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

March 11, 1994

Air Date: March 11, 1994


Prince William Sound, Five Years after Exxon Valdez / Steve Heimel

Reporter Steve Heimel takes a look at the ecology of Prince William Sound on the fifth anniversary of the worst oil spill in US history. Exxon scientists claim bird and fish populations have recovered or were never in danger following the spill. Other scientists and Alaska residents say the Sound, its inhabitants, and its wildlife continue to feel the spill's effects. (06:57)

Native Communities in the Wake of the Spill / Susan Kernes

Reporter Susan Kernes explores the spill's impact on the native communities of Chenega Bay and Port Graham. The decline of their marine food supply and the influx of cleanup crews and money after the spill threw the already changing Native community into a state of chaos, from which some residents say the communities may never recover. (06:40)

Lessons from the Spill — Learned, and Ignored / Nancy Lord

Commentator Nancy Lord of Homer, Alaska, recalls the horror of the spill's impact, and the determination of those in its wake never to let it happen again. (02:45)

The Trouble with Tankers

Host Steve Curwood talks about the continuing risks of long-distance oil transportation with Eric Nalder, a reporter with the Seattle Times and author of the new book, Tankers Full of Trouble. Nalder says that despite new legislation passed after the Valdez spill, large scale oil spills remain a danger due to the vast amounts of oil being transported and the flimsiness of tankers. (04:45)

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: Stephanie O'Neill, Adam Hochberg, Steve Heimel, Susan Kernes
GUEST: Eric Nalder

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

In March of 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. Five years later, the effects on wildlife and the Aleut communities are still being felt.

L. EVANOFF: I think we lost a generation of folks here. These young ones that are coming up now. They won't know how to hunt. Yeah, we try to take them out and tell them how plentiful it was. That part of it is gone.

CURWOOD: But while some Alaskans mourn, first-time visitors still marvel at the region's beauty.

LETHCOE: The Sound is, is very, very much alive and living for them. And for us it's recovering, and as it's recovering we're recovering.

CURWOOD: The Exxon Valdez oil disaster five years later, on Living on Earth, after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news. The Big Three car-makers have been dealt a blow in efforts to repeal California's looming zero emission vehicle mandate. A new California study rejects claims that practical electric cars are out of reach and insists they will be ready to roll by the 1998 deadline. The study means California will probably stick with its tough clean car standards. From Los Angeles, Stephanie O'Neill has the details.

O'NEILL: The state findings show the batteries now available for electric cars meet the needs of 85% of California's commuters. And that operation and maintenance of electric cars is comparable to gas-powered vehicles. Detroit's Big Three auto-makers dispute the findings and say they'll present new data to California officials this month, that will prove the state report is overly-optimistic. The California mandate requires 2% of cars sold by 1998 be emission-free. That will increase to 10% by the year 2003. Twelve eastern states and the District of Columbia are on the way to adopting similar requirements. For Living on Earth I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: Federal investigators have cleared a groundbreaking lead poisoning researcher of charges of scientific misconduct. Herbert Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh was the first to link low levels of lead exposure with intelligence deficits in children. His findings helped spur tougher Federal standards for lead poisoning. Two rival researchers allege that Needleman's work was compromised by shoddy and deceptive practices. A review by the National Institutes of Health did find numerous errors in Needleman's work, but NIH officials say the flaws don't affect the basic accuracy of his findings.

The United States has forged a compromise on a treaty governing deep sea mining after opposing it for 30 years. The United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty regulates the extraction of minerals from the ocean floor in international waters. The original treaty called for all nations to receive substantial royalties from undersea mining, and for the transfer of mining technology to the developing world. It was signed by 60 nations and was to go into effect in November, but the US, Germany, and Britain refused to sign. Now UN and US officials say they've reached an agreement on lower royalties that the 3 countries can accept. The new version must be approved by 60 nations before it becomes international law.

A new report indicates that women who work with chemicals in beauty salons face up to twice the risk of miscarriages as other women. From member station WUNC, Adam Hochberg reports.

HOCHBERG: Scientists at the University of North Carolina surveyed more than 600 salon workers who had been pregnant, about 100 of whom had suffered miscarriages. They concluded that the risk of miscarriage increases with the number of hours worked and the number of chemicals used for procedures such as permanents or bleaches. Although they say more research is needed to confirm the findings, the authors of the study recommend that cosmetologists work in well-ventilated areas, wear gloves and goggles while using chemicals, and wash their hands before they eat. The study appeared in the March issue of the journal Epidemiology. For Living on Earth, I'm Adam Hochberg in Raleigh, North Carolina.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. Not long ago the US military passed out cigarettes to boost troops' morale. Now the Pentagon says it hopes to achieve a completely smoke-free military. As a first step, the Defense Department has imposed the most comprehensive smoking ban ever. Smoking will be prohibited in all military workplaces, including tanks, airplanes, and most parts of ships. The ban affects over two-and-a-half million personnel around the world. It's estimated that half of US service members smoke, compared to 30% of the general public.

The Federal Government could save up to a billion dollars a year in energy costs under a new executive order on energy efficiency. The action by President Clinton requires Federal facilities around the country to reduce their energy consumption by 30% over the next decade. The savings would be achieved in part through switching to more efficient lighting, heating, and cooling equipment.

The US Export Import Bank has given final approval to a funding package for a controversial Czech nuclear reactor. The deal provides more than $300 million in US loan guarantees to help finish the power plant. it was approved despite objections from US environmentalists and the government of neighboring Austria. Austria's concerned about possible safety problems at the Soviet-designed plant.

Finally this week, have you ever noticed the wind generated by cars as they speed down the highway? Well, Michigan electronics expert Thomas Whitter has.

WHITTER: I was driving down the expressway and saw the debris and weeds being blown by cars ahead of me on the expressway, and all of a sudden the idea just kind of came to me.

NUNLEY: That idea was to capture some of that wind energy and use it to generate electricity. Whitter has patented a system of windmills for highway median strips. Eventually, he hopes the electricity generated by cars could be used to help power the cars themselves.

WHITTER: This would be a wonderful source of power for those new electric vehicles. We would have clean power for clean vehicles.

NUNLEY: Whitter says highway traffic generates winds of up to 25 miles an hour. He says he's working with researchers at Detroit's Wayne State University to put his idea to the test.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

Prince William Sound, Five Years after Exxon Valdez

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

Five years ago this month, the supertanker Exxon Valdez hit a ledge in Alaska's Prince William Sound and dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sea. Within days, 1,200 miles of coastline had been ravaged. Thousands of birds and other animals had been killed, and the spill had permanently imprinted itself in American culture as one of our most infamous unnatural disasters. Today, we examine the legacy of the worst oil spill in US history from several perspectives. In our first report, Steve Heimel of the Alaska Public Radio Network examines the long-term impact on the ecology of Prince William Sound.

(Waves on the seacoast)

HEIMEL: Talk to 100 people who know Prince William Sound and you'll hear about 100 Prince William Sounds. It's so large that if you're in a sailboat, you have to plan on a trip of more than a week if you want to see more than a small part of it. If you're a kayaker like Ray Camissa, every cove is or was its own adventure.

CAMISSA: It's, uh - it's unique. No other place in the world is like it, and it's wonderful and beautiful, but I've seen changes. You know, everybody can tell you that the otter population has declined. You know, and you used to see rafts of 40 or 60 otters at a time, just laying together as the tide goes out, and they'd be floating together in the fog. They'd look like a mass of dead trees until they'd float right up on you. But those are gone; you don't see those rafts of otters any more. When the tide would come in against the glaciers there'd always be hundreds of seals piled up on the ice. And those seals aren't there like they used to be in the numbers. You used to have a lot of porpoise, and I don't see them any more.

HEIMEL: Anyone who knew Prince William Sound before the oil spill says it's different now. While logging plans and a booming fishery had already begun to change the Sound in 1989, the black wave of death from the tanker brought a transformation unlike anything anyone could imagine. Whipped by the storm into ribbons of toxic foam, the oil killed masses of animals outright, and many more by its lingering effects. Government researchers estimate, for instance, that the sea otter population where the oil hit went down by 35% in 2 years. Other marine mammals also suffered, as well as huge numbers of sea birds. The oil killed cormorants, gulls, kittie wakes, marbled marlets, but above all, murres. Far more than half the animals killed were murres, a diving bird that lives in dense colonies.

(Huge flock of birds calling)

HEIMEL: Hundreds of thousands of murres were killed. And while many survived, in some colonies, not enough to hold the group together to breed. US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Vernon Bird.

BIRD: There seems to be safety in numbers. A big cluster of murres seem to be able to defend against the gull or raven probably better than a single murre could. And they will sometimes abandon their egg, make it real susceptible to gull predation, but once everybody's laid, the birds that are incubating tend to sit real tight even if an airplane flies over lots of times or a predator.

HEIMEL: Murre colonies in the Barren Islands south of Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska had near-complete reproductive failure for at least 2 years. That's the government view. Scientists hired by the Exxon Corporation to research the same issue saw it very differently. Biologists John Wiens calls the idea that any colonies were in danger an exaggeration.

WIENS: That really wasn't the case at all. And their statements were really very premature. They came before any kind of carefully-planned studies had been conducted.

HEIMEL: Counts done by an Exxon-funded researcher in 1991 showed murres to be at about the same densities as ever in the stressed colonies. Government scientists say that report is flawed. But in any event, after looking at the latest surveys, Vernon Byrd concedes that common murres are now out of danger. The dispute over the murres illustrates a chronic problem with research on the spill's impact. From the very beginning it's been a big money game. The prospect of huge court judgments sent scientists out to look for damage or to look for proof of no damage. In 1991, Exxon settled the State and Federal Government's court cases for $900 million, but scientific damage assessments will still be critical to claims due to be taken to trial this summer by fishermen, natives, and others.

But now research money is getting scarce again. The trustee council of six Federal and State agency heads set up to administer the $900 million settlement has cut off a lot of research so it would have more money to invest in restoring and protecting the environment that sustains the wildlife that survives, buying up habitat threatened by logging and minimizing the impact of growing public use of the spill environment. Bob Spies is the trustee's chief scientific advisor.

SPIES: You know, we spent over $100 million in the scientific studies. That's a tremendous amount of resources. And I'm not sure the will is there to keep pursuing these things, pursuing these questions.

HEIMEL: Still, it appears that some of the research was shut down prematurely. The number of harlequin ducks, animals who spend their whole life cycle in the kinds of intertidal areas where the oil was trapped, fell unexpectedly last year, after the Council decided to stop funding annual duck surveys. Also last year, the herring run came back severely impaired by disease and in small numbers. This after the trustees had decided no herring damage could be connected to the spill, and had told scientists to close down their study. Now, correlations are being shown between herring damage and the spill. There are no pink salmon. The big money fish in Prince William Sound crashed disastrously last summer as well. Fishermen strongly believe the spill is responsible, although the links that scientists can make are tenuous. Head scientist Bob Spies and the trustees now say they're all in favor of continuing to pay to investigate those links.

For those who draw their livelihoods from Prince William Sound, the five years since the spill have been economically turbulent. There was massive spending in a cleanup effort and two years of very good fishing. But now the fishing has crashed, and tour operators worry that fifth anniversary publicity about the spill will make the public think Prince William Sound is a wasteland. Sail charter operator Nancy Lethcoe says it's nowhere near that simple.

LETHCOE: The spill was an overwhelming, traumatic impact on the Sound, but also on us. Whereas when our charter guests come, they don't have the memories, and they don't have the knowledge, and they have pure enjoyment of what they see. So the Sound is, is very, very much alive and living for them. And for us it's recovering, and as it's recovering we're recovering.

HEIMEL: In Alaska for Living on Earth, I'm Steve Heimel.

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Native Communities in the Wake of the Spill

CURWOOD: Five years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, those who live close to Alaska's southern coastline are still contending with oil in their environment. Not long ago, a native fisherman picked up a lump of oil tar the size of a basketball. Many of the region's native people, known as the Chugach Aleuts, have been slowly recovering from the economic, social, and cultural disruption of the spill. But as producer Susan Kernes found in a visit to several native villages, the recovery masks some profound changes in their way of life.

(Flowing water)

KERNES: This small hamlet, the island of Chenega Bay and Prince William Sound, resembles an unpaved suburban neighborhood. The basic transportation is a modified dune buggy, and the closest store is a hundred-dollar plane ride away. For the Chugach Aleuts who live here, both their survival and cultural identity depend on harvesting and sharing food from the ocean. But that changed suddenly on Good Friday 1989.

TOTEMOFF: Before the oil spill, you could see right out in the rocks out there, there used to be seals on those rocks in the low tide every, just about on every low tide. But now there's nothing. Nothing at all.

KERNES: Phil Totemoff is a Chugach Aleut elder who's lived in Prince William Sound all his life. In his younger days, he divided his time between subsistence fishing and commercial fishing. That was when he lived in old Chenega, before another Good Friday disaster, the 1964 earthquake and tidal wave, destroyed his entire village 25 years earlier. The black sludge that coated new Chenega's subsistence beaches 5 days after the tanker ran aground gave Totemoff a disturbingly familiar feeling.

TOTEMOFF: I survived the 1964 earthquake, you know. And it just reminds me a little bit more of what happened during the '64 earthquake. After I seen all that oil.

KERNES: Chenega Bay residents still hunt seals and ducks, but they aren't finding as many as they did before 1989. And they have to travel farther to get them. So for many here, it's becoming too expensive to put native food on their tables.

(Bird calls)

KERNES: The oil took a week longer to foul the shores of Nanwalek, about 200 miles southwest of Chenega Bay. But it brought similar problems. Sally Ash grew up in Nanwelek, and now teaches village kids Suqpiak, their native language. She was living in Anchorage in 1989, and when she realized the magnitude of the disaster, she rushed home to be with her family and to help clean her beaches. She found Nanwelek a very different place than she left.

ASH: It seemed so weird to come home to this quiet little village, it used to be quiet, and now all of a sudden all kinds of people were coming in. I mean you couldn't really keep track, you know. It was just so noisy.

KERNES: Her village of less than 200 had been invaded by dozens of cleanup workers. She says they took over Nanwalek's community hall, usurping the official of the tribal council. Ash says the influx of outsiders, combined with a sudden infusion of cash into a largely non-cash economy, turned her community's social and economic structure on its head.

ASH: We're not used to probably having, you know, money all at once. I think it caused a lot of people to start drinking again; that was the sad part. And then, like not getting, doing your subsistence that summer, we missed out on the whole summer of no food, and things seemed just kind of out of control or something.

G. EVANOFF: I always say Mother Nature is mad. She doesn't know how to deal with this.

KERNES: Today the crowds and the money are gone. What remains now is the oil. Chenega Bay Corporation Vice President Gail Evanoff gets angry when she hears scientists say that the human role in the cleanup is over, and the best way to treat subsurface oil on shorelines is to allow Alaska's winter storms to scour them clean. She and other native leaders are demanding that money from an Exxon out of court settlement be used for further beach cleanup and monitoring.

G. EVANOFF: You and I know water and oil do not mix, in the sediments. It's there to stay unless it's removed.

KERNES: It almost doesn't matter whether it will take more human effort or natural wave action to heal the ecosystem. The fact is, village residents like Phil Totemoff no longer trust the environment they've relied on for centuries.

TOTEMOFF: A lot of times when I get my food like seal, and set it on the table, I could visualize that oil that I seen. And sometimes it just makes me sick.

KERNES: Still, the shock waves from the Exxon Valdez disaster haven't been all bad. Porkram Village Chief Elenore McMullen says the spill revived interest in the old ways: ways that she grew up learning from her grandmother.

McMULLEN: The Exxon disaster revived a lot of native cultural things: dance, song, building of the kayak, the language, and people have built on it.

(Children's laughter)

KERNES: But whether the children paying today in Chenega Bay will experience their subsistence culture as part of daily life, or just something they do on the weekends, remains to be seen. Larry Evanoff is the mayor of Chenega Bay.

L. EVANOFF: I think we lost a generation of folks here. These young ones that are coming up now. They won't know how to hunt. Yeah, we try to take them out and tell them the way it used to be, what it was, and how plentiful it was. That part of it is, is - is gone.

KERNES: Like many adults who lived through both Good Friday disasters in Prince William Sound, Avenof isn't so sure his village can bounce back a second time.

L. EVANOFF: We fell off the horse before. And we got up, and got back on. When we're going to get our lifestyle back, who knows? I might not see it in my lifetime.

KERNES: For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Kernes in Chenega Bay, Alaska.

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(Flowing water.)

Lessons from the Spill — Learned, and Ignored

CURWOOD: There are certain historical events that sear themselves into our minds so thoroughly that we never forget where we were and how we felt when we heard the news. For many Alaskans, including commentator Nancy Lord, the wreck of the Exxon Valdez was one of them.

LORD: Five years ago, Easter weekend, I was home from an out-of-town job. The weather had turned toward mud-softened spring and all was right with the world. Good Friday morning my radio clicked on, right into the middle of the news. A tanker hemorrhaging oil in Prince William Sound, impaled on a reef I'd never even heard of. That morning I felt only a numbing defeat, that all the promises in the world hadn't kept us safe from the big spill.

Little did I suspect the magnitude of the horrors that would follow: otters scratching out their eyes. Pyres of burning bird carcasses. The incomprehensible activity of thousands of people hand-wiping individual rocks. The corporate lying and bureaucratic dithering. Never, never could I have imagined that that unleashed oil would spread and multiply, and eventually wash up on our own beach in sticky globs, 400 miles from the grounding.

EVOS, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill acronym that became a word, was our wake-up call. Those of us in the oil's path learned very quickly about the vulnerability of the marine life we had so long taken for granted. Clearly, we couldn't depend on the oil industry or the government, nor could we rely on experts: those scientists who insisted the oil would never leave the Sound and couldn't possibly sink. We learned to trust ourselves, our own eyes and experience, to listen to one another and accept the collective knowledge of those who best knew and most valued what was at risk.

No longer was it just conservationists crying the alarms. Commercial fishermen, subsistence users, city mayors, everyone saw the connections between environmental health and economic health. We joined together in common purpose, and continued to work together as never before: educating, advocating, litigating, insisting on habitat and resource protection. And that's good. Because the work still to be done is nearly overwhelming and often painfully discouraging.

Five years after EVOS, open any newspaper. In the one before me, I read that another fully-loaded tanker lost power in Cook Inlet. it's lucky the anchor held, because there still aren't any escort tugs in this part of Alaska. At about the same time, 1,000 gallons of fuel spilled into Port Valdez when barge tanks overflowed during loading. And in the state capitol, lawmakers, under the heady influence of oil industry campaign contributions, were busy undoing protective laws adopted in the EVOS aftermath. That's right; that's happening as I speak. Apparently, not everyone woke up. Some just rolled over and went back to sleep.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord is a writer who lives in Homer, Alaska.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: What do you think about the Exxon Valdez disaster? Give us a call at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or write to Living on Earth at Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238.

The Trouble with Tankers

CURWOOD: The immediate wake of the Exxon Valdez tragedy did make some national changes. In 1990, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Prevention Act, which among other things requires double hulls on new tankers, and rapid response teams to be on constant standby alert for spills. Late last year, such teams passed their first real test when workers quickly contained a 100,000 gallon spill just off some of Puerto Rico's most famous beaches. But for some, the threat of massive oil spills has changed little. Eric Nalder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Seattle Times, has ridden a supertanker out of Valdez and written a book about his experience. He says better cleanup capacity isn't really the answer.

NALDER: The improvement of cleanup capacity, the building of more skimmers - it's kind of a futile gesture. Because once you get about a million gallons of oil in the water there's almost nothing you can do to, to control it.

CURWOOD: If the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 had been in force before the Exxon Valdez set sail on that fateful day, would it, the outcome been any different?

NALDER: I don't think so, no. The ship itself would have today, as it still has today, had only a single hull. The ship actually hit the rocks with such force, a double hull, which is required in this Act, might not have made a difference anyway. And there isn't really anything in the regulation that would have changed the way the crew operates.

CURWOOD: I spent a good while going through your book, and I came away from this that you must have the opinion that really no tanker, really, is safe enough. Is that a fair assessment?

NALDER: It's a fair assessment. I mean, any time you're carrying that much oil - in this case the ship I was aboard was carrying 35 million gallons of oil, other tankers carry much more than that - you've got a potential for accidents or spills or major spills. You know, as I say in the book, you know, a world that guzzles 30,000 gallons of oil a second makes no peace with any shoreline including our own. And I think between the time of the Exxon Valdez accident in March of 1989 and the ride that I took aboard an oil tanker for this book, which was in January of 1992, worldwide there were some, I think it was 84 tankers that spilled large amounts of oil, a total of 65 million gallons of oil. In sounding as pessimistic as I do here, it's not to say we can't do better. In fact there are many, many things we can do that would go much farther in preventing spills.

CURWOOD: All right; give us some examples, please.

NALDER: Well, I think one of the most important is to take a look at and make changes in the way we operate these ships. The vast majority of accidents at least involve or begin with human error. The crews of these vessels ought to be checked out by regulators on the vessel they're operating, just the way they do with airplane crews. That doesn't happen in the world of ships. I think also the ships need to be better built. Starting just after World War II, the owners of these oil tankers built larger ships with proportionately less steel. And frankly, they were fragile ships. You know, you learn, you really learn something, and I did on this vessel, when you ride an oil tanker into the teeth of a 70-mile-an-hour wind and into 40-foot seas, you think that you're on a vessel, being 900-1000 feet long, that is very powerful. That has, that's not vulnerable to nature, until you meet something like that. As you stand on the bridge you can see the ship bending. Bending like a twig, up and down, against the force of these waves. And the sound of the ship groaning is a terrible, terrible sound; I mean you literally can hear the ship in pain, all of the joints grinding. I tell the story of one ship that was hammered by a 90-foot wave and cracked down the side, spilling nearly a million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Alaska. This happens all the time. And the industry literally watched this happen for decades, and continued to reduce the steel in these ships. And nobody really paid attention to the carnage, until recently when they're starting to do studies and saying, "Hey wait a minute, these ships seem to be breaking apart in the waves. Maybe we'd better build them a little differently." But the rules are still not good enough.

CURWOOD: Eric Nalder is a reporter for the Seattle Times and author of the new book, Tankers Full of Trouble. Thanks very much for talking with us.

NALDER: Well thank you very much; I've enjoyed it.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson, and directed by Debra Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Chris Page, Jan Nunley, Jessika Bella Mura, Eve Stewart, and engineer Laurie Azaria. Special thanks this week to member stations KBBI in Homer, Alaska, and KUOW in Seattle. 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 funding for Living on Earth comes from the Pew Charitable Trusts, for reporting on the national and global environment; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; and the National Science Foundation. Funding also comes from the George Gund Foundation and the Great Lakes Protection 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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