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

January 7, 1994

Air Date: January 7, 1994


The Toxic Legacy of Subic Bay / Reese Erlich

Reese Erlich reports from Subic Bay in the Philippines on the toxic waste the US Navy left behind. Environmental activists say that the site of the Subic Bay Navy Base is full of hazardous waste. But there is concern that overreacting to the problem will hurt an economy already suffering from the Navy's withdrawal. (05:57)

Burning our Chemical weapons

Under the Chemical Weapons Treaty, the US must dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal. The U.S. military's stockpile includes some of the deadliest chemicals in the world, including VX nerve gas where a single drop is enough to kill. The Army has already built the first of eight incinerators it says will destroy the weapons in a safe, cost-effective manner, but critics claim that method is dangerous and its effects on nearby communities uncertain. (07:29)

Clinton's First Year

Host Steve Curwood talks with Melissa Healey of the Los Angeles Times about the Clinton Administration's rocky first year with environmentalists. Healey predicts the year ahead will find environmental groups continuing to pressure Clinton from the outside by fighting the kinds of compromises the President prefers. (04:59)

Billions of Butts / David Catlin

Commentator David Catlin gripes about the cigarette butt — that small, round, ever-present bit of litter that adds up to a lot of environmental waste. (02:34)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jennifer Ludden, Henry Sessions, Stephanie O'Neill, Reese Ehrlich, Dan Grossman
GUEST: Melissa Healy

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The sailors are gone from the former US Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines, but there's concern that the Navy may have left something behind: toxic waste. The Philippine government is rushing to redevelop the area, but some say that could be a dangerous mistake.

MERCADO: If you sweep aside the issue of environmental concern, because of your desire to attract investments, you are going to pay dearly for it.

CURWOOD: Here at home, the Army has decided to burn its stockpile of chemical weapons, and that's prompted an outcry from neighbors of the proposed incinerators.

WARD: How will we find out what these incinerators actually do to the people who live in the vicinity? Well I can tell you. We are the guinea pigs, really, to find out what happens.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth. First news.

Environmental News

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

Catches of haddock, flounder, and cod off New England's coast will be cut in half, in an effort to avoid a complete collapse of the region's fish stocks. The new Federal restrictions affect the area known as George's Bank, once one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. From WBUR in Boston, Jennifer Ludden reports.

LUDDEN: The long-awaited regulations will sharply limit the number of days fishermen can go to sea, place a moratorium on newcomers to the industry, and step up monitoring of fish catches. Federal officials say in some cases, over-fishing has left just 6 percent of the fish population there was 3 decades ago, and some stocks are in danger of extinction within 4 years if nothing is done. The new limits were approved the same day an emergency Federal ban on haddock fishing went into effect over a large part of George's Bank. Regulators acknowledge the combined restrictions will further hurt fishing communities struggling to maintain their economies. Still, they say at best, the measures will merely stop over-fishing, and more will be needed to rebuild the fish stock. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Ludden in Boston.

NUNLEY: On the West Coast, 40 counties in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon are due to become critical habitat for endangered Snake River salmon. The move is expected to curtail fishing, logging, grazing, and irrigation in the region. From Portland, Henry Sessions reports.

SESSIONS: The sweeping habitat designation signals a turning point for Federal fisheries managers, who have long depended on artificial measures such as fish hatcheries and barging programs to prop up salmon runs. In critical habitat areas, they will have to completely rework the way they manage resources, doing all they can to protect natural runs of fish. The plan is designed to protect 5 endangered Snake River salmon species, but it's hoped the designation can save up to 70 more salmon stocks that have been identified as heading towards extinction. The critical habitat order does not address ocean fisheries, where commercial drift-netters often catch thousands of endangered salmon a year. That has made upstream interests, such as dam operators and irrigators, cool to the plan. For Living on Earth, this is Henry Sessions in Portland.

NUNLEY: The Colorado River will flow more smoothly through the Grand Canyon under a plan to protect the canyon's banks, beaches, and fish-spawning grounds. Fluctuating flows of water over the Glen Canyon Dam just about the Grand Canyon severely eroded its banks over the past 25 years. The plan, which still needs Congressional approval, would protect Native American archaeological sites and the river's famous rapids, although the amount of electricity generated by the dam would be reduced.

The number of substances in the Toxics Release Inventory would double under a proposal by EPA administrator Carol Browner. The TRI currently lists the amounts of some 300 toxic substances released yearly into the environment by large manufacturers. Browner says an expanded TRI would give citizens better information about potential health hazards in their communities, and encourage industries to reduce emissions.

This is Living on Earth.

Two-and-a-half years after a toxic spill from a train wreck virtually killed a 40-mile stretch of a California river, state officials want to begin a controversial recovery plan. They say the upper Sacramento River is making a dramatic comeback and should be restocked and reopened to anglers. Stephanie O'Neill reports.

O'NEILL: The plan is designed to encourage the return of sport fishing to the economically ailing region hit hard by the spill. It authorizes the release of 18,000 half-pound fish along a 6-mile portion of the waterway, and allows for limited sport fishing during the upcoming 7-month season that begins in April. State officials believe the river, which has recovered faster than expected, is now strong enough to support the hatchery fish. But some fishing advocates fear the release of hatchery fish will slow the recovery of wild trout, by introducing competitors into the waterway. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill.

NUNLEY: Forty-five states and the District of Columbia want the US Supreme Court to reopen a lawsuit against the makers of the Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange. The states say the 1984 Federal Court settlement between manufacturers and Agent Orange victims unfairly restricts the ability of victims and their survivors to sue in state courts. The appeal comes after the widow of a Vietnam veteran was prevented from suing manufacturers in a Texas court. She was seeking damages beyond the average $4,700 awarded under the Federal settlement. If the Justices rule for the widow, it could clear the way for thousands of new lawsuits against Agent Orange manufacturers.

If you see someone examining that flattened critter on the highway near your house, don't make any snap judgments about their sanity. They may actually be part of a multi-state study of roadkill, aimed at preventing animals from meeting an untimely end. A group of volunteers is fanning out onto roads in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, and Minnesota, to record the number and species of dead animals they find over the course of a year. The study's organizer says he hopes information from the survey will lead to the posting of signs and travel advisories in high-traffic areas.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

The Toxic Legacy of Subic Bay

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

War, and the preparation for war, can lead to all kinds of pollution, from radioactivity to chemical poisons. Here in the US, the military has left a legacy of environmental damage that will cost billions of dollars to clean up. And the legacy may extend overseas as well.

When the US pulled out of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Navy Base in the former US colony of the Philippines in 1992, the Defense Department said no serious toxic hazards had been left behind, and that all Philippine environmental laws had been complied with. But some Filipino and American environmental activists say that may not be the case. Reese Ehrlich reports from Subic Bay.

(Sounds from a busy Filipino street)

EHRLICH: The road leading into the former Subic Ban Navy Base used to be jammed with bars, brothels, and nightclubs. After 90 years, the sailors are finally gone. But they are slowly being replaced by tourists and commercial traffic. The base is being transformed into a huge industrial freeport designed to attract foreign investors. Refurbished old Navy buildings already house businesses, from a shoe factory to a casino. But there are also less useful relics of the past.

On a tour of the base, a guide points out a huge vacant lot piled with debris.

(Sounds of the base: engines, air flow)

GUIDE: That's the landfill area, through the scraps and metals, and the Mount Pinatubo ash. The Department of Environmental and Natural Resources checked this base, and then it has been approved that there are no toxic wastes left by the Americans.

EHRLICH: Well, not quite. After a cursory inspection, Philippine officials did give an environmental go-ahead. But now, some environmentalists are questioning that decision. A recent report by the US General Accounting Office found that the base has numerous toxic hazards. They include chemicals that seep directly into the groundwater, and raw sewage and heavy metals that flush directly into the bay. The GAO says a cleanup at Subic may cost upwards of $25 million. However, nobody knows exactly how bad the problem is.

CULLEN: Well now we're standing, looking over Subic Bay. We can see Granby Island out there...

EHRLICH: Father Shea Cullen has lived near the Subic Base for over 25 years. He's a longstanding critic of the US military and its allies in the Philippine government.

CULLEN: That's the area of great concern when it comes to the toxic waste problem, because when I was traveling there many years ago I was made very much aware of the presence of drums of toxic chemicals, which were in open storage. And we often wondered what happened to them, or what happened to leaking drums, you know? If there's any records that they were ever actually shipped back to the States...

EHRLICH: That's the kind of information sought by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in Boston. So far, by using the Freedom of Information Act, the group has found Navy documents indicating Subic generated upwards of 500 tons of hazardous waste in both 1990 and 1991 - but only safely disposed of 20% of that amount. The Navy and US Embassy in Manila have denied leaving any serious toxic wastes at Subic. They say the US government complied with all relevant Philippine environmental laws, and was not required to adhere to more stringent US regulations. Activists dispute that legal claim, but in any case, they hold the US morally responsible for any toxic hazards. They are calling for an immediate investigation before foreign companies set up factories on potentially contaminated sites. Such demands aren't welcome at the office of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, which oversees development at the base. Richard Gordon chairs the SBMA.

(Office sounds)

GORDON: I don't think that the waste is a very big problem here. The Navy was pretty careful, this being a foreign country that they have occupied by lease for a period of time. And they, I thought some of them were pretty responsible people out there.

EHRLICH: Gordon says the SBMA is trying to restore some of the 40,000 Filipino jobs lost when the US Navy pulled out. Exaggerating the toxic threat, he says, will only scare away much-needed foreign investment. Senator Orlando Mercado disagrees. he heads the Senate Security and National Defense Committee. He says military bases inside the US have caused massive ecological damage despite stringent US environmental laws. He argues US procedures in the Philippines were even worse. The US is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the American military bases. Senator Mercado asks, why should Subic and the former US air base at Clark Field be any different?

MERCADO: If you sweep aside the issue of environmental concern because of your desire to attract investments, you are going to pay dearly for it, and the restoration effort, costly as it is, will never be able to bring back what you lose. I think it is more wise for us to really confront this issue openly. For us to go to the other extreme and pretend and whistle in the dark and pretend that it doesn't exist is a folly.

EHRLICH: Senator Mercado says the toxics could create a health hazard for Subic workers, as well as potential legal liability for employers. In response to increasing pressure from Mercado and others, Subic authorities have applied for a World Bank loan to study the toxic problem. But so far, critics have not mustered enough evidence or political clout to slow redevelopment of the base. If, however, old Navy documents or future tests reveal widespread toxic pollution, that could quickly change. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Ehrlich at Subic Bay, the Philippines.

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Burning our Chemical weapons

CURWOOD: In 1993, the United States joined more than 140 other nations in signing the Chemical Weapons Treaty, and committed itself to destroying its massive stockpile of poison gas munitions. Some of these weapons are already leaking, and that's added urgency to Defense Department plans to build 8 chemical weapons incinerators around the country, at a cost of about a billion dollars each. The Army has nearly completed the first of these incinerators, but if a small but vocal group of opponents have their way, it may never open. Dan Grossman has our story.

(Sheep bleating in field)

GROSSMAN: Grantsville, Utah, is a tranquil desert community, where families commonly raise barnyard animals right in their yards. When Chip Ward moved into this tidy town in the shadows of the Stansbury Mountains, it appeared distant from society's ills. But less than 20 miles away, the Army is getting ready to start up its first chemical weapons incinerator in the continental US. The Army has assured neighbors that the incinerator presents no health hazards. But Chip Ward isn't convinced. Ward is worried that the plant will emit toxic materials that could have long-term health effects on his family.

WARD: How will we find out what these incinerators actually do to the people who live in the vicinity? Well, I can tell you. We will find out, and we will prove it to all of you over 10, 15, 20 years, with our tissues and our blood. We are the guinea pigs, really, to find out what happens.

(Chemical weapons storage depot. VOICE: Okay, I'm going to lower it down over your head, coming down...)

GROSSMAN: At the Army's chemical weapons storage depot, workers and visitors to the new incinerator have to carry a gas mask at all times, and test it out to make sure it works.

(VOICE: And at any time during this test, you have any difficulties breathing or smell banana oil, notify me immediately. Normal breathing...)

GROSSMAN: Chemical weapons include some of the deadliest materials ever made. For instance, a single pinhead-sized drop of VX nerve gas is enough to kill. The depot contains nearly half of the 30,000 tons of chemical agents in the US arsenal. The US built a variety of chemical weapons from World War I right up through the 1980s. Now, the new Chemical Weapons Treaty, and concern about the arsenal's decay, has put the US under pressure to get rid of the arsenal within the next decade.

THOMAS: There are leakers and there is a risk to continued storage, and our desire is to reduce that risk by disposing the munitions.

GROSSMAN: Timothy Thomas is project manager of the Army's new incinerator. He says the process of dismantling munitions is difficult and dangerous, especially since the weapons were not designed to be taken apart. Inside the incinerator building, workers are putting the finishing touches on armored conveyor belts for shuttling live munitions through the plant, and heavy steel blast doors for rooms where explosives are removed. Thomas says the process is like an assembly line, only in reverse. Each component will be painstakingly separated from the others by automated machines in sealed compartments, while operators watch on TV monitors in protected control rooms.

(Machine sounds. VOICE: These are the machines we were talking about. This is a rocket shear machine. You see the shear itself, and you see the blade on the shear...)

GROSSMAN: The deadly liquids will be siphoned out and explosive charges removed. Liquid agents, metal containers, and the explosives will each be sent in remote-controlled carts to three different incinerators. Thomas says incineration is the most efficient way to get rid of these weapons, but activists disagree.

VINCENT: We're dealing with probably one of the most primitive technologies imaginable: fire.

GROSSMAN: Ross Vincent is a chemical engineer who is fighting another chemical weapons incinerator planned for his home state, Colorado.

VINCENT: What incinerators are in their varying configurations is different efforts to contain that primitive technology in some engineered fashion. I have never seen, and to the best of my knowledge there has not ever been, an incinerator that ever operated under the kind of optimum conditions that their promoters tend to describe when they're trying to sell them to communities.

GROSSMAN: Vincent and Ward are concerned because like other incinerators of hazardous waste, these incinerators will emit dioxins, furans, and PCBs: chemicals believed to cause cancer and other health effects, even in extremely small doses. And unlike other incinerators, these plants will also release tiny and, some critics say, potentially harmful traces of the chemical weapons themselves. The Army counters that the amount of chemicals in the plant's fumes will be minute, and will be diluted to insignificance by the time they leave the property.

In addition to Utah and Colorado, chemical weapons are stored at sites in Kentucky, Oregon, Maryland, Alabama, Arkansas, and Indiana. The Army has decided that moving the stockpiles is too dangerous, so it plans to build incinerators in each of these communities. Vincent agrees that the weapons should stay where they are, but he says there are other ways to destroy them, some of which might be safer. The National Research Council, the Federal government's most prestigious source of advice about science and technology, supports his claim. It recently issued a report describing a variety of alternative technologies.

LONGWELL: For example, there's molten metals and plasma arcs and a whole bunch of things.

GROSSMAN: John Longwell chairs the Council's Alternative Technology Committee. he says there are nearly two dozen different options for destroying chemical agents. But he points out that no matter what method is used, there will always be some toxic residues that will have to be disposed of. He says there is no alternative to incineration for disposing of the weapon's metal and explosive parts. So far, there is no concerted movement in Congress to rethink the Army's overall commitment to incineration, but some representatives of the districts where incinerators are planned are trying to keep individual plants from opening. Charles Baronian heads the Army's Chemical Weapons Destruction Office. He says the service continues to have an open mind about incineration.

BARONIAN: We are not wedded to incineration. We're wedded to getting rid of this material as safely and as soundly as we can get rid of it.

GROSSMAN: Still, Baronian says developing any other method will cost another hundred million dollars and take years of research. And he stresses that there are risks just to leaving the weapons in place. But opponents of incineration say the risks of going ahead could be greater than the risks of waiting. They argue that the Chemical Weapons Treaty deadline of 2004 is arbitrary, and that the Army is just using it as an excuse for not developing alternative methods. They say they may try to remove that deadline by lobbying against ratification of the treaty in the Senate. Whatever happens, the 8 communities where the chemical weapons are stockpiled will be living under a cloud of uncertainty for years to come.

For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.

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(Music up and under)

Clinton's First Year

CURWOOD: A year ago, the Clinton Administration glided into office with the promise to break the gridlock that had snarled Federal environmental policy for many of the Reagan and Bush years. The new president and his chief environmental policy advisor, Vice President Al Gore, promised to find common ground between longstanding adversaries, such as loggers and strict conservationists, clean air activists and car makers. But the President's first year has been one of mixed results on the environment, and according to Melissa Healy, who covers the environment for the Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times, that's in large part because of the resistance of environmentalists themselves.

HEALY: The Clinton Administration has clearly tried very hard to break the gridlock, but what they are discovering is that many of the forces in the environmental movement are very, very powerful, whether it's the states or the independent environmental groups. Or, for that matter, the courts. The Clinton Administration had come into office confident that it could resolve this tension between, on the one hand, protecting jobs and, on the other hand, protecting the environment. And now, what it's finding is that that's not always easy.

CURWOOD: Now, some have written that Clinton really doesn't get it about the environment. For example, writing in Harper's Magazine for the December issue, James Conway, who is their new Washington editor, said well, you know, the President went and took his holiday in Martha's Vineyard instead of the Grand Tetons. It shows that the President really doesn't get this environmental thing. Is that a fair knock on Clinton?

HEALY: I think he really understands it. I think in many cases, expectations have gotten in the way here. I think many of the environmental groups have had extremely high hopes. Suddenly they had an administration on whom they pinned all of their hopes. And they looked for decisions that would include no compromises whatsoever. And I think what they've realized is, this is a president who is given to compromise, and compromise is something with which many of the environmental groups do clearly feel very uncomfortable.

CURWOOD: Is compromise a viable approach to environmental issues?

HEALY: Well, I think the Clinton Administration has made the argument that to allow these to remain mired in controversy has only allowed the degradation to continue. And that compromise may be short of perfect, but that at least it has gotten the process of environmental restoration and environmental protection going again.

CURWOOD: What's the downside of this approach?

HEALY: The downside is that in some cases, the gridlock that the Clinton Administration so abhors probably is doing more to protect the environment than to allow the degradation to continue. The timber compromise was an example of something where basically, the Court had stopped harvesting. What the Clinton Administration basically did was it said, we're going to now begin the logging. And clearly there are some risks for the environment in that.

CURWOOD: What do you see ahead, then? Do you think it's going to get worse, or environmentalists going to get crankier and crankier about the President?

HEALY: I think so. I think they're going to realize that institutionally, their role in the process of protecting the environment is going to continue to be one of the adversary. That they may be able to cut deals in some small cases, but that on the whole, that their role will be to stand outside the Federal government and continue to push and push and push.

CURWOOD: If you were to look into your crystal ball, where do you think we'll see a major showdown?

HEALY: Probably the Endangered Species Act. Like virtually all of the major pieces of environmental legislation that were passed in the early '70s, the Endangered Species Act is up for reauthorization this year. And in this case, I think it's going to be a battle not so much between the environmentalists and the Clinton Administration, but between the Clinton Administration and the sort of environmental backlash groups that have begun to form in the mining communities throughout the West and in the grazing communities and the ranching communities.

CURWOOD: How is the Clinton Administration doing with the agencies? For years there's been this sense that the Forestry Service under the Agricultural Department was at loggerheads with Fish and Game, which was at loggerheads with the Commerce Department oversees the fisheries. That there wasn't any kind of unified approach to environmental issues. How much, if at all, has that changed?

HEALY: This is actually very subtle, but it's probably the area in which the Clinton Administration has moved most effectively. And really, with Vice President Al Gore and his reinventing government, really has begun to reinvent the relationships of these agencies and to build these partnerships - both among the agencies and between the Federal government on the one hand and the states, and the environmental groups, and in many cases the business groups. And it seems very inside the Washington Beltway, but in the long run it may have the greatest impact on the Clinton Administration's environmental legacy.

CURWOOD: Melissa Healy covers the environment for the Los Angeles Times. We spoke to her from Washington.

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(Music up and out)

Billions of Butts

CURWOOD: As the year begins, commentator and naturalist David Catlin has been thinking about that most perishable of commodities, the New Year's resolution.

CATLIN: It's January again. That time of year when we sit down and think up New Year's resolutions for all the other people in our lives. This year I asked a smoker I know to make one. Not the grand challenge of resolutions, quitting smoking. No, just a little, easy one, please, I said. Stop throwing your cigarette butts out on the ground. Flicking a single cigarette butt isn't much, really. It's not even like pitching a soda can out the car window, something a lot of butt-flicking smokers I know would never consider doing. But they add up, all those butts. USA Today reported in August that when Center for Marine Conservation volunteers around the world cleaned up beach trash last summer, the commonest item they found was cigarette butts. They picked up 775,438 of them.

It doesn't surprise me. We don't have many beaches here in the Ozarks, but the street gutters at every intersection with a traffic light pile up with windrows of butts between rains. Then where do they go? Into local rivers and streams. Filter tips take, I've read, 10 to 12 years to decompose. Millions of them are piling up out there. So pitching a cigarette butt is really an incremental erosion of our environmental quality.

I pointed all this out to my friend the smoker. He was pretty touchy and defensive. He noted that my kitchen hot water faucet had been dripping for weeks, wasting water and energy, and that isn't this the same kind of incremental erosion of our environmental quality? "Well, yes it is," I mumbled sheepishly. He proposed a resolution for me: that I triumph over my laziness and fix the leak immediately. Changing bad habits that deteriorate the resources of the world we live in, he said, is everyone's responsibility, not just smokers'.

So we agreed. I'm going to accept his resolution and fix the leak, and he's going to adopt mine and stop throwing cigarette butts on the ground. We also agreed to a third one. Next year, we're both going to make our own resolutions.

CURWOOD: Commentator David Catlin comes to us from member station KSMU in Springfield, Missouri.

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(Music up and out)

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Our director is Deborah Stavro. Our producer and editor is Peter Thomson. And our coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Chris Page, Jessika Bella Mura, Stacy Curwood, Colleen Singer Coxe, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Bob Connolly, and Karen Given. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Theme music)

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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