

CURWOOD: How far off are we from using this antitoxin you folks have discovered in red tide to treat people with cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?

BADEN: It’s probably a few years before we’re through clinical phase ones, twos, and clinical phase threes. It can be as long as ten years to get to the final goal. The really interesting thing about this program is that it was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. And this drug, the brevenal, when it finally reaches the marketplace and to patients, will be the first drug to come out of that institute - and that is truly a landmark.

CURWOOD: From the early indications, how effective do you think this proposed medication for cystic fibrosis that you’ve discovered - how effective do you think that is in comparison to present day treatments?

BADEN: It is active at a concentration or a dose known as picograms - ten to the minus 12th grams per dose. That is about a million times more potent than the current therapeutic agents for cystic fibrosis. And so, in fact, coupling new chemistry with new therapeutics and a very potent low concentration needed for efficacy, a lot of side reactions should just disappear.

CURWOOD: Boy, if somebody listening to us who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or cystic fibrosis or is close to somebody with these maladies would like to get going with this now, how possible is that?

Dan Baden, lead scientist on the NIHES’s Red Tide study, works with a colleague on the beach. (Photo: Les Films de L'Espigaou.)

BADEN: There are some things. First of all, because of the nature of cystic fibrosis, we likely could apply for orphan drug status, which would allow us to move more quickly into clinical trials and entices Big Pharma to get involved a little bit more quickly. And of course finding the pharmaceutical partner to be able to take us to clinical trials - that’s a very expensive undertaking.

CURWOOD: Professor Baden, your team made this amazing discovery after, really - you had ten years of basic research, you answered the original questions but then you went on following other questions…could you get money to do that today, do you think?

BADEN: I think it would be really difficult. In these current economic times, it’s tough to bring program projects of this size - this 15 million dollars to do this work. I’ve seen some writings go across my desk from Congress now talking about holding NIH grants to no more than 400,000 dollars. We wouldn’t even come close to any of the work that we’ve done at 400,000 dollars.

CURWOOD: Dan Baden is Director of Marine Science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Thank you so much, sir!

BADEN: My pleasure, thank you.

Related links:
- NIHES: Red Tide Toxins, Health Effects and Exposure Study
- WHOI’s Harmful Algae information page

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[MUSIC: Harlem River Drive “Idle hands” from Harlem River Drive (Roulette Records/Rhino Records 1971).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up – Happy birthday to - us! We look back as our program turns 20 - Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway, for coverage of conservaion and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Monty Alexander: “Fungi Mama” from Uplift (JazzLegacy Productions 2011).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up – Happy birthday to - us! We look back as our program turns 20 - Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Monty Alexander: “Fungi Mama” from Uplift (JazzLegacy Productions 2011).]

The Drive to Improve Mass Transit

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

CURWOOD: And I'm Steve Curwood. There’s more pain at the gas pump. Nationally, the price of regular is about three dollars and 60 cents a gallon, and in California, it’s already soared past four bucks.

The last time gas was so high was in 2008. Back then, many drivers found the cost of commuting by car was just too much. So they pulled over, parked their cars, and public transportation ridership reached a five-decade high. Producer David Freudberg investigated the switch for his series "Humankind." In his upcoming documentary “Passengers,” he found finances are just one reason people choose public transportation.

FREUDBERG: The forty-two million Americans who ride public transit daily, or on a regular basis, represent a broad cross-section of income levels. According to a nationwide survey, over a third of these passengers earn more than fifty thousand dollars a year. But for some lower-income populations, unable to afford a car, mass transit can be a lifeline.


In Boston, a MBTA Bus Rapid Transit vehicle.

FREUDBERG: This is Dudley Square, a historic inner city neighborhood in Boston. A large outdoor bus depot here is operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known to everyone as the T. For some passengers, it’s their only way of getting to work.

MAN: I live check by check, day by day, and, you know, and I depend on the public transportation. I depend on this to get me to where I’m going. But yet still, I have to leave my house earlier and earlier every day so I can get to work on time, because - for the simple fact: the buses are always late, always late. Four thirty comes early in the morning, and if I don’t catch that first bus to go to work, I’m late.

FREUDBERG: Have you ever driven?

WOMAN: Yes I have.

FREUDBERG: But you don’t have a car now?

WOMAN: No, I just had surgery on my eyes and it didn’t come out too good, so I don’t drive anymore.

FREUDBERG: And how often do you use the buses or the T?

WOMAN: Every day.

FREUDBERG: Do you go to work?

WOMAN: Yeah.

FREUDBERG: May I ask what you do?

WOMAN: I’m a cashier at Stop and Shop.

WOMAN 2: A lot of people have to get where they’re going. You know, otherwise it would be impossible for them to get where they’re going. I think it really helps a lot because don’t everybody drives a car.

FREUDBERG: May I ask, do you have a car?

WOMAN 2: No I don’t.

FREUDBERG: So you’re relying exclusively on public transportation.

WOMAN 2: I rely on public transportation. Yes I do.

FREUDBERG: Most mass transit passengers - seven in ten - do have access to a car, but they opt to use buses and trains anyway. At rush hour in particular, the majority of transit passengers have made this choice.

CERVERO: During other times of the day, public transit largely is serving a lot of captive users who have no choice. They don't own cars, they're too old, too young, too poor, too infirm to drive, which is not inconsequential. That's roughly one-third of American travelers in most metropolitan areas.

“Humankind” Executive Producer David Freudberg.

FREUDBERG: Robert Cervero is one of America’s leading scholars on transportation. He directs the University of California Transportation Center in Berkeley, where he is also a professor of city planning.

CERVERO: When you have a car-based society, a auto-centric landscape, where the settlement patterns of cities - everything's spread out, distances are so far apart you have to have motorized transport to get to housing, to get to offices, theaters, restaurants, or whatever.

As we have created auto-oriented cities, roughly a third of the American population is left out. They don't have the full level of access to those opportunities that the rest of us do. And as we get an increasingly aged society, eyesight-challenged motorists, we're going to probably find even larger shares of folks who are going to be more and more dependent on public transit.

FREUDBERG: But the people who do have a choice - why do those people, in significant numbers, rising numbers, decide that they want to use trains or buses?

CERVERO: Because it either saves time, or is comparable in the amount of time to get to your destination, or it's cheaper, particularly as it relates to avoiding parking costs. So those are the two overriding factors. How much time does it take to drive, versus taking public transit? And door-to-door, how much am I going to pay using a car, versus public transit?

FREUDBERG: So comparing the two modes: a car typically driven by a single occupant, versus public transit use - which is more expensive for the person?

CERVERO: Well, the car is going to be a lot more expensive. You know, it depends what year it is, and model, and so forth, but AAA numbers are now in the area of like 65, 70 cents per mile of using a car. The full cost of purchasing the car, depreciation on the car, insurance, maintenance, operations, gasoline, all of that on a per mile basis, typically 12 to 15 thousand miles driven in a year, it comes out to kind of 65, 70 cents a mile. You know, so for a ten-mile trip, it's $6.50. Typically, bus fares are flat fares so you might pay a couple dollars.

FREUDBERG: As with most public agencies in this tough economy, transit systems are under heavy financial pressure. Some have had to increase fares and to cut services at the same time. And yet, in many communities, public transportation is seen as a vital engine of economic growth. Businesses, along with local governments, are often ardent defenders of transit, because it reduces costly traffic congestion.


FREUDBERG: One community that has embraced the economy-boosting potential of public transit is here in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a metro-area population of nearly two million. America’s 18th largest city, Charlotte is headquarters for Bank of America, the nation’s biggest bank, and is also home to the auto-racing company, NASCAR. Population here has grown nearly a fourth in the last decade.

OLIVE: We have lots and lots of folks moving in here. Lots and lots of people driving cars. And we need to see if we can’t get some of those automobiles off the highways and get folks into public transit, where it’s better environmentally.

FREUDBERG: Chatham Olive is a long-time environmentalist in the Charlotte area and a former local staff member at the Sierra Club. While he sees benefits to air quality and to the planet from greater use of mass transit, others focus on a different kind of green.

ENGLISH: You can look at almost any transportation project, and you can point to development that happened because of that.

FREUDBERG: Natalie English is Senior Vice President of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

ENGLISH: For example, along our south rail line, it was a corridor that was deteriorating, that basically all you did was drive down it - you didn’t stop very often. One point three billion dollars in investment was announced prior to the opening of the line in November of 2007. A lot of that has already been constructed - slowed down a bit because of the economy, but you know that hard infrastructure results in some sort of development.

Tina Votaw is a "transit-oriented development specialist" at the Charlotte Area Transit System.

VOTAW: People have been moving in for jobs and those people need a place to live.

FREUDBERG: Tina Votaw specializes in Transit-Oriented Development for the Charlotte Area Transit System.

VOTAW: And for people who either couldn’t afford to buy, didn’t want to buy - didn’t necessarily have to be downtown, and couldn’t afford necessarily to be, but wanted proximity - and so in the South End, which is the neighborhood right outside of downtown that our transit line runs through, that is primarily where the new apartment construction has occurred.

FREUDBERG: Thousands of new housing units and some commercial properties have sprung up near the ten-mile-long south corridor light-rail line because people like to live and work close to public transportation.

Installing the line cost nearly 460 million dollars. About half came from federal funds, a fourth from the state of North Carolina, and the remainder from local residents who approved a half-cent sales tax to support the project. Some real estate developers have gained handsomely, but the city of Charlotte also benefits.

VOTAW: Those property taxes will be there every year. They don’t go away.


DAVID: Nor does a half-penny sales tax to support the public transit system, first approved by voters in 1999 and re-affirmed in a 2007 referendum - the year the Charlotte light-rail line began operation.

GELLERMAN: That report on public transit is part of David Freudberg’s “Humankind” series. “Passengers” airs this spring on many public radio stations.

Related link:
To find out more about the “Passengers” documentary project, go to the Humankind website

Back to top

[MUSIC: dZhan & Kamian “Homebase” from Café Del Mar (Geffen Records 1999).]

Living on Earth Marks 20 Years On the Air

Peter Thomson, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman and Steve Curwood (l-r) Curwood, Thomson and George Homsy ( not shown) were the producers of the first weekly LOE broadcast on NPR, April 5, 1991.

CURWOOD: It was twenty years ago, on April 5th 1991, that Living on Earth began its very first weekly broadcast of environmental news and information. It was a different time and we had different music.

[LOE THEME IN 1991, CLIP: From National Public Radio, this is Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Damage to the Earth, to the land, the air and the water, the environmental cost of the Persian Gulf War….]

GELLERMAN: Hmm. I actually remember the first show!

CURWOOD: Oh yeah, back then it was, what, a half an hour long - we were on 100 stations.

GELLERMAN: Where did you get the idea for Living on Earth?

CURWOOD: Well, I was looking for my next move. My son pushed me to do something on the environment - nobody was doing the environment on the radio. So I went out to try to raise some money.


CURWOOD: One place I knocked on the door, and they said, ‘Well, you know, Steve, you’re a great radio guy, but you’re going to run out of stories in six months!’

GELLERMAN: (Laughs).

CURWOOD: ‘It won’t be Living on Earth, you’ll be Dying on Earth.’

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). So where did you get the name for this show? I always wanted to ask you that.

CURWOOD: Well, you know, it just happened one day in my brain - I think I was in the shower. And it became obvious to me that Living on Earth would work as a title.

GELLERMAN: No other ideas?


GELLERMAN: That was it: Living on Earth. It stuck.

CURWOOD: That was the one.

GELLERMAN: You know, I remember when you had your first office - it was in a basement.

CURWOOD: (Laughs). Yeah, there were windows, though, little windows! We knew what the weather was.

GELLERMAN: (Laughs).

Steve Curwood in 2002.

CURWOOD: Yeah, and the basement was way across town from the studios at WBUR. So anytime we wanted to record something, we had to hop in a car, go over and get in the studio, and get it done, and then come back and cut it up.

GELLERMAN: And you had newscasts back then - you know, to lead the show, which we don’t have anymore. We haven’t had for years.

CURWOOD: No we haven’t. And our first newscaster was Jan Nunley.

[REPLAY OLD NEWSCAST: The Bush administration is reviewing new research data showing that the ozone layer over the United States is disappearing at twice the rate previously estimated…The National Marine Fisheries Service has one year to make a final decision on listing the sockeye as an endangered species. Only one sockeye returned to spawn in Idaho…The real problem, Tokoro says, is that Japan doesn’t have any laws calling for environmental studies before megaprojects, like the Nagara River Dam, are begun. And now with the project half-built, opposition groups are afraid they’re too late to stop Japan’s last major free-flowing river from being choked off. For Living on Earth, this is Tom Copple in Tokyo…That’s this week’s news - I’m Jan Nunley.]


CURWOOD: So let’s see - 20 years later, the ozone layer is getting better, but fish stocks are still in trouble and we have an environmental crisis in Japan of a major order.

GELLERMAN: Yeah but the first LOE show dealt with the big issue of the day. In fact, most of the show dealt with the biggest issue of the day, which was the first Gulf War. Let’s listen to a bit of that.

[LOE CLIP FROM 1991: (LOUD RUMBLE). It’s a roar, a roar that doesn’t stop. An insistent, throbbing cacophony that drowns out all other sound…]

GELLERMAN: (Chuckles). A throbbing cacophony?

CURWOOD: Okay, busted. A little overwritten. I didn’t say it was a dark and stormy night, but I guess I might as well - we’ve learned a lot of lessons, since then, over the years. We’ve also done a lot of stories, we’ve talked to a lot of people. And on this particular story, the tragedy of this massive oil spill - it was and it still remains the biggest oil spill in the history of civilization - we looked at this tragedy from a number of different angles.

At the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, some of LOE original staff (l to r)- Peter Thomson, Bruce Gellerman, and Steve Curwood - got together. Also, there was Eileen Bolinsky, a relative newcomer who came to LOE in 1997.

One thing, we looked at the particulates from all the fires, the effect possibly of acid raid, the possible disruption of the monsoons. And then a reporter went to look at the effects on the birds. The Persian Gulf is fairly shallow, and all this oil…well, I’ll let Susan Murray tell the story.

[CLIP FROM LOE 1991: [STRANGE BIRD SOUNDS]: The plaintive cry of a cormorant. At the Jubail Wildlife Rescue Center, there’s been an ongoing effort to save the most visible victims of the oil spill - blackened birds coated in oil. Volunteers continue to comb the Saudi coastline looking for survivors: “We’re out catching them on the beach - it was a lot of hard work. And the water was just like a can of oil - just that thick. We were just covered from head to toe with oil…]

GELLERMAN: Boy, you know Steve, I got to tell you, that was 20 years ago and I still remember that piece of tape.

CURWOOD: Yeah. If you heard the accent there, you know - some of that cleanup crew came from Louisiana.

GELLERMAN: Hmm, I didn’t know that!

CURWOOD: So over the years, Bruce, there’ve been surprises all along the way in the thousands of stories. Our concept, though, was not just a narrow view, say, of nature, of wildlife - but the whole of ecology. So there’s human ecology, there’s politics, there’s society, there’s economics, there’s religion, there’s ethics, there’s the law - all of those things. The way we live in cities, and the way we live in the countryside, how we grow our food - all those things are part of what makes up the environment.

GELLERMAN: And Living on Earth, I guess.

CURWOOD: Yeah, and so, in looking at the Gulf War in that first broadcast, we looked at the impact on the people beyond the battlefield. And in that show, I talked to Paul Altesman - he was from UNICEF - and he’d just come back from the war zone.

[ALTESMAN (IN 1991): Food prices were up over 1,000 percent. You can imagine the impact of somebody who’s no longer getting paid, whose banks are shut, and suddenly has to pay for 1,000, 2,000 percent more for their food.]

GELLERMAN: So I listened back to the entire first show, Steve, and the interview you did with that guy from the Center for Strategic and International Studies - that really struck me.

CURWOOD: Yeah that was Jeff Schaeffer, and I asked him whether the environment should be a factor in the decision to go to war.

Steve Curwood pushing on earth at the Copenhagen climate summit. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

[SCHAFFER (IN 1991): You cannot decide not to go to war because you will have a loss of life - that’s a risk inherent in going to war. And when you’ve decided that your ethical and moral reasons for going to war supersede that risk, then the environment stands in the same area. The decision to go to war has to put the environment on the sideline for the temporary period that the war will last.]

CURWOOD: And that answer really struck a theme of just so many of the stories that we’ve covered over the years, Bruce. I mean, many people - polls show that most people - are in favor of protecting the environment. But other issues like money, politics, even convenience trump environmental considerations. And that’s one of the things that motivated me as an African American.

GELLERMAN: I don’t understand that, Steve.

CURWOOD: Well a big part of the black experience in America has been that you’re told to wait - you know, your turn will come, but other things have to happen first. And that’s what happens to environmental questions in many circumstances, and I just got tired of waiting, of doing the story, and so, hey, let’s get going with Living on Earth!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). Well I’ve really gotten going with Living on Earth. You’ve sent me to some really great places: I went to, what, recently, Brazil, I was in Denmark, I went to Poland, I went to Russia, Cuba, and I was there for the downfall of the Soviet Union, nd Chernobyl.

CURWOOD: Yeah, Bruce, I remember you brought back a bottle of vodka from Chernobyl that sat in the office for a very long time - nobody wanted to touch it!

GELLERMAN: My gift to you!

CURWOOD: Well thank you. Yeah, over the years, we’ve sent reporters to every continent, and I’m hard-pressed to come up with a place that we really haven’t been to to cover environmental change. And you know what, Bruce? 20 years later, we still haven’t run out of stories!

GELLERMAN: Not bad for a show that was supposed to have only six months worth of stories, Steve. Not bad at all.

CURWOOD: (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: Well, Steve, here’s to the next 20 years of Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’ll drink to that!


CURWOOD: Hey, uh, Bruce, this stuff isn’t from Chernobyl, is it?

GELLERMAN: (Chuckles).


GELLERMAN: And to commemorate our 20th anniversary, over the next few weeks we’ll be airing some stories from the early years of LOE and catching up to see how they played out.

CURWOOD: And going forward, we’ve been gearing up for the future - check out our new website design at loe.org and our online social media site, Planet Harmony. It’s a place you can produce and post your own multimedia environmental stories. You’ll find the community at myplanetharmony.com. And be sure to log on to the LOE Facebook page, PRI’s Living on Earth.

Back to top

[MUSIC: Grover Washington Jr “Love Makes It better” from A Secret Place (Kudo records/Verve Music Group 1976).]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. And this week, we want to thank all those who helped produce the very first weekly broadcast of Living on Earth precisely 20 years ago: Gary Covino, Peter Thomson, George Homsy, Lisa Weiner, Debra Stavro, and Jim St. Louis.

GELLERMAN: The Living on Earth crew as we enter our third decade includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mitra Taj, and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins, Sammy Sousa and Honah Liles. Our interns are Sean Faulk and Wynn Tucker. Jeff Turton is our technical director.

CURWOOD: Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. I'm Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. 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 growth
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. 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.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI - Public Radio International.


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