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

February 18, 1994

Air Date: February 18, 1994


US Bank to Finance Czech Nuclear Power Plant / Thomas Lalley

Thomas Lalley reports from Washington, DC on debate over U.S. government assistance for construction of a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic. The Czechs say finishing the half-built Soviet-designed plant will relieve the region of damaging air pollution. But critics say that the technology is outdated and the U.S. should instead be supporting energy-efficiency programs. (02:38)

American Engineer opens the Door to Chernobyl

Host Steve Curwood talks to Alexander Sich, an American nuclear engineer who recently spent eighteen months in the Chernobyl area reconstructing events following the 1986 nuclear accident there. Sich believes radiation from the damaged nuclear power plant was several times greater than levels reported by the Soviet government. On the other hand, he says his research indicates that massive nuclear meltdowns are far less likely to occur than some scientists have predicted. (06:11)

Listener Line Comments


Lake Baikal Struggles for Survival . . . and Sustainability / Mary Beth Maher

Mary Beth Maher reports on a sustainable development plan being drawn up for the region around Siberia's Lake Baikal, the planet's largest freshwater body. Timbering and industrial development threaten the lake's delicate ecosystem, but provide vital jobs for local residents. A group of American land-use planners hope they can help local leaders and communities strike a successful and profitable balance for the region. (10:45)

Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

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
NEWSCASTER: Peter Thomson
REPORTERS: Doug Johnson, Peter Kenyon, Stephanie O'Neill, Thomas Lalley, Mary Beth Maher
GUEST: Alexander Sich

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Seven years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, new research shows releases of much higher levels of radiation than recorded before. But it also shows nuclear meltdowns may be self-limiting.

SICH: One of the positive outcomes of my research is that apparently, a China Syndrome can't happen, or at least is very, very very much less likely to occur.

CURWOOD: And from Siberia, reports on efforts to protect the world's largest fresh water lake and the virgin forests that surround it.

DAVIS: Our job is one of trying to assist the Russian people in avoiding the mistakes that we have made in the Western world. They can either go the route we did as we started clearing our timber, or they can start managing their timber on a sustainable basis.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth. First news.

Environmental News

THOMSON: I'm Peter Thomson with this week's environmental news. Citing a clear danger to human health, a joint US-Canada commission has called for the elimination of a host of toxic chemicals from the Great Lakes. The International Joint Commission, which monitors the health of the lakes, says many common industrial pollutants have been linked to serious health problems ranging from reproductive disorders to learning disabilities. Michigan Public Radio's Doug Johnson reports.

JOHNSON: In its most strongly worded statement yet, the IJC said there was no longer any scientific doubt that substances such as dioxins and organochlorines were linked to reproductive, neurological, and behavioral damage in humans. Among the recommendations, the Commission called on the US and Canada to honor a two-year-old pledge to eliminate the flow of chlorine and other toxics into Great Lake waters. In a departure from previous reports, IJC scientists outlined specific strategies for industry and government to prevent the production of the dangerous chemicals. Industries in the Great Lakes argue a total ban on chlorine could have disastrous economic and social consequences. For Living on Earth, this is Doug Johnson in Lansing, Michigan.

THOMSON: Countries which fish the North Atlantic have bowed to pressure from Canada and agreed to stop cod fishing in international waters off Newfoundland for three years. Canada has already prohibited its own boats from harvesting the waters. Canadian officials hope the new international ban will help rebuild badly depleted cod stocks.

Meanwhile, six countries have agreed to a temporary moratorium on fishing for pollock in international waters in the Bering Sea. Pollock stocks in the area between Alaska and Russia have fallen dramatically in recent years. Alaska Public Radio's Peter Kenyon reports.

KENYON: The tentative agreement between the US, Russia, Taiwan, Japan, Poland, and South Korea will close the pollock fishery until stocks recover. That's likely to take until the 1996 season. Besides over fishing, officials say fishing boats have been using the international waters as a staging area for illegal fishing raids in the US and Russian waters. Now fishing boats will have to give notice before entering the area, and will be required to carry satellite transmitters that will allow regulators to check their position. The agreement will take effect after ratification by the US, Russia, and at least two other countries. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Kenyon in Anchorage.

THOMSON: Many of the world's agricultural seed banks are dead, miscatalogued, or otherwise useless. And that could jeopardize global food security. So says a recent report by the Federal government's National Research Council. Rutgers University Professor Peter Day headed the study. He warns that without proper management, the vital genetic material from early or wild plant varieties could be lost forever.

DAY: The modern materials reflect a winnowing of what we think is important now, and those old standbys have other characteristics. And we won't know we'll need them until we're faced with a crisis.

THOMSON: The report says funding for seed banks needs to be at least tripled, to $300 million a year.

This is Living on Earth.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has moved to impose a cleanup plan for the air in California's smoggiest cities. The move follows a court ruling that California has failed to take sufficient action on its own. From Los Angeles, Stephanie O'Neill reports.

O'NEILL: The EPA was forced into California's clean air battle after losing a ten-year legal fight with environmentalists. The court-ordered Federal plan includes nearly 100 measures that affect almost every source of pollution in the LA region, Ventura County, and the Sacramento area. Included are sources that have never before been regulated, such as commercial airplanes, ships, trains, and recreational vehicles. The EPA also endorsed California's auto standards, which Detroit car makers complain are too strict. Many business leaders fear the plan will hurt California's already ailing economy. The EPA mandate takes effect next February unless California officials come up with alternative plans that satisfy Federal law. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

THOMSON: The rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing the rate at which tropical trees are dying and being replaced, and that turnover could be rapidly reducing the biodiversity of uncut forests. That's according to the long-range study published in the journal Science. The authors speculate that higher CO2 levels could be encouraging some species to crowd out others. In addition, the scientists believe the change in forest composition caused by higher carbon dioxide could in turn be causing even more CO2 to be released.

Sunoco Oil Company has come up with a novel plan for increasing emissions from two Pennsylvania refineries without making the state's air any dirtier. Sunoco says it will offset the new emissions by paying for overhauls on high-pollution cars. The company will use a new technology to identify dirty cars on Pennsylvania highways. It will then offer free repairs to the owners. The company hopes it will earn credits under the government's new pollution credit trading program. Sunoco's plan follows a failed attempt to earn credits by buying and junking older cars.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Peter Thomson.

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(Theme music up and under)

US Bank to Finance Czech Nuclear Power Plant

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

The Clinton Administration has agreed to help the Czech Republic complete a half-finished nuclear power plant and bring it up to Western safety standards. The US Export-Import Bank will guarantee loans to finance the project, which the Czechs say will be an environmental plus for their new country. But critics in the US say the economics and the design of the plant are in serious question. From Washington, Thomas Lalley has this report.

LALLEY: The Soviet-designed plant will replace older and more polluting power plants, which are destroying Bohemian forests and contributing to air pollution. The Czech Republic has secured almost half a billion dollars in federally-backed loans from private banks, and will use the money to pay Westinghouse to finish the plant, which is located in the town of Temelin, about a hundred miles from Prague. But opponents in the US say there are serious safety concerns with the plant. Their concerned that Westinghouse's technology will be incompatible with the Soviet-era technology. There are concerns about the integrity of the plant's containment vessel, and Temelin has no evacuation plans for the area around the plant. Critics also say the deal is a half-billion-dollar bet on outdated technology. David Bakter is an economist with Greenpeace.

BAKTER: Why not give a $400 million loan for energy efficiency in the US? Or energy efficiency outside the US? You're going to create a lot more jobs there. Why use tax dollars to create a nuclear hazard in Central Europe that most people in the area and surrounding countries are opposed to?

LALLEY: But a number of Federal agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Security Council, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency, have backed the loan, and vouched for the plant's safety. And according to Cecil B. Thompson, a director of the Export-Import Bank, the bank didn't see any compelling reasons to deny the loan.

THOMPSON: In order for the Export-Import Bank to have denied this application, we would have had to have found that the Czech Republic wasn't credit worthy, and to have denied this application on the basis of environmental considerations would have required the board to have said our engineers didn't know what they were doing. And there was just absolutely no basis for that.

LALLEY: Representatives of the Export-Import Bank have to testify about Temelin before Congress this month, even though Congress has no authority to block the loan. But some influential members of Congress, including Democratic Senator Patrick Leahey and Representative Joe Kennedy, say they will press for new regulations ensuring that future loans by the Export-Import Bank will be more environmentally sensitive. For Living on Earth, this is Thomas Lalley in Washington.

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American Engineer opens the Door to Chernobyl

CURWOOD: Nearly seven years ago, an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine spread a huge plume of radiation over a wide swath of Europe. The Chernobyl disaster remains the worst ever civilian nuclear accident. There's good and bad news from a new doctoral thesis just accepted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On the one hand, the runaway reaction appears to have been self-limited. But there is also evidence that the Soviet government grossly understated the amount of radiation released. Dr. Alexander Sich speaks Ukranian and was the first US Nuclear engineer to get extensive access to Chernobyl. He spent 18 months in the contaminated zone reconstructing the 10-day incident and calculating the fate of the reactor's fuel.

SICH: Knowing how much was in the reactor before the accident, I was able to come up with a figure of approximately three-and-a-half times what the Soviet total release figure was. I then, by a very rough estimate, increased that to four to five times, if you include in my estimate all the radionuclides that could have been released.

CURWOOD: Let's just go over briefly what happened during the Chernobyl accident, and correct me where I'm wrong. There was an explosion and a group of fires at first, right?

SICH: Yes.

CURWOOD: And then, the reactor started to burn. It wasn't a nuclear reaction; it was a common oxidation reaction, but it started to burn.

SICH: Right. The fuel didn't burn. It was the graphite and other materials around it.

CURWOOD: But this was highly contaminated with radioactive material.

SICH: Yes. They tried to do two things. The first one was the alleged dumping of over 5,000 tons of various materials onto the core in order to smother it. The second has to do with a nitrogen purge of the core in order to cool it and drive out oxygen.

CURWOOD: And what in fact did happen?

SICH: Well, it turns out that the dumping was carried out very precisely by the very brave helicopter pilots. They were told essentially to hit the glowing red spot, which was visible from helicopters. And everyone thought that was the core. It turns out that this glowing red spot is located approximately 10 to 15 meters to the east of where the reactor shaft is and where the molten core was. What puzzles me is how the Soviet experts could not see that the core shaft was not covered, and it's quite clear from some of the stereoscopic pictures that I have.

CURWOOD: Your research and your story sounds like the accident at Chernobyl was greatly compounded by a lot of mistakes. Were these honest mistakes, or were these a function of people trying to cover up?

SICH: Um, that's very difficult to say. Initially, I think there was no intent to cover up. But I'm surprised that at Vienna they would have claimed that the core was smothered. It turns out, at least from my investigations, that the core froze by itself, solidified by itself, and stopped releasing.

CURWOOD: What are the implications of this much larger release, then, especially in terms of human and environmental health?

SICH: Well, okay. This is where I step out of my field. But iodine, radioactive iodine, which is one of the most volatile elements and also one of the most biologically hazardous ones, was released in tremendous quantities. Now, there have been noticed in Byelorussia and Ukraine, a very dramatic increase in childhood thyroid cancers. So I'm suggesting that this question should be reopened to determine whether there is a direct link between the, my findings for the increased release of iodine, and the increases of the childhood thyroids.

CURWOOD: Now what does this accident at Chernobyl tell us about the worst-case scenario, the so-called China Syndrome, the meltdown that catastrophically contaminates the earth and groundwater? Was it that bad?

SICH: No, it wasn't that bad. And in fact, that's an interesting question, because one of the positive outcomes of my research is that apparently, a China Syndrome can't happen or at least is very, very very much less likely to occur. And I'll try to lay out why that's the case. This core melted and sank to the bottom of the reactor shaft, whereupon this approximately 135 tons of fuel quickly spread out. The piping that now exists in the reactor building, along which the melted fuel ran, is from all visual indications undamaged. The concrete on the lower floors is undamaged. All you have there now is this solidified mass of highly-radioactive fuel, but little or no damage has been done to the surrounding structures.

CURWOOD: You worked inside the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor for some 18 months, and you lived nearby. What was it like being there? Weren't you afraid?

SICH: No. The zone isn't - certain parts of the zone I should say aren't as contaminated or as frightful as people may believe. In fact, the little house that I was given in the town of Chernobyl isn't too bad. The background level is on the order of maybe one-and-a-half times, sometimes two times the normal background rate in Boston, for example. So it's comparable to what the background rate is in Denver, or high up in the mountains. There are certainly places in the zones that are extremely contaminated. Interestingly, old structures and trees, which made it a little bit spooky. If you would put your dosimeter up to a tree, the needle would go off the scale. Which made me wonder a little bit about the birds and other life in the zone.

CURWOOD: MIT nuclear engineer Alexander Sich spent 18 months at the Chernobyl site.

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(Music up and under)

Listener Line Comments

CURWOOD: Our listener line lit up this week with responses to our recent profile of a Norwegian whaling community, and the accompanying interview with the head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. That's the group which has taken credit for sinking what it calls outlaw whaling ships in Norway and Iceland.

CALLER: This is Mary in Brookline, Mass. The leader of the Sea Shepherd strikes me as nothing but a pest and a bully, and any good intentions his organization may have toward the saving of whales I feel is lost in his systematically dismantling and destroying the livelihoods of the Norwegians. Saving the lives of those who can't save themselves is a noble vocation, but I have to question this man's humanity. Thank you.

CALLER: My name is Gary Phillips. I'm all in favor of Sea Shepherd conservationists. I give them a lot of credit for what they are doing. I wish I had the skills to be able to join them. I hope they keep it up. I hope they succeed.

CURWOOD: We got this call about Norway's decision to ignore the international whaling ban.

CALLER: Hello, this is Dwight Worker. If a wealthy First World country is going to violate international treaties, then how can we possibly expect Third World countries, where there are hungry people who have short-term gains but long-term losses in degrading the environment, to adhere to treaties, too? It is a much bigger issue than just killing some minkes. And I want to stress, this is the beginning. Other countries now are calling for a resumption of commercial whaling.

CURWOOD: And we received this call in response to our story on the depletion of the haddock and cod fishery off New England. In that story, a Federal scientist suggested that fishing boats turn their attention to skate and dogfish.

CALLER: I was disconcerted by the fact that the man mentioned dogfish and shark as an underutilized species. They tend to have a very, very slow rate of reproduction, and therefore can be overfished in a much faster period of time than any of the other species that's been talked about. Therefore it's very questionable whether dogfish or skates would make a good alternative species for fishing.

CURWOOD: You can sound off about what you hear on Living on Earth by calling 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

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(Music up and under)

Lake Baikal Struggles for Survival . . . and Sustainability

CURWOOD: Halfway between Moscow and Tokyo there's a 400-mile-long, crescent-shaped lake that holds one fifth of the world's fresh water. It's called Baikal. It's the oldest and deepest lake on Earth, and back in the near-wilderness of Siberia it's still relatively unspoiled, as are vast tracks of adjoining virgin forests. But since the 1960s, timber cutting and the development of shorefront industry have begun destroying the region's pristine condition. Some fear that with economic pressures mounting, the pace of ecological destruction will increase, too. But a group of land use planners from the United States is trying to prevent that by working with local residents and governments to develop a sustainable land use plan for Baikal, and bridge the gap between economic development and environmental protection. Mary Beth Maher has our story.

(Running lake water)

MAHER: Out on the lake in a fishing boat, Baikal is endless, breathtaking, a blue pearl of shimmering water edged with marble cliffs and snow-capped mountain ranges. Throughout its history the lake remained pristine. Even today, there are places where the water is so pure, a laboratory beaker used to collect samples will actually taint its contents. But that's changing. Pulp and paper mills built in the 60s, acid rain from industries within the watershed, and mismanagement of resources, particularly timber, are destroying the fragile ecology. Inikinti Vladimirivitch is the boat's captain. He's been fishing on Baikal his entire life.

VLADIMIRIVITCH: (speaking in Russian)

TRANSLATOR: I'd imagine pollution comes from pulp and paper mills, so if this pollution is stopped or the factories are closed down, it will probably be okay. Because the rest of the polluters are not strong enough to really damage the health of the lake.

MAHER: But if we close the factories, what about the people who work there? How will they live?

VLADIMIRIVITCH: (speaking in Russian)

TRANSLATOR: That's why the problem is so urgent. If you close down the factories the people will have no jobs. If you don't close them down, the lake will be polluted. So we really have to think of something here.

(Running boat engine)

MAHER: Resolutions for the protection of Baikal have been passed and systematically ignored for nearly a decade. During Perestroika, a national park was created to protect some of the watershed. But such efforts, while good for nature, often deprive the local population of their means of making a living.

(Door shutting, farm animals)

MAHER: Bolshoye Goloutstnoye is a small village on Baikal's western shore. Goats and cows stroll pass doors of Siberian log homes, and the air is tinged with the mist of waves lapping the shore. About 50 yards from the natural harbor stands a timber mill, abandoned after the new park's timberland was declared off-limits to harvesting. Most villagers work at the mill. Since it closed, many have moved to the cities in search of jobs, leaving traditional village life as well as the scarred ruins of industry on their shores.

BIRNBAUM: Two years ago this saw mill was shut down and left this sort of, as we call in, moonscape.

MAHER: Irina Birnbaum is a Slavic Russian married to an American environmentalist. She's Siberian Coordinator for the Sustainable Land Use Project, a joint Russian-American effort to protect Baikal by sustaining sustainable economies which will not deplete resources.

BIRNBAUM: We would like to develop and to create an open park here, and to use this marina, it's wonderful harbor, that might be very attractive. And it just will mean more people here, more choice.

MAHER: The plan has been three years in the making. Funds have come from American foundations and the US State Department. Zane Smith, formerly with the US Forest Service, now works to recruit the foreign investment needed to make the plan a reality.

SMITH: We promised them that we would attempt to match them up with some foreign investment, in particular, US environmentally sensitive business in their forestry and recreation tourism programs. Realizing that you really can't expect to have a sustainable development plan that has protected areas and developed areas without some sort of economic stability as well.

MAHER: Smith brings groups from the forestry and eco-tourist industries to Baikal to meet with local business people. Project leaders expect several joint ventures to be in operation later this year.


MAHER: Buryats, the indigenous people of Baikal, greet visitors to the sacred region of Olk'hon with traditional songs of welcome. Their slit eyes and coppery skin are similar to the features of American Indians who are said to be their descendants. Both cultures share a deep spiritual tie to the land. Ludmila Varfolomeeva is a descendant of shamans. She lives on Olk'hon Island, revered by the Buryats as the home of the gods. Varfolomeeva supports the project's plans to protect Olk'hon's forests and create an anthropological reserve. She sees the potential tourism offers, but urges caution in its use.

VARFOLOMEEVA: (Speaks in Russian)
TRANSLATOR: There should really be some well-thought-over plans of developing tourism here on the island. And also all tourist routes should be carefully considered, because really the recreational potential, or the carrying capacity of the island, is not so great. And so we should really think carefully where we can allow tourism to develop.

DAVIS: Tourism is something really important for the future of Baikal, but it is no panacea.

MAHER: George Davis is an international land use expert. He leads the land use projects.

DAVIS: The Baikal area is not ready for mass tourists. The facilities are not there. And even if it were, it's too fragile an area for mass tourism. So we have to be talking of people that want to rough it. Want to go to do hiking, want to go to do some sport fishing. Want to go to see the Buryat culture. They can't want to go to a Club Med. That's not what they're going to find.

(Forest birdsong)

MAHER: Davis says respect and preservation of the Buryat culture is vital to the success of the land use plan. So he proposes limiting access to fragile areas, employing local guides, and offering small bed and breakfast-type accommodations, which should bring in cash without straining resources. Some local residents hope a tourist trade will spark other, low-impact industries like woodcrafts and knitting rugs with local wool. The plan also includes guidelines for land use, cultural reserves, and business ventures, and has designated fragile forest areas as extractive reserves to be left intact, to yield fruits and nuts for people to eat and sell. Two of the three regional governments stand solidly behind implementation, but not everyone supports the sustainable land use plan.

ANTIPOV: (Speaks in Russian)
TRANSLATOR: The shortcomings of the program, as I have already said, is number one, the scale is far too big and far too general.

MAHER: Dr. Alexander Antipov is Deputy Director of the Geological Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Irkutsk. Like many of the conservative elite in this largely Slavic city just west of Baikal, he views the project as Western interference in a Russian problem, and is also skeptical of its goals.

ANTIPOV: (Speaks in Russian)
TRANSLATOR: And also the land use program is trying to tie together nature protection and economic development. I do believe that we can't protect Baikal and at the same time improve economic situation here. I somehow doubt it's possible at all.

MAHER: It's a tough trick to turn. Westerners are only now learning how to do it. But Davis says it's essential that people have an alternative to selling off the forests or coastline to get ahold of hard currency.

DAVIS: Our job is one of trying to assist the Russian people in avoiding the mistakes in the Western world. The frontier mentality that we approached our resources with is just starting to hit in Russia, and so this is the opportunity. They can either go the route we did as we started clearing our timber from the east coast to the west coast, or they can start managing their timber on a sustainable basis.

MAHER: Davis believes Russia's deep feeling for Baikal will not allow for wholesale sacrifice, but as with all things in Russia, money is the main obstacle to success. The US State Department has guaranteed implementation funds for the Sustainable Land Use Project, but could withdraw its support if Russia's political system deteriorates.

(Shoreline tides)

MAHER: Each year, more and more foreigners appear on the lake's shores. Not just tourists, but businessmen looking to make a profit on the watershed's vast mineral and timber wealth. Boat captain Inikinti Vladimirivitch believes isolation, once the staple of life on Baikal, is coming to an end. Like his neighbors, he hopes the land use plan will help them prepare for the change ahead.

(Boat engine)

VLADIMIRIVITCH: (Speaks in Russian)
TRANSLATOR: Well people will come to Baikal no matter what we do. They will be coming here, more and more, and our task will be to provide all the opportunities for them to relax here, but at the same time, to leave this area clean and healthy.

MAHER: If the plan is a success, Lake Baikal will receive international recognition as a world heritage site. Success will also show that sustainable development is an idea that works. Planners will take the concepts learned at Baikal and apply them in other places, giving all people the chance to live in comfort and dignity, but also in harmony with the planet. For Living on Earth, this is Mary Beth Maher on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia.

(Shoreline tide)

CURWOOD: That report was produced by Ms. Maher, and Mario Porporino.

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And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our program 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, Chris Page, Jan Nunley, John Rudolph, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessika Bella Mura, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Monica Spain, and Doug Haslem. Special thanks this week to station WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. 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.

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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