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

August 14, 1998

Air Date: August 14, 1998


The Future of Aquaria / John Rudolph

Responding to increased pressure on the world's oceans, a number of aquariums are moving beyond their traditional role of educating while entertaining the public. Some now try to inspire their visitors to become active advocates for environmental protection. There's even talk of a world-wide network of aquariums that would help shape public opinion on overfishing, climate change and other issues. Change is rippling through the world of aquariums, but as Living On Earth's John Rudolph reports, not everyone is convinced that this newfound activism is the best way to go. (10:05)

Swordfish Restaurant Boycott / Steve Curwood

Swordfish isn’t on of the menu where it usually is. Hamersley’s Bistro in Boston is one of more than 25 restaurants along the East Coast and Texas that are taking swordfish off their menus for the next year. Chef Hamersley says it’s an effort to restore the fish whose stocks in the North Atlantic have dropped close to commercial extinction. Steve Curwood reports from the kitchen of one of Boston's finest bistros, which has joined the boycott. (04:30)

Herb Abuse! / Andrea deLeon

For those times when a head cold seems to be coming on, more and more people are reaching for an herbal preparation instead of a box of cold pills. Herbalists are pleased that people are rediscovering the traditional remedies that saw our ancestors through many an illness. But some say the new-found popularity of old fashioned medicinal plants also poses a serious threat to some scarce wild species. As Andrea deLeon of Maine Public Broadcasting reports, some herbalists are saying the government should now control the picking of rare medicinal herbs. (05:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about...Insect Thermometers (01:30)

Ontario Plastics Fire / Bob Carty

For 4 days last July a black toxic cloud hung over the city of Hamilton, Canada's steel city on the shores of Lake Ontario. It was the worst fire in Hamilton's history, and one of the worst fires of its kind in the world. The Hamilton conflagration was a plastics fire. Polyvinyl chloride or PVC, used to make plastic pipes and countless other products. And as the hundreds of tons of PVC burned it released huge amounts of toxic chemicals, including dioxin, one of the moist poisonous substances known. The Hamilton blaze was not an accident. It was the culmination of years of bungling, mismanagement, and misjudgment by a slew of government officials, and experts say it can happen again almost anywhere in the industrialized world. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty prepared our report. (24:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: John Rudolph, Andrea deLeon, Bob Carty
GUESTS: Gordon Hamersley

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: In the "Year of the Ocean" some aquariums are changing their mission. They're moving beyond entertainment and education and urging visitors to get actively involved in marine conservation.

WEBSTER: You just have to keep putting these issues in front of people so that they can continue to address them in a variety of ways and eventually some people catch fire.

CURWOOD: Also, the growing popularity of herbal remedies is threatening the long-term survival of some plant species. So, some say the government should control the picking of rare medicinal herbs.

FOSTER: We should treat it exactly the same way that we treat the taking of animals. There should be a very specific season, limited to a couple of weeks of the year.

CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news....

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

The Future of Aquaria

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth.
Responding to increased pressure on the world's oceans, a number of aquariums are moving beyond their traditional role of educating while entertaining the public. Some now try to inspire their visitors to become active advocates for environmental protection. There's even talk of a worldwide network of aquariums that would help shape public opinion on over fishing and climate change, and other issues.
Change is rippling through the world of aquariums, but as John Rudolph reports, not everyone is convinced that this newfound activism is the best way to go.

(Gulls calling)

RUDOLPH: The New England Aquarium occupies a large, angular, concrete structure overlooking Boston Harbor. For decades visitors have come here to see displays of tropical fish along with sharks, penguins, and sea lions. But there are almost no fish in the aquarium's newest exhibit. It's an issue- oriented display about the fishing area off the New England coast called George's Bank. Once George's Bank was teeming with cod, haddock and other marine life. Today, after decades of overfishing, and despite tight government restrictions on local fishermen, George's Bank and the industry it supports are in crisis. Ari Epstein is a scientist who helped design the George's Bank display.

(Voices in the background)

EPSTEIN: Throughout the exhibit there are these statues of people. There's a fisherman. Ahead of us you'll see there's a consumer. There's a scientist, there are a variety of other fishermen and regulators, each of them personalizing what's happening on George's Bank, and how they view it and what they're hoping to do about it or what effect it's having on them. So the next thing we see as we walk down the hallway...

RUDOLPH: The George's Bank display is the first in a series of issue-oriented exhibits planned by the aquarium's president Jerry Schubel. He spoke at a recent ceremony marking the exhibit's opening.

SCHUBEL: There's a lot at stake right now, I think, in terms of our relationships to our environment. And this aquarium is going to do everything we can to help resolve some of these issues. Some of you may be saying, well, what can an aquarium do? That's a place you take your kids on a rainy Saturday or the day after Thanksgiving when you've got company, you want to get them out of the house. You say let's go to the Aquarium. Well, that's, those are reasons to come to the Aquarium. But those of us who work here believe we can do a lot.

RUDOLPH: In addition to its traditional role of helping to conserve marine habitats, Schubel wants the aquarium to inspire people to change their lifestyles. To recycle more and drive less. Or, as he puts it, to live more lightly on the Earth. He also dreams of organizing the world's aquariums to push for laws and government policies that favor the environment.

SCHUBEL: One of the things, the strategies that we're trying is to use the community of aquariums throughout the world, both in the developed and the developing world, in the aggregate more than 125 million visitors per year, and there is one in every major marine ecosystem, for example. We've got to use these aquariums to change attitudes throughout the world. Politicians tend to have a lot more courage if they believe their constituents are behind them.

(Splashing water)

RUDOLPH: Boston isn't the only place where aquarium activism has taken hold. At California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, there's an area where visitors can send postcards on environmental issues to their government representatives.

WOMAN: Sea otters spend their entire lives at sea, yet they don't have the thick layer of blubber that seals, sea lions, and whales have to keep warm.

(Visitors' voices in the background)

RUDOLPH: One of the most popular attractions here is a show where California sea otters are fed and trained to respond to human commands. In addition to learning about the otters, visitors are also told about the need to conserve the coastal habitat of this threatened species. Steven Webster is a marine biologist and one of the people who founded the aquarium in 1984. He says the aquarium's main goal is to inspire conservation of the ocean. But Webster admits it's hard to know which forms of inspiration actually work.

WEBSTER: These days we're looking more and more specifically for how to move folks to really active participation. And that's one we're all struggling with. How from a single or even several aquarium visits can you really hope to change someone's behavior and have them dedicate time and energy toward marine conservation sorts of issues.

RUDOLPH: Increasingly, this question is being asked by aquariums throughout the world. All kinds of approaches are being tried. The New England Aquarium recently produced a short film on marine conservation issues. It's being offered to airlines for inclusion in their in-flight entertainment. In a separate effort the New England Aquarium has developed a partnership with a local chain of seafood restaurants. Now, instead of decorating their tables with cards advertising beer, the restaurant uses the space to tell patrons that there is real concern over the rapidly declining fish stock on George's Bank. Despite these efforts and the increased dollars spent on them, aquariums may be destined to fail as environmental educators. That's the view of Dale Jameson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Twelve years ago, Professor Jameson wrote a controversial essay titled, "Against Zoos." In it he argued that there is a moral presumption against keeping wild animals in captivity. He went on to ask if zoos would actually do a better job of meeting their educational objectives by exhibiting empty cages with explanations as to why they are empty. Mr. Jameson says many of his arguments against zoos apply to aquariums as well.

JAMESON: People who are optimistic about the kind of environmental education that can take place with captive animals suggest that when we experience animals under artificial conditions like zoos and aquaria, this will lead us to want to see animals and to respect them under natural conditions. Well, I suggest that it's just as plausible to think that a great deal of experience with animals under artificial conditions only whets our appetite to experience animals under artificial conditions. And which of these hypotheses is true seems to me to be one that's not yet decided.

RUDOLPH: Despite his skepticism, Dale Jameson says he wishes aquariums well in their efforts to raise the public's environmental consciousness. Other critics are less kind.

(Chimes ringing, air vents)

RUDOLPH: In Vancouver, British Columbia, Annalise Sorg heads a group that's attempting to force the local aquarium to get rid of its live whales. She argues that aquariums can't teach respect for the environment because they don't treat animals humanely. And she says the public is also to blame.

SORG: Unfortunately, zoos and aquariums -- and circuses are thrown in that category have a role of entertainment. People don't go to these institutions to be educated as such. They go to be entertained.

(Splashing water)

RUDOLPH: At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, marine biologist Steven Webster acknowledges that pressure from animal rights advocates has had an impact, forcing some aquariums to downplay their role as entertainers and to put more emphasis on conservation education. But Webster says, at his aquarium at least, criticism from the outside is not the principal motivator.

WEBSTER: I think it falls to almost to what you might call missionary zeal. If you really feel that the world has some serious problems and that they're going to get more serious if we don't, one, make ourselves fully aware of them and then try and ameliorate them and avoid similar problems in the future, you have to get somewhat passionate about it. Because a lot of these changes will involve things that in the short term aren't very pleasant for people. And hoping to get the citizenry thinking about such things, you just have to keep putting these issues in front of people so that they can continue to address them in a variety of ways and eventually some people catch fire.

(Many voices gathered)

RUDOLPH: Apparently, the conservation message is getting through to some aquarium visitors. Gene Elliott brought his 6-year-old granddaughter Brianna to the Monterey Bay Aquarium because he wanted to increase her environmental awareness.

ELLIOTT: We went up to the top and seen how the world's population of fishes is disappearing. She's aware of that. And I think it's made her a little bit more conservation minded. She's gone around and touched all the ones she could touch, and she realizes they have feelings, and I think it's a good experience for her.

BRIANNA: Manta rays are very nice and you can pet them on the head or either on the little fins. But not on the tail, it's not a good idea to touch them on the tail.

(Ambient voices, fading to gulls calling)

RUDOLPH: As fisheries teeter on the brink of collapse and pollution continues to destroy marine ecosystems, public concern appears to be growing. But can aquariums take that sense of concern and turn it into action to improve the environment? Even the people who run aquariums can't answer that question yet. For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph in Boston.

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(Gulls fade to music up and under)

(sizzling sound)

Swordfish Restaurant Boycott

CURWOOD: So can I ask you what you're making here?

HAMERSLEY: Yeah. Making a kind of a combo, seafood combo plate with salmon and scallops. And we're going to put a little lentils and some other vegetables, a little salsa pea and some carrots with it, and serve it with a nice green salad.

CURWOOD: In the kitchen of Hamersley's Bistro, an upscale eatery located in Boston's South End, chef and owner Gordon Hamersley is preparing an array of seafood dishes for his hungry clientele. But swordfish isn't on the menu here. Hamersley's Bistro is one of more than 200 restaurants along the East Coast and Texas that aren't offering swordfish for now. Chef Hamersley says it's an effort to help restore the fish. Swordfish stocks in the North Atlantic, he says, have dropped close to commercial extinction.

HAMERSLEY: We're giving swordfish a rest, if you will, a chance to come back in the kind of numbers and the kind of poundage that they have been known in the past for.

CURWOOD: Are you telling your customers that you're not serving swordfish for this reason?

HAMERSLEY: When they ask, yeah. And many times we don't serve swordfish on our menus and people don't ask. But when they ask, "Gee, where's the swordfish?" or "I thought you had swordfish on this particular menu," I'll definitely tell them why. And this is one way that a very small person like myself can make the dining public aware of the fact that certain species are in danger sometimes.

CURWOOD: Swordfish aren't the only fish in trouble. Have you taken other fish off your menu as well?

HAMERSLEY: I have, actually. We don't serve wild striped bass in this restaurant. We serve a different version. We serve a farm-raised striped bass. And the reason is that even though it's available to me, I think that the stocks are such that they need to be rested even more than the government says so. It was very clear about 10 years ago that the striped bass was considered practically extinct in Massachusetts waters, and today sport fishermen are reporting record numbers of catches as well. I think it's somewhere 500,000 and 700,000 pounds of striped bass can be harvested by the commercial fishermen. So, you know, with a little bit of conservation, a little bit of planning, we can bring a species back without any problem.

CURWOOD: Did somebody ask you to take swordfish off your menu for a year? Or was this your own idea?

HAMERSLEY: This was not my own idea. A fax was sent probably to thousands of restauranteurs around the country, making us aware of what some of the problems were and what some of the facts were with regard to swordfish. There are very few of us in this industry who are not aware of the northeast fishing problems. I think we've been negligent sometimes in our past of over-fishing. We need to have a policy of conservation, so that the fishermen are able to continue to do well, as well as the public being able to enjoy this incredible resource that we have here.

CURWOOD: What's the proportion of people who come to eat fish versus other parts of your menu here?

HAMERSLEY: Interestingly, it's beginning to change. Five years ago, I would have said that meat sales outdid fish sales a solid 2 to 1. Today it is about 50-50. And I think that the reason for that is twofold. First of all, I think I cook fish better today than I did numbers of years ago. I work on it harder. I think that people are more aware of the health benefits of eating fish and want to try to do the most they can to put good things into their bodies.

CURWOOD: So this loss of swordfish from your menu is not just a casual thing that you're doing.

HAMERSLEY: I don't think it's a casual thing at all. New England is a place that was made a famous place because of the fishing industry. It is sadly depleted now. And I just hope, as a restauranteur and as a chef and as a cook that I'm able to continue to serve wild fish in the future. And I think that having a sense of conservation about fish is an important part of that.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us.

HAMERSLEY: It's a pleasure. Thanks for coming in.

CURWOOD: Chef Gordon Hamersley owns and operates Hamersley's Bistro in the South End of Boston, Massachusetts.

(Sizzling and the sounds of pots and pans continue)

CURWOOD: One thing that radio cannot convey is the sense of smell, and whoooo! does it smell good here!

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Please tell us what you think of our program by joining the Living on Earth survey. The number to call, anytime, is 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88. Or just dial up our web page at www dot livingonearth dot org, and click on the survey form.
Coming up: meeting the growing demand for herbal plants can mean putting some species at risk. Stay tuned to Living On Earth.

(Music up and under)

Herb Abuse!

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
These days, when a cold seems to be coming on, more and more people are reaching for an herbal preparation instead of a box of cold pills. Herbalists are pleased that people are rediscovering the traditional remedies that saw our ancestors through many an illness. But they say the newfound popularity of old-fashioned medicinal plants also poses a grave threat to some scarce wild species. Andrea deLeon of Maine Public Broadcasting reports.

(Man's voice-over: "Ginsana's all natural. No sugar, no caffeine."
Another man's voice: "The key word here is natural." First man's voice: "Ginsana has over 25 years of research." Third man: "Twenty-five years?
That's as long as I've been playing cello." Traffic, honking sounds.
First man: "If you want more energy, try Ginsana for a few weeks and watch your energy level. Feel the difference or your money back.
Guaranteed." Several voices saying, "Ginsana," sequentially.)

deLEON: Herbal remedies are everywhere these days. Radio talk shows hawk everything from saw palmetto to garlic and ginseng. Even drug store chains and discount retailers devote significant shelf space to meet Americans' sudden and seemingly insatiable need for herbal products. Dr. James Lavalle is a naturopathic physician who spends his time training pharmacists and touting the benefits of herbs on behalf of the giant discount chain Rite-Aid and its Vitamin Institute.

LAVALLE: People wanted a safer first line of defense for health care. Like, I want to try something that's side effect-free if possible. I want to take a natural approach whenever possible.

deLEON: Three years ago Federal rules governing the marketing of herbal products were liberalized. Aggressive ad campaigns catapulted homeopathic and herbal remedies from the hippie fringe to the front page of Newsweek and spurred an industry that does billions of dollars in sales a year now. The problem is that many popular herbs are difficult to cultivate and must be picked in the wild. The increased demand has resulted in heavy harvesting of some species with little regard for the plants' long-term preservation. That's according to Stephen Foster, a botanist who edits a number of journals on medicinal herbs.

FOSTER: Plants don't have soft brown fur and cute little brown eyes, so we simply don't pay attention to plants.

deLEON: Foster cites the case of goldenseal, a plant widely used to boost immune system function. When a European company announced plans to market the herb last year, goldenseal shot from $20 to $100 a pound.

FOSTER: This created 2 situations, one a market shortage because of supply and demand, and two, interest in non-traditional harvesters going out and digging the plant because the price was so high.

(Bottles clinking together)

deLEON: Herbalist Deb Soule has watched the tidal wave of interest in herbs at her business, Avena Botanicals in Rockport, Maine. She sells herbs through a catalogue and small retailers. Soule cultivates as many herbs as she can, but she can't meet the demand for some of the most popular products. If she loses her source of cultivated goldenseal and other endangered herbs, she says she'll stop stocking them, even though dropping the popular products would hurt her business.

SOULE: If I can't find a source for it from an organic grower, then probably I will be without that plant for a few years. And as a business owner, that kind of puts me at risk, because then other people say well you don't have that plant, I'll go someplace else. And it's just a personal choice that I've made. I won't sleep well, feeling like I have contributed to the loss of a plant.

deLEON: Clearly, users of herbs could play a role in protecting the plants. But if you buy your herbs at a major chain, you're not likely to find the information you need to make an informed choice. Rite-Aid spokesman Dr. James Lavalle says the drug store tests herbal products for effectiveness and quality, but none of the labels on products at the Rite-Aid store in Gray, Maine, say whether the product is cultivated or harvested in the wild. The chain itself couldn't answer questions about the origin of the herbs its stocks. Many labels even omit naming the species, so you can't tell whether you're treating your cold with an at-risk species of Echinacea or one that grows like a weed. Stephen Foster says medicinal plants need more protection.

FOSTER: We should treat it exactly the same way that we treat the taking of animals. People should have a license to dig goldenseal. There should be a very specific season, limited to a couple of weeks of the year.

deLEON: Foster recommends that the total harvest should be monitored by a government agency to determine how much wild harvesting the species can sustain without harm. But such a system is unlikely to be adopted any time soon. In the meantime, if you are concerned about plants that may be at risk, state and Federal governments keep lists of threatened species. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea deLeon in Portland, Maine.

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(Music up and under)

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

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; and Church and Dwight: 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: Residents of Hamilton, Ontario, suffered through a huge industrial blaze that blanketed their city in toxic smoke for days. It was a disaster, they say, that could have been prevented. The Great Hamilton Plastics Fire is just ahead. Keep listening to 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: makers of pure, all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream, 800-PRO-COWS.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Purple loose strife is now blooming at a wetland near you. This European perennial sports tall spikes of brilliant purple or magenta flowers. Settlers brought them here in the early 1800s, and before long loose strife took over wetlands across the land, creating spectacular seas of purple along the way. Problem is, loose strife, chokes out native plant species, like cattails, that provide good food and nesting habitat for waterfowl. And now, the invasive plants are creeping onto farmland, threatening crops and pastures. Several states have banned the sale of the plant, and started eradication programs. Some use an herbicide called Rodeo to kill off the promiscuous loose strife. Others have experimented with importing European weevils and other beetles, which like to eat the leaves. So far, the bugs seem to be doing a good job of keeping the loose strife in check--without harming native species. And people who love the look of the loose strife needn’t fear that they’ll disappear. There are domesticated, sterile strains of the plant. But beware the untamed European purple loose strife. One Fish and Wildlife Service notice called it “Public Enemy #1.” And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Ontario Plastics Fire

CURWOOD: For 4 days last July a black toxic cloud hung over the city of Hamilton, Canada's steel city on the shores of Lake Ontario. It was the worst fire in Hamilton's history, and one of the worst fires of its kind in the world. The Hamilton conflagration was a plastics fire. Polyvinyl chloride or PVC, used to make plastic pipes and countless other products. And as the hundreds of tons of PVC burned it released huge amounts of toxic chemicals, including dioxin, one of the moist poisonous substances known. The Hamilton blaze was not an accident. It was the culmination of years of bungling, mismanagement, and misjudgment by a slew of government officials, and experts say it can happen again almost anywhere in the industrialized world. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty prepared our report.

(Children yelling)

WOMAN: Twenty after 7, I'm sitting outside in my little respite time before I have to get the kids ready for bed. I hear Bang Bang. I don't think twice, I just go in, I start the water for their bath. The next thing I know my son comes to me and says Mommy, there's a fire. And I said to him, No there's not. Don't tell stories. Because we had had a small discussion before that. And he said Mommy, it's a nuclear. And he's 4 years old, but he had seen a documentary just fresh in his mind the night before about a mushroom cloud. We looked outside and I saw it, and immediately I panicked, because I'd never seen anything like this before in my life.

(Horns, sirens)

(FIREFIGHTER) MAN: It's definitely the biggest fire I've ever been at. My first reaction was, I want to retire. (Laughs) You know, I just thought, I don't want to go there, you know, because I knew how bad it was.

(Horns, sirens, crackling flames)

WOMAN 2: The public officials told us, day 1, everything is fine, day 2, everything is fine, day 3, everything is not so fine. You may want to get out of your homes. It's absolutely despicable. I don't know who they were looking out for but I have to say it doesn't feel like they were looking out for my family and myself.

(FIRERFIGHTER) MAN : I've had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about getting cancer and dying of cancer or leukemia or, you know, am I a walking corpse?

WOMAN 3: Why did this fire happen? Who's responsible? I've got 2 beautiful children that God entrusted me with. What the hell do I do now?

(Voices, sirens)

CARTY: It's the questions that remain, months since the fire. The disturbing questions of firefighters who fought a blaze unlike any other. The unanswered questions of citizens who endured the acrid fumes and cannot understand how this happened. This is a story not just about a fire but about a place: Hamilton's North End, an old working-class neighborhood where every house is different and the cultural diversity matches the variety of vegetable gardens. Hamilton's North End is also speckled with industrial sites, one of them the size of a couple of football fields. Just 100 yards from residential neighborhoods. Just 300 yards from the Hamilton General Hospital. The city of Hamilton has declared a state of emergency on only 2 occasions in its history. Both were because of this site. To the people of the North End, it has been nothing short of an environmental horror story.

FOURNIER: Right now we're staring at the former Plastimet site, which is pretty much a disgusting heap of twisted dark metal. And it stinks. (Laughs) My name is Charlotte Fournier and I've lived in the North End for 4 years. My husband's family, however, has lived here pretty close to 7 generations now. There used to be a small canal, and that's where my great grandfather used to skate and play hockey. Unfortunately, they closed in the canal with a lot of toxic dump crap, I don't know, and the Earth swallowed it up.

CARTY: The mess in her back yard has made Charlotte Fournier curious about the history of this industrial site, a history she has been piecing together with her neighbor, Anne Gallagher.

GALLAGHER: My understanding is that many different factories have operated out of there, all dealing with scrap metal and metal processing from what I understand. We've had residents call us and tell us that their father worked there in the 40s, and they used to burn battery acid. At some point in the 80s, they had been approved to handle high lead dust. And the assumption is that that lead dust was buried there.

CARTY: Anne Gallagher and Charlotte Fournier are just 2 of a group of North End residents who have suddenly become activists. They have ferreted out hundreds of pages of government documents. They have discovered that a scrap metal company called USARCO used to operate here, belching out pollution. So much pollution that in the late 1980s, USARCO's owner Frank Levy pleaded guilty to 10 counts under the Environmental Protection Act. Then the company went deep into debt and its bankers put it into receivership in 1990. No one was responsible for watching over the toxic materials left on the site.

OFFICIAL: Report on status of USARCO properties for the Ministry of the Environment, April 1993. The front yard area used to store transformers is possibly contaminated with PCB oil...

CARTY: The official from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Energy, the MOEE, was shocked by the contamination he found in early 1993. He made a point of warning about containers he found, of chemicals and liquid mercury.

OFFICIAL: The laboratory located within the office area of the building contains a large assortment of chemical re-agents that if mixed could cause violent reactions. As this area is in a state of disorganization and is susceptible to vandalism, it is recommended that this area be cleaned up and all materials removed.

CARTY: That provincial environment report was either ignored or fell into a very deep filing cabinet. In the summer of 1993, what preoccupied local officials were the repeated fires on the site, apparently set by vandals. They left the buildings charred and damaged. In fact, USARCO was a regular stop for the Hamilton Fire Department. Over the past decade, firefighters were called to the site no less than 26 times. But despite all the attention, it appears no one gave a whole lot of thought to those containers of chemicals and mercury. They were never removed.

(Newscast music up and under)

WOMAN REPORTER: The city of Hamilton, Ontario, declared a state of emergency today. As many as 100 Hamilton school children have admitted to passing around mercury that came from an abandoned warehouse in the north end of the city. Local health officials have sealed off the warehouse, and they're trying to figure out how the whole thing started.

GALLAGHER: School children had gained access to the building and had gotten hold of liquid mercury. It beads, it's shiny, it moves in a very weird sort of way that would appeal to kids. And they were passing it around. And it is highly toxic. Two-hundred-fifty-five children were exposed. Nine children were hospitalized. Nine schools were involved, and I believe 4 bad enough to require clean-up.

MAN REPORTER: Clean-up crews will be at the plant for the next few days scooping up the chemicals they see and searching for more. The company that used to work out of the building is bankrupt, so it's likely local taxpayers will get stuck with the cleanup bill.

CARTY: And indeed they were: a cleanup bill of $60,000. The city of Hamilton tagged the $60,000 onto Frank Levy's municipal taxes. Taxes which were already in arrears, a tax bill which would eventually total $2 million. It became a classic case of a municipal Catch-22. Because of the toxic waste, the property was more of a liability than an asset. So, in 1994, the receivers gave the property back to the owner. And even though the city could have seized the property to recover its taxes, they wouldn't touch it. It would have been an invitation for scores of other polluting industries to dump their problems in the taxpayers' lap. The USARCO site was like an unwanted orphan.

FOURNIER: I'd walk by once in a while to go to the Tim Horton's on the corner. Never once did I see anybody working there. I didn't even know that it was a working building.

CARTY: In late 1995, Charlotte Fournier and other residents of the North End were unaware that a new operation had started up on the USARCO site. Frank Levy, who refused me an interview, had leased part of the property to Jack Lieberman, the owner of a company called Plastimet. Plastimet called itself a PVC plastics recycler. It applied to the province for a certificate of approval to operate, but was eventually told that this kind of operation did not need a certificate of approval.

FOURNIER: I, I, I consider myself very naive now, because I thought no, we have people in certain situations that take care of this. I don't have to worry about this. Well hello!

CARTY: Hello indeed. Plastamet started storing PVC on the site in October of 1995. It was not until September of 1996 that the Hamilton Fire Department became aware that the operation existed. No fire inspections had occurred for almost a year. And when fire inspectors did tour the site, they slapped Jack Lieberman and Plastimet with 20 violations of the Ontario Fire Code. The Fire Department set a deadline for compliance.

GALLAGHER They were given a deadline initially, I believe at the beginning of November of last year, to fix them. But it wasn't really a deadline, it was a negotiating point. We're being told, well they were complying with, you know, they fixed some of the violations. They fixed the violations that basically did not cost them anything to fix. They fixed the most minor violations. The important ones, the fire wall, the sprinkler system, those were the ones that were still under negotiation in the first week of July.

CARTY: In fact, by July 11, Plastimet was supposed to provide a letter committing itself to a plan. But that would be 2 days too late.

(Yelling children, playing)

COOK: When I first heard of it, I was on the mountain and we had been out home inspecting, and we had had the call come in. So we walked down to the end of the street that I was on and I looked over the mountain brow and I could just see this massive, massive amounts of smoke. If you've seen the Gulf War pictures, it's large amounts of rolling smoke, black, blacker than I've ever seen. And I said to the guys, I says Guys, we better get the heck back to the station, I said, because I think we'll be going.

(Sirens, horns)

CARTY: George Cook is 28 years a firefighter. It is a hot July 9th, and he is called in to fight the biggest fire he's ever seen.

COOK: When I got there, the building had collapsed. The walls had collapsed, the roof had collapsed in. The product that was burning was about maybe 12 feet high, large cubes of crushed plastic. All we were doing at that particular time was, you know, pouring massive volumes of water on the flames.


FOURNIER: The amount of people that were around us was just incredible. Gawking, staring, playing, eating ice cream, eating popcorn. We were being entertained by this fire. And nobody was telling us to leave. It was like this is okay, again the false prophet. The government could have told us all to leave at that time, knowing what was in there. However, they chose to let us all watch.

(Crackling flames)

COOK: Due to the large amounts of water that was put on the fire, there was a large amount of runoff, and there was a big lake. In fact, the guys had christened it Lake Simcoe because the fire was at the corner of Simcoe and Wellington Streets, and this water was up to 2 feet deep in some places. When I was walking through this water, I tripped over some hose that was submerged underneath this water. My face went under the water. Swallowed some of the runoff, went in my ears and my eyes, and down my throat and that kind of thing. And you know, I just kind of shrugged it off, I laughed. And one of the guys that saw me made a joke about going for a swim.

GALLAGHER: We got a hold of a transistor radio and tried to listen to any reports on the news. Which they reported there was a fire. We never heard the phrase PVC plastics. And I think we went to bed with the assumption that it would all be over by tomorrow. And the next day there seemed to be no change; it was burning as high and as bright.

WOMAN REPORTER: A toxic scare in Hamilton, Ontario, today as thousands of residents hid behind sealed windows and doors. The threat came from smoke billowing from a fire at a plastics recycling plant...

CARTY: It is Thursday, the second day of the fire. And there are growing concerns about the toxins that are produced when hundreds of tons of PVC plastic burns. There are also reassurances from the Medical Officer of Health. Dr. Marilyn James tells the public the smoke is no worse than a bad smog day in Hamilton.

JAMES: Smoke and fumes are, you know, cause irritation and such. But to date, we haven't identified major toxins that would cause immediate concern.

GALLAGHER: One of the first comments I believe that I saw on the news from Dr. James was not to worry. There may be chemicals present within the smoke but they were going high into the atmosphere and basically dissipating, I guess, like pixie dust or something. And it's human nature. You know what? I wanted to believe that. I would have been --if Matthew Bramley of Greenpeace had not raised concerns, I'm sure that many of us would have thought everything is fine.

WOMAN REPORTER: Joining us from Hamilton is Dr. Matthew Bramley. He's a chemist with the environmental group Greenpeace. Dr. Bramley...

FOURNIER: It did get to the point where the entire community was saying okay, I don't care what public health and the MOEE is saying. Talk to me, Greenpeace.

BRAMLEY:... because of the dioxin production. Dioxin is one of the most toxic substances known to science, literally. And when we've got a fire like this, we get a huge production of dioxin. And it's going to be in the ash and in the smoke and in the...

COOK: Well, seemingly the Ministry of Environment was saying that there was no immediate danger and that it was just, you know, the same toxicity as a regular fire that you would get. It sounded strange to me because I didn't know, you know. Because the Ministry of Environment is saying one thing and Greenpeace is saying another. We were getting conflicting reports.

(Crackling flames)

GALLAGHER: I was sitting here on the Thursday afternoon, with my daughter who was in the dining room drawing. And she looked out our back yard and said, Mom, I can't see the back of our garden. And I looked out, and we were engulfed in smoke. And at that point I did panic and I had run out to the side of the house. The Red Cross had set up and was feeding firefighters and emergency workers, and I had said, you know, what is going on? And they said, it's just that the wind shifted, you're fine. And at this point I'm choking and gagging. I ran in the house. We threw the kids, and the dog, in the car, and we were out of there.

(Music swells)

WOMAN NEWSCASTER: Good evening. There's a state of emergency in Hamilton, Ontario tonight. Hundreds of people are out of their homes. Police wearing gas masks went directly...

CARTY: On the third day of the fire, with weather conditions trapping the toxic smoke close to the ground, the Medical Officer of Health orders an evacuation. But there is no evacuation for the firefighters.

(Breathing through a mask; crackling flames)

COOK: After the second day I felt really bad. I was fatigued. Headaches, shortness of breath, that type of thing. There was a lot of -- lot of chlorine burning. And when this was mixed with the water it was coming down as hydrochloric acid. One fellow I know had, the skin on his hands were peeling in between his fingers, were all peeling off. We're employed as firefighters. You know, some people say well maybe you should let it burn, and that might have been a good idea, too, just to let the product burn. You've got to do your job, we're firefighters and that's what we've got to do.

(Creaking sounds)

COOK: I had brought in some heavy equipment Saturday morning, backhoes and bulldozers and that kind of thing, exposing the product to the, you know, to the hoses and that kind of thing. Basically, that was when the fire was knocked down.

MAN REPORTER: People who live near a burned-out plastics plant in Hamilton, Ontario, have been told they can go home. Police have lifted an evacuation order. Officials say the levels of toxins in the air are normal, but Greenpeace chemist Matthew Bramley says the ash from the fire at Plastamet contains toxins.

BRAMLEY: The question is, where has this dioxin gone to? Is it mainly confined to the fire site, or have substantial quantities gone out in smoke?

FOURNIER: Can you smell that? Can you taste it? I call it chemical mouth. I remember my microwave went on fire and it smelled up the house for days and days and days, and that's the same smell. You can smell charred metals.

CARTY: Three months after the fire, the Ministry of the Environment is overseeing a cleanup of the Plastimet site, getting rid of the charred rubble, and scraping off up to half a foot of topsoil. The Ministry has found 500 tons of plastic that was not burned. It had been stored outside the collapsed building. That suggests that Plastimet had a lot more plastic on the site than the original estimate of 400 tons, and even that had been too much for the fire department. Three months after the fire, no one can get rid of the questions.

FOURNIER: I want to know what I can do to make sure that my children are going to be safe. And from there, why did this fire happen? Who's responsible? Why are we not qualifying for a public inquiry?

CARTY: In fact, everyone seems to want a public inquiry. The city; the regional government; the fire, building, and medical departments; the firefighters themselves; and the residents of the North End. They all want the power of a provincial inquiry to find out what went wrong. But in the provincial legislature in Toronto, the Minister of the Environment and Energy, Norm Sterling, faces his critics with a steadfast refusal.

MAN: Minister, what are you afraid of? What else are you waiting for. Why don't you do what the Minister of Health said on August 22nd, and call a public inquiry today?

STERLING: Mr. Speaker, I am waiting for evidence that there is some wrongdoing or something wrong with regard to somebody's conduct during this. (Yelling in the background) Whether it be a fireman, the Medical Officer of Health, or the Ministry of Environment or it be anybody else. You don't call in an inquiry for fun. You call it because in fact there is some evidence of wrongdoing with regard to some public official, and none has been presented to me.


CARTY: And so, the residents of the North End are doing their own inquiry of sorts. They meet over kitchen tables with their Freedom of Information documents, and they gather at community meetings with a determination to hold their local politicians and city officials to account.

MAN: The next speaker is Dr. Paul Johnstone from England.


MAN: And actually, I'll turn it over to him right now.

(Cheers and applause from the audience)

JOHNSTONE: My name is Paul Johnstone. I'm Principal Scientist for the Greenpeace research in the UK. Today, when I inspected the site, and it was the first time that I'd seen it, there were still very substantial quantities of plastics still on the site that were unburned. And amongst that stockpile of plastics were bales of vinyls, for which no significant recycling market exists. And the question, I think, that pertains there is: why was this site allowed to accumulate this material, particularly when of course you stockpile something like this, not unnaturally it presents ultimately a fire hazard.

CARTY: The Ontario Fire Marshal's office says local governments do not have enough power to crack down on fire code violators, or to prevent plastic recycling plants from setting up near residential neighborhoods. The fire marshall has been unable to determine the cause of the Plastimet fire. He has not ruled out arson. In fact, more than one third of all chemical and waste fires are deliberately set. Another third are of unknown origin. Greenpeace scientists Paul Johnstone says that looking around the world, there are similar patterns everywhere.

JOHNSTONE: Certainly we're seeing an increasing number of fires at plastics recycling facilities. We've seen fires like this in Sweden, we've seen fires like this in Germany, we've seen fires like this in Chile, we've seen fires like this in the UK. And the simple reason for this is that far more plastics exist than there are facilities capable of doing something useful with them. So what tends to happen with them is they're either shipped abroad, or they end up in landfill. And the other thing that may be of significance, that with similar materials in the United Kingdom, we've recently uncovered several schemes where people are being paid to take this material away.

CARTY: However, some manufacturers in the vinyl industry say operations like Plastimet give recycling a bad name. They insist that PVC plastic, properly melted down and reformulated, can be reused, and there's a good market for it. But Plastimet was just storing, sorting, grinding up the plastics, and moving them out.

(Ambient, echoing voices)

MAN: We've been talking with the firefighters themselves, the guys who, you know, actually stood there in the face of it for 4 days...

CARTY: Finally, there are still questions about Hamilton's fire department, about its decision to fight the blaze as a normal fire instead of declaring it a hazardous materials fire, which in turn might have given firefighters more personal protection from injury. In the fire stations men say there is an unusual sense of fear and uncertainty. There are still dozens of reports of recurring symptoms among the men who fought the Plastimet blaze: severe headaches, fatigue, respiratory difficulties, and a couple of cases of chemically induced asthmas. And they're worried about cancer. You can hear it in George Cook's voice.

COOK: A few years ago up in Kitchener, I think it was 1987, there was a chemical fire. And about 3 or 4 years later a couple of guys started dying. And I think in total there was about 5 guys died, young guys getting cancer. That's what's going through my mind. You know, I'm 53 now, am I going to see 60 kind of thing? Seemingly, I'm only getting two thirds of the oxygen into my, going through my lungs than I would normally get. So I've had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about getting cancer and brain damage from the lead content of the water that I swallowed. And you know, am I a walking corpse?

FOURNIER: I feel like I've been lied to, and I'm a 28-year-old woman who had blind faith and trust in my government, because I figured I'm a taxpayer, they're taking care of me. I know I'll be fine. And what's bothered me the most about this whole situation is that dream is gone. That little bubble has bursted. And now I feel like I'm totally out there by myself. I've got to check everything now.

CARTY: The cleanup of the Plastimet site is expected to cost $4 million. There may eventually be other costs. Dioxins persist in concentrate in the food chain. The dioxins released at Plastimet are now part of our environment. Here in the North End, though, new soil tests register very little dioxin. It's likely been dispersed by the rain and the sun and the wind. That's good news today for Charlotte Fournier and her neighbors. The bad news is that those same tests revealed dangerous levels of carcinogenic PAHs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in the corner park. The park will be fenced off, the soil removed. Apparently, it's contamination left over from a different industrial occupant of the North End. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Hamilton, Ontario.

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Our production team is: George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry Fitzpatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman and Miriam Landman -- along with Peter Christianson, Roberta deAvaila, Peter Shaw and Julia Madeson. We had help from Jim Frey, Elsa Heidorn and Rebecca Sladeck-Nowlis, Jodie Kirshner and David Winickoff. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Joyce Hackel is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm executive producer, Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.


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