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

April 16, 1993

Air Date: April 16, 1993


Cement Factories Burn Hazardous Waste / Lorna Jordan

Lorna Jordan of member station WVXU reports on the growing national opposition to the practice of burning hazardous waste in cement kilns. Hazardous waste is used instead of coal to power more than a dozen cement factories nationwide. Opponents say it releases dangerous toxic compounds, including heavy metals, into the environment. (06:53)

Nature in the City: Redesigning the Granite Garden

Host Steve Curwood travels to West Philadelphia to visit with urban designer Anne Whiston Sprin and examine the consequences of ignoring natural systems in constructing our cities. Spirn says that burying rivers and paving over floodplains often contributes to urban decay. Her plan for more sustainable cities includes more vegetable gardens, parks and other open spaces in the urban floodplain. (09:40)

Making a Difference Contest Promo


Cover Up / Tom Harris

Commentator Tom Harris warns a family member and anyone else who will listen about the danger of the sun's ultraviolet rays in the age of ozone depletion. (02:47)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Henry Sessions, Dan Ferguson, Don Gonyea, Lorna Jordan
GUESTS: Anne Whiston Spirn

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Bringing nature into urban design: it's not just for beauty, it's also necessary for durability.

SPIRN: Nature is all around us. If we build unwisely, nature will come back to haunt us and remind us that nature is still here and operating very nicely, thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn redesigns the Granite Garden. Also we visit a cement factory, where hazardous waste is being used as fuel. Supporters call it "recycling". . . but opponents call it a dangerous deception.

KLEPPINGER: That is not recycling. If I take heavy metals and I blow 'em into the environment, that is not recycling. And the heavy metal levels that are going into the environment from cement production are fairly significant.

CURWOOD: This week on Living On Earth, coming up right after the news.

Environmental News

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

The Federal Government has reached an accord with loggers over an endangered woodpecker in the Southeastern US, but more confrontation could be brewing in the Northwest. A long-awaited report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service could call for thousands more acres of Pacific forest land to be put off limits to loggers, to protect an endangered seabird, called the "marbled murrelet". Henry Sessions of KOPB reports.

SESSIONS: The coastal mountains where the murrelet lives contain some of the most heavily logged areas in the Northwest. That's led some in the timber industry to worry that government scientists will call for sharp cutbacks in logging to protect the old-growth trees that are the murrelets' preferred habitat. But a spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service says his agency will simply advise the Forest Service on ways it can protect the bird. The Fish and Wildlife report had been due out on March 15th, before President Clinton's April 2nd Forest Conference in Portland. Federal officials say the report was delayed for scientific reasons, not because it might have disrupted the conference. Major set-asides for the bird could further squeeze the region's log-starved sawmills, and prompt the President to speed up his efforts to help the ailing timber industry. For Living on Earth, this is Henry Sessions in Portland, Oregon.

NUNLEY: In a parallel dispute to US forest battles, British Columbia has decided to open two-thirds of North America's largest untouched rainforest to logging. Provincial officials call the decision a compromise. But as Dan Ferguson reports, it may turn the area known as Clayoquot Sound, on Vancouver Island, into a battleground.

FERGUSON: The provincial government of British Columbia has been wrestling with the fate of Clayoquot Sound for over a year -- a year of increasingly violent demonstrations by logging opponents, and increasingly angry rhetoric by the forest companies that want the trees. Now provincial premier Mike Harcourt has announced that two-thirds of Clayoquot Sound will be open to limited logging; the rest, about 200,000 acres, will be preserved.

HARCOURT: This decision will create one of the largest areas of protected old-growth forest on the West Coast of North America.

FERGUSON: But the news still has outraged environmentalists, who wanted a total ban on logging. They are promising a summer of protests and blockades to keep the forest companies from the trees. Timber companies warn that without the lumber from Clayoquot Sound, there will be widespread layoffs. For Living on Earth, this is Dan Ferguson in Vancouver.

NUNLEY: Boris Yeltsin's environmental advisor says Russia's nuclear industry is out of control, and he predicts more accidents at Russian nuclear facilities within the year. Alexei Yablokov's comments to the Reuters News Agency followed the recent chemical explosion at a Russian nuclear reprocessing plant, which spewed radioactive waste over fifty square miles. But Yeltsin's deputy minister for atomic energy is striking a very different chord. Nikolai Yegorov told Reuters that no new safety measures are needed.

This is Living on Earth.

A new study suggests that US automakers could drastically and cheaply boost the mileage of their cars merely by making better use of existing technologies. But as Don Gonyea reports from Detroit, the industry says it's not that simple.

GONYEA: The report, funded by the Center for Auto Safety, the US Public Interest Research Group, and the Sierra Club, focuses on the Ford Taurus, a car which gets an average of 27.5 miles to the gallon. The study says that by redesigning the car that number could be improved to better than 42 miles to the gallon. Changes would include adding a multi-valve engine featuring lean-burn technology; lighter body panels made of plastic composites; low resistance tires; and improved aerodynamics. These items are to some degree already incorporated in certain US cars, though no car features all of the recommendations. The study says the cost of the changes would be less than $1000, with virtually no loss in power. A Ford spokesman dismisses those claims, pointing out that lean-burn engines don't meet certain clean air standards. He also says the study's cost estimates are off by thousands of dollars. For Living on Earth, I'm Don Gonyea in Detroit.

NUNLEY: Two government reports suggest that water supplies across the country are vulnerable to contamination. The EPA says thousands of cities don't properly filter their drinking water, and most won't meet a June deadline to get the required filters in place. A separate report by the General Accounting Office says that many treatment plants aren't properly inspected. In Milwaukee, where a parasite recently invaded the water system, officials were alerted to broken filters only after thousands had already become ill. The Clinton Administration says money in its economic stimulus package would help cities meet drinking water regulations.

Norway has resumed hunting for whales, in defiance of international pressure. 136 minke whales will be taken on what the Norwegian government says is a scientific mission. But Greenpeace says the hunt is nothing more than commercial whaling in disguise. Norway's move is seen as an effort to pressure the International Whaling Commission to lift its ban on commercial whaling, at its meeting next month.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

Cement Factories Burn Hazardous Waste

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

Disposal of hazardous waste is a nagging environmental problem. America generates millions of pounds of unwanted toxic material every day, but there's no safe and inexpensive way to get rid of it. Most of it ends up in high-tech dumps or incinerators. But in recent years, industry has quietly found another destination for toxic wastes: cement kilns. There, highly-flammable liquid wastes are used instead of coal to fire the kilns. The cement industry says it's safe, but increasingly, people are challenging the practice. From member station WVXU in Cincinnati, Lorna Jordan has this report.

(Sound of kiln in operation)

JORDAN: At this kiln in Fairborn, Ohio, limestone, iron, clay, and other materials are heated to make cement clinker. The fire which fuels this step in the cement manufacturing process is 3600 degrees. To produce that much heat, 12 tons of coal is fed into the kiln each hour. That translates to huge energy bills. As a way of reducing costs, this cement kiln and 19 other similar facilities are turning to liquid hazardous waste to replace fossil fuels. Industry representatives say they're burning paint thinner, cleaning solution and other chemicals approved by the EPA for this process. Environmentalists are concerned about emissions from the plants. Bruce Cornet is one of the leaders of the Greene Environmental Coalition, a neighborhood group trying to shut down the Fairborn plant. He says they have documentation which shows the plants are burning dangerous chemicals which can't always be identified.

CORNET: A lot of them are cancer-causing, a lot of them are unknown and untested. The one that's most notorious of course is dioxin.

JORDAN: Cornet says the kilns are also producing deadly heavy metals. Industry officials counter that they test each truckload of waste before it's burned to insure the safety of the process. Cement companies say they're recycling a product which no one else will take and which they say should not go to landfills. But Washington environment consultant Ed Kleppinger says the companies are definitely not recycling. He emphasizes that 100 percent of the residues from the incineration process enter the environment.

KLEPPINGER: And they enter the environment either in the cement that's used in our schools and our homes, they enter the environment in a product called cement kiln dust that is not very well regulated, or they go into the atmosphere. And that is not recycling. If I take heavy metals and I blow 'em out into the environment, that is not recycling. And the heavy metal levels that are going into the environment from cement production are fairly significant, about six percent of the total lead in the environment's coming from cement kilns, and it's higher than that for some of the other, more critical heavy metals like chromium and arsenic.

JORDAN: The plant in Fairborn is owned by Houston-based Southdown Corporation. It's currently prohibited from burning hazardous waste. Last summer the company was found in violation of emissions standards. But Southdown officials say they anticipate approval to begin burning hazardous waste again soon. Company officials say there were minor problems with emissions filters which have been corrected. Cement companies say they've conducted studies which show the burning of hazardous waste has minimal risks. Southdown Vice President Ed Marston feels it's so safe he'd live near a cement kiln.

MARSTON: We're satisfied that there's no undue risk to the people around the plants, to our workers, and we don't think that our product is infused with toxic materials. We have tests from the National Sanitary Foundation that confirm that that's the case. And so I think that while I would certainly insist on knowing an awful lot about a cement plant located next to me, there are a whole lot of other facilities I would prefer not to live next to, like a big freeway with a bunch of automobiles belching out benzene, and all kinds of total hydrocarbons, which we seem to live next to and don't worry about.

JORDAN: Southwestern Portland Cement has been in this town of 39,000 people, 14 miles east of Dayton, for 70 years. About twenty years ago, Southwestern was purchased by Southdown. Most residents of Fairborn viewed Southdown as a good neighbor, helping churches pave lots, providing for injured workers and supporting Little League teams. But neighbors like Dianne Jackson say all that's changed. She started getting sick five years ago.

JACKSON: I am a person who has what they call environmental illness. I have great chemical sensitivities, and I noticed that my health was declining when the incinerator was burning. I did not know what the cause of it was. We did not know there was hazardous waste being burned for five years until five years after it had been burned.

JORDAN: Greene Coalition members say there's a cancer cluster downwind of the plant. State Health Department officials say they haven't found a cluster, but they haven't been asked to investigate, either. Tracy Slaton is also a member of the Greene Coalition. He moved away from the kiln because so many people were becoming sick. And he doesn't believe the company studies which show it's safe living near the cement kiln.

SLATON: They do a risk assessment, so your chances are less than one in a million or less than one in 100,000 or whatever the numbers they'd like to crunch together to come up with their figures -- that's not good enough. There's people dying, and when people are dying there's something wrong. That many people don't die of cancer in that small of an area unless something's wrong.

JORDAN: No studies are currently available to show the correlation between the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns and any health effects. But the US EPA is examining any possible link. Initial results of that study may be released late this year. Matt Straus, the director of waste management at US EPA, says these kilns can help reduce the amount of wastes which go into landfills.

STRAUS: The bottom line is, is that you will need environmentally sound technologies, and again, hazardous waste combustion, whether it's in a cement kiln or a hazardous waste incinerator, if conducted in compliance with the rules, should be safe.

JORDAN: Regulation is in fact one of the major concerns of the opponents of hazardous waste incineration in cement kilns. They say EPA guidelines have left wide loopholes which are designed to help the cement industry continue to burn hazardous waste. EPA officials say there are no loopholes, but they continue to study the regulations for possible changes as their scientific knowledge of the issues increase. Advocates of hazardous waste incineration say it's the best available technology for getting rid of these chemicals. But opponents say the best way to conquer the problem is not to produce the waste in the first place. For Living on Earth, this is Lorna Jordan reporting.

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(Music up and under)

Nature in the City: Redesigning the Granite Garden

CURWOOD: West Philadelphia. It's like much of tired urban America, with block after block of concrete, shabby buildings, and vacant lots that gape with all the allure of a grin missing some teeth. The east end of the district has more life, with the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, but as one heads west, row after row of abused tenements crop up, and the landscape grows more pallid. Here, a failed gas station. There, the hulk of the theatre that once housed Dick Clark's American Bandstand. And almost everywhere a population that's mostly black, mostly poor and seemingly defeated.

(Sound of footsteps)

We're walking today with someone who thinks that West Philadelphia is the perfect place for a nature walk -- not for the pleasure of seeing the birds, but for the purpose of seeing how nature perserveres, through even the most aggressive efforts to subdue it -- and how much of West Philadelphia's troubles can be attributed to designers who ignored the forces of nature.

SPIRN: Nature is here all around us and if we build unwisely it'll come back to haunt us and remind us that in fact nature is still here and operating very nicely thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Anne Whiston Spirn chairs the landscape architecture department of the University of Pennsylvania, and writes about urban ecology in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmstead and Lewis Mumford. "Most environmentalists are profoundly anti-urban," Professor Spirn has written, "and most urbanists don't think that nature exists in the city." Spirn's award-winning book, the Granite Garden, is a singular study of the ecology of urban systems that links poor ecological planning to urban decay. Professor Spirn writes that a prime environmental factor that humans too often think they can ignore or easily tame when they build, is water, and its relentless cycle of rain, drainage, movement and evaporation.

(Sound of truck rumbling by)

Philadelphia is a classic example. A century ago, in an effort to house waves of new industrial workers, developers paved over West Philadelphia. They diverted its streams into culverts and ditches, ignoring the inevitable tendency of rivers to surge over their banks, and flood wide areas. But over the years, Spirn and others have seen the water that once flowed freely through the area reassert its claim.

SPIRN: One day I came walking to come to the supermarket, which was the local supermarket, and I noticed that the entire street had caved in, from sidewalk to sidewalk. From Walnut street all the way up here to Sansome street. And I walked over and looked down and there was a huge river rushing below. And I could see these walls of brick that had crumbled in and the entire street had fallen down on top of it. And It had never occurred to me before that that when I was walking over the streets, I was walking over rivers.

(Sound of river flowing through sewer grate)

CURWOOD: Today, one can still hear the rush of what was the Mill Creek under West Philadelphia -- a stream, supposedly tamed into a sewer line. This relic of nature that wouldn't go away has captivated Anne Whiston Spirn's imagination ever since that day in 1969, and it soon became an object of her professional study.

Spirn began looking at the effects of paving over streams. Diversions and culverts can work for a while, she says. But when age and poor maintenance combine to compromise a structure, the river is quick to take advantage. It's a pattern of decay Spirn has found in other American cities: once a neighborhood starts downhill, the first buildings to go are often in the floodplains of buried streams and rivers.

SPIRN: When you have a combination of low-to-moderate income residents and buildings on floodplains, you often get buildings beginning to deteriorate because to sustain them is beyond the means of the residents, or if it's rental housing, beyond what the landlords want to invest.

(Sound of computer)

CURWOOD: On a computer in her office at the University of Pennsylvania, Spirn calls up a map of the neighborhood that she and her graduate students have designed. Buildings appear in straight green lines; underground rivers and their floodplains show up in blue. Spirn points to large gaps between buildings -- they follow the Mill Creek's floodplain.

(Sound of computer keyboard)

SPIRN: This was not originally open. When West Philadelphia was developed the streets went straight across and this was all housing. Sometime during the twentieth century the housing deteriorated, perhaps parts of the land caved in, and this is all open now. And so now it is a question of looking at what exists and saying what should remain open and what should be rebuilt.

CURWOOD: The answer, according to Anne Spirn, is that not much should be rebuilt. West Philadelphia was overbuilt in the first place, she says; there was no land for gardens, no parks for kids to play in, no place to park cars. It was hard for people to enjoy and invest in their neighborhoods. Nature, says Spirn, in its rather blunt way, has reclaimed that open space. In agrarian societies, some of the best land for farming is in the floodplain. In West Philadelphia's flood plain, where ruined buildings gave way to vacant lots, vacant lots are now giving way to gardens. Anne Spirn's vision of a cityscape that makes room for nature is bearing fruit.

FORD: How're you, professor?
SPIRN: How are you, Mr. Ford, good to see you today.
FORD: My pleasure.
CURWOOD: So here we are in Aspen Farms.
FORD: Aspen Farms, the garden spot of West Philadelphia.

CURWOOD: Hayward Ford greets us at Aspen Farms, a former vacant lot astride the floodplain of the Mill Creek. A group of citizens cleaned up the dump that sprung up here after the houses crumbled, and turned it into a garden. Today, Aspen Farms provides gardeners like Esther Williams with some of the freshest produce you're likely to find anywhere.

WILLIAMS: I planted corn. I had some of the sweetest corn. When you would take the shucks off of that corn, my hand would be sticky. And I had string beans, collard greens, I had cabbage. . . (Fade under)

CURWOOD: The garden has brought more than fresh food into the neighborhood. Gardener Ben Ambrose says it changed the atmosphere of the whole community.

AMBROSE: It's a better neighborhood. The people are happier here. They come by, we give away food. I've seen people come by, I've given them tomatoes, I've given them greens, I've given them corn. And it's good for the neighborhood.

CURWOOD: Indeed, Professor Spirn has plotted a redevelopment plan for West Philadelphia based on a combination of the principle of ecological landscape architecture and grassroots social action. She says gardens such as Aspen Farms can bring people together to solve other urban problems as well.

SPIRN: You notice as we walk around this neighborhood, the blocks look clean, the houses are fixed up. There are gardens neatly tended in front. And the seed that was sown by this garden has gradually been spreading block by block. And as they've learned their way through City Hall to get things done, they've learned how to get more resources. This then leads to beginning to figure out how to get other problems taken care of, rat problems, problems with getting other lots cleaned up and so on and so on. It builds.

CURWOOD: Spirn says, of course ecologically sound landscape architecture alone can't save the inner cities of America, but she feels it's a key part. Already, the creation of small gardens on vacant lands here has brought a sense of pride and purpose to these urban gardeners. In the future, she says, a sprawling garden center, with lush greenhouses would be well suited to the flood plain, and provide employment for West Philadelphians. And even larger plots of now-vacant land could be turned into parks, parks which would provide badly-needed greenspace and recreation areas, but which could double as catch basins for water from heavy rains. But Spirn says urban planners are a tough sell. The official redevelopment plan for West Philadelphia just released by the city still contains the same ideas which Spirn blames for much of the decay in the first place. The decision-makers aren't convinced of the value of Spirn's ideas.

SPIRN: Most of the skepticism I've met in fact is from people who don't live in the neighborhood, people who are in city government or other planners who are consultants. You talk to the gardeners here or people who've lived in the neighborhood and seen the buildings collapse, the streets collapse, it sounds very sensible to them. I think it has to do with this mind-block about nature and city. We have learned from the time we were very very young to think that the city supplants nature. That the city destroys nature. Rather than thinking of the city of being a part of nature and right here in West Philadelphia we are seeing the results of that kind of attitude.

(Sound of walking)

CURWOOD: This year, Anne Spirn plans to give up her administrative duties at U-Penn's landscape architecture department, and spend more time campaigning to include urban ecology in city planning. She predicts that change will come slowly, but she holds some hope. Recently, the Philadelphia Water department asked her for some ideas, the first contact with her ever initiated by city officials.

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(Sound up and fade out, followed by contest theme up and under)

Making a Difference Contest Promo

CURWOOD: What would you do to make a difference for the environment if you were President?

VOICE ONE: I'd educate the young people, and tell people they need to bike to work.
VOICE TWO: I'd concentrate on trying to bring down the CO2 levels we produce.
VOICE THREE: I'd encourage people to recycle more.
VOICE FOUR: I would stop them from cutting the rainforests down.

CURWOOD: Let us know -- enter the Living on Earth "Making a Difference" contest, in cooperation with Stonyfield Farm Yogurt. Write a story, poem , letter, song or rap. Tell us in 500 words or less what you'd do to improve the environment of your community, the country or the planet. First prize for adults is a ten-day trip for two to the rainforests and national parks of Costa Rica, courtesy of Overseas Adventure Travel, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and specializing in ecotourism treks, safaris and rainforest expeditions around the world. Some travel restrictions apply. First prize for kids under 18 is a thousand-dollar savings bond and a gift certificate for a bicycle, and a helmet. Written and recorded entries must be postmarked by May 1st. For details on the Living on Earth "Making a Difference" contest, call Living on Earth at 617-868-7454, or write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238.

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(Music up and out)

Cover Up

CURWOOD: Now that the warmer weather is coming back, Commentator Tom Harris has some advice for someone dear to him who works outside.

HARRIS: You're only going to hear one side of this conversation, but if you want to listen in, that's OK. I'm talking to my son-in-law about the ozone hole. He's a roofer in California, the land of forever-sun. So he can't afford to take this subject lightly -- no pun intended. Yo, Mike -- did you put your sunblock today? Whaddya mean it's cloudy? Ultraviolet light goes right through clouds. What? You already have a good tan so only have to worry about getting sunburned? Hey, there's no such thing as a good tan. Damaged skin is just that much closer to cancerous skin. Hey, we're talking dangerous stuff here -- the worst kind is malignant melanoma. The per capita death rate for that has more than doubled in the past thirty years. You could also get less lethal but still dangerous squamous or basal cell skin cancers. Yeah, I know, you're used to running around the desert all day in only your shorts. But that was then, and this is now. We've got a lot less ozone to protect us now, and we'll have even less in the years ahead, no matter what we do about those nasty chlorofluorocarbons now. Skin experts expect a ten percent increase in ultraviolet radiation, and the Environmental Protection Agency warns that there could be 200, 000 more deaths from skin cancer over the next 50 years. And that's a very conservative estimate. You know I love you, but it's -- well, it's more than that. I love my daughter Lynette and the kids too, and I'd like to know you're going to be around to look after them long after I'm gone. I know it doesn't hurt now -- I know you can't see any of those funny little sores now -- this stuff takes decades to show up and if you don't catch it in time, you won't catch it, period. The sky isn't falling, but it sure is getting thinner. No, it isn't hopeless, there are lots of things you can do. I'm worried about you up on those roofs with no shirt, no sunblock, no hat, no ultraviolet-blocking sunglasses. Keep a life, OK? Limit exposure between 10 AM and 3 PM, when the sun's rays are strongest. It's too hot to work outside then, anyway. Start earlier, work later, a longer lunch break. Now, you just can't put the sunblock on once and forget about it. Use #15 or higher, in your case, a lot higher. And put it on again in the afternoon, and keep your skin covered, too. I know it's hot -- you could wear tightly-woven clothes and wet them down; that'll keep you cool. You will? Hey, thanks, son -- love ya. 'Bye now.

CURWOOD: Author and journalist Tom Harris is a commentator for Living on Earth. He live in Rancho Cordova, California.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: If you have any questions or comments about Living on Earth, you can reach our listener comment line at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Or you can drop us a line, at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass., 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass., 02238. Transcripts and tapes are ten dollars.

Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Coxe and engineer Laurie Azaria, with help this week from Bob Connolly 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.

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the Pew Charitable Trusts, for reporting on the national and global environment . . . the National Science Foundation . . . all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- Stonyfield Farm Yogurt is made with milk from family farms to feed the local economy . . . and from the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Additional support comes from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, and the NPR News and Information Fund.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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