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

May 10, 1996

Air Date: May 10, 1996


Hidrovia: Waterway of Desires / Bob Carty

Two thousand miles of river wind through the interior of South America connecting one of the world's largest remaining wetlands to the sea. The political leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia have agreed to design a way for more commerce to flourish along the rocky shoals of the Parana and Paraguay rivers against the wishes of a coalition of 300 indigenous and environmental groups who want to preserve their ways of life. Producer Bob Carty talks with presidents and chiefs, as well as river captains and biologists, who all have a stake in the future of the 'hidrovia' -- which means 'waterway' in both Spanish and Portuguese. (18:35)

Listener Query

Steve Curwood invites listeners — as the public in public radio, to call and write in and to critique the show. (01:01)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week... facts about pollen allergies. (01:15)

Mount Dioxin: The EPA Decision Comes In

Following up on the segment in our April 19th week broadcast on the health problems in the area of Pensacola, Florida known as "Mount Dioxin," Steve Curwood explores some of the community's reactions to the Environmental Protection Agency's compromise offer to relocate 66 of the 426 families residing there. (03:05)

Escambia Pensacola Scandal: One Worker Recalls / John Rudolph

While investigating the problems in this Pensacola community, reporter John Rudolph spoke with one former worker of the Escambia Treating Company who describes some of the working conditions during the 18 years he was employed at the chemical wood treating plant. The worker, Robert Lee Harrell, had two sons born with serious birth defects. (07:05)

An Old Fashioned Green Spring Clean

Steve Curwood speaks with Living on Earth's own news editor Constantine von Hoffman about environmentally friendly and low impact ways to welcome back the spring around the house. (03:37)

Letters Segment

Recent writings from our audience. (01:42)

In Time of Rivers Flowing: Mason Williams' Musical Tribute / John Kalish

The composer of the 1960's classical-style guitar pop crossover music hit "Classical Gas" retreated from show business to Oregon where he pursued a love of trout fishing. Due to his admiration of time spent along the river, Mason Williams returned to the stage to create and perform a show featuring songs and lyrics of fluid admiration. John Kalish reports. (09:33)

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
REPORTERS: Michael Lawton, Terry FitzPatrick, Bob Carty, John Rudolph, John Kalish GUEST: Constantine von Hoffman

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The worlds' largest wetland wilderness is South America's Pantanal. Five governments in the region say they want to drain part of it by digging a massive shipping channel. The project is called Hidrovia, and it's touched off a major battle between environmental activists and local indigenous peoples on the one hand and the region's governments on the other.

MAN: This project of the waterway, to deepen the river and make the river straight. God will be very sad with the people who are doing this.

WASMOSY: Other continents have totally exploited without mercy what nature has given them, and now they want us to restrict our development. I am confident we can take care of the ecological concerns.

CURWOOD: The debate over the future of South America's vast Pontenal wilderness on Living on Earth; first news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. In Germany police and thousands of demonstrators clashed over attempts to deliver radioactive waste to the nuclear storage facility at Gorlaben. It was the second load of waste to arrive there since the facility opened last year. From Cologne, Germany, Michael Lawton reports.

LAWTON: It took 19,000 police and $35 million to get this load of nuclear wastes from the French border to the Gorlaben medium-term storage facility, and there are at least 150 more such loads to come. That's how much nuclear waste Germany is contracted to take back from French and British plants to which it's been sending fuel for reprocessing since 1989. Some thought that the second delivery would be easier than the first, but local farmers came out in their tractors once more to block the trucks' route, and activists came from all over the country to the new anti-nuclear rallying site. There have been no new nuclear power stations built in Germany for years, but the government supports what it calls an energy mix, which includes atomic power. The opposition Social Democrats and Greens are calling for a wind-down of the already on stream, and they oppose the use of Gorlaben as a medium-term storage site. What the alternative is, is not clear. But it's thought that opponents would be more conciliatory if they believe that the government would accept a long-term commitment to get out of nuclear power. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Lawton in Cologne.

NUNLEY: Scientists may have discovered a way to stop mosquitoes from infecting humans with deadly diseases. Using tiny needles finer than a human hair, researchers at Oregon State University have been able to inject mosquitoes with an altered virus that blocks the replication of the virus that causes dengue fever. Experts hope this will let them control other diseases, such as malaria, that are also carried by mosquitoes. Dengue fever is spread when a mosquito takes blood from a human who has the disease and then bites another human. Researchers say it may be possible to breed a new strain of mosquitoes that carries the altered virus. These laboratory designed mosquitoes could be introduced into the wild, and eventually change the genetics of the whole species.

More than 100 people have died in southeastern Bangladesh after drinking polluted water from Kaptai Lake. Fifty have died in the last month alone, most of them from diarrhea. More than 5 tons of waste, including human excrement and household garbage, are dumped into the lake each day. Lake Kaptai provides water for 1 million people in the Chittagong Hill tracts region.

Biological terrorism is more likely now than ever. A report in Britain's New Scientist magazine says that the technology to make a disease-spreading bomb which could kill millions of people is widely available. Researchers say a device the size of a fish tank could kill millions of people if filled with the deadly spores of anthrax, a disease of livestock. Ninety percent of humans who breathe in anthrax spores die if not treated. A 1993 report from the US Office of Technology Assessment says a small aircraft releasing just 220 pounds of anthrax spores over a populated area could kill as many as 3 million people.

A California entrepreneur wants to transport billions of gallons of fresh water across the ocean in giant bags. Terry Spragg says the availability of water could affect economic security and even world peace. From our Northwest Bureau at KPLU, Terry FitzPatrick explains.

FITZ PATRICK: The Spragg Bag is the brainchild of real-estate developer Terry Spragg. Bigger than a jumbo jet, each of the floating fabric bladders can hold more than 4 million gallons of fresh water. Mr. Spragg plans to tow 60 bags at a time through the ocean, like a chain of huge water balloons 6 miles long. He first wants to bring water from rain-drenched Seattle to the thirsty cities of Southern California. He then hopes to expand to the Middle East, transporting water from Turkey to Israel. Mr. Spragg claims he can alleviate water shortages while also turning a profit. However, he is having trouble purchasing water to transport. And during a demonstration this month near Seattle, one of two Spragg Bags sprang a leak and foundered. Undaunted, Mr. Spragg says his project is still afloat and he's optimistic that he'll one day become the world's biggest water deliveryman. For Living on Earth this is Terry FitzPatrick in Seattle.

NUNLEY: And President Clinton, Colin Powell, and Bill Cosby will all be speaking at college graduations this month, but the greenest recipient of a honorary degree will be Kermit the Frog. Long Island University's Southampton College will give the muppet an honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters. Officials consider Kermit an appropriate recipient because of the school's strong program in marine and environmental science.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

Hidrovia: Waterway of Desires

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the Mississippi overflowed its banks in 1993, it left an estimated $12 billion worth of damage behind. Many experts said it was the consequence of changing the river's course and flow for the benefit of commerce. In the Florida Everglades as well, a unique ecosystem has been endangered by the diversion of water from its broad floodplain. Now, many fear that South America may be poised to learn the same set of sad lessons. The governments of 5 countries are planning to build a seaway from Buenos Aires 3,000 kilometers up 2 major rivers, the Parana and the Paraguay, into the heart of Brazil. But the waterway could endanger the biggest freshwater wetlands in the world, the Pantanal. The Pantanal is about half the size of California, and is the last place on earth, aside from Florida's Everglades, that has the richly diverse ecosystem that can only be found in super-wide floodplains. We sent Bob Carty to find out more about the growing conflict between the waterway and the wetlands.

(A native flute player; lapping water; a man speaks in Spanish)

TRANSLATOR: The river for us is our mother. Our life. Because without its water, we will die. The river is sacred for us.

(The flute and the man continue)

TRANSLATOR: This project of the waterway to deepen the river and make the river straight, God will be very sad with the people who are doing this. God creates everything right, and when man steps in everything he does is wrong.

(The flute continues)

SEVERRO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: My name is Severro. I am a Guato chief. I live on the Paraguay river in the Pantanal.

(Water laps; birds call)

CARTY: The Pantanal is an endless Everglades. Brown waters bubbling through a maze of channels, alligators slithering down the banks, jabaru, storks and macaws flitting from tree to tree. And more mosquitoes per square inch, it seems, than anywhere else on Earth. For Jeinaldo Lorival, a biologist who works in the Pantanal, this is one of the planet's ecological treasures.

LORIVAL: It's a kind of -- how can I say? -- a kind of paradise. This is the highest wildlife nesting in the Americas. I was walking at night with a cap lamp lighting all the places and counting animals. I found a large pond with some caymans around. I put the lights there and I saw two pair of eyes over there, and I thought that was a crab eating fox. I took notes, and then I found a couple of pumas, cougars, around the bay, trying to prey the animals that were inside of the water. And I said holy cow, they pay me to see that! It's amazing, really amazing; it's fantastic.

(Bird calls continue)

CARTY: But the Pantanal wetlands are not so fantastic to others.

(More birdcalls, followed by motorized sounds)

CARTY: In the middle of the wetlands a conveyor belt feeds a stream of iron ore into a barge. Watching the work from the deck of a 4,000-horsepower tugboat is the captain.

BATEMAN: My name is Rick Bateman. I am a captain and pilot for ACBL Barge Lines in the United States of America. And we're just getting started here now, we'll be hauling mineral and maybe soybean to start.

CARTY: Rick Bateman usually runs barges up and down the Mississippi. His company sent him here because there's a growing amount of cargo to move. This part of South America boasts some of the world's largest iron ore and manganese deposits. Huge soybean plantations and immense cattle ranches. But getting products to market is no easy task. To the west are the Andes Mountains; to the north the Amazon rainforest; and to the south, it's 2,000 miles down the Paraguay and Parana Rivers to the Atlantic Ocean. That's where Captain Bateman is headed, on a trial run, to see how good these rivers are as tugboat highways.

BATEMAN: The draft from this barge is 11 feet but we will never load it to 11 feet. Actually, we cannot even load to 9 foot; there's not enough river for a 9-foot draft right now. The river is not well marked; a few buoys, many shoals, some of them rock shoals.

CARTY: And how long will it take to haul this downriver?

BATEMAN: [Laughs] Forever. They're telling me it will take me 2 weeks just to get to Asuncion, which should be, you know, if I were on my own river would be a 4-day trip. The river lacks development.

CARTY: But development is on its way. Five governments in this region -- Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, plus 2 landlocked nations -- Paraguay and Bolivia -- are committed to building an inland seaway, or Hidrovia: the Portuguese and Spanish word for "waterway." One of the project's biggest boosters is Juan Carlos Wasmosy, the president of Paraguay.

WASMOSY: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: We have virgin land, very cheap labor, and the cheapest electricity in the world. But as a landlocked country, we have the problem of transportation and the high cost of freight. So we need what I would call a transportation backbone, which is the Hidrovia. We must also help Bolivia get an outlet to the sea. This project is of vital importance so that our products are competitive.

(Bird calls)

CARTY: President Wasmosy wants to make the Parana and Paraguay Rivers navigable for at least 80% of the year. That could take a decade and cost $1 to $3 billion. And that has Reinaldo Lorival, the biologist who counts animals at nighttime in the Pantanal, very worried. Mr. Lorival is the Pantanal representative for Conservation International, one of a handful of international groups concerned about the ecological impact of the waterway. He explains that the project would dredge, dike, and straighten 2,000 miles of meandering river. It would also require the removal of several rock outcroppings in the river. But those rock outcroppings act as natural dams, keeping the water in the Pantanal wetlands. Blowing them up would uncork this swampy Great Lake of fresh water. And Jenaldo Lorival says that could be disastrous.

LORIVAL: The water will flow more quickly. The water usually takes 6 months from the beginning of the Pantanal to the south. If you canalize the river, the water can go in 2 months. It will drain more quickly the water from the floodplain. So the water level will be lower and lower and lower. You are not going to have the flood in the system. The birds depend on the floods, the fish depend on the flood. You're going to have less water to refuel the river during the dry season. So the system will be changed totally.

CARTY: Reinaldo Lorival worries that what happened in the Florida Everglades could happen here. A large part of the Pantanal would dry up, forever changing the area's vegetation, its wildlife, even its climate. And that's not all.

(Music plays)

CARTY: When the Paraguay River flows south, it leaves the wetlands, and 600 miles downstream it winds around Ascunsion, the capital city of Paraguay. Here, radios blare in the muddy streets of a slum on the floodplain below the city. These people could be some of the most affected by the building of the hidrovia, a project some of them call "hell's highway." Raul Gauto is an environmentalist with the Moises Bertoni Foundation here in Ascunsion. He points out that the Pantanal acts as a giant sponge that absorbs the water of the rainy season and lets it out slowly the rest of the year. But the waterway could destroy that sponge, and while that would take away the flooding the wetlands need, it would deliver those high waters here. Raul Gauto.

GAUTO: The runoff is going to be so fast that we're going to have more floods downstream. And this is something that we have seen it already, like in the Mississippi. It was changed, it was "managed," as we so arrogantly say. The losses could be a lot greater if we change the hydrology of the river that much, considering that millions of people live along the waterways. That may be real costly.

(Water flows)

CARTY: Critics like Raul Gauto say that governments aren't listening to their concerns, perhaps because they are backed by big construction companies. Companies with the most to gain from a billion dollar project. In fact, Paraguay's president Wasmosy is currently caught up in a controversy over whether his construction company improperly made millions of dollars on a giant hydroelectric project. President Wasmosy, however, insists that the economic benefits of the waterway outweigh the ecological worries.

WASMOSY: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: I think this project will be extremely profitable. And if I had enough money I'd build it myself and charge tolls, run it as a concession. We are zealous guardians of our own ecology. Other continents have totally exploited without mercy what nature has given them, and now they want us to restrict our development. I am confident we can take care of the ecological concerns, and I don't think that they should put up more obstacles to our underdevelopment.

(Native music)

CARTY: As much as President Wasmosy scorches ecological critics from abroad, he and other government leaders face growing opposition at home. This is a gathering of 6 native groups in the Brazilian Pantanal. They are part of a coalition of 300 organizations, most of them local, that are raising objections to the waterway project. Natives and community groups have been told by the waterway's proponents that they shouldn't worry. Severro, the Guato Indian chief, says no one has asked him for his opinion.

SEVERRO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: I am completely against this project. It will be the destruction of our people. You see, we were invaded 500 years ago. They came with good manners, giving us little things to please us like candies, tobacco. They were pleasing us but also cheating us. So today we do not believe what they say. If they straighten the river the water will no longer come to us. The land will dry up. The fish will be gone, the animals, everything.

CARTY: This growing opposition to the waterway has already had an impact. The governments that want to build the hidrovia -- Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia -- now sound like they're backtracking on the original grandiose plan to radically change the river. Jesus Gonzalez is the executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Committee on the Hidrovia. And these days, in interviews with the press, he tries to come across as green as possible. This isn't a mega-project, he says. It won't cost $1 to $3 billion. Maybe only $700 million, and mostly from private investors. The project will improve the river, not change it. Jesus Gonzalez says the suspicions held by environmentalists are understandable, but they are wrong.

GONZALEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: There's a lot of disinformation, and many people think we're doing this in a European way, making canals everywhere. But we're just studying how to make the river more navigable, and with just a little trimming of the rock outcroppings -- just a little trimming.

CARTY: And the project will not increase the outflow of water from the Pantanal.

GONZALEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: No, no. There are no big construction works that would do that. We're avoiding that.

CANEVARI: They are trying to look much more moderate now, with the Hidrovia. They wanted to look as if they are really concerned with the environment. But I'm not sure if this is completely honest.

CARTY: Pablo Canevari is a biologist who works in Buenos Aires for Wetlands for the Americas. And he fears he's being conned.

Some politicians say they are scaling back the waterway project because of environmental concerns, but the governments involved have just approved the design for the first phase, the phase that's supposed to have the least impact. And for ecologists, it's worse than expected. The $80 million first phase will remove 8 rock outcroppings, straighten curves, and dredge as much as $4 million truckloads of material from the riverbed. The Pantanal will be affected. But opponents are having a hard time getting specific information about phase 2, the larger project. No one has a clear idea of what's being proposed. Biologist Pablo Canevari calls it a shell game.

CANEVARI: You don't know if what they are saying is really honest or if they are trying to look at, if they are concerned with the environment. But some things are going behind that you are not aware of; maybe they are starting to build part of the Hidrovia. And you are not aware. Argentina's dredging the Parana River [can't get word; sounds like "Santa Fe"] to the south, and they said that they are going to dredge it all the way to Ascunsion. In Paraguay they said that they want to build a dam. This is part of the Hidrovia or no? They are not going to build Hidrovia in one big step but they are doing it slowly. That's very possible.

CARTY: It's also very possible that the Hidrovia is just part of the picture. There's talk about other projects for the Pantanal: a gas pipeline from Bolivia to Brazil that would go right through the wetlands. The building of iron foundries on the Paraguay River. And earlier studies suggested that the hidrovia would only be economically viable if soya bean production in the area doubles. For ecologists like Pablo Canevari, this means an entirely different development model for the Pantanal. One thing leads to another.

CANEVARI: It's building a road, is what's happening in the Amazon when they built the Trans-Amazonica. You first build a road and then people start coming and they open more roads going to the sides of the major road, and what will follow is chaos. So people will disperse all over the place, will start building small houses, clearing the patches of forest to put crops. And so you cannot control what is going to happen after you build this road. Well, the waterway will function as that.

CARTY: And that's why some environmentalists are against any kind of waterway project. Others, however, believe the Hidrovia might be acceptable, if it avoided high-impact construction and, for example, used shallow-draft barges instead of ocean-going ships. Critics of the waterway scheme insist they are not against development. They point out that eco-tourism could employ twice as many people as the waterway without hurting the wetlands. Reinaldo Lorival believes there are other options.

LORIVAL: You have also alternatives in terms of transport. You have the railway that is already built. You have to improve that railway system, and it's not being done by nobody. You have choices, economic choices of alternative transportation. Also, you can use the river like it is. The wrong idea is that you have to change the river to the boats; no, you have to change the boats to the river.

(Mechanical sounds)

CARTY: On his tugboat in the Paraguay River, Rick Bateman watches the iron ore being loaded into his barges. Captain Bateman wants to help his company make money on this river, but he's also seen the good and the bad of so-called river improvements on the Mississippi.

BATEMAN: If it were up to me I would try to do as little as possible. A ship channel, a 3,000-kilometer ship channel is ridiculous. It would be a tragedy of epic proportions for the Pantanal. I've been up this river twice now. It's beautiful, reminds me of my own Florida. I saw a sunset; the sky down here seems to have softer colors for some reason; there were a few clouds. It was the kind of sky that looked like you could just jump right up into, and it went from violet to pink to a soft blue. And I just sat and watched it till it was out of sight.

(Mechanical sounds continue)

CARTY: Environmentalists and native groups are continuing to press governments to scale back their plans for building the waterway. An $11 million environmental impact assessment is expected soon, and opponents hope it will strengthen their arguments for protecting the Pantanal. But the mega-project dreams and ambitions of some politicians and governments here cannot be underestimated. Environmentalists and native peoples have an uphill battle to save the largest freshwater wetlands in the world. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty on the Paraguay River in the Pantanal wetlands near Corumba, Brazil.

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(Mechanical sounds continue, followed by birdcalls. Music up and under)

Listener Query

CURWOOD: It's been 5 years since Living on Earth hit the airwaves, and we thought the anniversary was a good time to take the pulse of you, our listeners. So tell us: what do you like? What don't you like about the show? Do stories seem too long or too short? Is there a subject we neglect? How's our fairness and accuracy? Do you like the music? What suggestions do you have? Any topic is fair game. But the point is, you're the public in public radio, so let us know what's on your mind.

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You can call us at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Better yet, write it down and send your comments to Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Or zap us over the Internet.

The address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. You can also order tapes and transcripts for $12.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for reporting on science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: We'll have some green Spring cleaning tips coming up in the second half of Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: It's Spring, and many a young person's heart is turning to thoughts of -- ah, choo! -- excuse me, allergies. If you suffer from hayfever or allergic rhinitis, as the medical set calls it, you are not alone. In fact, without allergies doctors might be more alone; hayfever's responsible for more than 7 million visits to physicians' offices each year. And all those visits aren't cheap. Direct and indirect costs of hayfever in the US run to nearly $2 billion a year. More than 22 million Americans actually have allergic rhinitis, but more than half of them don't know they have allergies. They just always get a cold around this time of year. Many if not most folks, especially east of the Mississippi, are allergic to ragweed pollen; birch and maple pollen are other common culprits. By the end of May, grass pollen will also be making life miserable for many humans. The Midwest is the toughest area for the pollen impaired, but no part of the nation is safe. In Tucson, lawmakers are doing their part to clean up the air. They've passed a law banning the planting of trees that are high in pollen. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth almanac -- ah, ah, ah, ah... choo!

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(Music up and under)

Mount Dioxin: The EPA Decision Comes In

CURWOOD: A few weeks ago, we reported on a neighborhood in Pensacola, Florida, located between two abandoned toxic waste sites. Members of the community, which is almost entirely African American, asked the US Environmental Protection Agency to move them into new housing in an unpolluted area. They waited years for an answer, and now they have one. The EPA has now offered to relocate residents of 1 of 4 adjacent neighborhoods, 66 families out of the 426 families who live near the Superfund site known collectively as Mount Dioxin. Community residents say this initial response doesn't go far enough. Frances Dunham is with Citizens Against Toxic Exposure in Pensacola.

DUNHAM: When we first heard of the proposed plan, it didn't include the entire community. We were shocked and outraged. It's easy to see that the contamination has spread to those other three neighborhoods. They're very close together, the sites are close together. To isolate one from the other is, we consider it just an absurdity.

CURWOOD: Ms. Dunham and others say pollution from 2 former factories is responsible for a high rate of cancer deaths in their neighborhoods, along with birth defects and other health problems. EPA officials say they took these health effects into account in deciding to move those families who live closest to the contamination. John Hankinson is the EPA regional director in charge of the Pensacola case.

HANKINSON: The area that we have made an interim decision to move had higher levels of contamination than other parts of the study area, particularly in part of the home that were most closely adjacent to the site. It seems that the people that we've identified in this first phase, the permanent relocation, was both the best alternative from a health perspective and from a cost effectiveness standpoint.

CURWOOD: Relocating the 66 families and cleaning up contaminated soil in the neighborhoods near Mount Dioxin is expected to cost almost $5 million. But that doesn't include dealing with the contamination at its sources: an abandoned wood treating factory and a nearby fertilizer plant. Cleanup of the Superfund sites themselves could cost as much as $60 million. Many communities around the country are closely watching what happens at Mount Dioxin. EPA action there could set a national precedent for government policies involving minority communities located near toxic areas. The final chapter in the Pensacola story hasn't been written yet by the EPA. There's a 60-day comment period ahead, and they've left the door open to changes. Diana Ateviano, a lawyer representing the citizens' group, expects the EPA will ultimately choose to move more residents.

ATEVIANO: We are very hopeful, especially given some of the conversations we've had with EPA officials, that they will reconsider this ill-advised idea to relocate only part of the community, and that they will instead re-propose a broader relocation.

CURWOOD: Pensacola attorney Diana Ateviano, who represents neighbors of what's become called Mount Dioxin.

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(Music up and under)

Escambia Pensacola Scandal: One Worker Recalls

CURWOOD: Moving away from Mount Dioxin may bring relief for some local residents, but long-term health effects are likely to linger. That's because members of the community spent decades exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals, which can persist in their bodies for years and can even be passed onto their children. The companies themselves have been out of business for years, but former workers at the plants are among those who got the heaviest doses. On a recent trip to Pensacola, reporter John Rudolph spoke with one of them.

(Traffic sounds)

RUDOLPH: Robert Lee Harrell is retired, but he still wears working man's clothes. A dark green shirt and trousers, and a worn baseball cap perched on his head. Harrell has the rough hands of a man who has done manual labor for most of his life. His face is rough, too, evidence, he says, of years of exposure to dangerous chemicals. Harrell was employed by the Escambia Treating Company in Pensacola, Florida. The company made telephone poles and railroad ties, treating the wood with a variety of chemicals including creosote and pentachloriphenol. On a recent afternoon, Harrell sat in his front yard overlooking a busy residential street, and recalled what the job was like.

HARRELL: I was hired on a Sunday and I worked there until -- well, I figured it up, it was 18 years that I did work there. It was horrible for us all, but we all had to try to make a living. From behind we had no other choice than to put up with what was going on or either move on.

RUDOLPH: Harrell went to work for the Escambia Treating Company in the mid-1960s. He's not exactly sure of the date, but it was before the enactment of many laws protecting the health and safety of industrial workers. Even so, Harrell says he could tell that the chemicals he was working with were dangerous.

HARRELL: We also used to clean out them old tanks, creosote tanks, and phenol tanks. We didn't have no masks, we didn't have no eye goggles. The only thing we had, every time we had to go into one of those tanks, was a -- is just our own way of breathing, no kind of safety whatsoever. A rain suit. And what we mostly used, and you'd have to come out every so often and try to catch some air and then go back in.

RUDOLPH: Like virtually all the production workers at the Escambia Treating Company, Harrell is black. All the managers and supervisors were white. Harrell recalls earning about 65 cents an hour for his labor. In his words, "we were slaves." Harrell says if the plant supervisor discovered that a worker was leaving the company for another job, the supervisor would call the new employer and tell them not to hire the man. The company's approach to environmental safety was equally callous. In 1990 a Federal jury found that the firm had a history of misleading the government and its own employees about the degree of environmental damage at the plant. Chemical spills were frequent and never cleaned up. Harrell says spills often occurred around large tanks where telephone poles were treated.

HARRELL: A lot of times that stuff would come out those tanks when they'd be pumping on, it would spring a leak. Just like gas or anything like that. And sometimes it would just send up the whole place around there, and you could see it, you know, a pipe or something busts like that, and it would be escaping. But we'd still have to work. And the only time that I can recall that they had us knock off, I think it caught a-fire that one time. And all of us that could ran toward the highway, all them they had run to the railroad track. But other than that, I'd be willing to tell them in front of their faces or whatever it takes, we caught particular hell.

RUDOLPH: One of Harrell's jobs at the Escambia Treating Company was getting rid of waste chemicals. He tells of filling up an old tank truck and driving to the local dump, where he would open a valve and let the chemicals run out into the ground. At other times he worked around chemicals that had been dumped at the plant.

HARRELL: They had two old pits in the back, and they were open. They didn't have no, they weren't covered with no kind of a tarp or nothing. And then when it rained, those pits would run over, and with you coming and going in different places around there you didn't have any other choice than to step into it, and your shoes, a pair of shoes wouldn't last you much more than just say about 2 or 3 weeks the most. And then they'd start turning up almost looking you in the face.

RUDOLPH: Robert Harrell eventually managed to leave the Escambia Treating Company and got a job driving a truck. A few years later the plant shut down, forced out of business by the high cost of environmental cleanup. But Harrell and others who worked at the plant or lived near it continue to suffer from health problems they believe were caused by exposure to dioxin and other chemicals. Harrell's 2 sons were born with birth defects: one with a hole in his heart, the other with a hole near his ear. Harrell has skin rashes that he says won't go away. He suffers from dizzy spells. And, at the age of 64, is losing the use of his legs.

HARRELL: We worked in the thing so long, ain't no doubt about it; it took a lot out of us. We'd be way more better men than we are today; our health would be a lot better. And it would really take a miracle to replace what they have taken out, what that stuff had did to all of us.

RUDOLPH: All that remains of the plant where Robert Harrell worked is a huge pile of soil contaminated with dioxin, a deadly chemical byproduct. Mount Dioxin, as it's called, was created when the US Environmental Protection Agency tried to clean up the site, but ran out of money to complete the job. Eventually the EPA is expected to resume cleanup operations. Currently EPA has no plans to address the health problems faced by Robert Harrell and others who worked at the plant or live nearby. For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph.

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CURWOOD: Music inspired by the flowing rivers is coming up later on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

An Old Fashioned Green Spring Clean

CURWOOD: It's Spring, and we've been bottled up in our houses all winter long. It's time, now, to shake out the carpet, scrub extra hard in some places that may not have seen the light of day in recent months. But you know, some ways of doing that are a lot easier on us and our families and the earth than others, and with us now to sort all this out is Living on Earth's news editor and sanitary engineer, Constantine Von Hoffman. Now, what's the first thing you found out that's important for spring cleaning, from your research?

VON HOFFMAN: Well, I found out that the best thing you can have is a good grandmother-in-law.

CURWOOD: Really.

VON HOFFMAN: My grandmother-in-law gave me this fine 25th anniversary cookbook from Edmund Lutheran Church in Maple Grove, Minnesota. In it are not only more recipes with more brand name items than you can shake a stick at, but also ways to clean your house that are not only environmentally friendly but cost conscious.

CURWOOD: All right. So, being public radio, what's the cheapest way to clean up with spring cleaning?

VON HOFFMAN: Open your darn windows, okay? Let all that good air in, let all that stale air, that dusty, polluted air that's been building up in your house over the winter, let it out.

CURWOOD: Okay, now I assume that we're going to have to do a little scrubbing? So what are the right chemicals? You brought in some; this looks like a conventional toilet bowl cleaner, and I see on the back of it, it says that it's got -- ugh, hydrochloric acid. What did the grandmothers say I can use instead?

VON HOFFMAN: Well unfortunately the grandmothers recommend elbow grease, not chemical warfare. They say use a little vinegar, a little water. That'll keep your toilet bowl clean. But you have to do it often.

CURWOOD: Now what about -- you know, the clogged drain? We've got these power chemicals that will, you know, get right through the grease in my drain.

VON HOFFMAN: Well, you know why we have those clogs? 'Cause you're like me: lazy. If you regularly dump a cup of salt, a cup of baking soda and one kettle of boiling water down your drains, that's going to take care of most of the build-ups. Now, if you get a nasty, ugly grease build-up, something that just won't budge otherwise, it's time to go to the snake and we're not talking, oh, a python. It's time to turn to mechanical measures; that will clean it right out of there.

CURWOOD: Okay, now what about polishing up the furniture in the house? We have some lemon oil furniture polish; this stuff looks great. It says, "contains petroleum distillates; harmful or fatal if swallowed. Keep out of reach of children." What do the grandmothers say I can use instead?

VON HOFFMAN: You know, they liked this stuff until they realized they were going to have to use it on their own dining room table. At which point they said uh uh. And they recommended using a little olive oil, a little lemon juice, mix them together, spread them around. That will keep all your furniture nice and polished. You can get a nice vinaigrette going, too, if you have the time.

CURWOOD: Now, one last area of the elbow grease department, the windows. Spring time comes, it's time to clean them. It's okay to use the blue stuff or the green stuff, right?

VON HOFFMAN: It's okay, but a) it's expensive. This stuff runs a buck forty-nine for a quart. And b) it's not very effective. Consumer Reports did a study that said water is just as effective as half the stuff that's on the market today.

CURWOOD: Well, I guess I'm a cheapskate, I guess I should try water. But if I don't want to use just water, what can I use to --

VON HOFFMAN: Well, if you want to improve on the water, add some vinegar to it.

CURWOOD: What about getting my woolens ready to be stored all summer? You know, the moths will get in there and I'll come and it'll be confetti instead of a sweater.

VON HOFFMAN: Actually, the moths won't do it. It's their kids, the larvae. You know what trouble kids can be. If you take your woolens, toss them in the dryer, run it for about 10, 20 minutes, that will bake out the larvae nice and good. Then you want to take your clothes, put them in a good, tight plastic bag, add a lot of cedar, you know, so you get that good cedar aroma out of it. And then in the fall, you'll have nice complete clothes again.

CURWOOD: Without toxic mothballs.

VON HOFFMAN: Without toxic mothballs.

CURWOOD: The green way to get into Spring from Living on Earth's own Constantine Von Hoffman, our news editor and now chief sanitary engineer. See, there's another promotion.

VON HOFFMAN: Oh thanks, Steve, I appreciate that. Could you pass the sponge?

Back to top

(Scrubbing sounds)

(Music up and under)

Letters Segment

CURWOOD: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: "I think it's great that Warren Christopher is talking about global environmental issues, but he shouldn't be so quick to commend China for its environmental record." So writes Lapido Flores of Spokane, Washington, in response to our interview with the Secretary of State. "Has Christopher forgotten about China's Three Gorges Dam, which would wipe out countless ecosystems along the Yangtze River? Or its assault on Tibet, where besides the million people killed, massive clear-cutting is destroying some of the world's last old growth forests."

Arthur Krueger, who listens to Living on Earth on Vermont Public Radio, called to comment on our story about a controversy in New Mexico, where environmentalists have raised concerns about the number of trees harvested by villagers for firewood.

KRUEGER: I think it's gone quite a long way where you have people calling themselves environmentalists and are trying to prevent people from heating their homes using wood. It's a far more environmentally friendly way of getting energy than getting them onto electricity produced by nuclear energy.

CURWOOD: Finally, a listener from Haines, Alaska, writes to commend us on our piece about garbage in Antarctica. "I spent a couple of months at McMurdo Station in 1994," she writes, "and was disgusted at the incredible amounts of waste. What disturbed me further was the disrespect for the environment that the majority of the people on the ice seem to have, especially the US Navy."

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CURWOOD: Our address for your comments is Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. You can call us at 1-800-218-9988. Or you can reach us by e-mail at LOE@NPR.ORG.

(Music up and under: "Classical Gas")

In Time of Rivers Flowing: Mason Williams' Musical Tribute

CURWOOD: You may be old enough to remember this 1960s pop hit, but can you name the person who wrote and performed it? The tune is called "Classical Gas," and the artist is Mason Williams.

("Classical Gas" continues)

CURWOOD: Along with his songwriting, Mr. Williams gained notoriety as a scriptwriter for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Saturday Night Live. But after winning Grammies for his pop music and an Emmy for his TV comedy writing, Mason Williams dropped out of show business at the pinnacle of his commercial success and moved to rural Oregon. There he's carved out a career for himself as a regional artist, while pursuing his first passion, trout fishing. It's the fishing that led Mr. Williams to get hooked once again on performing. John Kalish explains.

KALISH: In 1982 officials in Springfield, Oregon, announced plans to build a series of hydroelectric dams on the north fork of the Willamette River. A stream that fed the river was Mason Williams' favorite trout fishing site, so he made a point of attending a public forum on the proposal. When he got up to speak he expressed a slightly odd notion.

WILLIAMS: I said well you know, the only person who isn't here is the river to speak for itself, and so I thought -- I doubt that you're going to hold your meeting down on the river, and I don't see there's any way to get the river to come over here, so I thought well, maybe in a surrogate manner I could have music bring the river into the meeting or into the mix.

KALISH: Which is exactly what he did.

(A piano plays. A man sings: "Of time and rivers flowing, the seasons make the song.")

KALISH: "Of Time and Rivers Flowing" is Mason Williams' 2-hour tribute to not only the Willamette but to all rivers, a concert that weaves together disparate styles of music about waterways. Everything from Johann Strauss to the Talking Heads.

(Talking Heads: "Take me to the river. Drop me in the water. Take me to the river. Drop me in the water, the water...")

KALISH: Mason Williams enlisted local bluegrass, jazz, and classical musicians for his river show, and he convinced one of Oregon's most famous literary figures to join the team, author Ken Kesey.

KESEY: [Backdropped by music] The river's murmur is the voice of my father's father. The rivers are our brothers and our sisters. They quench our thirst, they carry our canoes, and feed our children.

KALISH: Ken Kesey recites Chief Seattle's reply, an eloquent Native American response to a government offer to buy Indian land. At another point in the river show the author is introduced as Reverend Ken "For God Sake's" Kesey, a hellfire and brimstone preacher who decries the pollution of both waterways and human bodies with toxic stimulants.

KESEY: [Backdropped by preachy music] Aaah, yes. Life is like a river. We're a river of life flowing through time, trying to reach our eternal destination. But it is not an easy journey, for around every bend there are backwaters of badness and bogs of baloney. [The audience laughs] There are tributaries of temptation. There are shoals of evil. And you know and I know where most of these foul, polluted waters come from. They are the noxious and polluted waters of booze and dope that come pouring forth from a multitude of loggers' watering homes and cascading down the college campus corridors. Say Amen! [Audience: "Amen!"] Ohhh...

KALISH: Mason Williams says Ken Kesey's histrionics are just what his river show needed.

WILLIAMS: You know, I'm kind of stuck behind the microphone and my guitar, where he's roaming the stage in his clown suits and fish hats and [laughs] weird stuff, and he has a great time. So it's a more of a theatrical element to my shows.

KALISH: Mason Williams shies away from rhetoric or proselytizing in "Of Time and Rivers Flowing." One of the rare moments in the program where a political point is made comes in the performance of Woody Guthrie's classic "Roll On Columbia." A new chorus notes the development along the river since Guthrie first penned the tune back in 1941.

WILLIAMS: [Playing the guitar] Today there are 192 dams on the Columbia River Basin, so it's more like a chain gang of ponds than the mighty free-flowing river that Woody saw. And if Woody were alive today, and could see how this has turned out, I wonder if he might not be obliged to add a new chorus to his song to reflect our hope for the survival of this great river. Something like this. [Sings] Hang on Columbia, hang on. Hang on, Columbia, hang on. Power has dammed you, they've stolen your song. But hang on, Columbia, hang on. Hang on, Columbia, hang on. Hang on, Columbia, hang on. They're taking your salmon, you're rollin' is gone. But hang on, Columbia, hang on...

KALISH: "Of Time and Rivers Flowing" was performed in Eugene, Oregon, in 1983, as a benefit for a small group of fly-fishermen opposing the dams along the Willamette. Three sold-out concerts raised several thousand dollars, and the fishermen used the funds to lobby the state legislature. The effort was successful; lawmakers designated the north fork of the Willamette and its headwaters as part of Oregon's system of protected waterways. "Of Time and River Flowing" has also been used on a national level to promote river protection. The conservation group American Rivers used the title song in a public service ad that communications director Randy Showstack called very effective.

SHOWSTACK: Mason is a gentle soul. He doesn't hammer people over the head with this stuff. You know, Mason is ahead of his time. We hope not too far ahead of his time, because we want a lot of other people to catch onto the need for river conservation. Because rivers across the country are in terrible condition.

(A piano plays; Williams sings. "There's a red moon rising on the Cuyahoga River. Rollin' into Cleveland to the lake. There's a red moon rising on the Cuyahoga River. Rollin' into Cleveland to the lake...")

KALISH: Mason Williams has turned his passion for rivers into something of a cottage industry. An album of 14 tunes from "Of Time and Rivers Flowing" has been released on the Skookum label, and Williams says he hopes to produce a CD-Rom based on the show that would teach everything from river geology to the social history of waterways. This is all a far cry from the glitz of Hollywood, but Williams says he's more attuned to the simpler life in Oregon. The metaphor he uses to describe his career these days is plucked straight out of his rural milieu.

WILLIAMS: I have an apple tree up at my cabin. This apple tree grows beautiful Gravenstein apples every year. And sometimes people eat them and sometimes they don't, but they're beautiful apples every year. So the whole idea of them getting to market or getting made into pies or getting used is immaterial to the fact that they're great apples. So if somebody discovers me, great, but I don't know that I know how to parley this into a big career. I don't know if it's necessary.

KALISH: "Of Time and Rivers Flowing" will be performed on May 17 at the Holt Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon. Mason Williams and his ensemble of bluegrass, jazz, and rock musicians, will take the stage with the Eugene Symphony Orchestra to once again sing the praises of rivers large and small. For Living on Earth, I'm John Kalish.

(Music up and under; Williams singing, "So many homeless sailors, so many winds that blow. I ask the half-blind scholars which way the currents flow. So cast your nets below. And the gods of the moving waters will tell us all they know.")

Back to top


CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Senior producer for Living on Earth is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. The production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Liz Lempert, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Susan Shepherd and Emily Atkinson. A fond farewell to interns Mark Borrelli and Michael Argue. 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.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major support from the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics, the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt--whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside, and the National Science Foundation for coverage of Science and the Environment.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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