February 6, 1998
Air Date: February 6, 1998
Taking on Tens of Thousand Chemicals/ Daniel Grossman
Under a congressional mandate, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) Endocrine Disrupter Screening and Testing Advisory Committee is developing criteria to determine which chemicals are harmful. The committee just met in Washington, D.C. and managed to compromise on how to go about testing some ten thousand chemicals. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman was there and reports. (04:40)
Western Sprawl Alternative/ Becky Rumsey
Today, as more and more people pour into parts of the Western U.S., things are changing. Unless you are very rich, in many places land is now too expensive to buy for ranching. Colorado, for example, loses 90,000 acres of agricultural land each year to development. But, the folks of at least one rural county are fighting back. They're preserving ranch land by offering landowners an alternative to selling out their community to sprawl. Becky Rumsey has our story. (10:00)
Mass Dolphin Strandings
On the outermost arm of Cape Cod there are more mass dolphin strandings reported than anywhere else in the world. Even so, the late January stranding and death of 71 dolphins was one of the largest in decades on the Cape. Living On Earth traveled to Wellfleet, Massachusetts to document the recovery effort and talk with some of the scientists involved in researching the strandings. (05:30)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about....mustard. (01:15)
New Bronx Paper Plant
If all goes as planned, New Yorkers will soon witness the construction of the largest factory to be built in the city since World War Two. As John Kalish reports, the developer of the proposed paper recycling plant in the South Bronx isn't a conglomerate or investment firm, but one of the nation's leading environmental advocacy groups. (06:00)
Natural Gas Converts
At the beginning of the year a new law went into effect in New York State that encourages businesses to convert diesel and gasoline powered trucks to cleaner burning natural gas. The new law also offers companies tax credits. Steve Curwood speaks with David Vandor about these new incentives. , a consultant to alternative fuel fleet owners who sits on the Environmental Business Association of New York's Alternative Fuel Vehicle Task Force. (04:00)
Keiko the Whale Health Report/ Ley Garnett
Keiko, the star of the "Free Willy" movies, has cleared a major hurdle towards his possible release back into the wild. A panel of experts, assembled by the U.S. government, has given the Orca whale a clean bill of health. The study followed a public feud between the foundation which bought Keiko from a Mexican marine park, and the aquarium where he now lives. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Ley Garnett provides this update. (03:15)
For Elephant Seals: A Harem of Valentines
Northern Elephant seals spend most of their time at sea. But, from December through March, they come ashore to mate and raise their pups on a number of islands off the coast of California and Mexico. Competition is fierce among the males. Each year only a few will win the right to breed and take charge of a harem of females. Jim Metzner traveled to Ano Nuevo island, near Santa Cruz, to bring us this story of sex, violence and scientific mystery. (05:00)
The Science of Flowers and Candy
Just in time for St. Valentine's Day, Steve Curwood interviews German ethnobotanist Christian Rätsch about his new book called: Plants of Love: The History of Aphrodisiacs and a Guide to their Identification and Use. Dr. Rätsch's volume details the historical and often successful search for substances that can enhance sexual pleasure and provoke both love and fertility. (05:45)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Daniel Grossman, Becky Rumsey, Steve Curwood,
Jon Kalish, Ley Garnett, Jim Metzner
GUESTS: David Vandor, Christian Rätsch
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Many synthetic chemicals can imitate the sex hormones and other human chemical messengers. But there are no regulations to protect public health. Now, a special government committee is starting the task.
KRIMSKY: So this process of EPA is to decide how we're going to set priorities on these tens of thousands of chemicals. It's a big job. And it's never been done.
CURWOOD: Also, in Colorado's red hot real estate market, new zoning and planning incentives are helping to preserve open space.
VALENTINE: They can do some lots that are a couple acres and still preserve the bulk of the ranch, which is what we were able to do here. See, all the wetlands, all the haymeadow is all still there. It's not touched, and will stay that way.
CURWOOD: On Living on Earth this week, but first the news.
(NPR News follows)
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Researchers have shown that some synthetic chemicals can cause animals to develop abnormalities. Like male alligators with female characteristics. Other studies show that women who eat fish laced with so-called endocrine disrupting chemicals tend to bear children who are more aggressive and have lower IQs. Right now, these problems are not a trigger for regulatory action. But under a Congressional mandate, the EPA Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Advisory Committee is developing criteria to determine exactly which chemicals are harmful. The committee just completed a framework for the process in Washington, DC. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman was there.
GROSSMAN: In mid-1996, with public concern about endocrine disrupting chemicals mounting, the EPA brought together a high-level advisory committee to figure out which chemicals were the bad actors. The assignment was a tall order, according to Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University.
KRIMSKY: Potentially, there are 75,000 chemicals, and that's a substantial number. So this process of EPA is to decide how we're going to set priorities on these tens of thousands of chemicals. It's a big job. And it's never been done.
GROSSMAN: After a year of deliberations, the group has come up with a scheme for giving priority to substances most likely to be harmful. And they've crafted a 2-tier testing process. Tier 1 includes a battery of 7 tests designed to winnow out those chemicals that don't pose a risk, before going on to much more time-consuming and expensive Tier 2 tests on mammals and other animals.
(Ambient voices in a crowded room; a man says, "...we'll get started."
GROSSMAN: As the Washington session got underway, a number of critical issues divided committee members. First, how to define the term "endocrine disruption."
MAN: And I'll direct your attention to the eleventh line down, "Chemicals that irreversibly disrupt normal endocrine functioning and thus organogenesis due to..."
GROSSMAN: Some members, principally from industry, said endocrine disruption should mean an adverse effect, like a reproductive problem or a birth defect. Other members argued this definition would exclude subtle effects like increased hormone levels or unusual organ growth, which might initially appear insignificant but turn out to be important as scientific evidence mounts. Another sticking point was whether to test chemicals just at high doses or at low doses as well. For years regulators have subjected test animals to high doses, assuming that smaller exposures have less pronounced effects. But Professor Frederick vom Saal says with endocrine disruptors, sometimes just the opposite occurs.
VOM SAAL: We took hormones and synthetic chemicals and tested them over a very wide dose range, and demonstrated that instead of getting a bigger and bigger response as we put in more and more of the chemical, we at first got a very big response and then as the dose got higher and higher, we got a lower and lower response.
GROSSMAN: By the end of the 3-day meeting, a consensus emerged on the most important issues. A compromise was struck over how to define endocrine disruption. Meanwhile, industry accepted the idea of low-dose testing. And environmentalists agreed manufacturers could skip some tests under carefully defined conditions. Committee member Dr. Ted Schettler says he's pleased by the session's progress, but he warns that the problem of identifying chemicals of concern is far from solved.
SCHETTLER: We decided early on that we were only going to deal with estrogens, androgens, and thyroid hormones, and chemicals that interfered with those three hormone functions. There are many other hormones, many other growth factors, that we haven't even begun to talk about.
GROSSMAN: Over the next month committee members will hone the language debated in Washington. They meet again in March to hammer out a report to be reviewed by the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board. The Agency is scheduled to complete its plan for screening endocrine disrupting chemicals by August. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.
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CURWOOD: When you think of the American West, open space easily comes to mind: broad plains, big mountains, and wide open skies. And for the last 150 years the West has been a magnet for many who seek to get away from the cramped quarters of the big cities. There was always, it seemed, plenty of room for another ranch, another homestead. Today, as more and more people pour into parts of the old Wild West, things are changing. Unless you are very rich, in many places land is now too expensive to buy for ranching. Colorado, for example, loses 90,000 acres of agricultural land each year to development. But the folks of at least one rural county are fighting back. They're preserving ranch land by offering landowners an alternative to selling out their community to sprawl. Becky Rumsey has our story.
(Children laughing in snow)
RUMSEY: At the base of the ski area in Steamboat, Colorado, there is a bronze statue of a cowboy on skis. Steamboat markets this cowboy image, but it's not just myth. Sailing over an imaginary mogul, with his mustache, hat, and big belt buckle, he's an apt symbol of what sets this place apart from many other mountain resorts. Steamboat still has a real town and a diverse economy because so far, its ranchers are still ranching.
RUMSEY: About 5 years ago conservationists, ranchers, planners, and others listened to the rising roar of traffic on Steamboat's main street. And they realized that with cattle prices low and land values escalating, they were about to lose their ranching community and a lot of their open space with it. So the county took action.
MUCKLOW: We did a study that looked at the value, what's the value to tourists and residents of open space?
RUMSEY: C.J. Mucklow is the Routt County Agricultural Extension Agent.
MUCKLOW: And it was the first time there was ever any data put together that showed that there was a value in just a view of pastoral landscapes. As visitors said, that's somewhere between $11 and $17 million just to look at. So I think that helped. I think that gave some validity to the data that agriculture is more important than just the productivity, the weight gains, how many cows we can run.
RUMSEY: Unlike other places in the West, where changes pit ranchers against environmentalists, Routt County residents forged a common vision. In 1995, Routt County adopted an open lands plan. Some people don't even like to call it a plan, because that smacks of heavy-handed regulation, something that doesn't wash well in the conservative West. What it really is, they say, is a menu of voluntary options for landowners and developers: tools to keep more land open and available for agriculture. One of those tools is a conservation easement, a permanent restriction on a property that precludes its development.
RUMSEY: That's what saved the Fetcher Ranch along the Elk River 16 miles north of Steamboat. Mr. Fetcher gave up some market value. In exchange, his family will receive tax benefits. Jay Fetcher appreciates his father's decision.
FETCHER: He is very active and very healthy, but he's 85. And if he were to die tomorrow without this conservation easement, the value of the land is such that I have to sell half the ranch in order to pay the estate tax and I'm out of business. With half a ranch left, I can't stay here. It's not an economic unit any more.
RUMSEY: The Fetchers donated their development rights. But if a rancher can't afford to do that, he or she can ask the county to buy those rights. Routt County now has a small pool of money for that purpose. But those funds will only go so far. Still, many ranchers worry about permanently encumbering all of their land and closing off their family's options to raise money or build another house on the ranch. Routt County addressed these concerns by making it easy for ranchers using easements to set aside a few buildable lots at the same time.
FETCHER: If I needed to, I could get approval and sale of a 5-acre home site within, I think, 60 days.
RUMSEY: Typically, a landowner who wants to turn ranch land into money has 2 choices in Colorado. He can sell to a big developer, who will subdivide it and put hundreds of houses on it, or he can carve it into 35-acre ranchettes, which under state law are exempt from county review. In either case, ranching loses, and so does the rest of the community.
ZELLER: The problem with the 35-acre pattern is that it's kind of the ultimate large sprawl pattern of development, and it ends up consuming a lot of countryside as opposed to protecting it.
RUMSEY: Marty Zeller runs Conservation Partners, a Denver consulting firm that helped Routt County create some alternatives.
ZELLER: It's generally too large to maintain effectively and too small to really graze. And so you get this pattern of scatteration of houses over large landscapes, and I think ultimately it's going to be very expensive to provide public services to. Just think of the cost of providing school buses to that pattern of development, as opposed to a more compact village pattern with a larger area protected.
RUMSEY: So Routt County also created a new kind of subdivision, one that could combine limited development with continued ranching on one property.
(Construction sounds: hammers, saws)
VALENTINE: That's a cluster. And then, this road, you can see, construction you see, that foundation, that road is a little loop up there. And there are nine lots off that loop.
RUMSEY: Don Valentine is the developer of Preist Creek Ranch, a so-called “Land Preservation Subdivision”. It's close to town and the ski area, and it was once slated for more than 200 houses. Now it will have only 13 on clustered lots. In exchange for the space left open, Routt County rewarded Mr. Valentine with 3 more lots than he would have had if he'd cut the ranch into 35-acre ranchettes. That's 3 more he can sell and nearly 90% of Preist Creek remains open and could be ranched.
VALENTINE: Someone does have a ranch and they want to sell some pieces off, they can do it without having to do the 35-acre tract thing. They can do some smaller, you know, some lots that are a couple acres and still preserve the bulk of the ranch, which is what we were able to do here. See, all the wetlands, all the haymeadow is all still there. It's not touched, and will stay that way.
RUMSEY: Planners say this kind of subdivision can be cost-effective and accommodate the privacy and views homeowners want. The county's approved 5 of these subdivisions since 1995, and altogether they've kept 825 acres open. But so far, it's mostly developers, not ranchers, who are choosing this option.
(Dogs, whining and barking)
RUMSEY: At the Steamboat Animal Hospital, retiring veterinarian and rancher “Doc” Baldwin expects it will take a while for the Land Preservation Subdivision, or LPS, idea to catch on in the ranching community. Many ranchers, he says, are skeptical about mixing a working ranch with any sort of a residential neighborhood. And, he says, they tend to think they wouldn't be able to afford or manage a development project, even a small one.
BALDWIN: But I think there will be some ranchers that will do LPS plans with the county as time goes by, and they learn more about it. And maybe they'll partner with some builder or some person that wants to do some speculation development, an investor of some sort.
RUMSEY: Routt County's plan came too late for Doc Baldwin. He sold his ranch in 1994. Like many Colorado ranchers, he and his son moved their cattle operation to Nebraska, where land is cheaper and it's easier to expand. But Baldwin is still optimistic about both preservation and ranching in Routt County. He serves on the board of a local land trust and supports the Routt County approach.
BALDWIN: I think that there's a lot of flexibility in what's going on in Routt County for maintaining some viable ranching. It may not be mother cowherds as much as it will be hay production and catering to the tourist business with horses and summer pasture for yearling cattle. That doesn't mean it isn't viable, it just means it'll be different.
RUMSEY: It's too early to tell of Routt County's open lands plan will work in the long term. But so far, agricultural activity in the county, the number of cows, acres in hay, and gross farm sales, has remained remarkably constant. Planners in the region say Routt County is setting an example for the rural west, where land preservation and property rights often clash. In five short years, the county's landowners have protected 10,000 acres from development. But as planner Marty Zeller warns, preservation isn't a game you play just once. Often, the more land you protect, the more attractive an area becomes, and the more land values rise. It's a balancing act the rural west is just beginning to undertake. For Living on Earth, I'm Becky Rumsey in Steamboat, Colorado.
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CURWOOD: Learning from one of the ocean's sad mysteries. Scientists explore the mass strandings of dolphins. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
(People on the beach)
CURWOOD: The peninsula that encloses Wellfleet Bay is like a barb on the fishhook of Cape Cod. And for the pods of dolphins that swim in the area it might as well be one. More mass strandings of dolphins have been reported on this part of Cape Cod than anywhere else in the world. Even so, the late January stranding and death of 71 white-sided and common dolphins here was one of the largest in decades. One theory is that the animals were confused by an unusual confluence of very high tides and an intense coastal storm.
CURWOOD: On this cold and windy Saturday afternoon, it seems like most of Wellfleet's 3,000-plus residents are here at the harbor. Some have brought cameras, but most are here to help recover the scores of dolphins that have been stranding since Thursday.
MAN: Maybe one more pull out!
CURWOOD: A motorboat trailing 4 more dolphins pulls up to the boat launch on the pier.
MAN: Okay, now, as many people as we can. And pulling up on that side?...
CURWOOD: It takes eight adults to lift the first dolphin, which weighs around 300 pounds. The dolphin is rolled onto a yellow mat with holes for its pectoral fins, and then loaded onto a flatbed trailer.
MAN: One, two, three, lift! (Sound of mat lifting) One, two, three, lift!
(Sounds of a motor)
MAN: Seen any carcasses other than those two?
MAN 2: Yeah, there was one ...
CURWOOD: Earlier, we went scouting for dolphins with Dennis Murley, a naturalist at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
(Man in the background: "Thank you.")
CURWOOD: He maneuvered his blue pickup into the salt marshes over a tiny wooden bridge onto Lieutenant Island, where many of the first dolphins were found. We drove over bumpy dirt roads that would soon be under water. Dennis slowed down and told me to watch for groups of seagulls together, a good indicator of a stranded dolphin.
MURLEY: They're almost helpless when they come up on the beaches, and one of the first things, not having arms and legs, they can't fend off scavenging birds. And their eyes are a delicacy to the gulls. And you might have an otherwise healthy animal that has lost its vision and has obviously got to be destroyed.
CURWOOD: Up ahead we see a dolphin in the middle of the road, half-buried by the sand.
MURLEY: Here's one of the first animals here. At the time it first stranded, it was still alive. We got out to it a couple hours later and by that time it had died. Thinking is that many of these animals had gone through the previous night's tidal cycle and had actually fought their way off. They might have been struggling for up to 12 hours before anyone noticed them.
(Bird songs and breezes)
CURWOOD: At the wildlife sanctuary, New England Aquarium staff have set up a makeshift morgue. The morgue is tucked back in the woods behind the parking lot. The serenity of bird songs does a poor job of preparing us for the sight.
(Knives being sharpened)
CURWOOD: It feels like we've stumbled on the scene of a massacre. At least a dozen white-sided dolphins are spread out on the grass. All are open. Some look like they've been turned completely inside-out.
EARLY: What I'm doing right now is collecting a number of samples for other scientists and collecting some basic data and information to try and, you know, piece together what might happen over the last couple of days.
CURWOOD: Greg Early is the principal stranding investigator at the New England Aquarium. He and other aquarium workers have been going round the clock for two days since the first dolphins were found, and more animals keep coming in.
(A truck motor, voices)
CURWOOD: Greg Early and his colleagues take bone and organ samples from each dolphin. Some will be analyzed immediately to determine if any of the animals were unusually sick. Other samples will be sent to a tissue bank at the National Institute of Standards in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The bank began just 10 years ago, but Mr. Early and other scientists expect it to become an invaluable resource.
EARLY: Twenty-five, fifty, a hundred years from now, if you want to look back you can look back and see if there are any trends, any changes, things like that. And it turns out there's not such a library of reference materials, so if you have a big die-off of animals or an unusual event of some kind, you have no reference point to start from. So, this is one way to get that sort of reference point.
CURWOOD: More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle observed animals that beached rather frequently, when the fancy takes them, and with no apparent reason. But Greg Early says that this is the way it always looks from the outside. Within a few days, he and his colleagues will have constructed a chronology and map of the stranding, and they will start getting back the results of the blood and tissue tests soon after. Combining all this information, Early says, will provide the investigators with a pretty clear picture of the causes of the stranding. Aristotle would be impressed.
(Bird songs and breezes)
CURWOOD: Our story on the dolphin strandings was written and produced by Jesse Wegman. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: Bad air, high asthma rates, and few jobs. That's life in the South Bronx today, but some private and public initiatives are trying to turn things around. Two tales from the borough are coming up right here on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: A mustard seed isn't much, but if you add water it makes a marvelous pungent spice. Its flavor can be preserved with lemon juice or vinegar or just about any kind of alcohol. For thousands of years, mustard has not only been used for food, it's also been used for medicine and ritual. Here in North America, Benjamin Jackson, Philadelphia entrepreneur, started selling a Dijon type of mustard spread some 230 years ago this month. Dijon, France was and still is the mustard-making capital of the world. Most mustard seed, though, comes from Canada. Like many spices, mustard has traditionally been used to mask the smell of rancid meat. Today, mustard makers cater to a more discerning palate. And if the supermarket selection isn't enough for you, there's the mustard museum in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, where nearly 3,000 kinds of mustard are on display. Among them are mustards made with truffles, whiskey, blueberries, even Guinness Stout. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: If all goes as planned, New Yorkers will soon witness the construction of the largest factory to be built in the city since the Second World War. Ironically, the developer of a paper recycling plant in the South Bronx isn't some conglomerate or investment firm, but one of the nation's leading environmental advocacy groups. Jon Kalish explains.
KALISH: The proposed Bronx Community Paper Company is being heralded as a major experiment in environmental advocacy. It marks the first time a national environmental group is acting as a developer and building its own recycling plant. The Natural Resources Defense Council is the group, and at an art exhibit showcasing architectural plans for the plant, Senior Scientist Alan Hershkowitz explains the move.
HERSHKOWITZ: We were just getting our butts kicked on trying to advance recycling legislation. So, at some point you've got to step up and say it's not going the way we want it to go. Maybe it's not going the way we want it to go because there's a good reason, so let's find out first-hand. Instead of saying you're not doing it, let's figure out why it's not being done and try to make it happen ourselves.
KALISH: A portion of the old Harlem River Rail Yard will serve as the site of the paper plant. That will mean 26 abandoned and polluted acres of the Bronx will get cleaned up in the process. The plant will also utilize water from a nearby sewage treatment plant. But Hershkowitz says the most important environmental benefit will result in saving trees. The Bronx Paper Company, he says, will harvest an urban forest; some 280,000 metric tons of wastepaper a year will be recycled to produce 220,000 metric tons of newsprint, about an eighth of New York City's annual demand.
HERSHKOWITZ: We're going to be producing less CO2 than virgin mills. We're going to be producing less sulfur dioxides than virgin mills, less nitrogen oxides, less particles. We're going to save 3.4 million trees a year. We're going to save 10,000 acres of forest a year. We're going to reclaim sewage water instead of use fresh water. I mean, on every environmental attribute, we're doing it better than virgin mills. And that's what we want to say: “Get these mills out of the forests, stop harvesting our subsidized virgin resources.”
KALISH: The Bronx paper plant was designed by Maya Lin, best known for her work on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. This is the first industrial undertaking by Lin, who traveled to Sweden and France to study European state of the art recycling and paper production technology. In a recent review, the New York Times called Lin's design “visually spare” and “conceptually rich.” She describes her blueprint as eco-friendly.
LIN: It's actually a series of very clean-line industrial metal buildings connected by glass passageways and skylights, and then a prominent feature will be a glass-encased smoke tower. Again, with the steam sort of misting up through it. But a lot of it is allowing the beauty of sort of the technological components to shine through. It's exposing a machine, in a way.
KALISH: For example, workers will be able to watch their finished product being wrapped for shipment from the plant cafeteria. Bronx residents will also be encouraged to visit the plant and make use of vantage points designed for observing the recycling process. Once the plant is up and running, members of the community who may be concerned about emissions from the paper factory can use computer terminals at a local library to monitor the air. One Bronx resident who will likely be keeping a close eye on the plant is Francis Sturim. She's with the Bronx Clean Air Coalition, which opposes the plant. Sturam has accused the Natural Resources Defense Council of withholding information about the plant's technology from critics.
STURIM: I guess they're fearful that we will find out that it really isn't safe for the health of the community. And in a community that has the highest asthma rate in the country, has approximately 100 toxic release inventory facilities, an incinerator that was just shut down, a sludge pilotization plant that's causing nosebleeds in the community, there's just no reason why we shouldn't have the respect. At least see that, and at least being given the, you know, the information.
KALISH: But the Natural Resources Defense Council's Alan Hershkowitz points out that information about the plant's technology is in the project's Environmental Impact statement. And that his group met 5 times with the Coalition. The Council went so far as to take a co-chair of the Coalition to Sweden to observe the technology there. Hershkowitz says every effort was made to listen to public concerns about the environmental effects of the project.
HERSHKOWITZ: You're required by law in New York City to have one public hearing to have a permit. We had 122. The siting of this thing was done in an unprecedented way. Every aspect of this project has been reviewed and continues to be reviewed. This exhibit is an effort to broaden the dialogue, to open us up and say look at us, tell us what we're doing wrong, tell us what we're doing right.
KALISH: The Natural Resources Defense Council has spent 2 and a half million dollars on the paper plant so far. Total cost is projected to be nearly $400 million, with financing to come from state bonds and corporate investors. The plan is to turn the plant over to a for-profit company. Groundbreaking is slated for this spring. Meanwhile, the NRDC's Hershkowitz says he's talked with the mayor of Pittsburgh about launching a similar project in that city, and he says he's been asked to discuss the idea with officials from 7 other major cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago. For Living on Earth, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.
CURWOOD: There may not be enough jobs in the South Bronx, but it has plenty of polluted air and some of the highest asthma rates in the nation. Part of the problem comes from some 10,000 delivery trucks that drive through the borough every business day. But now the South Bronx may be moving closer to cleaner air. At the beginning of the year, a new law went into effect that encourages businesses to convert diesel- and gasoline-powered trucks to cleaner-burning natural gas. The new law offers companies a tax credit that pays 60% of the cost of converting their fleets, and another tax credit that refunds half the cost of building natural gas fueling stations. We called David Vandoor, who advises fleet owners on alternative fuels, to talk about these incentives. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for joining us.
VANDOR: Thank you.
CURWOOD: What advantages does natural gas have over diesel fuel and regular gasoline?
VANDOR: It is a domestic fuel, that is, it's not imported. It's much cleaner, substantially cleaner. Much lower nitrous oxide emissions, particulate matter emissions, CO2 emissions. So, in the environmental sense it's virtually clean.
CURWOOD: Now, didn't you help write some legislation in New York that offers businesses these tax credits for switching to natural gas?
VANDOR: Yes. The thinking was that these vehicles are, to begin with, more expensive than their diesel counterparts, and so if the state shares that extra cost with the fleet owner, it would not take so long to recoup that remaining extra cost. If the fuel price was actually lower than diesel. I think the problem we're facing now is that in reality, the actual fuel price does not yet compete with diesel. So for the moment, while the legislation is a terrific first step, it needs to be followed by incentives on the fuel price side of the equation.
CURWOOD: Is there any movement in New York to change the tax law for natural gas to get this program to work?
VANDOR: There is a Federal initiative that is being considered by a number of congressmen that looks at a Federal tax credit for these fuels. That would be very helpful. In New York per se, suggestions have been made that, for example, the sales tax on the natural gas could be eliminated. That would be helpful.
CURWOOD: What else needs to be done?
VANDOR: Other ways of changing the equation would be to offer discounts on tolls for clean vehicles, preferred parking policies for trucks that deliver to midtown manhattan, various other incentives. The most broad-based would be to reduce the tax on the fuel.
CURWOOD: Now, why is it necessary for taxpayers to subsidize natural gas with these tax breaks? Why hasn't it caught on by itself?
VANDOR: The reason it hasn't caught on by itself is twofold. One is that it's new, it doesn't have the historic market share that diesel has. But from my point of view, I think that compressed natural gas and liquid natural gas are over-taxed. They're taxed much too high relative to their heat content, and if that was adjusted then the fuel would catch on.
CURWOOD: How long will it take for natural gas to make its way into the marketplace on its own? I mean, how long are New Yorkers going to have to have these tax expenditures or these tax breaks for natural gas?
VANDOR: Five, 7, 8 years from now, I can see a time when the equipment is adequate, available, and cost-effective, and where the fuel itself is very competitive. And once you establish the societal cost to emissions, and you look at natural gas in that light, then it's a win-win for natural gas.
CURWOOD: David Vandoor is a consultant to fleet owners. He's a member of the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Task Force of the Environmental Business Association of New York. Thanks so much for joining us.
VANDOR: Thank you.
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CURWOOD: A courting ritual in which the winner takes all. Male elephant seals battle it out in the California sun. That story is coming up on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Keiko, the star of the Free Willy movies, has cleared a major hurdle toward his possible release back into the wild. A panel of experts assembled by the US Government, has given the orca whale a clean bill of health. The study followed a public feud between the foundation which bought Keiko from a Mexican marine park and the aquarium where he now lives. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Ley Garnett reports.
(Streams of water, voices, a blowhole)
GARNETT: At the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Keiko's handler encourages him to swim backwards around the pool. Like a human barbell the trainer stands on the whale's pectoral fins to simulate weight training. The dispute over Keiko's health began last fall, when aquarium officials claimed he was ill and not getting medical attention from the Keiko Free Willy Foundation. The conflict broke out just as the organizations were renegotiating their financial contract. Keiko has generated about $4 million in extra revenue, and some foundation employees have suggested the aquarium would like to keep him as long as possible. If the whale were sick, it could delay his release. Finally the 2 sides agreed to have 6 independent experts study Keiko's condition. One of them was Al Smith, the Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University.
SMITH: The panel found nothing to be alarmed at in regards to his health status. Nothing at this point in time that would indicate he had any serious ongoing disease.
GARNETT: But Dr. Smith says Keiko was indeed ill last summer, with a form of hepatitis. And the report also cited several low-grade health problems. Aquarium president Phyliss Bell says her organization has no interest in keeping Keiko longer than necessary, but she says the study shows that the concerns about his health had been justified.
BELL: I think that he is probably a lot better than he was during the summer time and early fall. And with the information we'll receive, we ought to be able to make some intelligent decisions on where we go from here.
GARNETT: For its part, the Keiko Free Willy Foundation sees the study as a green light for its release plan. Diane Hammond is the foundation's spokeswoman.
HAMMOND: Keiko is at this point physically ready to be in a bay pen. It will be an enclosure within a North Atlantic bay or fjord. It really won't be a great deal different from here, except that he'll be linked acoustically to the marine world around him. Fish will be swimming in and out of this enclosure, and he'll be back in a natural marine environment.
GARNETT: But Keiko still faces an uncertain future. One of his former trainers at the aquarium says Keiko is one of the worst candidates for release because he's been in captivity so long. And the foundation has yet to find a country to host the net pen. Even more important, Keiko must learn to hunt prey, something he's rarely done at the aquarium. Meanwhile, the veterinary panel has recommended that Keiko get more exercise and a pool mate. Perhaps more than any physical ailment, the panel warned that Keiko suffers from loneliness.
(A whale whistle, blowhole)
GARNETT: For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.
CURWOOD: Northern elephant seals spend most of their time at sea. But from December through March they come ashore to mate and raise their pups on a number of islands off the coast of California and Mexico. Competition is fierce among the males. Each year only a few will win the right to breed and take charge of a harem of females. Jim Metzner traveled to Año Nuevo island, near Santa Cruz, to bring us this story of sex, violence, and scientific mystery.
METZNER: Think about a very large creature, the size of a hippopotamus, 2 tons worth, 16 feet long, and you've got a sense of what an elephant seal looks like.
(Surf, and an impact sound)
METZNER: The large male seals use this sound as part of their arsenal of intimidation to become the alpha male. Bernie LeBoeuf, a biology professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz, is one of the world's leading experts on elephant seals. He says that after issuing vocal challenges to rivals, the 2-ton bulls act like boxers, feinting, parrying, and then striking out with their large teeth into the necks of their opponents.
LEBOEUF: They're very bloody affairs. Males get injured; indeed, a few males will get killed in a fight. The upshot of all the fighting is that the males who win emerge in a social hierarchy, and it's the highest ranking males only that do all of the mating with all of the females in attendance, which maybe hundreds, in some cases thousands.
METZNER: Sex, violence, power struggles. It was enough to keep even the most jaded scientists happy for a while investigating elephant seals in the 3 or 4 months that they spend on land. But the rest of the year the seals are at sea, and Dr. LeBoeuf and his colleagues had the idea to attach depth time recorders to the seals to monitor their activities. What the scientists discovered surprised them. It turns out that elephant seals are prodigious divers. They're able to spend up to one and a half hours underwater and dive to nearly a mile in depth. They'll surface for a few minutes, dive again, and keep this up round the clock for 8 months at a time.
LEBOEUF: These animals are able to dive very long in part because they lower their metabolic rate. It would be like lowering the thermostat on your central heating, which would then enable you to parcel out a limited supply of fuel for a much longer period of time. Well, essentially, that's what these animals are doing with a limited supply of oxygen. Inevitably, they spend a brief period of time at the surface, leading you to believe that they never really were stressed by shunting oxygen from peripheral organs like the liver and the kidney to the heart, brain, or lungs. It's a phenomenal situation.
METZNER: Scientists at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography have recently reported that elephant seals and other deep-diving animals have high levels in their blood of a protein called myoglobin. By helping to store oxygen in muscles, myoglobin gives the seals the energy they need to swim without breathing for long periods of time. Not needing to take a lungful of air to great depths enables the elephant seal to avoid another pitfall of diving: the bends. The bends results when air under pressure causes nitrogen to bubble up in the bloodstream. For humans this can be fatal. The elephant seals avoid it by collapsing their lungs.
LEBOEUF: At about 40 meters the lungs completely collapse, and they are collapsed throughout the dive until the animal comes back to about 40 meters of depth. So, in a sense, the elephant seal, who is spending 8 to 10 months of the year at sea, 90% of that time the animal is underwater, and it is deeper than 40 meters, and during that period its lungs are entirely collapsed. So you could say that for most of the year the elephant seal lives with its lungs collapsed.
METZNER: Among the elephant seal's mysteries are: how is it able to reinflate its lungs so quickly? How does it slow down its metabolism? How do its organs survive on such low levels of oxygen? And, for goodness sake, when does it sleep? The answers could be of great importance for the treatment of lung disorders, the preservation of human organs, and the prevention of diving sickness, just to name a few applications.
(Seal makes impact sounds)
METZNER: From the scientists who are unraveling its secrets, the elephant seal gets some well-deserved respect. For the seals ashore at Año Nuevo, though, respect is reserved pretty much for the alpha males, who until early March have something to snort about.
(Surf and impact sounds)
METZNER: For Living on Earth, I'm Jim Metzner.
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CURWOOD: You may think that flowers and candy, the traditional gifts of Valentine's Day, are just tokens of love. But there's some biology behind them. Vanilla, for example, is considered to be an aphrodisiac, and a remedy for impotence. The aroma of Clary flowers, which comes from a type of sage plant, is said to kindle erotic desire. I learned all this from a new book by German ethnobotanist Christian Rätch. It's called Plants of Love: The History of Aphrodisiacs and a Guide to Their Identification and Use. Dr. Rätsch's volume details the historical and often successful search for substances that can cure impotence, enhance sexual pleasure, and provoke both love and fertility. Alcohol is the most universal aphrodisiac, he says, and there are many more from the thorn apple to chili peppers. Some are regulated substances, and others, like hemp and cocaine, are illegal in many places. But Dr. Ratsch says one of the most potent aphrodisiacs is legal. It hails from West Africa and it's called Yohimbè.
RATSCH: Yohimbè is the name of a tree or maybe of several different species of trees in western Africa. And the bark of this tree has been used for millennia to enhance potency for ritual purposes, for sexual rituals, and also for enhancing pleasure. And in the 19th century, it was discovered by German travelers and they found the use in Africa and tried it on themselves, and they found it astonishing what effect they got from it. And so it became quite famous.
CURWOOD: Have you tried this yohimbè?
RATSCH: Of course. Many times.
CURWOOD: Well how was it?
RATSCH: Well, I found it very, very interesting. First, I experimented with the bark, which was like a little stimulation only. But then I tried the pure compound in different dosages on myself. It was like what in Eastern philosophy is called the Kundalini power. It's like a sexual arousal from the bottom of your body, and that goes like electricity up your spinal cord until it reaches your brain. And it's all vibrating stimulation, which is, like, amazing, and very pleasurable.
CURWOOD: Mm. Now, some of the plants you talk about in your book here, though, you'd get into trouble. I mean, I see hemp, that's marijuana, that's good for jail. Cocaine, or the coco shrub, that's good for jail. Have you tried these yourself?
RATSCH: Well, I don't know how National Public Radio (laughs) will react to what I say, but as a scientist I believe that I have to try the stuff I study to really understand what they do. And if cocaine or hemp is a way to jail in the United States, that doesn't mean it's as bad as that in other places of this planet.
CURWOOD: Now, in your book you say that aphrodisiacs help prevent divorce. Is this true? And how exactly?
RATSCH: I got this as a quote from old Sanskrit literature of India. They say aphrodisiacs are not for young men. They are horny enough. Aphrodisiacs are for married couples because they need this as a kind of medicine to stay together. Because when people live as a couple for a long time, they might get a little tired or disgusted by the other or not getting more excitement or so. And to keep this excitement, to keep the relationship fresh, they advise to take aphrodisiacs. And I think that's wonderful. And I do exactly the same thing with my wife. I mean, we are together for almost 18 years, and we tried lots and lots of aphrodisiacs together. And it was like a good enrichment to our life, and we are still happy lovers.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay. Now, if you could tell me, using ingredients that would be relatively easy for someone in this country to find and legal in this country, can you give us a simple recipe for Valentine's Day?
RATSCH: Well, of course, I mean, we haven't been talking about a shrub called Damiana, that is a totally legal herb you can get everywhere. And it is called a Plant of Love, and it comes from Mexico, and it also grows in California. And you can make teas out of it, you can use it as an incense or as a tobacco substitute. You can put it into liquor and make an extraction. And it gives a very subtle sensation, but it makes your body warm and pushes blood in your upper parts and just gives you a more pleasant feeling. And that is no problem at all.
CURWOOD: Dr. Christian Rätsch is author of The Plants of Love: The History of Aphrodisiacs and a Guide To Their Identification and Use. Must have been hard to get this book published.
RATSCH: Well, in Germany it was very easy. But in the United States it took about 7 years that a publisher was willing to do a translation. Because the writing is quite open and -- well, of course, I go for sex and plants.
CURWOOD: Thank you so much.
RATSCH: You're welcome.
CURWOOD: Bye bye.
RATSCH: Bye bye.
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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Liz Lempert, George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, and Daniel Grossman make up our production team, along with Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Roberta DeAvila, and Peter Shaw. Kim Motylewski is our associate editor. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. And our senior producer is Chris Ballman. We had help from Dana Campbell, Miriam Landman, and Jeremy Jurgens. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.
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