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

October 30, 1992

Air Date: October 30, 1992


Electric Cars: Coming Soon to a Show Room Near You (Probably) / Andrew Caffrey

Andrew Caffrey of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the efforts by some states to get drivers out of conventional automobiles and into less-polluting electric cars. . . and on the confusing combination of enthusiasm and opposition to those efforts by Detroit. (07:38)

A Victory Against a Major Wheat Blight / Laura Knoy

Laura Knoy reports from Washington on what researchers say is the defeat of wheat rust, a fungus which has been one of the biggest killers of wheat crops throughout history. Rust claims up to 10 million tons of wheat a year around the world. (03:16)

The Race for Congress in Montana / Mary Boyle

Environmental issues are in the forefront as Montana's two U.S. Representatives battle it out for a new single, state-wide seat. Both are long-time incumbents — one a moderate Democrat endorsed by the Sierra Club, the other a conservative Republican who calls environmentalists "Prairie Fairies." (05:36)

California Lawyers Want Recycled Briefs

Steve talks with Debra Ream of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Club about a move to require attorneys in California to file their court papers on recycled paper, and to print some of their briefs on both sides of the page. The state's legal profession currently uses about 100,000 tons of paper a year. (04:04)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Barbara Richardson, Diana Steele, Andrew Caffrey,Laura Knoy, Mary Boyle
GUESTS: Deborah Reames

( Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Electric cars: they have no smelly exhaust pipes or hefty tune-up bills, and they'll go 100 miles for the same cash that will only take you 25 miles in a gas-powered car. Some in Detroit say it's still too soon to make a popular electric car. But the people who've driven them say they're ready now.

TIERNEY: This isn't the future, this is right now, and I love showing people. People are very interested to hear this is not a toy and that this car is commercially available.

CURWOOD: Also, recycled briefs: some California lawyers move to stem the law's insatiable appetite for paper.

REAMES: If California lawyers are using virgin paper, we're cutting down nearly two million trees per year, just to meet the legal profession's paper needs in this state.

CURWOOD: And, good news for the world's wheat supply, this week on Living on Earth. First, the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

The largest study of lead poisoning ever conducted confirms that even very low levels of lead can cause significant and long-term losses of intelligence in children. The ten-year Australian study contradicts claims by skeptics that intelligence losses often blamed on lead are instead due to social disadvantage, race and poverty. Doctor Katherine Mahaffey , of the US's National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, says the study confirms that small amounts of lead are dangerous to all children.

MAHAFFEY: There's a lot of scientific data that comes from different geographic areas, from different social groups, from different economic groups, different ethnic groups, from racially different groups, that is consistently showing the same effect for a particular level of lead exposure.

NUNLEY: The study found that lead poisoning symptoms apparently last indefinitely.

After months of delay, the Bush Administration released five new Clean Air Act regulations in the days leading up to the presidential election. From Washington, Barbara Richardson reports.

RICHARDSON: The package of new environmental rules requires power plants to cut emissions that cause acid rain and smog. In addition, steel and chemical manufacturers have to reduce toxic emissions. Even though the new rules were announced a week before the elections, Assistant Administrator of EPA, Bill Rosenberg, says it was not politically motivated.

ROSENBERG: All the rules that we dealt with this week are subject to court-ordered deadlines or statutory deadlines.

RICHARDSON: Another air emissions rule that environmentalists say weakens the Clean Air Act won't be released until after the election. Although critical of the timing of these announcements, environmentalists agreed to delay a rule that stiffens automobile emissions testing. They think their chances of getting a tougher rule are better after the election. For Living on Earth, I'm Barbara Richardson in Washington.

NUNLEY: Congressional Democrats charge that senior Justice Department officials have blocked Federal prosecution of environmental offenders in key cases where the evidence seems open-and-shut. A study commissioned by a House subcommittee suggests the cases have been stymied for political reasons. The Bush Administration denies the charges, saying it won a record number of environmental prosecutions last year.

The World Bank has rejected the advice of independent analysts and decided to continue funding a massive dam project in western India. The Sardar Sarovar dam would bring water to millions of people. The bank's funding of the project has been the subject of growing controversy, but Vice President for South Asia Joseph Wood says cutting off the flow of dollars was not an option.

WOOD: Because, for one thing, the Indian authorities made clear that they certainly would have gone ahead and financed it with their own resources.

NUNLEY: Critics say the project may never meet its goals, but will displace over 100-thousand people, destroy an important fishery and threaten at least 11 endangered species. The World Bank says it may yet drop out of the project, if resettlement and ecological problems aren't resolved by next April.

This is Living on Earth.

The world's ancient temperate forests are disappearing as fast as tropical rainforests. That's according to what the World Wildlife Fund says is the first comprehensive study of such forests. The study says 90 percent of the temperate old-growth forests outside of Russia have vanished, while vast tracts of Alaskan and Pacific Northwest timber continue to fall to clear-cutting. The group says the loss of these forests has been partially hidden by the fact that they're often replaced by planted trees, but the World Wildlife Fund says such "tree plantations" are no substitute for the diversity of the original ecosystems.

A new Interior Department report appears to support the claims of some environmentalists that the Federal Government charges too little for grazing permits. The internal audit found that hundreds of private companies in the western US are making a profit, by subleasing Federal grazing lands. From Washington, Diana Steele has the story.

STEELE: The government's fee is currently $1.92 per animal every month, but some ranchers then turn around and charge as much as $8 or $10 in subleasing arrangements. Ranchers say that's because fees charged for sublease and grazing rights include the cost of fencing, water, and other improvements to the land. The government spent thirty million dollars more taking care of the land last year than it took in from grazing fees. But a BLM spokesperson says much of that money was spent on capital improvements to the rangeland that would have been made regardless of whether or not there were cattle grazing on the land. The Inspector General's report comes after a series of failed attempts in Congress to raise grazing fees. For Living on Earth, I'm Diana Steele in Washington.

NUNLEY: A team of scientists has found a new monkey species in the Amazon rainforest. The pint-sized primate has been dubbed the "Maues marmoset". Its most prominent feature is its flared and fuzzy ear tufts. Scientists say there are millions of as-yet unclassified animal and plant species on the Earth, but newly-identified mammals are a rarity. The research team says the find shows how much is still unknown about the Amazon.

That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.

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Electric Cars: Coming Soon to a Show Room Near You (Probably)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

During the presidential campaign the Democrats called for hikes in fuel efficiency standards for cars, while the Republicans said that would put more American auto workers out of work in an industry already reeling from the economic crunch. But while Washington dithers on the issue, ten states are already forcing automakers to produce some cars that use no gas at all. Over the next few years a million electric cars will hit the roads of California and the Northeast. As Andrew Caffrey of member station WBUR in Boston reports, Detroit's biggest challenge in bringing electric cars to the showroom is no longer one of technology, but one of marketing. . . and mindset .

(Sound of latch)

BATSON: This is the empty space where the engine used to be. . . (fade under)

CAFFREY: For those of us who are mechanically challenged, the electric vehicle is seductively simple. There are no impenetrable blocks of metal, with the whatyamacallit pipes and hoses, and wires, wires, everywhere, and that strange sound that makes you feel silly when you imitate it for your mechanic. No funny noises; in fact, the electric engine is unnervingly quiet. There's not much of anything but air under the hood ob Bob Batson's Dodge pick-up, except the small black box at the bottom.

BATSON: Yeah, it's nine inches in diameter, and approximately 18 inches long, and that does the job of that large internal combustion engine that was in here before.

CAFFREY: Bob Batson is so sure electric engines will sell, he abandoned a consulting career and started a company in Massachusetts that converts the gas-guzzling, pollution-pumping pick-ups that are the mainstay of commercial vehicle fleets. Batson says it's much cheaper to convert a gas-powered vehicle than to buy a new electric model right off the assembly line.

BATSON: In fact, the vehicle we just delivered to Mobile Sales and Service yesterday was a diesel that had 120 thousand miles on it, and we converted it to electric and gave it back to them. So that's probably the ultimate in recycling.

CAFFREY: However, small shops like Batson's will not be able to meet the expected demand for electric cars. California has set a target that 2 percent of cars sold in the state by 1998 be electric powered. And many states in the Northeast are following California's lead. By the turn of the decade, more than a million electric vehicles are supposed to be on America's roads.

Now, the challenge for big automakers is to get consumers to buy electric cars. They're expensive, have limited range, and many consumers may still mistakenly liken them to under-powered golf carts. But there aren't any power problems with the electric car General Motors has been test marketing. The "Impact" is a sports car that goes zero to 60 in eight seconds. John Dabels is GM's marketing director for electric cars.

DABELS: Most people say, well, I've heard about this before. If they have a drive in a car, and we have some development cars, we have not had anybody get out of the car and say, this is less than I expected. In fact, most people get out and say, wow, that's a lot more than I ever thought I can get out of an electric vehicle.

(Cross-fade to sound of auto interior . . .)

TIERNEY: Here we go, I'm putting the key in, I'm turning the key (sound of click, buzzer) -- probably the buzzer for the seat belts, that just went off . . . (Fade under)

CAFFREY: Sue Tierney is the secretary of environmental affairs in Massachusetts. On a recent tour of downtown Boston, in a borrowed electric-powered Chevy Geo, Tierney bragged about the car's performance. She says automakers should easily be able to market them as smart second cars.

TIERNEY: This isn't the future, this is right now. And I love showing people. People are very interested to hear this is not a toy, and that this car is commercially available.

CAFFREY: Yet electric cars still have technological shortcomings that will probably discourage a run of customers at the local showroom. Most can only run around 100 miles or less on a single battery charge, although newer battery technology promises to increase that range. A more vexing problem is finding a safe and inexpensive way to dispose of used batteries. But specialists say major performance drawbacks should be minimized by the time most consumers get to kick the tires. And by then, consumers hopefully will have heard more about the cars' advantages. With so few parts, they are cheaper to maintain, and the difference in fuel costs is astounding. Depending on electricity prices, these cars average one to two cents a mile, compared to five or six cents for gasoline powered cars. And of course, the cars themselves do not emit any pollution, although some pollution is likely to be generated by the power plants that supply the cars' electricity.

General Motors has already picked out its target audience: yuppies -- whose purchasing decisions often influence others. They are often the first buyers of other new technology; for example, VCR's and computers, says Sheila Lynch, a marketing consultant who specializes in electric cars.

LYNCH: At first, they're considered odd, and then there's the few brave souls who love new toys who try them out and the public is dubious, but then they see the advantage of them and then there's a turning point and en masse the public becomes very accepting.

CAFFREY: The biggest hurdle, however, may be "sticker shock." General Motors, for example, plans to price its "Image" at upwards of $20,000. So the Federal Government is offering a number of financial inducements, including a tax credit for up to $4000 off the purchase price. And businesses which buy new or convert gas-powered vehicles are also eligible for tax deductions. Also, the Northeastern states are considering lower car registration fees for low pollution vehicles.

Yet these efforts to market electric cars are still the target of an intense political campaign, ironically by some of the very businesses which could profit from the sale of electric cars. General Motors, for example, has teamed up with oil companies to lobby against states' clean air programs and quotas for electric cars. Again, GM's John Dabels.

DABELS: Now I know there's some confusion or one could be confused between supporting electric vehicles which are the results of mandates in many cases, and then going in suggesting that we not have mandates. There appears to be a conflict. But I think the corporation has said we'd rather have consumers drive what the market needs rather than the government legislate it.

CAFFREY: But when lobbyists from General Motors show up at the doorstep of Massachusetts environmental official Sue Tierney, she laughs at their argument that a popular electric car is only a dream.

TIERNEY: I say this one I don't get , because this is real, it's out there on the road, it's down there in my parking space. You can do it.

CAFFREY: General Motors continues its paradoxical campaign on the electric car. The carmaker now brings a demo model to environmental trade shows, or outings with an ecological theme, rather than limiting its visibility to car shows. The car company reportedly plans a limited release of the "Impact" next year, and a much greater availability in model year 1995. For Living on Earth, this is Andrew Caffrey in Boston.

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(Fade music up and under: Beatles' Drive My Car )

A Victory Against a Major Wheat Blight

CURWOOD: With rapidly rising population and stocks of wheat and other grains fluctuating in recent years, the balance of the world's food supply is close to precarious. And of course in places such as Somalia, it's already tipped over into disaster. But now comes some good news for a hungry planet: researchers say they've conquered an age-old threat to the world's wheat supplies. From Washington, Laura Knoy has our report.

KNOY: Wheat rust has plagued farmers for thousands of years. In Biblical times, the Romans prayed for mercy from Robigo, the god of rust. Experts estimate today the fungus kills from five to ten million tons of wheat every year. Now the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center -- known by its Spanish acronym CIMMIT -- claims it has cross-bred a new strain of plant that thrives despite the rust. CIMMIT director Don Winkleman says the center has cornered, if not slain, the wheat rust dragon.

WINKLEMAN: Over the past ten years we've seen no evidence of damaging wheat rust attacks on these plants, anywhere that they're grown. And hence we have declared that we have collared the wheat-rust fungus.

KNOY: Experts say fighting wheat rust is a constant battle. Scientists keep coming up with new strains of rust-resistant wheat, and the fungus keeps mutating into forms that overcome that resistance. Winkleman explains the key to CIMMIT's new plant is a process called "slow-rusting," a trait found in an old Brazilian strain of wheat that CIMMIT cross-bred with modern high-yield varieties. The new hybrid allows a tiny amount of the fungus, or pathogen, to grow on it, but not enough to damage the plant.

WINKLEMAN: The pathogen says, I've got a home here, I can chew on these plants, I'm not going to be, they're not going to put me off completely, I can survive. And the pathogen then would not be so disposed to mutate, create new forms of the pathogen, which would have a dramatic effect on the plant.

KNOY: But some scientists are skeptical "slow-rusting" is the answer.

BROWN: What that may do is slow down the rate at which new strains will evolve, but I don't think it means that the problem has been eliminated.

KNOY: Lester Brown heads the World Watch Institute in Washington, DC. He says plant breeding to fight disease is an unending effort, and lasting solutions are rare. And even though CIMMIT claims its plants have been free of rust damage for ten years, Brown says that's not long enough to declare the fungus has been conquered.

BROWN: I suppose there's a human temptation to want to think you maybe have solved the problem for once and for all. But given the history of plant breeding for pest resistance, that is probably not likely.

KNOY: A World Bank agricultural official agrees. But, he adds, wheat rust is such a big problem, any progress is good. Even CIMMIT director Winkleman seems to back away from the center's first statements about its new plant, that is "defeated" wheat rust. Winkleman admits there's a slight chance the rust will mutate again, and kill the new wheat strain, perhaps many years from now. But Winkleman contends in the meantime, CIMMIT's "slow-rusting" wheat will increase crop yields, and reduce the need for pesticides. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Knoy in Washington.

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The Race for Congress in Montana

CURWOOD: Because of redistricting, Montana's two seats in the US House are being collapsed into one huge, 600-mile-wide district. The race pits a moderate Democrat against a Republican with one of the lowest environmental ratings in Congress. As part of our series on the environment and this fall's elections, Mary Boyle has this report from Billings, Montana.

BOYLE: For the last decade and a half, the western, more urban half of Montana has been represented in Congress by Democrat Pat Williams, and the eastern, more rural half by Republican Ron Marlenee. These two Congressmen come from different parties and different backgrounds, and have vastly differing ideas about managing the state's resources and environment.

GRANSBERRY: Ron Marlenee is a man who believes Montana's natural resources should be exploited -- if there's timber to be cut, if there's minerals to be mined, if there's grass to be eaten by forage animals and that produces economic activity, let's do it.

BOYLE: Jim Gransberry is a political reporter with the Billings Gazette.

GRANSBERRY: Pat Williams would look at the environment as an equal rather than a subsidiary, if you will. The environment would get as much consideration as economic development or jobs.

BOYLE: Because of nationwide redistricting, these two Congressmen have been pitted against each other in a race for a single, statewide seat. It's a stark choice for Montanans, in a state that has traditionally relied on extractive natural resource jobs. Eight-term Republican Ron Marlenee decries Federal regulations that get in the way of natural resource use. The former farmer staunchly supports private property rights and opposed both the Federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. As for environmentalists, he calls them "prairie fairies."

His opponent, seven-term Democrat Pat Williams, says environmental regulations are not only helpful but at times necessary, especially in Montana.

WILLIAMS: Unless we put the environment first, we will in short order, perhaps in 25 years or less, end up with neither a natural resource economy or an environment. If we don't put the environment first, we will end up like our friends in Oregon and Washington, who, along with the Forest Service, practiced the folly of cutting 90 percent of the old-growth timber and are now left with the terrible option of either cutting the remaining 10 percent of the harvestable old-growth timber or facing the cul-de-sac of bankruptcy, unemployment and foreclosure.

BOYLE: But perhaps because of their newly-expanded constituencies in a state-wide race, the candidates have recently been sounding more similar than different on the environment. Again, Jim Gransberry.

GRANSBERRY: I think they're both trying to walk a narrow road, trying to claim the middle ground between the environment and development.

BOYLE: Republican Marlenee's strategy was unveiled early on, in a television ad he ran last spring.

TV ANNOUNCER: There are extremists who would like to lock up our state and throw away the key, and others who choose to ignore the hazards of uncontrolled growth. Fortunately, Congressman Ron Marlenee knows there's a better way that reasonable citizens working together can achieve a responsible balance between man and his environment . . . (fade down)

BOYLE: Congressman Marlenee says he ran his ad because his environmental record was being misrepresented by his opponents.

MARLENEE: Because I wanted to portray Ron Marlenee as I was, not as the Sierra Club, not as Earth First!, not as the League of Conservation Voters would portray to Montanans what I stood for. These groups are generally the activist groups that do not subscribe to balance and they're entering this race for political purposes to defeat me and elect Pat Williams.

BOYLE: The Marlenee ad prompted an immediate and forceful response from the Sierra Club, which hit the air waves with an anti-Marlenee ad of its own. They say his record on the environment is far from balanced. They call him one of Congress' "Dirty Dozen" -- among the Congressmen with the worst environmental voting records in the country. And although the Sierra Club has endorsed Pat Williams, it was with some hesitation. John Colburn chairs Montana's chapter of the Sierra Club.

COLBURN: He has made a number of votes we are not happy with, on the 1872 Mining Law, grazing law reform, ancient forest, among others. He has not voted the way we would like him to vote, so he isn't a solid Green vote for us.

BOYLE: So far, Marlenee and Williams seem to have split the Montana electorate right down the middle. A recent University of Montana survey found the two candidates in a statistical draw, with about fifteen percent undecided. And like the candidates, the electorate is split not just on the environment, but on a range of issues, including abortion, health care and the economy. The tight race seems to ensure that with the loss of one of their two seats in the House of Representatives, many Montanans will feel disenfranchised after the election. However, for the past fourteen years the votes of Ron Marlenee and Pat Williams have usually cancelled each other out. Now, for better or for worse, Montanans will speak on the environment and other issues with a single voice in the House of Representatives. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Boyle in Billings, Montana.

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(Music up and out)

California Lawyers Want Recycled Briefs

CURWOOD: Lawyers are a political target this election season. Vice President Dan Quayle complains the legal profession is too quick to sue. Well, it appears the profession is also too quick to write -- or type, or print out, or however they get all that legalese on to all that paper. In fact, next to the Federal Government, the legal profession is the largest consumer of paper in the United States. Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund attorney Deborah Reames wants lawyers to change their wasteful ways, at least in California. She joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco.

First off, Ms. Reames -- how much paper do lawyers use?

REAMES: Well, the American Bar Association estimates that lawyers use an average of one ton of paper each year -- that's per lawyer. In California alone this amounts to 100 thousand tons of paper annually. If you want to translate that into trees, if California lawyers are using virgin paper, we're cutting down nearly two million trees per year, just to meet the legal profession's paper needs in this state.

CURWOOD: Now what do you propose to change?

REAMES: Well, we propose to change the California rules of court in a manner that will affect all levels of California courts, from municipal courts to the Supreme Court, in three essential ways. First of all, we would require that all briefs, records and other papers filed with the courts would have to be printed on recycled paper beginning in six months. Secondly, after a five-year phase-in period,during which this would be optional, it would be required that all copies of papers filed with the court and served on opposing parties would be double-sided. And the third aspect of the rule change would require the courts to accept documents printed on unbleached paper.

CURWOOD: Whose idea was this? Who said, hey, wait a second, we're using all this paper, it really ought to be recycled?

REAMES: Actually it was my idea. I've been with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund for sixteen years now, but in the last three years I've had a number of what I call my "garbage cases," cases involving incineration and landfilling and how to do that in an environmentally safe manner. And also cases involving recycling and waste reduction, I've become very aware of the magnitude of the crisis in California and I believe across the nation, in terms of the amount of garbage we produce and our dwindling landfill capacity. Nobody wants a landfill in their backyard. And I of course at the same time became aware of the contribution of my profession to this. Actually, in one of my recycling cases I requested that the Court allow me to file a 1500-page administrative record on two-sided copy and I was told no.

CURWOOD: In that case, how much paper did you use?

REAMES: Well, actually that wasn't one of our big paper cases at all. The actual litigation documents we filed, that were filed in that case were perhaps maybe one and a half file drawers of paper. However, the record in the case, when we went up to appeal, was about 1500 pages of paper and that was what, that disturbed me that that could not be two-sided.

CURWOOD: Your petition comes at a time when the recycling business in general, and the recycled paper business as well, is not seeing a lot of growth. Are you hoping it would stimulate that business?

REAMES: Very much so. Right now the recycling movement in California and all across the country is in big trouble. Citizens think that they're recycling as long as they're segregating glass and newspaper from their garbage and putting it out on their curb for pickup or taking it to a recycling center. And in order to close that loop, people have to start buying products made out of those recyclables. That's not happening in California, particularly not with paper, which makes up, a high-grade waste paper like this makes up ten percent of California's waste stream. So we're very much hoping that this is going to be a badly needed shot in the arm for the recycled paper industry and help create a market for that.

CURWOOD: Deborah Reames is an attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense fund. Her petition will be heard at the November meeting of the California Judicial Council. She spoke to us from KQED in San Francisco.

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(Music under)

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Deborah Stavro directs the program. Our editor and producer is Peter Thomson. Our coordinating producer is George Homsy, and we had help from Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, and Colleen Singer. Our engineer is Laurie Azaria, with help from Doug Haslam, Jennifer Loeb, and John Laurentson. Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in co-operation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Theme music up)


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