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

November 25, 1994

Air Date: November 25, 1994


Containing the New Rush in the Sierras / Cy Musiker

There's a new rush on in the Sierra Mountain Range. . . but its not gold. It's people. Cy Musiker reports on how environmentalists are working to find common ground with the timber and leisure industries to strike a balance for wilderness preservation and economic growth in this fast growing region in California. (07:46)

Perilous Pipeline

Host Steve Curwood interviews the outgoing Alaskan Governor Walter Hickel. He just returned from Siberia where he witnessed firsthand the damage from the vast Siberian pipeline oil spill. Hickel says it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up and repair. (04:26)

Beijing: Cleaning Up it's Deadly Act / Reese Erlich

It is estimated that in China, air pollution, from coal stoves, diesel and leaded gas, contributes to as many as 150,000 premature deaths each year. Reese Erlich traveled to China and reports on the issue of poor air quality and what measures the government is taking to improve conditions there. (05:42)

Giving Thanks for the Lichens / Alan Durning

Commentator Alan Durning shares his appreciation for not just the small, but the tiny things in life that we have to be thankful for this and every holiday season. (02:48)

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: Andrea Murray, Michael Lawton, Cy Musiker, Reiss Ehrlich
GUEST: Walter Hickel

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Months after a massive oil spill in Siberia, little is being done to clean up the disaster or repair the pipeline. Alaska's governor says the US should be mobilizing to help Russia, but instead is wasting time.

HICKEL: The problem is that even some of the folks in the upper government in the United States don't quite understand the Arctic.

CURWOOD: Also a visit to California's Sierra Nevada mountains, where local residents are working to forge consensus between environmental activists and timber cutters.

MODIC: The rampant developer, raper of the land that people can envision versus the wild-eyed extremist environmentalist. There's not really a place for either one of those in our society anymore.

CURWOOD: That and more on Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living On Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Russian scientists have revealed that the Soviet Union disposed of billions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste by secretly injecting it into the Earth. The New York Times report says the Russian government continues the practice today. The scientists say half of all nuclear waste ever produced into the country has been injected into the ground at 3 sites, and that radiation at one site has spread a great distance, although they did not say how far. The Soviets began the practice over 30 years ago after a series of disasters struck their surface storage facilities. Western scientists, many of whom were shocked at the disclosures, are studying the possible effects but say it could be decades before they can draw firm conclusions.

The Clinton Administration wants the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court's ruling that the Endangered Species Act protects only rare species, not the habitat in which they live. The Act makes it illegal to take, kill, capture, harass, or harm endangered plants or animals. The Administration says the word "harm" gives government power to regulate logging, development, and other activities which indirectly affect the species. An appeals court ruled that interpretation too broad. The protection of wildlife habitat is a cornerstone of the Interior Department's ecosystem-wide species protection efforts, which could be seriously threatened by a ruling against the government.

Meanwhile, the growing state movement against Federal, unfunded mandates for social programs and environmental regulation will be tested in court. Missouri is suing the Federal Government for forcing it to adopt a tough clean air plan for the St. Louis area. Andrea Murray of member station KWMU reports.

MURRAY: The state's plan calls for more accurate emission testing, as well as the use of reduced vapor gasoline, traffic control measures, and tighter standards on small polluters like print shops and dry cleaners. The lawmakers say they were pressured into adopting and paying for the $50 million plan, under threat of Federal sanctions, which included the loss of about $400 million in highway aid. So the legislature asked the state's Attorney General, Jay Nixon, to sue the Federal Government.

NIXON: We feel very strongly that this violates the 10th Amendment of the United States Constitution. That the Congress can't just say you've got to do it and we're not going to pay for it.

MURRAY: Other states with non-compliance problems are watching the case closely. Environmentalists say a victory for Missouri would essentially strip the EPA of its enforcement power. For Living On Earth, I'm Andrea Murray in St. Louis.

NUNLEY: Canada's Hydro Quebec utility will propose smaller hydro-electric projects now that Quebec's government has canceled the controversial Great Whale Dam near James Bay. Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau cited an electricity glut in shelving the project after years of international debate. Environmentalists and Cree Indians oppose the project, which would have flooded 635 square miles of native homeland.

Albania's government says a shipment of illegal pesticides, part of a German aid package, may have caused miscarriages and illnesses when the chemicals leaked from their containers. That's according to a report by the Reuters News Agency, and as Michael Lawton reports from Bonn, Germany has agreed to take the chemicals back.

LAWTON: The pesticide, which was originally manufactured in East Germany, was sent to Albania in 1991 and '92 by a West German company which has since gone broke. The Albanian government didn't know what to do with the 460 tons of in some cases highly poisonous and illegal material, which was marked as humanitarian aid. Greenpeace found the pesticide in 1992 in a number of unsecured stores, including a parked freight train from which the pesticide was simply leaking into the ground. But it was only this year, after Greenpeace brought back one-and-a-half tons of the stuff and blocked a bridge on the Franco-German border with it, that the German government offered to help. Now, in an action costing over $4 million, the pesticides have been brought back home to be disposed of. This is Michael Lawton in Bonn for Living on Earth.

NUNLEY: Disposing of computers in the US is a growing concern and a growing business. A recent study says 150 million computers will be thrown away by the year 2005. Among the problems, lead contamination from discarded circuit boards and cathode ray tubes. Eric Buechel is the founder of the New Jersey-based computer recycler Advanced Recovery.

BUECHEL: When they go into a landfill and they're crushed up, the tiny glass particles that have been tainted with lead leach into the soil much quicker than if you were to take a 10,000-pound slab and throw it into a landfill.

NUNLEY: Instead, Buechel's company and several others recycle the lead and salvage and resell components such as circuit boards and memory chips. The remaining computer innards are melted down to recapture the small amounts of gold, silver, and platinum used in making circuits. The company already recycles hundreds of thousands of computers a month, most of them from businesses.

That's this week's Living On Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Containing the New Rush in the Sierras

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many consider California's Sierra Nevada mountains to be a national treasure, and they certainly provided riches back in the days of the gold rush. Today there's a new rush: the range of tall pines and wild lands is the fastest-growing region of California, and local residents are wary. Some are wary of development; others are concerned that distant environmental regulators and activists will try to choke off the local economy. But instead of pointing fingers, some of these residents are trying to put aside their differences and build a consensus for their future, in what they call the Sierra Nevada Alliance. Cy Musiker reports.

(Meetings, mulled conversation)

MUSIKER: About 100 environmental activists are gathered for seminars on log benches in lakeside campgrounds. Mammoth mountains, alpine spires tower overhead. The keynote address sets the theme for the two days of meetings. Martha Davis led a successful 10-year campaign to save nearby Mono Lake. Now she's working to define a broader challenge: how to protect the environment of the entire Sierra while maintaining a healthy rural economy.

DAVIS: You have to understand the other side's needs, and you've got to find the common ground. It's hard. But you have to come back to the home point. All politics is community.

MUSIKER: That's the focus of this conference and the Alliance. And local environmentalists can best protect the Sierra by forming coalitions with others in the region, especially with traditional adversaries such as loggers, ranchers, or developers.

(Running stream)

LAWRENCE: To me, the real moving force and energy behind a group such as the Sierra Nevada Alliance is the fact that it is our back yard, and the sense that it's being eroded by outside influences over which we have no control.

MUSIKER: Alliance president Andrea Lawrence is the only American ever to win 2 gold medals in Alpine skiing. Now a county supervisor, she considers herself a strong environmentalist. She's also worked as a resort consultant. So Lawrence brings a kind of realpolitik to her environmental goals.

LAWRENCE: Our project is the environment. That's the economy I'm talking about. It means that when we build in our communities, or we design them or we plan them, we plan them with our environment in mind. Industry is changing and social values are changing. Those who are changing with it are going to survive.

(Footfalls, conversation: "These stumps are all pretty well decomposed...")

MUSIKER: We're over 150 miles north of Mammoth, tromping through a thick fir and pine forest around 4,000 feet. It's here in these woods that the changes Lawrence is talking about are starting to take place.

(Bird song)

BLUM: How high would you gauge the lowest branch on this tree to be?

DELASSAUX: The lowest branch is, I'd guess 100 feet.

MUSIKER: Michael Delassaux and Linda Blum are standing under a massive sugar pine 250 high and perhaps 400 years old. Delassaux is a forester with the University of California, Blum a self-described environmental wacko and board member with the Sierra Alliance. The sugar pine is dying now from drought and pine beetles. It's a good test site for a dialogue on forest values.

DELASSAUX: This is the challenge: what do you do with this tree? The sugar pine, as a conifer, is the most valued wood species. I want to say tens of thousands of dollars right here just because of the value of sugar pine boards.

BLUM: I'm going to be arguing really strongly that this tree ought to be marked as a wildlife snag and that it ought to stay here and not be cut down. One thing is, I mean, this one is so large and it will last so long as a snag, that Mike's grandkids ought to be able to come and see this tree. And there's really very, very few examples of what this land used to produce in the way of trees. Not having trees this size in the forest when all we see are the second growth, we lose the concept of what the land is capable of producing.

MUSIKER: Delassaux and Blum may usually disagree, but they've joined in a plan to save the forest with other loggers, timber company executives, and environmentalists. After years of drought the Sierra may be vulnerable to catastrophic fires. So the plan calls for loggers to harvest tinder-dry debris for biomass and chip board, and log white fir, which chokes out other native trees. That would produce jobs and improve the health of the forest. The plan has been soundly criticized by both environmentalists and timber companies from outside the region. But Blum says Sierra communities have to find their own solutions.

BLUM: We have a stake here. We're not trying to make this our playground, which is the stereotype that's very often applied to us. This is our back yard; we live here. And we acknowledge that our neighbors also live here and want to make a living here, but we want to make sure that it's not just a working forest but it's a forest where everything still works.

MUSIKER: This kind of cooperation is a step toward the Alliance's goals but there's still deep distrust among the many interest groups with competing visions for the Sierra. Many loggers and environmentalists still don't trust each other, and there are still bridges to be built with mining interests, many resort operators, and housing developers.

(Brass band plays)

MUSIKER: Back in Mammoth Lakes, while Sierra Alliance members debate eco-politics, the town is packed with Los Angeles vacationers here for a jazz festival. Mammoth Lakes' Chamber of Commerce president, Jeff Modic, helped organize the festival. He wasn't invited to the Sierra Alliance conference just up the road, so he questions their commitment to balancing economics with the environment.

MODIC: Sometimes I wonder if they wouldn't be happier if all the people left the Sierras and left it to the mountain lions and grizzly bears.

MUSIKER: Modic manages lodges for the ski area. He says Sierra businesses recognize that they depend as much on mountain beauty and clean trout streams as on new hotels, housing, and golf courses.

MODIC: If you've walked the Lodestar, which is only, they've just been knocking down some of the trees for the fairways, as a golfer I can tell you that's going to be a very tough course to play because it's trees on all, all around you. And if you drive by it even today you wouldn't even notice that it's there. So -

MUSIKER: On the other hand, it doesn't look like sagebrush and lodgepole pine.

MODIC: No. But we have plenty of that around us. It's - the key is to let neither faction, again the rampant developer, raper of the land that people can envision, versus the wild-eyed extremist environmentalist. There's not really a place for either one of those in our society any more.

(Ball being sliced on golf course. Golfer: "Oh yeah. Oh yeah! You'd love that one.")

MUSIKER: The very conference site at Mammoth Lakes epitomizes the contradictions in a group which wants to support jobs and the environment. These activists are meeting here, after all, because the resort area sets wild alpine vistas next to good roads, fax machines, and an airport. All doorways, which invite more settlers and visitors into a fragile environment.

(Laughter, man's voice: "I know. Believe me, I know.")

MUSIKER: Back at the lake, Alliance members are packing up their tents and coolers, heading home, or off to inspect a clear-cut site after 2 days of meetings. This year-old group is still struggling to frame its vision of a sustainable Sierra environment and economy. They've begun the tough process of breaking down years of distrust between environmentalists and loggers, resort developers, and new settlers, but it will be many more years, if ever, before they can find a vision for the region these parties can agree on. For Living On Earth, I'm Cy Musiker reporting.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Perilous Pipeline

CURWOOD: In August an oil pipeline in Siberia failed, causing a massive oil spill that may well dwarf the Exxon Valdez disaster. News about the spill, including its exact size, has been hard to come by, partly due to the remoteness of the area and Russian secrecy. Alaska's governor Walter Hickel recently visited the spill on behalf of the Northern Forum, an organization of 24 circumpolar governments, of which he is the Secretary General. Governor Hickel is back now from Siberia, and calling for fast action from the US and other governments.

HICKEL: It was a situation that, on our side of the world, we'd have been out there cleaning it up with massive equipment. And there literally wasn't that much going on, hardly anything.

CURWOOD: Does it look recent? Or this has been going on for some time?

HICKEL: Well, I think they told me it started leaking several months ago, and they got down to it about August. And they're still pumping oil through there. And I think the problem is that even some of the folks in the upper government of the United States don't quite understand the Arctic.

CURWOOD: Well, some have told us that if you do clean-ups there that you'll damage the permafrost. That one has to be very careful -

HICKEL: No, that's not true at all.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

HICKEL: Permafrost is the best protection you can get and the best time to clean it up.

CURWOOD: What about the heavy equipment? Won't it break it up?

HICKEL: No. We do all our drilling and everything on the permafrost, and so you don't break permafrost up. Permafrost goes down maybe 2,000 feet.

CURWOOD: Please, look at your crystal ball and give me a dollar amount what's needed here. The pipeline first, and then the clean-up.

HICKEL: Well that would be kind of hard. I just don't know for sure. But it's going to be considerable. It'll be hundreds of millions. Probably.

CURWOOD: Who's going to pay for it? They can't afford it.

HICKEL: Well, the exporting of the oil itself, I think that can have a possible way to help pay for it. There might be some grants even from Arctic countries that are around there like Norway, for an example, because if you look at the globe this could get down to the Barents Sea. It might be remote, but it could. And then it would go east, past Norway, and hit those rich fisheries areas. So these are all the things that are possible, and these are all the things that we have to take care of if we have a spill like that in the Arctic, in our part of the Arctic.

CURWOOD: I wanted to ask you, from what you've seen in Russia, how did this make you feel about the potential for a catastrophic spill in our own Arctic, in Alaska, your state?

HICKEL: Oh, we have, without a doubt, I've toured the world Arctic many times. Prudhoe Bay, for an example, is the finest environmental production on earth barring none, Arctic or sub-Arctic or just temperate zone.

CURWOOD: The Bureau of Land Management recently had a team of experts audit the condition of the Alaska pipeline. That report called the pipeline a disaster waiting to happen. Are you concerned that if something pops there?

HICKEL: That's not true. We've been pumping oil out there since 1977 and 8. The design of that is excellent. Three hundred fifty miles of that pipeline is above ground. If they have a 5-gallon spill it's monitored; they know it. Prudhoe Bay's a great example of how to do it right. I'm not saying that because I'm governor of Alaska; I'm saying that because I've traveled the world Arctic.

CURWOOD: If this spill had happened in the United States or Canada or Europe it would be, you know, big on the Nightly News for a long time. Are you worried that the Russian citizenry is pretty quiet on this?

HICKEL: Well it's just the system. I've been working with the Russians for nearly, over 30 years. And the system is just a little different. They're proud people, they're trying to solve their own problems, they don't necessarily, many times, want to ask for help. They want you to understand them, they always figure they're going to be misunderstood, and that's why they kind of have that closed system.

CURWOOD: And have we misunderstood them about this spill?

HICKEL: About this spill, no. I think the spill is bigger than they quite realize or are talking about. And I'm suggesting, tell the world what happened, the world will come in and try to help them out, and help solve the problem. And I think that's part of the solution to the problem.

CURWOOD: Alaska governor Wally Hickel recently returned from surveying the massive oil spill in Usinsk, Siberia.

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(Music up and under)

Beijing: Cleaning Up it's Deadly Act

CURWOOD: Pollution is often the hallmark of rapid development, and no place is this more obvious than Beijing, China's burgeoning capital city. On many days an ominous gray pall hangs over Beijing's skyline, and some researchers claim that as many as 150,000 deaths in China every year can be blamed on air pollution. The Chinese government recently announced ambitious plans to improve air quality, but as Reiss Ehrlich reports, so far the efforts seem to be long on rhetoric and short on action.

(Sounds of steaming)

EHRLICH: The cook tosses some vegetables into this sizzling wok, which sits firmly on a coal-burning stove. In this Beijing courtyard of 18 families, the smoke from 18 stoves forms thin columns rising into the noontime sky. These and millions of other Beijing coal stoves contribute mightily to the city's air pollution. Bai Hai Wa is a courtyard resident.

WA: [Speaks in Chinese]
TRANSLATOR: Yes, we understand that coal causes air pollution. Many of our neighbors use coal to cook. In our family we try to use natural gas as much as possible, but we don't have enough natural gas so we can both cook and keep warm. In about 3 years the government will solve the problem by building a gas pipeline to supply Beijing.

EHRLICH: That natural gas pipeline is part of a clean air plan developed by the Chinese government. In addition to burning coal, Beijing's air is awash in pollution from virtually uncontrolled growth of factories and vehicle traffic. One Washington, DC-based environmental group estimates air pollution annually causes 150,000 premature deaths throughout urban China.

(Machinery. Voice: "It's just a start...")

EHRLICH: The foundry at this Beijing auto factory used to have an ancient coal-burning furnace, but under government pressure management installed modern equipment. A factory official at this American-Chinese joint venture explains.

OFFICIAL: The old smokestack is basically coal-burning, the new, we put in a disamatic line where you do a lot of heat with electric, you get rid of all the coal-burning and sludge and that type of thing. It's just a much cleaner method.

EHRLICH: The new equipment also improves the foundry's efficiency. Government officials say most industries cooperate voluntarily because anti-pollution efforts also help their factories. Gu Jia Cheng is deputy director of the Beijing environmental bureau.

GU: [Speaks in Chinese]
TRANSLATOR: Most of the factory managers are willing to buy pollution control devices. The workers want and price, they invest some money in buying such devices. However, if the pollution standards are exceeded, then the companies will be fined.

EHRLICH: The system doesn't always work that smoothly. Factory managers in China often make the same arguments as their American counterparts, but with more success. Jonathan Sinton is a researcher with the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

SINTON: A lot of factories make economic arguments. They say if we, if we implement this, then we're going to be losing a lot of money. We can't afford to keep people that work and since large state-owned firms are big employers, often the local authorities will tell the local environmental protection bureau to back off.

EHRLICH: Critics say there are other institutional problems. Eighty percent of fines levied by the environmental bureau is returned to the company to pay for air clean-up. Thus, only 20% is punitive. Under this system, critics say, it's cheaper for unscrupulous factory managers to buy anti-pollution devices and never operate them, because the environmental bureau doesn't follow up once the equipment is purchased. Jonathan Sinton says even honest managers often can't afford to buy the expensive, foreign-design devices.

(Sounds of traffic)

EHRLICH: If enforcing laws against industry is tough, just take a look at Beijing's ever-mounting car and truck pollution. Ten years ago, Beijing was worried about too many bicycles clogging the streets. Today, thousands of diesel trucks and lead gasoline-spewing cars line the city's thoroughfares. Environmental bureau official Gu explains the government recently tightened its auto emissions standards.

GU: [Speaks in Chinese]
TRANSLATOR: These cars and trucks clearly pollute too much. They are required to install pollution control devices. We have an annual check on all cars to see if they pass the emission requirements. Sometimes police will randomly check them on the street.

EHRLICH: But Jonathan Sinton says the new emissions regulations are generally ignored because vehicles are so vital to the city's booming economy.

SINTON: There's generally considered a shortage of vehicles on the road. There's huge demand, and to take a vehicle out of service just because it doesn't meet emission standards would seem ridiculous to them.

EHRLICH: That tension between the push for economic development and a clean environment is being felt all over China. The country's gross national product is growing by nearly 10% per year, and environmental issues have taken a back seat. Now, the government seems serious about making the environment a greater priority, but it will take years of sustained commitment and tough enforcement for those efforts to bear fruit. For Living on Earth, I'm Reiss Ehrlich in Beijing.

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(Music up and under)

Giving Thanks for the Lichens

CURWOOD: Holiday dinners are the time we traditionally toast our family, friends, good food, and good health. But commentator Alan Durning wishes we would also toast the little things in nature that make all these possible.

(Dinner table conversation followed by a tapping on a glass: "A toast, a toast.")

DURNING: Here's to fungus, bacteria, and yeast. To algae, protozoans and worms, to leeches, to insects, to mold! (Young boy: "Mold? Yucko!")

Imagine a holiday toast like that. Imagine the stare you'd get from your children. But when you think about it, a holiday dinner wouldn't be possible if it weren't for thousands of oozing, slimy critters.

Fungus, bacteria and worms, they gave us this turkey. See, the fungus and bacteria fertilize the soil by rotting dead plants. Then the worms loosen the dirt and allow corn to grow. Without corn, turkeys would starve. So here's to fungus, bacteria, and worms. (Girl, whispering: "Dad!")

The list of things that we should toast is endless. There's yeast, and alkali bees. Without yeast, of course, bread wouldn't rise. Without bees, we wouldn't have butter. The bees pollinate alfalfa, which feeds the cows, which make the milk, where we get butter. We owe our health in part to mold and algae and leeches. Mold is where we get penicillin; algae produce a promising new anti-cancer drug. And the saliva from leeches contains a chemical that's good for rheumatism. In fact, Earth's tiniest creatures make it a people-friendly planet.

Mycorrhiza, for instance, the hairy stuff on roots, help plants absorb phosphorous from the ground. No mycorrhiza, no plants. No plants, no oxygen, and no us. Then there's protozoa; they live in the bellies of termites, digesting dead wood. If protozoa weren't there to chew up fallen trees, the logs would pile up and forest fires would rage out of control.
(More dinner table sounds.) Now, many of these connections are pretty obscure. It's no wonder we don't toast the natural world when a feast of turkey or ham lays on the holiday table. Maybe if we could make the connections more relevant...

(Raps glass.) A toast, a toast! Here's to lichen! (Young boy: "Dad...") No, listen. Right now, there's hundreds of kinds of lichen growing in the frozen north. Lichen are what the reindeer eat. And it gives them the strength to pull a sleigh all the way around the world. So a toast to lichen and reindeer in their trip around the world. They're coming soon, son. Soon.

CURWOOD: Alan Durning is president of Northwest Environment Watch. His commentaries are produced by Terry Fitzpatrick at member station KPLU, Seattle.

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(Bing Crosby sings: "I've got plenty to be thankful for. I haven't got a great big yacht to sail from shore to shore. Still I've got plenty to be thankful for. I've got plenty to be thankful for. No private car, no caviar, no carpet on my floor. Still I've got plenty to be thankful for. I've got eyes to see with, ears to hear with, arms to hug with, lips to kiss with, someone to adore. How could anybody ask for more? My needs are small, I buy them all at the 5 and 10 cent store. Oh I've got plenty to be thankful for...)

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is produced at the studios of WBUR, Boston. Michael Aharon composed our theme music. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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