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

July 25, 1997

Air Date: July 25, 1997



Some women’s health groups are looking more closely at the environment in relation to breast cancer. At the recent World Congress on Breast Cancer in Canada, many speakers said the role that chemicals and other toxins play may be greater than what mainstream science is willing to admit. Among them is Dr. Julia Brody, the head of the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, a state-funded organization that’s conducting a major study of environmental pollutants, and the possible link to breast cancer. Dr. Brody speaks with guest host Laura Knoy. (05:30)


Human disease can often be chalked up to both our genes and the environment. But, just how these two factors conspire with each other is poorly understood. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences wants to shed light on that complex interplay through a new effort dubbed the Environmental Genome Project. A Human Genome Project is already underway, searching for location and function of genes. But, this new research will try to match known genes with exposures to toxins and disease. From Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Diane Toomey has this report. (06:40)


California's Endangered Species Act is modeled on the federal law, but there's one important difference: The federal version spells out how and when to grant permits for construction projects that may "incidentally" harm an endangered species. California's law doesn't address this procedure, and that's been causing problems. So the courts have thrown the issue back to the state legislature for clarification. As Cheryl Colopy reports, this struggle over how to enforce endangered species protection in California could set a model for other states and for Congress, which must soon reauthorize the federal Endangered Species Act. (07:33)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... Weather predicting insects. (01:15)


In 1972, the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that's designed to address the continuing contamination of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem. The agreement prohibits off-shore oil drilling in all the Great Lakes, but there's another kind of oil drilling going on under the lakes. It's called slant drilling, and some Michigan residents say it's a way to subvert the law. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson explains. (04:40)


Pressure-treated wood used to make patio decks and picnic tables contains chemicals that may pose health risks. Even arsenic is sometimes used in the pressure treatment process according to Alex Wilson, editor of Environmental Building News, who spoke with Laura Knoy. (05:53)


Ever since the U.S. Army forced the Nez Perce people out of their homeland in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon in 1877, the tribe has been working to get some of that land back. Over the past 120 years Nez Perce leaders have traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Presidents, Congress and bureaucrats. By the 1930s the effort had become know as "the Nez Perce lost cause". Until now. This spring the Nez Perce took title to ten thousand acres of their old homeland in the Wallowa country and will soon purchase six thousand more acres with plans to convert the former ranch land into a wildlife preserve. In an ironic twist of history, descendants of the settlers who once hated and feared the Nez Perce, are welcoming the tribe back home. Producer Vicki Monks prepared our report. (13:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Laura Knoy
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: James Jones, Stephanie O'Neill, Deirdre Kennedy, Diane Toomey, Cheryl Colopy, Wendy Nelson, Vicki Monks
GUESTS: Dr. Julia Brody, Alex Wilson

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy. With breast cancer rising, researchers are exploring ways of cutting breast cancer risk. And they say pollutants that affect the body's hormonal system need closer examination.

BRODY: Now as we learn more about how synthetic chemicals can act like estrogen, it makes a lot of sense to give priority to finding out whether these synthetic chemicals also increase breast cancer risk.

KNOY: And the environmental link to other diseases. The problem may lie in our genes. A new effort is underway to find out.

ALDEN: If we really know the bad actors, based on the genetics of the American population, then we could focus on those that cause the devastating diseases and clean those up first.

KNOY: The Environmental Genome Project and more, this week on Living on Earth. First news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The White House has kicked off a campaign to convince the public of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As James Jones reports, President Clinton reaffirmed his personal commitment to solve the problem at a recent meeting with scientists.

JONES: At the White House gathering, Clinton said he's convinced global warming is a threat that must be addressed, but conceded that the public might not see it that way yet. For months, industry groups have been telling the public and members of Congress that cutting greenhouse gases would cost jobs. Clinton told the scientists he's prepared to take action, and called for a campaign of sorts to bolster support for US actions to combat global warming.

CLINTON: I am convinced that when the nations of the world meet in Kyoto, Japan, in December on this issue, the United States has got to be committed to realistic and binding limits on our emissions of greenhouse gases. Between now and then we have to work with the American people to get them to share that commitment.

JONES: Environmental activists welcome the high-level effort to educate the public about global warming, but remain skeptical that the White House will embrace aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Washington.

MULLINS: Egypt's Nile Delta is slowly sinking into the Mediterranean Sea. That's according to a report by a Smithsonian Institution scientist in the recent issue of the journal Nature. Sediment measurements show the area has been sinking about 2 inches each decade for the past 8,000 years and rising sea levels are compounding the problem. The scientist warns that the coastal communities are in danger of losing farm land, and that salty sea water could foul groundwater used by millions of people for drinking and for agriculture.

The highly-touted pollution trading program, which has become a cornerstone to clean up smoggy cities nationwide, is under attack by a very unlikely group: environmentalists. Stephanie O'Neill has the story.

O'NEILL: The California-based Communities for a Better Environment has filed a civil lawsuit against a nationally-acclaimed smog trading program developed in Los Angeles on the grounds it violates the civil rights of people living in low-income minority communities. The lawsuit is the first in the nation to pit environmental clean-up with environmental justice, which focuses on how the poor and minorities are disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals. The lawsuit targets the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the California Air Resources Board, and 5 large oil companies, which the group contends has not cleaned up emissions in 2 low-income communities in Los Angeles. The lawsuit states that in lieu of reducing emissions in those communities, the oil companies are buying and scrapping old cars, which is permitted under the so-called Smog Market Plan. By contrast, most oil refineries in other regions of California have installed vapor-control equipment to reduce hydrocarbon emissions by 95%. A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency says the issue is undergoing serious scrutiny by top-ranking EPA officials. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

MULLINS: Nearly one third of the underground storage tanks tested by the Environmental Protection Agency in a recent survey don't have adequate equipment to detect leaks. The Agency tested 10,000 of the nation's 1 million gas, fuel, and chemical tanks. Owners of tanks that are out of compliance will have to install spill and corrosion prevention systems or face fines of up to $300,000. The tank inspections are part of an EPA campaign to curb groundwater contamination. Leaking underground tanks are the most common source of groundwater pollution.

San Francisco's board of supervisors has approved a plan to make the City by the Bay an ecologically friendly place to live. Deirdre Kennedy reports.

KENNEDY: San Francisco's 5-year sustainability plan sailed through the board of supervisors by a 10 to 1 vote. The non-binding resolution calls for the city to adopt so-called "green standards" in all municipal construction. That means it can only use materials that save energy and don't contribute to environmental degradation. The plan calls for the city to improve its air quality and biodiversity, drastically cut back on its use of pesticides, use only clean-fueled city vehicles, and provide more open space and parks. The supervisors hope their plan will inspire businesses in the city to adopt similar guidelines. San Francisco is now one of only 3 cities to adopt such an extensive green plan. The other 2 are Santa Monica, California, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Mayor Willy Brown is expected to sign the resolution by August 4th. For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

MULLINS: Filet mignon with mushrooms, a medley of vegetables, and hash brown potatoes, also your choice of wine or beer. Sounds like part of a menu at a nice restaurant, but this is airline food. Organic airline food from Swissair. Hot meals on flights from Zurich and Geneva now meet Swiss organic standards. Over the next 2 years more Swissair flights will go organic, with organic soups, salads, and even Swiss chocolates.

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

Back to top



KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. In recent years, Americans have been bombarded with information about breast cancer, and ways to reduce their risk of getting it. Don't smoke, don't drink too much, eat a low-fat diet, exercise, and so on. Scores of articles have also discussed the role that heredity plays, and whether childbirth later in life makes a difference. But the vast majority of breast cancer victims have none of these risk factors. So some women's health groups are looking more closely at the environment. At the recent World Congress on Breast Cancer in Canada, many speakers said the role that chemicals and other toxins play may be greater than what mainstream science is willing to admit. Among them is Dr. Julia Brody. She's head of the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, an organization that's conducting a major study of environmental pollutants and the possible link to breast cancer.

BRODY: There are a couple of different types of evidence that I think are like a neon sign that says the environment is a place we should look. When women live in one region and then move to another, their breast cancer rates change and so do their daughters' and their granddaughters'. So if women move from Asia, for example, which has lower breast cancer rates, to California, which has some of the highest rates in the world, their breast cancer rates change until their daughters' and granddaughters' breast cancer rates come very close to women from California originally. The other thing that makes me think there may be environmental causes of breast cancer has to do with recent findings about endocrine disruptors. Those are pollutants that are synthetic chemicals but can act like estrogen. We know that many of the established risk factors for breast cancer are related to exposure to estrogen or to other hormonal factors. For example, the age when a woman gets her first period, the age at menopause, the number of kids she has and how old she was when her first kid was born. Now, as we learn more about how synthetic chemicals can act like estrogen, it makes a lot of sense to give priority to finding out whether these synthetic chemicals also increase breast cancer risk.

KNOY: Your organization has studied breast cancer on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where the incidence of breast cancer is more than 20% higher than the rest of the state. What do you think is going on there?

BRODY: We're looking at pesticides. Pesticides have been used very widely on the Cape to control gypsy moth and mosquitoes, and also on cranberry bogs and golf courses. And earlier research suggests that pesticides may be related to breast cancer risks. Some studies have found higher levels of DDT in blood of women with breast cancer than without. But some studies haven't found this association, so it's still a question that we need to pursue. The second thing we're looking at is pollution from wastewater. Since endocrine disruptors are in a lot of commercial products, detergents, and plastics, they go down the drain into the septic system if you're on Cape Cod. And then there's a potential for them to move out through the sandy soil on the Cape into the aquifer that's the source of drinking water.

KNOY: You mentioned wastewater and also pesticides. What other types of pollution are we talking about that may possibly be linked to breast cancer? And the reason I ask is I think some people may think that it has to be extreme. You know, you have to live next to a toxic waste site, or you have to work in a really horrible factory with all sorts of chemicals around you. But the evidence that your organization and others seem to be finding is that it can be ordinary stuff that we would all come in contact with.

BRODY: Well, we haven't really made the link to humans yet, but we do see a lot of indicators from wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a report about endocrine disruptors that summarizes effects on wildlife, and we are seeing effects on wildlife reproduction at very low levels of contamination.

KNOY: This link between breast cancer and pollution has been discussed and studied for many years, and study is still ongoing. But some scientists say it's just very, very hard to prove. Do you agree?

BRODY: That is so true. It is a very hard area of research. One thing that's making it harder now is that we're learning things that suggest that it may make a difference when in a woman's life she's exposed to pollutants. The breast develops differently at different parts of life, and it's beginning to look like exposures prenatally may be particularly important, and maybe exposures during adolescence. So we face a tremendous challenge in trying to go back in history to find out what kinds of pollutants may have been in the environment some time in the past.

KNOY: Well, should the state or Federal government take any action based on the concerns that you and others have about breast cancer and pollution?

BRODY: Yes, I think we are ready to act in some ways, even though we don't know yet everything we want to about breast cancer and the environment. First important step is to change the tests we use to identify cancer-causing chemicals. Right now they aren't very sensitive to endocrine effects. They also don't pick up effects early in a test animal's life, and we know that that could be important for breast cancer.

KNOY: Well, I'd like to thank you very much for joining us.

BRODY: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.

KNOY: Dr. Julia Brody heads the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts. Her group is conducting a major study of the possible link between breast cancer and environmental pollutants.

Back to top

(Music up and under)


KNOY: Human disease can often be chalked up to both our genes and the environment. But just how these 2 factors conspire with each other is poorly understood. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences wants to unravel that complex interplay through a new effort dubbed the Environmental Genome Project. A human genome project is already underway, searching for location and function of genes. But this new research will try to match known genes with exposures to toxins and disease. From Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Diane Toomey has this report.

TOOMEY: Why do some of us develop cancer, asthma, or other conditions often linked to environmental toxins, while others escape unscathed? Part of the answer may lie in the chemical building blocks of our genes, and the normal genetic differences among people. The problem is right now, we don't know which genetic variations make us more vulnerable to toxins, or even which toxins trigger these genes. But Ken Olden wants to find out. He's the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Dr. Olden says this knowledge gap prevents us from going after the pollutants that do the most harm.

OLDEN: Right now I think we don't have a good way to set our priorities. Just because one chemical is very high in the environment and another one's very low, it doesn't mean that the one that's very low is not causing more harm. And I think if we really know the bad actors, based on the genetics of the American population, then we could focus on those that cause the devastating diseases and clean those up first.

TOOMEY: The Environmental Genome project will try to identify who those bad actors are. It will set its sights on 200 genes believed to play a role in environmentally-induced disease, like genes known to work in the liver to detoxify blood and those that repair DNA. Researcher Jack Taylor.

TAYLOR: There are plenty of gene candidates out there for us to look at, and then sequence them in some number of individuals to identify all the different variants that we can find.

TOOMEY: Gene variants are the normal varieties of a given gene. For example, everyone has genes for eye color, but people with blue eyes have slightly different genes than those with brown. Similarly, some varieties of genes protect us against toxins, while others leave us more vulnerable. And according to Jack Taylor, all of us probably have a number of genes that put us at risk.

TAYLOR: For example, in bladder cancer, we've been looking at a gene called glutathianous transferase, which is a gene that's responsible for detoxifying some of the carcinogens in tobacco smoke. And about 50% of Caucasians are totally deficient in that gene. They don't have a working copy of the gene at all.

TOOMEY: The Environmental Genome Project will try to identify more of these common problem genes and chemical culprits by comparing disease rates in people with different versions of the same relevant gene and similar exposures to environmental triggers. NIEHS Director Ken Olden says the results could have far-reaching implications.

OLDEN: You can imagine if 50% of the population have a genetic defect or mutation that make them more susceptible to a specific environmental exposure, then if we knew that, then the impact that that information can have on public health is tremendous.

TOOMEY: But there are those who caution against over-selling the Environmental Genome Project. George Gray, Deputy Director of Harvard's Center for Risk Analysis, is one of them. He points out that scientists will only make an educated guess about which 200 genes to analyze, a process that will take an estimated 3 years and $60 million to complete.

GRAY: At this point it's exploratory and hypothesis-generating, and we have to be careful about portraying it as sequencing genes that we know are important.

TOOMEY: And, he adds, it's not clear how predictive the project's early findings might be.

GRAY: So that even if we can draw a relationship between one of these genes and an environmentally-induced disease, it's extremely unlikely to be a direct one to one, if you have this genetic variant you will get this disease. It just won't happen. We have to be careful about how we portray this because of its potential for raising both unrealistic hopes and unfounded fears in the public.

TOOMEY: And critics and researchers alike have another concern. The findings might not be used to protect the public health but to discriminate against individuals or even entire ethnic groups. Karen Rothenberg is the director of the Law and Health Care Program at the University of Maryland.

ROTHENBERG: What we wouldn't want to happen was for there to be an incentive where employers could pick and choose ahead of time which employees they would want, when really what they should be doing is cleaning up the workplace, so that they can protect all employees whether or not they have higher levels of susceptibility.

TOOMEY: Although a Federal law bans genetic discrimination against employees in group health plans, there are no Federal laws that protect the privacy of a person's genetic test results. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said the Americans with Disabilities Act would protect workers from genetic discrimination on the job. But that protection has never been tested in court. Still, critics allow the project could eventually provide valuable public health information. And Stanford University geneticist David Cox says the project's potential benefits go beyond science. Dr. Cox sits on the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission and says this research may spark some much-needed public debate.

COX: One thing that I think I'm most excited about, about this Environmental Genome Project, is that it's going to be an opportunity for the scientists, for the policy makers, and for the public, for the unions, for the employers, to all work together to figure out the best way to bring genetic environmental information together to improve people's lives.

TOOMEY: Dr. Cox says that will be the hardest part: making the Environmental Genome Project pay off for society. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

KNOY: How to protect endangered species and promote development that can sustain a sprawling economy. It's a California dilemma, and the story is next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Many states have laws that provide protection for animals and plants not covered by the Federal Endangered Species Act. California's Endangered Species Act, passed in 1983, is modeled on the Federal law, but there's one important difference. The Federal version spells out how and when to grant permits for construction projects that may incidentally harm an endangered species. California's law doesn't address this procedure, and that's been causing problems. Governor Pete Wilson's administration granted some general permits in recent years that conservationists say were dangerously broad. So they sued. Now the courts have thrown the issue back to the state legislature for clarification. As Cheryl Colopy reports, this struggle over how to enforce endangered species protection in California could set a model for other states and for Congress, which must soon reauthorize the Federal Endangered Species Act.

(Bird song; airplane in the background)

COLOPY: Swainson's hawks stay quiet when they have eggs in their nests, yet amid the melodies of song birds and the drone of an airplane, you can hear a female hawk's short call.

(Short call of hawk)

COLOPY: She's distressed at our approach even though her nest is high above us in a majestic old oak tree.

EaSTEP: It's made of the material that's in the neighboring trees, so there's cottonwood branches and oak branches and willow branches mixed in there.

COLOPY: Wildlife biology Jim Eastep studies these birds. Once thousands returned each spring from their yearly journey to the Argentine pampas. But as California's population has swelled, the Swainson's hawk has dwindled and is now on California's Endangered Species List. Only a few hundred breeding pairs come back to the old oaks and cottonwoods here in the central valley to nest.

EaSTEP: This is a fairly typical example where you can see they built it up pretty much as high as they could get it, into the tree and away from the road as far as they could, so it's pretty secure. And what they like to do is to get up high and have a nice view of the surrounding area.

COLOPY: But here on the farm lands west of Sacramento, the old trees that haven't already been cut down are dying out, and some common crops are too dense for the birds to see their prey as they soar high above them. Some of the breeding pairs Jim Eastep studied in this area have disappeared, and he says biologists just don't know what happens to them. And throughout the valley, it's only a matter of time before some of the hawks' habitat turns into suburbs.

COYLE: Growth is inevitable. It's going to happen.

COLOPY: Tim Coyle of the California Building Industry Association says development plans being prepared for Swainson's hawk habitat near Sacramento will protect the bird, and he's angry that disputes about how to administer California's Endangered Species Act have suspended development throughout the state.

COYLE: The Endangered Species Act has gone far beyond what it was intended to do, which is to create some balance and some- impose a little bit of care. But it's reached a point, I'm afraid, where it has become a dominant influence in the decisions that are made about how we grow.

(Footfalls and voices, echoes)

COLOPY: Decisions about how California will grow are made here in the State Capitol in Sacramento. Far from the trees and streams where threatened animals live, deals are made that may spare one species and doom another. And one of those compromises will have to be made soon. State courts recently ruled that the California Department of Fish and Game lacks clear guidelines about when and how to grant exceptions to endangered species protections. Environmentalists say Fish and Game has been taking advantage of the law's vagueness for years to grant building permits to developers.

CAVES: We went to court over their issuance of an emergency management permit that gave blanket authority for anybody to do anything.

COLOPY: Joe Caves is a lobbyist for the Planning and Conservation League, the lead plaintiff in a suit opposing Fish and Game's permits. The suit came after Governor Pete Wilson issued an emergency permit following a series of fires and floods. The permit allowed land owners free reign to do what they wanted on their land. That was contrary to practice under the Federal Endangered Species Act, and even contrary to Fish and Game's practice up to that point, which granted permits to specific people for specific purposes.

CAVES: And it was just based on your opinion. You didn't have to report it. There were no controls. So it was probably the most egregious example anybody could ever have come up with, and so it had to be challenged.

(Milling; a roll call is taken: "Weinberg...Johannsen...")

COLOPY: Now that the courts have ruled Fish and Game overstepped its authority, the legislature must clarify the law. Several bills are now being considered. Many expect some solution by the end of the summer. The public supports endangered species protection in California, but a strong business lobby in Sacramento will pose a challenge for environmentalists like Daryl Young, the chief consultant to the California Senate's Natural Resources Committee. He says California's endangered species law is stronger than the Federal ESA because it seeks to restore species and their habitat, not just prevent further harm. And he wants to keep it that way.

YOUNG: We need a stronger act because we've lost so much species. We have less than 2% of our ancient redwood forest left. We have less than 5% of our wetlands left. Most central valley wetlands are now gone. We have so little habitat left. It's not a question of balancing development versus endangered species. We've already done the balancing and the scales have been tipped in favor of development.

COLOPY: But now, after a series of court victories, environmentalists believe they are in a position to insist on a permit process that doesn't jeopardize endangered species.

MUELLER: Ideally we wouldn't be using ESA as a growth management tool, but that's what it's kind of de facto become, because nobody's exercised leadership on this issue.

COLOPY: Tara Mueller of the Environmental Law Foundation also wants to hold firm on the Endangered Species Act. She says California really needs better regional and statewide land use planning. But the chances of that are slim.

MUELLER: Until people, you know, wake up on this issue, we've got to do the best we can with, you know, we've got to preserve the last remaining valuable habitat of some of these species. Otherwise, you know, pretty soon it's going to be like LA from, you know, from end to end. And I'm sure not everybody would like that.

(Traffic and bird song)

COLOPY: Builders are poised to begin work here in the Natomas Basin near Sacramento, but until California's Endangered Species Act is clarified, all development is on hold. From the road atop a wide levee at the western edge of the Natomas Basin, we can see a lone Swainson's hawk circling above the green fields. Sacramento's skyline looms up just a few miles away. The fate of the Swainson's hawk worries biologists like Jim Estep. He says the best thing would be not to build here at all, but this is really the only land left for burgeoning Sacramento to take over.

ESTEP: It's just important to do the best we can in terms of preserving certain aspects of this landscape to retain those biological values for Swainson's hawks and garter snakes and all of the other species that are out here as well.

COLOPY: And in other areas not yet on the verge of being swallowed up by a city, environmentalists want enough habitat set aside to allow species like the Swainson's hawk to start to increase their numbers. And they want any revisions to the Endangered Species Act to support that goal. For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

KNOY: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

(Music up and under)

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. 1-800-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; and Jennifer and Ted Stanley.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. KNOY: Pressure-treated wood used to make patio decks and picnic tables contains chemicals that may pose a health risk. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


(Theme music up and under)

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

KNOY: Summer temperatures are rising and you want to know exactly how much but don't have a thermometer handy. Don't worry. You can get a lot of information from some very little creatures. For instance, if you're seeing ants, it's at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit. And if a honeybee stings you without provocation, chances are it's below 70. If that's not accurate enough, look for grasshoppers. If they're hopping it's at least 37 degrees, and if they're chirping it's above 62. Then there's the katydid, which gets the award for most indecisive insect when it comes to temperature reporting. When the mercury tops 80 degrees it's call sounds like "katy did it." But as the temperature drops, so apparently does the katydid's certainty. At 4 degree intervals, the call changes first to "katy didn't," then to "katy did," and from there to "she didn't," and "she did." Below 60 degrees the call is just, "Kate." The most accurate forecaster of all is the white tree cricket. It chirps exactly 4 times a minute for every degree the thermometer reads above 40 degrees. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)


KNOY: In 1972 the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. It's designed to address the continuing contamination of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem, especially by persistent toxic substances. To that end, the agreement prohibits offshore oil drilling in all the Great Lakes. But there's another kind of oil drilling going on under the lakes. It's called slant drilling, and some Michigan residents say it's a way to subvert the law. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson explains.

NELSON: Slant drilling is the method used when it's impossible to drill straight down to reach a target destination. In this case, oil and gas deposits under Lake Michigan. In slant drilling operators sink a vertical well about a quarter mile upland from the shoreline. It goes down several hundred feet, then angles off diagonally for several thousand more feet to reach its payload. Because it's expensive and complicated, slant drilling isn't the typical way to drill for oil and gas, but it isn't uncommon, either. In fact, there are 7 slant drilling operations now underway beneath Lake Michigan. They began in the 1970s, but nobody seemed to really be paying attention until recently, when New Star Energy applied for permits to drill a pair of new slant wells near Manistee on Lake Michigan's east shore.

CABALA: We've had phone calls from our members and from the public. And no matter where they work, whether they're Democrat or Republican, oil drilling under Lake Michigan evokes a very strong response, and it's negative.

NELSON: Tanya Cabala is with the Lake Michigan Federation, a group that works to protect water quality and habitat. She says the issue has raised concerns about the environmental risks and legality of drilling in the Great Lakes. But Tom Wellman, a geologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, says slant drilling is legal, and it won't hurt the environment.

WELLMAN: From the technological perspective, we don't feel that these wells are substantially different than any of the other directionally drilled wells in the state.

NELSON: Tom Wellman says none of the slant wells currently under the Great Lakes has created any contamination problems, and plans for the proposed wells, he says, show they'll run nearly 5,000 feet below the bottom of Lake Michigan. Since there's an impermeable layer of bedrock there, he says it's unlikely a leak would make its way to the water.

WELLMAN: Well, you have to consider that this oil and gas has been under the Great Lakes for many millions of years and has not come to the surface. And there's not a feasible explanation to describe how that's going to happen.

NELSON: Tanya Cabala agrees the danger isn't necessarily under the water. She says the risks would be at the surface haul location on shore.

CABALA: From what we know about oil wells, and production sites, what happens in exploration, what happens in production, there is waste that's generated. It needs to be stored, transported, disposed of, and some of the wastes are in particular hazardous, toxic, and it certainly has the strong potential to harm the shoreline area.

NELSON: Ms. Cabala says leaking or blowouts at surface haul sites could be devastating to shoreline habitat. But state environmental officials say there haven't been any blowouts since the 1950s. And new regulations that require better pipe casings to contain leaks, they contend, provide adequate protection. But adequate isn't good enough for opponents of slant drilling, and they wonder why Michigan officials continue to support the operations when the state would get less than $15,000 the first year the wells are operational. After that royalties are paid on whatever's pumped out of the wells.

(Flowing water)

NELSON: Seventy-nine-year-old Paul Parks has lived in Grandhaven, Michigan, for most of his life, right here in a lakefront cottage his grandparents bought nearly 100 years ago. Paul Parks says the slant drilling debate really reflects the state's current political agenda. One that, he says, puts business interests ahead of the environment.

PARKS: We're going to have to fight this thing for a long, long time. They've got money, they've got lawyers, they've got lobbyists. And it's going to be a tough, tough battle.

NELSON: The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality plans to make a decision about the newly proposed slant wells in the next few weeks. Few people on either side of the issue believe the applications will be denied, and state environmental officials say several other slant drilling permits are now also being considered. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson.

Back to top

(Music up and under)


KNOY: Summer time, for many people, is the time to get out the grill and have the neighbors over for a barbecue on that great new wooden deck you had built this spring. But before you break out the burgers, check to see what type of wood your patio's made of. A steady stream of research shows that some types of pressure-treated wood often used in outdoor settings can be dangerous to human health. Alex Wilson is editor and publisher of Environmental Building News, a newsletter on environmentally responsible design and construction. He's written about pressure- treated wood, and he joins us now. And Alex, thanks for coming in.

WILSON: Glad to be here, Laura.

KNOY: Why treat wood in the first place? What's the advantage?

WILSON: Well, there are a lot of advantages of treating wood. The preservative in wood keeps insects from damaging it, keeps bacteria from coming in, keeps mold from causing rot and degradation.

KNOY: Alex, how does somebody know if they have a deck or a patio that's made out of pressure-treated wood?

WILSON: Well, when the deck is new, it will have a greenish tint to it. Unfortunately, as it ages, and particularly with a 20-year-old deck, that wood will naturally gray and it will become difficult to determine exactly what it's made of. The rule of thumb would be to always assume that it is made of treated wood.

KNOY: What are some of the products that people would be familiar with that are made out of pressure-treated wood?

WILSON: Well, the most common would be decks. The typical back yard wooden deck is made of a treated wood called CCA, or chromated copper arsenate. Some picnic tables are made of treated wood that's used quite a bit in playground construction.

KNOY: Lots of wood is treated with what you called chromated copper arsenate or CCA, and in a recent article that you wrote in Environmental Building News you said not only is this the most common type of treated wood, it's also the one that's the biggest cause for concern.

WILSON: Some 5 billion board feet per year of wood are using this preservative treatment. And our concern is looking down the road at what is going to happen when this wood begins coming out of service. CCA-treated wood went into widespread use beginning in the early 70s. Fairly soon, very large quantities are going to begin entering our waste stream.

KNOY: If people burn it, there's a concern.

WILSON: Burning it is always a problem. Homeowners should never burn any type of pressure- treated wood or preservative-treated wood under any circumstances. The chemicals that are in the most common pressure-treated wood are heavy metals: chromium, copper, and arsenic. Those 3 chemicals may become airborne. Most of the heavy metal will end up in the ash, and in that form in the ash it is highly leachable and can easily get into groundwater and cause all kinds of environmental concerns.

KNOY: So if I've got a deck made out of CCA-treated wood and it's time for me to get rid of it, what should I do?

WILSON: The only thing that can be done with it is landfilling it. So you should check with your municipal solid waste authority and find out what happens with wood that gets sent out with the trash. If the municipal trash goes to an incinerator, my recommendation would be to talk to your solid waste agency and say look, I've got pressure-treated wood in here. From what I understand that should not be incinerated. What are the alternative disposal options?

KNOY: If the wood is still in good condition and you're using your deck or your patio or whatever, should you be concerned about people spending time on it? About your kids spending time on it?

WILSON: Well, that's a big issue of contention. Some recent studies, one in particular in Connecticut, looked at the arsenic and chromium concentrations beneath a number of decks that had been built out of pressure-treated wood, and found significantly elevated levels. I've also read some counters to that study by the American Wood Preservers Institute. But even they will admit that there will be some leaching of the chemicals from that.

KNOY: Where do you see it going? Where do you see the wood products industry going with treated wood, given the concerns that you've talked about today?

WILSON: I don't know. In our newsletter we actually took the unusual step of calling for a gradual phase-out of CCA-treated wood. We're not an advocacy-type publication, but we did feel that this was significant enough an issue that we needed to take a stand on it. I should note, however, that there are some new products coming along that are quite attractive from an environmental standpoint, and highly durable. There are 2 products on the market that are a composite of recycled polyethylene and wood fiber. One is called TREX; it used to be made by Mobil Chemical, it's been spun off as a separate company. The other product is made by AERT in Texas, and that's a quite interesting product called Choice Deck. It's distributed by Weyerhaeuser now. But it's a 50-50 mixture of recycled polyethylene and waste wood fiber that's left over after perfume manufacturing in Texas.

KNOY: So in terms of the future, it sounds like some alternatives are being developed.

WILSON: Very much so. As concerns become more publicized about CCA and particularly the long-term disposal of CCA, we will begin to see a shift toward safer products.

KNOY: Well Alex, I want to thank you very much for joining us.

WILSON: I’m glad to be here.

KNOY: Alex Wilson is editor of Environmental Building News and author of the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings. He lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

KNOY: With aid from the descendants of settlers who once helped drive them out, a Native American tribe plans to turn their ancestral homeland into a nature preserve. The return of the Nez Perce is coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Ever since the US Army forced the Nez Perce people out of their homeland in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon in 1877, the tribe has been working to get some of that land back. Over the past 120 years Nez Perce leaders have traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with presidents, Congress, and bureaucrats. As early as the 1890s they were giving newspaper interviews, posing for photographs, and lecturing in an attempt to build public support. By the 1930s the effort had become known as the Nez Perce Lost Cause, and nothing happened. Until now. This spring the Nez Perce took title to 10,000 acres of their old homeland in the Wallowa country and will soon purchase 6,000 more acres. The tribe plans to convert the former ranch land into a wildlife preserve. And in an ironic twist of history, descendants of the settlers who once hated and feared the Nez Perce are welcoming the tribe back home. Producer Vicki Monks prepared our report.

(A horse neighs)

MONKS: Near the top of a steep grassy canyon 2,000 feet above Joseph Creek, Appaloosa horses emerge, then disappear into a cool morning fog. Nez Perce riders are preparing for a ceremony that will take place later in the day celebrating the tribe's return to the Wallowa Valley as a land owner after an absence of 120 years.

PINKHAM: We were dispossessed. You know, Nez Perce were forced off of this land. And while physically we may have been forced off, you know, the spirit of the Nez Perce is still cast across this landscape.

(Neighing horses)

MONKS: Jamie Pinkham, one of the tribe's young leaders, has been traveling to the Wallowa country in northeast Oregon since he was a child. It's a wild, ruggedly mountainous place bordering Hell's Canyon on the Snake River. With habitat for elk, black bear, cougar, hawks, owls, and rattlesnakes. Until white settlers took control, this entire region was home for the Wallowa band of Nez Perce. There's evidence they've lived here for more than 10,000 years.

(Wind blows)

AXTEL: You felt that gust of wind? That's the spirit of the old people coming and saying, oh, we're glad you hear.

MONKS: A spiritual leader of the Nez Perce, 72-year-old Horace Axtel is keeper of the tribe's traditions and, in a sense, keeper of the collective memory. This morning he sits on a boulder watching changing patterns of cloud shadow over the canyon. Mr. Axtel's grandmother, Piwiyahtahmahlupt, was born not far from here. She was only 6 years old when the US Army forced her family out of this valley and fighting began.

AXTEL: She remembers gunshots, and she remembers people crying, people laying on the ground, and tipis burning. I guess you would say she was glad to be alive. That's the way I used to look at it. Because so many of them her age got killed. In the winter when we'd get snowed in or had to stay at home, well, she would go through these pictures. And when she came to pictures of Wallowa Valley and this country she'd cry. You get lonesome for your land. You get lonesome for your people.


MONKS: As we talk, a gentle rumble of thunder echoes in the distance. Mr. Axtel recalls Chief Joseph, whose Nez Perce name Heinmot Tooyahlakekt means "thunder over the mountains." It was Joseph who led his people on an incredible 1,600-mile journey, trying to reach sanctuary in Canada, with the US Cavalry in pursuit. And Joseph who surrendered during a Montana blizzard 35 miles short of the border, because the children and elders were freezing and had no blankets or food.

VAN BLAIRCOM: They were here, they had their culture. And boy, I can see why they didn't want to give up this land.

MONKS: E.H. Van Blaircom, rancher, amateur historian, private property rights activist, recognizes full well how much his own people have benefitted from the Wallowa land. At the same time he believes the Nez Perce were badly wronged.

VAN BLAIRCOM: Here you had the settlers coming in and there no doubt were conflicts. But like I say, I blame it more on the eastern Congressmen who had this bias toward Indians and regarded them as savages.

MONKS: But Federal politicians weren't entirely to blame. Documents from Indian Bureau archives show how settlers invented phony stories of Nez Perce atrocities to build a case for moving the Indians out. At the end of his life, after years of confinement on reservations in Oklahoma and Washington State, Joseph's one wish remained that he might return to the land of his ancestors in the Wallowa Valley. He never made it. None of the whites here would even sell him land. As a final insult, grave robbers unearthed the remains of Joseph's father and a dentist put the skull on display. Horace Axtel.

AXTEL: I understand he died with a broken heart and loneliness. That can happen. I know that now.

MONKS: Anti-Indian sentiment held steady here for a century, and with it came a fierce resentment of Federal efforts to redress tribal grievances. That anger was still burning in the 1980s when the anti-Federal Sagebrush Rebellion caught fire. Judy Wortman is a leader in that movement. She chairs a statewide private property rights group called the Oregon Lands Coalition.

WORTMAN: My family were the first settlers in the freeze-out country, which is one of the big side canyons between the Snake River country and what the call the Imnaha River country, and so they were some of the first...

MONKS: Judy Wortman's people came to Oregon from Missouri in the mid-1800s. She and her husband Pat raise cattle and run a small logging company. Pat Wortman has been a Wallowa County Commissioner for 9 years. From the front port of the Wortman's ranch home, you can see the Wallowa River and a breathtaking spectacle of snow-capped mountains. The Wortmans are afraid they could lose all of this because of logging and grazing restrictions on Federal lands.

WORTMAN: Well, you just cannot rip people away from their roots. You can't rip a ranching family that has 4 generations of ties to the land and say well, you just go somewhere else and ranch. You cannot do that.

MONKS: And she does perceive the irony that what she fears might happen to ranching families is exactly what did happen to the Nez Perce.

WORTMAN: We sure have a lot of empathy for the Nez Perce because now we understand, you know, exactly what happened to those people when they loved this Wallowa Valley so very much. But it's one of those injustices that happened, and you know, we have to move forward. We can't go back and fix it. I'm sorry, but we can't.

MONKS: Even so, her husband Pat and other county leaders played critical roles in pushing the Nez Perce land deal through. Several newspapers have suggested that civic leaders want the Nez Perce back home to draw tourist dollars. That's offensive to many people here, and it misses the point. The real issue in this county is access to the natural resources on public land. The Federal Government already owns 64% of Wallowa County. Several years ago the US Forest Service restricted some logging on Federal land to protect damaged stream side and mountain habitat.

(Milling, voices in background)

LAWRENCE: Well, there's a big effort underway to restore bighorn sheep to the prominence, former prominence that they had in the canyon here. And all of the protection of this property is going to be part of that story.

MONKS: Tribal wildlife biologist Keith Lawrence says elk and song bird habitat will also be protected. He's standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking the new Nez Perce land, and he's holding a hand-colored map showing more than 100,000 acres set aside in other conservation deals.

LAWRENCE: ... tribal acquisition. These are all independent acquisitions, but they all have happened in the same fairly large geographical area over the last 10 years...

MONKS: Mr. Lawrence is excited about combining so much territory for wildlife habitat. But to the locals it means an awful lot of land taken out of productive economic use. Tensions ran so high a few years back, someone put up a noose at the end of town for US Forest Rangers. And for Ranger Van Blaircom, the preservationists are just about as bad.

VAN BLAIRCOM: Who want this land for national parks and for its scenic value, and they would like to see us removed from the land. So there is a certain irony there of a parallel that we feel. And it wasn't until then that I really understood how the Indians were really wronged.

MONKS: Over the years, the tribe's persistent attempts to get back some of their land in Wallawa County had all failed. But this time, the Nez Perce had another card to play.

(Voices and drizzle; crackling flames, chopping sounds)

MONKS: As a cold morning drizzle settles in over Joseph Canyon, people are drawn to an open, crackling fire ringed halfway around with fillets of salmon tied to tall stakes. Millie Axtel sits under a lean-to nearby preparing the fish.

M. AXTEL: All this last night I filleted salmon until about 2 o'clock this morning, and I had to go out and cut the posts for the salmon to stick them on the stakes. This is the way I learned from my grandmother. We always were river people, we always stayed by the river and harvested the salmon. It was a way of life for us.

MONKS: The same treaties that had taken land away from the tribe had also granted the Nez Perce rights to continue hunting and fishing in their old territory. In modern legal terms, the old ways codified in the treaty give the tribe considerable authority over how fish and wildlife resources are managed. Authority the tribe has used to build friendships in Wallowa County. In the late 1980s, Chinook salmon were about to be listed as endangered in Wallowa's streams.

WORTMAN: This is how it kind of got started.

(Flowing stream)

MONKS: The tribe had legal authority to devise a salmon recovery plan and County Commissioner Wirtman decided he'd much rather deal with the Nez Perce than the Federal Government.

WORTMAN: The tribe was trying to increase the fish runs, and I think we had those concerns also, because it was going to if they were listed, it was going to put some restrictions on how we manage and do business.

MONKS: Residents were worried about their livelihoods, but they were willing to go along with more limited, voluntary measures they worked out with the Nez Perce. The salmon are beginning to come back, and the planning process has helped to heal old wounds.

WORTMAN: The first thing I think you've got to do is quit pointing fingers and sit down and find common ground. And I think we've done that.

MONKS: Later on, when Nez Perce treasurer Jamie Pinkham sat down with Mr. Wortman over coffee and donuts to discuss the land acquisition plan, the county commissioner was willing to listen. The national conservation group the Trust for Public Land had identified a magnificent property that a retired rancher was putting up for sale. The land offered prime habitat for bighorn sheep, elk, and song birds, but project manager Bowen Blair knew he would face serious objections to another government land reserve.

BLAIR: If Trust for Public Land had come in and just tried to convey this into public ownership, it never would have happened.

MONKS: So Mr. Blair approached the Nez Perce tribe, and soon the county dropped its opposition.

BLAIR: This started out as a wonderful wildlife habitat mitigation project but with the Nez Perce dimension, their return to their ancestral homeland after 120 years, this became a good project and went to an unbelievable and remarkable project. One that has to be the most fulfilling transaction that I've done in my 8 years at Trust for Public Land, and probably one of the best things I'll accomplish in my life.

(Dancing and singing/chanting; drum beats)

MONKS: As the ceremony to dedicate the new land begins, 2 dozen Nez Perce Appaloosas and riders in traditional dress move in slowly across a broad hillside. By the time Horace Axtel stands to offer a blessing more than 300 people are crowded beneath tarps or standing in the pouring rain. Scores of elderly had traveled from reservations in Idaho and Washington State and braved a deeply rutted muddy road to witness this event.

(Rain pours)

AXTEL: So from now on, our title of this land will be Hatawaysnict Watas. Precious land.

(Dancing, singing, drum beats continue)

MONKS: The 16,000-acre reserve is only a small part of the county. In the greater scheme of things it won't make much difference to the way ranchers or anyone else runs their business here. But the Nez Perce are bringing a way of life back into this community that's been missing for a long time. And one thing is clear: the tribe intends to continue a tradition of sharing. Of neighborliness and forgiveness that's meant to heal.

(Dancing, singing, drum beats continue)

MONKS: Hatawaysnict Watas. Precious land. For Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Monks.

Back to top

(Dancing, singing, drum beats continue)

KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. But before we go, a correction. In our introduction to a recent story on the slaughter of bison in Yellowstone National Park, we mistakenly reported that park rangers were responsible for shooting the animals. Actually, it was agents from the Montana Department of Livestock who did the killing, not the park rangers. And we regret the error.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production team includes Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Liz Lempert and Jesse Wegmen, Julia Madeson, Peter Christenson, Susan Shepherd, and Peter Shaw. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Our associate editor is Kim Motylewski. We had help from Tom Kuo, Jill Hecht, and Emma Hayes. And thanks this week to New Hampshire Public Radio and Vermont Public Radio. Jeff Martini engineered the program. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Laura Knoy. Steve Curwood returns next week. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth