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

February 12, 1993

Air Date: February 12, 1993


Clinton Shuffels Environmental Council / Alex van Oss

Alex van Oss reports from Washington on President Clinton's decision to abolish the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Clinton plans to replace it with a smaller body, which he says will play a stronger role in national policy. The move solidifies Vice President Gore's central role in environmental issues but has left some environmental activists slightly wary. (04:06)

Congress: Did Bush Administration Go Easy on Polluters?

Steve talks with Legal Times reporter Linda Himelstein about charges that the Bush administration's Justice Department let some large polluters off too lightly. Three separate Congressional committees are investigating the charges, including allegations that Justice was too eager to strike a plea bargain over pollution at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado. (05:43)

Rocky Flats History / Scott Schlegel

Reporting from Denver, Scott Schlegel reviews the history of environmental problems at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. (07:40)

Nuclear Industry Targets Women / Janet Reynolds

Commentator Janet Reynolds takes the nuclear power industry to task for specifically targeting women in its latest ad campaign. (03:24)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Mike Shatz, Janet Barrie, Alex Van Oss, Scott Schlegel
GUEST/COMMENTATOR: Linda Himmelstein, Janet Reynolds

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

President Clinton has reduced the size of the White House environmental team, but he says those remaining will have more clout, including a seat on the National Security Council. Environmental advocates are optimistic, but cautious.

SCHLICKHEISEN: We're inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, but there are important issues at stake, there are important details that have not been worked out. As a former President said, we'll trust, but verify.

CURWOOD: Also these stories. . . Congress investigates some big breaks the Justice Department has given some big polluters accused of environmental crimes. And commentator Janet Reynolds takes issue with an ad campaign for nuclear power.

REYNOLDS: Council conclusion? Simplify and streamline the pro-nuclear message and women will think nuclear power is the best thing since the Cuisinart.

CURWOOD: That and more, this week on Living On Earth, right after the news.

Environmental News

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

The Ford Motor Company and a California utility plan to mass-market a natural-gas car, and build fuel stations to fill the cars up. Ford hopes to have the passenger car in showrooms by 1996, and Southern California Gas Company says it will open nearly 150 refueling stations in the next four years. Meanwhile, Chrysler plans to introduce a natural-gas van next year. Both vehicles are designed to meet California's strict 1998 pollution standards.

Just weeks after Alaska called off a wolf hunt under pressure from environmentalists, the government of Canada's neighboring Yukon Territory has announced plans to shoot 150 wolves in order to strengthen the local caribou herd. Yukon spokesman Dennis Senger.

SENGER: We're talking about a survival of a species in an area, of preserving wildlife for the future, and that includes preserving the species of wolves for the future as well.

NUNLEY: The World Wildlife Fund says some of the targeted wolves are migrating from a nearby national park. The group wants the hunt stopped pending an environmental assessment.

A Federal appeals court has ordered an investigation into charges that the Bush White House illegally pressured the so-called "God Squad" to allow timber sales on spotted owl habitat in Oregon. In its ruling, the three-judge panel said a law prohibiting informal talks between government agencies and interested parties does apply to the White House. Ten environmental groups had appealed the decision to allow the logging.

Meanwhile, in two unrelated cases, Federal and state officials have challenged timber sales in Oregon and Idaho on the grounds they will destroy habitat for popular game fish. In both states, clear-cutting is blamed for flooding that damages spawning areas.

Japan wants its people to eat more whale meat. The government is waging a massive public relations campaign to rally opposition to a ban on commercial whaling, as the International Whaling Commission prepares to meet in Kyoto in May. Mike Shatz reports from Tokyo.

SHATZ: The Japanese government has proclaimed the ninth of every month "National Whale Day." Restaurants have agreed to slash prices for the traditional delicacy by 90% in honor of the occasion. Caravans sponsored by pro-whaling groups will converge on Tokyo from opposite ends of the country later this month to culminate a signature and fund-raising drive. A national media blitz portraying whale meat as a health food in abundant supply is also planned, to convince Japanese the International Whaling Commission's 1986 ban is unjustified. But environmentalists say the campaign will have little impact on the whaling commission, which will hold its general assembly in Japan for the first time in 25 years. For Living on Earth, this is Mike Shatz in Tokyo.

NUNLEY: A large part of Northeastern Europe would be protected under a new program dubbed "the green lungs of Europe." Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorus, Ukraine and Russia hope to coordinate environmental regulations throughout the designated region, which is still largely unspoiled. Nearly twenty percent of Poland has already been designated as a "green lungs" area.

This is Living on Earth.

The German government has agreed to take back 425 tons of toxic waste illegally exported to Romania as agricultural chemicals. From Bonn, Janet Barrie has the story.

BARRIE: Greenpeace discovered the dump at Sibiu in Romania last year. A number of activists have been making safe the toxic substances, believed to have come from factories in former East Germany. According to a Greenpeace spokesman, much of it is stored in paper boxes, and poses an imminent threat to the environment. The environmentalists are working in fifteen-minute shifts, neutralizing the toxins, and transferring them into new containers ready for transportation. In agreeing to take back the waste, the German government is worried about its image as an environmental polluter. But that image will be hard to erase. Greenpeace says it has documented 200 cases of Germany dumping toxic waste in Eastern Europe. For Living on Earth, I'm Janet Barrie in Bonn.

NUNLEY: Household batteries that can become a major source of heavy metal contamination in landfills could stay out of the waste stream, if a new home recharger catches on. Toymaker S-L-M International will soon introduce the first recharger for alkaline batteries, which it says makes the batteries last up to ten times longer. Battery maker Duracell says the new product could cause alkaline batteries to overheat, leak or even explode. But S-L-M claims thousands of hours of testing show the recharger is safe.

The independent testing group "Green Seal" has certified the first products to meet its environmental impact standards for production, use, and disposal. The products will carry a check-mark-and-globe logo. Green Seal's president, Norman Dean, hopes the label will help consumers send a message to industry.

DEAN: If consumers demand that the products which are sold have less impact on our planet, then manufacturers are gonna make and sell those less damaging products.

NUNLEY: Green Seal has devised standards for a variety of goods. Their logo will appear on certain paper products starting next month.

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

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Clinton Shuffels Environmental Council

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

In a move aimed at boosting environmental concerns, President Clinton has reorganized the White House environmental staff. He's closed down the CEQ -- the Council on Environmental Quality -- and replaced it with a smaller, but he says, more powerful OEP -- the Office on Environmental Policy. A former Senate aide to Vice President Gore will run the office and sit on key panels, including the National Security Council. Alex van Oss has more from Washington.

VAN OSS: The announcement came in the context of keeping a campaign promise. President Clinton said he would trim his staff by 25 percent, and trim he did, cutting out a number of low-level aides and employees and replacing the 22-year-old Council on Environmental Quality with a proposed Office on Environmental Policy, with half the staff. Sources from environmental groups said -- off the record -- the White House was looking for easy cuts. On the record, they were generally heartened by the naming of Kathleen McGinty to head the new office, a position firmly within the White House loop.

MARA: President Clinton is gonna have to make some tough decisions for the United States, and we're delighted that in those tough decisions the environment is going to be a key consideration.

VAN OSS: Mary Mara is director of Environmental Quality at the National Wildlife Federation. She says Kathleen McGinty is part of the "new order" that solidifies Vice-President Gore's central role in environmental policy. Both McGinty, a lawyer, and EPA's administrator Carol Browner were close aides to the Vice President when he was Senator. The President says that McGinty will participate in the National Security Council, the National Economic Council, and the Domestic Policy Council, and work with Federal agencies. Mary Mara says the new office will have more clout than the current Council on Environmental Quality, which lost influence under Presidents Reagan and Bush.

MARA: We're pleased that President Clinton recognized that CEQ had become an overburdened agency, with not a clear sense of mission anymore, and this new office is a recognition that the White House needs to integrate the environment into all of its activities.

VAN OSS: The question remains how Kathleen McGinty can do more with less: fewer staff, and less experience than past heads of the Council, traditionally confirmed by the Senate. Some question whether Cabinet officials, Federal agencies or, for that matter, the courts will accord the same degree of respect to McGinty. To some, the answer is yes, because of her close ties to the Vice-President, who will likely be her advocate. But that's not enough of an assurance to Michael Deland, the last chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality.

DELAND: She's 29 years old, and will be going up against experienced Cabinet secretaries. But more than background, I don't think it's an issue of her competence, because I know her to be a very competent person, but just an issue of the stature of position, and unfortunately in this town that counts for all too much.

VAN OSS: Deland says that getting rid of the Council on Environmental Quality might endanger one of its primary functions: overseeing the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act. That's the landmark law that requires Environmental Impact Statements for projects involving Federal funds. It's unclear where this function will now reside. And any drift concerning the Environmental Policy Act -- NEPA -- is worrisome to such groups as Defenders of Wildlife, whose president is Rodger Schlickheisen.

SCHLICKHEISEN: The environmental community I think properly regards NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, as probably the Magna Carta of all our environmental laws. It is the law that says protecting the environment is a matter of fundamental national policy.

VAN OSS: As for the effectiveness of the new arrangement, in making the environment more of a White House priority, Schlickheisen says the jury is still out.

SCHLICKHEISEN: We're inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, but there are important issues at stake. There are important details that have not been worked out and specified. They'll want to consult with Congress, they'll want to consult with the environmental community, and as a former President said, we'll trust, but verify.

VAN OSS: Rodger Schlickheisen is president of Defenders of Wildlife.

For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss, in Washington.

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Congress: Did Bush Administration Go Easy on Polluters?

CURWOOD: As the Clinton Administration continues to take shape, one challenge it will face will be resolving the controversy surrounding the Justice Department's handling of environmental crimes. The department's Environmental Crimes section is being investigated by several Congressional committees for allegedly going easy on some environmental criminals and letting others off the hook altogether. The most famous of these cases is that of pollution at the nuclear weapons plant at Rocky Flats, outside of Denver, where prosecutors are alleged to have mishandled the case against defense contractor Rockwell International. But there have been a number of other cases that span the range of environmental law, from hazardous waste to clean water and wetlands. To help us understand this controversy, we're joined now by Legal Times senior reporter Linda Himmelstein, who's been writing about these cases since May. Linda, what is it that Congress is looking for?

HIMMELSTEIN: Well, there are three separate Congressional inquiries which are basically trying to find out if there is a pattern of behavior over at the Department of Justice's Environmental Crimes section, and that pattern would be the Justice Department not forcefully prosecuting polluters, whether they are treating large corporations differently than small-time "mom and pop" shops, whether they are treating influential people with corporate ties differently than they are other individuals who don't have the access to the Justice Department that large corporations would. And these three Congressional committees separately have concluded there is some kind of a pattern here, and that the Justice Department is not applying environmental laws in the manner that they should be.

CURWOOD: Can you give us a brief example here of a case that Congress is looking at?

HIMMELSTEIN: I think one of the worst cases involves a company called Pure-Gro, which is a pesticide manufacturer, and it involves a case in the state of Washington. The company was charged in the state's first "knowing endangerment" case, which means the company knew that when it released some hazardous materials in a field, that it could have harmed the people living in the area. And in fact what happened was 23 people became sick and one person later died. The Justice Department, over the objections of state prosecutors, agents from the Environmental Protection Agency and its own line attorneys, accepted a misdemeanor plea and a very minimal fine from the company instead of trying to prosecute the company and individuals who may have known about this, more vigorously.

CURWOOD: Now, I want to ask you about one of these most controversial cases, and that's the one involving Rocky Flats. Rockwell International made nuclear bomb triggers for the government there outside of Denver. Why is this case so controversial?

HIMMELSTEIN: Well, one reason is that the grand jury that was empaneled to hear the evidence against Rockwell has gone public with its allegations that it believes Rockwell did more than the government was willing to charge them with, that individuals should have been held accountable, at both Rockwell and at the Department of Energy, which oversees the nuclear weapons facilities, for environmental violations. A lot of people believe that the environmental damage that took place at Rocky Flats will be around for many years to come, and that the Department of Justice, instead of treating this as an incredibly egregious violation, accepted a plea, $18.5 million dollars, from the corporation, and agreed not to indict any individuals, and agreed not to pursue any further cases against the company.

CURWOOD: Now what does the Justice Department itself say to these allegations? That's pretty serious, saying that , hey, you guys won't enforce crimes that are on the books.

HIMMELSTEIN: It is very serious. Part of what they say is that they've been treated unfairly in the media and by Congress, because gee, you know, these are a handful of cases you're complaining about and if you look at our record overall, there's no way you can conclude that we're not tough on pollution. And they also would say that because of the newness of environmental law, they need to keep track of cases. They want to be sure that a Clean Air Act in Seattle is treated the same way a Clean Air Act violation would be treated in Atlanta. And that's not unusual, the Justice Department has done that in many other areas of the law, especially while they're developing areas of the law.

CURWOOD: How far back do these problems that the Congressional investigators are looking at go?

HIMMELSTEIN: Most of the cases they're looking at really have to do with the Bush Administration's record. And part of that is just because this has been an era in which more of the environmental laws have been applied in a criminal manner. The law is still developing, and it's only been a little over a dozen years that the Department of Justice has even had an Environmental Crimes section. So you can't exactly go back to the Carter years and say, gee, during a Democratic administration things were a lot better.

CURWOOD: Well, let's talk about the Democrats, they're in now. How are the folks on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Clinton Administration, handling this problem?

HIMMELSTEIN: Well, it's interesting. Certainly during the campaign, the Clinton Administration was made aware of the problems at the Environmental Crimes section, of the complaints that the EPA agents had been having and of the problems the US attorneys had raised. Vice President Gore during the campaign talked somewhat about Rocky Flats, and said, you know, we are really going to take a look at this and be serious about this. So it's on the radar screen for the Clinton Administration; we're just going to have to see what happens once the Justice Department really is fully operative, which of course it isn't yet.

CURWOOD: Linda Himmelstein is a senior reporter with the Legal Times. She talked to us from Washington. Thanks for joining us.


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Rocky Flats History

CURWOOD: Reporter Scott Schlegel has been following the unfolding story of the Justice Department's handling of Rocky Flats for Living On Earth. We asked him this week to look back at the history of the contaminated nuclear weapons plant, and the challenges ahead. He filed this report from Denver.

SCHLEGEL: Since 1953, Job One at Rocky Flats has been the manufacture of grapefruit-sized pits of highly radioactive plutonium for nuclear weapons triggers. Between 1953 and 1989, when the handling of plutonium was stopped for safety reasons, at least 800 grams of plutonium escaped into ventilation ducts attached to gloveboxes where plutonium is purified. Plutonium also mixed with other hazardous materials and must now be separated, and some plutonium is simply missing. A ball of plutonium the size of a marble can cause an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. The government says it no longer needs to build nuclear bombs at Rocky Flats. But in order to clean up the plutonium contamination, workers have to start handling plutonium again.

(Sound of meeting: "Can everyone hear in the back -- yes, they can hear, thank you " and fade under)

During a recent Defense Department safety review board hearing, Jim Zane, the Rocky Flats plant manager for contractor EG&G Incorporated, said the plant is ready to resume plutonium operations.

ZANE: We believe that our management systems, our training programs, qualifications, safety equipment, et cetera, are ready, we've done everything we said we would do and it is ready to operate.

SCHLEGEL: However, several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, don't want the plutonium clean-up to begin yet, because they say plant management hasn't been sufficiently reformed to prevent future accidents. The dispute over re-starting plutonium handling here is just the latest in a long list of Rocky Flats controversies, which began in September 1957. That's when, under Dow Chemical Corporation's management, a major fire spread unknown quantities of radioactive material over heavily populated areas of Metro Denver. No emergency actions were taken to protect the public, and smokestack monitors reactivated a week later measured emissions sixteen thousand times acceptable standards. It's believed the fire was caused by air leaks in plutonium processing gloveboxes, similar to those now shut down because of contamination and safety problems. Dozens of similar fires during the 1960's spread even more radioactive material over Rocky Flats, as well as Metro Denver. But radioactive materials aren't the only hazard at Rocky Flats.

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SCHLEGEL: Most of the Rocky Flats facility is open prairie, but the surface hides a cauldron of toxic waste. There are no official records of chemicals used at Rocky Flats during its first 22 years of operation. Yet, under the managements of Dow Chemical and its successor, Rockwell International, unknown quantities of toxic waste contaminated with plutonium were dumped into the ground at Rocky Flats.

BAUGHMAN: We know that there are groundwaters that are contaminated to a level that would pose risks to people if in fact those were used for domestic purposes. We know that there are soils that are contaminated at levels that could pose risks to people if they're allowed to go out and have direct exposure to those soils.

SCHLEGEL: Gary Baughman heads the Colorado Health Department's Hazardous Waste Facilities section. He says the state has taken temporary steps to protect the public. But how much hazardous material found its way into ground water at more than 170 different sites is unknown. Fred Dowsett is in charge of hazardous waste monitoring and enforcement for the Colorado Health Department.

DOWSETT: From the evaluations that the Department's Radiation Control people have looked at, is that they don't believe that there is a significant risk to the public. I think a more obvious risk is the potential risk to people who are workers at the plant and that in remediating it, great care has to be taken that that material does not cause undue exposure to the workers who are doing it.

SCHLEGEL: It was information from plant workers, as well as infrared satellite photos, that led to a June 1989 raid of Rocky Flats by more than 100 Federal agents.

PITTS: They were going into peoples' offices and kicking out managers and confiscating paperwork and moving around, taking readings off of things. They were everywhere.

SCHLEGEL: Karen Pitts, who worked at Rocky Flats for seven years, was there when the FBI stormed the plant. Pitts and coworker Jackie Brever cooperated with the FBI investigation and for that, the women say, they as well as other whistle-blowers were threatened by Rockwell managers, union leaders, and coworkers. They say they were intentionally exposed to dangerous levels of radiation on the job, and that gunshots were fired at their homes and cars. Jackie Brever.

BREVER: Once I had been in there and learned the ropes that I realized that some of these things I don't think we should be doing, and I started bringing this to management's attention and the more I brought it to their attention the more trouble it brought me. It is my, my experience that it has always been production over safety, yes.

SCHLEGEL: Three and a half million pages of documents seized by FBI agents contained evidence that Rockwell knowingly violated Federal hazardous waste disposal laws in the process of building nuclear bombs. Last spring, Rockwell pled guilty to ten violations of Federal hazardous waste laws and paid a record $18.5 million dollar fine. Some members of a special grand jury, meanwhile, allege that even more serious crimes took place at Rocky Flats, a charge the Justice Department rejects. In response to public outrage over Rockwell's criminal conduct, former Energy Secretary Admiral James Watkins promised big changes at Rocky Flats. Rockwell was fired and another firm, EG&G Incorporated, was hired to manage the plant. State officials say EG&G, as well as the Department of Energy, are beginning to solve systematic plant safety problems. But Rocky Flats still is in violation of Federal environmental laws, and state hazardous waste officials say the nuclear weapons plant is still poorly managed. These problems frustrate people like Eugene DeMayo, who heads the Sierra Club's Rocky Flats Committee and lives just eight miles from the plant.

DEMAYO: There are some changes going on out there, for the better, very minimal, but they are changing and we're seeing for instance a greater openness in the Department of Energy and EG&G, Rocky Flats' information flow, we're seeing more information come out.

SCHLEGEL: Still, DeMayo says the cleanup is moving too slowly, and new Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary says the cleanup at all of the nation's nuclear weapons plants is costing too much, and she's considering cutting its budget. DOE officials at Rocky Flats say the cleanup is well-managed. But management also says it won't start tackling the plutonium problem at Rocky Flats until it's sure it has the public's confidence -- confidence it has yet to fully earn. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel in Denver.

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CURWOOD: We'd like to know what you think about our program. Give us a call on our listener comment line, at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living On Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Living On Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass., 02238. Transcripts and tapes are available for ten dollars.

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Nuclear Industry Targets Women

CURWOOD: "The year of the woman" has taken on new meaning for the nuclear power industry. Commentator Janet Reynolds explains.

REYNOLDS: Maybe you've seen one of the TV commercials. The attractive woman identified as an engineer says, "When I was in college, I was against nuclear energy. But I've reached a different conclusion. Nuclear energy means cleaner air for the planet." Segue to her two children joyfully running through a beautiful field toward a clear lake. Or maybe you've seen a magazine ad, perhaps the one of a cute baby turtle crawling on a lovely beach with this nuclear energy message printed below the photo: "It peacefully coexists with the environment."

Then again, maybe you haven't seen either advertisement. But you will, because once again, the nuclear power industry has launched a multi-million dollar public relations campaign to prove to Americans that nuclear power is good for every living thing. The big difference this time, as the pages of ads in the likes of Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Better Homes and Gardens prove, is that women are the special target. Now, everyone has a right to advertise. It's the deceit behind this campaign that's inexcusable, and it starts right with the US Council on Energy Awareness, which sponsors these pithy advertisements. Despite its purposefully vague title, this council is neither apolitical nor official. Instead, according to a recent Nation article by Greenpeace's Peter Grinspoon, the council is really a $21 million public relations outfit financed by -- get this -- the nuclear energy industry.

An interesting revelation, that. And one which certainly does lend perspective. No wonder many of the ads boast that nuclear energy doesn't pollute the air. Now that may be technically correct, but it completely avoids the huge problem of radioactive waste, a by-product for which there is no known method of safe disposal. Not to mention what happens when accidents occur -- you know the ones they always assured us could never happen but when they do the cancer rates in the vicinity soar and the entire region's landscape is blighted for who knows how long. Accidents like Chernobyl.

But the nuclear energy PR blitz is disturbing for more than its blatant falsehoods. No, the really unsettling part of this campaign lies in why the council deliberately is focusing on women in the first place: because women, according to internal council documents revealed in The Nation , are too dumb to know any better and thus the perfect group to "teach" the real benefits of nuclear power. Here's why, according to the council's research. Women, especially those of a "lower socioeconomic status," are anti-nuke because, and this is a direct quote, "of their deeply-held distrust of science and technology." Women also, according to the documents, find it tough -- another direct quote -- "to sort out the facts from the conflicting messages they receive." Council conclusion? Simplify and streamline the pro-nuclear message, and women will think nuclear power is the best thing since the Cuisinart.

Well, it's an intriguing theory, boys. There's just one little problem. The women in this country won't buy it because women know something your research apparently overlooked. Women don't distrust science; women distrust advertising.

CURWOOD: Janet Reynolds is a commentator for Connecticut Public Radio and Living on Earth.

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Living On Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. The production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Colleen Singer Coxe, Chris Page and Reyna Lounsbury, with engineers Laurie Azaria, Andy Cook and Doug Haslam. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living On Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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