October 2, 1998
Air Date: October 2, 1998
Estuary Series Part 1: A Visit to Great Bay
Along our nation's coastlines where fresh water washes into the tidal rhythm of the sea, shellfish are declining, along with many other forms of marine life. Today we're out on New Hampshire's Great Bay Estuary with Richard Langan to better understand why. Professor Langan directs the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, and runs a technology research program for the nation's 21 federally chartered Estuarine Research Reserves. Today we begin our series taking a closer look estuaries over this fall. Professor Langan has brought us out in a converted lobster boat to see the abundance of life that a relatively healthy estuary can support: (06:30)
Estuary Series Part 2: Upstream Development and its Effects/ Liz Lempert
On average, coastal counties are growing three times faster than other areas, and the population pressures one sees in some place like Great Bay in New Hampshire are even more visible at the southern end of Cape Cod, Massachusetts at Waquoit Bay. Intense development upstream from Waquoit generates a daily tide of household wastewater that is upsetting that ecosystem's natural balance. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert reports. (08:30)
Shintech: Proposed Plastics Plant Looks Elsewhere
In the face of protests and complaints of environmental racism, the Shintech Corporation of Japan has announced it won't build a plastics plant in Convent, Louisiana. The company says it will try its luck in another Louisiana town, Plaquemine, about 40 miles away. Shintech wanted to locate its new polyvinyl chloride plant in Convent, a low-income community which houses ten other chemical plants already. The town is 80 percent African- American. Production of polyvinyl chloride releases dioxin, a deadly toxin. Colin Crawford is an environmental law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. While he calls the Shintech decision a victory for environmental justice, he says it's not the end of the story. (05:00)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about... acorn-loving wild pigs. (01:30)
Germany's Green Results/ Alexa Dvorson
In Germany, a new political coalition is making history. After last month's elections, the Social Democrats led by Gerhard Schröeder are being asked to form a government. To have a majority Mr. Schroeder is reaching out to the Green Party. If the talks underway are successful, Germany will become the first major international power with Green Party representation in the upper reaches of government. From Cologne, Alexa Dvorson reports on the development of what’s being called the "red- green" coalition. (03:45)
China: Of Trees, Logs, and Floods
The devastating floods that swept China this summer claimed more than 3,000 lives and destroyed twenty-two million acres of farmland. To the surprise of many observers, the Chinese government admitted its own clearcut logging practices had likely contributed to the destruction, and vowed official action. On September first, they imposed an unprecedented ban on logging in old-growth forests throughout China. The goal is to replenish many of these forests by 2010. Erik Eckholm writes about China for the New York Times and recently toured the western provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu, near the Tibetan plateau. This is where the clearcutting has taken its greatest toll on the forests and the workers who log them. (04:45)
Small Town of Sierra Blanca Grapples with Big Problem: Nuclear Waste/ Ingrid Lobet
A small community just 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border is poised to become a nuclear waste dump. Officials and engineers have been bent over their blueprints for 15 years, designing a low level nuclear disposal site for the sparsely populated Texan town of Sierra Blanca. State authorities say the radioactive waste will rest safely sealed in concrete and buried beneath the rocky desert. But the site has yet to receive its final licensing. And some residents are disputing safety aspects of the proposal. They also say the site was chosen because its residents are poor and Latino, and have little political clout. Ingrid Lobet reports. (11:25)
Vermont & Nuclear Transport/ Tatiana Schreiber
Most of the waste destined for Sierra Blanca would come from the states of Maine and Vermont. Just weeks ago, President Clinton signed into law the Texas-Maine-Vermont compact, that allows the radioactive material to be trucked to Texas, over twenty four hundred miles of roads, passing through fourteen states. The compact is the tenth such deal struck since the 1980 passage of a federal law urging states to cooperate in disposing of low level nuclear waste. In Vermont, anti- nuclear activists say the waste shouldn't leave the state. Tatiana Schreiber explains. (04:30)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Liz Lempert, Alexa Dvorson, Ingrid Lobet, Tatiana Schreiber
GUESTS: Richard Langan, Colin Crawford, Erik Eckholm
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Estuaries, the vital coastal zones where rivers and streams meet the oceans. Nature designed them as marine nurseries and havens for migratory birds, but humans are getting in the way.
HAUXWELL: It's hard to blame anyone for wanting to live right on the water, but unfortunately it is having a negative effect on the estuary ecosystem itself.
CURWOOD: Also, a Japanese firm halts plans to open a toxic chemical plant in an African-American town in Louisiana. But critics remain skeptical of plans to move it down the road.
CRAWFORD: It may be that we're only seeing a sort of high-stakes game of 3- card Monty, and that they're just hiding the ball for a while. So, I think it's really important to continue to be vigilant and watch what this company is doing down there.
CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this round-up of the news.
(NPR News follows)
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
LANGAN: We're right now heading up Little Bay. We look over to our left there. That's one of the 7 rivers that comes into this estuary; that's the Oyster River. It's aptly named. There used to be bountiful oyster resources up in there.
CURWOOD: Along our nation's coastlines, where freshwater washes into the tidal rhythm of the sea, shellfish are declining along with many other forms of marine life. Today, we're out on New Hampshire's Great Bay Estuary with Richard Langan to better understand why. Professor Langan directs the Jackson Estuary Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire and runs a technology research program for the nation's 21 Federally-chartered estuarine research reserves. This fall we're taking a closer look at estuaries in a special series. Professor Langan has brought us out in a converted lobster boat to see the abundance of life that a relatively healthy estuary can support.
CURWOOD: Okay, we're seeing a little rock outcropping. A lot of birds on there. What are we looking at, cormorants there?
LANGAN: That's what those are. Those are double-crested cormorants.
CURWOOD: Do you see seals in here?
LANGAN: Oh, yeah. The tide's up a little high now, but one of their favorite rocks is straight up ahead. We call it Half-Tide Rock. And as soon as that water goes down you'll see, oh, half a dozen seals on any given day sitting on the rock. This is a good spot to pull over there. There's 3 or 4 habitats of interest. We're just passing over an eel grass bed right here, and not too far away from it there's an oyster bed.
LANGAN: This is Great Bay. The primary feature in terms of shellfish are the oyster populations. There are also soft-shelled clams and mussels, but the dominant shellfish in here is oysters. We have oyster beds that are actually sitting within a few feet of us here. At one time, however, there were far more oysters in this bay than there are now, and reasons that there are fewer may have to do with over-harvesting in the 1800s. And also with sedimentation. Sediments bury oysters that can't move, and we've lost some oyster beds to sedimentation here.
CURWOOD: Oysters here are good to eat?
LANGAN: The oysters in Great Bay are some of the best I've ever tasted. And I do like oysters, so I taste them from everywhere.
CURWOOD: So, Dr. Langan, tell me: what is an estuary and why is it so important? And how do they work?
LANGAN: Well, estuaries are transitional zones between fresh water and ocean and it's basically how they're defined is by that mixture of salt water and freshwater. So it's neither environment. It's not the fresh water environment, it's not the oceanic environment. Creates a very unique system, where the plants and animals that live there are unique to that system. The one interesting thing about it is that they are extremely productive systems, among the most productive systems in the world. Much more so than the fresh water environment, and much more so than the marine environment. And that has to do to a great extent with the nutrients that come from the land, coming in, mixing with the sea water, creating the basis for plant production and, from there, animal production up to fish and birds, and the whole ecosystem.
CURWOOD: A lot of life out here, huh?
LANGAN: That's right.
CURWOOD: Now, is it true that estuaries are responsible for some large portion of all the fish babies and marine babies?
LANGAN: That is very true in certain areas of the country. For instance, the mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic, very true. Most of the commercial fish species have a life state that depends upon the estuarine areas. In New England and particularly in the Gulf of Maine, it's a little bit different. Most of our important commercial species spend all their time in the ocean. That doesn't mean some of the productivity that comes from the estuaries isn't exported offshore to support some of those populations.
CURWOOD: Are estuaries in trouble?
LANGAN: Yeah, they sure are. There are some estuaries right now that I'd say are in deep trouble. Other estuaries, may be not in trouble now but may be looking at it down the road. A number of different things. Pollution, habitat loss, over-fishing. Just our everyday lives, if we're not careful, can wreck an estuary. You put too much fertilizer on your lawn, it doesn't go into the grass. It comes into the water. If your septic system isn't working properly, you may be causing pollution to your nearest water body.
CURWOOD: So, estuaries are in a lot of trouble because of people, huh?
LANGAN: Well, I think that if you were to try to find one single cause for it, that would probably be it. Everybody seems to want to live at the coast. Right now we have about 50% of the population of the United States living at the coast, and that's projected to increase. So, the population pressure and development pressure is certainly there. You could see some of the houses here, nice lawn all the way down to the water. That's removing the buffer zone. It's a nice view for those folks, but anything they put on their lawn is going to run right into the bay.
(Engine starts up)
LANGAN: Why don't we head on back to the lab, now?
(Engine continues, watercraft in motion)
CURWOOD: What's the prognosis for the whole national estuarine research reserve system? Does it seem to be getting better and stronger, or the government cutbacks have really marginalized it?
LANGAN: Unfortunately, they're adding more reserves. I mean, I think it's a good thing that they're adding more reserves, but they're not adding more money. So the funding for reserves hasn't gone up appreciably in a number of years.
CURWOOD: Okay, I'm a taxpayer. I suspect most of the people listening to us are taxpayers. Why should we care about this? Why should we put our money into a national estuary research reserve program?
LANGAN: Well, I think it depends upon how much do you individually value the experience of having these places to go to, to visit? To know that you have natural areas that are protected. That there's fish and shellfish that can be caught and eaten safely. I think that's what every individual has to ask themself that question.
CURWOOD: Richard Langan, director of the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory on Great Bay, New Hampshire. On average, coastal counties are growing 3 times faster than other areas, and the population pressures one sees in Great Bay are even more visible at the southern end of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, at Waquoit Bay. Intense development upstream from Waquoit generates a daily tide of household waste water that's upsetting that ecosystem's natural balance. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert reports.
(Clanking sounds, a boat being secured and unloaded)
MAN: We went fishing this morning, buddy of mine, and we went out fluke fishing today and we caught some fluke and some striped bass...
LEMPERT: Local fishermen load the morning catch into the seafood distribution shop. Their crates are full of littlenecks, cherrystones, quahogs, and the salty smell of sea air. But there's not a scallop in sight. Matt Rocheleau owns and runs The Clam Man.
ROCHELEAU: I'm 30 now, but when I was younger, 15, 16, we used to have this town plenty of scallops every year throughout the winter. Now we have, you're lucky if you can find 10 to 15 scallops on opening day.
LEMPERT: In the mid-60s, fishermen here hauled in between 6,000 and 8,000 bushels of scallops a year. Nowadays, a good season brings in just 100 bushels. And last year, the catch totaled just 2. The trouble began when underwater eel grass meadows started to die. Eel grass is a fragile species dependent on clean water. Its disappearance is often a sign of ecosystem distress. Mike Ross is a local fisherman.
ROSS: All the years I've lived here I've never seen it this tough. When I was a little kid I used to be able to jump out in the flats and there'd be so much eel grass and you'd cut your legs on it and everything. Now there's no grass.
LEMPERT: Researchers blame Waquoit Bay's eel grass decline on pollution that comes with development. More people means more toilets and more lawn fertilizer, both large sources of nitrogen. When there's too much nitrogen, seaweed grows, eel grass withers. So, researchers are developing strategies to limit nitrogen in the water. But it's unclear whether their efforts will be enough. Since 1987, when the first comprehensive aerial photographs of the area were taken, more than 80% of Waquoit Bay's eel grass has disappeared.
LEMPERT: To get a glimpse of what the bottom of the bay used to look like, I slog through a muddy marsh with researchers from the marine biological labs in Woods Hole. This marsh borders one of the last remaining eel grass meadows in the area.
HAUXWELL: We're at Sage Lot Pond. Eel grass cover here is extensive. Densities are about 400 shoots per square meter.
LEMPERT: Biologist Jennifer Hauxwell strips down to her bathing suit, dives in, and swims back to the bank clutching a fistful of grass.
HAUXWELL: Here we go.
MAN: That's beautiful-looking grass.
HAUXWELL: Just a little scoop. You can see how dense it is. And there are small shoots in there, too, and this is ...
LEMPERT: The eel grass looks a lot like the marsh grass we've been wading through. Long, slender, green blades host a whole community of small animals, including tiny white worms. Eel grass provides a safe place to spawn and a rich food source, not only for these little worms but for bay scallops, Atlantic herring, winter flounder, striped bass, and for hundreds of other species.
(An engine revs up)
LEMPERT: Just upriver, Hamblin Pond used to host a lush eel grass meadow, but no longer. Cottages line its shore. Here, as in many parts of the country and the world, people are moving to coastal areas in record numbers. Jennifer Hauxwell says the new houses that go up each week are harming the pond.
HAUXWELL: It's hard to blame anyone for wanting to live right on the water, but unfortunately it is having a negative effect on the estuary ecosystem itself.
LEMPERT: The problem with the housing boom, she explains, is household wastewater, and fertilizers used on lawns. Both are rich in nitrogen.
LEMPERT: She dunks a bottle in the pond and it fills up with water. Later, she'll measure the amount of phytoplankton, the microscopic organisms that turn water green. Nitrogen acts as a fertilizer on phytoplankton and seaweed, but it doesn't make eel grass grow any faster. Instead, it has the opposite effect. Eel grass needs a lot of light to grow. Excess nitrogen causes phytoplankton to proliferate and seaweed to grow in thick blankets, preventing light from reaching the water's bottom. We drift over an eel grass bed Jennifer Hauxwell and her colleagues have been monitoring, and peer at the pond floor through a glass-bottom view box.
HAUXWELL: We used to have shoots marked at those stakes. The shoots have disappeared.
LEMPERT: So when did you set up those pens?
HAUXWELL: One month.
LEMPERT: So there was eel grass there a month ago.
HAUXWELL: Yeah. Yeah.
LEMPERT: Removing nitrogen from wastewater would be one of the most direct ways to help resuscitate eel grass. Standard septic systems strip between a quarter to half the nitrogen from the waste stream. But that hasn't been enough to prevent damage to eel grass beds. So researchers are developing more advanced technology, designed to remove up to 95% of nitrogen from waste water. The Waquoit Bay Estuarine Research Reserve, part of a Federally-funded group of research centers, is testing out these alternative septic systems.
(A wind chime sounds)
LEMPERT: One of these test sites is across the street from the reserve at a 3- room bed and breakfast run by Janet and Tom Durkins. Tom swings open the porch door. A grassy slope separates his property from the Childs River.
T. DURKINS: We know that whatever we (laughs) flush into there is eventually going to go out this way.
(Bird song and distant breeze)
LEMPERT: The Durkins are trying out an alternative septic tank. Instead of piping waste directly into a leaching pit, it first removes nitrogen by pumping the waste water through a series of sand- and sawdust-filled chambers. Inside those chambers, bacteria convert the waste water nitrogen into harmless nitrogen gas. Septic tanks like this require periodic maintenance that homeowners can't always be relied upon to provide. Professional maintenance, plus the cost of the unit itself, can be expensive. Tom and Janet Durkins say they wouldn't have installed the system if it weren't for the grant money.
T. DURKINS: Had we had to search out that alternative, we would have spent somewhere between $10,000 to $15,000.
J. DURKINS: I don't think that the average small business owner, a B&B like this, could afford to do this.
LEMPERT: And that's the root of the problem. Denitrifying septic systems can cost $5,000 more than standard technology, and while Cape residents want their bay to be clean they aren't necessarily willing to pay for it. Ironically, the new technology could allow developers to pack even more houses and people onto the land. That's because many of the towns along the Cape regulate housing density by limiting septic emissions. So officials at the Waquoit Bay Reserve are encouraging communities to revamp their zoning regulations to give added protection to threatened areas.
LEMPERT: Researchers at the reserve are also working on other ways to revive eel grass beds. They're buying and conserving undeveloped land, allowing natural vegetation to help absorb excess nitrogen. Over the past 10 years, environmental groups have tried several times unsuccessfully to raise public funds to buy and set aside more open space. A new effort is currently underway in towns up and down the Cape. But even if voters approve the plan this time around, Christine Gault, head of the Waquoit Bay research reserve, cautions the problem of disappearing eel grass won't be solved overnight.
GAULT: Even if we stopped all the nitrogen loading today, if we stopped every house and every lawn, there is still lots of nitrogen in the groundwater, making its way down to the bay. A hundred years' worth.
(Lapping surf; fade to ambient conversation and boat horns)
LEMPERT: Families squeeze into wooden tables and benches at the Falmouth Clam Shack, gobbling down steaming platters of fried bellies and strips. It's good food like this and the picturesque view of sailboats and gulls that keeps drawing tourists and permanent residents to the area. But it's this very crush of people that's putting the Cape's beaches and seafood at risk. As researchers work to improve the view from under the water's surface, the question remains: How much are people willing to give up to bring back the eel grass and restore the estuary? For Living on Earth, I'm Liz Lempert.
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CURWOOD: Coming up: community action forces a toxic chemical plant to relocate, at least for now. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the face of protests and complaints of environmental racism, the Shintech Corporation of Japan has announced it won't build a plastics plant in Convent, Louisiana. The company says it will try its luck in another Louisiana town, Plaquemine, about 40 miles away. Shintech wanted to locate its new polyvinyl chloride plant in Convent, a low-income community with 10 other chemical plants already. The town is 80% African-American. Production of polyvinyl chloride releases dioxin, a deadly toxin. Colin Crawford is an environmental law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. While he calls the Shintech decision a victory for environmental justice, he says it's not the end of the story.
CRAWFORD: The larger question remains unaddressed, and that is what kinds of jobs and education are we going to provide to these communities in the long run, so that they won't be facing yet another Shintech and another heavily-polluting industry in their midst?
CURWOOD: What happened in the case of Shintech? Why did this Japanese firm decide to back out right now?
CRAWFORD: Certainly it had a lot to do with the fact that there was all of this public mobilization at the community level, and that that was picked up nationally. But I think that there are probably other things going on. The PVC market now has slowed down considerably in recent months. There's great overcapacity in the market, and there are indications as well that the Asian economic crisis has slowed up the ability of foreign buyers to purchase American PVC products. So, I think that the story, as is usually the case in these environmental justice battles, is a little more complicated than just local community victory.
CURWOOD: You're not a fan of Shintech. You've characterized their behavior in the past as industrial predation. What do you mean by that?
CRAWFORD: It's hard to escape the conclusion that they've chosen a community in a poor and very disadvantaged neighborhood because it is easier to site there than it is to site elsewhere. And despite assurances to the contrary, the evidence does not suggest that these companies come in and hire large numbers of local residents at higher-paying levels, but instead come in and give a few lower-paying jobs to local residents. And so, in other words, it's just not clear that the net economic benefits are as powerful as a company would like to suggest.
CURWOOD: Shintech is now planning to build a smaller plant, what, about 40 miles upriver from Convent outside of Baton Rouge. It's in the town of Plaquemine. You've looked into the demographics there in Plaquemine. What did you find?
CRAWFORD: The demographics in Plaquemine, it is true, it's a more affluent community than was Convent, Louisiana. It is also less heavily African-American. But it is still much more African-American and much poorer than the majority of communities in this nation. And so that begs the question in environmental justice, you know, at what level are we going to look at this? Are we going to look at this in terms of its relation to other places nationally? Are we just going to look at it in Louisiana? So it may be that we're only seeing a sort of high-stakes game of 3-card Monty, and that they're just hiding the ball for a while. So I think it's really important to continue to be vigilant and watch what this company is doing down there.
CURWOOD: Professor Crawford, when we last talked you said one of the problems with environmental justice cases is a lack of clear precedents to work from. That there really aren't standards that the EPA has for making rulings. So, do we have one now? I mean, what kind of precedent has this case set for future environmental justice cases?
CRAWFORD: Well, Steve, I think it sets a precedent in two respects. First, it puts corporations on notice that they have to deal with local communities, even if those communities are poorer and less well educated than other communities. And that's a very important precedent, and we even see that in Shintech's behavior in this last week, because Shintech is now going to the new community in Plaquemine, and they're holding a series of public forums to discuss the project, and that is all to the good. So that's a very important precedent. At a legal level, the precedent is interesting for another reason. This action was taken in part because of new interim EPA regulations interpreting Title VI. Title VI is the Federal law that governs the administration of Federal funds. And if there is determined to be any disparate impact with respect to race or ethnicity, then there will be a violation of Title VI. And so, there is a very important precedent here in saying that Title VI involves questions of environmental justice. And it will be interesting to see what happens with that.
CURWOOD: Colin Crawford is an environmental law professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. He spoke to us from member station KPBS. Thanks for joining us.
CRAWFORD: Thank you very much, Steve.
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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 in the environment; the Ford Foundation; 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; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.
Our series on estuaries is funded in part by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management.
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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: Just ahead: The Red-Green coalition government that's taking shape in Germany. It seems poised to give Green Party members their first top leadership positions in a major European government. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
ANNOUNCER: Stonyfield Farm and Living on Earth are partners in the 1998 Planet Protector Contest, and we want to hear from kids 8 to 14 about what they're doing to protect the planet. To enter, kids can send a 1-page essay about their efforts to build a healthy planet. Look for contest details on our Web site. That's www.livingonearth.org. Or, on Stonyfield Farm Planet Protector quart containers.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: It's the time of year when acorns fall and animals hoard them for the cold months ahead. Squirrels aren't the only critters who are nuts about nuts. Acorns are also favored by the wild pig. Domesticated pigs were first brought to America by Ernando DeSoto in 1539. Some escaped, of course. Then Russian wild boars arrived in 1890. Some of them got loose, too, and the populations began inter-breeding. So, wild pigs can be either feral hogs, Russian wild boars, or a mix of the 2. Today wild pigs are found in 19 states, although pure Russian boars are found only in New Hampshire and in Texas. The Lone Star State has the largest population of wild pigs, somewhere between 1 to 2 million. The big-shouldered beasts are hunted year-round in California, and are sought after for their lean meat and their long tusks. Male hogs weigh in at 200 pounds on average. Wild pigs have been called "buzzards of the forest" because of their voracious appetites. Besides acorns and mushrooms, the porcine omnivores have been known to eat small birds, lambs, fawns, even rattlesnakes. And according to one hunter who traps them, wild pigs are also quite fond of raspberry-flavored Jell-O. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: In Germany a new political coalition is making history. After last month's elections the Social Democrats, led by Gerhard Schröder, are being asked to form a government. To have a majority, Mr. Schröder is reaching out to the Green Party. If the talks underway are successful, and most expect they will be, Germany will become the first major international power with Green Party representation in the upper reaches of government. From Cologne, Alexa Dvorson reports on the development of what's being called the Red-Green coalition.
FISCHER: (speaks in German to a cheering crowd)
DVORSON: "Today is a day many of us have worked toward for the last 16 years," leader Joscha Fischer told his euphoric supporters on election night. "The era of Helmut Kohl is definitely at an end."
(Cheering and applause continue)
DVORSON: The Green Party won only 6-1/2% of the vote, but that was enough to help the Social Democrats secure a necessary majority in Parliament and pave the way for a coalition in which the Greens hope to hold 4 key posts, including the environment and foreign ministries.
SCHRÖDER: (Speaks in German)
DVORSON: "There are unusually high expectations," Chancellor-elect Gerhard Schröder says, "and I'll do everything possible to fulfill them." The first test of the so-called Red-Green Coalition may come with the proposed Alliance for Jobs, a roundtable of unions, industry, and government, to tackle Germany's double-digit unemployment. While the Greens will stand by their agenda to introduce an energy tax and more rights for immigrants, political editor Sybille Quennet at the Cologne Daily Stadt-Anzeiger says these Green Party demands might have to take a back seat for now.
QUENNET: Of course it's a revolution that the Greens will be part of the government, and there will be some change. But Schröder always told that economics and business would come first, that jobs jobs jobs is the main problem. So I think the time for experiments has not yet come. Unemployment is much more important nowadays than any environmental problem. Any.
DVORSON: Although some polls suggest most Germans don't relish a Red-Green coalition, this was a typical response on the streets just after the election.
WOMAN: Wunderbar. Wunderbar! (Wonderful)
DVORSON: The curiosity index is high. For once, the unknowns far outweigh the givens. Will the Greens overcome their internal bickering and win credibility as governing partners? Or will they sell out on their principal values just to share power? Will the Social Democrats' broad ranks carry out tax and labor reforms? And can such moves be environmentally friendly enough to satisfy the Greens? Sybille Quennet will be among those watching closely.
QUENNET: In the coalition between Reds and Greens, it will be very interesting to see how they deal with the nuclear politics. Because Greens, of course, their voters will always opt for shutting down all nuclear plants as quick as possible. And Schröder, as he is a businessman as well, will have problems to do that. The fact that the Greens lost votes will make them weaker than they expected, maybe. So they have to prove that they are able to be in a government for 4 years. So, in the end, I think Schröder can force them to do things which they don't like at all.
DVORSON: With the new government expected to be formed this month, the Social Democrats promise a successful shift away from 16 years of conservative rule. Germany's stability-loving population has never romanced about risks. But in this unprecedented election result, the postwar generation of Europe's strongest state has flexed its muscles, and the rest of the continent will be eyeing the outcome. For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson in Cologne.
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CURWOOD: The devastating floods that swept China this summer claimed more than 3,000 lives and destroyed 22 million acres of farm land. To the surprise of many observers, the Chinese government admitted its own clear-cut logging practices had likely contributed to the destruction, and vowed official action. On September 1st, the imposed an unprecedented ban on logging in old growth forests throughout China. The goal is to replenish many of these forests by 2010. Erik Eckholm writes about China for the New York Times, and he recently toured the western provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu, near the Tibetan plateau. This is where the clear-cutting has taken its greatest toll on the forests, and on the workers who log them.
ECKHOLM: There are huge areas that used to be quite splendid and pristine natural forests. But most of those have been cleared over the last 50 years, and there are large areas that are quite barren now. What you see if you head west from Chungdu, which is the capital of Sichuan, you head west on the mountain roads, the roads are quite clogged with logging trucks full of big logs because they're trying to get everything out.
CURWOOD: The Chinese government has been faced with this sort of choice before. That is, the economy versus the environment. And in the past, the economy has pretty much won. Why do you think this time the government decided to act in favor of environmental protection?
ECKHOLM: I think the government and the country as a whole were just so shocked by the scale of the flooding this year, it had jolted them into taking a rather drastic action. I mean, they've known for years that they need to bring this logging under control, and there have been people warning for years that flooding problems would be worsened because of logging. They also know that it was having bad economic effects, and in fact the logging companies were losing money as their resources depleted. So that made it somewhat easier to make these plans to stop the logging. It was a funny kind of treadmill, where the more money a company lost, the more it tried to log to get a little bit more money to pay off its past debts.
CURWOOD: On the human side of this, there are what? Some 240,000, 250,000 officially employed loggers who are going to soon be looking for work. What will they do?
ECKHOLM: It's going to be a very traumatic change. Many, many people have structured their lives and their work around the logging business. Now, the big logging companies are government-owned, and they have promised that most of those workers will keep their jobs. For one thing, they're going to transfer a large number of former logging workers into reforestation programs, tree-planting instead of tree-cutting. But that probably can't absorb more than a third or half the total workers. The ones in the state companies are really the lucky ones, because at least they've been promised some kind of a pension or, you know, monthly payment, even if they don't have a lot of work. But those companies, much as some American companies have done in recent years, have been hiring a lot of so-called temporary workers to which they give no benefits or no promises about the future. And those people are just out of luck. I talked to a number of people in some timber yards who just said, "Well, I'm just going to have to go back to the farm."
CURWOOD: This ban was imposed rather abruptly. Do you think it will stick?
ECKHOLM: Yeah, I think it will stick. It's an issue that's received enormous national attention from the top to the bottom. Everyone in the affected regions knows all about it and knows why it was done, and knows that the national leadership cares about it. So, 2, 3, 4 years down the road, might some communities find a way to cut some trees that shouldn't be cut? Sure. But I think, for the most part, at least in that area of southwestern China where the forest is largely depleted anyway, I think you're not going to see a resumption of large-scale clear-cutting.
CURWOOD: Okay, so clear-cut logging has been banned, but China's population is still growing. They still have a demand for wood and paper products. Where are they going to get this stuff?
ECKHOLM: Well, for one thing, China is going to have to import more wood and paper and wood products. For another, they're trying to develop a sustainable wood products industry with tree plantations.
CURWOOD: Imported? Where could they get the wood from?
ECKHOLM: Well, Canada has a lot of trees, and I'm sure is looking very closely at recent developments here. And wondering how much they can fill the gap. It might be that some areas of Russia or Siberia might be able to supply some. Maybe even the United States.
CURWOOD: Erik Eckholm covers China for the New York Times. He spoke with us from Beijing. Thanks for joining us, Erik.
ECKHOLM: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: When we return: a small Texas town grapples with a big problem. Nuclear waste. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A small community just 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border is poised to become a nuclear waste dump. Officials and engineers have been bent over their blueprints for 15 years, designing a low-level nuclear disposal site for the sparsely-populated Texan town of Sierra Blanca. State authorities say the radioactive waste will rest safely, sealed in concrete and buried beneath the rocky desert. But the site has yet to receive its final licensing, and some residents are disputing the safety aspects of the proposal. They also say the site was chosen because its residents are poor and Latino and have little political clout. Ingrid Lobet reports.
LOBET: Semis motor past Sierra Blanca, a dusty 2-exit town off Interstate 10. Only 750 people live here. On the streets you hear a mix of English and Spanish. The windows at 2 former filling stations, a couple of restaurants, and the old movie theater are all boarded up. But the expected arrival of nuclear waste is bringing wealth to this town. Until recently it had no nurses, no ambulance, and no garbage collection. Steve Gibbs, president of the tiny Bank of Sierra Blanca, points to examples of progress from inside an air-conditioned pickup.
GIBBS: This is the Sierra Blanca Medical Clinic. We're in the process of recruiting a physician, and what we're trying to do is establish primary medical care county-wide. There's been an impact on our school. The computer labs, the fiber-optic networks. This is the new library, the new park.
LOBET: Four point two million dollars have come into Sierra Blanca since a ranch nearby became a proposed nuclear waste dump. That goes a long way in a town where the average income is $8,000. Power plants and hospitals pay much of these fees in the hope that they'll soon be able to haul their radioactive waste at lower cost to a 480-acre site here, where it will be grouted into concrete cylinders and buried permanently in the desert. Power plant owners in and outside of Texas back the plan, as do most of the state's politicians. Supporters say there will be jobs and even more civic improvements. But a coalition of local residents, environmental, and civil rights groups are fighting them every step of the way. Sierra Blanca is already the largest dump site in the world for city sludge.
(A train whistles)
LOBET: Three times a week, a special train whistles in with cars full of New York sewage sludge. The sludge is sprayed on a nearby 90,000-acre ranch as fertilizer. But every year it also deposits thousands of pounds of arsenic, copper, and lead. Maria Mendez lives down the highway from Sierra Blanca, in a lone house near an abandoned school. She balances her granddaughter in her lap and says since the sludge project began, her grandchildren suffer asthma that her own children never had.
MENDEZ: Like, right now I'm sitting here and I'm itching all over. I will take a shower and it will stop for a while and then I come back. I even changed detergents. I still get this itchy feeling and everybody complains, you know. I said we're just like cows scratching here and there because it's so bad.
LOBET: But Mendez fears the consequences of having a nuclear waste dump near her home will be even worse. Sierra Blanca will technically be a low- level nuclear waste site, because highly-radioactive spent fuel rods can't be stored there. But elements with half-lives in the thousands of years will be allowed in low concentrations. Mendez doesn't believe the assurances of some hydrologists who say the aquifer under the site is protected by 700-800 feet of nearly impenetrable bedrock and soil.
MENDEZ: They claim that it's about 700 to 800 feet deep. Well, my closest neighbor's deepest well is 70 feet, SEVENTY feet deep. What's wrong with these people? The water goes all over the place. It's going to flow all the way down to the Rio, to the Rio Grande.
LOBET: When Maria Mendez drives the 23 miles to Sierra Blanca, she passes the proposed site. It's flat and sandy, part of the larger wind-swept basin covered with mesquite and yucca and surrounded by brown and charcoal mountains. A trailer sits there. Work crew have already excavated what will be the first trench if the site is licensed.
WOMAN: Johnny's not there right now.
(Other voices join in, in English and Spanish)
LOBET: Guerra General Store in Sierra Blanca is a meeting place for opponents of the dump. Gloria Guerra Allington runs it with her son, and these days often without him, as he travels to New England and Washington, DC, to organize opposition to the disposal site.
ALLINGTON: How do we know that those canisters can withstand what they're storing? There's quite a force, they have the radiation. And also bringing it here, thousands and thousands of miles from near the Canadian border? Completely illogical. Doesn't make sense. (Aside to customers) Come in, Margie. How are y'all doing. (Speaks in Spanish)
LOBET: One thing opponents of the dump fear is a large magnitude earthquake. Sierra Blanca lies in the seismically active part of Texas, the trans-Pecos, and has had 2 major earthquakes in the last 100 years. But Reuben Alvarado, chief engineer at the Texas authority in charge of low-level nuclear waste, says opponents are exaggerating the dangers.
ALVARADO: When all things are taken into consideration, the trans-Pecos of Texas is a very stable part of the earth's crust. It is correct that the trans-Pecos is the most seismically-active part of the state. But when you compare it to southern California or other places on the Pacific Rim, you know, through Japan or down through Chile or up in Alaska, or even if you compare it to the area around Salt Lake City, it's almost seismically inert.
LOBET: Alvarado and the state's geologists concede there is a fault under the proposed site. But they believe there's no activity along it. And they say there are other safeguards.
ALVARADO: Unless there is some way to get the radionucleides from the trench down through 600 feet of fill and then into that, and then another couple hundred feet down into the groundwater table, I mean there is no mode of transport. So the fact that the fault's there or isn't there really doesn't make a whole lot of difference.
LOBET: Alvarado says even if you had an earthquake, a crack, and a leak, you'd also need a Biblical rain to wash radioactive material into the water table. And although some people in town say they remember waist-high floods from when they were children, at the other end of Main Street in the lobby of the Sierra Hotel, owner James Schilling says he's satisfied that the state knows what it's doing.
SCHILLING: Let me tell you. I've ranched out here for a long time. Our water was 1,500-foot deep and from about 30-foot down you were in solid rock all the way. Now tell me, how is water going to leach down to that? It's impossible. They sometimes say that's a 1 in 100 years' rain. Well, I think out here I think that would be 1 in 1,000 years, probably.
LOBET: Other Sierra Blancans are less confident, and they point to how the town got chosen as a site. They say it was more politics than science. One early preferred site was near a reservoir used by the city of Corpus Christi. It was also near a ranch owned by a former Texas governor. The legislature passed a law that forced officials to look elsewhere. The next site was near El Paso, but that site was dropped when the city sued. In Sierra Blanca, a small group of local officials felt the site could bring in needed money, and soon attention focused there. In a poll taken in 1992, 63% of Sierra Blancans were against the facility, but these residents may be hard-put to find a voice. Sierra Blanca isn't legally a town. It has no city council.
LOBET: Ninety miles west on the interstate lies the border city of El Paso, with 750,000 people. There are signs El Pasoans are increasingly taking an interest in the proposed project.
CARPENTER: Eighty-four percent of El Pasoans are opposed to the Sierra Blanca nuclear waste dump because of all the things we've been talking about this morning. Twelve percent support, and I don't know why, I don't get that; if you do support it we'd like to hear from you, 880-5763.
LOBET: Radio station KROD has dedicated talk time to Sierra Blanca several times in recent months. Host Stephanie Carpenter.
CARPENTER: And El Pasoans should be very offended by why this area of the country was chosen. And John, you've got the documents there. And basically, what those documents say is: Let's choose some place out in the desert that's mostly under-educated Hispanics, because they don't know much about it and they don't have a lot of political power and they, you know, are basically calling us a bunch of ignorant Hispanics in the Southwest who won't be able to fight it.
LOBET: The Texas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has come out against the Sierra Blanca site, calling it a civil rights issue. Some are predicting the issue could hurt Republican Governor George W. Bush, who's running for re-election and has been quite popular with Latinos. He heard about Sierra Blanca again on a recent visit to El Paso.
(Voices shouting: "Dump Bush! Dump Bush!")
REPORTER: It wasn't all endorsements for Governor Bush in El Paso. A group of protestors made their feelings known about the proposed low-level nuclear waste dump site in Sierra Blanca. The Governor...
LOBET: Across the border in Mexico, Sierra Blanca has received far more press than it has in the United States. City council members in Mexico have gone on hunger strikes. School children have marched in protest. And 30,000 Mexicans have signed petitions against the Sierra Blanca site.
(Mariachi music plays)
LOBET: At the Rio Grande Mall in Juarez, Mexico, most shoppers and business owners seemed in agreement about the merits of Sierra Blanca as a dump site.
WOMAN: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: I think it's harmful to the whole community of Juarez and El Paso. They knew all these things were dangerous. They should have thought about where they were going to put it in the first place.
MAN: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: If it's so safe, why don't they put it next to Washington? Then they could do a test.
MAN 2: [Speaks in Spanish}
TRANSLATOR: The whole thing is really bad. To come all the way down here to dump something that we don't produce in El Paso, or here in Mexico. The United States has plenty of places they can dump it up there. They've got more land than we do.
LOBET: Last summer 2 Texas judges recommended the license for the Sierra Blanca facility be denied. They say Texas planners failed to adequately map the fault under the site. The next move is up to the Texas National Resources Conservation Commission, a 3-member board appointed by the governor. The decision is expected near election time. Nuclear waste could start rolling into Sierra Blanca in the year 2000. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Sierra Blanca.
CURWOOD: Most of the waste destined for Sierra Blanca would come from the states of Maine and Vermont. Just weeks ago, President Clinton signed into law the Texas-Maine-Vermont Compact. The deal allows the radioactive material to be trucked to Texas over 2,400 miles of roads, passing through 14 states. This compact is the tenth such deal struck since the 1980 passage of a Federal law urging states to cooperate in disposing of low-level nuclear waste. But in Vermont, anti-nuclear activists say the wastes shouldn't leave the state. Tatiana Schreiber explains.
SCHREIBER: Almost all the radioactive waste that would go to Sierra Blanca from Vermont comes from the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant near Brattleboro. The low-level waste includes irradiated plant components and resins and solvents from cleaning the water in the plant's spent fuel pool. Vermont Yankee is scheduled to close in 2012, but anti-nuclear activists want it shut down now.
(Crowd shouts: "No nukes! Shut it down! No nukes! Shut it down!")
SCHREIBER: Twenty-one demonstrators were cited for trespassing in August after they symbolically placed Vermont Yankee under citizens' arrest and questioned the nuclear industry's assertions.
WOMAN (speaking on mike, to crowd): It claims that nuclear waste can be safely buried for hundreds of thousands of years. (Crowd laughs; man says, "Right" in derision.) They're wrong. It wants more sacrificed communities.
SCHREIBER: When it does close, the entire structure and all its parts will also go to Sierra Blanca. Vermont's Commissioner of Public Service, Rich Sedano, says in the early 1990s the state tried to find a waste site in Vermont.
SEDANO: Most towns simply said no. No town said yes to the degree that any significant work was done.
SCHREIBER: Because Vermont law allows towns to refuse a waste dump, the only place seriously studied was the grounds of Vermont Yankee. But state nuclear engineer Bill Sherman says that site's unsafe because the soil's porous, and at places the groundwater is less than a foot below the surface. Sherman says Vermont joined with Maine to ship waste to Texas because Texas planned to build a dump anyway. And with the compact, Texas can refuse waste it doesn't want.
SHERMAN: It's a win-win situation. We help Texas in terms of limiting the waste that will come there. They help us by providing a far environmentally- suitable site than any place in the Northeast.
SCHREIBER: The Texas dump's also projected to be much cheaper than the site in Barnwell, South Carolina, where Vermont and Maine now send their waste. But activists say the decision to join the compact was made before Vermonters understood what sending the waste to Texas would really mean.
TREHUNE (on mike, to crowd): Vermont is going to be on the side of the perpetrators of this environmental injustice and environmental racism.
SCHREIBER: Leigh Terhune of the Vermont Sierra Club spoke at a public hearing on the compact.
TERHUNE: It's not what the people in our state believe in. It's not what we're all about. We're better than this. And our elected officials have put us into this position. And I'm ashamed of it and I'm angry about it.
SCHREIBER: Five Texans came to Vermont to be at this hearing and to join a 90-mile anti-nuclear walk through the state and a week-long anti-nuclear action camp.
MENDEZ: Because you get so frustrated you will get hurt.
SCHREIBER: At the camp Maria Mendez, who lives near Sierra Blanca, tried to put a human face on the idea of environmental racism. She admitted that before she came to Vermont she blamed its people.
MENDEZ: And I feel sorry now that I felt that way, and instead of doing that we could have gotten together and fight it together.
SCHREIBER: David Pyles is with the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution. He says the coalition's opposed to burying nuclear waste because it says all 6 of the country's low-level burial sites have leaked. For now, they want Vermont's waste kept above-ground, where it can be closely-monitored.
(Drumming, ululating, singing: "Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, shut em down." A man shouts, "No more waste!" Crowd: "Na na na na....")
SCHREIBER: More than half of Vermont's legislators have told activists that if a vote were taken today they would not support the Texas compact. But the state's Congressional delegation in Washington remains behind it. If the waste does start moving, activists vow to stop it.
MAN (on bullhorn, to crowd): Vermont, and I'll tell you, we're coming back and we're coming back and we're coming back..."
(The crowd shouts, cheers)
SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Brattleboro, Vermont.
(Music up and under)
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 Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. We had help from David Winickoff and Ann Perry. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Joyce Hackel is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.
(Music up an under)
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