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

April 8, 1994

Air Date: April 8, 1994


The Electric Car Race / Cy Musiker

Cy Musiker reports from California on the efforts of small companies to design an economically viable electric car. Regulations in California and some other states would require the Big Three car manufacturers in Detroit to make a percentage of their cars electric by 1998. While many in Detroit are fighting the laws, some utilities and small electric vehicle manufacturers see the trend as an economic bonanza. (06:08)

The Future of Flywheels / Jennifer Schmidt

So far, the biggest problem with electric cars has been designing an efficient enough battery. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports on the flywheel battery, which many believe will revolutionize electric vehicle performance. (06:36)

General Motors Drags its Feet / Janet Reynolds

Commentator Janet Reynolds looks at General Motors' lackluster promotion of its electric car. She says GM seems determined to make their electric model a commercial failure to protect its other financial interests. As a result, Reynolds says, the company continues to drag its feet even in the face of growing interest and demand for electric cars from the American public. (03:07)

Will Manhattan Go Electric?

Host Steve Curwood talks to New York Power Authority head David Freeman about electrifying cars in the Big Apple. Freeman believes New York City is a prime candidate for electric vehicles, which are quieter, will make the city cooler, and won't waste energy in traffic jams. Best of all, Freeman says every New York cabbie he's talked to is all in favor of saving a little gas money. (05:19)

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: Pye Chamberlayne, Mike Shatz, Thomas Lalley, Cy Musiker, Jennifer Schmitt
GUEST: David Freeman
COMMENTATOR: Janet Reynolds

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Electric cars are due to hit dealer showrooms by 1998, spurred on by new zero-emission car laws in California, New York, and 8 other states. The Big 3 US auto makers say no to that deadline, but small car companies say yes.

STARR: I'd say these vehicles are more apt to be built by California companies than Detroit companies because they really are computers on wheels.

CURWOOD: The head of the New York Power Authority says he's eager to put electric cars to work in New York City, and not just to clear the air.

FREEMAN: On a hot summer day, if you replace all these internal combustion engines, Manhattan will be cooler. But more important than that, it will be quieter. The electric car doesn't make much noise.

CURWOOD: Electric cars on Living on Earth. First the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news. Governors of some trash importing states are looking to Congress to help them control the flow of garbage from outside their borders. The renewed pressure on Federal law makers follows a Supreme Court ruling that states cannot restrict the shipment of trash from other states. From Washington, Pye Chamberlain reports.

CHAMBERLAYNE: More than 2 dozen senators of both parties are calling for a new law to exempt garbage from the jurisdiction of Federal courts. Many states want to protect landfills already burdened with local garbage from out of state trash. The pending bill would let state governors regulate garbage imports. The Constitution gives Congress the power to control commerce, although it is rarely used this way. Similar bills have sailed through the Senate only to die in the House. The issue is likely to become more pressing now that the Supreme Court has ruled, and Congress is the only place where the matter can be changed. For Living on Earth, I'm Pye Chamberlayne in Washington

NUNLEY: With world fish stocks in a severe decline, the United Nations Fisheries Commission has set an August deadline for an agreement on managing fish populations which straddle national and international waters. Negotiators from 80 countries failed this month to agree on whether fish in coastal waters should be managed by coastal nations or by international bodies. The issue is crucial, because 80% of the world's fish are found within 200 miles of shore, and without an agreement negotiators fear confrontations between coastal governments and long-haul fishing fleets on the high seas. Hopes for a quick resolution to the stalled talks are said to be dim.

Japan's prototype breeder reactor is going through its first test runs after 2 years of technical delays. The controversial nuclear power plant is one in a series the Japanese hope to build. From Tokyo, Mike Shatz reports.

SHATZ: The start-up of the $5.7 billion Monjou is considered a milestone in Japan's quest for energy independence, which began in the early 1970s. Japan is one of the only industrialized countries still promoting the fast breeder reactor, which produces more plutonium than it uses. But critics say the Monjou, named for Buddhism's god of wisdom, is sheer folly, since plutonium is one of the world's most lethal substances, and can also be used to make nuclear weapons. Government officials say that safeguards are in place and expect the Monjou to begin supplying electricity late next year. For Living on Earth, I'm Mike Shatz in Tokyo.

NUNLEY: A key figure in the controversy over the Justice Department's environmental enforcement record has resigned. Neil Cartecello says an atmosphere of distrust among attorneys hampered the effectiveness of the Environmental Crime Section. Cartecello took over the section in 1991. He was the target of Congressional accusations that the Justice Department under former President Bush went easy on corporate polluters and interfered in the prosecution of environmental criminals. His resignation follows a recent internal Justice Department review recommending both management and policy changes in the section. This is Living on Earth.

Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt is considering drastic changes in the management and financing of the National Parks System. From Washington, Thomas Lalley reports.

LALLEY: The nation's national parks are in disrepair, largely because they are ill-equipped to deal with vast numbers of visitors. Secretary Babbitt announced this spring that he is considering 28 proposals which will bring the Parks System more in tune with modern realities. The most controversial plan includes corporate sponsorship, which will give a company visibility in exchange for money or services. Some environmental groups worry that corporations will provide token services aimed solely at increasing name recognition and not benefiting the parks. Other proposals include banning cars in some parks, raising visitor and concession fees, and requiring reservations for the most popular parks. Babbitt is expected to announce his reforms in May. For Living on Earth, this is Thomas Lalley in Washington.

NUNLEY: The nation's only ban on juice boxes has been lifted. Maine lawmakers have decided that the multilayered containers are not as environmentally harmful as they had thought. The state originally barred the sale of the beverage boxes 3 years ago after critics complained the combination of paper, plastic, and aluminum could not be recycled. This time state lawmakers accepted industry arguments that the boxes are being recycled in other states, but the legislature rejected calls by environmentalists to force industry to set up juice box recycling programs in Maine.

A tomato that's been genetically engineered to retard the spoiling process has taken a big step toward supermarket shelves. Food and Drug Administration scientists say the Flavr Savr tomato, developed by Calgene Incorporated, is as safe as conventional tomatoes. The tomato, which awaits final FDA approval, has been altered to include genetic material from a common bacterium. The scientists found no cause for concern that the new tomato could cause the build-up of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms in people and animals.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

The Electric Car Race

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The future is now for electric cars, or at least it's just around the corner. Starting in 1998, in California, New York, and 8 other states, major auto makers must begin selling a small number of non-polluting cars. And in the short term, the only practical zero-emission technology is the electric automobile. Detroit is moving to meet this challenge, but only reluctantly. GM, Ford, and Chrysler say that in 4 years they'll only be able to produce expensive electrics with limited driving ranges, and that consumers won't be interested. But while the Big 3 lobby to overturn the 1998 state mandates, small companies are rushing to produce electric cars and they're getting some important help from electric utilities. Cy Musiker has our story.

MUSIKER: Sebastopol, California, is best known for its Gravenstein apples and wine grapes, but some day it could be famous as the birthplace of US electric cars.

(Auto drills, sounds of the shop floor)

STARR: We're inside our prototype shop up here in Sebastopol. This is where we do all the original design work of the vehicles, work out the various connection pieces, the brackets and so forth.

MUSIKER: Company founder Gary Starr is showing me around US Electric Car's corporate headquarters. Starr is an engaging host, almost jumpy with a personal static charge of his own.

STARR: And what you're looking at is of course a Geo Prizm with its hood open, but what you see different is no engine in it. That's because we actually pull out that gas engine and everything related to it, and in its place we actually put in an electronic - you could almost say an electronic computer, and that's why I say these vehicles are more apt to be built by California companies by Detroit companies because they really are computers on wheels.

MUSIKER: For a cost of about $30,000, US electric rips out the drive train of a Geo Prizm and installs massive lead-acid batteries, an electric motor, and a power controller. The company now has over 200 cars on the road, more electric cars in service than any other manufacturer.

(Office; phone ringing)

MUSIKER: We're back in Gary Starr's office. The atmosphere here is one of controlled chaos. US Electric Car's gone from 30 to 120 employees in the past year, and the company's scheduled to open a new satellite factory soon in Los Angeles. Starr claims it's good business for a small company to see electric cars.

STARR: What Detroit is saying when they say there's no market, they're meaning no consumer market. And I think where today's technology is, perhaps they're correct. Because they almost need to sell maybe 100,000 vehicles of any given model to operate profitably. You know, what we're trying to do with our small satellite facilities is build maybe just a few hundred vehicles per satellite location and operate profitably.

MUSIKER: In fact, US Electric Car, along with other electric car companies, is gearing up to sell directly to corporate fleets, especially those owned by utility companies.

FITZGERALD: I'm sure that even just a percentage of the fleet vehicles in California would meet the 2% mandate in 1998. I'm sure of that.

MUSIKER: Dan Fitzgerald is with Pacific Gas and Electric, which serves most of northern California. Fitzgerald's job is to calculate the size of the market for electric cars. Utilities like PG&E are eager to stimulate the industry. One utility group aims to put 5,000 electric vehicles into utility fleets by 1998. By guaranteeing a market, utilities could help manufactures reduce costs and work out technical problems. The eventual payoff, says Fitzgerald, would be millions of consumer-owned vehicles around the country recharging each night when utilities have excess generating capacity.

FITZGERALD: One of the ways that we're proposing to help manage this load so that it is off-peak, is we are developing an electric vehicle rate that we're proposing to put into place in 1995 as well. And what that will do will provide for a very low-cost refueling during our off-peak periods.

MUSIKER: Fitzgerald figures the California mandate could mean half a million electric cars on the road just in California by 2005. That would produce well over $200 million in new revenues for California electric utilities. Despite this kind of optimistic planning, Wall Street has remained skeptical about an industry that outside of Detroit remains so small and fragmented. There are only 2 major electric car companies in the country, while half a dozen more do electric conversions as a sideline. Mike Gordon is an analyst at Montgomery Securities, who follows battery companies.

GORDON: There's been many small companies that have been formed, basically R&D companies, to pursue this market. But it's been really a market that I see is built on dreams and the imagination, and there hasn't been a lot of substance behind that.

MUSIKER: Gordon thinks the industry's main problem remains the limited range of current battery technologies. Even stock analysts who would seem to have a bias toward electric cars still have reservations about the industry. Progressive Assets Management was the first socially-responsible brokerage company, and underwrote US Electric Car's first stock offering. Some analysts there think electric car and related industries are so volatile that it's hard to pick winners, especially while big US and foreign car companies are still working out their technologies and corporate strategies. Still, Progressive Assets analyst June Dogherty recommends the stock of US Electric. Dogherty notes the company recently hired a new, well-respected CEO and acquired a crash test and lightweight materials company.

DOGHERTY: So now they have the ability to not only convert cars, which a lot of people have been doing for a long time. They now have the capability to build them from the ground up. I think that the Big 3 have marked the public wrong on this one. The public wants quiet, affordable cars that don't pollute and that don't need so many darn repairs.

MUSIKER: Next month the first cars are scheduled to roll out the door at US Electric Car's new Los Angeles facility. Some day historians may note the day as the birth of a new era in transportation, or as another footnote in the long saga of folly. For Living on Earth, I'm Cy Musiker in San Francisco.

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The Future of Flywheels

CURWOOD: The most basic problem currently confronting electric car developers is battery technology. Existing batteries are heavy, expensive, slow to recharge, and give an average range of less than 100 miles. But there's a flurry of activity on the battery front. The Federal Government and the Big 3 auto makers have a combined research effort going. And some small entrepreneurs are also in the race. These efforts are largely focused on chemical batteries, such as lead-acid or sodium hydride solutions. But a Washington State company hopes to store its car's juice in a mechanical battery: a flywheel. Jennifer SCHMITT of member station KPLU has our story.

SCHMITT: The idea behind the flywheel battery is as old as the potter's wheel. The old foot-powered kind is a type of flywheel. All it takes to get it spinning is a few strong kicks to the heavy stone wheel.

(Potter's wheel in operation)

SCHMITT: After that, momentum takes over and the wheel keeps spinning on its own with just an occasional kick for extra power. Modern flywheel batteries work much the same way, except instead of foot power, electricity is used to set the flywheel spinning.

(Spinning flywheel; mechanisms in motion)

FURIA: We are going to put 3 amps of 110-volt power into this reaction wheel.

SCHMITT: Ed Furia is a former EPA official who's now the president of American Flywheel Systems. In a makeshift showroom in Seattle, he's demonstrating a small-scale version of his company's flywheel battery. Like a potter's wheel, it stores mechanical or kinetic energy. This prototype flywheel is powerful enough to run a small videocassette player.

FURIA: This is the battery in this box. Then there's a wire connecting it to the demonstration system. I'll now unplug it ... and we'll be able to turn on this TV and run this TV.

(Television on; music and announcement)

SCHMITT: It takes far less energy to run a VCR than it will take to run a car. But AFS and its technical partner, Honeywell, the well-known defense and space contractor, say a battery that's powerful enough to run their car will be ready within a year. In the meantime, Ed Furia uses a model of the battery to demonstrate how it will work.

FURIA: The batteries are suspended and spinning in a vacuum, with nothing to really slow them down.

SCHMITT: Each battery is composed of 2 super-strong composite rotors suspended by magnetic bearings in a vacuum casing.

FURIA: There's no mechanical friction. So it's as frictionless an environment as you can find on Earth.

SCHMITT: With nothing to impede them, the rotors will reach speeds of up to 200,000 revolutions per minute, slowing down only as their energy is tapped to propel the car. The rotors in the battery generate an electrical current, which in turn powers an electric motor. AFS engineers predict their flywheel design will solve the biggest problem plaguing the emerging electric car industry: developing a battery that's lightweight, efficient, and powerful enough to run a car over long distances without recharging. AFS plans to use its flywheel system to power a brand new, lightweight, luxury sedan which would sell for about $30,000. A prototype of the AFS-20 made headlines when it was recently unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show. But there are many skeptics.

CARD: I love prototypes. In fact you see more prototypes in Detroit than you do even at the LA Auto Show.

SCHMITT: Andrew Card is President of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, a lobbying group for Detroit's Big 3 auto makers. Card says the AFS-20 is more dream than reality.

CARD: Maybe that dream will become reality, but it hasn't - that vehicle hasn't even been produced yet. It hasn't had a cost figure associated with it that would reflect a price that a consumer would have to pay in the marketplace. It hasn't passed a crash test.

SCHMITT: And there are other safety considerations. Edwin Ridell of the Electric Power Research Institute points out that AFS engineers aren't the first to attempt to power cars with flywheels. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, researchers equipped some buses and racecars with massive metal flywheels. Flywheels which turned out to be quite dangerous.

RIDELL: I realize that they've done a lot of - there's been a lot of advancements with composites and things, but I can remember the old flywheels in racecars coming up through floorboards. Who knows? Nobody's proven to me yet that they can contain, successfully contain a flywheel inside a vehicle when it comes apart.

SCHMITT: But others involved in electric car research believe that concern is outdated. Sheila Lynch is the Director of the Northeast Alternative Vehicle Consortium. She says with the help of computers and strong lightweight materials, modern flywheels bear little resemblance to their dangerous predecessors.

LYNCH: I believe that flywheel technology will be available in the very near term. That prototype demonstrations will be shown within the next year. And that marketable flywheel products will be available within the 1998 timeframe for the California mandate.

SCHMITT: The promise of mandated markets for electric vehicles in California and other states has been a boon for small developers like AFS. In addition to helping to draw private investors, the mandates have helped AFS land $2 million in state and Federal grant money. The company's advisory board also includes several well-connected public figures, among them Michael Deland, former Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Bush.

DELAND: Once I looked at it, I came to the conclusion that this was a technology that really did have the very real potential to do nothing less than reshape the energy future of the world and do so in a way that was environmentally benign.

SCHMITT: Money and influence by themselves won't guarantee success for American Flywheel Systems, but President Ed Furia insists the company has the technology to displace the internal combustion engine. American Flywheel Systems says it will have a working version of the AFS-20 ready for the test track next year, and is aiming to have its flywheel-powered cars in the showroom by 1998. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer SCHMITT in Seattle.

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(Music up and under)

General Motors Drags its Feet

CURWOOD: Electric cars aren't necessary environmentally benign. If their electricity comes from nonrenewable sources, there's still some pollution from smokestacks or the problem of nuclear waste. And any car encourages sprawl development. But for some who've driven one, including Living on Earth commentator Janet Reynolds, the electric car is the way to go.

REYNOLDS: Have you ever driven an electric car? I have, and it was an experience that gave new meaning to the phrase "joy ride." The car had pep. Charging it was as simple as plugging in my hair dryer. And bonuses of bonuses, it was absolutely, totally silent.

It wasn't too tough, then, as I tooled down the road, to imagine the pleasure of a highway filled with these soundless and pollution-free roadsters. Unfortunately, at this point, waiting for America's Big 3 to manufacture affordable electric cars is a little like waiting for Godot. A look at General Motors' recent announcement to test its mass market electric car, the Impact, shows why. This spring, America's number one auto maker is loaning 50 electric cars to 1,000 households around America for 2 weeks. Now you'd think, given America's increased interest in cleaner air, that GM would be trumpeting the arrival of this car louder than Gabriel at those pearly gates. After all, GM is beating out the competition, and isn't that the name of the game?

Apparently not, when it comes to creating an electric car. Because unbelievably, GM is anticipating, indeed hoping, that the car will fail during this, its first public test run, according to the New York Times. Naturally, GM has explanations for its stance. The car is too costly, and it will only go about 100 miles before it needs recharging. There's just one problem with GM's sudden concern with Joe and Jane Consumer: it's not based on reality.

Indeed, the company's own experience proves that. When GM asked for volunteers to test the Impact in Los Angeles last year, the company expected 4,000 responses but got 9,300. And in New York, where GM expected fewer than 5,000 interested people, 14,000 volunteered. Add to these enthusiastic responses the fact that other small companies already sell more expensive electric cars as fast as they can make them, and GM's downplaying the Impact's arrival becomes more than a little curious. Until you look at the company's real agenda.

With billions invested in gas guzzling, air polluting car engines, GM hopes to make lawmakers and regulators postpone, or even scrap, some state deadlines requiring 2% of the new cars to be zero-emission. No wonder the company is dropping its slogan "the heartbeat of America." It clearly doesn't have its finger on America's pulse.

CURWOOD: Commentator Janet Reynolds comes to us from Connecticut Public Radio.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Would you buy one? Call us right now on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. 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 each.

Will Manhattan Go Electric?

CURWOOD: California may be leading the way in creating a market for electric cars, but the first place where large numbers of electrics may actually hit the roads could be in New York City. That's if David Freeman's vision of the future prevails, anyway, and his visions have often prevailed in the past. Freeman was among the early supporters of energy efficiency and renewable power more than 20 years ago. Since then, he's brought his gospel to the giant Tennessee Valley Authority, and most recently the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District in California. He's just signed on as head of the New York Power Authority, one of the largest public utilities in the country. David Freeman joins us now from his office in New York. Mr. Freeman, why electric cars for New York City?

FREEMAN: There's a lot of good things about electric cars that people usually talk about. You know, it's going to displace imported oil and stop global warming. But I want to talk about some things that are a good deal more apparent to the naked eye. The electric car does not emit any heat. so that on a hot summer day, if you replace all these internal combustion engines, Manhattan will be cooler. But more important than that, it will be quieter. The electric car doesn't make much noise. If you imagine all the screeching and screaming of the cars that travel now, gone, you have a city that's cooler and quieter, and then there's no pollution out of the tailpipe of anything. So that the air is essentially much, much cleaner. Now, those are things that would turn you on for electric cars, and you think you've developed a new idea. And then some senior citizens writes you a letter like they did me last week, with the pages from the December 10, 1898 Harper's Bazaar. And guess what the article was about? Electric taxi cabs in New York City. There was a company that operated a fleet of electric taxi cabs in New York, way back at the turn of the century. The charge was 30 cents a passenger mile, and the cabs did about 20 miles per hour. The average in New York today is about 7 miles per hour. So we need to go back to the future and have electrics that are smaller, safer, stronger, quieter, and cleaner.

CURWOOD: Of course I'm wondering if all those New York cabs are quieter because they are electric, that we'll actually hear what the cabbies are saying to each other and us as we drive by.

FREEMAN: Well, we might get educated. I always learn from the New York cab drivers, perhaps as much from the media, as to what the hell's going on.

CURWOOD: Or other things. But seriously, why push the electric in New York where a lot of people don't even use a car? Don't even need a car?

FREEMAN: Well for one reason, this is a culture where people don't live in their automobile for hours at a time, as they do in California. Some people do, I know they can be [phrase?]. But we have a huge number of people who are already dependent on electric transportation in terms of the subways and in terms of the trains. And they are candidates for small electrics to get to the train station, and this is a population that I think would be quite amenable and excited about electric taxi cabs and things. I've conducted my own poll, I've been in New York City for a month. I've asked every cab driver whose cab I've been in, what they would think. I have had no negative response and, you know, these - The cab drivers are perfectly happy and excited, some of them, about the idea of driving cabs where they don't have to pay for all this gasoline. Because the electricity will certainly be a lot cheaper.

CURWOOD: Manhattan certainly has lots of traffic jams. And I'm wondering, what advantage do electric cars have, do you think, for traffic jams?

FREEMAN: They don't use any energy at all when they're in gridlock, and that's where the greater efficiency comes in. If you're stuck in traffic in an electric car, you're not idling. You don't use any energy at all. That's a significant advantage in New York City, believe me.

CURWOOD: The government there in New York has passed this law requiring 2% of all cars manufactured or sold in the state be electric. Now how do you convince people to buy these cars? Do you have one yourself?

FREEMAN: Well I had one in Sacramento. I don't own an automobile in New York City. But I will guarantee you that this utility will have a few soon. But the way they'll be marketed initially is the utilities will help bring them to the market, and they'll be leased on the basis, you know, try one. And if you like it you can keep it; if not, you can turn it back in. And I think there is a great desire by a lot of people to drive a motor vehicle that doesn't add to the pollution or add to the threat of going back to war in the Middle East. And I think that that will be a sizable market initially. I think that the public is hungry for a clean car.

CURWOOD: David Freeman, thank you so much for taking this time with us.

FREEMAN'S: Well thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: David Freeman is the new Chief Executive Officer of the New York Power Authority.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, our director is Debra Stavro, and our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Chris Page, Colleen Singer Coxe, Eve Stewart, Jessika Bella Mura, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Karen Given, and Bill Haslow. 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 W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to protect the global environment; the National Science Foundation; the Pew Charitable Trusts; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside. Additional support comes from the Great Lakes Protection Fund.

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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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