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

October 14, 2011

Air Date: October 14, 2011



Australia to Join Carbon Market

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Coal is central to Australia’s economy, but the parliament there has now given a boost to worldwide efforts to put a price on carbon. The controversial plan is expected to gain final approval next month which means Australia’s 500 largest polluters will have to pay for every ton of carbon they emit. As Mark Tamhane of ABC - the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – tells host Bruce Gellerman, the legislation is expected to dramatically change the country’s economy. (06:30)

EPA Under Fire

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The Environmental Protection Agency is taking heavy criticism from the political left, right, and center. Jeremy Bernstein, publisher of the news service Inside EPA, analyzes efforts to boost and dismantle the agency. (06:20)

Environmental Protests Yield Results

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From Myanmar and Brazil to Bolivia, popular protests against environmental mega-projects are taking root. Jeremy Hance writes for the online environmental news service Mongabay. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that governments and courts are paying attention to people power. (10:10)

Shark Tourism

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A new conservation movement says, “sharks are friends, not food.” Reporter Doug Struck dives into the business of shark tourism in the Bahamas. (06:45)

BirdNote ® – Clark’s Nutcracker - Nature’s Arborist

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The Clark’s Nutcracker is a bird that hails from the western United States. And as Michael Stein reports, it has a unique role in sowing the seeds of whitebark pine forests. (02:00)

A Gravel Danger

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Asbestos exposure can cause the deadly cancer mesothelioma but a lesser-known mineral called erionite is even more potent than asbestos, and it’s completely unregulated. Erionite is found in rock formations in at least a dozen U.S. western states. Aubrey Miller, Senior Medical Advisor for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, led a study on the health effects of erionite exposure. He tells host Bruce Gellerman about the dangers of the naturally occurring mineral and its public health implications. (05:00)

Science Note/Fat Mice Get Thin / Jack Rodolico

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With endless access to food and inactive life styles, many laboratory mice are overweight. New research shows that giving mice more to think about – as opposed to more exercise – will cause them to burn calories. Living on Earth’s Jack Rodolico reports. (01:25)

Have Kitchen Scraps Will Travel / Jessica Ilyse Kurn

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A new business is helping city residents in the Greater Boston area turn their food waste into brown gold. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Kurn profiles the owner of the kitchen scrap pickup service, Bootstrap Compost. (07:10)

Earth Ear

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The mesmerizing sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur. ()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman

GUESTS: Mark Tamhane, Jeremy Bernstein, Jeremy Hance, Aubrey Miller

REPORTERS: Doug Struck, Michael Stein, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Bernie Krause

SCIENCE NOTE: Jack Rodolico


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. A tough new law would tax big corporate polluters and put a price on carbon down under.

GILLARD: The vast majority of Australians believe that climate change is real. The majority of Australians want to see that carbon pollution reduced. The majority of Australians want to see action on climate change.

GELLERMAN: Also, call it creative decomposition: a young entrepreneur turns compost into a company, collecting food city folk throw away.

BROOKS: Exemplary contents here - you know, for someone’s food scraps - it looks like there’s some kale here, and some sort of gourd or something - I don't even know what that is.

GELLERMAN: Reducing trash and making cash by recycling food waste - that and a lot more this week, on Living on Earth. Stay with us!


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

Australia to Join Carbon Market

Melbourne, Australia (Takver)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Australia is the largest exporter of coal in the world, and per capita, it’s the largest emitter of greenhouse gases among developed nations.

But, soon, Australia will also be one of the world's largest reducers of global warming emissions. Australia’s lower house of parliament has narrowly passed legislation that puts a stiff price on carbon - a heavy tax on every ton of carbon dioxide produced by the nation’s biggest companies. Mark Tamhane, an executive producer with ABC Newsradio, joins me from Sydney down under. Hi Mark - thanks!

TAMHANE: Thank you very much!

GELLERMAN: I must say, for the world’s largest exporter of coal, this is a very bold move.

TAMHANE: It is, and it’s a very controversial move. The public is split right down the middle. A lot of people argue that we must do something about climate change and reducing carbon emissions for our grandchildren - that’s a cry that you hear from a lot of older Australians. But at the same time, they say the way to do it is not by putting a great big new tax on everything.

GELLERMAN: So this was a real squeaker of a vote in the House of Representatives: 74-72.

TAMHANE: It certainly was. You have to remember that in Australia we currently have a minority government, and this is quite a difficult political issue for Prime Minister Julia Gillard because she clearly said before the last election: “Under no government that I lead, will there be a carbon tax,” quote, unquote.

But she didn’t get the votes to form a government in her own right. And this is one of the political prices that the Greens and the Independents have forced her to pay.

GELLERMAN: Well, she obviously changed her tune a lot. I want you to listen to this clip that we have of the Prime Minister.

GILLARD: I believe after all of that debate, the vast majority of Australians believe that climate change is real. The vast majority of Australians believe it is caused by carbon pollution made by human beings. The majority of Australians want to see that carbon pollution reduced.

TAMHANE: Now, there are many people that do believe that climate change is occurring, but people in business and industry argue that imposing a carbon tax is not the easiest way to reduce emissions. And anyway, if it did reduce emissions - their argument goes - Australia is only responsible for 1.5 percent of global emissions. So really, whatever we do is insignificant compared to what happens in the USA, in China, in Brazil.

Underground mining in Australia- the world's largest coal exporting nation. (Australian Coal Association)

GELLERMAN: Well, 80 percent of your energy comes from coal, and the conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott is fiercely against the tax. Let’s listen to what he has to say.

ABBOTT: Look, I think it is a day of betrayal. And this is a betrayal which is going to add to families’ costs of living, and it's going to threaten Australians' jobs. I think every Labor member of Parliament who went into the Chamber this morning has broken faith with the Australian people.

GELLERMAN: He says: ‘We can repeal the tax, we will repeal the tax, we must repeal the tax, this is a pledge in blood - this tax will go.’

TAMHANE: And indeed, that’s what he is promising to do. We should point out that this scheme would come into effect - it will now be passed in the Senate, there’s no doubt about that because the government has the numbers - it will come into effect on the first of July next year.

Carbon will be priced at 23 Australian dollars, which is roughly 23 US dollars, a ton, which I might add, is significantly above the current European Union carbon price. That’s another big beef with industry, they’re saying: Well, this is a very high carbon price. They don’t tend to put so much emphasis on the compensatory measures that the government is putting in - they’re focusing more on the headline carbon price.

But it is still two years from now until Prime Minister Julia Gillard needs to call an election. So you wonder how hard it would be for a Tony Abbott conservative-led opposition to try and undo this huge economic change, which really is going to change the fundamental structure of the Australian economy the way it is designed.

GELLERMAN: Well, the way I understand this is designed is that for three years, starting in 2012, businesses and households would get a tax cut from money that was raised on this tax on these very large emitters of carbon dioxide.

TAMHANE: Yeah. If you take an average household in Australia, the government estimates that household bills would rise by $514.80 a year. But the average assistance to that family, through tax cuts and various other measures, is estimated by the Australian treasury to be $525.20 a year.

So as you can see, the net effect is roughly 10 Australian dollars - ten American dollars - better off. And for poorer Australians, the compensations measures are even more generous. So that pensioners, for argument’s sake, would be over compensated, whereas people at the higher end - higher, wealthy income earners, they would feel some pain from this tax.

GELLERMAN: And the money that was raised from the tax would also be used to invest in clean energy initiatives. And, I guess, a billion dollars would be used to protect forests and biodiversity.

TAMHANE: There are a number of measures like that. You’ve got to also understand that a lot of measures will be going back to industry - like the aluminum industry, which causes an incredible amount of Australia’s carbon emissions. The effective carbon price they would pay is probably only about one or two dollars.

GELLERMAN: Well, Australia has a lot of coal, and a lot of that coal goes to China. Are you basically exporting your emissions, in a sense?

TAMHANE: That is the argument put forward by a lot of environmental campaigners. Coal that is exported off overseas obviously doesn’t have a carbon tax, per se, on it. And you have to remember that Australia is the world’s biggest coal exporter, and because of our high local use of coal as well - Australians per capita, given our small population, given the size of our land and our huge reserves of coal, are actually per capita the world’s highest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the entire world.

GELLERMAN: Mark, thank you so very much.

TAMHANE: Thanks, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Mark Tamhane is an executive producer at ABC Newsradio in Australia.

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[MUSIC: Midnight Oil “Arctic Worls” from Diesel And Dust (Midnight Oil Enterprises Ltd. 1987)]

EPA Under Fire

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (EPA)

GELLERMAN: The Environmental Protection Agency is under attack from the left, right and center. House Republican Lee Terry of Nebraska calls the EPA a “rogue agency”. Meanwhile, environmental organizations are suing the EPA – charging it’s not enforcing regulations already on the books and President Obama is delaying enforcement of a new EPA reg.

The Environmental Protection Agency under the gun is the topic for discussion with Jeremy Bernstein, he's publisher of the news service Inside EPA, and he joins us from his office in Arlington, Virginia.

BERNSTEIN: Hi there.

GELLERMAN: You know, I’ve been watching the EPA for many years. I don’t think I’ve ever seen things so contentious over the agency in all the time I’ve been looking at it.

BERNSTEIN: Certainly things are contentious, but I think at the same time, I don’t think we’ve really ever seen unemployment at nine percent, and I think that is probably a big driver for some of this contention.

GELLERMAN: Why is that?

BERNSTEIN: The Republicans and many industry groups are concerned that EPA regulations are preventing creation of new jobs. There’s a lot of debate about that. I think also, I mean, throughout EPA's history, the agency has drawn criticism from all sides.

And many people at the Environmental Protection Agency would probably tell you they’re doing their jobs well if there is some unhappiness on all sides. If only one side is unhappy, they probably haven’t done as balanced a regulation as they probably would like to do.

GELLERMAN: Well, by that criteria I think the EPA is succeeding wildly, because they’ve managed to upset everybody!

BERNSTEIN: That’s true, but that doesn’t mean to say there aren’t implications from this turmoil. I think, you know, we have a presidential election coming up. This is going to be one of the first times I’ve seen EPA really being front and center in the presidential election. There could be big implications for the agency down the road, depending on who wins the election.

GELLERMAN: Well, the EPA budget is just .003 percent of the federal budget, and yet, there are many people calling for a reduction - some people calling for the elimination of the agency entirely.

BERNSTEIN: Sure, there are some Republican presidential contenders who want to eliminate the agency entirely, like Michelle Bachmann. Given how concerned Republicans are with EPA regulations, I think EPA, like a number of other federal agencies, could face additional cuts in the future. One of the contradictions of this whole debate is that many polls show that the public is concerned about over-regulation, there’s also strong support for strong environmental protections.

GELERMAN: Let’s talk about ozone. The EPA, last month, initiated a regulation that would have set higher standards for the emission of ozone. And now the Obama administration seems to be pulling back - it’s delayed the enforcement.

BERNSTEIN: When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson took office, she said that the ozone standard put out by the Bush administration was legally indefensible.

Jeremy Bernstein

GELLERMAN: Her son, in fact, has asthma.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, and actually, when the Obama people came in, they proposed to strengthen that standard. And what the president did was that he said: that’s not going to go forward, because they had already started doing a review of the science for the next standard.

GELLERMAN: Well, environmental groups say they’re not going to wait. They’re suing the administration saying the existing standards are not adequate to protect the public health.

BERNSTEIN: That’s correct. Environmental groups are suing. But I think what the president was saying was that it would be confusing for people who would be subject to the standard to have to comply with a standard that they would issue in 2011, and then with another standard that they are required by law to issue in 2013.

GELLERMAN: The House Republicans recently passed two bills that, if they became law, would profoundly affect the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority. There’s the TRAIN act: under that, the EPA must examine the economic impacts of its regulations, but not the economic benefits. Do I have that correct?

BERNSTEIN: Right, nor the regulation's environmental and health benefits. It is a big change. I think what is different about this is that it would be required by law, and it would be much more restrictive in terms of what EPA could consider.

GELLERMAN: The House Republicans also passed the REINS Act, and I guess the idea there is that every major regulation would require a separate vote in Congress. (Editor's Note: While the REINS Act is expected to be passed by the House, the vote has been delayed.)

BERNSTEIN: Right, I mean, even some conservative lawyers have said it may be unconstitutional, because it diminishes the Executive Branch's authority. But I think the environmentalists and other opponents of the rule have said that it would make it very difficult to move forward with regulations that they think are necessary to protect the public health.

GELLEMAN: I want to ask you about this chemical called TCE. This was used as a degreaser-solvent, it was used in pharmaceuticals, in foods, it was even used in anesthesia. Just this past week, the EPA ruled that it was a carcinogen. It has taken them 25 years to come up with that classification. 25 years. Why does it take so long?

BERNSTEIN: The concern is with many of these chemical risk assessments, is that because they have potentially costly cleanup and other regulatory impacts - many of the industry groups come in and insist on a high scientific review before they can be approved.

There’s some other, in some ways, much more controversial risk assessments that we’re waiting on decisions from EPA about right now. For example, about arsenic, hexavalent chromium, which is found in drinking water in many cities around the country, platinum and some other fairly well known chemicals, that could have really significant regulatory impacts.

GELLERMAN: So, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has got to be under tremendous pressure, I can’t imagine she’s too happy with what’s going on. What do you think is going to happen with her?

BERSTEIN: I can’t imagine she would leave the agency now, right before a presidential election. I wouldn’t want to bet on a second term, I think it’s too uncertain. But, certainly, I think she’ll finish out the first term of the Obama administration.

GELLERMAN: Well, Jeremy, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

BERSTEIN: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Jeremy Bernstein is publisher of the news service, Inside EPA.

Related link:
Inside EPA

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[MUSIC: Augustus Pablo “Satta Dub” from King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown (Shanachie records 1976).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: people power versus mega projects. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Monty Alexander: “Could You be Loved” from Stir It Up: The Music Of Bob Marley (Telarc Records 2006).]

Environmental Protests Yield Results

More than 1,000 indigenous people marched in protest of the road proposed to be built from the Brazil border through Bolivia. (Intercontinental Cry)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Across the globe, grassroots activists are not just alive and well, and mad as hell, they’re emerging as a force of change.


GELLERMAN: In many places, it’s environmental issues and opposition to mega construction projects that have people protesting. In Myanmar, demonstrators recently took to the streets to block a proposed dam that would have flooded a vast area.


GELLERMAN: In Bolivia, things turned violent when police attacked demonstrators who were trying to prevent a road from being built through indigenous lands.


GELLERMAN: And in the rainforest of Brazil, it was the proposed Belo Monte Dam that raised the ire of protesters, and a judge recently halted construction. To discuss environmental activism we turn to Jeremy Hance. He’s a staff writer with Mongabay, an online news organization that reports on the world’s tropical forests. Hi Jeremy, welcome to the show.

HANCE: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: Let's first talk about the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil. It’s going to be enormous; I guess the third largest dam in the world, if it's built.

HANCE: Yeah, if it’s built, it’s the third largest dam. It’s gonna be 11 megawatts, and between 11 to 17 billion dollars to build. So it’s a huge, huge project.

GELLERMAN: Well, it’s generated a huge amount of protests by indigenous people and international figures like film director James Cameron.

HANCE: Yeah, he’s visited several times now the indigenous tribes along the Xingu River, which is the river that the dam would be built on. And he actually brought Arnold Schwarzenegger down there recently, and also Bill Clinton has come out against it. And it is one of the more, sort of, international issues for dams right now. There’s a petition online that got signatures from over 600,000 people around the world that were opposed to this because of the impacts.

GELLERMAN: Well, what are the specific impacts that people are protesting?

HANCE: So it’s basically social and economic impacts. So the dam is going to be so large, that it’s going to divert around 80 percent of the river. It’s going to push, probably, several species of fish directly into extinction. It’s going to flood about 40,000 hectares of forest.

There’s a lot of indigenous tribes in the area, and there’s also local communities who have depended on this river for their livelihoods, for their fishing, for a protein source for thousands of years. So they’re going to see their entire way of life change if this dam is built. The government says around 16,000 people would have to be moved, NGOs in the area say it’s probably going to be more like 40,000.

Indigenous groups have been protesting the proposed Belo Monte Dam in Brazil for years. (Photo: treehugger.com)

GELLERMAN: But now comes a Brazilian federal judge, and he actually ordered a halt of the construction of the dam. Did the protests have any influence?

HANCE: You know, I can’t speak for the judge himself and whether or not the protests have mattered. This has been an issue in Brazil since 1975. But I think what he saw is he looked at it, and he was directly involved in a lawsuit by a fishing association, and he said: "Look, this is going to change the river. This is going to change the fish populations. This is going to devastate these people’s way of life." And so, he said, "No more construction on anything that would impact the fishing and the river itself."

Now, the thing that has to be remembered is that this has happened several times in Brazil. These lower courts get these lawsuits and they say: "You need to stop this construction. This is not right. This is illegal."

And then a higher court will get it and it will be overturned. So the government is pretty much betting on that this is still going to go ahead. So I think this is an issue that is still going to be going on for a while still.

GELLERMAN: Brazil says they need the dam for the energy. They have these vast natural resources, and they need to tap into them to develop the country and alleviate poverty.

HANCE: You know, that’s the argument for a lot of these big development projects. You know, the dam does provide 11 megawatts. It's several million homes can be powered by it. Around one third of the dam’s power is expected to go to the mining industry. So that’s a pretty significant chunk that isn’t going to serve the public, but is going directly to mining.

Roughly 600,000 people have signed a petition to stop the Belo Monte dam. (International Rivers)

But there are some issues even with the power. A lot of rivers in the Amazon right now have had a really, really low period. There have been two significant droughts in the Amazon region recently, and those have been linked, by some scientists, to climate change. The Amazon is probably getting drier. So the idea that the river is going to be the way it is forever and is going to provide this constant source of energy is a question. Brazil has plans for 146 dams in the Amazon right now. This one is a part of, I think, 7 dams in the area that would eventually be built.

GELLERMAN: Well, lets talk about another dam on the other side of the planet. This is in Myanmar, where the president recently pulled the plug on a dam project that would have generated electricity that would have mostly gone to China.

The Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. (Exotismo Travel)

HANCE: Yeah. This is the Myitsone Dam and it’s on the Irrawaddy River. It’s at the head of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. And it was a real surprise to everybody that the government actually did this. There’s been a lot of local protests. There is tension with the Kachin people who live in the area who would be ones would be most impacted by the dam. But it was still a real surprise that the Myanmar government sort of bucked China on this and said: 'We just can’t do this. There’s too much protests and too much public opposition.'

And, you have to remember that this is Myanmar. This is a government that is pretty much ruled by the military, is known for large crackdowns, for human rights abuses, for imprisoning political opponents, and things like that. So it was a real surprise that they did this.

GELLERMAN: Well, I think the people were protesting because it would flood an area three and a half times the size of Washington DC.

HANCE: Yeah, it would create a reservoir the size of Singapore. And it would have created drastic changes to the ecology - just like the Belo Monte Dam. And then there was also this tension with the Kachin people who have their own political group, they have their own army.

And I think the last thing the Myanmar government wants right now is armed conflict with its own people, especially over something that’s going to provide 90 percent of its energy to China. It wasn’t that Myanmar needs this for its own energy need, it’s that China is looking for anywhere in the world it can get to get more resources and more energy right now.

GELLERMAN: The President of Myanmar says he is stopping the dam, but only until his term of office is over in 2015. So it possibly could get restarted after that.

HANCE: Definitely. I mean, that’s the thing with these big development projects like the Belo Monte which was stopped in the ‘90s and then reared its head again. Even if the government says, ‘No, we’re not going to do this,’ these projects are still on the books, and it could come up back again at any time with a new administration.

GELLERMAN: I understand that Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was a force in the protest movement in Myanmar, and that the demonstrations there were mostly peaceful. But in Bolivia, there’s a road that they want to build through the rainforest and a natural reserve and indigenous people’s territory, and there, the protests turned violent.

HANCE: Yeah, and there's differing stories as to how this actually happened. But, so the protest was a really interesting one. The Tipinis Reserve, which is a reserve for indigenous people, and the road would go through the reserve, and around 1,500 indigenous people were marching from the Amazon to La Paz, which is the capital, and that’s a 310 mile walk.

So it’s a pretty big commitment - they’re camping out as they go and that kind of thing - but once they got about half way, there was about 500 riot police that were sent out and broke up the march. And there was violence. Tear gas was used and batons were used, and a lot this was captured on video. It pretty much shocked the Bolivian people, it shocked the government, and now the government says that they’re going to suspend the road project.

GELLERMAN: What’s interesting about this road is that while it goes through Bolivia, actually, it’s Brazil that’s paying for it. And it’s Brazil that I think is largely going to benefit from it, because they get to have a road through the Andes that they can use to export their soy and beef.

HANCE: Exactly. You know, it’s interesting, because in Myanmar, we have China who’s pushing for that dam, and here we have another sort of rising power: Brazil, who is having more and more sway in South America. And they’re the ones paying for this road - their construction company is building it. And so, there is a lot of resentment in Bolivia that this is really about Brazil’s needs and not about Bolivia’s needs.

GELLERMAN: Well, Evo Morales, who is the president, was a big backer of the road. And, now, as you say, he suspended it. What happens now?

HANCE: This is a unique administration. Evo Morales is himself indigenous. He came into power in Bolivia by promising the poor and the indigenous people that they would have a voice. He has been huge on the international stage on environmental issues. He refers to the damage being done to Mother Earth quite a bit.

And so he talks a real green kind of game. But when it came to this road, he was basically saying, this is going to be built. Now, after the protests and the violence that came out from it, he’s lost a lot of advisers who have stepped down in protest to the way that it has been handled. He has actually gone on television and asked for forgiveness for what happened.

He says that they’re going to have a national conversation about this road, and that it might go down to referendum for the two states that the road would go through. And so we’ll just have to see, and see how he deals with the issue going forward.

GELLERMAN: So we’ve got the Brazilian dam where protests happen there, judge rules against the dam. Then we’ve got the Myanmar dam where president says, ‘We’re stopping it, at least for the next three or four years.’ Then we’ve got this road in Bolivia. Am I seeing a trend here though that is that environmental protests really are having an effect worldwide?

HANCE: You know, I think that they are more than they get credit for. There are more and more people that are aware of the great issues facing us environmentally. And I think a lot of people are saying: 'enough is enough.' I don’t think any of these projects are completely off the table, but I have seen some projects that have been thrown out due to large-scale protests.

And even in the US, we’re seeing large-scale civil disobedience against the Keystone pipeline that would run from Canada to the US, bringing tar sands to us. So I think that there is more and more realization that if there’s going to be change in the way we look at our environment, governments are acting too slow, corporations are acting to slow, and I think people are saying, 'We need to stand up and start doing something.'

GELLERMAN: Jeremy Hance is a staff writer for Mongabay, which is an online news organization that reports on the world’s tropical forests. Well, Jeremy, thank you so very much!

HANCE: Thank you.

Related link:
Mongabay Website

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Music: [Sam Yahel “2 Pilgrims” from Sun To Sun (Sam Yahel Music 2011).]

Shark Tourism

(Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas)

GELLERMAN: Sharks have a reputation as dangerous predators, but in reality, they have a lot more to fear from us. We slaughter more than 70 million sharks each year - most are turned into soup. Just their fins are sliced off and used, the animal is then left to die. In fact some species of shark have been reduced by 90 percent.

Earlier this month, California became the fourth US state to ban the sale of shark fins, but in the Bahamas, they’re taking a different approach to protecting the fish: shark tourism. Reporter Doug Struck has our story.


CHIN: Okay Ladies and Gentlemen, if I could have everybody’s attention please.

STRUCK: Dive master Chang Chin, wearing a suit of protective metal mesh over his wetsuit, briefs seven eager scuba divers who've flown to the Bahamas from across the world.

CHIN: We’ll have two really, really cool dives this afternoon. The first one’s going to be along the wall and it’s going to be a free swim with the sharks. All you’re going to see down there is sharks. They are going to be all underneath you, circling around as you make your way down the line. Okay?

STRUCK: The boat rocks gently on the crystal clear Bahamian waters. The divers listen intently, preparing to follow Chin 40 feet down to the deck of an old submerged freighter, where they will be in the middle of a shark feeding frenzy.

Reporter Doug Struck w shark. (Photo: Doug Struck)

CHIN: What we want on this dive is to have minimal or no hand movement at all. When the sharks are moving around, they create a sort of a current or whirlpool effect. Sometimes they can even bump into you, if you are lucky and push you over.

STRUCK: Though some criticize feeding sharks as risky and meddling with nature, the Bahamian government says shark tourism brings in 79 million dollars annually. Stuart Cove, who runs the island’s biggest dive company, ferries nearly 60,000 tourists a year out to snorkel above the sharks or scuba dive with them.

COVE: We went from being a little, sleepy two-boat operation to growing very quickly into a major force in the dive industry. Everybody wanted to come and dive with the sharks. So not only did we build a big business off of it, we’ve got a lot of people coming to the Bahamas for the sharks, and dropping, you know, a couple thousands of dollars a person into the local economy.

STRUCK: It’s Chin’s task to make sure the tourists get what the brochures tout as an "extreme shark adventure."

CHIN: What you’re diving with today: Caribbean Reef Sharks, okay. In the area, there are around about probably 35 to 40 sharks at the moment. The biggest shark, probably about nine-and-a-half feet long, about 400, 450 pounds, and small sharks about two or three feet long, okay. Please enjoy your dive, guys, suit up for your buddy checks. I’ll see you in the water. Thank you.

Divemaster Chang Chin in mesh armor. (Photo: Doug Struck)


STRUCK: Underwater, the divers in their wetsuits sink slowly toward the 200-foot freighter, called the Ray of Hope. Dark shadows emerge from the depths, sleek and sinuous. Three, four, eight, ten sharks circle the divers, closer and closer. Chin opens a steel bait box.

The sharks pivot sharply, rushing past the divers in a race to grab the bait. Chin teases and twirls, with the morsels on a short spear, until his bait is nearly exhausted. With the last fish, he lures the shark pack off one side of the freighter, so his spectators can escape to the surface.

STRUCK: So what did you think?

VARELA: It was amazing!

STRUCK: Debbie Varela is a physician from New York City.

VARELA: I’ve been in love with sharks since I was a kid. They’re so calm and they just command a certain respect that I was just mesmerized.

STRUCK: But sharks have value other than luring tourists; they play a crucial environmental role.

Sam “Doc” Gruber prepares to insert electronic tag in baby nurse shark. (Photo: Doug Struck)

Samuel “Doc” Gruber, a marine scientist at the University of Miami, has been studying lemon sharks for 20 years from the beachfront lab he started on Bahamas’ Bimini island. He wades into a thigh-deep tidal mangrove swamp off Bimini with a couple of students. They plan to find and tag the juvenile lemon sharks that hide there from larger predators.

GRUBER: (wading sounds) Oh, there’s a nice big lemon right there. Oh, big boy. That’s almost a meter. There’s another lemon. They’re all over the place.

STRUCK: Sharks are vulnerable, Gruber says, because they grow slowly and have few offspring.

STUDENT: You want to do this with one dip net or two?

GRUBER: One dip net - the biggest one we’ve got. Alright, alright, okay. Now. Now. That’s it. Now don’t get bit. Don’t get bit. This one’s coming. Whoa! Watch out now, he’s not under my control. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy.

So that’s a little electronic tag. They’re called RFID’s, or pit tags. And it reads it.

STUDENT: There we go. 4-8-5-8-7-1-5-3-5-1.

GRUBER: Alright.


STRUCK: Gruber says sharks are vital in the ecosystem - they help maintain order in their watery neighborhoods, keeping species in balance. The sea community is like a tapestry, he explains, and if you lost a top predator like the shark, the whole fabric would unravel.

Eric Carey, head of Bahamas National Trust. (Photo: Doug Struck)

GRUBER: You would produce what’s called a biological cascade. First, the predator pressure on the prey organisms of the sharks would be reduced. They would just explode in their numbers. And, the prey that they feed on, all of a sudden they’d be decimated. You go from a stable system to an oscillating system.

STRUCK: The Bahamas became a shark haven almost by accident. Two decades ago, the government banned commercial fishing that uses miles of hooked lines to snag tuna, swordfish and sharks. With no long-line fishing, and no tradition of cutting off fins for soup, sharks flourished here. Eric Carey, head of the Bahamas’ National Trust, wants to make sure that continues.

CAREY: The great opportunity that we have that we don’t want to miss is that we have this healthy population, and instead of having to come from behind as often happens when trying to save a species, with a stroke of a pen we could insure that this healthy population is protected in perpetuity.


STRUCK: The National Trust is a non-profit that runs the parks of the islands. Along with other environmental groups, the Trust recently won a campaign to get the government to ban all commercial fishing of sharks and any trade in shark fins. There's still an abundance of sharks in the Bahamas, and tourists, business interests and scientists all agree that a live shark is worth a lot more than a dead one.

For Living On Earth, I'm Doug Struck, in Bimini, the Bahamas.


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BirdNote ® – Clark’s Nutcracker - Nature’s Arborist

Clark’s Nutcracker (© Tom Grey)


GELLERMAN: Some birds have beautiful feathers - some sing sweetly - and some eat pesky insects. Then there’s the bird that’s kind of an avian Johnny Appleseed. Michael Stein has today's BirdNote®


STEIN: High in the mountains near tree line in the western states, a Clark’s Nutcracker folds its wings and dives. The bird plunges nearly a thousand feet, a black, white, and gray thunderbolt.

Clark’s Nutcracker foraging. (Photo: © Lee Rentz)


STEIN: Pulling up and landing, the Clark’s Nutcracker buries a cache of pine seeds with its long, black bill. It’s October, and snow is on the way. Since August, the nutcracker has been harvesting and cacheing the seeds of whitebark pines. In a special pouch under its tongue – a structure unique to nutcrackers – the bird can hold more than 80 pine seeds.

It will stash away tens of thousands of seeds each summer. Most, it will dig up during the snowy months ahead. The seeds are nearly its sole source of food until the next summer.

A Clark’s Nutcracker grabs some pine nuts. (Photo: © Lee Rentz)


STEIN: But some of these cached seeds are forgotten. These may germinate, spawning a small grove of pines. Whitebark pines are one of more than 20 species of pines worldwide that rely almost exclusively on birds like nutcrackers to renew their forests. Clark’s Nutcracker, named for the famous Western explorer William Clark, is one of nature’s indispensable tree planters.


GELLERMAN: That's Michael Stein with BirdNote®. For photos and more information, go to our website - LOE dot ORG.

Related links:
- Clark’s Nutcracker audio provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by R.S. Little and W.W.H. Gunn.
- BirdNote® Clark’s Nutcracker – Nature’s Arborist was written by Bob Sundstrom.

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[MUSIC: Bert Jansch “Blues For Planet Earth” from The Wildlife Album (Market Square Records 2010)]

GELLERMAN: Coming up: investigating erionite - a mineral health officials warn is more dangerous than asbestos. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, welcoming students back to college with SIERRA magazine’s annual ranking of America’s “Coolest Schools.” Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[Don Ellis Orchestra: “Alone” from Electric Bath (Sony Music 1967).]

A Gravel Danger

The landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey, mirrors stone formations found in Dunn County, such as the tall, thin spires capped with harder stone, called fairies chimneys. Both areas experienced volcanic activity that produced erionite, millennia ago. (Photo: wikimedia)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Chances are, if you watch late-night TV, you’ve seen an ad like this:

[AD: Attention if you've been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer, normally caused by exposure to asbestos you may qualify for a cash settlement. I'm attorney Bob Goldwater. If you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma, call me right now.]

GELLERMAN: Mesothelioma is rare in most places, but not in the small town of Libby, Montana. About 400 residents there have died and 17 hundred are sick from their exposure to asbestos released from a mine owned by W.R Grace & Company.

The EPA declared Libby its first public health emergency, and has spent nearly 400 million dollars cleaning the mess up. Residents charge state officials knew all along the mineral dust was killing them, yet failed to intervene. So they filed a lawsuit, and this week, a Montana judge approved a 43 million dollar settlement.

Now, federal health officials say mesothelioma can also be caused by an even deadlier, but less known mineral - erionite. The National Institute of Environmental Health is investigating this unregulated substance. Epidemiologist Dr. Aubrey Miller, Captain in the U.S. Public Health Service, is the lead researcher.

Dunn County, North Dakota tests high for the dangerous mineral, erionite. (photo: Wikimedia).

MILLER: Well, erionite is a mineral fiber and it’s very similar in its look to asbestos. These fibers are naturally occurring in rocks, primarily ones that are formed from volcanic activity millions of years ago. And as you disturb the rocks, or you break them open, they release the mineral fibers. It’s actually found in about 12 states. You know, mostly out west. As we begin to develop more and more, we’re beginning to get into it more and more.

GELLERMAN: Well, I guess people in Dunn County, North Dakota, drive over it quite a bit!

MILLER: Yeah, so there’s a situation - they have these small mountains or hills that they use for rock. And they were mining those hills for rock to use on their roads, and had been doing so for several decades, and unbeknownst to them, that rock contained amounts of erionite, and they would grind it up, and use the rock on roads. Several hundred miles worth of roads within North Dakota, and I think it extends Montana and South Dakota, we’ve been told.

GELLERMAN: So you did some sampling and what did you find?

Dwellings carved into cliffs in Cappadocia increased exposure to erionite and raised overall rates of the cancer, mesothelioma. (Photo: Wikimedia)

MILLER: So we did sampling in a number of ways. We actually drove cars up and down on the roads. We checked the school busses, because there is about 30 miles of school bus routes, and we did sampling along side the busses where the kids would stand and inside the busses. We did some sampling in an auto shop that they use for maintenance of the vehicles that spread the gravel, and we measured these erionite fibers in their breathing zone.

GELLERMAN: What kind of levels did you find?

MILLER: The levels are ... if it was asbestos, you would say, well, those levels are of concern, but there are no guideposts for erionite. So we went then to Turkey to try to see, well, how does the level in North Dakota compare to the level in Turkey that have remarkably high disease.

GELLERMAN: In Turkey, I guess the people were living in houses made out of the stuff!

MILLER: Yeah, so it has been used for centuries because the rock was kind of soft, and people could kind of dig them out - those rocks - and make caves. And they actually, for centuries, people kind of grew up in those areas and they lived in caves and then they moved into more modern houses. But they’re still there, and they continue to have very high rates of disease. And, just to give you a feel for it, in a couple of these towns - up to almost 50 percent of the people that die from a non … not an injury from an accident, are dying from mesothelioma.

GELLERMAN: And that’s from the erionite.

MILLER: From the erionite, exactly, from their exposures to erionite. The levels that we found in North Dakota would be more comparable to the levels that we saw in towns that had between one and ten percent rate of mesothelioma, vs. the towns that had very high rates of disease.

GELLERMAN: Well, if somebody told me that I had a one in ten chance of coming down with this dreaded disease just simply because of the gravel in front my house, I’d head for the hills.

Erionite has been found in over a dozen US states. (Map by Emily Chow for FairWarning)

MILLER: This is one of those substances that raises our levels of concern. It certainly seems to be a stronger or more potent carcinogen than a lot of the asbestos that’s been looked at. You know, we didn’t really think we had much of a problem of it here in the United States - that it was all over there in Turkey - but unfortunately that’s not the case here.

GELLERMAN: What do you think people should do who might be exposed, say in Dunn County, North Dakota?

MILLER: So one thing about these diseases, and partly to make it clear, there hasn’t been any disease identified right now in North Dakota, that's one thing that we're starting to look at, but it takes a long time for these diseases to develop.

So, mesothelioma in particular, you may have up to 40 years from the time you’re exposed to the time you’ll get the disease. A lot of the people there say: "Well, we don’t see any disease here yet, so should we be worried?" Well, the exposures are there, and there is a long latency between getting the disease. So we want to do what we can now to start making people aware, and start being more proactive - for a public health stance - to help ensure that we don’t end up with an epidemic of disease.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Miller, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

MILLER: Thank you very much for having me.

GELLERMAN: Epidemiologist Aubrey Miller is with the US Public Health Service, researching the mineral erionite.

Related links:
- Read more about erionite on Fair Warning
- The NIEHS recently hosted an inter-disciplinary workshop on erionite:

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[MUSIC: Steely Dan “West Of Hollywood” from Two Against Nature (Giant Records 2000)]

GELLERMAN: In a minute: creative decomposition - an entrepreneur turns rotten food into the sweet smell of cash. But first this note on emerging science from Jack Rodolico:

Science Note/Fat Mice Get Thin

Photograph of an obese mouse next to an average sized mouse. (Oak Ridge National Laboratory)


RODOLICO: Obesity isn't just a problem for people. Many laboratory mice are overweight too. Now, scientists have shown giving mice more to think about, can make them skinnier. Researchers at the University of Ohio put overweight mice in what they called an enriched environment - a large enclosure where they mingled with other mice. Toys and mazes were changed regularly, and the rodents were given plenty to eat.

In four weeks, the mice lost up to 70 percent of their belly fat. These social mice were compared with solitary mice that had access to a running wheel. The lonely mice exercised more, but the social mice still lost more fat. The scientists conclude it was the social and mental stimulation that helped them burn calories.

In a previous study, the research team found that living in a dynamic social setting slowed the growth of cancer in mice. Exercise, diet and medication are all important, but social interaction, and perhaps, even how we feel about ourselves, could be just as important. So, if you’re watching your waistline, be sure to make time for just sitting around - with friends. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I'm Jack Rodolico.


Related link:
Link to summary of the paper

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Have Kitchen Scraps Will Travel

The contents of a compost bucket. (Photo: Alicia Prewett)

GELLERMAN: Americans waste a lot of food. We throw away a staggering 68 billion pounds of food each year, most of which winds up in municipal landfills. Composting is one solution to the problem, but it’s not always easy, especially if you live in a city.

But now some urban dwellers in Massachusetts can compost without the dirty work – producing nutrient-rich material that can be added to the soil, and enriching a young entrepreneur in the process. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Kurn has our story.

KURN: It’s late afternoon and Catherine Iagnemma stands in her 2nd floor apartment kitchen. The Somerville, Massachusetts resident grabs a colander, washes vegetables and lays them out on the counter.


IAGNEMMA: So, I’m making dinner, and I’m cutting up my brussels sprouts.

KURN: Also on the menu: sweet potatoes, asparagus and ground lamb. Iagnemma cuts off the vegetable ends and pushes them into a pile on her wooden cutting board.

IAGNEMMA: Normally, all these ends, I would just throw in the trash. But I’m going to take them, and just put them in this five gallon bucket that we keep right next to our butcher's block.

KURN: In the ideal world, Iagnemma would have the time and space to throw these scraps in a backyard compost heap. But her neighborhood is dense. Her backyard is small. She finds the logistics of composting overwhelming.

IAGNEMMA: Like if I had to go and start up a compost bin in my backyard, I don’t know if I would do it, or I don’t know if I would know how to do it.

KURN: Now composting is part of Iagnemma’s routine, thanks to a new startup business.

IAGNEMMA: I just feel like it should be a part of anyone’s environmental protocol. If they’re recycling, then composting is really not that hard, especially with someone like Andy.

KURN: Andy is Andy Brooks, a young entrepreneur who founded Bootstrap Compost - a kitchen-scrap pickup company. Brooks travels around greater Boston, mostly by bike, and collects organic waste for customers like Iagnemma. He then brings it to a local farm for composting.


BROOKS: Through composting our material, we are collectively improving our community.

KURN: The idea of helping the community was his inspiration, and he had another motivation. A college grad, Brooks was getting frustrated after searching endlessly for jobs.

Andy Brooks with his hand cart, which he uses, to transport compost buckets in winter, instead of his bike. (Photo: Alicia Prewett)

BROOKS: After like relying on this cruel economy of applying and cover letters and resumes and interviews, and nothing was going anywhere for like two years, and I was, like, forget it, I gotta do something for myself, and the whole notion of, like, picking myself up.

KURN: And so Bootstrap Compost was born. Brooks says there are many reasons why he loves helping urbanites compost.

BROOKS: When people ask me that question, it’s like someone saying, ‘Why do you like Star Wars? Or why are the Beatles good?’ I get dizzy. Like, there's so many reasons. The way that interests me is like - what are the challenges that we face being a disposable society?

KURN: Brooks puts on his helmet, and jumps on his souped-up bicycle - complete with a custom-made trailer that tags behind. Such a setup couldn’t have been designed for anything other than a nomadic compost business.


BROOKS: It’s super beautiful, I have to say. It’s all aluminum and then a real simple, thin sort of barrier around it to keep everything inside of it. It’s got two super-nice 10-speed wheels, a reinforced axle - so it’s super sturdy. I mean, it looks pretty awesome.

Andy prepares for a day of kitchen scrap collection. (Photo: Alicia Prewett)

KURN: Six empty buckets sit in the trailer. They'll soon be swapped with pails filled with carrot tops, banana peels and other scraps. Bootstrap Compost currently serves several dozen customers and is growing. Brooks destination today: the Boston neighborhood, Jamaica Plain.


KURN: He grabs an empty bucket, and climbs up to the porch of a triple-decker house where a filled-to-the-brim pail is waiting.


BROOKS: So, pretty like exemplary contents here. You know, for someone’s food scraps. It looks like there’s some kale here, and some sort of gourd or something - I don't even know what that is.


KURN: How heavy do you suppose that is?

BROOKS: I would say this is probably at least 10 pounds; it's probably a bit more.


KURN: Brooks pedals to three more sites, and each time, his load grows heavier. So heavy, that on his way to the fifth and final stop, he has to push the bike and trailer up a huge hill.


BROOKS: We’re at the base of a pretty gnarly hill, but we can walk it.

Andy Brooks swaps out compost buckets. (Photo: Alicia Prewett)


KURN: At the top of the hill, we reach a professional baker’s house. This client fills two buckets a week.


BROOKS: She gives me like really nice stuff, like beautiful fruit and stuff.

KURN: Two buckets of apple cores, orange peels and espresso grounds sit on the porch. A third bucket is there too, filled with rich, dark compost that Brooks dropped off last week. He says his business is like a bank - clients deposit their raw food scraps, and then can withdraw fresh soil after 15 weeks. Customers that have no need for compost can opt to donate theirs to a local community garden.


KURN: Brooks opens the bucket of fresh soil and smiles.

BROOKS: It’s the end result of 7,000 pounds of material that I’ve collected since January. And this is what you get when several months pass, and you’re on top of it and you’re mixing it. And this is what you get at the end of the day.

KURN: Bootstrap Compost operates year-round, and when the weather’s bad for biking, Brooks hops on the subway with a hand truck loaded with buckets. He offers 3 payment plans: a weekly pickup costs $32 a month, biweekly $18, and a once a month visit is $10.


KURN: At the end of the day, Brooks loads the scraps into his pickup truck to be taken to the farm. He says he isn’t trained in this field and hasn’t always composted himself. He just came up with a business plan that works, and has a passion for the environment.

BROOKS: When you throw out your banana peels into the trash, that to me is insulting to all the resources that went into growing those things initially. The end product is just treated like refuse, but it shouldn’t be - it still harbors this immense energy to be used for good, and to go back into the cycle of growing.

KURN: His clients like Catherine Iagnemma start to live by this ethos too.

IAGNEMMA: You really think about where your food is going, and especially on trash day, I’ll look at people’s trash and see is this one family? How many families are living in these home? And how much do we generate as individuals?

KURN: And on trash day when a slight putrid smell hangs in the air, Andy Brooks is extra motivated to recruit more people to turn their food scraps into a useful product. For Living on Earth I’m Jessica Ilyse Kurn.

Related links:
- Check out Alicia Prewett’s photojournalism blog post about Bootstrap Compost
- Bootstrap Compost

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[MUSIC: Compost “mon Cheri Popsicool” from Life Is Round (Columbia Records 1973).]

Earth Ear


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week on a remote beach along the central California coast.

[SOUNDS: Bernie Krause from “Ocean Dreams.” 2002. (Four Winds – Wildsanctuary.com)]

GELLERMAN: The mesmerizing sounds of the Pacific at Big Sur - if you listen closely - you'll hear some barking sea lions as well. Bernie Krause recorded them for his wildsanctuary.com CD “Ocean Dreams.”


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GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Helen Palmer, and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Raphaella Bennin and Jack Rodolico. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners; the Go Forward Fund; and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World, for tomorrow.

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