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

April 24, 1998

Air Date: April 24, 1998


A Better Pig Sty / Diane Toomey

Today, we bring you the second in our two part series on the pollution caused by factory pork production. Last week we reported on how many commercial hog operations have moved into western states to avoid regulation. This week we report from North Carolina, where tighter regulation has led to a two-year moratorium on large-scale pig farms. The state has also asked its agriculture department to research new ways to handle hog wastes. As Diane Toomey of member station WUNC in Chapel Hill reports, there seem to be plenty of ideas. (07:15)

Organic Food Standards / Andrea DeLeon

When the federal government decided to move in to regulating organic food, the process was supposedly designed to avoid controversy. After all, Congress instructed the writers of the Federal Organic Standards to base the new rules on what organic farmers are already doing. But the first round of proposed rules included loopholes that would have given some big and questionable advantages to giant food producers. That led to a ton of outraged comments from those who have been in the natural foods business for a long time. Maine Public Broadcasting's Andrea DeLeon explains. (07:35)

LOE Garden Spot: Talking Dirt

Steve Curwood visits with Living on Earth's gardening expert Michael Weishan and they discuss everything you always wanted to know about dirt, but were afraid to ask. Mr. Weishan is also the editor of Traditional Gardening Magazine. (05:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... naturalist painter of birds, John James Audubon. (01:30)

Goldman Prize Winner: Ms. Kory Johnson

Every year the Goldman foundation of San Francisco awards six 100-thousand dollar prizes to environmental activists from each of the five continents and the island nations. The young woman who joins us now is Kory Johnson, of Phoenix, Arizona where is a freshman at Arizona State University. When she was only nine years old, she started a children's’ crusade for environmental justice after her older sister died. It's suspected her sister's death was caused by dirty well water contaminated by nearby industries. (06:05)

Medical Waste Incinerators Targeted / Liz Lempert

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hospitals are leading sources of dioxin and mercury contamination. Most hospitals burn anything contaminated with blood or bodily fluids; and this waste often contains large amounts of plastics made with Poly-vinyl-chloride. When those plastics are burned, they release dioxin, a substance known to cause cancer and suspected of damaging reproductive organs. Hospital equipment containing mercury, a neurotoxin, can sometimes end up in the waste stream, too. Now, a coalition of environmental groups is calling on hospitals to phase out the incineration of medical waste. Living On Earth's Liz Lempert reports. (07:25)

Audience Letters

And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners with comments about Spring Hog salmon, factory trawlers, and Pete Seeger. (02:30)

Tuva Project: Of Oxen and Fallen Timber / John Burnett

The Osa Peninsula juts off of Costa Rica's Pacific Coast, just above Panama. To those who value biological diversity, this is holy ground. The Osa possesses some of the most spectacular primary forest in Central America. A small, sustainable forestry project there is providing an alternative to conventional timber harvesting. Instead of cutting standing trees, only fallen timber is removed, and oxen have replaced forest crunching tractors. Ecologists say the TUVA project proves what they've learned after years in the field: like politics, all conservation is local. John Burnett has our report. (08:10)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Diane Toomey, Andrea DeLeon, Liz Lempert, John Burnett
GUESTS: Michael Weishan, Kory Johnson

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

They stink up the air and foul the water, and North Carolina says it has too many, at least for now. Factory hog farms are creating so much pollution that the state is desperately seeking ideas to clean up the industry.

CRABTREE: The silver bullet that's going to solve these environmental problems is to move pork production back to small, widely-dispersed operations with access to enough crop land to safely spread the manure.

CURWOOD: Also, the Federal Government has decided to regulate the labeling of organic food. But some natural food advocates say the proposed rules are designed to help big business corner the market.

SIMON: They've seen that the organic and natural food industry has grown dramatically, and they want to capitalize on that.

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

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

A Better Pig Sty

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Today, we bring you the second in our 2-part series on the pollution caused by factory pork production. Last week we reported that many commercial hog operations had moved into western states to avoid regulation. Today, we travel to North Carolina, where tighter regulation has led to a 2-year moratorium on large- scale pig farms. In the meantime, the state has also asked its agricultural department to research new ways to handle hog wastes. And as Diane Toomey of member station WUNC in Chapel Hill reports, there seem to be plenty of ideas.

(Small road traffic)

TOOMEY: Turn down the Johnston County road where Keith Barefoot runs his hog farm and you're not in the country, but in a sprouting suburban neighborhood commuting distance from the state capitol. His land, dotted with hog houses, is an oddball among manicured lawns and neat one-story homes.

(A door opens)

TOOMEY: He admits he was fielding some complaints from his neighbors.

BAREFOOT: Don't let anyone kid you. I don't know about their hog farm, but ours had an odor.

TOOMEY: Mr. Barefoot used to handle the waste from his 3,000 hogs in the typical way: flushing it into a 5 million gallon open lagoon. Critics call them cesspools. And occasionally spraying the waste onto a crop as fertilizer.

BAREFOOT: We sprayed those fields out there. You had a terrible odor, and you had a dark spot, because you could see where that irrigation gun went round and round. But if you put it out here now you won't smell anything and you won't know where we irrigated.

TOOMEY: That's because three years ago Mr. Barefoot decided it was time for a change. With lagoon spills and complaints about odor and groundwater pollution making headlines, the veteran farmer joined an experiment. He figured if we could put a man on the moon, we could clean up a hog lagoon.


BAREFOOT: You can tell it worked because here's where a coon has walked in -- where did I see him come out? Right there. He's been down in it. See where he's walked across? That's the coon's track.

TOOMEY: Mr. Barefoot points to the banks of his old lagoon, an area that raccoons and other wildlife once sensibly avoided. Now it's a watering hole for ducks, frogs, and terrapins, thanks, he says, to oxygen and the right kind of microbes.


HENNIG: From the four houses the waste is all proceeding. It's being gravity afloat into this first bio-reactor. It used to be going directly into that old lagoon, but we've now intercepted that, and it's all coming in here.

TOOMEY: Ed Hennig is with Bion Technologies, the company which helped Mr. Barefoot drastically reduce the odor here. He says his patented system also reduces the level of nitrogen in the wastewater. Typically, when liquid waste is sprayed onto a field, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus run off into waterways and can spark algae blooms and fish kills. The Bion Bioreactor is actually 3 modified waste ponds. Together, they contain just a fraction of the water used in Mr. Barefoot's old lagoon. The first pond looks like a giant bubble bath. A pontoon-mounted aerator scoots on its surface.

HENNING: As the air's being injected in, and with the waste that's in here, a very strong biomass is being built of bacteria.

TOOMEY: In other words, bacteria glomms onto the waste, eats the nitrogen compounds in it, and converts them into an organic material. In the next two ponds, these solids settle to the bottom. Unlike raw hog waste, which leaches its nutrients too easily to be of commercial value, this aquatic composting system fixes, or stabilizes nutrients, in a hummus-like end-product called bio- solids.

(Splashing water)

HENNIG: This is converted biosolids. You want to take a sniff?

TOOMEY: Nothing


TOOMEY: Researchers at North Carolina State University are looking at the Bion idea and 12 other alternatives to the simple hole in the ground, spray- gun scenario. This baker's dozen has a couple of common themes. Add oxygen and let bacteria have their way with either the liquid, the solids, or both. These experimental systems show some promise in solving the twin problems of odor and nutrient loading of nearby streams. But small farm advocates say there's another problem; that's size. Most of the systems Dr. Williams and his colleagues are studying still involve lagoons. Lagoons of any type can breach, and, these critics say, concentrate nutrients unnecessarily. John Crabtree, with the Center for Rural Affairs, wants to change the whole system.

CRABTREE: If we choose to raise hogs in a different fashion, which a lot of small, independent producers still do, they're in a deep bedded system with a lot of straw or cornstalk bedding, the manure's mixed with that bedding and it's kept in a solid form, stored in a solid form, and put on the soil in a solid form. From an environmental perspective you just run into a lot less problems with that type of manure.

TOOMEY: Because straw helps retain the nutrients, reducing the chance of runoff. This is something that isn't done at large hog operations, because it's much less labor-intensive to flush waste out of hog houses with water. Mr. Crabtree says investing research dollars into reducing pollution from these mega-farms simply legitimizes a flawed system.

CRABTREE: The silver bullet that's going to solve these environmental problems is to move pork production back to small, widely-dispersed operations with access to enough crop land to safely spread the manure. The real silver bullet is being overlooked.

TOOMEY: But the Environmental Defense Fund of North Carolina says corporate consolidation of hog farming is a genie who's already out of the bottle. The group says something has to be done about the waste produced by the more than 9 million hogs on the ground in this state. Senior scientist Joe Rudek says the real question is cost. How much the state will make large hog producers pay to clean up their operations.

RUDEK: Right now, the pork production in the United States costs less than anyplace else in the world. It costs about half what it costs to produce pork in Asia, costs about 20% more in Canada than it does here. So, from that perspective, there's probably some room for an increase in the cost.

TOOMEY: Dr. Rudek stresses that systems which produce a marketable product, such as fertilizer or methane gas, could offset some of that cost. Meanwhile, North Carolina's Department of Agriculture faces a May first deadline to propose alternatives to traditional lagoons. But the Agency still hasn't decided what to recommend. Officials say the cost of retrofitting will be considered. Once the Agency makes its recommendations, the state legislature may accept or reject them. This is where public opinion and political will come in. The outcome may depend on just how much politicians believe North Carolinians want to reduce the pollution coming from their state's leading agricultural industry. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Just ahead, Uncle Sam is getting into the organic food labeling business, and not everyone is welcoming the enterprise. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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Organic Food Standards

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the Federal Government decided to move into regulating organic food, the process was supposedly designed to avoid controversy. After all, Congress instructed the writers of the Federal Organic Standards to base the new rules on what organic farmers are already doing. But the first round of proposed rules included loopholes that would have given some big and questionable advantages to giant food producers. That led to a ton of outraged comments from those who have been in the natural foods business for a long time. Maine Public Broadcasting's Andrea DeLeon explains.

(A supermarket checkout counter)

DeLEON: Organic agriculture has come of age. The fresh, pesticide-free vegetables and fruits that were once the exclusive province of back to the land style farmers' markets and worker-owned co-ops are increasingly turning up in the gleaming aisles of major grocery stores as well. Until now, many shoppers have relied on grass-rooted local organizations of growers to determine what constitutes organic. For example, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, known locally as MOFGA, made the rules for growers in Maine. Now, the Federal Government's getting into the act. It wants to standardize every step, from how food is grown to how it is processed and sold. Shoppers at natural food stores and co-ops seem to be a feisty lot, and the customers at Royal River Natural Foods in Yarmouth, Maine, are no exception. Sue Shippens heard about the proposed Federal standard, and she doesn't like it.

SHIPPENS: Well, I already have a fairly negative opinion of it from reading about it. And I would question my ability to buy any food, actually, because I really have a lot of trust in MOFGA and the standards that it has put out in the regulations that are here in Maine as well as in other states. And I don't really believe in the Federal regulations.

DeLEON: Like many organic shoppers, Ms. Shippens is outraged that the current draft of the rules would allow irradiated food, food grown from genetically modified seed, and food grown on land treated with sewage sludge to be sold as organic. If that's organic, Sue Shippens wonders what isn't. And she's hardly alone in her thinking. Twenty-seven-thousand people have used the USDA's Web site to post their views of the proposal. The vast majority have blasted it. Agency spokesman Tom O'Brien says USDA didn't propose any standards for the “Big Three” issues, because it wanted the public's input. Now, he says, USDA has the response it needs to craft a rule that mirrors consumers' and farmers' preferences, meaning irradiation, sludge, and bioengineering will be off limits.

O'BRIEN: You're absolutely right, and one, because of the enormous number of comments we've received, which is a good thing and which we anticipated, and two, because it was written as a proposal. And again, there we had the luxury of asking questions, asking what we should do, knowing we would get the response that would dictate where we go for the final rule.

DeLEON: Perhaps proponents of organic agriculture aren't used to winning battles with government. They can't quite believe Mr. O'Brien speaks the truth.

SIMONS: I don't necessarily trust the whole process at this point.

DeLEON: Royal River Natural Foods owner Ruth Simons has warned her customers that if the Federal Government's plan goes through, foods labeled as organic may not necessarily meet those clients' high standards. Ms. Simons suspects the Federal plan is a ploy to give agribusiness access to the organic marketplace.

SIMONS: I believe that the word organic has come to mean healthy, wholesome, it tastes better, looks better. And I think that they want to use it as a marketing tool. They've seen that the organic and natural food industry has grown dramatically in comparison with other areas of the grocery business, and they want to capitalize on that.

DeLEON: Ms. Simon thinks it may be time to get a little rebellious. Maybe she'll print up her own labels telling customers whether food merely meets the government's definition of organic, or her own, more exacting standards. But MOFGA, the group in charge of Maine's organic certification program, is now cautiously optimistic that the regulations will uphold its own principles of organic. MOFGA's Eric Seidman was recently appointed to the Federal Organic Standards Board. He says the USDA is taking the public's concerns very seriously.

SEIDMAN: They're willing to work with us and the recognize there are great weaknesses in the proposed rules that they didn't recognize before. And I believe, then, that they're going to work with us to change those weaknesses and make that rule strong and represent what organic is today.

DeLEON: But no matter what USDA does with these first organic standards, there will be attempts to change them. So, Mr. Seidman says members of the organic community are wise to remain vigilant. Monsanto, for example, says its bioengineered seed may not win a place in the coming organic standards, but spokesman Phil Angell believes Monsanto's time will come.

ANGELL: Because we simply need to look at it further. The issue is not that biotechnology is unsafe; it's whether or not the certain types of biotechnology crops can in fact meet these standards. A very good argument can be made that a number of the crops that use bioengineered seed can meet those standards. But the question really is, do you want to engage in that kind of a highly emotional debate right now, when in fact there is more information about biotechnology that's coming that in fact can inform the decision about whether it can be included or some of its crops can be included under the rubric of organic at some point in the future, you know, three or four years from now.

DeLEON: And no organic standard is going to please the distinct minority who say mechanization should be prohibited, or that meat, dairy, and animal manure have no place in organic agriculture. And many wonder whether any single standard set for farmers from northern Maine to southern California can foster another important part of organic farming. Grower Dave Colson of Durham, Maine, supports the idea of a Federal standard. But he says today, buying organic means supporting local farms: something he says is likely to change.

COLSON: It's not just pesticide-free and it's not just a system of regulations that can be put down at USDA, but it also has a sense of how you fit into your community and what agriculture means to the community.

DeLEON: There's no doubt that organic foods will enjoy a higher profile when the Federal Government finalizes its proposed standards early next year. Whatever connotation of the hippie fringe organic still conveys will vanish still further, as uniform rules make it easier for organic growers to ship products across state lines, and as everything from organic eggs to eggplants become more available in mainstream stores. Though the rule will undoubtedly have plenty of detractors, it may convince even more conventional growers to kick the pesticide habit. For Living on Earth, this is Andrea DeLeon in Portland, Maine.

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(Music up and under)

(Sounds of dirt being shoveled; a groan)

LOE Garden Spot: Talking Dirt

CURWOOD: Hey, Michael, what are you up to today?

WEISHAN: Ah -- digging in the garden to get the soil prepared for the first planting of the spring.

CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's gardening expert as well as editor of Traditional Gardening. And we're out here in his yard, and he's going to tell us about the most important factor in gardening: good dirt. Michael, what makes soil good?

WEISHAN: Well, there are 3 essential factors to soil, and one is humus content, the amount of organic matter in the soil. One is the soil's fertility, its nutrient value. And the third is the soil's ability to drain, to shed water after a rain.

CURWOOD: All right, let's go down through your list. We've got humus content, drainage, and fertility. Well first, humus content. What do you mean by that, and how do we know where our soil stands?

WEISHAN: Humus content is the amount of organic matter, or humus, in the soil. And it's pretty easy to judge on a sort of a simple homeowner level. If you pick up the soil that's fairly dry and you crush it and it stays together like that, there is a decent amount of humus.

CURWOOD: Yes, nice and brown, too.

WEISHAN: Well the color's not necessarily important, that's a common myth. Soils can be all different colors and be equally fertile and good. But this just happens to be dark-looking soil to begin with.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, you mentioned drainage. How do I know if it's draining okay? If I grab it and it stays together, that's fine.

WEISHAN: Well, you know, if it's draining okay, if whether after a rain the water soaks into the soil. If there's puddles on the soil surface you know you have a problem with a very clay soil, and the answer to that is to add sand or some other type of aggregate material.

CURWOOD: You've got some manure and compost for us here. The first question I've got for you, Michael, let's go over next to this thing --



WEISHAN: (Laughs) I guessed that. Actually, this does smell a little bit, because this is actually fairly fresh. And there's a caveat that people should know about, in that you really don't want to use fresh manure in areas where you're going to be harvesting food products. You want to have a well- composted manure, and by that we mean something that's been sitting out six months to a year outside and that has rotted. This is a little more scent- filled. This is chicken manure, and this is really potent stuff.


WEISHAN: Yeah, if people can get access to it, it's a wonderful manure. You don't want to breathe it in; there can be some problems with breathing it in. But it's a wonderful manure and exceedingly potent for the garden. You have to be careful not to burn it. And that's the other thing about the manures is that you want to add well-rotted manure, because when it first comes out fresh, it can burn the roots because of the urea in the manure. And when it's rotted that's not the case.

CURWOOD: Well, sometimes people use chemical fertilizers. It's a good thing to avoid, right?

WEISHAN: In general it's a good thing to avoid. I mean, as a quick fix it works sometimes, but you have to be very careful because the danger is that you will over-apply, not work it into the soil, and then it will run off into the water streams and promote algae growth and degradation of the aquatic environment.

CURWOOD: Okay, so now we're going to add some manure, right?

WEISHAN: Well not quite. What we're going to do is actually double-dig this soil first, because it's by far the best way to till the soil sufficiently and produce really good results in the garden.

(Digging sounds)

WEISHAN: Steve, can you move that wheelbarrow?

CURWOOD: Okay, Mike.

WEISHAN: All right.

(Digging continues)

WEISHAN: Dig out a hole, and you take the contents of the first section and put it in a wheelbarrow, and then you move onto the next section, and you take the soil, the topsoil, and put it on the bottom of the hole, and then you add some manure or compost and you keep moving on down the line until you've got the very end, and then you take the soil you've put in the wheelbarrow and dump it at the very far end.

CURWOOD: So it's this great churning and switching, huh?

WEISHAN: It's a great churning and switching, and what happens is that you get much improved drainage and you've got the organic material down at the roots. And you also find in drier areas of the country that beds that have been dug like this need much less watering, because the roots can penetrate much more deeply down into the hidden groundwater, and that you don't have this issue of watering constantly, constantly, constantly through the summer.

CURWOOD: Double-digging. I should try this this year in my flower garden right outside the kitchen door, huh? It's not very big and it won't break my back, just take me most of the day.

WEISHAN: No, I don't think it will take you most of the day. It'll take you an hour or two to really do this well, maybe 3 or 4.

CURWOOD: This is New Hampshire, Michael, there's more rocks and soil.

WEISHAN: Well all the more reason, because you really then want to get some of the major rocks out and cultivate the soil. You know, you do the soil once and it's done right and it sits there. My grandfather used to tell the story about never doing anything half-assed, and this is exactly what you want to do. Why go through all the time and at great expense of planning a garden and only get mediocre results, when you can put a couple hours in at the beginning and really get great results from the same garden?

CURWOOD: Michael, thanks for talking with us.

WEISHAN: Oh, it's been my pleasure. It's a little harder work today; I didn't get as much free labor like I like to get. (Curwood laughs)

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is editor of Traditional Gardening. And if you have a question for Michael you can reach him via our Web site. That address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth -- that's all one word -- .org. And when you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.

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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; and Church and White, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: For some people, it just doesn't make sense. Hospitals are supposed to protect the public's health, not hurt it, they say. Yet, many hospitals burn trash that releases dioxin and other poisons in the air. The controversy over medical waste incinerators coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt. If the planet's health isn't our business, whose is it?

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Naturalist John James Audubon was born 213 years ago this month in what is now Haiti. The son of a French naval captain and his mistress, Mr. Audubon came to America when he was 18, but a few ill-conceived business deals soon landed him in debtor's prison. Sitting in his cell, he vowed to devote himself to painting wildlife, but he couldn't make a living as an artist, so to support his family he taught dancing, fencing, even violin. During a 12-year span Audubon created 435 prints depicting more than 1,000 birds. Unable to drum up interest for the product in the States, Audubon headed to England, where his Birds of America was eventually published. The book remains a classic of both natural history and art. It also inspired generations of bird watchers and led, in 1905, to the creation of the National Audubon Society, which today boasts a half million members. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Goldman Prize Winner: Ms. Kory Johnson

CURWOOD: A Colombian tribal leader who's fighting to stop oil development from scarring the forest homeland of his people. A Japanese labor organizer who's fought for 25 years to preserve the birthing ground of a rich fishery. A South African who's organized a multi-racial campaign against pollution in the city of Durban. These are three of the winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize. Every year the Goldman Foundation of San Francisco awards 6 $100,000 prizes to environmental activists from each of the 5 continents and the island nations. Also among this year's recipients are an Italian woman who has risked her life to end bird poaching in Sicily; and activist from the Caribbean island of Dominica, who successfully fended off a new copper mine; and the woman who joins us now, Kory Johnson of Phoenix, Arizona. Ms. Johnson is a freshman at Arizona State University. When she was only 9 years old, she started a children's crusade for environmental justice after her older sister died.

JOHNSON: We found out that the wells where we live are contaminated, and they had high nitrates. And there was a lot of kids there with leukemia. All of my sister's friends around her age passed away of heart problems, leukemia, or cancer.

CURWOOD: Tell me a little bit about your sister, Kory.

JOHNSON: Well, my sister Amy, she would always do a lot of volunteer work whenever she could, and she would organize little groups and stuff to do arts and crafts in the hospital with all the kids. But she really didn't ever consider herself being terminally ill. And she was born a blue baby and always had a hard time breathing, and her lips were blue and her fingers were blue because her blood didn't circulate correctly.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

JOHNSON: So, you know, I knew Amy just until -- well, she died when she was 16 years old (clears throat) and I was 8 years old. So the age was kind of far and distant. But being in the hospital so much together, you know, just hanging out, we really got to know each other.

CURWOOD: And this was such a sad thing, such a personal tragedy.


CURWOOD: But is it Amy the one who taught you to be an activist? I mean, when she died and you saw all the volunteer work she had done, did you say okay, I'm going to do something now about her death?

JOHNSON: I really didn't understand what she was doing until definitely after the fact. Because, you know, I was just trying to be a little kid and go out and play or get out of the house. And when she would save money, raise money and donate Disney videos to the hospital, I really didn't understand or I kind of like -- I wasn't focused on what she was doing. But after she died, just receiving letters and everything from the people who she did help and, you know, touched, it realized to me that it did make a difference.

CURWOOD: Your sister dies, and you become an activist on the environment at first.


CURWOOD: What prompted you to do that?

JOHNSON: Well, it was after my sister died in 1988. My mom met one of her old friends from high school, and she was in a group called Mothers of Maryville, where we lived. So my mom became educated to find out exactly what happened, and I was always being dragged along to the meetings. And I'd sit in the back and do my homework, and then on the way home I would ask my mom, well, why did he say this at the meeting and is that true? And then I started going to a bereavement group with kids in my neighborhood who had lost brothers or sisters or, you know, their mother or father. And we realized that we needed to turn our tragedies into something good, and that we always shouldn't come to our meetings and cry. And so, what I did is I organized a group called Children for a Safe Environment.

CURWOOD: How did your community respond to your crusade?

JOHNSON: I had a bit of trouble from my teachers. One of my -- my science teacher, as a matter of fact, told me, "If you keep this up, there's not going to be a college that's going to accept you. You know, you're going to have a radical record, and -- " (laughs) And then I was a vegetarian and she always, she said, well I had to sit right in front of this sign that said "Seven days without meat makes one weak," and, like, all this really, like, bad stuff.

CURWOOD: So how did you deal with this negative teacher? How did you --

JOHNSON: Well, in the beginning I kind of just, you know, shrugged it off, because I thought, well, I know what I'm doing is a good thing. And then I started thinking about it, and I was, like, you know, because she's supposed to be an adult, and I was a young child. And I started thinking about it and I was like well maybe I shouldn't be doing this. Because in the beginning, our environmental work, I really liked it. And then I didn't understand, I told my mom, "Is it over yet? Is it finally over? Can we go shopping now?" You know, I just wanted to hang out, can we go to the movies? Greenpeace, their office was in my house for 2 years, and so I had all these people living in my house. I'd wake up in the morning and have to come out into the living room and crawl over these people just camping out in my living room. And then after I became educated myself, I realized that this is my way of life and I'll never -- I'll never be out of the environmental issues. You know, once you're in it, you're in it for life. I'll see a truck driving down the street and I'm like I wonder what's in there. You know, I question everything.

CURWOOD: What's it been like to -- well, I guess, kind of lose your innocence about the corporate world and what goes on in terms of pollution in this country? You're suspicious if a truck drives by, you wonder what's inside.

JOHNSON: Mm hm. Well, I'm very happy that I was able to get that, you know, to be educated about and to be able to question authority and stuff like that. I really am a strong believer in standing up for what you believe in, and if you think something's not right, you know, question it or figure out what's going on. You know, I had to learn about politics at a very young age. You know, 8 years old, 9 years old, wondering, you know, why is our government so into money and why aren't they protecting us and why do we, why are we being, you know, paid off to just shut up and not say anything? I'm very happy that I was raised that way. That makes me a better person today, and I'm not afraid to stand up for what I believe in.

CURWOOD: Kory Johnson is the founder of Children for a Safe Environment, and a winner of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize. Thanks for joining us, Kory.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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Medical Waste Incinerators Targeted

CURWOOD: According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, hospitals are leading sources of dioxin and mercury contamination. Most hospitals burn anything contaminated with blood or other bodily fluids, and this waste often contains large amounts of plastics made with polyvinyl chloride. When these plastics are burned, they release dioxin, a substance known to cause cancer and suspected of damaging reproductive organs. Hospital equipment containing mercury, a neurotoxin, can sometimes end up in the waste stream, too. Now, a coalition of environmental groups is calling on hospitals to phase out the incineration of medical waste. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert reports.

(Traffic sounds, ambient conversation)

LEMPERT: A group of local environmental activists gathers outside of the Sacred Heart Church in Lawrence. Once a bustling mill town, nowadays 20% of Lawrence residents live below the poverty line.

MAN: And we have 2 elementary schools that are very closely near by this area. The Sacred Heart Parish School as well as the St. Patrick's Elementary School.

LEMPERT: Across the street from Sacred Heart, BFI, Browning-Ferris Industries, runs a medical waste incinerator. It's one of the largest in the state. Everything from syringes to surgical gowns are trucked here from New England hospitals, then burned. Activist Ed Meagher worries about pollution billowing out of BFI's stack. This is one of four incinerators within a 4-mile radius.

MEAGHER: They're all situated in a river valley. And as a result, we believe that there's temperature inversions that hold the dirty air in here, especially on hot, humid days. And not only that, the air quality is very questionable given the fact that Lawrence residents have one of the highest asthma rates in the eastern part of the country. It's really not appropriate to have this much burning in one small area.

LEMPERT: Hospitals say they are removing mercury-filled items like thermometers, but medical waste incinerators remain a major source of the heavy metal. It attacks the central nervous system and can retard fetal brain development. These incinerators are also the second largest source of dioxin, a carcinogen. But it's hard to make a direct link between incinerators and health problems. We know dioxin and mercury particles can rain down near the smokestack, or get carried by the wind for 1,000 miles and wind up in meat, dairy products, and fish. BFI controls its emissions with high-tech filters, but Lawrence activist Arthur Briaen says hospitals shouldn't be burning PVC plastics and mercury in the first place.

BRIEN: Don't the hospitals really have the obligation to look after our health? They're in the health business, and how can they really contribute in a large way to sending stuff to an incinerator somewhere that's really going to contaminate and really hurt the health of its patients?

LEMPERT: The BFI plant burns less than 1% of the garbage processed by the other incinerators in the area. Still, the Lawrence activists, along with the national coalition Health Care Without Harm, are targeting health professionals, hoping they will be the first to change. And the EPA is pressing the issue, too. Last August, it issued new requirements for medical waste incinerators, including pollution control devices, and stricter limits on dioxin and mercury emissions.

(An ambulance siren)

LEMPERT: Ten miles south of BFI, Saints Memorial Hospital in Lowell burns its waste on site in a 20-year-old contraption.

CLARK: I would suspect when this hospital put an incinerator in, that was the best technology at the time to be able to handle the problem.

LEMPERT: Thom Clark is Saints Memorial's president and CEO. His hospital's incinerator, just a metal drum with a 2-story stack rising out of it, won't pass muster under the new EPA rules. So administrators here are debating whether to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to install pollution controls -- the burner currently has none -- or they could close it down and ship their waste elsewhere, which would also cost money.

CLARK: I don't think this is going to be an inexpensive project at all. I think it would be a huge item by the time it's over.

LEMPERT: Activists at Health Care Without Harm hope hospitals, when faced with these new costs, will reduce their trash, eliminate mercury thermometers and blood pressure devices, and find replacements for IV bags, packaging, and other items made of PVC plastics.

CLARK: But that comes down to be a business decision, and some people don't like that.

LEMPERT: Mr. Clark says alternatives to these materials either aren't available or aren't as cheap, and it's unfair for environmentalists to single out hospitals.

CLARK: While I agree sometimes with some of their goals, I don't think being a zealot gets you anywhere. And I think they're finger-pointing at a hospital for some reason. I don't know why. No, I don't feel any extra responsibility.

LEMPERT: But other hospitals are putting environmental concerns high on their priorities list. The New England Medical Center in Boston steam pressure-cooks its infectious waste to sterilize it before landfilling. That avoids dioxin emissions.


LEMPERT: In a noisy room technicians sort through bags of medical waste, then load them into the cooker or autoclave, a large green tank that holds up to 400 pounds of waste. Michelle Plant heads the Environmental Health Department. She says the system can be expensive to set up, but over 10 years it saved her hospital money.

PLANT: It cost us probably about $112,000 to run our autoclave process including all supplies, everything, per year, and to send this stuff off-site would be approximately $371,000 a year.

LEMPERT: Ms. Plant says she's helped other hospitals put sterilization systems in place, and she thinks demand for the technology will grow.

PLANT: I think more hospitals nowadays are finding out the realities of the waste that they generate, and I believe they're looking toward alternative technologies. In the past, some institutions have had available to them incinerators and it was a quick fix in the past, but that no longer is the case with our new EPA requirements coming up.

LEMPERT: Over the next few years, more hospitals may choose to close down their incinerators. But investment in autoclaves must compete with other priorities, from magnetic imaging machines to new carpets. Many hospitals will probably end up burning their waste at places like the BFI incinerator in Lawrence. There are advantages to centralization. BFI's facility burns cleaner than the low-tech incinerators at most hospitals, and if paying for trash disposal makes institutions reduce waste and pull out contaminants like mercury and PVC plastic, then everyone benefits. But Lawrence residents worry that poor neighborhoods like theirs may still bear the brunt of the pollution that remains. For Living on Earth, I'm Liz Lempert.

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Audience Letters

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

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CURWOOD: Our story on the decline of the king salmon in Puget Sound failed to mention spring hogs, a species of huge salmon that used to populate the Columbia River. That according to Byron Bray, who listens to us on KOAC from Albany, Oregon. "These salmon," he writes, "were much, much larger than the king salmon ever were, and lived in the Columbia for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. Construction of the dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers guaranteed the extinction of these magnificent creatures, a road that the majority of steelhead and salmon species in the northwest are clearly on."

Matt Gonoho of Sitka, Alaska, says our report on El Niño's devastating impact on sea lions in Chile ignored the harm humans have caused these animals. He says sea lion populations up and down the Pacific coast have been declining long before the latest storms, and factory trawlers deserve part of the blame.

GONOHO: These huge vessels target on the same food fish that make up the principle diet of the sea lions. That you could do an entire story on the disappearance of sea lions and claim it's El Niño without any reference at all to this huge devastation, it's just too convenient.

CURWOOD: And finally, Carole Belnick, who listens to KQED in San Francisco, says she was feeling fatigued and discouraged trapped inside on a Saturday afternoon doing some difficult paperwork when she heard our interview with Pete Seeger. The piece gave her needed encouragement. She writes, "By the time of the last chorus of 'We shall overcome,' balance had been restored. I walked outside and looked at the peak of Mt. Hamilton glistening in the distance. Indeed, let all be well with the world when I am gone, and let's get on with the task at hand."

Inspire us with your letters and comments. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. And you can write us at Living on Earth, 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Once again, Living on Earth, 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138.

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CURWOOD: Coming up, sustainable logging the old-fashioned way. It's oxen and no tractors, and fallen timber only, on Costa Rica's Osa peninsula. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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Tuva Project: Of Oxen and Fallen Timber

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Osa peninsula juts off Costa Rica's Pacific coast, just above Panama. To those who value biological diversity, this is holy ground. The Osa possesses some of the most spectacular primary forest in Central America. A small sustainable forestry project there is providing an alternative to conventional timber harvesting. Instead of cutting standing trees, only fallen timber is removed, and oxen have replaced forest-crunching tractors. Ecologists say the TUVA Project proves what they've learned after years in the field: like politics, all conservation is local. John Burnett has our report.

(Footfalls through tall growth; bumping sounds)

BURNETT: Don't be fooled by Costa Rica's national symbol, the colorfully- painted oxcart. It's picturesque to watch, but painful to ride in. The heavy wooden wheels convey bumps directly into the spinal column of riders. But that doesn't seem to bother Miguel Sanchez, as he drives his team of oxen noisily into the depths of the rainforest.

(Sanchez sings)

BURNETT: Sanchez works for a sustainable forestry project called TUVA. The TUVA crew that Sanchez heads takes only fallen timber from the forest.

SANCHEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: When the tree falls, we come here to the forest. We number it, identify the type of wood, and map where it has fallen. Then we have to test it for the sawmill. If it is too soft on the inside, it's no good, and if the color is too dark, it's no good either. When it's good, like this tree here, we call it pura vida, as we say it in Costa Rica: just right.

BURNETT: We're standing in a clearing formed by the collapse of a massive cedro bateo tree. In the torpid midday heat the cicadas buzz electrically, and exotic heliconia flowers, a relative of the banana, hang heavily on their stems.

(A bird calls)

BURNETT: Around us stands virgin forest: never cut, never cultivated, never grazed. Some of these trees were already sizable when the first Spaniards set foot in the New World 400 years ago. If this were a traditional timber contract, the logger would bulldoze a road into the forest, then drive a tractor to the clearing to extract a tree. It's the quickest method, but it scars the landscape for decades. The TUVA team brings its own portable sawmill, on which a worker is sharpening the chain.

(Sharpening sounds)

BURNETT: The sawmill is basically a chainsaw attached to an adjustable metal frame that guides the blade evenly through the trunk.

(A motor starts up)

BURNETT: The fresh-cut boards are then lashed to the oxcart, and Miguel Sanchez hauls them out ready for market.

SANCHEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: It's better to use oxen because as I say, it damages the soil less. Less damage to the plants. The oxen can go places where the tractor can't go. Tractor's need a big opening, and if there is a tree in the way they'll cut it down. With oxen we protect the forest, and we don't have as much noise that frightens monkeys and birds.

(Birds calling, bells?)

BURNETT: TUVA's larger goal is expressed in its name. In Spanish, the letters stand for United Neighboring Lands for the Environment. A group of conservation-minded land owners, including the next Costa Rican Environmental Minister and Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson, have given their neighboring tracts of forest to the Republic of Costa Rica. Next month, the government is expected to declare this land on which TUVA has been working as a private nature preserve. It will serve as a biological corridor stretching from Corcovado National Park to the Golfo Dulce, or Sweet Gulf, which separates the Osa peninsula from the mainland. At 5,000 hectares, it will be the largest private wilderness sanctuary in the country. Biologists consider the Osa one of the best examples of lowland rainforest on the Pacific coast of Central America. Average annual rainfall here is 13 feet.


BURNETT: The new nature preserve could not have come at a more critical time. Last year, logging increased sharply on the Osa because of a permissive new forestry law. Local environmentalists say they'd never seen so many logging trucks before. Timber cutting has subsided somewhat after the government declared a 3-month moratorium on logging last fall. One of the most troublesome areas for conservationists has been the Guaymi Indian Reservation located in the buffer zone that borders Corcovado National Park. The Guaymi were clear-cutting the forest to plant crops and sell the wood.

(Loud engine, voice on radio)

BURNETT: From the air, the clearings look like soccer fields in the dense green hills. Last summer, a local environmentalists and an air taxi pilot, Alvaro Ramirez, took me up in his Cessna to survey the deforestation.

RAMIREZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Now we're over the Guaymi Reservation. Look at that clearing where they load the logs. In the dry season there are caravans of 20 to 30 trailers loaded with logs. Look what they have been cutting in the watersheds. When they cut the trees, the unprotected topsoil washes away. You can see all the erosion in the rivers.

BURNETT: As a way to slow the slashing of the forest, TUVA has taken on the Guaymi as clients. The TUVA team has been invited onto the reservation by the Guame to show the Indians how to identify viable fallen trees and how to use the oxen and the portable sawmill. TUVA's chief advisor, Manuel Ramirez, emphasizes the project seeks neither to save the forest nor save the Guame from poverty.

RAMIREZ: The idea of this approach is that a campesino will not only live off the fallen timber, but that campesino household will have also to cultivate land, will have to have a few cows if he wants. And then you add a new thing, which is the use of the fallen timber as an economic benefit. So that person will not have to encroach and cut more forest to make more pasture.

BURNETT: Conservation biologists say the reason TUVA has been successful is because it has deliberately stayed small. TUVA does not sell its lumber internationally or even nationally. It sells to the local market on the Osa, to tourist lodges and home builders who'll pay a premium for fallen timber. Other sustainable forestry projects have failed because they were too ambitious, too complex, and too distant, says Adrian Forsyth. He's a tropical ecologist at the Smithsonian in Washington and one of the Osa land owners whose property is part of the TUVA group.

(Bird calls)

FORSYTH: I think the fact that TUVA is primarily an operation that's focused just on its immediate surroundings and not trying to be all over Costa Rica or all over Central America or all over South America or all over the world like a lot of conservation organizations, it greatly increases its chance of having an impact where it matters. And the more you work in the field you realize, like politics, all conservation is local.

BURNETT: As conservationists have learned, there's no silver bullet to solve the problem of shrinking tropical forests. The success or failure of a sustainable forestry project depends entirely on the variations of the local population, local biology, and local politics. But everyone is looking for answers. Already, representatives from Honduras and Brazil have visited the TUVA project, wondering if the model would work in their countries. For Living on Earth, I'm John Burnett.

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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. Our staff includes George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, Daniel Grossman, and Liz Lempert, along with Peter Christenson, Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director, Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau, and Chris Ballman is our senior producer. We had help from Jeremy Jurgens, Vanessa Melendez, and Miriam Landman. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. And thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity; www.wajones.org.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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