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

November 13, 1992

Air Date: November 13, 1992


Clinton's Environmental Options / Peter Thomson

Living on Earth's Peter Thomson reports on the environmental issues awaiting President-elect Clinton and the political reality that may influence the fate of those issues. (07:07)

Rails to Trails

Steve rides the nation's 500th bike path converted from an abandoned railroad bed and reports on the national Rails to Trails program. It preserves old railbeds as transportation corridors, parks and pieces of the country's social and natural history. (07:50)

Bobbies on Bikes / Evelyn Tully-Costa

Evelyn Tully-Costa reports from New York on the return of the bicycle to the city's police force. (05:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood

(Theme music intro)

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

(Theme up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The election has brought high hopes for a new environmental agenda in Washington, hopes that may clash with political realities in Congress. But an outgoing Bush Administration official says there's plenty that President-elect Clinton can do on the environment right away, through executive action.

Tape: I guess there is some low-hanging fruit that we in the Bush Administration may have contributed to leaving these folks. And I suspect they will go ahead and pluck it.

CURWOOD: Also, some of New York's finest give up their cruisers for shiny new ten-speeds. And turning abandoned railroad lines into trails for recreation, and for preservation.

Tape: They are a window into history of what the country and the countryside looked like 120 , 150 years ago.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth. First, the news.

(Music out)

Environmental News

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

Swedish scientists say they have found the first direct evidence that magnetic fields generated by electric power lines may cause cancer in children . . . Bruce Gellerman of member station WBUR in Boston reports.

GELLERMAN: Any wire that carries electricity produces a magnetic field around it, and researchers have long suspected the field could affect the health of people exposed to it. The Swedish scientists studied half a million people living near high voltage power lines, and found a four-fold increase in cases of leukemia. And while the risk is very low, adding only about one extra case of leukemia for every 10 thousand people exposed, Swedish officials have announced that in the future they would act on the assumption there is a link. But putting their words into action and eliminating the fields could be prohibitively expensive. In the United States, only Florida and New York have limits on exposure to magnetic fields, but they are 100 times higher than those Swedish scientists have found associated with health effects. For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Gellerman in Boston.

NUNLEY: In a limited victory for animal rights groups, the European Community has agreed to bar cosmetics companies from testing their products on animals. The ban begins in 1998, but it can be postponed for at least two years, if most of the EC states can't find an alternative to animal testing before the deadline. Up to 50 thousand rabbits, mice, rats and other small animals are killed or maimed each year in the EC alone for product testing. EC countries have been under heavy public pressure to enact a ban for several years.

Nearly a decade ago, the town of Times Beach, Missouri was bought out by the Federal Government after the area was found to be tainted with dioxin. Now, former residents of the area have reached an out-of-court settlement with the chemical companies allegedly responsible for the poisoning. From member station KWMU in St. Louis, Mark Manelli has the story.

MANELLI: Times Beach lies about 20 miles southwest of St. Louis. In 1983, its 2,000 working-class residents were evacuated, after it was discovered that waste oil containing dioxin -- an industrial waste product linked to cancer -- had been sprayed on the roads of Times Beach and 27 other sites in eastern Missouri. Nearly 400 residents of the contaminated areas filed suit in 1987, charging four chemical companies with negligence resulting in health problems. Attorneys for the residents have announced a settlement in the case. The amount of the settlement was not released, but it's believed to be in the millions of dollars. The cleanup of the site is proceeding. Officials say it will take years to complete. For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Manelli in St. Louis.

NUNLEY: General Electric will change the packaging on a line of light bulbs it advertised as saving energy. GE's "energy choice" bulbs were advertised as "replacements" for standard bulbs, implying they would reduce pollution, save energy, and cut consumer costs. However the company failed to say that the bulbs also provide less light. GE didn't admit to charges of deceptive advertising, but it did agree to pay legal fees to the 32 states which brought the charges.

This is Living on Earth.

Mexico's pollution may be poisoning its future. Three studies indicate that dangerous amounts of lead, pesticides and other poisons are turning up in Mexican infants. A six year survey by the US National Institute of Perinatology' has found that three-quarters of Mexican babies studied had blood lead levels high enough to lower intelligence. And two other studies by Mexican institutes show elevated pesticide levels in newborns, and in their mothers' milk, as well as links between Mexico City's overwhelming smog problems and asthma attacks in children.

A federal appeals court in Minnesota will soon rule in a case that pits local environmental regulations against the constitutional guarantee of free trade between states. Tom Meersman of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

MEERSMAN: The dispute centers on whether two southern Minnesota counties can require by ordinance that all garbage from their communities go to a new $8 million dollar composting plant that the counties financed. A corporation that owns a landfill just across the border in Iowa has challenged the counties, on the grounds that their ordinances interfere with interstate commerce. Landfill attorneys argued that counties do not have the right to designate where all of their trash goes. The counties, joined in the case by 18 attorneys-general from around the nation, contend that since composting is environmentally superior to landfills, they should be able to designate that garbage be composted rather than buried. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals is not likely to rule on the case until spring. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Meersman in St. Paul.

NUNLEY: Thousands of trees toppled by Hurricane Andrew could make their way to Haiti for use as fuel. A South Florida resident hatched the idea to ship two barges of fallen timber to the almost- completely deforested nation. The UN's Environment Programme has joined in a search for free transport for the wood, which will be turned into fifty million bags of charcoal. The US government has issued a license to ship the wood as humanitarian aid, despite an embargo against Haiti.

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

Back to top


Clinton's Environmental Options

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

"The economy, stupid." The now-famous sign in Bill Clinton's campaign war room became the battle cry of his successful campaign, and so far it's the focus of his transition. But the anticipation of the first Democrat in the White House in 12 years has raised the hopes of many who have concerns that go beyond the pocketbook. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson is here to report that there's a wide gap between the hopes of environmental activists and the political realities that may lie ahead.

THOMSON: Environmentalists are trying to maintain a sense of realism as they look ahead to the Clinton presidency. They say they're fully aware of the President-elect's promise to focus on the economy "like a laser beam". And they're trying to let the president set his own agenda, and his own pace, on the environment. Still, they are excited about the prospects for the future.

ROBERTS: We have really, I think, very high hopes that a lot of the undone work during the last twelve years on the environment will now move, if maybe not to the front burner, then certainly on to the stove of this next administration.

THOMSON: That's Bill Roberts. He's the legislative director of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington. The EDF, like a lot of other environmental groups, has a laundry list of issues which they hope the new president will pay more attention to than did his predecessors.

ROBERTS: And that list includes the President's, President-elect Clinton's call for a Forest Summit to discuss the old -growth forest in the Northwest and what should be done about that. That's supposed to occur quite early in the Administration. Also, he'll be taking a look at reforms to the Superfund cleanup program, which is a very expensive and important program to clean up the toxic waste sites around the country. Also, he's going to be called upon to evaluate the need for reform to the Endangered Species Act, which we take very, very seriously and potentially as a threatening change in the law. Clean Water Act and wetlands reform are high priorities for some folks in Congress that could dramatically undo some of the gains that we think are important to be made in wetlands protection.

THOMSON: Add to the list such items as new wilderness areas, and changes to the nation's hazardous waste law, known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA, and you've got a full plate of environmental issues awaiting the incoming president. With the Democrats controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, some environmental lobbyists may well have reason for optimism on these issues. But the word out of some Republican circles is . . . "don't get your hopes up."

QUINN: I think some of the more difficult issues are going to languish over the next two years.

THOMSON: Pat Quinn knows environmental issues and the political landscape about as well as anyone in Washington. He's been the EPA's associate administrator for congressional and legislative affairs under Bill Reilly and George Bush. He says some of the most high-profile environmental issues may be going nowhere in the early part of the Clinton Administration.

QUINN: There's been a great deal of talk about Superfund reform. It is very, very difficult, it seems to me, to put a political consensus together on Superfund over the next two years. I suspect that bumps into the next Congress. In terms of RCRA, the law which governs transportation of solid and hazardous waste, the environmental community's agenda, which is costly regulation of industrial waste, oil and gas waste, mining waste, simply doesn't have a constituency on the Hill. Nor do I think it will find a constituency necessarily within this administration.

THOMSON: Even in areas where Clinton took a strong position in the campaign, Quinn says, there may be no substantial movement in the near future -- issues such as the wetlands debate.

QUINN: Bill Clinton has pledged during the campaign not to weaken the nation's wetlands laws. It seems to me there'll be a very interesting tension for the new President early on in his administration. One of his long-time political allies, one of his friends, is Senator John Breaux from Louisiana. Senator Breaux is the co-author of legislation that would rather dramatically weaken the nation's wetlands laws. So the President-elect will face a very tough set of decisions on wetlands early on, and I suspect that this will produce further gridlock on comprehensive wetlands reform.

THOMSON: If this sounds like a defeated partisan trying to douse the spirits of his jubilant opponents, well, Quinn says there are opportunities for some quick moves on environmental policy -- moves which Clinton would be wise to take advantage of.

QUINN: I guess there is some low-hanging fruit that we in the Bush Administration may have contributed to leaving these folks. And I suspect they will go ahead and pluck it. Among the things that they might take a look at doing early on are, for instance, reversals of some of our decisions on the Clean Air Act. In addition, it's possible that we'll see an executive order to deal with something like increased requirements for the Federal Government to buy fuel-efficient automobiles. It's possible that we'll see a recycled-products requirement for procurement by the Federal Government. It's also possible -- I know there's some discussion -- they might put out an executive order regarding greenhouse gas emissions, something where you'd set up a no-net increase of greenhouse gases as a goal and then evaluate a broad range of regulations for their contribution of greenhouse gases. That would be aggressive, but that might be something that they would take a hard look at.

THOMSON: Pat Quinn is the outgoing assistant EPA administrator for congressional and legislative affairs. Both he and Bill Roberts of the Environmental Defense Fund agree that the place to look for early signals on the environment will be Bill Clinton's economic package. They say there are plenty of opportunities for the President-elect to mix economic policy with environmental policy, particularly by making commitments to such things as water and sewer projects and mass transit.

CURWOOD: Peter, before you go, let me ask you -- what else could Bill Clinton quickly do on the environment?

THOMSON: Well, it's widely expected that Clinton will sign the biodiversity treaty which was signed by most of the nations of the world at the Rio Earth Summit last summer. President Bush refused to sign it, saying he had concerns about the intellectual property rights of US corporations. Bill Clinton doesn't seem to share those concerns and he'll probably do that. Also, Pat Quinn speculated that the President-elect may convene an international meeting on global warming in Washington, at which point the United States would probably join the Europeans in the position they held prior to Rio last summer, that being that the world should push to reduce global greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

CURWOOD: You know, it sounds to me like Quinn is laying out a blueprint, setting the table for the Clinton Administration. What's up?

THOMSON: Well, obviously there's been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about Bill Reilly and others at the EPA chafing under the kind of restrictions put on them under the Bush presidency. I think post-election here we may be seeing a little of that coming more to the surface. Pat Quinn is a Republican political appointee, appointed under President Reagan. He doesn't sound like somebody who'd be extremely uncomfortable working for Bill Clinton and the Democrats.

CURWOOD: Okay, thank you very much. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson.

Back to top


Rails to Trails

(Music up and under train sound)

CURWOOD: There may be no better symbol of the industrial age and of the industrial might that became modern America than the railroad, and that Golden Spike that finally linked both coasts was the linchpin of a network of rail lines that covered over a quarter million miles. Soon, nearly everybody and everything moved to the rhythm of the rails.

(Music up: "The train I ride, sixteen coaches long . . .": fade under)

Before World War Two, only the rich could afford private railway cars, but once the war was over, almost everyone could afford the private automobile. The interstate highways took over as the nation's prime corridors, and from shiny passageways of progress, many railways rusted into back alleys of weeds. Thousands of miles of tracks are still abandoned each year, many of them cut up into little pieces and sold. But now there's a movement afoot to preserve these rail rights-of-way. Born of the headlong rush to industrialize, these corridors are now an antidote to some of the pressures of industrialization.

BURWELL: They are a window into history, of what the country and countryside looked like 120, 150 years ago.

CURWOOD: David Burwell is director of the Rails to Trails Conservancy in Washington.

BURWELL: Certain prairie grasses that no longer exist, parts of the tallgrass prairie exist only in railroad rights-of-way. In the Midwest the railroad corridors were Federal land grant corridors, often about 400 feet wide, and they were then fenced, immediately fenced, and they've never been plowed. Therefore, the remaining remnants of original prairie habitat are often located only in these railroad rights-of-way.

CURWOOD: Not only do these undisturbed corridors provide important sanctuaries for plants and animals, Burwell says they're also badly needed for people.

BURWELL: Let me put it very bluntly: we cannot afford as a country to lose these corridors. They are excellent linear parks for recreation, biking, hiking, horseback riding, jogging, nature appreciation -- all of which are, demand is increasing for those kinds of recreational facilities around the country. They're also historic corridors, railroad corridors connect small towns and they were built during the 19th century, when the country was industrializing. They also have very high conservation values. So they have all sorts of different reasons to preserve them.

(Sound of biking)

CURWOOD: So far, Burwell and his Rails to Trails Conservancy have gotten over 5000 miles of old rail corridors designated as biking, hiking, and recreation trails. The Minute Man bike path, northwest of Boston, runs from the western terminal of the subway system out through the towns of Arlington and Lexington to Bedford. The trail parallels the route the British took when they retreated from Concord and Lexington in the first days of the Revolutionary War. It's convenient for me, because it runs just a few blocks from my home in Lexington, to just a couple of hundred yards from the editorial offices of Living on Earth in Cambridge. Commuting by bike is a great way to get some fresh air and back to nature a bit. In many places, the trail passes through sweet meadows and quiet forests. As I bike by homes, I get a sense of life before the invention of the automobile. People who used to commute by car call it progress.

(Taped interview: trail commuter)

CURWOOD: So, you're a commuter. Where do you come from and where do you go?
MALE COMMUTER: East Arlington, and I go to Hanscomb Air Force Base in Bedford. So I don't take the bike route all the way but it sure avoids Mass Ave, which is nice.
CURWOOD: So, now, what's the best part about taking your bike into the subways now?
FEMALE COMMUTER: Oh, I enjoy it, I enjoy the fresh air and it's a way to fit exercise into my daily routine and I really appreciate being away from the pollution caused by the cars. It's very restful.

CURWOOD: The person who's probably most responsible for creating this eleven mile long linear park is Allen McGlennon, director of planning for the town of Arlington. Plans to extend the subway out into the suburbs fizzled out in the 70's, but the bikeway that was part of the subway plans still seemed like a good idea to McGlennon. The only thing required was persistence. It took nearly 17 years to get the various bureaucrats, from the railroad to the state to the towns, to sign off. It was hard, he says, to convince people that the railbed was a valuable piece of engineering that should be used and enjoyed.

McGLENNON: When this railroad was laid out in 1846, it passed through a section of Arlington known as the Mill Brook Valley. As we ride up you'll see that over a three-mile stretch we only rise about 200 feet. And this is one of the sections of the area around Boston where you can get through the hills.
CURWOOD: Is this unique for here, or is this something can you generalize to the rails-to-trails experience?
McGLENNON: One of the fascinating things about rails-to-trails phenomenon is that railroads were always trying to find the gentlest grade. It also depended on whether they were carrying passengers or freight. If they were carrying freight the grade had to be very, very shallow, because they would carry a hundred cars of coal, for example, in Pennsylvania. So the rails paralleled the rivers, because the rivers had found, created the valleys. And you end up now, as those rails are getting abandoned, you have phenomenal opportunities for rail trails.
CURWOOD: So you don't have to have a ten-speed even, you can use your old three-speed?
McGLENNON: You can use your three-speed, even a single-speed on this trail, and on most of them.

(Sound of construction)

CURWOOD: They're still pounding in the guard-rail posts. Construction on the bike trail isn't done yet, but people have been flocking here since the first rough coat of pavement went down in the summer. While most users of the trail are recreational, McGlennon says he expects about three thousand commuters will use the trail regularly, and that should get a lot of cars off the road.

The State of Massachusetts still owns the Minuteman, and it's in the new National Rail Bank. That means that, someday, it could be revived as a rail line. But that doesn't have to mean the end of the bike path. One rail-banked trail in Iowa went back in service to haul coal to a power plant, and the bike trail was relocated to one side.

(Sound of fife and drum corps)

A throng of bikers and a fife and drum corps in Colonial garb helped mark the opening of the Minuteman Bike Path this fall -- the 500th trail in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Project. Allen McGlennon presented David Burwell with a commemorative railroad spike, in thanks for his role in the project. It's too early for it to be a golden spike, but that doesn't stop Burwell from dreaming.

BURWELL: This is a great, a great day for us. We're very excited about it. I want to thank you all for coming. The purpose of this day is beyond the Minuteman, 500 to 500, is the concept of 500 trails, one great idea. And the one great idea is linking them all together so we can go back to one trail, one continuous interconnected trail all over the country. And that's our goal.

(Sound of band)

CURWOOD: More than a hundred years ago, Americans first rode coast to coast by rail. David Burwell says he expects that in his lifetime he'll be able to bike from coast to coast on some of those same railroad beds.

(Music up and out after applause)

Back to top


Bobbies on Bikes

CURWOOD: Fifty years ago in America it was common to see police on bikes. But then, as our car culture took over, two-wheelers all but vanished from the beat. Today though, the bike brigades are making a comeback. In Los Angeles, in Seattle, in Lewiston, Maine, in Delaware beach towns and in other communities, the constables on patrol are likely to arrive on swift and silent bikes. Now in New York, where messenger services have long understood that bikes can beat cars through heavy traffic, some of the city's housing police have turned in their cruisers for ten-speeds. Evelyn Tully Costa reports.

(Street sounds)

TULLY-COSTA: It's early evening in the Brooklyn Forte-Greene housing projects, buildings where crack dealing and shootings are as commonplace as visits from the mailman. But another sight that's becoming familiar here are police . . . on bicycles.

PAPPAS: Right now we're just riding in and out of the project, patrol, we ride at a slow rate of speed, this way we can see what's going on, who's doing what. You know, everybody sees us, they know we're here.

TULLY-COSTA: Sergeant June Pappas rides with the New York City Housing Police bike patrol. Since its start in June, 36 officers have switched from radio and patrol duty, or R&P, and have wheeled into the communities. As kids fill up playgrounds before being called in for dinner, Sgt. Pappas describes her duties.

PAPPAS: First of all you're riding through, in and out of the projects, all right? All types of weather, you know, this is a year-round program. And when you're in a car, you either have the radio on, the heat up and the windows closed, so you couldn't hear anybody screaming for help at all. And when you're riding on the bike you're running right into the people, they're telling you how they feel. And it makes you feel good because you're out there working. You just don't get to see the negative side, like on a car, all they do, they can't fit through the projects, so when they do come in all they see is whatever job they're on. People are usually in a bad mood, but here you get to see 'em good and bad.

TULLY-COSTA: Bicycles allow officers to combine the personability of beat cops with the mobility of cars. Back at the precinct house, Captain Anthony Jones says he wants more of his officers on wheels instead of behind them.

JONES: We would love to get 'em out of the cars, that's how we got away from the public.

TULLY-COSTA: After checking out bike patrol programs in Seattle and Las Vegas, New York's Housing Police decided to go for it in high rise developments. At first considered a joke by other officers, programs nationwide now have long waiting lists. Work productivity and morale among the biking units is among the highest in their departments. Captain Jones says biking officers are no more vulnerable than cops in cars.

JONES: I would say the risk is no greater. I don't believe I've had a bicycle accident, where I've had 18 R&P accidents since July.

TULLY-COSTA: With patrol cars starting at $17,000, against a $600 bicycle, the immediate savings are obvious. There are other benefits for the city as well. John Orcutt is with the group Transportation Alternatives. They've been pushing the city to put cops on bikes for years.

ORCUTT: A large part of it is simply a technological choice, in terms of how is it appropriate to get around a very dense metropolis, which is approaching gridlock in its car traffic situation. In some ways the police force has simply followed some of the other industries, which have figured out that a bike is a much quicker, cheaper way to get something or a person from one place to the other in a place like Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens, where the housing police here are also using bikes.

TULLY-COSTA: So familiar images of patrol cars idling on side streets, two cops sitting waiting for a radio dispatch, might become a rare sight in housing projects. Reviews from the community have also been enthusiastic.

GRAHAM: I'm glad to see policemen running around, riding around on their bikes, and keep the good work up. Because the bikes can go places the cars can't go.
CARTY: I think they fly and all that. I think they cool, because I think they should be on bikes 'cause they get here faster than them people in cars, they don't get here faster.
WOMAN: I really didn't understand, or know what it was all about when I first saw 'em, because I couldn't visualize how they would ride a bike, pull a gun, grab somebody with the bike -- are they still on it? Are they off it? But then when I read the article in the news, I really got an understanding, and it's great. And I said, I can't wait to see one of them to tell them -- good work, good work.

TULLY-COSTA: And if residents applaud cops on bikes, housing police say drug dealers find it harder to operate since the bike patrols began. The bike patrol seems to be spawning another benefit: environmentalism. Standing with his bike in the shadow of four high rises and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Officer Juan Luna sees a two-wheeled world as a healthier one.

LUNA: I got children, and I hope that they grow up to see trees and, you know, clean air and be able to fish in a pond and stuff like that. Because it's so important now, with all this lead that's polluting the rivers, and the air, and the ozone, and this nuclear testing that's polluting everything. I feel this is a step where you can get some pollution out of the system. I feel that people should ride a little more than leave their cars home every now and then, you know? I think the air will be a lot clean and we'll be a lot healthier from it.

TULLY-COSTA: With the Housing Police biking program expanding from 36 to 80 officers by 1993, Officer Luna might get his wish. And now the city's Parks Department, as well as police forces nationwide, are seeking training advice from this program. For Living on Earth, I'm Evelyn Tully-Costa in New York.

(Siren out under music)

Back to top


CURWOOD: If you have any questions or comments about Living on Earth, give us a call on our listener line, at 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living on Earth. . . Box 639. . . Cambridge, Massachusetts. . . 02238. Transcripts and tapes are available for ten dollars.

Our program is edited and produced by Peter Thomson. The director is Deborah Stavro, and the coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, and Colleen Singer Cox. . . with engineers Laurie Azaria, Peter Lydotes and Mark Navin. 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 and under funding credits)


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