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

June 13, 2003

Air Date: June 13, 2003


(stream/download) as an MP3 file


Human Testing

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A federal appeals court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency must once again consider data from industry studies that test pesticides on humans. The Bush Administration had imposed a temporary ban on that data. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Elizabeth Shogren, who covers the environment for the Los Angeles Times, about the court decision. (06:00)

On the Road That’s Travelled / Rose Hoban

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Living, or working, near a freeway may be convenient, but a new study shows that it can also lead to health problems. Rose Hoban reports from Los Angeles. (06:30)

Almanac/Big Apple Splash

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This week, we have facts about the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. June 14th is the date of the annual aquatic race, a 28.5-mile lap on the Hudson and East Rivers. (01:30)

Revitalizing An Industry / Jennifer Chu

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As part of its debate over the energy bill, the U.S. Senate voted down an amendment that would have done away with loan guarantees for the nuclear industry. Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports. (03:10)

Aging Plants

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It’s been 25 years since a nuclear power plant was licensed in the U.S. Today’s operating plants are starting to show signs of aging. Host Steve Curwood talks with Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, about recent reports of cracks and leaks in several major nuclear plants. (04:50)

Lewis & Clark Trails

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As part of our ongoing series about the people who live and work today along the route of Lewis and Clark, producer Barrett Golding sends us an audio postcard about the Columbia River, and the bar pilots who help guide ships through the waterway. (04:00)

Silence is Golden / Richard Mahler

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Commentator Richard Mahler reminds us that even in the wilderness it’s hard to find peace and quiet. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Green Robot Thumb / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that robots may help farmers reduce the use of herbicides in agriculture. (01:15)

Cactus Thieves / Mark Brody

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From member station KJZZ in Phoenix Mark Brody reports on the upswing in the pilfering of cacti. The plants are being uprooted and sold on the black market in the drought hit states of the southwest. (05:00)

Call of the Wild

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Facts and film combine to showcase the planet’s most remote locales, in Conservation International’s ambitious photography book, “Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places.” Host Steve Curwood speaks with Russell and Christina Mittermeir, the husband and wife team who traveled the world documenting the wild. (08:25)


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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Elizabeth Shogren, Arjun Makhijani, Russell and Christina MittermeirREPORTERS: Rose Hoban, Jennifer Chu, Barrett Golding, Mark BrodieCOMMENTATOR: Richard MahlerNOTE: Cynthia Graber


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

A federal court has overturned a de facto band on testing pesticides on humans. And as the Bush administration ponders its options, it faces a dilemma.

SHOGREN: From a scientific basis, they can justify it. But then when you talk about it in public, it just doesn’t pass the “squeamish factor.”

CURWOOD: Also, the dangers of living near freeways.

KLEINMAN: And you can actually see these particles sneaking by the edges of the cells, which are normally very tight. And once you are down underneath that surface, there aren’t good mechanisms for cleaning them out. And they can stay there for a long time. If they are toxic, they can start doing their damage.

CURWOOD: And where have all the cactus gone?

MCGINNIS: You try to locate any evidence that you can, but nine times out of ten, there is no evidence left. I mean, it’s just a hole.

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


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and heritageafrica.com.

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Human Testing

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

Humans can be used as subjects when testing the safety limits of pesticide exposure, according to a federal appeals court ruling that reverses policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A year and a half ago, the EPA had put a ban on accepting scientific work employing this controversial practice. Joining me now from our Washington bureau is Elizabeth Shogren. She covers the environment for The Los Angeles Times.

Elizabeth, tell me, why did this issue end up in court in the first place?

SHOGREN: Well, a pesticide industry group sued. It claimed that the EPA broke the law by imposing the moratorium without first issuing a notice of its plans and then collecting public comment. The Court of Appeals for D.C. agreed. They directed the Agency to go back to accepting the tests on a case-by-case basis using the highest ethical standards.

CURWOOD: Why would the pesticide industry want to use human volunteers in its pesticide studies?

SHOGREN: To understand that, you have to know that EPA bases its pesticide regulations on animal tests. The Agency determines the risk factor for lab animals, and then multiplies it by ten as a safety cushion for humans.

Pesticide companies want to use the human tests to prove that larger amounts of pesticides are safe. That way they could use pesticides that might otherwise be banned, use more on crops, or apply these pesticides closer to harvest.

CURWOOD: I am still wondering, though, about the ethical question. I mean, why would you want to give humans something that could make them sick?

SHOGREN: Pesticide companies say that it is important to use all of the pesticides that are available on the market. This enables American farmers to compete with farmers abroad, and also brings more crops to market. But a lot of public health advocates and environmental groups are very disturbed by this process. They say that it exposes people needlessly to toxic chemicals that could potentially have lots of negative impacts.

CURWOOD: Now, aside from ethical concerns, what are some of the other criticisms that have been thrown at the question of using humans to test pesticides?

SHOGREN: Critics say these tests are done on too few people to be statistically significant. They also say these tests can’t determine the impact on the most vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, because these people aren’t in the studies. They are also critical that the companies are the ones who do the tests.

CURWOOD: Now, in the past, the Bush Administration has seemed to have a couple of different minds on this issue. Tell us about that.

SHOGREN: Well, historically these tests were rarely used. Then, in the mid-90s, Congress made it much harder for pesticides to pass registration. And all of a sudden these tests started cropping up at EPA. The Clinton Administration was upset by that and they banned the tests, but only temporarily, and they never officially banned them.

Then when the Bush Administration came into power, they quietly told the pesticide industry that they would again start looking at these tests. That fact came out in a news report, actually a story I wrote, and then there was lots of press coverage of that issue.

CURWOOD: But then, the story changed again.

SHOGREN: Right. And at the end of 2001, Christie Whitman, the EPA administrator, announced that there would be a moratorium set again on these tests. And she asked the National Academy of Sciences to research the issue and write a report about it.

CURWOOD: Why do you think Christie Todd Whitman took that action?

SHOGREN: I think it was because of the press reports. At least, that’s what brought it to her attention. And I think it was an embarrassing situation.

CURWOOD: I remember back then that in fact, when we were trying to cover this question of human testing of pesticides, the EPA declined to be interviewed on tape. It didn’t seem like they really wanted to talk about it.

SHOGREN: I think it is one of those issues that they can think about themselves practically and they can, from a scientific basis, they can justify it. But then when you talk about it in public, it just doesn’t pass the squeamish factor, both because of the ethical considerations and because of the possible dangers to humans.

CURWOOD: How is the Bush Administration reacting today to this court decision?

SHOGREN: Well, they say they are disappointed with the decision. In the meantime, they have also announced that they are going to propose a new official regulation about human testing, and whether or not the results can be used for the EPA’s pesticide registrations. And this time, they are going to use a public comment period and go through all the official procedures. They say they don’t know yet how long that will all take. In the meantime, they are waiting for the National Academy’s report to come out, and that should be later this year.

CURWOOD: Now, some critics have expressed concern that with Christie Todd Whitman leaving her post this month, that the EPA may not be as committed to the banning of the use of humans to test pesticides. What is your take on that?

SHOGREN: I think it is too early to tell. It depends a lot on what the Academy of Sciences says, and also who becomes the next administrator. Clearly, there are senior people at the Agency who had wanted to accept these tests and probably would favor their return.

CURWOOD: Elizabeth Shogren covers the environment for The Los Angeles Times. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

SHOGREN: I’ve enjoyed it.

[MUSIC: Snares & Kites “Anticipation Proclamation” Tricks of Trapping Inbetweens Records (1999)]

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On the Road That’s Travelled

CURWOOD: When you choose a home or a school, easy freeway access could be a big plus. But despite the convenience, new research indicates that spending a lot of time near a freeway may be worse for your health than previously thought. Rose Hoban reports.

HOBAN: Dominic DeFazio is a real estate agent in Pasadena, California. He specializes in high priced properties. Today, he is showing off one of the hottest developments in town, a tight cluster of gangster-era bungalows under old palm and pine trees.


DEFAZIO: At one time it was a campus as part of the Arroyo Hotel, which is just to the south of us.

HOBAN: Once these historic, old buildings are restored, DeFazio predicts they will sell for between $700,000 and a million dollars. There is a waiting list for buyers, and that’s even though…

DEFAZIO: Well, you can see the cars passing by, so I would imagine that we are less than 150 feet from the freeway.

HOBAN: A six-lane freeway. Realtors say the biggest concerns for homebuyers near freeways tend to be noise and dust. But researchers are learning more about freeway pollution beyond the dust that deposits on the windowsill. There are several components to pollution, starting with gases like carbon monoxide.

SAWYER: It’s toxic, but the one really great success story has been that the levels of carbon monoxide emissions are down by at least a factor of ten from the motor vehicle fleet.

HOBAN: Robert Sawyer is a UC Berkeley engineer who has spent the better part of 30 years studying air pollution. He says the last ten years have brought some success in reducing the polluting gases coming from cars. But there is a catch. As emissions from individual cars have decreased, the number of cars and the number of miles driven has increased.

And there is another part of the pollution equation – soot. There is more to soot than just the gritty, black, carbon-based smoke spewing from older trucks and cars. Soots come from many sources.

SAWYER: They come from such things as tire wear and brake wear, metal wear in the engine that sometimes will end up in the soot, and the road itself will wear. These wear-type particles tend to be larger, and, therefore, they fall out of the atmosphere quite rapidly.

HOBAN: These soots are about one-tenth the width of a human hair. Our respiratory systems are efficient at trapping these relatively big particles in the nose and throat, before they can get deep into the lungs and cause trouble. Still, these large particles are related to more emergency room visits and time lost from work and school.

The good news is that big particle levels have dropped off since they were regulated in 1997. But now, new technology is allowing scientists to discover another kind of particle, which they are calling “ultrafines.” These are so small that as many as 500 can fit into the width of a human hair.

HINDS: They are the smallest particles that you can make and still have them be particles. They are much smaller than bacteria.

HOBAN: William Hinds is a professor from the School of Public Health at UCLA, who has been studying ultrafines. He says they are made in engines that fire at high temperatures, so they are produced in both diesel and gasoline engines.

HINDS: Our findings indicate that the ultrafine pollution that comes from freeways is quite local, and it is confined to a relatively narrow region on and near the freeway.

HOBAN: How far away from the freeway do you begin to see things dropping off?

HINDS: You see them dropping off immediately at the edge of the freeway. It’s maybe 20 to 30 times higher on the freeway or right next to the freeway than it is more than a thousand feet away from the freeway.

HOBAN: Or about the length of three football fields. That’s much farther than big particles, which tend to drop out of the air right next to the freeway.

Hinds and other scientists in Southern California found that spending a lot of time living or playing close to freeways increases health risks, particularly asthma and other breathing problems. Other data show that student athletes playing on fields close to freeways had higher rates of asthma the more sports they played.

HINDS: We think that these very small particles are the most toxic of the particles, partly because of their chemical composition.

HOBAN: Scientists can’t tell exactly what is in them, but they think ultrafines include heavy metals from motor oils, which add to their toxicity. But what really makes ultrafines so dangerous is their size. They are small enough to get past the defenses of the respiratory system.

Another researcher, UC Irvine’s William Kleinman, said ultrafines can get through thin spaces in between cells, deep in the lung where oxygen exchange takes place.

KLEINMAN: And you can actually see these particles sneaking by the edges of the cells, which are normally very tight. And once you are down underneath that surface, there aren’t good mechanisms for cleaning them out. And they can stay there for a long time. If they are toxic, they can start doing their damage.

HOBAN: An article published in last month’s issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggests ultrafines could be triggering inflammation in lung cells, inflammation that can cause asthma. Over time, repeated exposure could be damaging to lung cells and even to cell processes in other parts of the body. All this new data is making regulators, legislators and scientists reconsider freeways as more than just noisy and dust-producing. And this may have far-reaching implications.

KLEINMAN: It would be better if you have to place a school near the freeway, at least put the athletic field on the far side. Allow some distance between the source of pollution and where the children are going to be playing and exercising.

HOBAN: A bill that recently passed the California Senate would restrict new school development within 500 feet of major roadways. And California’s Air Resources Board is discussing guidelines for land use adjacent to freeways. In the next few years, they will address the contentious issue of regulating new development next to freeways.

And as the public learns more about freeway air, it might change the equation for homebuyers who will have to weigh the health risks against a few minutes shaved off the commute.

For Living on Earth, I am Rose Hoban in Los Angeles.

[MUSIC: Goldenboy “Wild was the Night” Blue Swan Orchestra b-girl records (2002)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: the Senate votes to revitalize the nuclear power industry.

You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Snares & Kites “Chloroform Memory” Tricks of Trapping Inbetweens Records (1999)]

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Almanac/Big Apple Splash

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

[MUSIC: Soulive “Nealization” Turn it Out Velour Recordings (2000)]


CURWOOD: Come on in, the water’s fine.

That’s the line from the sponsors of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Intrepid swimmers have raced around the borough each year since 1982. And while many may cringe at the thought of dipping a toe in the rivers of New York City, the water hasn’t been this clean in almost a hundred years. Thanks to vastly improved sewage treatment, state bathing standards have been satisfied.

Still, the 28.5 mile swim is not for the faint of heart. Swimmers dive in at Battery Park, stroke up the East River with the tide at their backs, and come home on the Hudson. Along the way they face some hair-raising hazards. Seaplanes splash down near 23rd Street, and a sewage plant near 145th Street could suck in the unwary. And, of course, there are barges, cruise ships and unidentified floating objects to watch out for.

The record time for the swim is five hours and 45 minutes. In 2001, 27 individuals and eight relay teams took part. Those numbers dipped last year, partly due to fears of contamination from the September 11th attacks. But officials have given the all-clear, and there are plenty of contenders expected for this year’s race.

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Revitalizing An Industry

CURWOOD: The nuclear power industry may be getting a second lease on life, thanks to a vote in the U.S. Senate. A provision in the Bush Administration’s energy bill that provides up to $16 billion for the construction of six new nuclear power plants has been given a green light.

From Washington, Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports.

DOMENICI: You are going to find this bill--I think we are going to win today. And when we win I think we are going to come out with a major new impetus for nuclear power in this country.

CHU: That was Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico speaking on the Senate floor in response to a bipartisan amendment to strike down his provision for what some critics say is a tax subsidy for the nuclear industry.

The provision is in the form of a loan guarantee that would finance, up front, up to half the building costs of six nuclear power plants. Supporters of the amendment argue that no single source of power deserves billions of dollars of loans before producing any output. Unpaid loans or failed ventures, they say, would come at a significant cost to taxpayers.

In his defense, Senator Domenici pointed to the environmental benefits of going nuclear. Both he and the nuclear industry tout nuclear energy as a clean alternative that would reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But critics say nuclear plants pose serious risks that have not been sufficiently addressed by the industry. Ed Lyman is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

LYMAN: What they lack in greenhouse gas emissions, they make up for in spades in the production of nuclear waste, for which we still don’t have an adequate solution. And the threat posed by a terrorist attack on these facilities, which is much greater than for any fossil fuel plant.

CHU: The Nuclear Energy Institute has been lobbying to push nuclear into the energy market and into legislation. Scott Peterson, vice president of NEI, says that financial risks are not unique to the nuclear industry.

PETERSON: There is uncertainty in the marketplace right now to build any large power plant, nuclear, coal or gas. And so to have incentives to jump-start this next generation of nuclear technology is important.

CHU: The Senate amendment to do away with the loan guarantee failed by a slim margin of 50 to 48. But it might be up to Wall Street and not Congress to determine the fate of the nuclear industry.

Jonathan Falk is Vice President of National Economic Research Associates, an economic consulting firm in New York City. He says it will take more than an act of Congress to convince electricity utilities to invest in nuclear.

FALK: None of their senior management is in the least interested unless they can get not just the sort of financial guarantee embedded in this bill, but a real guarantee that the plant will make money for them.

CHU: Currently, the nuclear industry supplies 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. The Nuclear Energy Institute says it will continue to lobby Congress, Wall Street, and private research institutions in hopes of boosting that percentage.

The industry says improvements in technology will not only increase energy efficiency and reactor safety, but will make the price of nuclear energy cheaper than coal and natural gas.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jennifer Chu in Washington.

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Aging Plants

CURWOOD: There hasn’t been a new order to build a nuclear power plant in the U.S. in the last 25 years. And some of the plants that are still up and running are beginning to show their age.

Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and a science advisor to Living on Earth. He has been monitoring performance at the nation’s 69 active nuclear power plants and says there has been a rash of leaks and signs of corrosion at several of them, starting with a reactor near Toledo, Ohio called Davis-Besse.

MAKHIJANI: It had been known from the beginning that boric acid, which is used in the coolant to control the chain reaction, is very corrosive. And the reactor lid, the head of the reactor, had almost corroded through. There was half an inch between a very, very serious emergency and what could have been a meltdown accident at Davis-Besse.

Then, more recently, there were discovered leaks at the instrument ports in the South Texas power plant Unit 1. This is near Bay City, Texas. And there were leaks around the holes which are the penetrations into the reactor vessel.

We don’t know exactly why these leaks have occurred. These are not very old nuclear power plants. They are about 15 years old, the one in Texas. The one in Ohio is 25 years old. And there have been leaks in a reactor belonging to Duke Energy called the Oconee power plant, and this has been quite unexpected. It’s been a very, very nasty surprise to find these leaks and extensive corrosion, especially at Davis-Besse.

CURWOOD: What is the reason behind these leaks? Is there any connection here?

MAKHIJANI: Well, I think there are two reasons. One belongs on the operator and owner side. At Davis-Besse, for instance, they had been asking for postponement of essential and scheduled inspections.

And on the regulatory side, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been very lax. The Inspector General of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission looked into the Davis-Besse fiasco and concluded that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wasn’t doing its job in properly inspecting and regulating these places.

CURWOOD: Now tell me about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. How active is the NRC in determining the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants?

MAKHIJANI: The budget of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been cut. Their technical staff is down, I believe, by 25 percent. So they are not able to carry out these inspections.

At the same time, there is an immense amount of pressure from industry to allow them to churn out more and more power from these power plants because every extra kilowatt hour you generate, the marginal kilowatt hour costs less to produce and so it makes more profit.

CURWOOD: Arjun, why the push for nuclear power now, given the past and recent safety problems and questions?

MAKHIJANI: Well, it’s not quite clear. The Bush Administration came into office not having a track record among its major personnel, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, of having been close to the nuclear industry. And Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force met with a number of people in the first spring of the administration.

And they met with the Nuclear Energy Institute, which is the lobby arm of the nuclear industry. And apparently the Nuclear Energy Institute seems to have done a very convincing job. And nuclear energy has since played a very large role in the administration, as well as champions in Congress.

Now, nuclear energy has some pretty serious champions in Congress, and nuclear power is seeing its moment in history come back, perhaps, like the ‘50s when we were promised “too cheap to meter.” Anyway, they are making a very, very hard push on all fronts for nuclear energy.

Their main line is, it’s going to solve the global warming problem. And nuclear power as a solution to global warming is theoretically possible, but the proliferation problems and accident risks it would create would, I think, be intolerable because you have to build an immense number of nuclear power plants, one large plant a week around the world for the next 40 years, to make a significant dent in the global warming problem.

CURWOOD: Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Arjun, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you so much for asking me, Steve.

[MUSIC: Goldenboy “Sing Another Song for the Winterlong” Blue Swan Orchestra b-girl records (2002)]

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Lewis & Clark Trails

CURWOOD: This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expeditions.

RIVER BOAT CREW: Paddle, come on, harder!


CURWOOD: We wondered who lives and works along the trail now, from the Northwest Coast to the mouth of the Missouri.



CURWOOD: Producer Barrett Golding bicycled the entire Lewis and Clark Trail and sent us a series of audio postcards.


CURWOOD: Like this one from Astoria, Oregon, where members of the Columbia River Bar Pilots Association board ships from foreign nations and help shepherd them up the river. Phil O’Shaughnessy and first mate John Leither told Golding that each bend in the river brings different environmental issues that are often the subject of fierce local debate.

Phil O’Shaughnessy First mate John Leither

O’SHAUGHNESSY: Yeah, in fact, one of the controversies right now in this whole area is dredging this river. Because ships get bigger every year. And what keeps a ship from really being out of control as far as size is the average depth of harbors that it has to go into. Here, what they call the controlling depth is 40 feet. So that means the ship can load right down to 40 feet and not an inch more.

Obviously, if they could carry a few more inches, that would be more profit. And right now, the big controversy is to dredge the river down to, I think it is 43 feet, just to give it another three feet. And that would make the shippers happy. And then, in competition to deeper ports like Seattle, it would also keep us more viable for competition.

LEITHER: I heard an interesting thing from one of the bar pilots, that those few feet aren’t really going to make any difference in the shipping that comes here. The only difference is going to be, these guys are going to be able to load heavier which actually… It doesn’t make any more jobs. Actually, if anything, it cuts down on jobs because they are going to be moving less ships.

If, say, they have a load that takes five ships that are loaded at 40 feet, but if they can load up a little heavier, they can cut it down to four ships? There goes a lot of revenue, right there, for a lot of people: river pilots, the longshoremen, and it goes right down the line.


O’SHAUGHNESSY: Well, there is a lot of… when is it going to be deep enough? Because as long as you can dig a hole deep enough to put the ship in, they will build a ship big enough to fill it. So at some point, you have got to say, “Hey, wait, enough is enough.”

Because you don’t know what you are doing to the environment when you are artificially deepening the channel. Since there was already a lot of pollutants in the river, they say that it’s impacted in the mud. And when you start dredging, you are going to start to dredge all that up. You are going to put it in solution again, which would affect the fishing, and then the marine life.

LEITHER: And, again, one thing we should straight before-- both of us are actually in favor of dredging the channel to be safe for the traffic to go through. But it’s this extra depth that we are talking about it dredging.

But dredging itself pretty much always has to happen because sand and silt and whatnot, this river is always moving, and the sand moves. And so that’s a constant thing.


CURWOOD: Phil O’Shaughnessy and John Leither are members of the Columbia River Bar Pilots Association.

Barrett Golding’s portraits of the Lewis and Clark Trail: 200 years later are part of Hearing Voices, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

For more audio, photos and interviews from the trail, please visit our website, livingonearth.org.

Also coming up on our website: the view from Three Gorges.

Earlier this month, China started pouring water into the reservoir behind the giant Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest hydroelectric project and one of the most controversial.

By the time it is completed in 2009, the dam will produce more than 80 billion kilowatts of energy. But it will have also displaced more than a million residents of Central China. Its impact on the region’s environment is yet to be totaled.

Photographer Ed Burtynsky has captured the intensity of one of the world’s largest engineering projects, and starting next week, his images of the Three Gorges Dam will be available on our website, livingonearth.org.

That’s livingonearth.org for a close up look at the Three Gorges Dam.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from The World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for coverage of Western issues, and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. Support also comes from NPR member stations and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR’s coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President’s Council, and Paul and Marcia Ginsberg in support of excellence in public radio.

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Silence is Golden

CURWOOD: During summer, many of us look forward to soothing getaways surrounded by nature. But these days, even the outdoors can be crowded and noisy. And that has writer Richard Mahler thinking.

MAHLER: Even our wilderness isn’t quite anymore. This was confirmed not long ago by a man who records natural sounds for a living. Gordon Hempton visited 15 states and found parts of only two that were free of the human-made sounds of airplanes, music, chainsaws and gunfire for more than 15 minutes during daylight hours. The clamor of machines and the electronic beep of the information age now conspire to obliterate the balm of silence that once soothed our aches and pains.

Not only has noise invaded nearly every public space from beaches to mountaintops, but we let it invade our inner sanctums, as well. We walk in our front doors and flick on TV sets, radios or CD players. We sit down with squawking phone messages while logging on to the busy internet.

Lost from the day’s routine is time to abide peacefully with ourselves. That’s too bad because this is where we often wake up to the cause and effect of life. A sanctuary of silence can restore peace and expand insight.

Clinical studies confirm that stillness may also lower stress and blood pressure while promoting a sense of happiness and well being. Throughout history, quiet alone time has been used to maintain psychological equilibrium. Here we acquire the skills, imagination and resilience for handling life’s inevitable traumas and challenges.

Silence allows us to explore the unconscious mind, feel the yearnings of the heart, follow the wisdom of intuition and understand the truth of experience. Solitude in nature allows us, in the words of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, to “be completely true to ourselves.”

Silence and solitude require no special equipment, jargon or pill. They can be as soothing as a bubble bath and as illuminating as a bright idea. Best of all, they cost nothing. In fact, timeouts can pay for themselves by making us more efficient during our active hours.

In outdoor solitude, we may discover that less really is more, that a simpler life is a richer one, and that releasing unproductive routines allows healthy habits to grow. All the more reason to protect the pristine silence of nature and to enjoy the relief that comes from moments of stillness in a society that moves faster each day.

CURWOOD: Richard Mahler lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His latest book is “Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude.”

[MUSIC: Badly Drawn Boy “Wet, Wet, Wet” About a Boy [Original Soundtrack] Artist Direct Records (2002) ]

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Emerging Science Note/Green Robot Thumb

CURWOOD: Coming up: cactus rustling in the West. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.

[Allison Dean “Healthnote Theme” Living on Earth Music © 2000]

GRABER: Robots may soon help reduce herbicide use in agriculture. Scientists at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences are training weed-killing robots. Right now, similar robots help clear weeds off railways and airport runways. But those machines treat anything green as a weed, so they can’t be used on crop fields.

To make their robots smarter, the Danish scientists are taking face recognition software techniques and applying them to plants. Researchers say that instead of faces, they have programmed the robot to recognize the shape of 15 weeds from descriptions such as the size and shape of the leaves.

The four-wheeled, battery-powered robot is being trained to dash around fields of Danish sugar beets, constantly scanning the ground with a camera and noting the location of weeds. Scientists plan to arm the robot with herbicide so it could administer a few drops where needed. By selectively applying the herbicide to known weeds, researchers say farmers could reduce chemical use up to 70 percent. Danish researchers are also working with colleagues at the University of California at Davis to develop a robot that will pull out the weeds, eliminating herbicides entirely.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Cynthia Graber.

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

[MUSIC: Snares & Kites “Night Window” Tricks of Trapping Inbetween Records (1999)]

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Cactus Thieves

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

Coming up: a coffee table book designed to stimulate conversations about conversations.

But first, saguaro, those tall cacti with branching, upraised arms that, from a distance, look like bandits surrendering to the sheriff after a botched bank robbery. The prickly giants are symbols of the Southwest. And as the region’s population grows, communities are pressing their residents to use cacti and other native, drought-tolerant landscaping to conserve water.

But, as Mark Brodie, of member station KJZZ in Phoenix explains, this increased demand has put a lot of heat on the source of supply.

MCGINNIS: Well, they will just simply go by and they will back into it. They will put their cradle onto it, they will strap the cradle to it. They will dig out the bottom, the shallow hole around the roots and just cut out the roots.

BRODIE: You wouldn’t think it would be so easy, but Jim McGinnis says it really is. Arizona’s top cactus cop says one person can dig up and haul off a cactus in about a half an hour, with the help of a special brace or cradle. And we’re not talking about a little barrel cactus here. These are saguaros, up to 15 feet or taller, weighing upwards of 600 pounds. And don’t forget the needles.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas has lost almost 100,000 of varied succulents that grow there. Fish and Wildlife agents say some valleys in the Southwest may soon not have any cacti at all.

Jim McGinnis is the Special Investigations supervisor for the State Department of Agriculture. He says cacti are stolen out of the desert every day.

MCGINNIS: There was a federal study done and they are saying it’s about $20 million dollars a year market, on the black market, for saguaros around this area, around the country. There are individuals that will get a permit to legally remove plants. They will send their workers out, and the workers go, or are instructed to go in a different area. And once they are on the highway, it’s really hard to say where they got the plants from.

BRODIE: And, McGinnis says, it’s also very difficult to find out where stolen plants end up, and who is taking them. But he does have a few CSI tricks up his sleeve.

MCGINNIS: You try to locate any evidence that you can. Nine times out of ten there is no evidence left. I mean, it’s just a hole. If we suspect, however, that a certain saguaro that showed up somewhere, and it was suspect that it came from this particular hole, we can do root sampling to see if that saguaro came from this hole.

BRODIE: Those holes aren’t just reminders of where cacti used to stand. Diane Barker with the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix says the entire ecosystem is affected when plants are stolen out of the wild.

BARKER: For one thing, the population of that plant is being decreased. Not only of that plant, but it will not have the ability to bloom and produce seed for future plants of that same species to be germinated. So, it not only affects the plant life, but it also affects the animal life, as well.

BRODIE: That is because animals, from birds to coyotes, rely on cacti for water and shade. Under Arizona’s native plant law, stealing plants that are valued at more than $500 dollars is a felony. While most of the attention has focused on cacti stolen out of the desert, more urban sites have been hit, as well.


ORAVETZ: That gate, over here, the chain on that back gate was cut. The cut link was laying down on the ground. The gate was open. You can see that one piece of pottery sitting outside…

BRODIE: Jim Oravetz is surveying the damage at Summer Winds Nursery in Phoenix. His nurseries have just been broken into for the sixteenth time since the beginning of the year. Oravetz is the loss prevention manager for the nursery’s four shops in the area. He says thieves have taken an average of $10,000 worth of merchandise from shops around the area. Often, it’s cacti and other succulents.

ORAVETZ: If it was somebody breaking under the property to steal something for a swap meet, they would just break in, grab what they could and go. But in many of the instances here, particular items have been selected. So that tells me, one, there is an order been placed for the stuff, or they know where they can unload this stuff.

BRODIE: Oravetz is working with other nurseries in the area to figure out where their plants are being unloaded. The thieves are going to great lengths to get their material, cutting phone lines and poisoning guard dogs.

Increased population is putting a strain on the West’s water supply. Jim McGinnis says the demand for desert plants has created not only a thriving legit market, but a black market, as well.

MCGINNIS: You know, with the drought tolerant plants, when you have a lot of building going on, people want the drought tolerant plants. And they are looking for a saguaro or other cactus. And so people realize that if there is a market for it, it is going to be exploited somehow.

BRODIE: To control the exploitation in Nevada, the National Park Service has gone so far as to implant computer chips in some barrel cacti. That will allow officials to find out if they are being stolen from the Lake Mead area. Officials are confident the chips can stop cactus rustling at the park, but cactus cop Jim McGinnis is less optimistic about the open desert. He compares cactus theft to auto theft, saying as long as there is a market for plants, or parts, people will continue to steal both.

For Living on Earth, I’m Mark Brodie in Phoenix.

[MUSIC: Combustile Edition “Alright, Already” Schizophonic! Sub Pop (1996)]

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Call of the Wild

CURWOOD: If a picture is worth a thousand words, than “Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places” is worth a fortune. This new collection of biological facts and lush photographs blends art and science into a coffee table size technical and Technicolor report that chronicles the state of the planet’s most remote regions.

More than 200 scientists contributed to this work by Conservation International. The group’s president, Russell Mittermeier, and his wife Christina Mittermeier, a professional photographer and marine biologist, traveled the globe, their three children in tow, taking notes and snapping photos from the Amazon to the Appalachians. The join me now from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to Living on Earth.



CURWOOD: Russell, let’s start with you. This is quite a bit more than a coffee table book. It’s quite heavy. If I were to drop it, I think I would break my toe. It must be, what?

RUSSELL: Twelve and a half pounds.

CURWOOD: Twelve and a half pounds? Why did you choose this medium of photographs, and they are beautiful photographs, with the written information?

RUSSELL: Well, first of all, this is the third in the series of books that we have done with support from Cemex which, interestingly enough, is a Mexican cement company that has had a commitment to the environment for at least a decade, now, and has produced a number of books like this. And the first one we did was on mega-diversity countries, the richest countries on earth for conservation. The second one dealt with hot spots, and this one, looked at wilderness.

And we felt that a combination of good photographic material, outstanding photographic material, and also good scientific information was a unique combination that would capture as wide an audience as possible.

CURWOOD: Christina, you were one of many photographers who contributed to this volume. Why do you think photography is important in conservation?

CHRISTINA: I just happen to think that it is one of our most important conservation tools because people have a very intense emotional connection to these images. If you present them only with the scientific information, you tend to bore them very quickly. But it is very hard to ignore how beautiful and compelling the images are. So we just happen to think that you have to make the most of the material available, and encourage more photographers to shoot in these places.

   The Huli Wigmen of Papua, New Guinea (Photo: © Christina Mittermeier)

CURWOOD: You have 37 wilderness areas here. Russell, how did you decide what is a wilderness eligible for your book?

RUSSELL: Well, there were three principal criteria. One was size. We wanted to make sure that we were looking at wilderness in a broad context beyond just protected areas. And in order to qualify as a wilderness, an area had to be at least 10,000 square kilometers in size, it had to be 70 percent or more still intact, and it had to have a human population density of five people or less per square kilometer.

CURWOOD: I’m glad you mentioned people. As we were getting ready for this interview, we were going through the book here at Living on Earth. And someone said, “Hey, there are a lot of people in this book.” Why are there people in a book about wilderness?

RUSSELL: Well, first of all, we wanted to make the point that wilderness in today’s world is rarely an absolute anymore. And what we wanted to point out here was that there is human influence almost everywhere, otherwise our criterion would have been 99 or 100 percent intact as opposed to 70 percent. Now, that said, there are still some areas that are very, very little influenced by our own species.

CHRISTINA: If I may add, Steve, one of the things that strikes me the most, not just about the wilderness but the hot spot areas as well, is that inextricable link between human welfare and natural resources. And what I have seen in these places is that these are the last refuges where many of these tribal cultures are going to have any chance of keeping any semblance of their traditional lifestyle.

CURWOOD: Christina, tell me the behind-the-scenes story of a particular photo shoot, something that went especially well or maybe especially not-so-well.

CHRISTINA: Well, this last summer, we spent the summer in China. We took a travel to one of the remote areas of China, the Hunan Province, to photograph the golden Hunan snub-nosed monkey. So we climbed up to this mountain with the children and dragging the equipment, and it was raining. And all we had for lunch was little pieces of bread. And then we sat in the rain for about three hours. And finally, the monkeys came down from the other side of the mountain. And you know, you get so disappointed when you find that your lens is not going to be long enough to take the pictures. So you just sit back, get wet, get hungry, but you enjoy one of the great wildlife spectacles on the planet, 200 monkeys jumping. Rare monkeys, very few Westerners have seen them in the wild, so it’s an awesome thing.

RUSSELL: One of the photos in the book is a two-page spread of Indians in a particular ceremony in the Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon. They have a ceremony every year called the Quarup, in which representatives of six or eight different tribes come together and participate in what is basically a wrestling event.

We were invited there by the Kamayura people. And when we arrived, some of the other groups that came in were kind of looking at us like, “Well, what are these guys doing here?” Because we had been invited by one tribe, they put up with us. But they didn’t really like the idea of having outsiders present at the ceremony. So, occasionally, there were some tense moments when members of the other tribes were not really pleased to have us around.

CHRISTINA: He is being nice. They spat at us, they threw rocks at us.


CHRISTINA: They didn’t aim to hit us, because had they aimed, they would have gotten us. They were just trying to say stay away.

RUSSELL: They were just expressing their discontent with their hosts having invited in these characters from the outside.

CURWOOD: I imagine there must be some dangers involved here. I am thinking of snakebites, exotic diseases, governments changing, paramilitaries operating. What kind of personal risks did you face?

CHRISTINA: Well, no more so than living in Washington, D.C. where we have these orange alerts all the time. You know, our three children happen to be very enthusiastic naturalists and they are very cautious. Never once have they gotten really sick on us. And we take the necessary precautions with travel medical experts who advised us on vaccinations and things like that, and then just try to keep a very simple diet, nothing exotic. And just keep an eye on them, away from crocodiles, large carnivores.

CURWOOD: Russell, looking back at the hundreds of pictures-- I think there are almost 500 pictures in this book. You have to pick one that summarizes the message and represents wilderness. Tell me, which one would you pick?

RUSSELL: Oh, boy, you’re really--

CHRISTINA: He has to say, one taken by my wife.

RUSSELL: Yes, I think I will pass that one on to my wife.

CHRISTINA: I don’t know, Steve. There are a lot of photographs here and a lot of outstanding photographers. But this sense of wilderness-- there is a picture of a moose and it is standing overlooking the mountains. And at least from a North American perspective of what wilderness is, this to me embodies the vast expanse of nature where animals and ecological processes can happen in the absence of man.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how are you going to judge the success of this book?

CHRISTINA: You know, I would say it’s not so much about the success of the book as to the success of the analysis, you know. If any of the countries or regions involved in this analysis picks it up as a set of useful tools and pieces of information that they can then use to assemble their own conservation strategy, then we have been successful, I think.

RUSSELL: And the other thing with them is that they are so large that one could not effectively put them on a shelf. So they wind up on the coffee table, on the main table in everyone’s office. And they are the first thing. If they see any books in somebody’s office, this is the book that they are going to see. So this is, inadvertently, this turned out to be a very good strategy.

CURWOOD: Russell and Christina Mittermeier are the two lead co-authors of the book, “Wilderness: Earth’s Last Great Wild Places.” Thank you both for joining me today.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

CHRISTINA: Thank you, Steve.

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[MUSIC: Kronos Quartet “Tilliboyo” Pieces of Africa Elektra (1992)]

CURWOOD: It probably has to do with that improbable scene in the Disney animated feature, “Fantasia.” But when I go to the zoo, I can’t help smiling to myself when I see a hippopotamus. I picture a graceful company of the huge animals pirouetting in tutus, and in the upturned corners of their mouths, a smirk of amusement. I mean, if the hippo is about to laugh, why can’t I chuckle?

But in the wilds of Africa, a hippo is no laughing matter. “Don’t ever get between one and the water,” my guide warned as we approached one of their popular swimming holes. “It’s an easy way to get killed.”

And as we watched from a distance, a hippopotamus settled its enormous bulk into the pond, submerging until only its eyes were floating on the surface of the water.

It was then the magnificence of this animal struck me, bringing a different sort of smile. This huge creature is cheerful in the mud, and satisfied by the sun, the water and some plants to munch on, simple things in life. Perhaps, for those of us caught up in the complexity of civilization, the joke is on us.

You, too, can experience the sublime wilds of Africa if you are a lucky winner of the Living on Earth ultimate safari. Thanks to heritageafrica.com, you and a companion could be our guests on a safari to some of Africa’s most exciting habitats, such as Kruger and the Serengeti. Just go to livingonearth.org to get the details on how you can win this trip. But do it quickly, as the drawing is coming up soon. That’s livingonearth.org for a chance at the trip of a lifetime.

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And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. Next week, some folks like their food fast, cheap and easy. Others like to take their time and savor every morsel between long sips and good conversation. In the culinary capital of Brooklyn, New York, we will meet proponents of the so-called Slow Food movement, and find out why they are helping spur the demand for natural foods.

MALE: Within the big tent of slow food, a lot of people who have political inclinations and environmental friendliness inclinations, but then there are a lot of people who just want to eat good.

CURWOOD: It’s the slow burn that tastes good, next time on Living on Earth.

And remember that between now and then, you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

[MUSIC: Earth Ear/Chris Watson “River Mara” Stepping Into the Dark Touch (1996)]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week along the banks of Kenya’s River Mara. Chris Watson recorded this chorus of frogs, insects, hippos, bats and other creatures of the night for his CD, Stepping into the Dark.

Living on Earth is produced by The World Media Foundation, in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Our staff includes Tom Simon, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Nathan Marcy and Liz Lempert. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our interns are Carolyn Johnson, Julia Keller and Mary Beth Conway.

Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.

CURWOOD: Our technical director is Al Avery. 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.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded Internet service.

Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation, and Tom's of Maine, maker of natural care products and creator of the Rivers Awareness Program to preserve the nation's waterways. Information at participating stores or tomsofmaine.com.

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