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

April 6, 2001

Air Date: April 6, 2001


(stream/download) as an MP3 file


Forest Farewell

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Health Update

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Koala Bears

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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Technology Update

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Listener Letters

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Maine PVC

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Tunnel Kids

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

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Forest Farewell

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Mike Dombeck's gone fishing. At least, that's what he did the day after stepping down as Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Mr. Dombeck had led the Forest Service since 1997. Under his leadership the Forest Service focused on conservation rather than timber harvests. He moved to protect old growth forests from logging, and to halt roadbuilding in national forests. In his March twenty-seventh letter of resignation to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman , Mike Dombeck wrote, "I recognize that short-term political imperatives run rampant in Washington, D.C. Please remember that the decisions you make through your tenure will have implications that will last many generations." I asked Mr. Dombeck why he offered that advice.

DOMBECK: Our forests are among the oldest things that we have on Earth. You know, many trees live to be several hundred years old. In the case of the Giant Sequoias, they may be 3,000 years old. And I think we all understand that, you know, the political cycles in Washington and in local communities, as well, are run from one-year, two-year, four-year, six-year, or eight-year terms. And it's important that, as we view our national forests and all of our forested landscapes in particular, we just make sure that we really take the long view. Because our actions on the landscape have lasting effects. For example, the watersheds of the Appalachian Mountains of my home state of Wisconsin, the upper Midwest, that were clear-cut and burned back in the late 1800s, are really still in the process of recovery. And the actions that took place 100 years ago are still impacting the land and the people that live there.

CURWOOD: Why did you feel the need to write what really sounds like a warning to the Bush administration on Forest Service practices?

DOMBECK: You know, I want to point out that so many things are really non-controversial. And if we do anything, and a piece of advice and a dialogue that I had with Secretary Veneman and her staff was that it's important not to spend too much time in the zone of controversy, because there are a lot of areas of agreement that we can make progress on. And when we focus on those areas of agreement, we use taxpayer dollars much, much more efficiently, and we make much more progress on the land.

CURWOOD: Let's look at some of the more controversial issues you faced during your tenure at the Forest Service. The one that's receiving the most attention at the moment is the roadless initiative that was intended to go into effect last month. And it would have barred road building on about 60 million acres of federal land. But there have been a number of obstacles put in its path as a lawsuit, and the Bush administration isn't stepping up to defend it. In fact, they seem to be pushing to delay the rule's effective date. You worked hard on the roadless initiative over these last few years. How does it feel to see it in limbo like this?

DOMBECK: There are a couple of ways you can look at roadless areas. Number one, if we look at it from a biological point of view, like wilderness areas, these are the last remaining areas of biodiversity, the anchors for many rare or endangered species, the best spawning habitats for salmon. This is their last stronghold. The next place they're important is the recreation experience. Private lands are being posted with "No Trespassing" signs at an increasing rate. In many cases, certainly where I live here in Virginia, if you're not on a National Forest or state land or public land, you've basically got to belong to some sort of a club to have access to private land to do these things. So, this wild land experience is what's shrinking in the United States. And now, let's take a look at roadless from a business point of view. If you are a private landowner, and you have 386,000 miles of roads, and you have an $8.4 billion liability in maintenance, would you continue to build infrastructure? Probably not.

CURWOOD: One of the hard questions here for you is the timing in the roadless business. If this had been concluded well before the end of the Clinton administration, it wouldn't be in the jeopardy that it faces now. What happened to this process? Why was it so late?

DOMBECK: Well, I would say the process wasn't late. The fact is, what we did was we were very careful to follow the administrative rulemaking process. And 600 public meetings, information put out to the public on the Web, mailed out in CD-ROMs and environmental impact statements. In my quarter of a century as a public servant, I don't believe I've seen any issue that has been more thoroughly vetted than this one of roadless. My advice to Secretary Veneman of this administration is, let's not open up this divisive debate. Let's just let it rest and put our energy where we can do the most good in the urban wild land interface, in reducing fire risk and providing local jobs and fiber in areas that are already roaded.

CURWOOD: You're leaving, of course, before the roadless initiative is implemented. I'm wondering if you feel in any way that you're abandoning it?

DOMBECK: Not at all. You know, four years in this job, three years as head of the Bureau of Land Management. These are tough jobs. A transition is time to move on, and there's always more work to do. But I've got to tell you, we've got a 33,000 employee work force, the Forest Service that I'll put up against any work force in the country. There's a lot more to the Forest Service than the chief.

CURWOOD: That's an interesting point. No matter what direction your successor takes, what do you think the culture of the Forest Service itself will do here? What, in fact, will be the practical approach of the 33,000 employees there?

DOMBECK: The roadbuilding era of the Forest Service is over. We're moving into an era of maintenance, of restoration, and we're moving away from the era of forest development. It's time that we look at forests in their broadest sense. You know, people love forests, and people love trees. And we need to place the values of water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, preserving our cultural heritage, timber production, all of these on an equal plane. And I've got to tell you, with what I see in some of the traditional forestry community, end quote, is in spite of the dialogue, first and foremost on their mind is timber production. And that -- it's to their best interests to change.

CURWOOD: What do you worry about? What do you fear for our forests as you leave office?

DOMBECK: I'm worried that we may, as a society, lose our appreciation of what the land does for us, why open space is important. The fact that a single tree sequesters about 13 pounds of carbon each year, that a single tree produces enough oxygen for a family of four to breathe. The water filtration functions of the vegetation on the landscape. It's important for people to appreciate and connect to the land.

CURWOOD: What would you like people to remember Mike Dombeck's tenure at the Forest Service to have been?

DOMBECK: Water. If I brought about any changes in emphasis in the Forest Service, it was to elevate the understanding and the importance of watershed protection, watershed restoration, to be put on an equal par with the other resource values. We've got this tremendous source of clean water on our forested landscapes, and the more we can do to maintain that the better off we will be as a society 50 and 100 years from now.

CURWOOD: Mike Dombeck is the former Chief of the U.S. Forestry Service. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.

DOMBECK: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: The foot and mouth and mad cow disease outbreaks in Europe have prompted a reevaluation of the livestock industry there. And the discussion has broadened beyond the safety of meat products, to the whole system of raising animals for slaughter. Linda Tatelbaum has butchered animals on her homestead in Maine. Lately, she's been thinking about what it means to know where our food comes from.

TATELBAUM: A morning of killing rabbits in your own yard requires complete privacy. I never do it when we have visitors, unless I don't want them to come again. It's a ritual that takes focused preparation, a priestly affair. Lay newspaper on a table under the oak tree. Draw several buckets of water. Tie the rope to a branch. Sharpen the knives. Tune the radio to classical music. I follow the established pattern with devotion. Saturdays are the best, when my husband is home. Cal doesn't look, or, maybe just a little as he walks by on his way to the garden to dig a hole for the guts. He looks just enough to give me support, but not so much that I'll see myself in his gaze. There's a difference between being a witness and being a voyeur.

One Saturday I had just peeled the skin down to the front paws and was cutting it off. I made a slit and reached inside the cavity to grasp the warm guts, in what has to be the ultimate invasion of another being's space, when out of nowhere, like some kind of mirage, a young boy in a black suit and tie appeared at the top of the driveway, trailed by a big black American sedan with all the windows rolled up. The Jehovah's Witnesses are here again. Years ago, we told them we are Jewish, thinking the visits would end. But they want to help us go to heaven. They do their work as religiously as we do ours.

We've accepted by now that we aren't going to their heaven, and that they will keep trying to get us there no matter what we're busy doing when they pull their car up their driveway. Today, I am standing here in bloody jeans and an old Army shirt, with my hands full of another creature's guts. The boy, heading for the front door, suddenly notices me. He stops. I stop, a loop of intestine escaping from my fingers. He stares. I stare. I see me, as if through the windshield of the Witness's car, the feared and foreign Jew performing a sacrifice to smear blood on her door.

Get the boy out of here right away. They open the car door. He runs to it. They absorb him and quickly back the car down the driveway. I confess: I feel a sudden glee. In fact, I feel saved. I've come clean. If you pull up the driveway into the middle of my life, you get to see who I really am. A Jewish woman sanctifying the passage of life to death to life, through food.

After all, the role of the butcher in traditional Jewish life is an honored one. He knows the ritual of sacrifice and celebration. He knows how to kill with a blessing on his lips, with mercy in his hands. Clean and quick and holy. He'd instruct me that rabbit is not kosher. It has no hooves or cud. He would disapprove of my working on the Sabbath. But I hope he'd still say I am a worthy butcher.

(Music up and under: Klezmatics, "Violin Doyna")

CURWOOD: Commentator Linda Tatelbaum homesteads in midcoast Maine, and is author of "Writer on the Rocks: Moving the Impossible."

(Music up and under: Klezmatics, "Mizmor Shir Lehanef")

CURWOOD: Coming up: How to feed a finicky eater. The adorable and disappearing koala bear. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: A new study has shown that the kind of estrogen found in soy products might protect against Alzheimer's disease. Researchers took 45 aged female monkeys and removed their ovaries, making them good models for human menopause. The monkeys were fed one of three supplements: soy, with naturally-occurring estrogens, soy, with the estrogens removed, and Primarin, a commonly-prescribed estrogen supplement. After three years, the brains of the monkeys were examined. Researchers found that animals given the soy with estrogens had fewer protein changes associated with Alzheimer's disease. And even though Primarin is an estrogen, it didn't seem to have the same effect. The next step, researchers say, is to find out why estrogen produced by soy plants works differently than estrogen produced in the body. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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Koala Bears

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Even if you don't have kids, you've probably met a picky eater. You know, someone who eats very particular things. Nature has its picky eaters, too, and in Australia, it's part of the challenge to try to save an animal beloved worldwide for its teddy bear look. In this National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Alex Chadwick takes us to an unusual forest in Australia.


CHADWICK: Koalas. That's what we're after.


CHADWICK: Experts disagree about how many koalas remain, perhaps only 100,000. But the U.S. government now calls them a threatened species. As Australians spread out onto once wild lands, as logging companies turn trees into timber, koalas are harder to find.

(A car engine starts up)

CHADWICK: But they are here. Somewhere.

HUME: We'll head to one particular area that we should be able to leave the car and pick up four or five different koalas from that spot. If we can get there. We don't know how much water is over the rise.

CHADWICK: We're koala-ing through a boggy section of woods an hour's drive north of Sydney with a researcher named Ian Hume.

HUME: I can tell you now that we will not be crossing the creek today, because that is probably ten or twelve feet deep.

CHADWICK: The rainy season should be gone by this time in February. Instead, rain clouds still flood the way.

(Thunder; driving, conversation: "We're heading toward this...")

CHADWICK: But wet or dry, this forest feels different from others. It's clear. It's open. A sense of light in the stands of 30- and 40-foot trees. This forest was made by Ian Hume.

HUME: I started off with two main goals. One was to demonstrate that, if we do it properly, we can restore degraded koala habitat. And the second goal was to demonstrate that if we have been able to restore the koala habitat, it's possible, again, if we do it properly, to release captive-bred koalas into the wild.

CHADWICK: Only ten years ago he planted most of the trees here, 60,000 of them. That's why this forest looks different. It's a research site devoted to koalas, and their utter refusal to eat anything but eucalyptus leaves, which are about one nutritional step away from rocks.

HUME: It's a pretty poor quality food. First of all, it hasn't got a lot of protein in it, and it has some, what I call, anti-nutrients in it, as well. And these act against the good well-being of the animal.

CHADWICK: A scientist looks at a forest for things in it. How they make up complex and beautiful schemes of need and fulfillment, everything with a place. Ian is a biologist specializing in a field that I had never heard of: digestive studies.

HUME: The amount of energy, net energy, that the koala gets out of a eucalyptus leaf is pretty awful.

CHADWICK: It would be easier to help these animals if they would only cooperate a little. Learn to eat carrots or broccoli. But koalas are so much like young children, the size of a four-year-old boy or girl, and adorably cute. And in appetite, too, exactly that stubborn with food. It's eucalyptus or nothing.

HUME: That leads to the question, well, how in the world do they survive on such a rotten food?

CHADWICK: They don't use much energy.

HUME: They don't use much energy. They spend a lot of the time sitting. Okay, let's go and see if we can find these koalas.


CHADWICK: Here we are tramping around the wood, looking for a not very big, tree-dwelling creature that's also tree-colored and practically immobile. It's pretty hopeless. Except that Ian carries a homing receiver and the koalas are wearing radio collars.


HUME: You turn up the squelch , which will quiet the signal, give us much more directionality.

(Static, ticking)

HUME: So, let's go for a walk.


CHADWICK: He has to do this twice each month, find the eight or nine koalas that roam here, make sure they're healthy. He knows each one by name.

HUME: Patonga is a young female that's been in the area for two years. She bred for the first time last year. Her juvenile male Joe should also still be in this area.

CHADWICK: But even with radio collars, finding a koala is not that easy. For 20 minutes we cover and re-cover the same patch of forest floor.

(To Hume) So where is Patonga?

HUME: We're going to maximize the squelch because we're very close to her. This demonstrates the problem of, even though we know the koala is very near by, I can't see her.

CHADWICK: There she is, right up there. There, right there.

HUME: I see her, yes.


HUME: Well, we've walked under this tree a couple of times without seeing her there.

CHADWICK: She's 20 feet up, clinging to the trunk of a eucalyptus that's barely more than a sapling. We've already made enough noise to scare off a battalion of deer, but koalas are serenely indifferent to passers-by.

(To Hume) Now, Ian, just looking up, that animal is maybe 20 feet away, and through the binoculars I can see parts of her. And the -- well, her forearm and the claws that it ends in are just -- well, I sure wouldn't want to shake hands with that animal.

HUME: (Laughs) That's right. They're not vicious animals, but even when they're just holding onto you, because they're used to holding onto a tree trunk, those claws can do a lot of damage.

CHADWICK: Digestive study is not for the delicate sensibilities. Ian pays particular attention to the koala's bottom, the area of what's called the cloaca, the waste disposer for everything the koala eats or drinks. In a notebook he marks Patonga as clean and healthy.

HUME: She's now doing some grooming. Remember, we had five inches of rain last night, and her fur coat, although it looks in good condition --

CHADWICK: Kind of matted.

HUME: It's a little bit matted because of that rain. So she's doing some grooming, now, to unmat some of that fur.

CHADWICK: If anything, koalas are even fussier than I've said. Not just any eucalyptus is good enough, only the right ones. And that's what makes Ian Hume's experimental forest so remarkable.

HUME: The koalas will use these small planted trees in preference for some of the much larger, naturally occurring trees in the area. Which says to me that we've chosen the right species of trees to plant here. The right species and the right mix of species.


CHADWICK: Tracking through forest and flood for the rest of the day, we find eight more koalas. Not one of them appears the least interested in that tall man with a notebook, a digestive biologist who's busy discovering how to restore what others elsewhere are busily cutting down.

(To Hume) This land, when you got this land, it looked a lot different than it does now?

HUME: Oh, yeah. Where we're standing here, apart from the tea tree thicket in front of us, this was a clear field without anything growing on it but grass. So that was ten years ago.

CHADWICK: And look at it now; it's all kind of young forest all around us.

HUME: Yeah. It's pretty satisfying, actually, to see the transformation from grassland into what I think now is prime koala habitat, yeah.

CHADWICK: Dr. Ian Hume is a researcher at the University of Sydney. In Australia, with recording engineer Manoli Wetherell, for Radio Expeditions, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.

CURWOOD: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR News and the National Geographic Society.

(Music up and under: David Hudson, "Talkative Didgeridoo")

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting reporting on western issues; the Oak Foundation for coverage of marine issues; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: A conservative response to global warming and the Kyoto Accord. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Nightmares on Wax, "Finer.")

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Imagine diving head first from a tall tower with only a vine tied to each ankle to keep you from hitting the ground. For the men on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific, it's just part of growing up. The rite of male initiation and fertility called Naghol takes place each April and May. With the first yam harvest, men begin building bamboo towers up to 60 feet tall. Selected youngsters climb to the top and tie vines to their feet that are cut an exact length based on their height. If all goes well, the diver's head just grazes the ground at the climax of the jump. The men of Pentecost have been land-diving for more than 1,500 years. The custom goes back to the myth of Tamalie, an abusive islander who chased his wife up a tree. She agreed to come down only if Tamalie would dive off with her, but the woman tied vines to her feet, and when they jumped, Tamalie hit the ground and died. In 1987, New Zealander A.J. Hackett brought land diving into the international spotlight when he replaced the vines with elastic cords and plunged off the Eiffel Tower, giving birth to the extreme sport we now call bungee jumping.

(Falling sound)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanaaaaaaac!


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CURWOOD: Environmental ministers from the European Union are saying they will go ahead and implement the Kyoto Accord to address global warming, even without the participation of the United States. President George W. Bush recently announced that he won't support the Kyoto agreement. The president hasn't yet offered an alternate plan to deal with the issue of climate change, so we're turning to William Reilly. He's the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bush the elder, and currently chairs the World Wildlife Fund. Hello, Mr. Reilly.

REILLY: Hello, how are you?

CURWOOD: So tell us, what do you see as a viable Republican approach to climate change?

REILLY: I think a conservative Bush administration climate policy would have three features. I think, first of all, it would address the scientific uncertainties and concerns the president has raised by asking the National Academy of Sciences to vet the findings of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body that has reported that there is substantial influence of human activity on the climate. Second, the Republican administration, the Bush administration, ought to consult industry, ought to work closely with industry. And, I think we'll be reassured to find that a number of leading American companies, successful companies, project significant revenue and earnings, increases over the years ahead, even while they get 25 percent or more reductions in greenhouse gases. And DuPont is the signal company that has already achieved a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases since 1990, and is on its way to getting 65 percent, with ten percent of those from renewables. Finally, the president has repeatedly questioned the seriousness of a treaty that exempts the developing world from reduction requirements while it imposes very severe obligations on the United States. Well, I think that one could work with developing countries more successfully if we had a more credible policy here at home.

CURWOOD: What would you see as concrete goals for this plan?

REILLY: The Kyoto numbers, the seven percent reduction in greenhouse gases on the part of the United States by the year 2007 or 8, is a very large number. I think we've got to get realistic. If we can go substantially beyond the reductions anticipated, and there are something like 30 percent off what we otherwise could expect to have if economic growth continues, we've got to have some real breakthroughs. Some industries foresee those. Unfortunately, most of them don't foresee them having an impact in the next seven years before that deadline. If that's the case, let's see if we can go far beyond the seven percent reduction. If necessary, with a somewhat stretched-out timetable, but one that is more realistic, with very specific commitments from the different sectors of industry.

CURWOOD: I wonder if you think it's fair to say that President Bush has already lost a lot of credibility with the international community, maybe even with the American people, when it comes to the environment. And, in light of that, how difficult it might be for him to get any kind of climate change policy taken seriously.

REILLY: I think the president of the United States can get a climate change policy taken seriously if he is serious about it and makes that very clear. The Europeans should be careful to talk about what's responsible and what is likely to have the support of the public, and, particularly, the American public. The polls have consistently shown that the people of the United States are very strongly in favor of more action to address the problem of climate change. But those same polls show a strong resistance to paying for that, paying more for energy, for example. So, I think that the problem is more complex than that.

CURWOOD: Looking ahead, how is the Republican Party going to be able to handle this issue? You have a closely-divided Senate that could, you know, with the change of one member, go to the Democrats. The House doesn't have exactly a huge margin. And the Republican position is perceived as anti-climate change, while the majority of the public seems to have this concern.

REILLY: Well, you know, I think that the environment does better with the Republican party when there is a Republican administration, Republican in the White House. I think that's been true historically. You had a situation last summer in the election campaign where it seemed to me that the candidate who looked like he was most likely to take the problem of climate change seriously, based on his book, Al Gore, looked like he would be very unlikely to be able to succeed with the Senate, for example, or the Congress, in getting anything seriously done on climate change. We now have a president who has expressed more reservations about the issue, but were he to identify a constructive policy, engage the rest of the world on it, and take leadership within his party, within the Congress, I think we'd be much more likely to be successful. It seems to me that's where we are right now, and I hope that the administration will see things that way.

CURWOOD: William K. Reilly was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under the former President Bush, and is currently chair of the World Wildlife Fund. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

REILLY: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

(Music up and under: Kronos Quartet, "Dinner For A Group of Hungry Cannibals")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: As Maine goes, so goes the PVC. The state takes steps tso reduce the use of polyvinyl chloride. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under: His Name Is Alive, "Across Every Fjord")

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Technology Update

GRABER: When spiders weave their web, they create amazingly strong silk to snag bugs, silk that's stronger than steel. And, unlike the synthetic fiber industry, spiders don't use or produce harmful chemicals, and the finished product is recyclable. Scientists have long looked to spider silk to potentially replace synthetics in products such as medical sutures, climbing ropes, even bulletproof clothing. But they're just beginning to figure out how silk is made. They've decoded the way spiders add small amounts of acid and potassium ions to help unwind special protein molecules. This process turns the liquid into very tough fibers encased in small amounts of goo. Scientists are now attempting to duplicate this process and hope to have the first testing rig up and running in six months. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

You can hear our program anytime on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

(Music up and under: Andre Segovia, "Spanish Guitar")

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And coming up: Life in a tunnel that straddles the U.S.-Mexican border. But first...

(Music up and under)

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: Time for comments from you, our listeners.

(Music up and under; fade to a woman laughing)

CURWOOD: That's Mary Jane Newborn, who listens to WNKU in northern Kentucky.

NEWBORNE: You fooled me.

CURWOOD: And that's what many of you said after hearing Neal Rauch's April Fool's report on oil drilling in Central Park. "Fantastic! Ranks up there with Orson Welles' invaders broadcast," writes Ellen Campbell, who listens to WNMU out of Marquette, Michigan. "I wasn't really sure until you mentioned Al T. Cocker. Although, after all, some of the environmental decisions being made these days are almost as absurd."

Rich Brown, who hears us on KWMU in St. Louis, said, for him, the joke was bittersweet. "Well worth the laugh," he writes. "Then sadness hit me when I realized that the story about George Bush turning his back on the Kyoto global warming treaty was not a hoax. I wonder, will Dubya come to his senses and say "Gotcha!" -- or will we be fixing the environmental damage of his administration for decades after he's gone?"

And Watertown, Massachusetts resident and WBUR Boston listener Mary Carey heard our interview with the national security advisor for the chancellor of Germany, who criticized the White House decision to drop out of the Kyoto accord to fight climate change. "Perhaps President Bush has done us a favor," writes Ms. Carey. "The uproar of the international community forces the media to report it and Americans to discuss it. Had Bush just quietly not taken a stand, would we be discussing it?" We'd like you to take a stand on our program, and we welcome your comments. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

(Music up and under)

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Maine PVC

CURWOOD: It was the culprit in a recent PBS investigative report by Bill Moyers. Now polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is the target of a new campaign in the state of Maine. The 39-member Maine Hospital Association has agreed to phase out PVC use, and state lawmakers are now considering a bill to educate consumers about the dangers of burning PVC, to reduce its toxic byproduct dioxin. From Maine Public Radio, Susan Chisholm reports.

CHISHOLM: In a profession whose creed is "First, do no harm," medicine has a long way to go when it comes to protecting the environment. Thermometers, defibrillators, blood pressure devices, batteries, and vaccines contain the heavy metal mercury, which, when incinerated, can contaminate lakes and rivers in minute amounts, prompting fish consumption advisories because of its potential damage to the central nervous system. So, imagine the delight of many environmentalists when Scott Bullock of the Maine Hospital Association announced last month that all 39 of his member hospitals would phase out the use of products containing mercury and polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.

BULLOCK: Hospitals exist today to build healthier communities. We view eliminating mercury and other hazardous materials from our hospitals as a logical extension of this mission.

CHISHOLM: Other hospitals around the United States have taken similar steps to reduce mercury, but this is one of the first such commitments around PVC. Hospitals rely on PVC for about 25 percent of their medical products, including IV bags, catheters, and tubing. The Vinyl Institute calls PVC "one of the most successful modern synthetic materials that makes excellent use of scarce resources." Bill Walsh of the Healthy Buildings Network calls it something else.

WALSH: PVC is the worst plastic for the environment by a long shot. No other plastic contains substantial amounts of chlorine. Once chlorine is in the plastic, it triggers a whole set of consequences, the first of which is when this plastic burns it becomes what we estimate is the largest material source of dioxin into the global environment.

CHISHOLM: A known carcinogen, dioxin is also a suspected cause of infertility, hormone disruption, and developmental disabilities in children. In Maine, the Department of Environmental Protection estimates that waste burning is responsible for about half of the dioxin released in the state. The sources include some 8,500 backyard burn barrels, solid waste, and medical waste incinerators. When the PVC wastes are burned, dioxin is released into the environment. It then works its way up the food chain and is eventually stored in body fat. Mike Belliveau is the director of toxics and pollution prevention for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

BELLIVEAU: There have been studies done in New York state and elsewhere that show that the higher the PVC content of the waste that's burned in backyard burn barrels, the higher the dioxin emissions.

CHISHOLM: But that's where the science parts company quickly. Doctor William Carroll works for Occidental Chemical Corporation and represents the Vinyl Institute. He says open burning, in general, is a bad disposal method, since just about anything burned in such a fashion will create dioxin. The trick, he says, is good combustion, like the type found in modern waste incinerators. In addition, Carroll points to a study by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers that found little correlation between the presence of PVC and the emission of dioxin from incinerators.

CARROLL: What was found was that in about ten percent of the cases, I mean, if you had more chlorine in the feed you would get more dioxin. In about ten percent of the cases, if you had more chlorine in the feed you would get less dioxin. And in about 80 percent of the cases there was no effect on the amount of dioxin coming out of the incinerator with the amount of chlorine going in.

CHISHOLM: Critics, including Dr. Joseph Thornton, author of "Pandora's Poison: Chlorine and Health in a New Environmental Strategy," say the ASME study is scientifically flawed and was originated and funded primarily by the Vinyl Institute. Thornton, along with the Natural Resources Council of Maine and other environmental groups, support a bill that would encourage landfilling of PVC waste in Maine rather than burning it. This comes at a crucial time, says Bill Walsh of the Healthy Buildings Network, since vinyl is rapidly displacing many older building materials whose projected lifespan is coming to an end. The measure also calls for a consumer education campaign about the dangers of burning vinyl, encourages Maine's state government to purchase PVC-free products, and to study ways to separate and dispose of vinyl over the long term. But Steve Rosario of the American Plastics Council says it would be economically unwise for Maine to try to regulate PVC out of use.

ROSARIO: There is a plastics industry based here in Maine, and there are about 60 companies that actually make plastic products. We have one or two that make PVC products. They employ over 6,000 people. And when you look at the businesses, they've had sales of about 700 million, which is a growth from 1996 of 500 million.

CHISHOLM: If the Maine legislature passes the PVC legislation, it will join cities like Berkeley and Oakland, California, and Toronto, Canada, where use of PVC is being discouraged or prohibited from incineration. A legislative committee is expected to take up the bill later this month. For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Chisholm in Augusta, Maine.

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Tunnel Kids

CURWOOD: Each day about 15,000 people try to cross the border between the United States and Mexico illegally. Many are led by smugglers under cover of night, some on foot, others hidden in vehicles. If they're lucky, they can elude the border guards. But there is another way to cross the border: under it. A maze of tunnels connect the two countries at Nogales and a band of about 20 children have made this labyrinth their home and their livelihood. The story of these children is told in the book "Tunnel Kids" by Lawrence Taylor and Maeve Hickey. The writer/photographer team spent two summers documenting the life of these children under the border. They join us from the BBC studios in Dublin, Ireland. Welcome to Living on Earth.

TAYLOR: Thanks very much. We're glad to be here.

HICKEY: Thank you for having us.

CURWOOD: Lawrence Taylor, tell me, what are these tunnels used for? Where do they go?

TAYLOR: Well, there are two big parallel drainage tunnels that go perpendicular under the border from Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, to Nogales, Arizona. And they were built decades ago to drain water during the summer monsoon floods from the Mexican side out to the Arizona side and into a concrete wash, in a way. And in the 1990s. they became, as pressure was applied elsewhere, a place for illegal immigration and drug running.

CURWOOD: And by the way, fill in for us, what's the scene like above-ground on either side of that border there at Nogales?

HICKEY: Well, the two Nogaleses, referred to as Ambos Nogales , they'd be very different in appearance because Nogales , Arizona, is much smaller in size and in population and considerably smaller, and the Sonoran side is just crammed with people and places. So, things are quieter on the U.S. side and just, let's say, cooking on the Mexican side.

TAYLOR: It's probably best summed up by one man we met in the street, Who said of Nogales, Sonora, "No es un rancho es un coral." It's not a ranch, it's a corral. (Laughs) It's a chaotic place.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you, in the middle of all this chaos, this border chaos, you both write about this band of children who not only live in, but also make a living off of, these tunnels that connect Mexico and the United States. What are their lives like?

TAYLOR: Their lives are complicated and interesting in a lot of ways. And the story of their lives is, in a way, the story of a group of kids with very fragmented lives, street kids, really, either orphaned or with partial families or no families, who try as best they can to put a life, a family, a home together, that's always in a way destined to fall apart.

CURWOOD: Maeve Hickey, you have a photographer's eye. And I'm wondering if you could just describe for us your first encounter with the tunnel?

HICKEY: Ah, that was a day, that was a day to remember. There are several entrances and we used an entrance which is near the old bullring in Nogales, Sonora, very close to the center of the city. And you just kind of hop down an embankment from the road, and you enter through an underpass, and there you are at the entrance, one of the entrances to the tunnel. It becomes dark very, very quickly. You're walking on sand, and the smell is terrible, it's overpowering. Because the tunnels are very, very contaminated. They're contaminated with everything: effluents, chemicals, and so on from the factories on the border, the illegal dumping that goes on and so on, human waste, everything. And also, there would be people in the tunnel. There'd be drugs and guns and knives and all kinds of things. And illegals are led through the tunnels by coyotes or poyeros . So, I was very afraid, but it was fascinating at the same time, I have to say. And I was trying to photograph as much as I could in the dark.

CURWOOD: What do you think the tunnel was to those kids?

TAYLOR: As we came out, one of them turned to me and said, I think, "You see," he said, "the other kids from the colonials, they have their places, their gangs that defend them. We have no place, we have nothing. For us there is here, the tunnel." Because they delighted in the fact that they could move at will from one country to another as nobody else could, which they were quite good at doing, I must say. They would have - I would be with them in the morning in Sonora, and one of them would tell me he had to go meet somebody in Tucson in the afternoon. And he would go as if he were going down the block, through the tunnel, up onto the Arizona side, evading all the border guards, jump on a freight train, and jump off in Tucson.

CURWOOD: Who owns these tunnels? The United States? Mexico?

TAYLOR: (Laughs) It could be an interestingly disputed element. I mean, both countries do, insofar as they are under the territory of one or the other. But apparently, some months ago, there was an actual armed confrontation that didn't turn ugly, but could have, between police forces on both sides who met each other trying to establish just where the line in the middle of the tunnel was. And when journalists started photographing kids and others coming up out of the big exit of the tunnel, the public demanded that the border patrol be there and stop it. So the border patrol started sitting right at the tunnel exit. And what happened is, the kids and everybody else just started going out all the side manholes. So, there's a constant kind of chess game going on in the border.

HICKEY: Cat and mouse, really.


CURWOOD: These kids knew the secrets of the tunnels. They knew how to get over to the United States and get back without getting caught or caught too often.

HICKEY: That's right.

CURWOOD: Yet, they keep coming back to Mexico.

TAYLOR: Yeah, I think that's a very striking fact.


CURWOOD: What do you think kept them coming back?

HICKEY: Well, I realized, and I also spoke with them about this, that those kids were proudly, proudly Mexican. And they had no interest at all in being in the United States for any period of time, any long period of time, because they just loved Mexico.

TAYLOR: Yeah, and when I was talking to the kids once, when we were actually in the tunnel, about their practice of robbing immigrants, which they would do periodically -- they would both guide them and sometimes rob them -- I asked them, didn't it bother them to rob people who were essentially like their own families? And they vociferously protested -- I didn't believe them, but they vociferously protested that they wouldn't rob Mexicans. That these people were all Central American, so that was all right, and showed me, by way of proof, a Guatemalan bill. All of which is to show that they had, at the same time they were doing this, a sense of whether it was right or wrong, to question it.

CURWOOD: There is a scene in the book where, Lawrence Taylor, you're watching the kids in the mouth of the tunnel just being kids. Could you read that to us, please?

TAYLOR: Sure. (Reads) Leaning over the guard rail, I looked down into the opening. Chocolate waters about a foot and a half deep were rushing through the rectangular opening, just big enough for a car to drive through. I saw a sneaker flash in the gloom, then the pale, smiling face of Chito of the flood. The others were there, too: El Boston, La Fanta, Jesus Becas, El Negro, La Negra, Umberto, Hilberto, and two little boys of about eleven and eight whom I did not yet know. They came grinning into the daylight, flashing Barrio Libre gang signs and Pushing a soccer ball through the churning rapids. They formed a circle in the open tunnel and began to knee, head, and throw the ball around, laughing and falling in the water. They were like any group of exuberant teenagers enjoying a summer rain.

CURWOOD: The scene seems in such stark contrast to what these kids usually do in these tunnels -- that is, holding up people or maybe leading through illegals. (Taylor laughs) Maeve Hickey, how did you reconcile these two faces of the kids?

HICKEY: Oh, well, easily, in this respect: They are children, they are kids, young adolescents and some are younger than that. But they have to work for a living, if you will, and so there is a very harsh reality to their lives. And so that's why it was, in many respects, very easy to work with them, to be with them for so long, and also so difficult. So we laughed a lot with them because they were kids, and we cried a lot over them because they were kids.

CURWOOD: Maeve Hickey is an artist and photographer in Dublin and Lawrence Taylor is a professor and head of the Department of Anthropology, the National University of Ireland. Their book is called "Tunnel Kids." Thank you both for being here.

HICKEY: Thank you very much for having us.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

(Music up and under: Acoustic Alchemy, "Spanish Guitar")

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: In 1965, Michael Loftey bought a couple of tiny pet turtles at a department store in Maine. Minnie died in a couple of weeks, but 36 years later Moe is still kicking.

LOFTEY: He's been kind of a ninth wonder of the world. I mean, nobody ever expected Moe, most people go, "Do you still have that turtle?" I don't know, he's just happy.

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CURWOOD: (Laughs) The story of Moe, the amazing turtle, next week on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Jonnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Mylisa Muniz. We had help this week from Stephen Belter. Our interns are Merav Bushlin, Dawn Robinson, and Evie Stone. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. 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 National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Town Creek Foundation; and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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