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

April 25, 1997

Air Date: April 25, 1997


Maine Drives for Expansion / John Rudolph

Sprawl and traffic congestion are high on the public agenda, even in the bucolic state of Maine where voters, in the past, have rejected plans to widen the Maine Turnpike. But as traffic jams grow worse each summer, some say the state should widen the turnpike from four lanes to six. The turnpike authority is expected to make an announcement about this plan in the near future. Still, many in Maine are against more lanes for the toll expressway and argue that before putting down more pavement, the state should try some transportation alternatives; like bringing back the passenger rail service to Boston which was cut off thirty years ago. John Rudolph has our report. (09:17)


During this Passover season, people of the Jewish faith celebrate their ancestral journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. But some Jews say that journey isn't over and it won't be until the earth itself is freed from the bondage of ecological abuse, and humans return to the Promised Land of living in harmony with nature. Richard Schiffman reports on emerging environmental theology in the Jewish community. (11:00)

The Living On Earth Almanac

Facts about... plate tectonics. (01:15)

CHERNOBYL AT 11 / Bruce Gellerman

For eleven years, the people of Beylorus and Ukraine have been living with the aftermath of Chernobyl; the greatest disaster in the history of nuclear power. On April 26th, 1986, at one-twenty-three in the morning, Chernobyl's unit four reactor ripped apart in a series of explosions. The core burned for ten days, polluting virtually the entire northern hemisphere with radiation. Last year, reporter Bruce Gellerman went to the reactor site for Living on Earth where he visited the Sarcophagus, the steel and concrete tomb built to contain the radioactive remains of the plant. Gellerman talks with Steve Curwood about developments at the reactor in the past year. (06:00)


The Clean Air act requires reduced ozone and carbon monoxide in many urban areas. California, with nine of the ten most air polluted cities in the country, has some of the strictest air quality standards. To meet the standards, oil companies have reformulated gasoline using an additive called MTBE. MTBE has been used in gasoline throughout the nation for a number of years, but for the past year all gasoline sold in Cailfornia contains it. Now, MTBE, which the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as a possible carcinogen, is showing up in water, leading some critics to ask whether the state is sacrificing its water supply for cleaner air. Cheryl Colopy reports. (09:12)


The idea of a zoo can be a fairly ironic one. Visitors flock to them to observe wildlife, yet the animals are held captive in foreign habitats. Zoo-goers are generally animal lovers looking to be enlightened or enchanted by encounters with apes, elephants and tigers, but often leave zoos feeling depressed after seeing the animals pacing neurotically or lying about listlessly. Author Vicki Croke (croak) tells Steve Curwood that she shares those feelings. In her new book, The Modern Ark, The Story of Zoos: Past, Present and Future she says many of the animals in zoos are suffering from mental illness. (05:55)


April marks the birthday of nature writer John Burroughs. Once one of the most popular figures in America, Burrough's work is almost entirely out of print today. Commentator Nancy Lord says this writer-naturalist deserves some modern attention. Nancy Lord comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer, Alaska. Her newest book, Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore is due out in May. ()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript


HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Keith Seinfeld, James Jones, Kelly Griffin, Peter Thomson,
John Rudolph, Richard Schiffman, Cheryl Colopy
GUESTS: Bruce Gellerman, Vicki Croke

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Sprawl and traffic congestion are high on the public agenda, even in the bucolic state of Maine. Voters there in the past have rejected plans to widen the Maine Turnpike, but as traffic jams grow worse each summer, some say more lanes are inevitable.

BUTLAND: We've got a safety issue here. We've got an economic issue in that it's the main economic artery and that it's clogged, and it needed to be addressed.

CURWOOD: Also, in this Passover season, we take a look at environmental theology in Judaism.

STEINBERG: There's a Jewish tradition which says that if you were holding a sapling in your hand and about to plant it, and if the Messiah were to arrive, you would finish the job of planting the sapling before you would rush to greet the Messiah.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. Federal officials are calling for changes in logging, fire fighting, and cattle grazing across the Columbia Basin, a vast area stretching from Washington's Cascade Mountains to Montana and Wyoming. From Seattle, Keith Seinfeld reports.

SEINFELD: Ever since President Clinton's forest summit 4 years ago, Federal agencies have been trying to figure out how to manage entire ecosystems. The most ambitious project to date covers the Columbia River Basin. To restore the health of the system, the plan calls for returning fire to its natural role, where small, low-intensity fires burn the dry undergrowth and allow big trees to expand. Officials also want to let loggers thin forests by cutting small trees, and they want to remove many older roads that add to flooding problems and damage streams. But environmentalists say the government should rework the plan. They say tougher rules are needed to protect streams from erosion, and they say logging should be limited to areas that were already clearcut. The plan will be released for public comment next month. For Living on Earth, I'm Keith Seinfeld in Seattle.

MULLINS: A new report commissioned by the US Department of Energy suggests that an international agreement to reduce global warming gases could raise energy costs and seriously impact energy-intensive industries. James Jones reports from Washington.

JONES: The draft report concludes that cutting emissions only in industrialized countries, as envisioned in the treaty, would lead to job losses and shutdowns in energy-hungry industries like petroleum refining, iron and steel making, and cement production, without significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The findings in a report supervised by the Energy Department's Argonne Laboratory are expected to bolster industry arguments that a pending international treaty to curb greenhouse gases will
hurt basic US industries. But administration officials and some analysts are downplaying the study. They say the report assumes the worst case scenario for energy price increases and does not consider energy efficiency gains that could be made by industry. The US is expected to sign an international greenhouse gas reduction agreement in Kyoto, Japan, this December. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Washington.

MULLINS: Near the arches in Canyonland National Parks in Utah, a dump with 10 million tons of uranium mill waste is steadily leaking contamination into the Colorado River. It's the only site of its kind near a major waterway, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the dump can be capped. Kelly Griffin has more from Denver.

GRIFFIN: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission concedes capping the 130-acre dump would mean a small amount of contaminants will continue to seep into the Colorado River. The agency says moving it to a desert site would be, quote, "environmentally preferable." But the agency says the plan to place a thick, flood-resistant cap over the wastes is acceptable. The mill site owner, Denver-based Atlas Corporation, says it can't afford to relocate the dump. The wastes sit across the river from an 875-acre wetland preserve that is home to 160 species of birds. Nearby is Arches National Park. The Interior Department says there are no plans to thoroughly monitor the river for radioactive contaminants. But the Interior Department doesn't have the authority to block the capping plan, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is set to give it final approval late this summer. For Living on Earth, I'm Kelly Griffin in Denver.

MULLINS: Attorneys for the estate of late Earth First activist Judy Bari says reports of evidence tampering at the FBI crime lab reinforced their case that the agency fabricated evidence against her in a 1990 car bombing. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson reports from San Francisco.

THOMSON: In May of 1990 a bomb ripped through Judy Bari's car in Oakland, California, injuring her and a companion while they were on their way to plan a campaign against clear-cutting of redwoods. Within hours, police used evidence provided by the FBI to charge both activists with knowingly transporting explosives. But the case soon unraveled when the FBI's original evidence was proven false. The Bureau and Oakland police say the mistaken conclusions were based on honest errors. But Bari's attorneys say the evidence was deliberately falsified to discredit the activists and their organization, Earth First!. Now, Ms. Bari's attorneys are citing the unfolding FBI crime lab scandal in a court briefing supporting their Federal lawsuit against the investigators. Justice Department officials have found that the crime lab distorted and manipulated evidence in a number of high-profile cases. Among the Bureau personnel cited was an agent who collected evidence in the Bari case. An attorney for the defendant said he couldn't comment on the new motion in the case, which has yet to go to trial. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in San Francisco.

MULLINS: Researchers in South Africa have put a stop to an ill-fated experiment to control the growing elephant population in Krueger National Park. Scientists have been giving female elephants birth control pills, but the hormones had an unexpected side effect: they kicked the animals' sex drive into high gear so the animals were constantly in heat.

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

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Maine Drives for Expansion

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Sprawl and traffic congestion are 2 hallmarks of the automobile culture, and the sparsely-populated state of Maine is not exempt. Every summer around the city of Portland, the Maine Turnpike slows to a crawl on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, as tourists and locals alike struggle to make their ways up and down the coast. Some folks say they have the answer: widen the Turnpike from 4 lanes to 6. The Turnpike Authority is expected to make an announcement about this plan in the near future, but many in Maine are against more toll expressway. They argue that before putting down more pavement, the state should try some transportation alternatives, like bringing back the passenger rail service to Boston, which was cut off 30 years ago. John Rudolph has our report.

(Traffic sounds)

RUDOLPH: Most of the time when I drive on the Maine Turnpike, I'm able to move along at a steady 65 miles an hour. But one time during the summer I got snagged. I was headed for a concert in Old Orchard Beach, a popular seaside resort near Portland, when bang, I ran into a huge, snarly traffic jam. For hours we crept along. Walking would have been faster. I thought of the old joke about the Maine farmer who tells the traveling salesman, "You can't get there from here." Well, I did get there, eventually, just in time to hear the last part of the concert. I also got some insight into why so many Mainers feel passionately about the Turnpike's future. Everyone agrees something needs to be done to alleviate the huge traffic jams on summer weekends, when tourists, commuters, and truckers all want to use the turnpike at the same time. But so far there's no agreement on the solution. One possible approach is to widen the Turnpike. The leading advocate of this idea is State Senator Jeff Butland.

(Door opens; a motor turns over)

RUDOLPH: Senator Butland comes from the town of Cumberland, a suburb of Portland. During most of the year he works as a manager at L.L. Bean. But on days when the legislature is in session, Senator Butland, a Republican ex-Marine and father of 3, gets in his pickup truck and heads north to the state capitol of Augusta. It's an easy, traffic-free drive. Many of Senator Butland's constituents have a very different commuting experience. Their jobs are in the south, in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Mr. Butland says he's heard many complaints about congestion on the southern portion of the Turnpike. The 4-lane highway really hasn't changed much since it was built 50 years ago.

BUTLAND: There's a lot of little stories that were woven together. People saying why don't we widen the Turnpike? I work in New Hampshire and travel it every day. I'm a salesman, I travel it 3 or 4 times a week. And just a real burden of anecdotal information that said we've got a safety issue here, we've got an economic issue in that it's the main economic artery and it's clogged, and it needed to be addressed.

RUDOLPH: Over the years there have been a number of efforts to widen the Maine Turnpike. But in 1991 Maine voters said no. They overwhelmingly approved a referendum blocking widening until alternatives could first be explored. The Sensible Transportation Act was a victory for environmentalists. They had warned that a wider turnpike would actually bring more cars into the state. Traffic jams would continue, and air pollution would get worse. They also argued that a wider road would hasten Maine's transformation from a rural enclave into a sprawling suburban region. One alternative that's already made a lot of progress is an effort to restore passenger rail service between Portland and Boston. Maine is just one of 3 states in the continental US that aren't served by Amtrak. The state has a $38 million Federal grant to bring the train back, but Senator Butland says spending money on trains is a waste.

BUTLAND: I think we need to improve the infrastructure that we have before we go off willy nilly with projects like the restoration of railroad from Portland and Boston.

(Echoes, many voices and footfalls)

RUDOLPH: At the state capitol on a recent afternoon, Senator Butland stopped to chat with Robert Peacock. Mr. Peacock owns a company that distributes fresh Maine salmon around the country. He says congestion on the Turnpike has hurt his business. Truckloads of fresh fish have been delayed getting to the airport in Boston.

PEACOCK: Well, if your truck is late getting there, then they can't consolidate the loads. Then the stuff doesn't go on the airplane, and you've added another day or 2 to your fish. Now the fish gets to Scottsdale, Arizona, 2 days late, and I guarantee you they're not happy and the quality has gone to hell. So it really makes a big difference on the quality of the fish. And that's the key issue. What we're selling in Maine is life is better in Maine, the fish is better in Maine, everything's better in Maine. And if you don't have the quality, you've had it. That's a direct line back to the Turnpike in the summer time.

RUDOLPH: Robert Peacock supports Senator Butland's efforts to add an extra lane in each direction to the Maine Turnpike, a project that will cost $100 million. But Mr. Peacock also acknowledges that if there was a train and if enough people used it instead of driving their own cars, there might be more room on the road for his trucks. He also wishes he didn't always have to truck his fish to Boston, that there was some quicker way to ship it from Maine. Maybe a fast train or air cargo service. This idea of using a variety of transportation methods is called multli-modalism. But in Maine, multi-modalism is having a hard time taking hold.

(Traffic sounds; horns)

RUDOLPH: When Wayne Davis travels to Boston from his home in Portland, he takes the bus.

VOICE: Good afternoon, welcome aboard. Local 425, scheduled time arrival in Boston at 4:45 at Logan Airport... We should be on time today... unless we get tied up in traffic in Boston.

RUDOLPH: Mr. Davis is the president and founder of Train Riders Northeast, a group that's been working for 9 years to bring passenger rail service back to Maine. It's been 31 years since passenger trains ran between Portland and Boston. Wayne Davis, a retired bank executive, takes the bus because he believes deeply in public transportation. But while the bus does the job of getting him where he wants to go, he'd much rather be on a train. Mr. Davis's group has a good news/bad news story to tell. They've convinced the state and Federal governments to appropriate funds for the train, but they still can't get the train started. Service was supposed to begin in 1993, but it's been held up by one dispute after the next. The latest is between Amtrak and the freight railroad that owns the tracks. Mr. Davis believes eventually the trains will roll. In the meantime, he worries that Maine's love affair with the automobile may change the state forever.

DAVIS: If we want to widen the roads now, we're going to have to take what's left of historic trees, and we've already lost millions of our elms to disease, the ones that we have left line our roads. If they're going to widen them, the trees have to go, and we're going to look like Texas. We're going to be going through wetlands, demolishing historic buildings as we go. It would be criminal. So that's what makes me think that there would be much more pain and discomfort for us here in Maine if we don't make this first faltering step to bring Amtrak to Portland, Maine, as a beginning.

RUDOLPH: Mr. Davis envisions a multi-modal transportation system that includes cars, buses, trains, and high-speed ferries all linked together. It's a vision shared by a number of people around the state. But the multi-modal concept is often forgotten when Mainers start arguing over the Turnpike and Amtrak. Charlie Colgan is an economist at the University of Southern Maine who has worked as a consultant to the Maine Turnpike Authority.

COLGAN: The question is not so much one of economics and efficiency and equity and all the things that I deal with, but it's become more one of theology. That there are certain people who believe that the automobile ought to be tamed, and that the way to do it is to simply stop making the investments in the system. And there are others who believe that the automobile is, no matter how we deal with it, is essential to our lifeline. The Turnpike is the major road in and out of the state, and we ought to build it to whatever capacity is needed to support the economy.

(Traffic sounds)

RUDOLPH: It's not as if people in the state aren't trying to resolve these competing ideas. Rather than simply building more roads or just throwing money at public transportation projects, Maine is taking the time to think these issues through, and to grapple with the issue of growth, which is at the heart of the debate. But while the debate continues, all of us who drive through southern Maine on the Turnpike will have to cope as best we can. For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph in Portland, Maine.

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(Traffic sounds continue; fade to music: song "Me and My Car")

CURWOOD: God, the Earth, and Judaism. That story is just ahead on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
During this Passover season, people of the Jewish faith celebrate their ancestral journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. But some Jews say that journey isn't over, and won't be until the Earth itself is freed from the bondage of ecological abuse, and humans return to the Promised Land of living in harmony with Nature. Richard Schiffman reports on the emerging environmental theme in Jewish theology.

RABBI: Speak for the redwood and the rock.

CONGREGATION: Speak for the redwood and the rock.

RABBI: Speak for the lion and the beetle.

CONGREGATION: Speak for the lion and the beetle.

SCHIFFMAN: It's raining in the Headwaters Forest of northern California, but that hasn't prevented over 250 people from gathering here to share a Seder. The ritual meal is meant both to celebrate the beauty of this ancient redwood grove and to protest the plans of the Texas-based Maxxam Corporation to cut it down.

STEINBERG: In the last 10 years we've seen reckless disregard for the natural world.

SCHIFFMAN: Seder organizer Naomi Steinberg is the student rabbi at the B'nai Haretz, or Children of the Earth, a congregation in Garberville, California, with a long history of environmental activism.

STEINBERG: Our immigrant grandparents didn't slave in sweatshops to see us become profiteers and despoilers of the land. This is to my mind acting like a pharaoh. This is not the model we want to offer to our children; we want to offer to our children a model of escaping from slavery, not so that we can take over the power and become pharaohs, but so that we can truly arrive at a Promised Land of balance, of harmony, and reverence for the Earth.

CROWD (singing): A tree of life she is, for all who hold her close. A tree of life for Shalom! A tree of life for Shalom!

SCHIFFMAN: At the climax of today's Seder they plant 100 saplings on timber company land, as a gentle act of civil disobedience.

STEINBERG: There's a tradition, a Jewish tradition which says that if you were holding a sapling in your hand and about to plant it, and if the Messiah were to arrive, you would finish the job of planting the sapling before you would rush to greet the Messiah. That's how important is our relationship to trees.

SCHIFFMAN: In the Biblical book of Job are the words, "Speak to the Earth and it will teach you." The Hebrew prophets felt God speak to them in the rootedness of trees, in the fury of storms, and in cold springs flowing out of desert stone. Many contemporary Jews also look to the natural world for inspiration. Amongst them, a group of scholars at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

MAN: Why is nature sacred?

SCHORSCH: It is an extension of God. I then take from Eliezer's talk last night and from what you say that the Jewish response to the questions in the environment is modesty...

SCHIFFMAN: Once a month, Chancellor Izmar Schorsch and half a dozen colleagues meet to ponder the links between their religious faith and concern for the environment.

SCHORSCH: Religion takes us out of ourselves. It makes us aware that we are part of human society. We are part of nature. We are part of God.

SCHIFFMAN: The science of ecology also teaches that we're part of something greater than ourselves, the chancellor adds. Science informs the mind, he says, while religion educates the heart. It makes us aware that life is holy, and we need to preserve it.

SCHORSCH: Religion has the vocabulary to make this an emotional issue, to translate our scientific knowledge into religious values and symbols and metaphors that can prompt us to change our behavior.

CROWD: (sings wordlessly ya-da-da-yi; clanking sounds)

SCHIFFMAN: In particular, Jewish environmentalists point to the Sabbath, called in Hebrew Shabbat, being welcomed here at Congregation Beth Sinchat Torah in downtown Manhattan. On Shabbat, observant Jews refrain from doing acts that alter the physical world. Mark Jacobs says this puts a break on the human impulse to dominate nature. Jacobs directs the Coalition for the Environment in Jewish life.

JACOBS: What we are experiencing in the world today is a sense of humanity having complete control over the world in which we live and having the right to exploit it at all times. Shabbat says that we have to make a break in that. Shabbat provides a balance to our experience as transformers of the world.

SCHIFFMAN: Mark Jacobs also cites an ancient agricultural law that every seventh year a field should be allowed to remain fallow, as an example of Jewish ecological wisdom. But not everyone is convinced that Judaism is quite so eco-friendly. Some critics read the injunction to multiply and subdue the Earth in the book of Genesis in the Bible as a license to exploit nature. And they blame this attitude for the excesses of our industrial society. Professor Eliezer Diamond disagrees.

DIAMOND: I don't think the Bible says that, and I think it's time to read it again and to read it more fairly and I think accurately, and to see that we're talking about stewardship and not tyranny.

SCHIFFMAN: Still, some ecologically-minded Jews object to Biblical language. Marcia Falk is a poet and a highly original translator of Hebrew texts. She says there's a need for a new spiritual vocabulary, one that expresses a less hierarchical view of Creation than the tradition one in which, she says...

FALK: God is at the top. Men, particular white men in European tradition, follow next. After that come women and then children and then the animals and the plants and on down to the rocks and the pebbles. I think that's a very problematic model, and I think it's time to consider other models, more horizontal models. We need to find a way to see the Divine in all of creation and tend to it there, and see ourselves as a part of that Divine.

CROWD (singing): Sh'ma Yisroel Ya Eluhenu Ya Yichud.

SCHIFFMAN: Marsha Falk has composed material for a new Earth-affirming liturgy. At Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the worshippers recite the poet's controversial English version of the Sh'ma, Judaism's fundamental statement of faith.

CONGREGATION (reciting): Loving life and its mysterious source with all our heart and all our spirit, all our senses and strength, we take upon ourselves and into ourselves these promises. To care for the Earth and those who live upon it. To pursue justice and peace...

SCHIFFMAN: With this vow, to care for the Earth, and with its many images from Nature, Marcia Falk's liturgy celebrates the sacredness of the world. Some Jews have criticized her work, which speaks of God only indirectly through symbols and metaphors derived from Nature. But one of today's worshippers says the rich natural imagery made her feel connected to the service in a whole new way.

WOMAN: For me, when I'm out in Nature, when I'm riding my bicycle, when I'm walking on the beach, you know, that's when I become very aware of God. She was sort of injecting that in her language, in the prayers. And that sort of like let me relax, it let me connect with something that makes me feel spiritual.

SCHIFFMAN: Judaism puts supreme value on language and learning. Nowadays, that love for learning has been extended to environmental education, which is being introduced from a Jewish angle into many schools and synagogues. Some groups are going outdoors for their lessons.

(Voices, footfalls. Man: "Has anyone ever been here before?" Man 2: "Yeah." Man 3: "I have, a million times." Man: "A bunch of times?" Man 3: "Yeah.")

SCHIFFMAN: A dozen Jewish college students hike the mountains north of New York City to learn about Tu B'ishvat, the late winter festival of the trees.

CROWD: Baruch atah Adonai elohenu melech ha'olam, boray etsee v'samim.

SCHIFFMAN: They're saying the Hebrew blessing for fragrant plants over a black birch, a tree once used to make root beer.

FENEBESI: So that's one of the things hopefully we'll be doing today, getting to say some of these blessings that are really connecting us to the outside world.

SCHIFFMAN: This is just one of hundreds of prayers that Jews were once enjoined to say when they came across features of the natural world like rivers, rainbows, and fruit trees. Hikeleader/environmental educator Shumu Fenebesi would like to see this custom revived. saying these blessings, he says, makes us more aware of the world around us, and grateful for its gifts.

FENEBESI: In Judaism, if you enjoy anything in this world, the benefit of anything in this world without saying a blessing, you're considered a thief. And that's a quote from the Talmud. We can't take anything for granted; we have to always give thanks and we always have to be aware of what we're taking from the world, whether that's a piece of fruit or 10,000 board feet of pine.

SCHIFFMAN: As we grow to revere God's creation, Shumu Fenebesi believes, we're less likely to waste limited natural resources through overconsumption. Spiritual values, he says, have practical consequences.

FENEBESI: We can talk as much as we want about it, but in the end it's what we buy, how we eat, how we choose to live our lives. And Judaism very much brings the spiritual down to that practical level, and applies it to everyday living.

SCHIFFMAN: Ancient Jewish books speak of the need for Tikkun Olam: the repair and healing of the Earth. Jewish environmentalists believe that this healing will take place when we return to a deep spiritual awareness of, and love for, the natural world.

FENEBESI: Let's walk silently for a little bit.


SCHIFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.

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

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Eleven years after, the nuclear power disaster at Chernobyl is still taking its toll. That story is ahead on Living on Earth

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(Theme music up and under)

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

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The Living On Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: In 1620 English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon looked at a map of the world and pointed out that the coastlines of South America and Africa fit together like puzzle pieces. Since then, scientists have been trying to explain why. One answer came 30 years ago this month, when geophysicist Jason Morgan offered the idea of plate tectonics. He drew on theories of continental drift and sea floor spreading, and included observations about similarities among plant and animal species on both continents. Dr. Morgan concluded that the lithosphere, the upper part of the Earth's crust, was not solid but made of several enormous plates, as much as 200 kilometers thick and moving at a rate of nearly 2 inches per year. Today, his theory is one of the tenets of geology, and it's widely accepted that the movement of the plates is responsible for earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains, and ocean basins. And if you're inclined to smirk at warnings about California falling into the sea, in theory it already has. The state's coast sits on the eastern edge of the Pacific plate, so geologically speaking, it is not part of North America. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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CURWOOD: For 11 years now the people of Belarus and the Ukraine have been living with the aftermath of Chernobyl, the greatest disaster in the history of the nuclear power industry. On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 in the morning, Chernobyl's Unit Number 4 reactor ripped apart in a series of explosions. The core burned for 10 days, polluting virtually the entire northern hemisphere with radiation. Last year, reporter Bruce Gellerman went to the reactor site for Living on Earth. He visited the sarcophagus, the steel and concrete tomb built to contain the radioactive remains of the plant.

MAN: I've been inside the sarcophagus 4 times.

GELLERMAN: What is it like? What does it look like inside?

MAN: Ruins. Wrecks and all over radiation.

CURWOOD: Bruce Gellerman is in the studio with me right now. Bruce, where do things stand today at Chernobyl?

GELLERMAN: Stand is a good word for it, because they're not standing or they're barely standing. That sarcophagus that I stood outside of at Chernobyl that contains the reactor ruins is falling down.

CURWOOD: Really.

GELLERMAN: Yeah. Yeah, you can see birds flying into the cracks in the roof. When it rains the water drips down, becomes radioactive and goes into the ground. It's a mess, and they're afraid it's going to fall apart.

CURWOOD: So what are they going to do?

GELLERMAN: What they want to do is they want to foam the place.


GELLERMAN: Yeah, foam. Like, you know, the stuff that you can blow into your walls to act as insulation.


GELLERMAN: Well, it's basically the same thing. This company, called Eurotech, it's based in California, has developed this foam. They pump it in and it has 2 features that they're interested in. One is it would shore up the sarcophagus that's now falling down. And second, it would prevent the spread of radioactive dust, and that's the real problem inside the sarcophagus.

CURWOOD: Yeah, but foam. I mean, how long could that last?

GELLERMAN: This foam they hope will last between 200 and 300 years. They're going to test it in a few weeks at the site of Chernobyl. And they believe that it won't burn and that it can absorb an extraordinary amount of radiation before it would start to deteriorate.

CURWOOD: So this is just sort of buying some time.

GELLERMAN: Buying expensive time.

CURWOOD: What about the health of the people who live near the Chernobyl reactor?

GELLERMAN: Boy, that's really a hard question, because the numbers are all over the map, Steve. One of the interesting things about reporting about Chernobyl is there's such a lack of information, hard numbers. You ask the Chernobyl Union, which represents the liquidators, these 800,000 people who helped remediate and clean up the mess, and you get tens of thousands of deaths and 70,000 cases of cancer and a quarter of a million thyroid cancers. And you ask the International Atomic Energy Agency and they say oh no, no, no, it's measured in a couple of hundreds.

CURWOOD: Now, we've heard that Chernobyl led to a lot of thyroid cancers in children in the area.


CURWOOD: What do we know about that today?

GELLERMAN: That is the only single number that people seem to be getting in agreement.

CURWOOD: And that number is?

GELLERMAN: About 1,000 children, now. It's a many, many-fold increase, particularly in Belarus are registered and have been officially validated as having thyroid cancer, which is very rare in children.

CURWOOD: So, Bruce, it seems like the children are the ones who are paying the biggest price from the Chernobyl disaster.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, that's absolutely true. It's very dramatic and very sad. The BBC sent reporters into Belarus, and they found that one orphanage, which had about 200 children, they found 12 had heart disorders, 90 had eye defects, 20 had liver problems, and 30 had thyroid problems. Now, if you ask the Ukrainians or even Belarus officials, they'll tell you that's impossible. Well, according to the BBC, it happened.

CURWOOD: Bruce, what's the lesson to be learned here from the Chernobyl accident to prevent future Chernobyls?

GELLERMAN: Steve, you know, there are 12 Chernobyl-type reactors still out there, so-called RBMK reactors. Exactly the same as Chernobyl. In fact, some of them are even larger than Chernobyl. The one in Ignolina, Lithuania, for example. What they've done is this. They're not shutting them down for the foreseeable future. So they try to figure out ways of making them safer. The operators have been given further instruction. They've enriched the core to make it more stable. They've created procedures which prevent them from doing the same things that led up to the Chernobyl disaster, this ridiculous experiment that they were running at the time. Those should prevent another Chernobyl. But you can't be sure. The West wants these things shut down, and they want them to shut it down yesterday. But the Ukrainians, the Lithuanians, the Russians, they say we either need the electricity for ourselves and our consumption, or we need it to sell. And we're not ready to shut these things down and they're safe, by the way.

CURWOOD: Would it be worth it to the United States and Western Europe simply to write a check to the former Soviet Union to take care of these reactors?

GELLERMAN: Well you know, Steve, it's an interesting question because if there was an explosion at Chernobyl in the ruined reactor, it would only recontaminate the30-mile zone around the reactor, which is basically evacuated now. If there was a Chernobyl-type explosion in Lithuania, existing reactors in Russia, it would be definitely worth it because the final price tag for Chernobyl is going to be measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

CURWOOD: Bruce Gellerman is with member station WBUR in Boston. His last trip to Chernobyl was in 1996. Bruce, thanks for taking this time with us.

GELLERMAN: My pleasure, Steve.

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CURWOOD: The Clean Air Act requires reduced ozone and carbon monoxide in many urban areas. California, with 9 of the 10 most air polluted cities in the country, has some of the strictest air quality standards. To meet the standards, oil companies have reformulated gasoline using an additive called MTBE, and for the past year California has required it in all gasoline sold in the state. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies MTBE as a possible carcinogen, and it is showing up in water, leading some critics to ask whether the state is sacrificing its water supply for cleaner air. Cheryl Colopy reports.

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COLOPY: Even on a weekday afternoon, motorboats and jet skis ply the waters of Colero Reservoir south of San Jose. The spring sky above the jet skiers is slightly smoggy, but it's cleaner than it used to be, partly because these engines, as well as all the cars in California, now burn gas that contains MTBE. The new additive allows the gas to burn more cleanly and efficiently than old style gasoline.

MAN: Man! That was great! Whoo-hoo!

COLOPY: But while the air may be cleaner, there's a new problem in the water. Traces of MTBE have been found in this and 2 other nearby reservoirs.

OBLONSKY: The more monitoring that's done daily, the more we're finding it. And I think that is alarming.

COLOPY: Engineer Sandy Oblonsky of the Santa Clara Valley Water District helps oversee the reservoirs. She says gas from motorboats is getting into these reservoirs and the District might have to ban recreational boating here if MTBE levels rise. But even that might not solve the problem. Ms. Oblonsky says a bigger source of MTBE pollution may be leaks from underground gasoline storage tanks. She says MTBE behaves differently from the other components of gasoline.

OBLONSKY: It's very mobile, and it will spread farther and faster than these other gas components. And that is a concern. As I said, though, we have not found it in any drinking water wells at this point. And that's why we are being very active now to get the fuel leak sites cleaned up, to look at leak protection.

COLOPY: But the very disaster Sandy Oblonsky and her colleagues are working to prevent in their district has already happened in southern California, where gas containing MTBE has been used for 2 years. The City of Santa Monica had to shut down half of its drinking water wells last year because of very high levels of MTBE: the result of leaking underground tanks, pipelines, or both. Santa Monica is now buying water and trying to get oil companies to pay for that and for cleaning up its water supply. Santa Monica's plight set off alarms in Sacramento. Now, the State Water Board requires all districts to test for MTBE.

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RODEGARI: Well, this is the instrument where the drinking water analyses for volatile organics are performed, and MTBE is a volatile organic. It's a class of organic compound that is considered volatile and easily purged out of water.

COLOPY: Here in the laboratories at the East Bay Municipal Utilities District in Oakland, water chemist Francois Rodegari supervises testing for 85 different organic compounds, including MTBE or methyl tertiary butyl ether.

BRAY: So what it does is it starts out at 35 degrees Centigrade, and then it ramps up to about 220, and that -- that heating acts as a means of separating the compounds you're looking for.

COLOPY: Chemist Tom Bray reads the results with the aid of sophisticated software, which determines what chemicals are in a water sample and at what levels. Francois Rodegari says so far there have been only tiny traces of MTBE in drinking water samples, again, from reservoirs that allow boating.

RODEGARI: It's a fairly new analysis and I think we don't fully understand all the ramifications of having added MTBE to gasoline. So we are still trying to understand what it means for our water supply.

COLOPY: The lab started testing for MTBE a couple of years ago when reformulated gas was first being used in California because the EPA had decided there was a chance very high levels might cause cancer in humans. EPA has since set a tolerance level of 70 parts per billion in water consumed over a lifetime. That's far more than what is showing up anywhere other than Santa Monica. But there's increasing unease about what the presence of lower levels of MTBE in water might mean, so California's water districts are struggling to define their own limits of tolerance for this new chemical. Meanwhile, a handful of scientists and environmentalists are saying get rid of it now.

(Voices in the background)

MARCHAND: If it's positive in the coloform then it turns yellow, and if it's possible for e-coli then it fluoresces.

COLOPY: John Marchand is a water chemist at another Bay Area water district, but it's in his capacity as an elected official for the Tri-Valley Water District east of Oakland that he's calling for a ban of MTBE.

MARCHAND: I don't support one huge experiment on the state of California while we determine whether MTBE was the best of all avenues to take.

COLOPY: As yet, no MTBE has shown up in his district's water, but Mr. Marchand hopes his district never ends up following in the footsteps of water districts like Los Angeles'.

MARCHAND: There are much larger agencies that are doing taste and odor profile analyses and talking about consumer acceptance levels. And that isn't where the discussion needs to be. It's not about mitigation. The discussion needs to be about preventing this from getting into our water sources in the first place.

COLOPY: At levels far below what the EPA sets as a health warning, MTBE can cause water to taste and smell like turpentine. So, chemist and wastewater treatment specialist Chuck Bennett agrees that California should get MTBE out of gasoline as soon as possible.

BENNETT: The health risks from MTBE really suggest that very high levels are tolerable amongst humans and animals. It's going to be an aesthetic acceptance or a nuisance situation. At levels of as low as 15 parts per billion, you're going to be able to smell the MTBE in your water. Or more accurately, when you take a shower in the morning, you're going to smell the MTBE coming out of your shower faucet.

COLOPY: Bennett's solution: switch to ethanol. Like MTBE, ethanol is an oxygenate, which helps gasoline burn more cleanly, but it won't pollute the water supply. The only problem with ethanol, he says, is that it's much less profitable for oil companies. MTBE is made from 2 inexpensive byproducts of gasoline production and is now a $10 billion a year industry. Ethanol is already the oxygenate of choice in the Midwest, while MTBE is used in smoggy parts of the Northeast and all of California. But the California Air Resources Board, which sets standards for air pollutants, cautions that one additive can't easily be substituted for another, and it emphasizes that MTBE has helped make the state's air better now than it's been for 40 years. Board representatives didn't want to talk about possible alternatives for MTBE, saying it's up to oil companies to decide which oxygenate to use. But as far as the oil industry is concerned, it's not an issue.

FOGARTY: There is no reason to ban MTBE in the state of California or anywhere else. According to the National Academy of Sciences, MTBE does not pose a significant human health risk.

COLOPY: David Fogarty, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, says ethanol is more expensive to make, and refineries in California have already invested $4 billion in retooling to make gas with MTBE.

FOGARTY: Without MTBE it could not, simply could not make cleaner burning gasoline. Switching to ethanol, for example, is probably not a viable option, because it increases evaporative emissions, increases summertime smog, number one. Number two is that there's a huge question of whether or not there'd be adequate ethanol supply to meet the needs of California.

COLOPY: For its part, the EPA doesn't see a problem with MTBE, either, when it's properly contained. Dick Wilson, the EPA's Deputy Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, says a problem arises only when motorboats and especially leaking underground gas tanks contaminate water supplies. And, he says, that can be prevented.

WILSON: It's absolutely possible, and obviously you need to do monitoring and you need to replace storage tanks that are leaking, because, you know, getting gasoline in drinking water is not a good thing.

COLOPY: Others aren't so sure it's an easy problem to solve. A recent US Geological Survey study indicates that traces of MTBE have begun to show up in drinking water all across the country. For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy.

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CURWOOD: We're always interested in what you have to say about our program. Call our listener line any time at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or write to us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, that's LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our Web page at www.loe.org.

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CURWOOD: The best and the worst about zoos is ahead on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When you think about it, the idea of a zoo is an ironic one. We flock to them to observe wildlife, yet the animals are held captive in foreign habitats. We zoo-goers are generally animal lovers, looking to be enlightened or enchanted by our encounters with the apes, the elephants, and the tigers. But we often leave zoos feeling depressed after seeing the animals pacing neurotically or lying about listlessly. Author Vicki Croke shares those feelings. In her new book The Modern Ark, The Story of Zoos: Past, Present, and Future, she says many of the animals in our zoos are suffering from mental illness.

CROKE: They exhibit the kinds of behaviors we see in human beings who are locked up or are in solitary confinement. I was able to interview Dr. Nicholas Dodman from Tufts Vet School. He's a brain chemistry expert and it's his estimate that a third to half of all the animals in the best zoos in the country are suffering from neurotic behaviors that we've all seen. We may not know that it involves dopamine and serotonin and that it's called stereotypic behavior, but we do know that it's sad to see a tiger grimly pacing back and forth.

CURWOOD: Now, what about the really smart animals? Is it ethical to keep them at the zoo? The primates, the elephants, the dolphins, the ones that probably talk as well as we do?

CROKE: That is an important question facing zoos today, particularly because -- I mean, let's look at elephants. We know how smart they are. They can be altruistic in the wild. They live in large, complex societies. They help one another through mating; there's something called mating pandemonium. They all join in the act when an elephant mother gives birth. Usually a sister or niece will help her in the birthing process, help her raise her baby. Phenomenal animals. And then what do we do? Well, we take them here to the United States and we keep them either singly or in pairs. They have nothing to do in their dusty enclosure. That's a travesty, and lots of people wonder should we keep them at all? And part of the reason we wonder that now is that elephants kill more handlers every year than every other animal.

CURWOOD: They're mad.

CROKE: That's right. And it's surprising they don't kill more people. The director of the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence doesn't think we ought to keep elephants in captivity and he's got 3 elephants at his zoo.

CURWOOD: Here in Boston we have Franklin Park Zoo. There the gorillas are housed indoors behind a glass panel. I've seen them throw their feces. Sometimes they eat it. This is not normal for gorillas.


CURWOOD: This is indicative of really serious distress?

CROKE: Right. Most of these, what we call stereotypic behaviors are things that you would never see in the wild. I don't like indoor rainforest pavilions. They're very expensive to build and horribly expensive to maintain. And they just don't get the job done.

CURWOOD: But what's a zoo like Boston supposed to do if they want to have tropical animals? They can't very well have one that's open to the outdoors.

CROKE: Maybe in the colder climates we ought not have tropical animals. Maybe we shouldn't have so many. If we can't bring them indoors in a good way in the winter, maybe we just shouldn't have them.

CURWOOD: Well, wait a second. The whole idea behind zoos is to see animals that don't live in our neighborhoods.

CROKE: I think that in general we ought to have fewer animals at the zoo. That's what Zoo Atlanta did. They halved the number of species and they went from being one of the worst zoos in the country to one of the best.

CURWOOD: In your travels all around the country, when you've looked at the new wave of renovations that take place in zoos, what innovations seem to work?

CROKE: The ones that do work are those in which the animals are given enough space. Psychological space as well as physical space. And that means giving them plenty to do. You know, what's interesting is that the zoo in Portland, Oregon, it's a really nasty looking old zoo. However, inside those exhibits they have a fulltime enrichment expert, and he fills them with branches and hides food and makes their space inside that cage much more interesting for them. And once an animal has to hunt for its food rather than just be given a lump of carne fare or monkey chow, transforms their environment for them. They look at their space in a different way even when there's no food out.

CURWOOD: Hmm. Now, I'm wondering if zoos are necessary, even. I mean, after all, I can go down to the corner video store and rent a film about animals doing all sorts of amazing things out in the wild. I can see lions racing and mating and sunning. Protecting their young. So why not just replace zoos with, say, large screen movie theaters?

CROKE: I think that zoos of the future will combine both aspects. And the other night I did a reading with my book, and in fact the Franklin Park Zoo brought some education animals over and the audience just went crazy to be able to touch a snake or talk to a parrot. And it made my point for me. When you can make eye contact with an animal, even smell it, and watch what it does, have it look at you, that's the ultimate zoo goer experience. I was in Tacoma and it was a rainy, cold day. There was no other zoo goer. I was writing notes in my notebook, and I looked up into this underwater tank and there was another set of eyes on the other side looking at me. And I thought, is this fur seal really looking at me? So I moved to the right and it moved to the right. And I moved to the left and she moved to the left. And so I started running back and forth and she followed every one of my movements. And I moved my pen in a circle on the glass and she swam in a circle. That's the ultimate. I mean, there's no way that a film is every going to do for me what that half hour with Duffy did.

CURWOOD: We need these animals.

CROKE: I think we do, and people have written about this. E.O. Wilson here at Harvard has talked about biophilia. That there's this evolutionary genetic need to be close to nature. And then others who are in the spiritual realm, Harold Kushner has talked about zoos being a cathedral to nature. And I think that there is something even spiritual about touching and being close to nature, and that the more urban our society gets, the more we need places like zoos.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Vicki Croke is author of The Modern Ark, The Story of Zoos: Past, Present, and Future.

CROKE: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: April marks the birthday of nature writer John Burroughs. Once one of the most popular figures in America, Mr. Burroughs's work is almost entirely out of print today. But commentator Nancy Lord says this writer naturalist deserves some modern attention.

LORD: Robins have been flocking through town, and varied thrushes whistle from the forest. These birds of spring send me flying to my great grandmother's copy of Wake, Robin, the first of John Burroughs's many books of nature essays. Burroughs's great gift to literature was his willingness and ability to take readers into the woods and fields and along the trout streams near his Catskills home and to show them, by close observation and an elegant prose, what was found there. Along with John Muir and following in the big footsteps of Thoreau, he developed and popularized the nature essay.

A century ago, Burroughs's books were widely read and acclaimed. He was one of the stars of American culture. Today, Thoreau and Muir are icons, while Burroughs has just about disappeared. I think I understand at least some of why that's so. When Burroughs visited Alaska, he barely noted the grandeur of mountains and glaciers, bears and killer whales. Instead, he chose to settle into deep moss under a spruce tree and wait 2 hours for a varied thrush to show itself. The he described the bird's song, appearance, and movements in both carefully wrought prose and rhymed verse. That was the kind of writer Burroughs was: patient, quiet, observant not of the large and dramatic but of the small and subtle. He did not go for flash, but he knew something very basic: that the same artistry and wonder found in spectacular wild nature are present in the small things close at hand.

Any of us today can learn to pay attention to the robins tilting their heads to our lawns, to the bees working over our petunias. To all the delights that grow and move and call from just beyond our doorsteps. If we're willing to listen with John Burroughs to the birds, maybe we'll discover more about what happens in our yards and neighborhoods. Maybe we'll recognize the marvel close to home. And then, maybe, we might take better care of what we know and love.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer, Alaska. Her newest book, Fish Camp: Life on an Alaskan Shore, is due out in May.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Our production team includes Julia Madeson, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Peter Shaw, George Homsy, Peter Christianson, and Kim Motylewski. We also had help from Jesse Wegmen. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Karen Given at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream.
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