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

May 7, 1999

Air Date: May 7, 1999


Coal's Future / John Gregory

For centuries Americans have relied on coal as an abundant source of inexpensive, if inefficient, energy. Today the industry faces tough challenges, including increasing layoffs and pressures to develop cleaner technologies. John Gregory reports. (13:05)

Pruning Primer

Michael Weishan (WYS-hon), Living On Earth’s Traditional Gardener, and host Steve Curwood go to work shaping the bushes and trees in Weishan's yard. The pair discuss what is proper to prune in the spring and what is not. (04:40)

Spring Nesting / Sy Montgomery

Commentator Sy Montgomery marvels at the beauty and ingenuity of bird nests. (03:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the joining of the Central and Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah, 129 years ago. Will new high speed trains rekindle America's romance with railroads? (01:30)

Environmental News Wrap

Steve talks with Science News Senior Editor Janet Raloff (RAIL-off) about recent news in science and the environment, including: a new international forestry report, a study showing deleterious effects of pesticides on salmon, and declining skate stocks in the North Atlantic. (07:00)

Listener Letters

This week, Steve reads letters from listeners responding to our discussion of the environmental impact of the fighting in Yugoslavia. (01:25)

Smog in the Himalayas / Alexa Dvorson

In the last ten years Nepal has taken dramatic steps toward modernization. But at a price: heavy pollution hangs over the capital city of Kathmandu (cat-man-DOO) high in the Himalayas. Now, as Alexa Dvorson reports, rays of hope are beginning to make it through the smog at the top of the world. (12:15)

Nature Writing No More / Dianne Dumanoski

As the end of the millennium approaches, author Dianne Dumanoski (doo-muhn-OW-skee) wonders whether nature writing can exist in this human-dominated planet. ()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: John Gregory, Alexa Dvorson
GUESTS: Michael Weishan, Janet Raloff
COMMENTATORS: Sy Montgomery, Dianne Dumanoski

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The United States gets more than half of its electric power from coal, and it's cheap and increasingly cleaner. But coal burning is closely linked to global warming and air pollution. And the folks in the eastern coal fields fear that environmental regulations will soon put them out of work.

ROBERTS: You can't say don't burn it in Washington, don't mine it in West Virginia, and tell me you're not trying to take the jobs of every single coal miner in the United States of America (cheers in the background) and we're here today to say no, no, hell no!

CURWOOD: The future of the coal mining industry is just ahead, along with a trip out into the springtime garden to do some pruning and picking. Also, nesting birds, nature's master architects. All this and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Coal's Future

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In much of the nation, when you turn on a light, make coffee, surf the Internet, or do laundry, the power likely comes from burning coal. Coal generates more than half the nation's electricity and it's easy to see why. Coal is cheap, and the US has huge reserves. The Department of Energy predicts coal use here will slowly increase in the coming decade, and double worldwide in the next 30 years. Coal's future would seem bright if the fuel did not take such a devastating toll on the environment. A push for stricter regulations is dampening optimism among miners and mining executives. They're responding with a mixture of anger and optimism, business mergers, and an emphasis on technology. John Gregory has our story.

(Milling voices)

GREGORY: In the shadow of the golden dome of West Virginia's state capitol, several hundred miners gathered on a recent spring morning to rally in support of coal. At first glance it looks like an upbeat gathering. But miners like John Harden are worried. Mr. Harden has worked in the coal fields of southern West Virginia for 25 years.

HARDEN: These environmentalists are after shutting the coal industry down, and we're here to save that, our jobs, and preserve America.

GREGORY: Mr. Harden says lawsuits against a popular type of surface mining called mountain top removal could end hundreds of jobs in the mountain state. Plus, John Harden says proposed Federal environmental regulations affecting coal-burning power plants could devastate the industry nationwide. United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts urges his members to fight these threats to coal.

ROBERTS: You can't say don't burn it in Washington, don't mine it in West Virginia, and tell me you're not trying to take the jobs of every single coal miner in the United States of America (cheers in the background) and we're here today to say no, no, hell no!

(Crowd applause)

GREGORY: Regulatory changes have already deeply affected the American coal industry. To reduce air pollution and acid rain, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments required power plants to emit less sulfur and nitrogen oxides. To achieve this, utilities could either install expensive pollution control equipment called scrubbers, or simply burn coal containing less sulfur. In response, demand shifted from the high-sulfur coal generally found in the eastern US to low-sulfur reserves in the western states. Wyoming is now the nation's leading producer. Gerry Van Enitti is with Resource Data International, an energy market consulting firm. He says western coal is now supplying markets nearly nationwide.

VAN ENITTI: It's getting into Georgia, it goes up the Ohio River, it gets into Illinois, Wisconsin, it gets throughout the Great Lakes. And it gets to those places much more economically than the coal that has been traditionally supplied into those areas from, for instance, the Illinois Basin, or central Appalachia, or northern Appalachia.

GREGORY: With some seams ranging up to 90 feet thick, most western coal can be surface mined and sold for $3 to $5 a ton. Even when adding transportation costs and adjusting for burning more coal to get higher heat values, western coal is still a bargain compared to eastern coal, which can sell for $20 to $30 a ton. Gerry Van Enitti says tougher phases of the Clean Air Act that take effect in January, 2000, will favor low-sulfur coal even more.

VAN ENITTI: The western coal industry has a good, strong, stable future. Some of the other coal regions that are more mature, that have much higher sulfur content or higher mining costs, are somewhat in question.

GREGORY: That uncertain future is evident in southern Illinois.

(Machinery hums)

GREGORY: Six hundred feet below the farmland here, Bill Lavanti operates what's called a continuous miner in the Old Ben #25 mine. At the front of the machine a large roller spiked with metal teeth spins around, scraping coal from the wall of the tunnel. Two big lobster-like claws pull the loose coal onto a conveyor belt, carries the black rock over the machine, and deposits it behind the miner. This coal is from what's called the heron seam, a 6- to 17- foot layer of coal that underlies most of southern Illinois, southwestern Indiana, and western Kentucky.

(Machinery continues, slows to a halt)

GREGORY: About 400 men and women worked at Old Ben, but the coal they mined here contained to much sulfur to be burned under the Clean Air Act. This mine closed in 1994, with some 18 years of coal reserves left untouched. A few of the mine's hundreds of miles of tunnels have been converted into a museum.


GREGORY: Bill Lavanti walks the eerily silent passages, demonstrating for tourists the machines he once operated for a living.

LAVANTI: It's sort of strange, yet to me, to this day, to hear it this quiet. Where we're standing now, you would have heard a main line belt running, the hoists where we skipped the coal out. There would have been noise in the shop.

GREGORY: Mr. Lavanti worked 28 years underground before taking early retirement when the Old Ben mine closed. There were once 6 active mines in his community of West Frankfort, Illinois. Now, they're all closed.

LAVANTI: If you lived here, there was only one job to have if you were going to be a working person. And that was in the mines. It was a dangerous job in a lot of ways, but you made very good money.

GREGORY: Mr. Lavanti says former miners have tried to find other jobs as factory workers or truck drivers. But he says it's hard to match the $51,000 average salary they could make mining today. Some have simply left Illinois to try to find work in the coal fields of Wyoming.

ROBERTS: That is the travesty of all this.

GREGORY: UMWA president Cecil Roberts.

ROBERTS: We haven't seen a corresponding job increase in the west to reflect the job loss in the east. We simply have given up those jobs.

GREGORY: In the 1920s mines employed more than 700,000 men and produced about 500 million tons of coal. Today the industry produces more than a billion tons of coal, yet employs only about 80,000 miners.


CROSS: This is Main Street. This is the center of town. You would come down right through. We've been pretty fortunate so far with the businesses. Some of them have left and others have moved in here, like this...

GREGORY: Jerry Cross is the mayor of Marissa, Illinois, population 2,500. He says once the closures began in the 1990s, the social fabric of Marissa began to change.

CROSS: As the layoffs have taken place, divorce rates, just sky-high. My police have to deal more with battery-type stuff. You know, being a miner myself and -- you know, how do you go in there and explain to somebody that, you know look, you lost your job, you've got to get on with your damn life. And you can't take it out on your wife, can't take it out on your kids.

GREGORY: Although Jerry Cross's mining days are over, he still serves as an organizer for the United Mine Workers. Along with other local officials, he's working to reverse a decision that would close one of the county's last remaining mines. The Marissa mine employs 400 people and provides coal to Illinois Power. The utility has decided it will be cheaper to import low-sulfur coal from Wyoming rather than install pollution control devices that would enable the plant to burn coal that's mined just a few miles away. The Marissa mine is owned by Peabody Coal, and even though they may have to close that complex, Peabody would still supply coal to Illinois Power from one of its mines in Wyoming.

(Beeps; a door slides; footfalls)

GREGORY: Peabody is the nation's largest coal company and one of the biggest producers in the world. In their corporate headquarters overlooking the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis, Peabody vice president Vic Svec says the competition to mine coal for the lowest possible cost has driven the industry into a series of mergers. Now, the top 10 mining companies in the US produce about 65% of the coal mined in the country.

SVEC: We continue to have an appetite for growth. And the 2 foremost ones for us come through serving the Asian markets, which represent good growth, or our Australian operations. And then also, the low-sulfur coal within the United States.

GREGORY: Unlike the diversification strategies some petroleum companies are pursuing, Mr. Svec says Peabody is focusing exclusively on coal and coal- generated power.

SVEC: We are the Saudi Arabia of coal here in the United States. We have more coal reserves than any other nation. That's an astounding statistic and one that we can't take for granted. What that means, though, is that we need to continue to find ways to use that coal in an environmentally safe fashion.

GREGORY: Environmentally safe is the key phrase, though. When burned, coal releases more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel. Many scientists believe carbon dioxide contributes to global warming. To help slow greenhouse gas emissions, world leaders developed the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty calling for reductions in carbon dioxide releases. If ratified by the Senate, the US would have to cut CO2 emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by the year 2012.

MYERS: In terms of severity on coal, the Kyoto Protocol certainly is a show- stopper for a very large proportion of coal-fired generation.

GREGORY: Todd Myers is the environmental program manager for energy consulting firm RDI.

MYERS: Coal-fired power plants represent about 30% of total US CO2 emissions. So, if you're going to reduce CO2 in this country, you're going to focus on power plants.

GREGORY: Myers says the Kyoto Treaty would force at least half of the coal- fired generators in the country to close. And electricity prices could increase 25% to 75%. While some in the coal industry fear Kyoto could deal a lethal blow to coal, others see salvation in emerging technologies.

(Machinery; steam)

GREGORY: The Louisville Gas and Electric Cane-Run Generating Plant is one of numerous coal-fired utilities lining the Ohio River. The heart of the facility is a hot, dark maze of pipes and duct-work connecting to boilers 10 stories high. At one of the boilers, manager John Voyles gingerly opens a small viewing hatch to reveal a brilliant orange glow.

VOYLES: The flame is very bright on a coal fire. You really wouldn't want to look in for very long, because we usually use dark glasses to see it.

GREGORY: The methods of burning coal for power haven't changed much in decades. Coal is ground into a fine powder, then injected into a boiler and burned. The fire heats water, creating steam, which turns a turbine generator to make electricity. It's a simple, yet highly inefficient process. Only about one third of coal's energy value results in electricity. The rest is lost as waste heat going up the smokestack. Robert Porter of the Office of Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy says improving that burning efficiency is key to coal's future as a fuel.

PORTER: If we can increase the efficiency of coal combustion, we use less fuel to generate a comparable amount of electricity. That alone can achieve some significant reductions in not only the traditional air pollutants, but also in the release of greenhouse gases.

GREGORY: The DOE and electric utilities are developing 2 new methods for burning coal that they say can increase coal's energy efficiency from 30% to nearly 60%, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by half. Robert Porter says the United States could become a leading exporter of clean coal technologies to developing nations, thus generating an estimated trillion dollars in revenues and thousands of jobs. Plus, that same technology could allow domestic utilities to continue to burn coal.

LAVANTI: (on PA system, amidst machinery hum) Come in, Kenny! We're ready!

(Humming continues)

GREGORY: Back in southern Illinois at the Old Ben mine, Bill Lavanti rides the elevator back to the surface. In an area already battered by environmental regulations, it's surprising to find any optimism. But Mr. Lavanti says he does see a future for the coal hidden under the local corn fields.

LAVANTI: It's a power source that will be used way into the future. It just depends on when they want to use it again. It's not going anywhere. It will be mined. It can be used in the future. And when the future is for our area, I have no idea.

GREGORY: In the meantime, the miner's union and coal companies are joining forces to fight any ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, because they fear the face for cleaner power will leave them in the dust. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in West Frankfort, Illinois.

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Pruning Primer

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


CURWOOD: Hey, Michael, do you think you need to take a little more off the side?

WEISHAN: (laughs) I think we need to take a considerable more off the side of this particular bush.

CURWOOD: That's Michael Weishan, Living on Earth's traditional gardener. And today, we are going to tackle a tough subject, the spring pruning of shrubs. Michael, now why is this such a hard concept for people to grasp?

WEISHAN: The problem is that shrubs really fall into 2 different categories: some that can and should be pruned in the spring, in the early spring. And some that you need to wait until just after they bloom. So you really want to know what shrubs need to be pruned when before you start cutting.

CURWOOD: Okay, so how do you know which is which?

WEISHAN: Well, you have to (laughs) -- you have to go on a sort of shrub by shrub basis. Because some shrubbery blooms on new wood. It'll bloom on the branches it makes that season. Wajila, for instance, is an example of that. It'll grow, and the branches that grew in the early spring, in April and May and June, will then flower in July and August. Some shrubs, like lilacs, for instance, only flower on last year's wood. So if you cut away a lot of it. you're not going to have any bloom the following season. So for instance, we can take a shrub like this pussy willow, which I've already pretty much finished pruning, and pretty much cut it as much as we want, because it blooms on new growth.

CURWOOD: So how do you get started?

WEISHAN: For shrubs, essentially, it's pretty easy. Because you're essentially pruning to shape. You're trying to make the shrub into some sort of shape. There's really no correct way. I mean, here, for instance, we have -- this is a black pussy willow, Salix melanostacus.

CURWOOD: Ooh, so pretty.

WEISHAN: Yeah, the pussy willows are black, isn't that interesting?

CURWOOD: Yeah, it's pretty.

WEISHAN: Jet black, as opposed to the normal white. It's billed as a tall, upright shrub. But as you can see here, (Curwood laughs) this shrub's only a few years old and it's not tall, and it's not upright, and it's growing wide instead. It's, as a matter of fact, resisted every attempt I've made to prune it up. So now I'm going to have to cut it back, because it's growing into this beautiful Atlantic cedar here, and we don't want to do that.


CURWOOD: Do these principles of pruning apply to everything?

WEISHAN: No. There's a much bigger difference for trees, for instance. And if we come over, we'll just take a walk over.

(Footfalls on gravel)

WEISHAN: Unlike shrubbery, generally, where there's not a very correct, there's not a single correct way to prune, you want to prune to achieve a certain shape or size -- there is a general rule for small ornamental trees like this crabapple. You want to prune the branches that grow through the tree, and leave the branches that grow out. All the fruit, then, bearing, occurs on the exterior, where it's easier to pick. It provides a much better silhouette to the tree, and allows light and air circulation inside the tree, which prevents disease.

CURWOOD: When is the time to do this?

WEISHAN: Well, on trees like crabapples I have a tendency to cheat a little. Technically, you're supposed to prune fruit trees, including ornamental fruit trees like this, before the sap runs in February, even January in some parts of the country. The reason is that when the sap starts to run, you can encourage disease where you've been cutting. Because essentially, it's like an open wound. I actually like to prune these later on, when the leaves come out, so that you can sort of see the shape. Because as you're pruning bare branches, it's hard to see how much you're taking out. I've never had any problem. I don't know if that's scientifically proven, but I've been doing it all my life, so I'm going to continue to prune these crabapples, you know, pretty much whenever.

CURWOOD: Michael, this has been a great primer on pruning, but where do people get the information about their specific plants?

WEISHAN: You're going to want to consult a pruning guide. And there's one that just came out; it's been chosen as one of Garden Design magazine's best books of '97. And I really like it. It's by a very well-known author, Lee Reich. And he's a great tree specialist. And it deals with trees and shrubs in a wonderfully illustrated format. It tells you when to prune each, how to prune them, with big, easy-to-follow directions, selecting side branches on a fruit tree. It tells you everything you need to know, really, about pruning. And it's one of those things you do want to study up. Because, you know, once you cut that branch off, you can't put it back. And you can really do a lot of damage very quickly unless you know what you're doing.

CURWOOD: And the name of the book is?

WEISHAN: The name of the book is The Pruning Book, appropriately enough, by Lee Reich, R-E-I-C-H.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Michael. We'll talk to you again soon.

WEISHAN: My pleasure.

CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's traditional gardener, as well as publisher of the magazine Traditional Gardening. If you have any questions about pruning, prunes, or any aspect of gardening, head over to our Web site. The address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. When you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.

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(Bird song)

Spring Nesting

CURWOOD: This time of year, birds are nesting almost everywhere. Piping plovers are laying eggs on beach sand, wood ducks in abandoned woodpecker holes, robins in apple trees and under house eaves. Some nests are easy but most are cleverly engineered. Great blue herons raise their nestlings 40 feet off the ground, over swamps, in carefully-constructed see-through stick-pile nests. Northern orioles make pendulous pouches for their young. Commentator Sy Montgomery finds these structures inspiring.

MONTGOMERY: The whole idea of nesting is rather astonishing, if not absurd, especially when you think of what those seemingly flimsy structures are built to contain. Eggs. Eggs! Consider the bird's dilemma. As Joan Dunning puts it in her wonderful book Secrets of the Nest, we have this funny little animal with its hands essentially tied behind its back. The survival of its species dependent on how well it can protect a ridiculous round, rolly, fragile thing containing its future offspring.

But the birds are amazingly resourceful. We tend to think of most nests as woven bowl-shaped affairs, but many are not. Owls, bluebirds, titmice, and wood ducks, for instance, nest in tree hollows, for which they gather eclectic linings. Tufted titmice are particularly fond of lining their nests with shed snake skins, but they'll also pull the hair from squirrels' tails, or from live woodchucks, or even men's beards. A few birds, like puffins and burrowing owls, dig holes in which they lay their eggs and raise their young. Some, like red-eyed vireos, construct hammock-like nests suspended between the forks of twigs.

Even the more typical bowl-shaped construction is a wonder. Many are strengthened by the addition of mud, which birds gather in their bills. Ever wonder why you see robins this time of year with muddy red breasts? That's because they rotate around in their newly-plastered nests to create smooth bowls. Warblers and hummingbirds use other materials, too. They pick at spiderwebs and caterpillar cocoons, gathering sticky gossamer to bind their nests to branches. Hummingbirds even collect lichens to camouflage the outside of their walnut-sized nests.

If the construction of nests is amazing, the sites they sometimes choose seem to defy reason. Nests have been found in the pockets of scarecrows and in tin cans. A black-chinned hummingbird once built her inch-wide, cup-shaped nest on top of an orange. Another, a house wren, once built hers in the rear axle of a car that was actually driven. The eggs still hatched.

So often, birds build their nests in the very shadow of the clumsy, giant monkeys that birds surely consider humans to be. Many birds nest almost literally on our doorsteps: at our windows and in our window boxes. Some, such as barn swallows, house finches, robins, and phoebes, won't even mind if you or your child takes a peek. And that's a good thing for us to do, because to look in a nest -- carefully, of course, and reverently -- reminds us of the promise and the fragility of the future.

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CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of Nature's Everyday Mysteries. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: the latest developments in environmental science. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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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-PROCOWS.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: A hundred and thirty years ago this month, a golden spike was hammered into a railroad track at Promontory Summit, Utah. The message engraved on the spike declares, "May God continue the unity of our country, as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world." The joining of the Central and the Union Pacific completed a rail link across the continent and paved the way for settlement of the West. Today, the thrill is gone from America's romance with the train, and the car is king. But concerns over pollution and sprawl caused by cars and highways have sparked a renewed interest in rail. A recent surge in Federal funding has spurred plans for super-fast trains. Amtrak is scheduled to begin its high-speed service between Boston and Washington, DC, later this year. The train will be America's fastest, traveling up to 150 miles per hour. And California is considering a bullet train to click at speeds of up to 310 miles per hour. But for now, the fastest train in the world is in Japan, the magnetic levitation or maglev train. Its top speed: 340 miles per hour. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Environmental News Wrap

CURWOOD: The World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development recently released a long-awaited comprehensive report. The analysis provides thousands of statistics, charts, and graphs. And it offers recommendations for protecting the world's forests. Science News magazine senior editor Janet Raloff joins us now to talk about the report, and other recent news in science and the environment. She calls the forestry update troubling.

RALOFF: It turns out you've lost a lot of the old growth forests throughout much of the world: 70% in the former Soviet Union, almost 100% in Europe, 85% in Asia. We're doing relatively well here in North America. We only lost 55% of ours. But that doesn't look at how much of the total forest is now there today. And while we have 75% of our former forested lands still under the forest canopy, that's not the case in much of the world, including Asia, where 70% of what had been forested is now not.

CURWOOD: Now, this report is not only descriptive, right? I mean, the authors have some suggestions. They have some ideas about how to stem the loss.

RALOFF: Yeah. Probably the most radical recommendation I see in the report is a recommendation that you determine the value of forests and then price wood products to reflect the full ecosystem and climatological benefits of that wood. Now, this is a rather radical idea. But then the report concludes that you need radical and urgent measures if you're going to arrest forest declines today.

CURWOOD: So if you go to the lumberyard, you would pay how much more, do you think?

RALOFF: Well, no one's quite sure yet what the difference in price would come down to. It could actually increase the price of a board foot by 10-fold, even 20-fold. And that could make a major difference in our decision making. For example, when I was putting an addition on the house, I was quoted a premium of $4,000 to put in oak trim as opposed to pine. That's a big difference. Ultimately, I was able to get the contractor to halve the price. But what if instead he'd said it was going to cost $10,000? I wouldn't have put it in at all. If you make the price of wood expensive enough, a lot of us will re-evaluate just how badly we need the lumber, and that could end up saving a lot of trees.

CURWOOD: Let's move on to Canada and some forest trouble there that seems now to be related to fish. Can you tell me about this study that's been done there in New Brunswick?

RALOFF: Yeah. It turns out that back in the 70s and 80s, there was a massive aerial spraying program for the spruce bud worm. They put a lot of pesticides on the trees and this pesticide formulation included what they thought was a harmless ingredient, what they call a wetting agent, to make the pesticide dissolve into water so it sprayed well. It turns out this extra ingredient wasn't so inert after all. It's actually a synthetic estrogen, at least when it gets in the bodies of living animals. And so, you ended up bathing a lot of the fish in local forests and streams, downstream of these trees. And it seems to have perturbed their ability to make an adjustment from fresh water into saltwater, which, for example, all Atlantic salmon must do.

CURWOOD: So what happens when the fish go from fresh water to saltwater? They've been exposed to this kind --

RALOFF: Well, nobody's quite sure. But in the laboratory, when they do experiments to simulate this, they die. It takes them about 2 months in saltwater and they just die. Not all of them, but most of them, and they seem to look like they're starving. It's not quite clear what's going on, but they're pretty sure it has something to do with a hormone perturbation in these fish. They're just not able to make the major transformations in their gills, their stomachs, and the rest of their body to pump out the salt and allow them to survive in a saltwater environment.

CURWOOD: What is this chemical, by the way?

RALOFF: It's called nonalphenol. It's hardly a household word, but it is in fact in every household. It's in dishwashing detergents, in plastics throughout the home. It's in industrial chemicals, it's in our drinking water. It's even in the spermicides in some popular condoms.

CURWOOD: Well, are they still spraying this stuff?

RALOFF: They are using it not in Canada. They're using it with a number of pesticides, I'm told, in the United States. And there's all sources of nonalphenols running into water supplies throughout the United States and Europe and Japan. So you'll find levels in our water and in waters in Europe that are comparable to what these fish encountered in the Canadian waters. And of course, the big question is if it does all kinds of strange things to these fish, what's it doing to us?

CURWOOD: On the subject of fish, you've recently been covering a problem with large skates in the North Atlantic. It's a fish that's called the barndoor skate, right?

RALOFF: That's right. Skates, for those of you who are land-locked or came from a land-locked area, as I did, they're basically flattened sharks with wings. And they are top of the food chain predators. In this case the barndoor skate got its name because it was huge. It used to be probably at least 6 feet long, tip to tail. Nowadays, when they find one, if they're lucky enough to find one, it's maybe 2 feet long. Instead of weighing 35 to 50 pounds, they weigh 2 pounds. Big difference.

CURWOOD: So, what's happening to them?

RALOFF: Well, this is a fish that has declined, maybe by 99% over the last, say, 35 years. And nobody even noticed. It just showed up almost by accident in some analysis of fishing data a couple years ago. Some scientists reported it last year, and everyone went, "Gee, that's right, there used to be lots of them. We don't see them any more." So if you have this huge fish that used to be out there, people caught them all the time, quite by accident actually. And they disappeared and no one noticed. The question is, what other fish out there might you be losing the same way?

CURWOOD: Janet, we've been hearing a lot about extensive ground fishing restrictions in the Gulf of Maine and off New England there, and of course off Canada. Could that reduce the by-catch of these skates?

RALOFF: It would reduce the by-catch, but it would probably not be in effect long enough to allow the fish to really recover. With the bony fish, like the cod and haddock, if you lay off fishing for them for 4 to 7 years, you can basically bring the population back. They're putting out a million eggs a year. With the skate, they're only putting out 2 to 20 eggs a year. It will take a long time for these fish to come back to replace every one that's taken out of the population. It may take 30 or 40 years, maybe even longer, to bring back skates to pre-harvesting populations.

CURWOOD: Janet Roloff is senior editor at Science News magazine. Thanks for joining us this week, Janet.

RALOFF: Nice to be here, Steve.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: A quick peek at our mailbag, now.

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CURWOOD: Andrew Fisher, who hears us on WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky, thought we demonstrated poor timing in discussing the environmental impacts of the war in Kosovo with journalist Mark Hertzgaard. Mr. Fisher writes, "To even think that the environment is an issue while ethnic cleansing and mass executions are going on is quite a stretch." But in response to NATO'S bombing of a petrochemical complex in Pacevo, a city near Belgrade, 7 chemists at Belgrade University wrote a letter that found its way to our offices. In it, they describe the potential impact of the chemicals released by the bombing, and they write, "As the spreading of dangerous and toxic vapors cannot be hindered by international borders, this strategy of NATO must be of concern not only to neighboring countries, but to the entire international community."

Our listener line is 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. And visit our Web page at www.livingonearth.org.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead: in the far wilds at the top of the world there's a problem. The once clear air of the Himalayas is now hazardous to your health. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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Smog in the Himalayas

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In barely 10 years Nepal has sprinted into the modern world, with the kind of dramatic changes that took other countries decades. Sandwiched between India and China, Nepal has embraced democracy after centuries of near-feudalism. Once isolated by the towering Himalayan mountains, it's now wired into the global village by the Internet. And from the shrouds of its Buddhist and Hindu religions, it's emerged as a major destination for tourists and mountain trekkers. But Nepal is arriving in the modern world gasping for breath. In the capitol, Kathmandu, what was clear mountain air has become almost unbreathable. In a city once imagined as the mythical paradise Shangri-La, pedestrians now cover their faces and motorcycle drivers wear gas masks. But as Alexa Dvorson reports, a few rays of hope are making it through the smog at the top of the world.

(Many voices shouting)

DVORSON: In a posh Nepali restaurant catering to foreigners, a musician entertains a tour group by calling out to the deities to drive away evil spirits.

MAN: He's a witch doctor! (Chants)

DVORSON: In a playful moment, a tourist from Ireland is offered up as a sick patient to be magically cured.

(Rattles and singing, music)

DVORSON: The healing powers worked. There's not an evil spirit in the house. But it will take more than drums, flutes, and bells to drive away the effects of this:

(Traffic, horns, ambient voices)

DIXIT: I remember coming back and falling sick immediately. Cough, sore throat. And I used to think something was wrong with me. But then I saw everyone around me was coughing as well.

DVORSON: Kunda Dixit returned to Nepal a few years ago after a 15-year absence. The change was dramatic. In the past, cows and buffalo ambling through the narrow, medieval streets caused the biggest traffic headaches. Now these streets are choked with vehicles and their unfiltered exhaust.

DIXIT: People in Nepal always coughed and spat in the streets. But then it was when, what you spitted out looked black because all the soot in your lungs, that's why it started. But you get used to it.

(More traffic, horns)

DVORSON: Nowadays in Kathmandu, people are all too used to it. But it's still a shock to the system when traffic slows to a noisy crawl. The smoke and dust choke the senses like a toxic blanket. As Kunda Dixit's sister, Rupa Joshi, explains, the air pollution is taking an emotional toll as well.

JOSHI: One day I came back home from office and our youngest daughter Pria was crying. She's 15. Her main complaint was: Why? Why did you give birth to me right now, in this age? Because according to her, every time she goes to school and every time she comes back and breathes in all this diesel air, she's aware of all the damage that it is doing. These are things that really prick your conscience, and you just wish that there was more that you could do.

DVORSON: Rupa Joshi has a fantasy of her daughter and all the schoolchildren of Kathmandu taking to the streets to block traffic for a day and protest the city's foul air. The lead content in gasoline here is reported to be among the highest in the world. And as if that weren't enough, the fuel is often adulterated with even dirtier, cheap kerosene. But even if the streets were quiet, emissions from brick and cement factories would still pour into the stinging sky.


DVORSON: Dr. Prativa Pandey, a general practitioner, treats asthma cases like this 6 days a week.

PUNDI: We certainly feel that there have been much more asthma cases. There have been chronic lung diseases of all sorts due to the increase in pollution. We have certainly seen more respiratory illnesses at our clinic here. Bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, ear infections, sinusitis. The pollution problem has gotten worse.

(Bells and voices)

DVORSON: Part of Kathmandu's charm for a visitor is the inescapable feeling of strolling through several centuries at once. Timeless rituals at finely-carved temples give way to the snow-packed facades of the world's highest shrines, the summits of the Himalaya. But nowadays, when the smog is thick, the peaks are invisible. The World Health Organization claims Kathmandu's air is 6 times more polluted than the accepted standards. And here in one of the poorest countries of the world, the people of Kathmandu now spend an estimated half million dollars a year on medication for respiratory ailments.

(Flute playing, voices, traffic)

DVORSON: In the maze of buses, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, cars, and pedestrians, a smelly 3-wheeled diesel minibus is considered the worst polluter. The so-called Vikram Tempo is a tinny blue wagon with sardine passenger space.

(Voices, motor running, bells)

WOMAN: They're pretty small and they're fitting in -- how many people? Their knees are almost touching. Ten people, huh?

(A sputtering motor)

WOMAN: There it goes.

(Sputtering motor continues)

DVORSON: Vikram Tempos are cheap to ride. But they belch so much black smoke that one frequent passenger has renamed his city The Valley of Hell. No wonder they've been banned in India, where they're made. Officially they're banned here, too, but they're still ubiquitous. It's alleged many of them are owned by the police, so they have a vested interest in keeping them on the streets. And the drivers make a decent living.

MAN: [Speaks in Nepali]

DVORSON: Vikram Tempos aren't causing all the pollution, this driver says. All the other cars are causing it, too. He's partly right. It's against the law to import any vehicle more than 5 years old, but most of them are at least 15. And because the roads are so poorly maintained, dust contributes substantially to the nasty air as well.


DVORSON: Some people blame the problem on a general lack of environmental awareness in Nepal. But at the Pano South Asia Institute, director Kunda Dixit points to a political haze at the center of Kathmandu's pollution problems. Democracy, which made its first sputtering start here in 1990, is still inching up to speed.

DIXIT: You really have to go to the root of it. We have great policies, we just need to implement them. And to implement them, you need political will. You have frequent elections, frequent changes of government. Which in itself is not bad, it's part of democracy to have frequent changes of government. But when that affects continuity is when you see things getting worse. And the root cause is that lack of political will. But there's also a lack of alternatives. So the person who's breathing in this black smoke with a handkerchief in her nose knows exactly what's wrong. But given an alternative, she'll use it.

(Voices and motors)

DVORSON: One alternative is gaining ground: a battery-operated electric minibus called a Safa Tempo. Safa means "safe" in Nepali. In contrast to the noisy, smelly Vikrams, Safas are quiet and clean. They got their start here with the help of an international development group and the Danish government. Now, about 200 Saphas ply the streets, a far cry from the thousands of Vikram Tempos. But they're winning loyal passengers willing to pay slightly more to ride them.

(A door opens, traffic in the background)

DVORSON: This battery charging station is run by one of the Safa companies, Nepal Electric Vehicle Industry, or NEVI, whose ultimate vision is to help all of Kathmandu convert to electric vehicles based on renewable hydro-electric energy, which is plentiful here. It's hard not to get charged up by the prospect, except for a few drawbacks. Safa Tempos have encountered resistance by both police and Vikram drivers. Electric vehicles are also expensive by local standards. Ashok Raj Pandey, NEVI's managing director, admits change comes slowly to Nepal. But he's optimistic.

PANDEY: More and more banks are now coming in. Finance companies are coming in to provide loans to people to buy Safa Tempos. So I think now it's going to grow. I am told that Vikram Tempos are contributing about 25% of the pollution of Kathmandu. Now, if we can get rid of something that provides 25% of the pollution, I think that's a very good start.

(More voices, motors)

DVORSON: At the metropolitan city offices, urban organization is getting off to a good start, too. For the first time in its almost 1300-year history, Kathmandu has a city planning commission. Its grand plan is to develop a mass transit system and ban cars completely from the core of the city. Nepal's central government, widely accused of incompetence and inaction, is transferring is authority over city functions to the municipal level. City planning Anil Chitrakar and his staff are working long hours to organize some of the chaos of Kathmandu.

CHITRAKAR: For many years, people like myself, you know, we were outside the system. Like musket was outside the musket tent. And so, you could make as much noise as you wanted, but you could not be very effective. Now we are like musket, inside the musketry tents. [phrase?] So, either you deliver, or you get killed. So, being an insider, you know, we can make a lot of differences that we were not able to do from the outside.

DVORSON: I must borrow your metaphor and ask whose blood are you intending to suck first?

CHITRAKAR: Well, you know, in Nepali society, there's 2 things that really hamper change. One is a mindset described as fatalism. The second, of course, is in a developing country context, you know, we don't have economic space. So, you know, economic space and the mindset: these are the 2 challenges we face.

DVORSON: Pollution-reducing measures include a crackdown on the distribution of dirty fuel, tight restrictions on vehicle emissions, and widening roads to reduce congestion, but not at the expense of the city's ancient architecture. The mindset of fatalism is tougher to tackle, but city planner Anil Chitrakar is convinced that if the city can show it's serious about fighting pollution, people's resignation will change to action. The deeper question is how this spiritually-rooted city will deal with the pace of change and growth, and whether it can avoid becoming just another sprawling Asian metropolis. Anil Chitrakar grew up in a rigid, traditional society, with no television and hardly any electricity. That's all changed.

CHITRAKAR: Now, you know, I have my own computer. My children access the Internet. They learn even their mathematics through interactive CD. So, I've had the best of both worlds. If you look at the Buddhist teachings, it is the middle path. Now the middle path for Kathmandu would be that, without compromising our identity, we can achieve the same quality of life that the world sort of, you know, propagates. Change is inevitable but, you know, it should be change that we control, you know? That we direct.

DVORSON: So that's fantastic. I mean, a medieval city, your kids can have Internet. But people can't breathe on the streets at 5 o'clock.

CHITRAKAR: So, that's what we're committing our life to here, is basically, you know, very, very difficult decisions. The solution is the people, and the people will respond only to the political system, where they have a direct say.

(Music and ambient voices)

DVORSON: Nepalis have long been known for their patience and creative endurance, but they shouldn't have to endure a kingdom of smog. If they can learn from the urban mistakes of neighboring capitols, they might reclaim the clean air they deserve. But first they need to rout out the pollution and the political system, and make good on their experiment with democracy. Or, as one young student put it, when there is real understanding, the air will be clean by itself.

(Music and singing)

DVORSON: For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson in Kathmandu, Nepal.

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Nature Writing No More

CURWOOD: Our contact with the natural world in exotic places often comes through nature writing, the kind you find in magazines with exquisite photography. Writer Dianne Dumanoski recently had her afternoon interrupted by a phone call, and the ensuing conversation got her thinking about the nature of nature writing at the end of the millennium.

DUMANOSKI: It was the editor of one of those glossy environmental magazines that are a feast for the eye. Would I do another piece for them? Perhaps some nature writing? I paused to collect my thoughts. The truth is, I'm not sure I know what nature is any more, and I have serious doubts about whether it is possible to carry on the nature writing tradition at the end of the 20th century. In the journal Science, leading ecologists delivered the news that no ecosystem on Earth is free from pervasive human influence. Can you do nature writing on a human-dominated planet?
When Rachel Carson confronted this question, she found she couldn't continue nature writing. And she wrote Silent Spring. I decided to spare the editor the big question. Instead, I pitched my notion for an essay about Snake Pond, a tiny Massachusetts kettle hole that is, in countless ways, not Thoreau's Walden. That's why I thought it seemed the perfect subject for an essay to inaugurate a new genre: post-nature writing.
As a journalist I had visited many places of spectacular beauty. The Borneo rainforest, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the incomparable coral reefs of Palau. Snake Pond is humble and unassuming by comparison. Although the snakes are still in residence, it is not a place for anyone chasing Edens. I have spent hours by the water gazing at the houses that stretch along one half of the pond's shoreline, and at the red maple, water willow, and New England asters that claim the rest. In the summer dark, the sound of trucks grinding up the grade on Route 2 competes with the whippoorwills.
Like the men and women we marry, and only later learn to love in a true and honest way, Snake Pond falls far short of the romantic ideal, the nature we celebrated in the wilderness tradition and nature writing. So does this only half-wild kettle hole inhabited by humans as well as herons qualify as nature? Since the Enlightenment, western thought has suffered from a profound schizophrenia, which divided the world into sacred nature and the profane lands of human habitation. Our philosophical tradition doesn't give us a name for places like Snake Pond. This middle ground where we share life and create the future. No, Snake Pond wasn't what the magazine editor had in mind. But I'm not dissuaded. On a planet spinning unsteadily under pervasive human influence, the middle ground is all we've got.

CURWOOD: Commentator Dianne Dumanowski is co-author of Our Stolen Future.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week we travel the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. It was once considered an engineering marvel, but some say the years have taken a toll, raising safety concerns.

MAN: It's now 21 going on 22 years old, and as it ages the risk of a spill increases.

CURWOOD: That's pipeline perils on the next Living on Earth. Our program is produced by Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Allison Dean, Chris Berdik, Paul Ahn, and Mahri Lowinger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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