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

April 26, 1996

Air Date: April 26, 1996


Antarctica Series, Part 3: Is Global Warming Affecting Polar Ice Shelves? / Terry FitzPatrick

Terry FitzPatrick reports on the latest research into what is causing large masses of ice to break off the world's frozen continent. If uncontrolled global warming is in fact the cause, predictions forecast a significantly more watery world. (10:20)

Lead and Hypertension in Adults

While many studies have been conducted on the effects of lead exposure in children, Doctor Howard Hu shares findings from a recent study on how exposure to lead manifests as high blood pressure in a number of adults. Steve Curwood speaks with Dr. Hu, the lead author of the recent study cited in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (05:05)

Corporate Camouflage / Jim Hightower

Jim Hightower comments on names of wildlife organizations that sound too green to be true — and are. (03:00)

Living on Earth's 5th Anniversary on the Air

We celebrate the fact that this is our 265th consecutive program on National Public Radio since we went on the air in April 1991. Founder, executive producer and host Steve Curwood reflects on some of the environmental changes over the past half decade in a brief essay, with appreciation for our listeners. (01:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about nuclear bomb testing in the Nevada desert. (01:30)

Montana Superfund Site / Jyl Hoyt

The Anaconda copper mining complex was operational for one hundred years. Now its legacy is that with 120 miles of surrounding contaminated waterways, it is one of the nation's largest Superfund sites. From Butte, Montana, Jyl Hoyt reports on some of the difficulties encountered in cleaning up the region. (08:30)

Carved from the Arctic

Steve Curwood speaks with artist and author James Houston whose book is titled Confessions of an Igloo Dweller: Memories of the Old Arctic. Houston is largely responsible for the increased awareness and interest in Inuit art carvings which have brought monetary rewards to the remote population and incidentally changed many of their ways by having the means to buy snowmobiles. (16:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 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: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Jennifer Schmidt, David Wright, Terry FitzPatrick, Jyl Hoyt
GUEST: Howard Hu, James Houston
COMMENTATORS: Jim Hightower, Steve Curwood

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Warming temperatures seem to be melting parts of the Antarctic ice pack. Some scientists in Antarctica worry that in the worst case, global climate change could cause a catastrophic rise in sea levels.

ALLEY: It would not be Water World, there would still be land sticking out. But the coastline would look enough different that you wouldn't immediately recognize it. You'd look for that finger of Florida pointing down there and it wouldn't be there.

CURWOOD: Also, low levels of lead have long been linked to brain damage in children. Now, new research links low levels of lead in adults to kidney disease and high blood pressure.

HU: Based on these studies, I think we should seriously think about lowering the acceptable amount of lead exposure in adults towards what it is for children.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, first the news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The budget deal reached by Republican and White House negotiators is being viewed as a mixed blessing by environmental activists. The Environmental Protection Agency's budget has been cut to six and a half billion dollars, $700 million less than it spent last year. The EPA has been forced to cut back on inspection and enforcement activities because of money shortages since last October, but the Administration says it is expected to get additional funds to deal with the backlogs. But riders were dropped or negated on several key issues, including allowing more logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, removing EPA review of wetlands development, and opening Mojave Desert National Park in California to more commercial use.

A Federal appeals court has refused to halt the logging of thousands of acres of healthy old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. A decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is a big victory for the timber industry. In Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt of KPLU reports.

SCHMIDT: The appeals court upheld a broad legal interpretation of the salvage logging rider. The controversial legislation was initially billed as a way to speed the cutting of dead and dying trees. But the timber industry successfully argued before a lower court that the rider also required the release of dozens of old growth timber sales. The Forest Service had halted logging of the sales because of concerns over endangered species. The timber industry is applauding the court's decision and says logging of the stands will have little effect on wildlife. But Patty Goldman of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund maintains the damage will be tremendous.

GOLDMAN: It's -- it's really a devastating decision for the forests, for the future. Some of these sales are going to imperil already harmed fish runs, water supply, hiking trails, and just the various uses of the forest.

SCHMIDT: In explaining its ruling, the appeals court said it's not the court's role to determine the wisdom of the law, only its meaning. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

MULLINS: In the week following Earth Day, House Republicans pushed through several environmental measures, including one that would ban the sale of most rechargeable batteries unless they carry a recycling label and instructions for proper disposal. Such nickel cadmium batteries contain mercury and are a major source of water pollution. The House also passed legislation to purchase land in Hawaii, New York, and Louisiana for wildlife refuges and expand recreational uses at all refuges, possibly endangering wildlife. The bill requires park managers to consider fishing, boating, and hunting as important as wildlife protection when making land use decisions. It also allows expanded military use of refuges while no longer requiring that such uses be compatible with protecting wildlife. The vote on the bill was 287 to 138. Interior Secretary Babbitt said he would ask President Clinton to veto the measure, which now goes onto the Senate.

Members of the Sierra Club have voted overwhelmingly to toughen their stand against commercial logging on public lands, despite the wishes of some of the group's leaders. David Wright of KQED reports.

WRIGHT: Each year the half million members of the Sierra Club vote to elect the group's Board of Directors. Occasionally they also consider policy items brought by individual members. This year, by a 2 to 1 margin, the members approved what may be the most controversial ballot initiative the club has considered in a decade. Executive Director Carl Pope says the new policy puts the Sierra Club on record for the first time in more than a century against all commercial logging on Federally owned forest land.

POPE: Our members felt that the U.S. Forest Service has done such a terrible job of managing the national forests that the best thing to do is simply to phase out logging completely and protect those lands instead of trying to do commercial logging on them.

WRIGHT: Some members of the Sierra Club Board campaigned against the initiative, saying it would be bad environmental policy and bad politics. The question is to some extent academic. Congress is not considering a bill to impose a ban on logging, nor would such a bill be likely to pass in the current political climate. For Living on Earth, I'm David Wright.

MULLINS: Fires that burned 5,000 acres of forests near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant prove the world needs to invest in managing forests contaminated by the 1986 nuclear disaster. That's the conclusion of a UN report, which warns that forest fires can kick up radioactive dust from the disaster. The forest around the nuclear power plant will remain radioactive for thousands of years. Previous forest fires sent nearly 350 tons of radioactive ash into the atmosphere according to the UN report, which urged the international community to pay for cleaning up the forest. The G7 nations have already pledged more than $3 billion for the clean-up of Chernobyl. Ukrainian officials say they have received none of that money.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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(Theme music up and under)

Antarctica Series, Part 3: Is Global Warming Affecting Polar Ice Shelves?

At the remote Taylor Valley Field Camp, scientists from the University of Maine are studying how periods of global warming affected the polar ice cap millions of years ago, in an effort to more fully understand the consequences of global warming today.

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The dramatic blizzards, droughts, heat waves and hurricanes we've had in recent years have focused attention on some of the potential affects of global warming. There's another consequence of climate change, though, that in the long run could cause even greater problems worldwide. If a lot of polar ice melts in Antarctica, global sea level could rise dramatically, forcing millions of people to flee their homes. For the past 50 years, sections of Antarctica have been melting, but researchers aren't sure if it's part of a natural cycle or the result of greenhouse gas pollution from humans. Either way, the future of the ice cap is in question, as Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick discovered while accompanying research teams to Antarctica earlier this year.

(Winds whipping)

FITZPATRICK: No place on Earth is as cold and forbidding as the windswept interior of Antarctica, a region one and a half times the size of the United States that is draped by glaciers up to 3 miles thick.

(Wind continues)

FITZPATRICK: This frigid landscape makes a lasting impression on people who come here, even seasoned researchers like Kerry Peterson.

PETERSON: It's just you and the raw force of nature. There's the sky and there's the snow and that's it. And the horizon is just so broad, you can almost see the curvature of the Earth. I like it because you have the sense that you're really on a planet hurtling through space.

FITZPATRICK: A fragile planet, which Antarctica keeps livable. Think of Antarctica as a giant ice cube in a glass of water, cooling the world's oceans. As well, Antarctica's vast expanse of snow reflects sunlight back into space, cooling the Earth's surface. The snow fields and glaciers are also like a giant reservoir, locking up 70% of the world's fresh water and keeping global sea level in check.

(A clang; a motor runs)

FITZPATRICK: Because Antarctica plays a crucial role in shaping the world's environment, researchers are eager to learn if global warming could cause the ice cap to melt. To find out, they're drilling to the very bottom of the ice to look for clues.

PETERSON: We got -- oh, yes! Yes!

MAN: That's nice.

PETERSON: All right.

FITZPATRICK: Ms. Peterson and her colleagues from the California Institute of Technology are pulling up an ice core.

PETERSON: Oh, beautiful.

MAN: That's perfect.

FITZPATRICK: Three feet long and 3 inches around, this core contains a unique kind of ice formed by intense pressure inside the ice cap. The core starts to crackle as air bubbles begin to escape.

(Crackling sounds, feet on snow)

PETERSON: Oh, look at the clear ice! God, it's beautiful.

ENGLEHART: This whole thing is one single crystal. Huge single crystals.

FITZPATRICK: Researcher Erman Englehardt hopes these crystals can explain why parts of the ice cap are breaking loose from Antarctica's bedrock and surging toward the ocean at the rate of 4 feet per day. Known as fast flowing streams, several of these massive rivers of ice have been discovered in western Antarctica. They have the potential to drain the entire West Antarctic ice sheet into the sea.

ENGLEHARDT: The ice streams can carry away large quantities of ice in a relatively short time. And if their movement changes, for instance, if they widen or they speed up, they can change the balance of the ice sheet dramatically. So we need to understand what controls the speed of these ice streams.

FITZPATRICK: This is where global warming might be involved. It might change how rapidly the streams empty into the ocean. Right now, the streams are kept in check by floating ice shelves that line the Antarctic coast. The floating shelves act like giant dams, holding back the streams. If global warming causes the ice shelves to melt, the ice streams would be free to race unchecked into the sea. The West Antarctic ice sheet could collapse.

ENGLEHARDT: And that could happen in a short time span like 50, 100 years, maybe 500 years. This we don't know exactly.

FITZPATRICK: In the past 50 years, 5 minor ice shelves have disappeared, the result of a 5-degree rise in temperature along the Antarctic coast. But the most important ice shelves seem stable for now. It's unclear how warm it must get before they could be in danger of melting.

(Indoor fans running)

FITZPATRICK: To find out if the West Antarctic ice sheet is likely to collapse in the future, researchers are trying to determine how it's responded to warming in the past.

(The fan continues, now with cellophane crackling)

FITZPATRICK: In a refrigerated lab, Richard Alley of Penn State University examines Antarctic ice cores beneath a microscope.

(Crackling continues)

FITZPATRICK: Just as rings in a tree reveal its age, the layers of an ice core are a window to the past.

ALLEY: And so you can say well, 10,000 years ago it snowed this much, and someone else will measure the dust and somebody will measure the composition of the gas bubbles that are trapped in the air. And we pretty soon start to draw a picture of the past climate. And so we're working very hard on reading that: what happened in the world's climate, what did that do to the ice sheets?

FITZPATRICK: Dr. Alley says the West Antarctic ice sheet has probably collapsed before and could collapse again. If it does, the massive melting of ice would raise global sea level by 20 feet. Twenty feet might not sound like much, but it's enough to inundate several small islands in the Pacific, and low-lying coastal regions in Southeast Asia, western Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern US. More than 200 million people could be forced to move. Millions of acres of farmland would be lost. Some communities would have to build extensive sea walls to protect against hurricanes and storms. However, it's not time to sell the beach house yet.

ALLEY: I wish to emphasize that this is not a prediction, this is the worst thing that could happen. And we have not yet been able to prove that it can't happen.

FITZPATRICK: Actually, there is one worse scenario which involves the eastern part of Antarctica melting along with the west. The east contains the bulk of Antarctica's ice, and if it goes, sea level could rise more than 200 feet. That would be a flood of Biblical proportions.

ALLEY: It would not be Water World, there would still be land sticking out. But the coastline would look enough different that you wouldn't immediately recognize it. You'd look for that finger of Florida pointing down there and it wouldn't be there.

(A helicopter chops)

FITZPATRICK: From the air, Eastern Antarctica looks just as frozen and desolate as the west. But there are major differences, which have sparked a scientific debate about whether it's possible for this part of the continent to melt. The eastern ice sheet is firmly fixed on high ground, and it's been that way, according to some researchers, for 15 million years. If these researchers are right, the eastern ice cap has survived several periods of global warming.

(Digging sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Other scientists, though, have uncovered evidence that East Antarctica has melted as recently as 3 million years ago.

HARWOOD: I'm trying to dig down as far as I can and see what's been accumulating here.

FITZPATRICK: David Harwood from the University of Nebraska has discovered plankton, leaves, and twigs in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, one of the few ice-free regions of the continent. The only way they could get here, contends Dr. Harwood, is for the eastern ice to have melted, raising sea level and turning much of inland Antarctica into a beach.

HARWOOD: And the evidence that we're debating now would suggest that once those ice sheets formed, that they didn't stay, that they came and went and came and went.

(Digging sounds continue)

FITZPATRICK: Some researchers think Dr. Harwood is wrong. They believe the plankton and leaves were blown here by the wind. The debate has touched off a feud between rival camps of geologists over whose version of Antarctic history is correct. But the critical question is whether East Antarctica might melt in the future. On that point, Dr. Harwood isn't sure.

HARWOOD: The East Antarctic ice sheet in the past has been a key player. Whether or not future warming will, you know, bring Eastern Antarctica back into the game, I don't know.

FITZPATRICK: This uncertainty underscores how difficult it is to predict the future of the Antarctic ice cap. Various research panels have published widely differing views about what's likely to happen here in the next 100 years. Some scientists even think global warming could cause the ice to grow, by increasing snowfall throughout the continent. However, researchers do agree on this: Antarctica is isolated from the rest of the world but it's not immune to global environmental change. And just as importantly, we're not immune from what happens at the bottom of the Earth. For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

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(High winds continue. Music up and under)

CURWOOD: One in 4 Americans has high blood pressure. New research links it to an environmental poison: lead. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Lead and Hypertension in Adults

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Today, nearly 1 in 4 Americans has high blood pressure, or hypertension. Elevated blood pressure can lead to heart attacks and strokes, but in most cases doctors say they don't know why people get it. There are some well-known links. Being overweight, smoking cigarettes, and failing to get exercise are some. And now, some researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have come up with another one: low level exposure to lead. Even small amounts of lead have been shown to cause neurological disorders in children, but the Harvard group is the first to look at how low doses might affect adults. Their study of 500 men, just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found a strong link between lead and hypertension. Dr. Howard Hu was the lead author.

HU: If you compare the men with the lowest fifth of lead in their bone to the men with the highest fifth of lead in their bones, the risk goes up 50%.

CURWOOD: Now when you say the top fifth, are you talking about the top fifth of the United States, are you talking about everybody, or just your study?

HU: Well, these were men who had the usual garden variety exposures to lead that all of us had in the 1960s and 1970s. The fact that they had very few high untoward or occupational exposures to lead makes me conclude that this is representative of middle aged to elderly men throughout the entire country.

CURWOOD: At what levels are people showing hypertension? What are the lead levels that cause problems?

HU: Our study did not show a specific level above which there's a risk and below which there is no risk. Rather, the increasing amount of levels of lead that show up in your bones confers incremental increases in risk for hypertension.

CURWOOD: So it's fairly parallel, if you --

HU: That's right --

CURWOOD: -- have 50% more lead than somebody else, you might have a 50% more chance of hypertension.

HU: That's correct.

CURWOOD: Why do you think there's a link between lead and hypertension?

HU: Well, lead is an omnipotent toxin. It really affects enzyme systems that are critical to the function of many organs throughout the body. But we think that the main target organs, in terms of hypertension, are the kidney and perhaps the direct, the vascular system itself. You know, in our companion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association, we show that very low levels of lead lead to kidney impairment. So, since the kidney is a critical organ for the control of blood pressure, you put these 2 articles together and it suggests that low levels of lead affect the kidney, and that kidney damage leads to hypertension.

CURWOOD: What about race and ethnicity in this? Blacks seem to have a much higher hypertension rate than the white population. Is there any link here to lead, do you think?

HU: That's another interesting question that we'd like to investigate. Blacks not only have much higher risk of hypertension, but they also have, on average, higher exposures to lead if you look at blood lead levels. Well, you put those 2 facts together and it makes you wonder whether blacks are inordinately susceptible to hypertension because of their exposure to lead.

CURWOOD: What do you think should be the safe levels of exposure to lead, based on your studies?

HU: Well, based on these studies, I think we should seriously think about lowering the acceptable amount of lead exposure in adults towards what it is for children. We measure lead exposure by using blood lead levels, which is adequate, because blood lead levels reflect your ongoing exposure, and the current standard for children is 10 micrograms per deciliter. We don't allow children to have levels above that. Right now the level that's acceptable for adults is 40, and perhaps we should lower it to 10.

CURWOOD: What's to be done? If someone has lead in their body, they have hypertension, what tests should they have? And if they have this stuff, how can they get it out of their body, or can they?

HU: Well, it's premature to conclude that lead induced hypertension can not only be identified in individuals but also treated. That's research that needs to be done, now that studies like our own have found this relationship.

CURWOOD: But wait a second. You're saying that 20% of adult men can blame some of their hypertension on lead, but you say you haven't proved this?

HU: No, what I'm saying is that this effect, which I do believe is probably a causal effect, may not be reversible. If it is reversible, then it opens up an interesting possibility that we can treat hypertension by neutralizing lead burden in a definitive way. You know, most Americans when they develop hypertension have to take drugs for life. If this is a cause of hypertension that's treatable, perhaps we can treat it and cure it.

CURWOOD: Dr. Howard Hu is an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. He recently published two studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association, one linking bone lead levels to impaired kidney functioning, the other linking it to hypertension. Thank you.

HU: Thanks for inviting me.

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(Music up and under)

Corporate Camouflage

CURWOOD: Camouflage is common in the environment, from the tiger's stripes to the chameleon changing its color. All sorts of animals take on disguises to protect themselves or gain an advantage on their prey. As commentator Jim Hightower points out, disguise has also become common among advocacy groups.

HIGHTOWER: There is a town in West Texas named Knot. K-N-O-T. For their official slogan, the locals brag that they are, quote, "the only town in Texas that is Knot, Texas." Well, things get a little slow out there. But now that we know what's Knot and what's not, let's ask what these things are. The National Wetlands Coalition. Friends of Eagle Mountain. Californians for Balanced Wildlife Management. Global Climate Coalition. Wilderness Impact Research Foundation. And one of my favorites, Northwesterners for More Fish. Of course, they're all environmental organizations. Aren't they? Not! Even in nature, not everything is as it appears to be, and in the unnatural world of politics, hardly anything is what it appears to be. The National Wetlands Coalition? It consists of oil drillers, developers, and other corporations that want to drain America's wetlands. Friends of Eagle Mountain is the political front for a mining company that wants to create the world's largest landfill in -- you guessed it -- Eagle Mountain California. Some friends. Californians for Balanced Wlidlife Management want to balance wildlife with death. It's a group that hopes to kill more mountain lions. The Global Climate Coalition is made up of and by corporations that cause global warming. And the Wilderness Impact bunch represents loggers in Nevada who want to have their own unique impact on the wilderness: cutting it down. Oh -- Northwesterners for More Fish? This is a PR front created in Washington, DC, by a half dozen former Republican Party hatchet men. It is funded by utilities, aluminum companies, oil and chemical corporations, the timber giants, and others whose industrial activities actually result in less fish. The front is organized to oppose Federal efforts to protect fish habitats on the Columbia River and other waterways of the Pacific Northwest. It is a testament to the deep popularity of the environmental cause that these polluters feel they have to masquerade as pro-environmental groups. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But this isn't flattery. It's fakery. I don't think it's going to work for them, though. It's kind of like putting earrings on a hog. They just can't hide the ugliness.

CURWOOD: Former Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower is a political commentator based in Austin.

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(Music up and under)

Living on Earth's 5th Anniversary on the Air

CURWOOD: And finally for now, I'd like to mark an anniversary. Five years ago this month, Living on Earth began its weekly broadcasts. Now, we created this program for you, because we feel it is vital to report and discuss here on public radio the rapid pace of environmental change. Our job as journalists is to help you make informed decisions, and there are few choices more important than those matters affecting the presence and quality of life. Much has happened over these past 5 years. When we started, there were predictions that humans would change the global climate. Now science says global warming is indeed here.

In our early shows, the big health worry about toxic chemicals was cancer. Cancer is still with us, but we've reported more and more about how persistent toxics may present an even larger threat to our health with reproductive problems, immune disorders, and neurological impairment. Now there's been some good news, too. The world's nations have virtually halted the production of ozone-destroying CFCs. Businesses have begun to adopt an ecological ethic. And even more people have found the power of natural connections in their lives. So, it's time to thank you, our listeners, and everyone else who has made this program possible these past 5 years, and ask your indulgence to continue. At the beginning, someone asked me how we would ever find enough stories on the environment for Living on Earth to last more than a few months. My answer then as now was, how will we ever find enough time to do all the stories that need to be done?

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(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our reports on the Antarctic were supported in part by a travel grant from the National Science Foundation, and produced at KPLU in Seattle. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics; the Joyce Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the Ford Foundation.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up in the second half of Living on Earth, we'll meet the man credited with bringing the beauty of Inuit art into the wider world.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: This year marks the 45th anniversary of open-air nuclear bomb testing at the Nevada proving ground, 75 miles outside of Las Vegas. Between 1951 and 1958, there were more than 100 nuclear explosions at the site. The 100,000 people who lived in the area were told the tests posed no danger to them. Scientists originally thought the fallout from the blast would be limited to a 100-mile radius. In fact it reached thousands of miles into Canada and beyond New England. Some historians argue that the highly visible testing program served as a strong deterrent to the Soviet Union, but it came at a high cost at home. According to a study conducted by Dr. Linus Pauling, the test doubled the number of leukemia cases in the nation to an estimated 10,000. Prostate cancer was also found to be elevated among soldiers present at the site. The best known victims of the testing? John Wayne, and the rest of the cast and crew of the film The Conquerer, most of whom died of cancer. The movie, about the Mongolian hero Genghis Khan, was filmed downwind from one of the explosions. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Montana Superfund Site

CURWOOD: For about 100 years the Anaconda Copper Mining Complex just outside of Butte, Montana, brought lots of jobs and plenty of riches to the area. But when the ore played out, Montana was left with a toxic zone along its various waterways, the total more than 120 miles in length. And now the area is listed as one of the nation's largest Superfund sites. Just about everyone agrees it needs to be cleaned up, but there's little agreement among government officials, environmental activists, land owners, and the mining industry about just how this should be done. From member station KBSU, Jyl Hoyt reports.

(Vehicles motoring on a highway)

HOYT: At the top of the mile-high city of Butte, Montana, is a mile-wide crater of sorts called The Berkeley Pit. It hasn't always been here. Beginning in the late 1800s, the Anaconda Copper Company dug underground tunnels to get at the metal. But in the 1950s Anaconda shifted to open pit mining to get at the low-grade ore here. They used giant bulldozers to gobble up the land. Over a century, miners extracted millions of tons of processed ore from the Butte hill. In the 1980s the mine closed down, and the pits started filling up with water. It became a huge rising lake, full of poisoning acids and heavy metals, a looming threat to people and wildlife.

(People singing about migration)

HOYT: This past fall, 342 snow geese, who were migrating south, landed on the toxic waters of the pit and died. At a memorial service, Butte citizens sing a song that symbolizes both their hurt and anger. Carolyn Bird with the activist group Women's Voices for the Earth, says a state study of the incident found the birds died a horrible death.

BIRD: The insides of their mouths, their throats, their stomachs, were all corroding and peeling off from the high levels of acid and copper and other heavy metals in the water, as well as their kidneys had completely been destroyed by trying to eliminate these toxins. So they died because they landed in the Berkeley Pit.

HOYT: Ms. Bird and others fear that over the long term, the Pit poses serious threats to humans as well as wildlife.

(Earth moving vehicles over gravel)

HOYT: From its edge the Berkeley Pit looks like a giant bowl with concentric rings carved by miners' machines. John Ray, a humanities professor at Montana Tech of the University of Montana, is worried the level of toxic water in the pit will rise so high it might leach into the local water supply.

RAY: What we're concerned about is that if that water permeates the aquifers in Butte for drinking water, it could literally close the city down. And so people are very, very concerned that if the pit is allowed to fill as it has been filling, that it could detrimentally affect the water table, ground water as well as drinking water here in Butte.

(Motors continue)

HOYT: Containing the toxic pollution of the Berkeley Pit is only one of the challenges presented by this Montana Superfund site. The contaminated tailings from the Berkeley Pit were dumped alongside Silver Bowl Creek, an area locals describe now as a "moonscape." Whenever it rains or there are floods, toxic chemicals from the tailings piles wash into the creek, which in turn flows into one of Montana's major rivers, the Clark Fork. The runoff has killed the creek and damaged the river. Candace West monitors natural resources for the State Justice Department.

WEST: If we don't do much, or if we do nothing, it could take hundreds if not thousands of years for any fishery to come back to Silver Bowl Creek or the upper -- or re-establish itself in the upper Clark Fork River.

HOYT: Some advocate a simple solution to solve both problems, the toxic tailings along the creek and the toxic water in the pit. Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center wants those in charge to drain the pit, treat the water, haul the tailings from the floodplain and put them back into the pit, and neutralize them with limestone, then landscape with trees and grass.

JENSEN: It seems almost poetic to me, that you have a big hole, you know where the stuff that came out of the hole is, why don't you go get it and put it back in?

HOYT: The Environmental Protection Agency says this seemingly simple solution would cost billions of dollars. The EPA's Russ Forba says for just $80 million, the water in the pit can be stabilized at a level below that which threatens the aquifer.

FORBA: We think if we keep the whole system below that, that it's impossible for it to enter the drinking water system.

HOYT: As for tailings along Silver Bowl Creek, the EPA and the state say they can safely be stabilized where they are. But the Montana Environmental Information Center's Jim Jensen says burying toxic tailings just leaves the pollution problem for future generations.

JENSEN: We believe that that river has to be cleaned up, the wastes removed from the floodplain, treated to remove the mostly cancer-causing metals which are these heavy metals, arsenic and cadmium and zinc and copper and others.

HOYT: The Berkeley Pit and tailings piles are just 2 parts of this enormous Superfund site, which includes the entire city of Butte, about a third of Anaconda, the city where the copper smelter was, and 140 miles of river. According to state and Federal officials it would cost about $900 million to both reduce the risks to human health and the environment and restore lost resources. As with most Superfund sites there is tremendous debate over who should pay. Before mining stopped, Anaconda was bought by the Atlantic Richfield Company. Now, ARCO and another company, Montana Resources, are responsible for cleaning up the mess. ARCO says it already paid a quarter billion dollars on clean-up. It won't say how much of that went for litigation. ARCO is battling a notion that is at the heart of the Superfund law: retroactive liability. The idea that industry today is responsible for the actions of their predecessors. ARCO's Sandy Stash.

STASH: Clearly people should not be held liable for something that their great great great great grandfathers did that were legal at the time they were done. The industry is paying in two ways. We pay into the Superfund tax. ARCO for instance pays about $40 million a year. And we pay for the clean-ups directly.

HOYT: ARCO has joined an industry-led effort to lobby Congress to change the Superfund law, and absolve industry from most responsibility to pay clean-up costs. But many environmentalists say making companies pay for past pollution is the best way to make sure it won't happen again.

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HOYT: On the desolate edge of the Berkeley Pit, university humanities professor John Ray says as Congress rewrites the Superfund law, it needs to remember Butte history.

RAY: The trouble is we're still dealing with the effects of mining long after most mining operations in the area have ceased, and it certainly illustrates the important point of looking at mining in general, of how if it is not done in an environmentally safe manner, if it is not done in a manner protective of human health and the environment, communities spend decades trying to deal with the problems.

HOYT: Snow is melting away now from the mile-high Berkeley Pit. Local residents hope birds migrating north won't be tempted to land on its toxic waters. ARCO says it will make noises to scare away any birds, something that may have to be done forever to prevent a repeat of the death of the 342 snow geese that landed on the pit last fall. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt.

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CURWOOD: Confessions of an igloo dweller: a white man's experience in the far north is just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Carved from the Arctic

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the far north of Canada, north of Hudson's Bay, lies Baffin Island. The area is home to hundreds of Inuit, but it was largely untouched by modern society until shortly after World War II, when a young artist, Jim Houston, became so intrigued with the area that he hitched his way into the back country on a Medivac plane and decided to stay. His story of life in Canada's north country from 1948 to 1962 is told in his new book Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. He recounts how he began the worldwide trade in Inuit art by collecting their carvings and helping them form an artists' cooperative, which continues to thrive under local control. He also became a government administrator for the region. Jim Houston started his journey into the northern wildlands after he got out of the Canadian army, by packing up his sketchpads and sleeping duffel, and taking a train to the end of the line at the southern tip of James Bay. It was a tiny town called Moose Factory.

HOUSTON: There were no roads, no nothing out there. So I stayed and made drawings of Swampy Creek for about 3 weeks and stayed around with them and so on. And I came to know a bush pilot and a doctor, and so they -- one day the bush pilot came into my room quickly and he said, "Say, how'd you like to fly up north?" I said, "You bet." I didn't quite know what he meant or how far. He said, "I've got to take the doctor in on a medical emergency right now; it's never happened, we're going to a strange place. And if you promise that you'll help woggle the gas and, you know, push the aircraft into the shore when we need to --

CURWOOD: Woggle the gas?

HOUSTON: And jump in the water --

CURWOOD: Woggle the gas?

HOUSTON: Woggle the gas. Yeah, we used to put a pump down there and push, make it go back and forth like a cistern pump, and it would pump the gas up out of the barrel and into the airplane. So he said if I'd promise to do that I could go free. That was the principal word.

CURWOOD: Free. Now how far north did you go?

HOUSTON: Well, I was already a thousand miles or more north of anywhere, and I went another thousand miles north. I was in wonderful Inuit country. So I was surrounded by laughing, short, brown people; after a summer their skin was like mahogany and they were dressed in skin clothing. I thought my goodness, this is my own country and look at these people; I had no idea they existed, I didn't know anything about them. By the way, I didn't tell you that a mother had been sitting in a tent, and she heard the dogs in the front of the tent grabbing meat. And so the mother went out to drive the dogs out of the tent and she had to bend over and the dogs grabbed the baby out of the hood and started to eat it.


HOUSTON: And the mother wrestled the dogs away, getting bitten badly and she got hold of it. And that was the reason for our going.

CURWOOD: Oh -- such a dreadful story!

HOUSTON: Sure it is. It's all right; the little girl in the hood is a grandmother.

CURWOOD: So you went there to rescue her with the doctor. And you stayed behind.

HOUSTON: Yes, because I had a sketchbook. I started drawing madly, because that was the purpose. He said he was going to stay 4 days, but he got a hold of the baby and the mother behind him and he said, "We're leaving right this minute; I don't know how this baby's alive." So they jumped in the plane and I said, "Well, I'm not going. I'm staying. I'll never get into a place like this again in my life," which I'm sure was right. He said, "What will your mother say? When she hears that I've left you up here?" I said, "She won't mind; I've been away in the war for 5 years. She's used to it." Well, it turned out my mother wasn't used to it and she gave him hell for leaving me up there.

CURWOOD: But of course you got back and thrived --


CURWOOD: And how did you get involved with collecting the carvings of these people? This is what you're so famous for.

HOUSTON: Well, on the very first day, I think that's honest to say, or the second day if it was not the very first -- this is 49 years ago -- I made a drawing of a man, and I made a drawing his sister. It took me years to know that it was his sister; I didn't know a single word of Inuititut. I knew "kayak" and "igloo," those are the only 2 words I knew like everyone else down here. So I made the drawing of him and of his sister, and he went away to his tent and he returned and he opened his hand. Well, first of all he held out his clenched fist, and I thought he was going to probably punch me in the nose, but they're not that kind of people at all. So he opened his hand and he had a small caribou, I think -- it could have been a bear, but I think it was a small stone caribou. So he gave it to me. I thought my goodness, this is a museum piece. This is something that he's giving me that his great grandfather carved or some early person. I was so excited; I got 2 more that were like it. And on the following day, after I had 3 of them, I hurried so to the Hudson's Bay post, which was some distance to the south. When we got there, I went into the Hudson's Bay Post Manager, whose name was Norman Ross, a Scot from the north of Scotland, and I opened my hand as the Eskimo had and I said, "Look at that." He looked at it and I said, "How old do you think that is?" He said, "I think it was probably carved last night or this morning." I said, "You're kidding; I mean you can't mean that." I thought wow, you mean these people are able, this man is able to do that right now. This isn't something from the past. This is right now. So that excited me enormously, much more than if they'd been old pieces.

CURWOOD: I'm looking in fact at your book, and some sketches that you've made of some of these carvings. They're exquisite, absolutely exquisite.

HOUSTON: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And I'm wondering, do the carvers think of their work as art?

HOUSTON: No they don't. They don't have a word for art.

CURWOOD: Really.

HOUSTON: Shnoonwak. Shnoonwak is the closest they come, which means something you do with your hands, which would cover a harpoon head or a little toggle for a kayak or anything. It's hard to stretch it to mean art; you cannot do it. Of course, Inuit are butchers, like anatomists. They take a seal or walrus, a bear. They cut it up and so they understand it. They understand the sheaths of muscle and the bone and the - how the bear rolls when he runs, the big weight of walrus and the flight of birds. They have examined those. Those are life's blood to them. So they are able to portray those things in ways we can't. We make awkward conceptions of animals because we don't know the animals any more. We've given up on the animals. These people are part of it.

CURWOOD: You've come to believe that the Inuit understanding of art is living in harmony with nature. What do you mean by that?

HOUSTON: Well, I -- there's many ways that I might explain that. If you shoot a tarmagan, you draw the tail feathers out of the tarmagan and you plant it in the snow, so another tarmagan will grow. Because you took -- the tarmagan gave you his flesh. The tarmagan did not give you his inua -- his soul -- he kept his soul, and he was able to carry on with that, either in a visible form, the same form, he may have changed it or she may have changed it. But that being, that soul, continues.

CURWOOD: Over and over in this book, you have these stories that -- have you just completely amazed at how your Inuit friends could read the land. Could you tell us about that? I mean, how did these hunters know where they were going? You can't use a compass this close to the North Pole, can you? I'm sure they didn't have them.

HOUSTON: They didn't have them, and if you have one you're very best off to stick it in the bottom of your kit or throw it away, because you'll only confuse the whole picture and perhaps kill yourself by having these things. Most would agree with that. But quite apart from that, these are nomadic people. They do not -- excuse me, I should call them semi-nomadic people. They don't go off into just nowhere without knowing where they're going. That's piu sionituk -- they say that's not the custom. You can't do that, it's too dangerous. They follow the routes of their grandfathers and their great grandfathers. And when the grandfathers made those routes, they tell their sons and others in the camp exactly the marks that they should follow, and it's just as clear as going along Fifth Avenue and saying 52nd Street and such and such. It may be clearer, actually, to me. We went out in a helicopter once, and we were left off in the middle of a huge, the Fox Peninsula. And he said to me, if you wanted to get home now -- this was an Inuit, and the 2 of us, unlike dog team traveling we were just standing there on the land, having been left for a little while at our request. He said if you wanted to get home again -- it was gray and overcast, no sun, nothing to help, how would you go? I said, "Gosh, I don't know." I really didn't know. He said, "Well let's walk around and look for a minute, a little while." So we walked around a while; he said, "I know how to get home. I can get home right now. I know how." I said, "How?" Everything looked bleak and a little tundra and some rocks and so on. And he said, "Well see that rock over there?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, what do you see about it?" I said, "Well, it's a black rock, it's good sized like a barrel. But there's a great white patch on it." "What made it white?" he said. I said, "I don't know." He said, "Dog teams have been urinating against that rock for 100 years or something, and they've worn all the lichen off. So many dog teams, many men have passed this way, hunters have passed this way. Now all we have to do is go to the next rock with the urine and we've set up our whole sight line to go back to that particular camp."

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, you spent all this time with these people and their sense of belief in the land and in their connection to the animals. Did you acquire some of that belief? Did you get those connections to the animals?

HOUSTON: I think so. I hope so. I don't own a dog or a cat, and I used to have 42 sheep but I don't have them any more. Because I think things should have a wildness. I think things should have the right to have a wildness about them. I'm not sure that animal husbandry appeals to me, any more than it appeals to Inuit. I think that you should have, try to have a kind of connection with free, wild, free animals if you can, and I've had the luck to do that, and I think it works out wonderfully. I've never said that to anybody before in my life.

CURWOOD: Well thank you for telling us about that. And what I'd like to do now is to move from spiritual matters to commerce. Your work after you got up to the Arctic was to really collect these carvings, this art, and bring it to the outside world, help create a market for the Inuit for this.


CURWOOD: And at first you'd offer them goods in exchange for their work. And later you offered them money. But what do you think money did to the Inuit? You brought them plenty of money.

HOUSTON: Right. Well, one could be concerned. There are 2 ways to think of it. I mean, one is to think of them in a primordial way, the gorgeous way that they had lived and died before and had been so connected with the land. But on the other hand they're not museum pieces, and they don't want to be museum pieces. I mean, look how quickly we turned in the horse and cart for an automobile, the minute we saw it; we couldn't wait to have an automobile. The minute Inuit started to see a snowmobile, they couldn't wait to get rid of the dog teams and get the snowmobile. And suddenly, when that changed, money started to come into the picture. An unknown thing to them. And it was just, it just happened at the right minute by a piece of luck, because all of a sudden they had the snowmobile and they needed to buy a gallon of gasoline, which can cost as much as $4.25 a gallon even at that time, because it usually had to be flown in or dog teamed in and all kinds of things. So money almost magically seemed to replace the need of gathering meat. Walrus that we fed the dogs at all times, the walrus were almost running out. The whalers had been at them, everybody had been at the walrus to use as dog food and human food. And they were becoming very short. Now I go into the Arctic 40 years later and there's a heck of a lot of walrus; they're burgeoning. Because the Inuit aren't after them any more. They're after a gallon of gas.

CURWOOD: You entitle your book Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. Why is it confessions? Do you feel guilty about something?

HOUSTON: Perhaps a little. I mean, it's -- some people like to say I had more to do with the Arctic changing than anyone else. That's widely said in Canada. And I can't totally disagree with that, although maybe I would wish to. But I don't -- I'm a mixture of being extraordinarily proud and somewhat nervous about -- after all, I helped to develop an art and get it going 49 years ago, and it's working more, much more strongly now than when I got that started and lived with it for the 14-year period. You know, non-objective art hasn't lasted that long. Lots of art forms have not.

CURWOOD: And what would you change, then, if -- if you could, about your --

HOUSTON: What would I change now?

CURWOOD: Yeah. What might you have done different, so that you wouldn't feel you had to write your confessions?

HOUSTON: People are -- the Arctic has changed. Was that inevitable? It changed in Alaska, it changed in Greenland, and I had nothing to do with those changes. But the juggernaut of civilization was moving towards them, and the minute World War II ended, change was I think inevitable. I just pushed it a little further and my job was to be interested in them in every conceivable way that I could be interested in them, and to help them if I could. I thought of myself as a civil servant, and I tried to act in that way.

CURWOOD: Well thank you. Jim Houston's book is called Confessions of an Igloo Dweller: Memoirs of the Old Arctic. And thank you --

HOUSTON: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: And how do you say goodbye in Inuit?

HOUSTON: Tgbowsiel alunasee. You know, that's for your whole audience. For you, Tbowdik acshuala. Farewell for now.

CURWOOD: Farewell for now.

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Liz Lempert, and Julia Madeson. We also had help from Mark Borrelli, Susan Shepherd, Michael Argue, and Emily Atkinson. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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