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

September 12, 1997

Air Date: September 12, 1997


Justice in St. James Parish

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has revoked key permits for a new plastic factory proposed for this largely African American section of Louisiana. The agency is responding to complaints of environmental racism in this community which is already home to 10 chemical plants. Law Professor Colon Crawford joins Laura for an analysis of the decision. (05:37)

Ozone Treaty Revisited / David McLauchlin

Delegates from around the world are meeting in Canada for a tenth anniversary assessment of the Montreal Protocol.-- the treaty governing the phase out of ozone depleters, like chloroflourocarbons Some delegates are upset that developing nations are still producing CFC's, and selling them illegally. But, others warn that the long term goal of a total, world ban on ozone depleting chemicals might be sidetracked by too much emphasis on CFC smuggling. David McLauchlin reports from Montreal. (03:26)

Philippine Mining Legacy / Orlando de Guzman

In the Philippines, president Fidel Ramos is pushing an aggresive plan to industrialize the nation by the year 2000. A cornerstone of his program is mining. But last year a major accident at a Canadian-operated mine spilled millions of tons of waste into the Boal river, virtually destroying the economy and ecology of the island of Marinduque . Producer Orlando de Guzman recently visited the island and found that the disaster is putting a chill on the President’s plan. (10:35)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Fun facts about.venery the creation of nouns for groups of animals. (01:15)

Oil's Future in Alaska / Peter Thomson

Oil has been surging down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for twenty years now. But today, the flow from Prudhoe Bay is starting to slow and the oil industry is fixing its sights on a huge, yet little known piece of federal land called the National Petroleum Reserve The Reserve's 28 million acres have gone largely unnoticed since they were set aside as a possible source of fuel for the Navy 75 years ago. Now, the federal government is considering selling oil and gas leases there. The decision could have profound impacts for the region: home to millions of migratory animals, and thousands of eskimos, whose lives are being transformed by oil revenues. Living On Earth's Peter Thomson reports. (24:50)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: David McLauchlin, Orlando de Guzman, Peter Thomson
GUESTS: Colin Crawford

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy. In its first ruling in an environmental justice case, the Federal EPA puts the brakes on a plastics plant slated for an African- American community in Louisiana.

CRAWFORD: If, as a result of EPA's recent action, the Louisiana state government started enacting some laws that required these environmental justice concerns to be taken into account, that would be an extremely promising development.

KNOY: Also, remembering Marcopper. A year after the mining tragedy, Filipinos reflect on their nation's drive to industrialize.

SEVERINO: The Markcopper disaster almost overnight created awareness of the impact of mining, and the possible disasters that could occur.

KNOY: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. First news.

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(NPR Newscast)

(Music up and under)

Justice in St. James Parish

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy sitting in for Steve Curwood.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has issued a ruling in a high-profile environmental justice case. EPA Administrator Carol Browner revoked the permits needed for a proposed plastics plant to operate in St. James Parish, Louisiana, a mostly African-American community. The proposed factory would be one of the largest polyvinyl chloride facilities in the country. Polyvinyl chloride production releases dioxin, a chemical that's been linked to cancer and reproductive disorders. Meanwhile, the state of Louisiana says it will reconsider whether the Japanese-owned Shintech company should be allowed to build the plant in the community. St. James Parish is already home to 10 chemical factories, and opponents of the Shintech plant argued that adding another plant would increase risks to human health. Joining us from San Diego is Colin Crawford, a professor at Thomas Jefferson Law School, and author of Uproar at Dancing Rabbit Creek: Battling Over Race, Class, and the Environment. It's the story of another small Southern town, Knoxubee, Mississippi, and that community's fight against a chemical waste dump. Professor Crawford, what do you make of EPA's decision to revoke the Shintech permit to build a plant in St. James Parish?

CRAWFORD: Well, what's striking to me here is that Carol Browner, the EPA Administrator, came out and issued this decision in such a public, high-profile case, and came forward and said that EPA was really going to take this question of environmental justice very seriously in an area of the country that's long been accused of being the most heavily polluted area with a very high concentration of African-American residents.

KNOY: What factors, Professor Crawford, is the EPA supposed to consider when it looks at an environmental justice case?

CRAWFORD: Well, that's the real problem, Laura. There aren't any particular factors that they are required to look to in citing these things. That is, although in citing, for example, a plastics plant, it's necessary to look at all potential sources of air pollution and water pollution and to do soil borings and testings and geological surveys to see what the potential environmental impact would be. And even to check and see if it's near a historic preservation site or a school. It's not necessary to say, well, is this going to have a disproportionate effect on an African-American or a Latino community, communities that are already carrying more than their share of this kind of activity in their midst? And that's really the problem. There's no legislative direction from Washington for EPA to do that.

KNOY: Does the EPA also consider the fact that some residents may want the plant because it could bring jobs to the area?

CRAWFORD: Well, you see, this is really one of the most interesting features of this and related cases. And I don't think it's glib to suggest that we're really seeing playing out the long-term consequences of slavery and Reconstruction and what that has done to these very poor, largely African- American communities in the South. And I say that because these are communities now that are completely run-down, that have very few opportunities for job development. The poverty rates in St. James Parish, I think, run upwards of 45%. You know, the prospect of if it's only even 5 or 10 jobs, really is a very powerful incentive. And so, it was really no surprise to me that the local NAACP in St. James Parish came out in favor of this project. That is the exact same thing that happened in Knoxubee County, Mississippi, when they were faced with getting one of the country's largest hazardous waste dumps.

KNOY: So what do people like you, who are making environmental justice claims in cases like St. James Parish, do about that? How do you say to someone, "No, I don't think you should have these jobs"?

CRAWFORD: Well, you know, I dignify those concerns for jobs, and I take them very seriously. And I think it's terribly important, then, to insist that politicians and economic interests in the states not only face these communities with prospects like chemical plants and petroleum processing facilities, but something more. Some sorts of job training programs, which will help alleviate the long-term consequences of the degradation and the absence of opportunity in these communities.

KNOY: Based on your experiences, what do you think might happen next in the St. James Parish case?

CRAWFORD: Although I applaud Administrator Browner for her recent decision to put these permits on hold, I think unfortunately recent experience has shown that EPA will now sit on the permits for a number of years. It was very interesting in Administrator Browner's letter, however, that she was clearly trying to pass the baton back to the state government and state regulators in Louisiana, to urge them to try and find some solutions. And if in fact that happened, if locally in Louisiana they started to draft some regulations, laws that would take some of these environmental justice concerns into account, that would be a very positive development.

KNOY: Well, Professor Crawford, thanks for your time.

CRAWFORD: Thank you very much.

KNOY: Colin Crawford is an environmental law professor and author of Uproar at Dancing Rabbit Creek: Battling Over Race, Class, and the Environment.

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(Music up and under)

Ozone Treaty Revisited

KNOY: Delegates from around the world are meeting in Canada for a tenth anniversary assessment of the Montreal Protocol. That's the treating governing the phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons, also called CFCs. The international black market in CFCs is one of the remaining obstacles to success of the treaty. Some delegates are upset that developing nations are still producing CFCs and selling them illegally. But others warn that the long-term goal of a total world ban on ozone-depleting chemicals might be sidetracked by too much emphasis on CFC smuggling.
David McLauchlin reports from Montreal.

MC LAUCHLIN: Graphic evidence of black market CFCs was gathered by a small London-based organization called the Environmental Investigation Agency. For the past year it posed as a broker willing to purchase ozone-depleting chemicals for sale worldwide and found they're readily available. According to the group, the biggest buyers are businesses in the European Union and the United States. Julian Newman is a spokesman for the Environmental Investigation Agency.

NEWMAN: During 1994 to 1996, southern Florida was flooded with illegal CFCs. During the period in the port of Miami, CFCs were second only to cocaine in terms of street value of contraband.

MC LAUCHLIN: Canadian officials estimate a truckload of 1,000 cylinders of CFCs can earn a smuggler a half a million US dollars. Julian Newman says most of the supply of black market CFCs originates in China.

NEWMAN: That's perfectly legal. Because under the Montreal Protocol they're classified as a developing country, so they can produce CFCs until the year 2010. And they're gearing up in production; they're producing more and more every year.

MC LAUCHLIN: Tom Land of the US Environmental Protection Agency coordinates US efforts against smuggling. His estimates placed the total quantity of ozone-depleting substances on the US black market at 20,000 tons. That's almost a third of the CFC inventory of the United States.He regards black market CFCs as a serious threat. He says together, 5 US agencies have made 33 arrests since 1994. But he says the problem will eventually take care of itself.

LAND: Obviously, people don't keep their cars forever. Eventually there will be no cars that use CFCs, and then there will be no more demand. Without demand, then anybody who still has the CFCs ends up with a useless commodity.

MC LAUCHLIN: Mr. Land and others say the problem of black market CFCs has to be balanced against another issue: the phase-out of methyl bromide. It's an agricultural chemical used worldwide and another potent ozone-depleting chemical. Mahadva Sharma is Executive Secretary of the UN Environmental Program. He says if too much pressure is put on developing countries to shut off supplies to the black market, the risk is they'll walk away from any deal banning methyl bromide.

SHARMA: Enrollment of 162 countries, virtually all conditions in the world, that has been and still is very essential for the success of this protocol agreement. As you know, it's a truly global problem. And it can be solved only if everyone is involved.

MC LAUCHLIN: Mr. Sharma points out that a freeze on CFC production in developing countries begins in 1999. He points out that the world has reduced ozone-depleting substances by 70% in the past 10 years. And he says if that progress can be maintained, the hole in the ozone layer will begin repairing itself by the middle of the next century. For Living on Earth, I'm David McLauchlin in Montreal.

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KNOY: Remembering a mining disaster in the Philippines that has many Filipinos questioning the pace of industrialization. That story is next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Philippine Mining Legacy

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. In the Philippines, President Fidel Ramos is pushing an aggressive plan to industrialize the nation by the year 2000. A cornerstone of his program is mining. The Philippines boasts vast and untapped mineral wealth, including one of the world's largest gold reserves. But the president's effort is being overshadowed by an event which took place last year. A Canadian-operated mine spilled millions of tons of waste into the Boak river, virtually destroying the economy and the ecology of the small island of Marinduque, which lies just south of the main island of Luzon. Producer Orlando de Guzman recently visited Marinduque and found that the mining disaster is still reverberating.

DE GUZMAN: At dusk in the village of Lupac, farmers and fishers are gathered around a small altar decorated with plastic flowers.

(People praying)

DE GUZMAN: They're here to mourn the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

(Praying continues, with singing in local language)

DE GUZMAN: Marinduquenos, like most Filipinos, are deeply religious, their faith a fusion of local animism and Catholicism. But here, people are not only mourning the death of Christ but also the death of their river.

JANAP: [Speaks in local language]
TRANSLATOR: Now, when I look at the river, it looks like an like onimous cemetery.
It is quiet. You will not see any children swimming in the river.

DE GUZMAN: Uldarico Janap's life was changed on the night of March 23, 1996, when millions of tons of tailings surged from a pit at the Canadian-operated Marcopper Mine into Marinduque's main river. In a matter of hours, the Boak River's entire 16-mile stretch, and the coastal area at its mouth, were smothered to death.

JANAP: [Speaks in his language]
TRANSLATOR: The poor people who make a living catching shrimp are having a very hard time. They are just loitering on the street corners because there is no more shrimp to catch. Marcopper did not give us progress. All they have done is destroy the island of Marinduque.

DE GUZMAN: Hundreds of families can no longer fish for shrimp or other species, do laundry, or water their farms from the river. Emelita Rivera now ekes out a living by clearing and burning the steep slopes along the river to plant bananas and corn.

RIVERA: [Speaks in local language]
TRANSLATOR: Before, we got fish from the river and we didn't have to go buy it in town. But there's no more fish here any more. So instead of saving our money to send my children to school, I have to spend it to buy fish from town. That's become a big hardship here.

DE GUZMAN: Many residents of this small island just south of the main Philippine island of Luzon live in remote villages without electricity, paved roads, or hospitals. Before the disaster, there were few regular jobs here besides those at Marcopper. Now, the mine is closed and even those are gone.

(Traffic sounds)

DE GUZMAN: A dusty road ends at a deep pit that Marcopper had filled with tailings: the crushed rock left over after the copper has been extracted from the ore. It looks like a big lake with copper green water. The disaster began when a drainage plug under the pit broke. For 5 days tailings spewed out at a rate of 100 dump truck loads a minute. Karen Vidler is a marine biologist who saw it all happen.

VIDLER: Once it happened, the day after, it just became like the stuff you see coming out of a cement truck when you're pouring cement, and the river had become that, and everything was gray. So, you can just imagine that instead of like when you turn on the tap, instead of water coming out of it you've just got cement.

DE GUZMAN: Now, millions of tons of muck line the bed of the Boak River and its banks. If they're exposed to air, the tailings will eventually produce toxic sulfuric acid. So Marcopper has been pushing the material back into the river and waiting for the monsoons to wash it out to sea. This is the biggest part of the company's clean-up. But biologist Karen Vidler says it's also the company's way of limiting its liability, which is based on what are known here as direct links between the smothering muck and its effect on specific people.

VIDLER: If it's on the land, it's going to directly affect the farmer who owns that land, and there's direct links. In the coastal areas, it's a shed resource, it's open-access. So drawing direct links to people and individuals or, you know, there's no sea holders, is more difficult to do.

DE GUZMAN: Placer Dome, Incorporated, Marcopper's parent company, denies it's trying to reduce its liability, but says Marcopper's responsibility is limited because the disaster was unforeseeable. Hugh Leggit is Placer Dome's spokesperson.

LEGGIT: We believe what happened was that there was a fracturing of the rocks surrounding the tunnel plug, which may have been exacerbated by a 3.2 magnitude earthquake a week earlier. And we had everything under control up to that time.

DE GUZMAN: But an investigation by the United Nations found that the disaster was preventable, and critics say Marcopper had a history of disregard for the local environment.

(A motor starts up and runs)

DE GUZMAN: Fisherman Ben Alfonte starts a rusty irrigation pump he's rigged to power his boat. He glides across the calm water of the Calancan Bay, where Marcopper dumped 145 million tons of tailings over 16 years. Mr. Alfonte estimates that about 50 square miles of coral reefs, crucial fish habitat, were ruined by Marcopper's tailings, and that 2,000 families lost their livelihoods.

ALFONTE: [Speaks in local language]
TRANSLATOR: This shore was like a paradise. The fish were abundant here. But now there is nothing. Even if you are here the whole night, it's hard to catch even a kilo of fish. What happened here is worse than World War II. At least then, the Americans and Japanese paid us war damages. But these Canadians from Placer Dome, they're not paying anything.

DE GUZMAN: Marcopper began as a secret partnership between Placer Dome and former president Ferdinand Marcos. When Marcos's dictatorship was overthrown in 1986, his half ownership was taken over by the government of Corazon Aquino. Local residents successfully sued the company twice to stop the dumping in Calancan Bay, but both presidents Marcos and Aquino personally overturned the rulings. Eventually, the Aquino government ordered Marcopper to pump the tailings further out to sea. Instead, the company began dumping its waste into the pit that eventually failed and killed the Boak River. Howie Severino, a Manila-based investigative journalist, says Marcopper's story was very typical.

SEVERINO: In the political regimes of Marcos and Aquino, it apparently was enough that they were well-connected, that they had the support of both presidents, which allowed them to defy environment authorities and totally ignore local community sentiment, including environmental considerations.

DE GUZMAN: Unlike his predecessors, President Fidel Ramos has not intervened on Marcopper's behalf. In fact, his government has taken the unprecedented step of filing criminal charges against 3 company executives. It also temporarily stopped processing new mining permits while it improved its monitoring, brave moves at a time when Ramos is wooing foreign investors. Howie Severino says the Marinduque spill moved public opinion in the Philippines more than previous disasters, and that for once the government seems to be listening.

SEVERINO: Many communities have known all along that mining has had destructive effects on their natural surroundings. But to many influential people living in cities, to the middle class, urban people, urban voters whose opinion politicians and policy makers value the most, the effects of mining have not been as obvious. But the Marcopper disaster almost overnight created awareness of the impact of mining, and the possible disasters that could occur.

DE GUZMAN: But the death of the Boak River has not caused President Ramos to cut back his aggressive mining plans. The liberalization of mining laws 2 years ago still stands, and the government is now reviewing about 100 mining applications from foreign companies. And the disaster has not led to broader changes. There are still only a dozen officials in charge of monitoring all environmentally harmful industries in the country. And the Department of Natural Resources is still in charge of both promoting mining and protecting the environment. Repeated requests for interviews with officials in charge of mining were denied. Today, Placer Dome is looking for gold in the northern Philippines. The company has sold its Marcopper shares, and it's unclear whether the mine will reopen. The clean-up operation will end next year and the river will be left for nature to slowly heal.

(People praying and singing)

DE GUZMAN: Monsoon season has started on Marinduque, and flash floods from the island's barren hills are known to race down the now lifeless Boak River. Along with choking it to death, the tailings have raised the river's floodplain by as much as 6 feet. Many here are left with only one hope: that like their savior Jesus Christ, the Boak will resurrect from its death and show some mercy.

(Praying and singing continue)

DE GUZMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Orlando de Guzman.

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(Praying and singing continue; fade to harp music up and under)

KNOY: We'd like to know what you think about our program. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our Web page at www.loe.org. Transcripts and tapes are $12.

It's 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 National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800- PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

KNOY: A decision to be made soon in Washington, DC, may forever change the face of the Alaskan Arctic. The prospect of commercial oil drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve is coming up on 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: From aardvark to zebra, scientists have to have a name for every animal, and they manage to get a little creative now and then. Some of the more inventive examples come from their attempt at venery: the collection of creative nouns for groups of animals. Everyone's heard of a pack of wolves and a swarm of bees. But how about a steam of minnows, or a charm of goldfinches? Some of those names make sense, or at least they sound like they do. A skulk of foxes, a tittering of magpies, a crash of rhinoceroses. Others are downright poetic. A descent of woodpeckers, a convocation of eagles, an exultation of larks! There are intriguing names like a shrewdness of apes, a cete of badgers, or a nide of pheasants. And then there are names that change depending on exactly where the group is. For example, geese on land are a flock. In flight they're a skein, and in the water a plump. Some names even sound like product endorsements. Careful you don't swim into a smuck of jellyfish. And finally, there are those names which seem to elude all explanation. Consider a knab of toads, a troubling of goldfish, and perhaps oddest of all, a pladge of wasps. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Oil's Future in Alaska

KNOY: Oil has been surging down the Trans-Alaska pipeline for 20 years now. The decision to open the valves capped a decade of national debate about the wisdom of drilling in one of the most fragile environments on Earth. Since then, billions of barrels of crude have been pumped from the fields of Prudhoe Bay and elsewhere in the Alaskan Arctic. Today the flow from these fields is starting to slow, so the oil industry and the state of Alaska, so dependent on oil, are looking for new territory to plant well heads. The industry has long had its eye on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but political opposition has kept it closed to drilling. So oil companies are fixing their sights on a huge yet little known piece of federal land called the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, and they're getting a friendlier reception. The reserve's 28 million acres have gone largely unnoticed since they were set aside as a possible source of fuel for the Navy 75 years ago. Now, the Federal Government is considering selling oil and gas leases there. The decision could have profound impacts for the region, home to millions of migratory animals and thousands of Eskimos whose lives are being transformed by oil revenues. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson traveled to the land of oil and ice and has this report.

(Brushing sounds, ice chips falling)

THOMSON: Shimmering ice crystals fall as Dora Itta brushes against a frost- covered ceiling and steps off a wooden ladder onto a frozen dirt floor littered with big white sacks.

ITTA: This is the caribou, the legs, the ribs, the hind legs. And the geese, nuguluk we call them.

THOMSON: Six gray geese lie among the sacks, their necks frozen into graceful arcs. Scattered by the rough walls are a few plump,silver-brown fish stiff as two-by-fours.

What do you call this?

ITTA: Cigaluok. Cigaluok. Ice cellar. There is a passage up there where you can see the sky and you put the wood up there so it don't melt from the top. It's dug all around in here; we can walk around it.

THOMSON: The ice cellar is dug 10 feet into the permafrost, the frozen earth beneath the surface of the tundra. Above, the warm Arctic sun has melted last winter's snow cover. But down here it's always winter. Dora tells me this is where her family stores its catch from the short Arctic summers to help them get through the long months of cold and dark ahead. The Ittas are Inupiat Eskimos, the native residents of the northernmost fringe of the United States, the stark treeless plain between Alaska's Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean, known as the Arctic Slope. It's one of the world's very last frontiers, where the landscape and the wildlife are largely unchanged since the appearance of humans. And the Inupiat are among the last people in the country to still depend largely on hunting and fishing to survive. But the land around this camp may also harbor millions of barrels of oil, and a new effort to open the land for oil drilling has put the future of the Inupiat's subsistence lifestyle in question.

(Footfalls on ice; fade to wind)

THOMSON: Emerging from the ice cellar, Dora and I are brushed by a stiff wind blowing off the polar ice cap just 20 miles to the north. It seems to have scoured the landscape clean: not a road, no power line, or even a hill break the horizon. We're deep within the largest piece of Federal land in the country, 36,000 square miles of tundra and mountains known as the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. The area was set aside when oil seeps were found here in the 1920s, but it's been mostly left alone since. The only signs of civilization here are the Itta's 3 tiny summer cabins, and 2 helicopters: the one I arrived on, and another one that's just landing.

(A helicopter whirrs)

ITTA: Amy, where did you put my camera?

THOMSON: Dora's niece rushes off to find her camera. It's the Governor of Alaska and the Secretary of the Interior trailing a band of advisors, security people, and journalists. Governor Tony Knowles has asked Secretary Bruce Babbitt to open this area to oil and gas development, and the Secretary wants to see it and meet its people before he makes a decision.

(People milling and talking.)

N. ITTA: Hi! Welcome, welcome to see! To see anything! They just got those fish this morning.

THOMSON: Dora's father Noah Itta beams as he shows Governor Knowles big fish fillets and huge racks of caribou ribs hung up to dry in the sun.

N. ITTA: Get my wife. Molly!

THOMSON: He and his wife Molly are the elders of the family, and they are eager to show off their hunting and fishing skills. Noah finds Molly with Secretary Babbitt filleting a whitefish pulled from a nearby river.

(Scraping sounds)

M. ITTA: It's kind of dry, this little fish.

BABBITT: Now you just hang them here for how long to dry?

M. ITTA: Depends on our sun.


M. ITTA: You just cut it like this.

(Cutting sounds)

THOMSON: The Secretary's party has come here because of concerns that oil drilling nearby could disrupt the habitat of the wildlife that the Inupiat depend on. Molly for one tells me she isn't worried about the animals.

M. ITTA: They come every spring from somewhere. It never changes. The oil companies are flying around; they come every year. Every year. I don't know what will happen but I know for sure they're careful about everything like Prudhoe Bay. That's what they've been saying. We believe them.

(Voices milling)

JOYCE: Our goal is the same as all of yours: protect the critters, protect the habitat...

THOMSON: In a windowless conference room 100 miles to the east, biologist Mike Joyce talks excitedly to Secretary Babbitt's entourage about the oil industry's progress in the Arctic environment. Mr. Joyce works for the oil giant ARCO.

JOYCE: Where do they nest? Where do they brood their young?...

THOMSON: The conference room is in a huge orange building at ARCO's Kuparak oil field. It's near Prudhoe Bay on a part of the Arctic Slope that's owned by the state. The sprawling complex reminds me of a swath of industrial New Jersey. But ARCO representatives say it hasn't really disrupted wildlife. Still, they say they're learning how to do even better.

JOYCE: ... this location, but we understand the critters' sensitivities then, what stresses critters, better than we have in the past. And therefore, we know how to modify our design to minimize whatever the stress might be. Birds, fish, caribou...

THOMSON: ARCO officials certainty invoke the symbols of environmental sensitivity. They speak of critters, and wear flannel and jeans. The walls here feature photos of wildlife and smiling kids. But the company says it's not just PR. Ronnie Chappell is an ARCO spokesman.

CHAPPELL: There has been some significant change in the oil industry in Alaska. In the old days pipelines were at ground level, impeding caribou passage. Today we've raised them a distance of 5 or 6 feet, so that they can walk easily beneath them. Our Alpine development will be a discharge-free development. Our ability to drill longer-reach wells means that we need fewer drill sites, so technology has allowed us to reduce the number of impacts and the size of those impacts.

THOMSON: ARCO is already at work on a state of the art oilfield just outside the National Petroleum Reserve, which the company says will affect 80% less land than its early fields here. Governor Tony Knowles, who watched the ARCO presentation with rapt attention, says we don't have to choose between oil and a pristine Arctic environment.

KNOWLES: We don't have to split the baby. This is not a Solomon decision. It's not an either-or; we can really have it both. We also know that when these oilfields are finished, they will be dismantled and there would be no trace of any activity, because on ice pads rather than gravel pads you can conduct the entire drilling operation and the production operation and you never disturb it.

THOMSON: All these assurances have helped convince the native government here to support drilling in the petroleum reserve.

(Some kind of horn)

CARROLL: Well we encourage it --

THOMSON: I meet Marie Carroll in a brightly-lit aircraft hangar in Barrow, the region's largest town. She's the chief administrative officer of the North Slope Borough, which includes 8 Eskimo towns scattered over 90,000 square miles of tundra.

CARROLL: We've had decline in our revenue sources. You know, Prudhoe Bay is declining.

THOMSON: Ninety percent of the borough's budget comes from taxes on oil industry property. And in the past 20 years, that money has transformed these communities. No more sawed huts and dog teams for these Eskimos; they've got schools, health services, electricity, sanitation. And a search and rescue squad to fly people out of remote areas.

CARROLL: We have Lear jet and 2 Bell helicopters. Before we got this department, we used to lose several people a year, and now it's pretty rare to lose anybody from exposure.

(Horn continues)

THOMSON: Rather than being at odds with subsistence practices, Marie Carroll tells me, oil development has actually allowed her community to maintain hunting traditions, which might otherwise have withered away.

Outside of the pockets of human settlement, there are no roads in the Alaskan Arctic. I get around here the same way everyone else does. By air.

(A helicopter whirrs)

THOMSON: Rising above the tundra, striking patterns emerge from the featureless green and brown. Bizarre hexagons formed by the constant freezing and thawing of the waterlogged land. Meandering rivers whose constantly shifting courses leave echoes of green scars and long curving blue lakes. In the distance, a single speck of brown sprints across the landscape, then a half dozen, then suddenly thousands of caribou fleeing our chopper. Or perhaps the hordes of relentless mosquitos. There are millions of animals in the National Petroleum Reserve. But even from the air we're lucky to catch a glimpse of some of them. The land is so vast and the wildlife so spread out that you can travel miles and not see a single creature.


THOMSON: On the ground, the quiet is overwhelming.

(Footfalls continue)

THOMSON: But it belies the abundance of life. Tiny plants and lichen support insects and migratory song birds, and mammals from ground squirrels to caribou. These in turn are food for raptors, grizzly bears, and wolves. The Arctic coast and the thousands of rivers and lakes host millions of birds, including several endangered species, which fly thousands of miles to breed and feed in the intense Arctic summer. Offshore are polar bears, seals, walruses, and whales. By some reckonings, the wildlife populations in the petroleum reserve may be even more important than those in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a protected area far to the east. And the most crucial habitat happens to be in the same area as some of the best oil prospects. The Interior Department has begun a study of the potential environmental impact of drilling in the petroleum reserve. Wildlife biologist Dave Yokel, who is working on the study, tells me there's reason for concern about at least some species.

YOKEL: When the geese are molting, they're flightless for about a 3 to 4-week period. If they are disturbed at all, they will head out into the lakes. When they're doing this escape behavior, they can't be spending any time feeding, and it's very important at this time when they're molting to get the energy they need to molt, as well as store up fat for the migration south for the winter time. Also, the caribou herd, the cows that have calves are sensitive to human disturbance; that's already been shown in the Prudhoe Bay and Kaparak oil fields, where there's been a shift of use over the last several years.

THOMSON: And Dave Yokel tells me some of the animals here are already being stressed by development in other parts of their range. So any habitat disturbance inside the petroleum reserve could just compound problems elsewhere.

(Footfalls continue)

WOMAN: Good morning everyone. Welcome, visitors. Residents of Atkusuk let us pray... (In native language, prayers)

THOMSON: In a wood-paneled community hall in the village of Atkasuk, a standing room only crowd briefly puts aside coffee and chewy Eskimo doughnuts to pause for an invocation. Residents have come to talk about oil drilling with Secretary Babbitt.

MAN: On the chance of NPRA does get open, how is the Federal Government going to guarantee that we will be hunting caribou 20, 30, 40 years down the line, fishing in our rivers 20, 30, 40 years down the line, the same that we are doing now?

BABBITT: Very important question, because development tends to bring more development. And when the flood starts, your ability to control it may become a very, very big issue. There's a lot of concern about how much activity you can have on the landscape before the caribou disappear. Before the polar bears disappear. Before the nesting seasons of the migratory birds are disrupted. I don't pretend to have all the answers. But I do know that for 500 years we've made the wrong decisions to the great detriment of hundreds of Indian tribes. And this is one of the very few remaining places in the world where the link between the natives and the subsistence way of life is still strong. And so the questions he asks I think are very, very important.

(Another man speaks in native language)

THOMSON: It's a powerful speech, one the Secretary delivers at several villages on the North Slope. He warns against blindly accepting the promises of the oil interests. But ultimately, he can give no guarantees. It's in these smaller villages, more dependent on the land and away from the seat of Eskimo power in Barrow, where you hear the greatest concern about oil drilling.

(Children playing, laughing and yelling)

THOMSON: In a school playground in the village of Nuiqsut, kids chase each other around and dangle from the monkey bars. It's 10 o'clock at night and bright as noon. Nuiqsut is on the coastal crescent of the National Petroleum Reserve that holds the most promise for oil, and it's the closest town to the fields already operating on state lands.

(Yelling continues)

THOMSON: Three boys run right up to me and my microphone. They're Cyrus Nukabigak, Clayton Kaigelak, and Robert John Botfish.

So listen, what do you guys think of this oil drilling business?

BOYS (one after the other): I don't know.

BOY 1: Maybe I should move to Anchorage.

BOY 2: Maybe I'll take a vacation.

THOMSON: You mean that having money from oil will let you take a vacation? Or you want to get away from the drilling?

BOY 2: No. Get away from the drilling.

BOY 3: Too poison.

BOY 1: I'm going to miss catching caribou. We're going to be poor.

(Laughing and playing continues in background)

AHTUANGARUAK: ... and it hasn't occurred ...

THOMSON: Inside, in the school's gym, the town's adults are debating the future of the kids outside. Elders with colorful fur-lined boots and parkas sit up front. Younger people sit further back, wearing sweatshirts and jeans. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a young mother of 5 with deep, serious eyes, is speaking to her neighbors.

AHTUANGARUAK: We don't need all those pipelines out there. That's for sure. We've already been hurt by many of those developments out there. When our people cannot go to their cellar and take out the food from the land and provide for their family, it's not given by the oil companies. There has not been one benefit for the suffering this community has gone through with this development.

THOMSON: Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, fears her community will be surrounded by pipelines, and the caribou pushed further away. Even having to debate it, she tells me, is a burden. With strong feelings on both sides, it's hard for some residents to share their hunting catch with their neighbors, as is Eskimo custom.


MAN: We'll have one more.

(Another man speaks in native language)

THOMSON: The meeting lasts late into the evening. As things wind down I meet Thomas Napageak, an elder and a former mayor who spoke in favor of drilling.

NAPAGEAK: We're not opposed to development, but that development should take place with our involvement.

THOMSON: Thomas Napageak speaks hopefully of badly needed jobs. But as we talk, his tone slowly changes.

(Crowd and conversations in the background)

NAPAGEAK: I like to try to look at it as a positive, although there's the impact well, just take a look at the young people. Like my boy, my granddaughter. What will become of them. Should oil be striked, money starts coming in. Will they continue to hang onto their cultural lifestyle? Or will money distract them?

THOMSON: It sounds like you're willing to take that gamble under certain conditions.

NAPAGEAK: We know it's going to happen. So the best thing for us to do is get involved early on. Prudhoe was discovered and we weren't involved, and that's just the fact.

THOMSON: Do you believe that they can develop in a way that the new fields will not have an effect on your subsistence?

NAPAGEAK: The impact on our subsistence has been noticeable. I mean (sighs, pauses) it's hard. I mean, it's hard, it's hard. The caribous are migrating about 20 miles from their usual migratory path now. Further south. The bowhead whales that we go for, I mean that's one area that we have to watch very closely. Fish that migrate from the Mucatsin Delta, we have to watch those. This is some of the things that kind of scares me, you know, when you think about it. But with local involvement, I'm pretty sure that things can go a long ways for the native people. That's all I can say.

THOMSON: Ambivalence about developing the petroleum reserve runs deep here. But most at least agree on one thing: that the study period is too short. The public comment period closes in October and a decision is due by next August. And the question of timing looms large. Why the proposal to open the reserve now, critics wonder, when there's plenty of oil, and when President Clinton is pushing Americans to burn less oil to reduce the risk of climate change? Some suggest the answer is political. Governor Tony Knowles is a Democrat in a Conservative state. A decision to allow drilling could give his reelection campaign next year a big boost. But Governor Knowles and Secretary Babbitt say the study has nothing to do with the Governor's campaign. Secretary Babbitt says it's just the right time to look at the NPRA.

BABBITT: I think it really began in the debate a couple of years ago over the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, in which I consistently said we should not invade the wildlife refuge. It's been set aside. There is a long unexplored horizon which stretches west from Prudhoe Bay area. And what's happened in the intervening time is that the oil companies have begun to make discoveries moving west. And that takes us right up to the front door of the National Petroleum Reserve.

THOMSON: But the Secretary insists that the fix is not in for oil drilling in the reserve. He says there's a lot more involved than the need for oil, jobs, or tax revenue. Wildlife laws and treaties, pollution laws, and subsistence needs must all be considered. Environmentalists would add one more item to the list: the value of the land left alone for its own sake. There are always other sources of energy and revenue, they say, but wilderness is almost gone. Some propose making most of the area a wildlife refuge with native hunting rights. And they urge the Eskimos to pursue eco-tourism and other more sustainable businesses. Inupiat leaders are working on other development projects, but they say their land is so remote and the climate so severe that at least for now oil is all they've got. There's even some subtle resentment here that the decision on the petroleum reserve will be made in Washington rather than by the Inupiat themselves. It's their future that's at stake, after all, and it used to be their land, too. But they have no legal claim to it any more. All native Alaskan land claims were settled long ago.

(People speaking in native language)

N. ITA: Shochlak. This guy's name is Shochlak.

THOMSON: Back at the Ita's camp, Noah is talking with some of his visitors in the warmth of a gas heater inside the cabin. Noah's English isn't great, so a friend helps out.

N. ITA: [Speaks in native tongue]

FRIEND: His concern about not, you know, just not to say no to oil drilling, is not good. Industry is not the predator against wildlife here and caribou or geese.

THOMSON: But even if the oil companies can drill in the tundra without disturbing its wildlife, another more ominous threat looms. In recent years the climate in the Arctic seems to be changing. Spring is coming earlier. Inupiat tell me that the winter ice sheet is breaking up earlier. And it already seems to be affecting wildlife. Scientists say the polar regions are the most sensitive to global climate change, and they say the climate is changing because we're burning so much fossil fuel. Like the oil that's already being pumped out from under the Eskimos' homeland.

(Harsh winds)

THOMSON: Outside the cabin the pale green carpet of tundra seems endless and eternal. Noah's 13-year-old granddaughter Jamie has been watching all the hubbub. I ask her what she makes of it. She says she's not quite sure. She worries about new oil development. But she also knows what it would mean to her community.

JAMIE: I wish that we can have both, so our oil can't hurt anything [phrase?]. Where we can still have jobs and stuff. But it doesn't work that way, the way I see it.

THOMSON: If you had to choose one, either the oil or the old ways with the subsistence hunting, what would you take?

JAMIE: Umm the oil, I guess.

MOLLY: This is my campfire. When the mosquitos are really bad I build a fire and scare them away.

THOMSON: Nearby, Molly Ita is back at the filleting table with Secretary Babbitt, wielding her bone-handled knife on another fish.

BABBITT: What do you call these?

MOLLY: Ulu. Ulu. Yeah, uh huh.

BABBITT: And when you're angry at your husband?

MOLLY: (Laughs) No, I don't use this. I use my hands. (Group laughter)

THOMSON: Molly Ita is in her element. The little cluster of people in a sea of green under a 24-hour sun. The smell of willow smoke in the air, today's catch of fish and caribou drying in the breeze. Miles from anywhere, but connected by a lifeline powered by oil. And hoping that things will never change.

MOLLY: I don't know the future. We're going to eat this right now. We're trying to enjoy our last years of life. (Laughs) Here. We enjoy it here real good in the camp.

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in the National Petroleum Reserve west of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

(Spirited conversation among the group of people; fade to native singing)

KNOY: Next month Peter Thomson brings us a story unfolding in the austere plains and unnamed mountains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A controversy there over oil development is pitting the Inupiat Eskimos against their native neighbors, the Gwitchen Indians. It's the second part of his series on oil and ice.

Back to top

(Singing continues)

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

(Singing continues up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

(Singing continues up and under, coming to a close with some tired laughter)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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