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

March 15, 2002

Air Date: March 15, 2002


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Living on Earth Science Editor Diane Toomey speaks with host Steve Curwood about dioxin found downstream from the Dow Chemical Company in Saginaw, Michigan. Some environmentalists there argue that the state may have tried to cover up the discovery of the contamination. Part one of a two-part series. (05:40)

Drugs in Drinking Water / Ilsa Setziol

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The drugs we take for diabetes, depression and birth control are ending up in the nation's waterways. The amounts are small, but no one can say they're safe. Ilsa Setziol, of member station KPCC reports aquatic animals may be the most at risk. (07:00)

Almanac: Supersonic Bear

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This week, we have facts about the first supersonic bear. Forty years ago, a bear named Yogi was launched from a supersonic plane to test the effects of high-speed stress. (01:30)

Free Trade / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

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Environmental groups are teaming up with US industry to call for tough protections against the dumping of foreign products. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on domestic trade issues that could impact the Bush administration's broader trade agenda. (04:40)

Lord Browne

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BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, has made some large changes in the way it handles business and the environment. Host Steve Curwood talks with BP's chief executive Lord John Browne about a future beyond petroleum. (08:00)

Recycled Runway / Cynthia Graber

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Rhode Island designers and artists create hot new fashions from old clothes and recycled materials. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports. (03:00)

Animal Note: Multi-purpose lungs

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Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports on how their lungs help some reptiles and amphibians hear. (01:00)

Listener Letters

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This week, we dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. (02:30)

World Wrap

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Host Steve Curwood talks to Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard about environmental stories in Nigeria, India and Denmark. (05:00)

Salt: A World History / Bruce Barcott

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In the tradition of the mundane, Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, has now revealed empires, philosophies and traditions revolving around the common table salt. Bruce Barcott reviews Kurlansky's latest book Salt: A World History. (03:00)

Snow Plow Guy / Robin White

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We sleep while they work. Without them, economic activity would freeze. Who are the night snow plow drivers? Robin White rides with one plowman who's written an ode that he reads over the CB radio, by request, to other drivers as they work. (05:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Diane Toomey, Ilsa Setziol, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Bruce Barcott, Robin White
GUESTS: Lord John Browne, Mark Hertsgaard
UPDATES: Maggie Villiger


CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Saginaw, Michigan may be the site of a major dioxin spill linked to Dow Chemical Corporation. Some of the toxin is showing up on playgrounds and the highest concentrations have been found in corn and soybean fields.

EASTHOPE: The levels were as high as 7,200 parts per trillion, 80 times above what's considered safe. So astronomically high dioxin levels.

CURWOOD: Critics say the state of Michigan has been slow to respond. Also, Orange County moves to get rid of pharmaceuticals in its drinking water and we meet a snowplowing poet.

BUCKBEE: The snow piles high/But that's all right/Because I'll just hit it with all my might/And shove it over to the right.

CURWOOD: Ten-four, good buddy. We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.


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CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Back in 1995, the state of Michigan began testing for dioxin in the area around Dow Chemical's headquarters in Midland. Dioxins make up a group of more than 200 chemicals that have been linked to such health problems as cancer, birth defects, disruption of hormone and immune systems. The state did find elevated levels of dioxin on company grounds, as well as in nearby playgrounds and parks and a federal study was made of possible health effects, but little has been done to clean up the contamination. A few months ago, advocates led by the Michigan Environmental Council used the Freedom of Information Act to try to get some data. And so far, what they've found is sparking a lot of controversy. Living on Earth's science editor Diane Toomey has been to Michigan and she joins me now. Diane, the advocates are using the word "cover-up" to describe what's going on. Why is that?

TOOMEY: The groups were looking for information on the city of Midland's contamination. But in the pile of papers they received back, there were references to extremely high dioxin levels in the Saginaw area 20 miles downstream from Dow headquarters. The problem was most of the information had been blacked out by the state, so they didn't really know what they were dealing with at that point. But then they got a tip. Tracy Easthope is with the Ecology Center, one of the groups that requested the documents.

EASTHOPE: A whistle blower faxed us anonymously a note, and it gave us the map with the sites indicated, and next to that, the levels. And the levels were as high as 7,200 parts per trillion. And to just give you an idea of that, the residential clean-up standard in Michigan is 90. So this was 80 times above what's considered safe, or an action level, in residences in Michigan.

TOOMEY: That 7,200 parts per trillion she refers to was a reading found in a farm field. This area does contain farmland. It also has a wildlife refuge that tested out at over 700 parts per trillion, and a golf course that tested at about 2,500 parts per trillion. By the way, once they had this whistle blower information, they then did a Freedom of Information Act request to the local Department of Environmental Quality office and they did get the uncensored documents at that point.

CURWOOD: Well, Diane, tell me, how would dioxin contamination end up 20 miles from the Dow plant in the first place?

TOOMEY: The Dow plant sits on the Tittabawassee River. In 1986, it rained for more than three weeks. And as a result, the Dow plant lost containment of its wastewater facility. And then the Tittabawassee River overflowed and it carried this material downstream, into the Saginaw flood plain. This is a plant, keep in mind, that in over its hundred years of operation has made everything from mustard gas to saran wrap to Agent Orange, napalm, various pesticides. I should also point out here that Dow disputes that it's the source of this dioxin contamination, though the company seems to be the lone voice that's saying that.

CURWOOD: Now, what happened after the state confirmed these hot spots? What did they do about them?

TOOMEY: Well, e-mails that were included in that Freedom of Information Act package reveal that there's a split in the Department of Environmental Quality. These e-mails show that staff was anxious to move ahead with widespread testing, but not so at the top of the Department. In November there's an e-mail from Andrew Hogarth; he's the head of the department's Environmental Response Division. And it says, quote, "Harding" - that's Russ Harding, the Director of the Department of Environmental Quality - "Harding apparently does not want us to proceed. I'm trying to influence that attitude," unquote. Recently the Department of Environmental Quality began to say that it couldn't do further testing because it wanted to wait to see what that federal health assessment recommended. But that report, that final report, was released a few weeks ago - this is the one everybody's been waiting on - and it says the state needs to get busy and do more testing, which is precisely what the Department of Environmental Quality staffers were lobbying for months ago.

CURWOOD: Now what, if anything, have the residents in Saginaw and these areas been told about this contamination?

TOOMEY: This is another contentious issue. Eleven households near the wildlife refuge that tested high for dioxin were notified last month, but so far that's it. We can see in these e-mails that there's a split in the department over this issue. Again, Andrew Hogarth writes in an e-mail, quote, "I'm uncomfortable with the length of time we have had the data without releasing it to them," unquote, meaning them being the property owners in the area. It's my understanding now that a complete notification of residents in the flood plain is in the works. I asked a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Quality - his name is Ken Silfven - to respond to criticism that his agency had been unresponsive to the public on this issue.

SILFVEN: We hear virtually nothing from the general public. It really is a handful of people. Lansing-based environmental groups, Ann Arbor-based groups. But in terms of what we hear, you know, from the community, we're really not hearing anything.

TOOMEY: Environmental groups, though, would say that's because most people don't even know about this yet.

CURWOOD: So Diane, tell me, what happens next?

TOOMEY: The Department of Environmental Quality says that additional testing for dioxin will begin in May, at the very latest. Environmental groups say they'll be watching, especially since they say they perceive that the Department of Environmental Quality is not tough enough on polluters. The agency counters by saying that accusation is not only untrue, but it's unfair. In the meantime, there's a fight brewing in the state over how much dioxin is too much. I'll have more on that next week.

CURWOOD: Thank you, Living on Earth's Diane Toomey.

[MUSIC: Medeski, Martin & Wood, "Felic," THE DROPPER (Blue Note/Capitol - 2000)]

Related link:
here for Part 2 of the Dioxin story on the following week's show (Story #1 on "Dioxin Debate").">

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Drugs in Drinking Water

CURWOOD: If your municipal water supply comes from nearby river, chances are that every sip you take includes a very dilute cocktail of drugs, made up of everything from heart medicines to birth control pills. Four out of five streams recently sampled by the U.S. Geological Survey contained trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and other manmade chemicals. The study highlights a dichotomy of today's science. New technology can detect just a few molecules of a chemical in a sample, but their impact on public health is unclear. Still, some municipalities aren't taking any chances when it comes to using water directly recycled from sewage. Ilsa Setziol of member station KPCC has our report:

SETZIOL: The Geological Survey found more than 80 different drugs and household chemicals in streams and rivers across the nation. Most of the streams they studied were polluted by multiple chemicals.

BUXTON: We found acetaminophen. It's a drug that we often take to reduce fevers.

SETZIOL: Herb Buxton is co-author of the study.

BUXTON: We found it in about a quarter of the streams that we sampled. Another compound that we found quite frequently was a common insect repellant. Caffeine was found in about 70 percent of the samples. Some of the other compounds we found were ibuprofen. We also found things like cardiac-related medicines, antacids - very common drugs used in our day-to-day lives.

SETZIOL: How do drugs get into sewers? Just the way you might think. They survive digestion and coast right into the toilet. Some of these compounds do break down in sewage treatment, even though it wasn't designed to handle them, but many don't. Feces from farm animals can contain drugs like antibiotics and can wash into waterways. Scientists are only beginning to understand which of these compounds might end up in the environment. Christian Daughton is a scientist with the U.S. EPA's National Exposure Lab in Las Vegas. He says the new study is a good start, but we still have very little data on the thousands of drugs and household chemicals that could wind up in our waterways.

DAUGHTON: Most of the drugs that we know occur in the environment, there's really not much known about their potential toxicological effects. And for those that we do have some idea as to what effects could occur, we really don't know whether they occur in the environment.

SETZIOL: Daughton says because the amounts of individual compounds they're finding are small, scientists don't think they pose a human health problem. But they need to know a lot more before they're sure.

DAUGHTON: So it's impossible to say that there isn't a concern with respect to human exposure, especially if there were exposure to many different drugs simultaneously, and one were drinking a lot of water, or if the exposure were during a critical developmental period, for example, for a fetus or infant.

SETZIOL: The chemical concentrations that have been found in drinking water are even smaller than those in streams. In short, Daughton says, his concern is not so much for humans.

DAUGHTON: The major exposure potential is to aquatic organisms. It's lower for humans, simply because humans are exposed to water less than aquatic organisms are. And aquatic organisms, it's hard for them to avoid exposure because they exist in water their entire lives, through multi-generations.

SETZIOL: Also, most chemicals that are designed for human use haven't been studied in aquatic animals.


SETZIOL: But there's one kind that has. At the University of California, Riverside, Daniel Schlenk is researching estrogens in wastewater. The lab looks like a typical science classroom. It's filled with familiar instruments like beakers and Ph meters. But Schlenk is using brand new techniques that allow him to analyze tiny concentrations of chemicals. He peers into one of several small aquaria filled with tiny silver and gold Japanese fish called medaka.

SCHLENK: We use the fish to sort of tell us what types of compounds that act like estrogens are in the water.

SETZIOL: Schlenk says even after it's processed by the sewage treatment plants, wastewater contains estrogens - estrogen produced naturally by women's bodies and estrogen from birth control pills. There are also compounds that act like estrogen when they break down in the environment.

SCHLENK: In the United Kingdom, studies have indicated that there have been reproductive alterations, primarily feminization of specific fish populations, primarily caused by estrogens in wastewater. They went out and placed cages with animals in those particular receiving streams and found that the male fish or juvenile fish that they put in there behaved more like females.

SETZIOL: In tests he and colleagues have conducted in the U.S., male fish exposed to wastewater flowing into the Hudson and a small stream in Mississippi began to produce egg yolk proteins that are normally only found in female fish. Water districts around the country are starting to pay attention to this research, especially in communities that reuse wastewater. Perhaps nowhere is the interest as strong as in Orange County, California.


SETZIOL: Where they're planning the largest wastewater-to-drinking water project in the country. At the water district plant, General Manager Bill Mills stands amidst a maze of large pipes and tanks.

MILLS: We're designing this system over here, which is the Cadillac of all treatment systems.

SETZIOL: Mills says pharmaceuticals will be removed in the second of a four-step process, reverse osmosis. He points to a cluster of 30-foot long pipes.

MILLS: Each of these units, or elements, as we call them, consists of a flat sheet of a membrane that is rolled around a center tube. Water is introduced at one end under a pressure around a hundred pounds per square inch, and is forced through the surface of the membrane.

SETZIOL: The pharmaceuticals are left behind because they're too big to fit through the filter's tiny pores. This system is similar to reverse osmosis units that many southern Californians have installed under their sinks. Then the water passes under ultraviolet light and is treated with hydrogen peroxide. Finally, it percolates into ground water basins. Several scientists agree that this process should produce drinking water that's very safe. But the EPA's Christian Daughton says reverse osmosis generates its own salty, polluted waste.

DAUGHTON: You have to keep in mind that the brine has to be discharged somewhere. And it might be further treated, but eventually that ends up being discharged to the surface water environment.

SETZIOL: And that's another reason why Daughton says people should act on this emerging issue. Physicians should be careful not to over-prescribe medications, and the public shouldn't flush unused drugs down the toilet. For Living on Earth, I'm Ilsa Setziol in Los Angeles.

CURWOOD: Coming up, a major oil company hits emission reduction targets for the Kyoto Protocol eight years ahead of schedule. You're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Tin hat Trio, "Quick Marble Tremble," MEMORY IS AN ELEPHANT (Angel - 1999)]

Related link:
EPA information site">

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Almanac: Supersonic Bear

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: John Williams, "Lost in Space," TELEVISION'S GREATEST HITS (TVT - 1986)]

CURWOOD: On March 21, 1962, it wasn't raining cats and dogs, but a bear did fall from the sky. Thirty-five thousand feet above Edwards Air Force Base, a California bear named Yogi became the first living animal ejected from an aircraft flying at supersonic speeds. When Yogi was launched into aviation history, the B-58 bomber was traveling at 870 miles per hour, faster than the speed of sound. Seven minutes and 49 seconds later, the bear parachuted to the ground without a scratch. The Air Force was testing a new escape capsule designed to protect crewmembers who have to bail out of airplanes at high speeds. The researchers picked the bear for the test because a bear weights about as much as a human. At high altitudes and speeds, wind and extreme tumbling could make ejection dangerous. So scientists strapped Yogi into a pressurized capsule with oxygen and shock absorbers to cushion the landing. For the record, Yogi wasn't the only bear to break the sound barrier. About two weeks after his historic jump, Yogi was one-upped by a 125-pound bruin named Big John. The plane carrying Big John was flying at an altitude of 45,000 feet at more than 1,000 miles per hour when Big John punched out. Ten minutes later, he too landed safely. Both bears were sedated for their supersonic trips and snoozed through their 15 minutes of fame. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.


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Free Trade

CURWOOD: The renewal of a timber agreement has sparked a trade dispute between the U.S. and Canada. The Bush administration accuses Canada of subsidizing its timber production, leading to cheap prices and unfair dumping in U.S. markets. It's responded by placing tariffs on Canadian products, a move that Canada says violates the North American Free Trade Agreement. This dispute is part of a broader debate over trade and globalization, in which environmental groups and U.S. industry are finding common interest. Living On Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Subsidies, countervailing duty claims, anti-dumping laws. It might sound like arcane trade-speak, but environmental groups say the Canada-U.S. timber dispute can have very tangible consequences. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz is a Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: It has an impact on trans-boundary endangered species, it has an impact on migratory birds, on Pacific salmon, on things like the grizzly bear or the marbled murrelet. And it also has an impact on some of the last great stands of old growth forests in the world.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Casey-Lefkowitz says federal subsidies allow Canadian loggers to go into pristine forests, places she says they couldn't afford to harvest without help from the government. She wants Canada to phase out its subsidies. So does John Ragosta. Ragosta represents the U.S. timber industry's Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports. He says Canada's subsidies cost U.S. timber companies more than a billion dollars each year. And Ragosta says the subsidies mean Canadian mills can afford to waste more wood, so they're less efficient than their American counterparts. This undervaluing of the resources, says Regosta, is where environmental groups and the timber industry unite.

RAGOSTA: Now, what that means to us is that we're more efficient, but we can't compete because the Canadian government gives away timber. What it means to the environmental community is the Canadian industry is cutting more trees to get the same amount of lumber, and they're over-consuming because it's at too low a price.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The timber dispute is just one trade issue that's driving environmental groups to align themselves with their traditional foes in U.S. industry.

ZOELLICK: We believe the actions that the president is taking today can help restore the strength and profitability of this very important American industry.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: When U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick recently announced a 30 percent tariff on imported steel, he had the support of several environmental groups. The groups say tariffs will mean cleaner air, because steel makers face stricter environmental laws in the U.S. than they do in many countries abroad. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of NRDC.

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: When a country does not enforce its environmental laws this is another kind of subsidy. It's as much an economic subsidy as any direct financial contribution to a company, because you're essentially giving it relief from costs that it would otherwise incur in complying with the law.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The president's decision on steel comes at a crossroad for his broader trade agenda. The White House wants greater negotiating authority when it comes to international trade deals. So-called Fast Track authority passed last fall in the House. But it still must face the Senate. And though the Senate's traditionally been the friendlier chamber when it comes to free trade issues, a number of lawmakers say they want to see how well the president enforces U.S. trade laws before they give him the reigns. Senator Arlen Specter from the steel state of Pennsylvania says the president's decision on tariffs may have won his vote for fast track.

SPECTER: I think this move by the president to enforce America's steel laws gives me a lot more confidence that if Fast Track is enacted and you have President Bush there, he's going to observe the laws.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Other senators want one more signal that the White House means business.

BAUCUS: The administration's decision on soft wood lumber is very important to me, to getting enough votes in the Congress to pass fast track.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, is a champion of free trade. But he says if the administration caves in on the soft wood timber dispute with Canada, the public and lawmakers could turn against giving the president greater authority on trade deals.

BAUCUS: The more the president can stand up and say, "Hey, that's not right. We're not going to let you Canadians send us subsidized and dumped lumber into the United States," the more Americans will realize, "Hey, maybe I can be a little more comfortable about giving the president some authority to conduct trade agreements."

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The U.S. is expected to finalize duties against Canadian timber by March 21st. Fast Track will come to the Senate floor later this spring. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington.

[MUSIC: Bela Fleck, "Black Forest"]

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Lord Browne

CURWOOD: Five years ago the British oil company BP announced that it would make a 10 percent cut in its greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2010. That's more than nine million tons of carbon dioxide. Just a few days ago, BP's CEO, Lord John Browne announced that his company has met its goal eight years ahead of schedule. He says that despite recent acquisition of oil giants Amoco and Arco, BP was still able to cut emissions from its operations at no net cost to the company.

BROWNE: We did it as I think we suggested. We reduced our carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent by attending to the efficiency with which we deal with our operations. And we took 30 percent of our reductions out by making sure we didn't let methane escape into the atmosphere. And that we did by very careful attending to the way we operate all over the world.

CURWOOD: Now, you've successfully reduced emissions from your operations. I'm wondering, how can you reduce emissions from the use of your product, which contains carbon?

BROWNE: Well, I think you have to do several things. First, you need to make the right set of products itself. And BP has been increasing the amount of natural gas it produces compared with crude oil over the last few years, and that increase will continue. Natural gas has much less carbon in it than crude oil does, and so if natural gas displaces things like coal, we'll improve the overall carbon intensity of the world. Secondly, we produce fuels for automobiles which allow auto manufacturers to produce more efficient engines. And that in turn helps people to reduce the carbon emissions from using our product.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit about your own internal emissions trading program there at BP. How does that work, and what impact does it have that the U.S. has pulled out of the Kyoto process?

BROWNE: Well, they're two separate things. The internal trading mechanisms were put in place in order for us to learn. To learn about where was the most effective place to invest to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. And by trading permits around a camp, this allowed each one of the carbon dioxide sources to be valued - to put a value on them and clearly gave us a rank order of things to do. It's very much an internal system, but we've learned a lot about how one would run such a system. The other issue is the United States doesn't agree with the Kyoto Treaty and that's very much the right of the United States. It seems to us the Kyoto Treaty is about the only thing that the world has at the moment, but I do believe it's a step on the road only for what inevitably complex set of negotiations to bring together international agreement on greenhouse gases and global warming. After all, a simpler problem of world trade took some 50 years from origination to the formation of the WTO. This, I think, is no less complicated.

CURWOOD: Let's talk for a moment about your plans in Alaska. In the U.S., the House of Representatives has already approved drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If ANWR drilling were to pass in the Senate, how viable a business interest would it be for BP to drill for oil in Alaska?

BROWNE: Well, I think we'd have to look at it at the time ANWR were opened. If it were opened, BP would have to look at the environmental risks that exist at that time, the cultural and social risks, for there are some, and the economic risks. And we'd have to look at that and compare all those and their likely outcome against other things we can do all over the world, before we decided to go into the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. I would say that it's probably viable to drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge because it's been viable to drill for oil on the rest of the North Slope of Alaska. But we would have to assess the situation in the light of all the factors if ANWR were opened.

CURWOOD: There's a lot of natural gas which can come out of that area of Alaska. Which would be a higher priority, finding a way to get that gas out or drill for oil?

BROWNE: Well, I think it's a bit of a theoretical choice at the moment, because ANWR is not open. But clearly, the natural gas already exists in Prudhoe Bay Field, which is developed and in adjacent accumulations very close to Prudhoe Bay. There's a lot of gas there. But it presently is economic to develop this gas and send it to market. It's simply too expensive. That doesn't mean to say it will always be uneconomic. We have to do some more engineering and we have to think through how fast this gas can be fed into a market which is likely to need it in ten years' time or so. But right now it's uneconomic.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what are your goals in terms of renewable energy?

BROWNE: Renewable energy, we are very focused in one particular area, which is photovoltaics. We've been in the business for a long time, and it's growing at about 30 percent per annum, but from a very small base. And this is now becoming a business which eventually will grow to a reasonable size. It will, of course, not compete in size to oil and gas, neither will it, I believe, globally do that when you consider alternative energies against the whole of hydrocarbons. But it's an important strand in a tapestry of choices people have for how to get energy.

CURWOOD: In regard to solar energy, how much profit are you seeing from that sector so far for your company?

BROWNE: Right now we're seeing no net profit from the sector. All the money we make is plowed back into research and development. So it actually is running at a slightly small loss.

CURWOOD: Who of your competitors is moving in the same direction as BP?

BROWNE: I never talk about our competitors. What I would say is this, is that the industry, compared with five years ago, when we took a step to say global warming is an issue, we need to think about it, the industry is in a very different position. And I think many people are talking about global warming in the industry and doing something about it. Not everyone's doing the same thing, but I believe the industry is in a very different position today than it was five years ago.

CURWOOD: One last question. What about your name: British Petroleum?

BROWNE: No, the name is BP. It used to be British Petroleum, but it used to be ARCO, it used to be Amoco, it used to be Burmah Castrol, and we have to pick a name that incorporates all the heritages, but looks to the future. So BP is the name, and I hope it conjures in everyone's mind a sense of what we stand for, which is performance, our belief in the environment, and a sense of the future.

CURWOOD: John Browne is the Chief Executive of BP. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

BROWNE: It's a great pleasure.

[MUSIC: Enigma & Deep Forest, "New Dawn"]

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Recycled Runway

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. Recycling clothes is nothing new. Hand-me-downs and donations breathe new life into suits that no longer suit us or, in some cases, no longer fit us. But now, one person's trash can be another's fashion treasure. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports from the recycling runway.

MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first Runway Earth, recycled fashions for a sustainable world.


GRABER: It was standing room only at the Recycled Fashion Show in Providence, Rhode Island. The mostly young, mostly jeans-clad crowd packed into a local art gallery and cafe. Images of birds, landfills and recycling sorters flashed onto a screen on stage.

WOMAN: Without further ado, we will start part one.

GRABER: From fleece capes to doctor's scrubs, models sashayed down the runway in clothing spun from recycled plastic.

WOMAN: Seth is featuring a white polo-style shirt and a Patagonia jacket and safety vest. And believe it or not, all the things that Seth is wearing on top are made from recycled plastic bottles.


GRABER: Next up: vintage outfits scavenged from used clothing stores. Fashions range from '70's polyester leisure suits to dresses from the '30's. Perfect for a romantic rendezvous at the train station.

Laura K DressDesigner Laura Kranitz, made
this outfit from reused clothing.


GRABER: Then came the most creative segment of the show. Local clothing designers and artists dug into used clothing stores and sometimes trash cans to come up with their own recycled couture. A tall brunette wore a sleek black gown pieced together from country-western t-shirts. Faces of men and women peered out at odd angles: a dress that would attract attention at any event.

WOMAN: Let's bring on Beth.


WOMAN: Beth is ready to ride, ladies and gentlemen.

GRABER: In a bit of Oscar de la Renta meets Oscar of Sesame Street, one scantily clad woman strolled out in an outfit made entirely from bicycles. Rubber from used tires doubled as a tight skirt while the model's top was bound together with gears. Designers told me a hot glue gun was used to secure the dress around her. And lest you think this show was purely about fashion.


Cereal Box DressCereal box dress made from woven strips
cereal boxes. Designer Heather Gaydos.

WOMAN: Every year millions of pounds of textiles are thrown away and they go to waste in landfills. By giving your clothes to charity or consigning them to consignment shops, you keep the cycle going and you never know.

GRABER: Audience members had high praise for recycled fashion.

WOMAN: I thought it was very New York.

MAN: My favorite look was the short skirt with the little boy blazer and the slouchy boots.

WOMAN: I'd wear the cereal box skirt - yeah, very cute.


GRABER: My personal favorite? The lemon dress. Large ovals of yellow and sheer green plastic, cut from lemon bottles, adorned a knee-length garment. The effect? A shimmer of springtime colors. Unusual, wearable, definitely cutting edge. Oh, and recyclable too. For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber.

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Animal Note: Multi-purpose lungs

CURWOOD: Just ahead, a world update from Mark Hertsgaard. First, this page from the Animal Notebook with Maggie Villiger.


VILLIGER: Lizard lips may be nothing to sing about, but you might want to strike up the band for lizard lungs. Scientists say that salamanders and lizards, along with snakes and frogs, use their lungs to help them hear. These reptiles and amphibians lack eardrums and other middle ear elements that normally channel sound wave vibrations to the inner ear. But judging from their behavior, these animals can sense sound. To figure out how, researchers shot sound waves at different parts of the lizards' bodies. They found that the section of body wall that covers the lungs vibrated strongly. To make sure that it was this air filled cavity that was the key to the vibrating phenomenon, and not the body wall itself, the scientists filled the lungs with an oxygenated saline solution. The lizards could still breathe, but sound waves produced vibrations of only about a tenth the original size. Researchers think the sounds create pressure waves in the lungs that then travel on to the inner ear where they are detected as sound. The process may be an evolutionary leftover from the aquatic ancestors of terrestrial vertebrates, back before land-dwellers grew ears like ours.
That's this week's Animal Note. I'm Maggie Villiger.


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

[MUSIC: Zubot & Dawson, "Fried Chicken Head," TRACTOR PARTS (Black Hen Music - 2000)]

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And coming up, we'll meet a guy who finds poetry behind the wheel of a snowplow. But first -


CURWOOD: Time for comments from our listeners. Stephen Chalmers, who hears us on WQCS in Ft. Pierce, Florida, spoke for many listeners when he left this message on our comment line: "I just wanted to thank you all for giving us the Ivory-billed Woodpecker stories. I certainly appreciated being able to hear the tapes from the '30's that Tanner left for us. Thank you very much. Bye."

From Pasadena, California, KPCC-listener Terry Lilly wrote to say the Ivory-billed Woodpecker stories riveted him to his car radio in the supermarket parking lot. "The transfixing call of the Ivory-bill brought tears down my cheeks," he wrote. "What a gift that recording is. The drivers on either side of me were not leaving their cars. I could see that they were visibly moved, but by what? Later I saw both drivers in the checkout line and I softly said two words to them: "Ivory-bill." And they replied in unison, "How did you know?"

David Greenberg hears us on WNPR in Stamford, Connecticut. He had an idea to pass on to John Fitzpatrick, the ornithologist from Cornell who described recording 6,000 hours of possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat. "You joked that the listening task would fall upon some poor grad student," he writes. "The professor mentioned a computer program designed to locate the areas on the recording that deserve closer scrutiny and implied that only those clips will be listened to by human ears and the brain in-between them. I have an idea. Why not solicit interested listeners or birdwatchers to take on some number of hours? I could imagine a website on which interested parties could simply grab chunks of time to download as they go, logging which time frames they've completed. I'd be happy to take on a share or two."


To make us happy, you can call our listener line any time: 800-218-9988. Or write to us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. And visit our webpage at www.loe.org.


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World Wrap

CURWOOD: There have been developments lately in several high profile environmental situations around the world. And to bring us up to speed on this international news I'm joined now by Mark Hertsgaard, Living on Earth's political observer. Hi there, Mark.


CURWOOD: Let's start with the case of Nigerian activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. What's the latest development with that?

HERTSGAARD: Well, you remember seven years ago, Mr. Saro-Wiwa became quite an environmental martyr really around the world. In November of 1995 he was hanged by the military dictatorship in Nigeria after a trial that was roundly condemned throughout the world as a farce. Mr. Saro-Wiwa had led the movement in Nigeria protesting against the oil operations of Royal/Dutch Shell. Saro-Wiwa's group was claiming that Royal Dutch/Shell's oil operations had devastated the land of the Ogoni people in the south, ruining the water, the air, and so forth. Now this case is coming to trial, and interestingly, it's coming to trial in New York.

Judge Kimball Wood of the District Court ruled that this would go forward in the United States courts. The attorneys for Saro-Wiwa's family say that they have evidence that the Shell officials in Nigeria met with Saro-Wiwa's brother and said, Look. We will not intervene on his behalf unless you call off the protests. Shell, for its part, has said that these allegations are false; we had nothing to do with this; we wanted Saro-Wiwa to live. Shell has admitted that they bought military hardware for the Nigerian police, but they say that none of that was used in human rights violations.

CURWOOD: This is a major precedent then, to bring a case against a company operating in Africa here in the United States.

HERTSGAARD: Yeah, that's what makes this so interesting, Steve. You know, we've seen this before in human rights cases, but never before environmentally. And the argument goes back to a very old law in the United States, 1784, the Alien Torts Claims Act, which was originally put in place to stop pirates. And it says that international law, we in the United States have an incentive to have those laws upheld. And Shell operates in the United States, gets the benefits of operating here, and hence has to take the responsibilities as well.

CURWOOD: Let's shift our focus now to India, Mark, where the Supreme Court there recently made an interesting decision in the case involving author/activist Arundhati Roy.
Can you bring us up to speed on that?

HERSGAARD: Sure. Roy, of course, is very prominent, wrote the book "The God of Small Things," and has been very visible recently in protests around globalization, against the war in Afghanistan. But where she really got involved with politics was protesting the 30 dams on the Narmada River in India. She's been involved with that for quite some time, and that's what got her in trouble here. She had criticized the Supreme Court of India for basically not being even-handed, for not listening to the critics of the Narmada dam project. And the Court slapped her down for that and said 'You are in contempt.'

It's interesting, because the Supreme Court in India is arguably the most powerful court in the world, has virtually no oversight from the other branches of government. And the Supreme Court has done some interesting, progressive things on environmental issues in India. It's ruled, for example, that all of the polluting industries in the capital city of Delhi had to be shut down, which would virtually shut down the entire economy of Delhi. It's ruled that there be no commerce in the forests. On the other hand, the Supreme Court of India has also defended big dams. So they convicted the author of criticizing the ruling, but the sentencing was one day in jail and a fine of equivalent forty-two dollars U.S. So you got the sense that the Court realized that it may have overplayed its hand here, and gave more of a symbolic kind of a punishment to the author.

CURWOOD: Let's move now to Scandinavia, Mark, where the government's changed in Denmark to a more conservative government. And I gather that's had a major impact on their environmental approach.

HERSGAARD: It's had a very noticeable effect, Steve. The government there, as you say, is center right. But crucially, it's dependent on a far right, anti-immigrant party for its ruling majority in the Parliament. And you're seeing some really remarkable retrenchments on environmental policy. In particular, Denmark, which has been one of the world's leaders in wind power, has now announced that it will stop subsidies to wind power by the year 2004. Quite striking. I was recently traveling in Denmark. And when you go along the coastline there, pretty much everywhere you look you will see huge wind turbines, both in the ocean and right on land. Eighteen percent of Denmark's electricity comes from wind power. So for them to step back on that now is quite striking.

CURWOOD: What does this mean about Denmark's attitude toward the Kyoto Protocol, do you think?

HERSGAARD: That's a big question, Steve. We'll see. As you know, the European Union has said that they're going to go forward and ratify Kyoto. Denmark is part of that. Each government can still make its own decisions. Denmark has expressed some concern about Kyoto, especially under this new government. And it's interesting to note that Denmark is about to take over the presidency of the EU very soon. So if they do back out, it won't mean a whole lot globally, because Denmark's emissions are so small. But it could be symbolically very important, because it gives political cover to governments like Canada and, as we spoke about a few weeks ago, Japan, who are being pressured by their industries not to ratify Kyoto. So if Denmark does that, it could have a reverberation elsewhere.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

[MUSIC: Tania Maria "Euzinha" VERY BEST OF LATIN JAZZ 2 (Global Television - 1999)]

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Salt: A World History

CURWOOD: These days, it seasons your popcorn, home fries and hamburgers. But in days gone by it was at the center of ancient trading empires. In homage to the humble table condiment, author Mark Kurlansky has written a book about the centuries old saga of what Homer called "the divine substance." Bruce Barcott has this review of "Salt: A World History."

BARCOTT: Salt, the killer white. Wars were fought for it, empires flourished around it, and now Mark Kurlansky has written the history of the world based upon it. Kurlansky is the author of "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World." That brilliant little history helped spark the craze for what's called "mundane studies," which view history through the development of ordinary things like the pencil or the color mauve.

In his new book Salt, Kurlansky offers a brief history of the world as told through sodium chloride. The Egyptians salt-cured meat with evaporated seawater from the Nile Delta. Salt was at the center of a great Venetian trading empire. "Salt is so common," Kurlansky writes, "that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about a hundred years ago salt was one of the most sought after commodities in human history."

(Courtesy of Walker & Co.)(Courtesy of Walker & Co.)

Kurlansky is a master of the historical anecdote and he packs the book with delicious tidbits. Did you know that French women salted their husbands to make him fertile or that Celtic salt miners bleached their dreadlocks in lime? Or that in 1795 the Onondaga tribe traded its 10,000 acre reservation to the state of New York for a yearly payment of 750 pounds of salt, which the state still delivers? As entertaining as these factoids are, Kurlansky often fails to give any larger meaning to them. It's as if he's trying to convince us of nothing more than the fact that salt throughout the world has been pretty darn important.

He also falls victim to what might be called the sun king fallacy: believing the world revolves around his particular subject. I'm willing to believe that empires rose and fell around salt. But when he writes that, quote, "The history of the Americas is one of constant warfare over salt," end quote, that's pushing it. I can make a pretty fair case for tobacco, cotton and slavery, as well. What I love most about Salt, the book, are the details about our strangely intimate relationship with the stuff. The Romans called a man in love "salax": in a salted state. A princess in a French folk tale swears to her father, "I love you like salt."

Kurlansky writes that this odd association could arise from the fact that salt is an essential component of blood, sweat, and tears. Take away the water and we're as salty as Lot's wife. Still, I wish that Kurlansky had gone further in conveying the experience of salt - what 18th century French sauerkraut tasted like or a little bit more about what it's like to float in the bitterly salty Dead Sea. Perhaps Kurlansky will tackle the more sensual aspect of his subject in a worthy sequel: "The World History of Sugar."

[MUSIC: Pan American, "Tract," PAN AMERICAN (Kranky - 1997)]

CURWOOD: Bruce Barcott writes about environmental issues for Outside Magazine.


Related link:
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky">

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Snow Plow Guy

CURWOOD: It's almost the equinox, almost spring. But not so fast. In some places it's still snowing, which causes us to ask when was the last time you honored your snowplow driver? Robin White visited the town of Allegheny, California and met the man who keeps its 145 residents connected to the outside world.

MAN: Snow level dropping to around 3,000 feet this afternoon.

WOMAN: Chains and snow tires are required this morning on I-80 over Donner Summit, on 50 over Echo Summit--


MAN: A winter storm warning is in effect through tomorrow for much of the Sierra, including the Lake Tahoe region, where forecasters predict more than two feet of new snow could fall.

WHITE: "It's very misty outside. It's like some primordial forest out of a fairy-story." That's me, driving into the town of Allegheny, looking for Jim Buckbee, who's the keeper of the mountain roads here. Allegheny's a little gold-mining town, home of the oldest hard rock gold mine still operating in the United States. It's a ramshackle collection of houses and rusty old cars in a snowy landscape stuck on the side of a deep canyon. The road into town goes over a ridge 5,200 feet high. Jim Buckbee is a man with a belly and a twinkle in his eye, and he's the one who keeps it open.

(Photo: Robin White)Jim Buckbee and his snow plow.
(Photo: Robin White)


WHITE : That's a mighty fine snowplow you have there. Nice to meet you.

BUCKBEE: Nice to meet you.

WHITE: How are you doing?


WHITE: So hey, here we are. This is fun. Is there a seatbelt there somewhere?


BUCKBEE: We can look off in the canyon off of the side there, and it's pretty much straight down.

WHITE: You're telling me! Wow.


BUCKBEE: So when we have a warm spell like this, our berms all get melted away. This is when you really have to be careful. So we're plowing right on the edge of the road, and there's only about three feet of good, solid ground before it gets soft, and it can just pull you right on over.


BUCKBEE: Watch your step going down. When you're out there plowing snow there's certain things that you see constantly. And so they just start digging into your soul, you know? And when I wrote the poem, we were discussing all the different counties and how they do their snow removal. And the biggest thing is when you're working a day shift and then you switch to a night shift without any sleep. So the whole thing is geared towards surviving another night, and it just started clicking. I just started writing, and it was like, "Wow. Hey, that sounds pretty good."


BUCKBEE: One night I was just really bored and I was doing a back-to-back shift. It was snowing really hard and so I recited it over a radio. All of a sudden they had all these requests coming in from different areas that had picked it up on their scanners, wanting to know where it came from and if they could get a copy of it. So I started sending these people copies of my poem.


"Another night"

By Jim Buckbee.

When the snow flakes fly and the wind blows so cold,
It's the sound of steel that curls my toes.
It's a long night ahead, and that's my foe.
As I drop my plow and head down the road
I only pray that my lights will be bright.
As the snow flakes dance
I strain at the sight,
But my chains bite deep into the ice
And I look for that guiding light
That makes everything all right.
The snow piles high,
But that's all right,
Because I'll just hit it
With all my might
And shove it over to the right.
The sky finally lightens
And I know it's all right,
Because I just made it through
Another night."

BUCKBEE: Just a small little town way up at the end of a road. What an office, huh?

CURWOOD: Our feature on Jim Buckbee, the snowplow guy, was produced by Robin White.

[MUSIC: Greg Brown, "Rexroth's Daughter," Covenant (Red House Records - 2000)]

CURWOOD: Thanks to Duncan Lively and Duncan Howitt at KXJZ in Sacramento.

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, computer mapping can turn 3,500 acres of corn into 16,000 data points and let farmers see in a flash exactly where any given field needs help and where it's doing okay. Precision agriculture lets farmers be efficient and go easier on the land, too.

MAN: In praise of this project, we strongly could show that we are capable of reducing by at least 50 percent the use of herbicides. And of course that has a strong potential to reduce excess into surface water.

CURWOOD: A new tool for the modern farmer next time on Living on Earth.



CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a sign of the times. The cold weather is subsiding and the ice is out in northern lakes. So the Canada geese are heading home. Lang Elliott and Ted Mack met a huge flock on an evening stopover at Audubon National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota.

[Lang Elliott & Ted Mack, "Northward Flight Song" Wings on the Prairie (EarthEar - 2002)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, Jessica Penney, and Gernot Wagner. Along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Bree Horwitz, and Milisa Muniz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Rachel Girshick and Jessie Fenn. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.


Technical Director is Dennis Foley, Ingrid Lobet heads our Western Bureau, 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.

WOMAN: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded Internet service; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on western issues; and the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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