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

August 8, 2003

Air Date: August 8, 2003


(stream/download) as an MP3 file


Space Junk

(stream / mp3)

Spent rocket stages and broken lens caps are just some of the junk littering Earth’s orbit, posing serious environmental and safety hazards. Host Steve Curwood talks with Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Observatory and contributing editor for Sky and Telescope magazine, about the dangers of littering in the final frontier. (06:30)

Comfy Camping / Robin White

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Americans are so pinched for time and so stressed, camping is suddenly too much work. Maybe we're just getting lazier. Robin White reports on the blurring line between camping and the spa vacation. (05:00)

Environmental Health Note/Airport Noise / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a new study that shows children living near airports may have impaired reading and memory ability. (01:20)

Almanac/Merzbacher Lake

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This week, we have facts about Merzbacher Lake in Kyrgyzstan. This glacial lake was discovered 100 years ago and just about every year since its icy dam has broken and released a deluge in the valleys below. (01:30)

Filtering Seawater / Eric Anderson

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Shrinking supplies of fresh water combined with new advances in technology are making California officials take another look at seawater desalination. Eric Anderson reports from KPBS in San Diego. (06:00)

Skulls and Bones / Rosemary Hoban

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Bones are repositories of history. But beachcomber Ray Bandar has been collecting them for forty years for beauty as well as what they reveal. Rosemary Hoban reports from San Francisco that science says thank you to a hobby run amok. (06:00)

Pigeons in the Park

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New York City's Bryant Park is trying a novel way to rid the area of pigeons -- call in the hawk patrols. Host Steve Curwood talks with raptor specialist Tom Cullen about what he and his birds are doing in the park. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/WTC Fallout / Jessica Penney

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Living on Earth’s Jessica Penney reports on how scientists are using the World Trade Center tragedy to study geology in the New York Harbor. (01:20)

Silver Valley / Guy Hand

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In Northern Idaho's Silver Valley mining country, some residents complain the EPA has practically taken up residence. A century of mining waste coats this valley, but some residents believe the health threat is small and wish the EPA would leave. Guy Hand reports. (15:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Host: Steve CurwoodGuests: Jonathan McDowell, Tom CullenReporters: Robin White, Erik Anderson, Rose Hoban, Guy HandCommentary: Laura KnoyNotes: Diane Toomey, Jessica Penney


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living On Earth.


I’m Steve Curwood. Two decades ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to northern Idaho to clean up the aftermath of some big mining operations. At first local residents welcomed the attention of the federal government, but the goodwill didn't last.

BOND: The original EPA guys that came up here to do this cleanup were decent, honorable people. They were good, good people. What you've got now is a bunch of little Gestapo and I would not suggest that anybody not use any means available, constitutionally or otherwise, to oppose them.

CURWOOD: It's the Silver Valley Superfund stigma this week. And we look at the new breed of camping that makes roughing it passe, right down to the chocolates on your bedroll. We'll have those stories and more on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.


FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stoneyfield Farm.

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Space Junk

CURWOOD: Welcome to an encore edition Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. For decades, probes, satellites and other spacecraft have paved a path for space exploration, orbiting and collecting data from the far reaches of the universe. But in recent years that path has become littered with the trash and other remnants of these missions, posing a serious environmental and safety hazard. Joining me now is Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Observatory and contributing editor for Sky and Telescope Magazine. Welcome.

MCDOWELL: Thank you.

CURWOOD: How much junk is there out in space?

MCDOWELL: Well, there's about 9000 objects that the radars track right now, we know their orbits and so on. But that's only the tip of the iceberg, because there's a lot of smaller stuff that the radars can't see. So we really don't know.

CURWOOD: And how big does it have to be to be dangerous to something like a spacecraft or a satellite?

MCDOWELL: Well, it's quite surprising. Even a rather small piece of junk a few inches across can be nasty. If you imagine that you have something that's only a few ounces, but it's traveling with a head-on collision of 20,000 miles an hour, that's the equivalent energy to being hit on the interstate by a two-ton truck.

CURWOOD: Now, where does all this junk come from?

MCDOWELL: Typically, when people throw things away on space walks, when they lose lens caps off of their camera, stuff like that, when they're on the space station, that reenters pretty quickly. The big problem is from rocket stages that blow up after they've been in orbit for some time. They have a little fuel leftover, they have some fuel and some oxygen, and it's in separate tanks. And after a few years the tanks crack, and the fuel and the oxygen go out on a date together, and so suddenly you have 100 new pieces of space debris. And that's the major contribution. There's also some military weapons tests that have left a bunch of shrapnel in orbit, which contributes to the population.

CURWOOD: Now, what kind of damage can this space debris cause?

MCDOWELL: Well, there was one satellite that we know of so far that's been damaged by space debris. It has its antennae broken off, it stopped working. But you can imagine that if you have a big satellite, like the Hubble telescope, like a space station that's in orbit for a lot of years, its chances of getting a nasty hit are quite large.

The thing that people are most scared of is up in geostationary orbit, where all the television satellites live. And there, even though it's a huge area of space, there are so many satellites that if you destroyed one in a collision you could get a chain reaction, and turn this area of space into a new ring around the earth, like Saturn's rings, but made up of lots of tiny pieces of very expensive television satellite.

CURWOOD: So far we've been talking about remnants of bodies of spacecraft, and accidental releases from operations, but what about plain, old-fashioned trash? How much stuff did people just dump out there from the shuttles, and the space stations, and the earlier trips to space?

MCDOWELL: Well, there's all kinds of trash. And, indeed, on the Mir space station, every few weeks we would see five or six new space debris objects be catalogued, and we eventually discovered that they were putting their trash in plastic bags and shoving them out the airlock. And so, that's happened all through the space program. On the Shuttle to the present day, they don't throw trash overboard, but they do jettison water. But in general, all of that stuff is in low orbit. It doesn't stay up very long, and so it's not a huge problem compared to the exploding rocket stages higher up.

CURWOOD: Now, who is keeping track of all this junk?

MCDOWELL: Well, the US Air Force, and also the Russians, have radars that track the bigger stuff. And they started off because they were worried, in the early days of the Cold War, that you saw things on your radar that might be nuclear missiles attacking the U.S., and so you wanted to make sure that you knew what was space junk and what was missiles. In fact, in the early days in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Russian Mars probe blew up and the U.S. radar operators saw 20 pieces come on their radar screens. And very quickly the computers figured out that, yes, this was in orbit and it was a piece of space junk that had blown up.

CURWOOD: How much does our design of spacecraft, space systems, contribute to all this junk? Do we just think trash? Are we designing for trash?

MCDOWELL: Well, that certainly used to be the case, and that was the mindset of people in the Cold War, particularly. The space program grew out of the military missile programs, to some extent. And when you first went into space, as for the first time that humans have gone anywhere, you think, wow, this is big, there's no way we can fill this up. And it's true, the distance between your average piece of space junk is about 1000 miles to the next one. But, nevertheless, you're traveling so fast you sweep out a large area, and pretty soon it starts to be a problem.

CURWOOD: So how are we doing, then, with understanding that hey, space is not infinite, that we can't just leave our trash behind.

MCDOWELL: I think there's been huge progress in the past 10 years. The United States and Europe have really taken the lead on this. There's been a number of international conferences deciding what are the sources of space debris, how do we stop making more of them. They began to take counter measures, in particular using up all your rocket fuel and making sure that rocket stages go into lower orbits where they'll reenter quickly, not throwing away your lens cap, putting it on a hinge instead of just jettisoning it.

There's also starting to be ecological concerns about the effects of space rockets during launch, when lower stages of the rockets fall downrange. Now, America launches eastward over the ocean, and our trash from the launch falls in the sea, where it's actually a pretty small effect compared to all the other ways that we foul up our oceans. But in Russia, they've been falling in the desert, and contaminating the water table, and causing health problems in villages. And so there's a move, for instance, to change the design of which fuels you use, so that you don't use nasty stuff like nitrogen tetroxide but clean stuff like hydrogen and oxygen.

But mother nature does give us a hand. The friction with the upper atmosphere – space isn't completely empty, there's a very thin outer atmosphere that brings the satellites down over a period of decades and centuries. And what we have to do is make sure that the rate at which we dirty up things is slow compared to that natural cleaning time scale.

CURWOOD: Jonathan McDowell is an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Observatory and contributing editor for Sky and Telescope Magazine. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

MCDOWELL: Thanks for having me.

Related link:
California Academy of Sciences

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Comfy Camping

CURWOOD: It used to be that camping divided the hearty and daring from the shrinking violets. Cold water, latrines, and nights on hard ground were all part of the fun of roughing it. But campground managers say few of us care to go that route anymore. Camping is changing. And there are now luxury campsites that provide all the comforts of home, if your home comes with room service, that is. Robin White has our report on today’s pampered campers.

WHITE: As a backpacker, I had to admit I was skeptical when I heard about Costa Noa. It's a high-end campsite on the spectacular central coast of California. Here, for about 18 times the cost of a Forest Service campsite, you can sleep out under canvas in a luxury escape, with heated mattress pads and a hot tub to sooth your aching muscles. Manager Daniel Medellin says many of his customers are in, what you might call, mixed marriages.

MEDELLIN: We have a lot of couples that have come to visit us where one of the party – and we really can't distinguish whether it was the guy or the gal that wasn't so comfortable with camping. But, there's a happy medium. You get the outdoor experience, and then you're able to enjoy some creature comforts at the same time.

WHITE: Creature comforts like restrooms with heated floors, queen-size beds with down comforters, terrycloth robes, and fancy smelling soaps and shampoos. Outside one tent cabin, some campers who don't usually get close to nature are right now experiencing it firsthand.


Where are you from? [TO CAMPER]

MILLER: Marin County.

WHITE: And what's your name?

MILLER: Christine Miller.

WHITE: Okay, Christine…

MILLER: [LAUGHTER IN BACKGROUND] Oh, we've been attacked by birds. Deluxe camping has gone to, like, not so deluxe. We had a dead bird on our doorstep this morning. It's fine.

WHITE: Replete with dead swallows, Costa Noa is the brainchild of Chip Conley. He spotted the exploding market for SUVs in the 1990s. He saw people looking for escape. And, he designed Costa Noa to give them somewhere to escape to.

CONLEY: What we're trying to do is attract the person who can go and experience nature in a new way without having to walk into the office on Monday morning and having red, bloodshot eyes from not having slept all weekend.


WHITE: At the huge recreational equipment coop, REI, in Berkley, they're picking up the theme. Annie Irwin shows me around some of the latest products.

IRWIN: There's a tea-for-two table, the blow-up supreme mattress, camp espresso machine. A propane tent heater, put it right in there. Hey, it's just like being in the house, only you're outdoors.

WHITE: There's a hand-crank blender, solar panels for GameBoy on the trail, titanium cook sets, pressure-heated showers, and portable sit-down toilets.

[TO FEMALE CUSTOMER] Can I just show you a couple of things and see if you would ever buy these, and what you think of them?

FEMALE CUSTOMER: Probably not, but you could show me.

WHITE: Right there. That, there, is a hand-cranked blender. Would you ever--

FEMALE CUSTOMER: No way, no way.

WHITE: See this?


WHITE: It's a hand-crank blender.

MALE CUSTOMER: Unnecessary.

WHITE: Could you ever see using one of those, a propane tent heater?

2ND MALE CUSTOMER: No, I wouldn't see that. No.

WHITE: Well that's what they say now. But they might get caught by the trend. REI says the hand-crank blender is one of their hottest items. An estimated 850 campsites from California to Georgia, offer some sort of luxury service. And they're packed in a year when hotel occupancy is down. Even some KOA campgrounds have organic vegetable stands, web access and wine tasting on Saturday nights.

I had to go try this luxury camping for myself. I grabbed my friend Rob Tufel and we set off to Safari West in Santa Rosa. The promo material calls it "Serengeti in the Wine Country."


TUFEL: Tent camp adventure at Safari West is a deluxe camping experience at a premier safari park located right over the interstate. Safari West is home to over 350 exotic endangered and extinct-in-the-wild, African mammals and birds. Extinct-in-the-wild? Extinct-in-the-wild, all hyphens. Is that correct?


WHITE: In the morning, we woke up to the sight of nine giraffes wandering across the field, only 20 feet from our tent cabin. Kelly Verhoeg said it wasn't camping, but she liked it anyway. [TO KELLY VERHOEG] If it's not camping, what is it?

VERHOAG: [LAUGHING] Pretending you're going to Africa. Last night, sitting in the tent cabin, I guess they call it, you know, I was looking at my husband sitting there. And I was like, it's like I'm looking at Ernest Hemingway or something, and we had been taken back in time. And, you know, this is kind of how you would picture it.

WHITE: Well, he didn't look like the big game-hunting author, Ernest Hemingway, to me. But who am I to spoil the fun? For Living on Earth, I'm Robin White at Safari West.

[MUSIC: The Boo Radleys “There She Goes” So I Married An Axe Murderer [Soundtrack] Sony (1993)]

Related links:
- Space.com story on space junk
- SpaceRef.com list of space debris

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Environmental Health Note/Airport Noise

CURWOOD: Coming up: an offbeat beachcomber goes hunting for the heads of marine mammals. First, this environmental health note from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: In recent years, there has been a move to make nursing home environments more pleasant and healthy by introducing quality of life enhancements. Those improvements include the addition of such things as plants and animals.

Now researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology want to help nursing home residents get a better night's sleep. They studied sleep disruption in 92 nursing homes, and found that when people woke up during the night, almost one-fifth of the time the cause of that disruption was loud noise.

To alleviate the problem, acoustical engineers working in several nursing homes are testing noise reduction technologies. They're hanging sound-absorbing panels in hallway walls, replacing noisy metal curtain hooks with silent ones, and wrapping sound-deadening blankets around motorized equipment.

Researchers are also trying to reduce television noise by imbedding speakers in headboard and bed pillows. The researchers will study the results, and they'll also examine what effect behavioral interventions have on sleep, such as increased daytime activity, and light exposure. Researchers say they think it will take a combination of behavioral and environmental interventions to improve the sleep of nursing home residents. That's this week's health note. I'm Diane Toomey.


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

[MUSIC: Stan Getz “Serenade in Blue” Quiet Now: Body & Soul Verve (2000)]

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Almanac/Merzbacher Lake

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

[MUSIC: Neu! “Im Gluck” Neu! Astralwerks (1972)]

One hundred years ago, German explorer Gottfried Merzbacher led an expedition through the Tien Shan Mountains in modern Kyrgyzstan. There, on the western edge of the Himalayas, he discovered a remote glacial lake. In a lengthy chronicle of his travels, he hardly mentions the lake that now bears his name. But he just saw it on the wrong day. Later, visitors learned of its dynamic nature. Almost every year, Merzbacher Lake appears, expands, dies a spectacular death, and is reborn. Its evolution takes place in a steep, virtually inaccessible valley where two glaciers meet. When the spring sun begins to melt the ice, water flows into the valley, collects on top of the glacier's ice, and is penned in by an ice dam.

At the peak of its cycle, the lake has an area of about five square kilometers. But by then it's late summer, the temperature is rising, and like a bottle of fine champagne, a cork of ice pops out from the base of the dam and water bursts free in an icy explosion. In just three days, the lake disappears and the cycle begins again.

Even one hundred years after its discovery, westerners still don't know much about Merzbacher Lake. Scientists are currently investigating the area's geology, and updating Soviet-era maps of the region using satellite images to better understand this natural wonder.

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


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Filtering Seawater

CURWOOD: Southern California is looking to the ocean to help quench its thirst for fresh water. That’s because it’s becoming cheaper to get the salt out of sea water, as long as you have plenty of power. Desalination is a multi-billion dollar industry that’s already doing a brisk business in the Middle East. Now there is a proposal to build five plants along the Golden State’s southern coast. From member stations KPBS in San Diego, Erik Anderson reports.


ANDERSON: The ocean has long been a tantalizing solution to Southern California's water woes. Filtering seawater was expensive and Colorado River water was cheap. Recently, the bottled water and pharmaceutical industry have driven technological advances in water filtration. San Diego County Water Authority spokesman Bob Yamada says new filters can treat twice as much water with half the energy, and that's dramatically lowering the cost.

YAMADA: As we look out to the future in developing new water supplies, seawater desalination is right on the cusp of being cost competitive with those new water supplies.

ANDERSON: So Southern California water officials are proposing enough desalination capacity to provide water for 250,000 families a year. The new optimism for large-scale ocean desalination projects is based on the success of a host of small groundwater plants, like this one in Oceanside.


ANDERSON: First, says manager Casey Jaworski, they filter sediment out of the brackish water.

JAWORSKI: Then the water goes to the high pressure pumps, then the water goes to the membrane. There, the feed water is separated. Seventy-five percent of the water will be drinking water, twenty-five percent will be concentrate water, which goes out into the ocean.

ANDERSON: After the salt is removed, the water's pH levels are balanced.


ANDERSON: Inside the plant's lab, workers can monitor a series of faucets that are constantly running. The taps represent water at different stages of the desalination process.

JAWORSKI: Raw, no we don’t want any raw. Here is product, okay.

ANDERSON: Jaworski puts a glass under the finished product and takes a drink.

JAWORSKI: We do use sodium hypochloride as disinfection, so you won't get a smell, and most people don't taste it at all.

ANDERSON: But the lessons learned here only go so far when you start talking about filtering hundreds of millions of gallons of ocean water. Even with recent technological advances, it takes a lot of power to filter large volumes of water. That's why Southern California officials are proposing to build their desalination facilities right beside the region's power plants.


ANDERSON: County Water Authority spokesman Bob Yamada stands near the Encina Power Plant north of San Diego. The towering 900 megawatt facility sits on the coast, and Yamada says it's natural: the salt water, and power, are already there.

YAMADA: As you can see over here behind my shoulder, they have a cooling water circulation system that takes water from the ocean. And then it's discharged back to the ocean, and they circulate large volumes of cooling water.

ANDERSON: Poseidon Resources hopes to tap into that system, drawing off water that's already been used to cool the turbines. Half that water would be filtered to produce 50 million gallons of fresh water, and the salty residue would be mixed back in with the rest of the coolant water and piped offshore. Company spokesman Peter MacLaggan says this solves the major environmental hurdle for desalination plants: what to do with the salt.

MACLAGGAN: That 50 million gallons a day of concentrated sea water mixes with the 800 million gallons going out of the power plant. Before we even discharge into the outfall from the power plant, we are well below the natural variability in the salinity.

ANDERSON: Biologists say the discharge shouldn't hurt the coastal environment. But some people are concerned about something else: the heavy draw on California's power. In the Middle East solar energy is fueling some new desalination projects, but here, MacLaggin says that's not practical. He says it would require buying large swaths of expensive coastal land to build solar arrays.

MACLAGGAN: We've looked into other sources of energy to fire the power plant, renewable sources and traditional sources, and typically, what you find is while the renewable sources are becoming more cost-effective, they still haven't gotten to the point where they're able to compete with purchasing the power directly from the power plant itself.

ANDERSON: But the reliance on traditional energy sources makes some people leery. The director for the Center of Energy Studies at San Diego State University, Alan Sweedler, says the push to build power plant-based desalination facilities could leave the region with a difficult choice. If power supplies get pinched, like they did during California's recent energy crisis, public officials may be forced to choose between water and power.

SWEEDLER: We need the power from those plants. And if we begin to rely very heavily on desalination, that means we're going to have to import more power, we're going to have to possibly build another power plant on the coast, or we're going to have to generate power someplace else in the county.

ANDERSON: All of those options could be very costly for an area that already has some of the highest power prices in the country. But with the memory of the California power crisis ebbing, and the supply of Colorado River water shrinking, officials appear ready to spend billions to tap into the ocean's potential as a drinking water source. For Living on Earth, I'm Erik Anderson in San Diego.

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Skulls and Bones

CURWOOD: Further up the California coast, San Francisco native Ran Bandar can be found at the beach. Summer, fall, winter and spring, he combs the shore in an unusual quest. Ray’s hobby is retrieving skulls and bones from the dead marine mammals that wash ashore. Reporter Rose Hoban recently followed Ray out to the beach and she prepared this report.


HOBAN: When most people see a dead animal on the beach, they give it a wide berth. Not Ray Bandar. When he comes across the decaying carcass of an elephant seal, he heads straight for it and sets down his knapsack full of tools.

BANDAR: I bring a bunch of knives and a sharpener and a little fork to scoop out brain tissue.

HOBAN: Ray snaps on a pair of latex gloves and sizes up the situation.

BANDAR: Oh, this guy’s been dead for weeks, and probably floating most of that time.

Ray Bandar and an adult female Stellar Sea Lion, Ano Nuevo Island, California, 1963.

HOBAN: Then Ray gets to work cutting away at rotting flesh to reach the bones underneath. It takes time. The seal was a full-grown male, about 12 feet long, and easily weighed several thousand pounds. He has only one thing in mind: getting that skull.

The smell makes me choke, but Ray doesn’t even notice anymore. That’s because he’s been cutting skulls off of dead animals since the Eisenhower administration.

BANDAR: Well, I’ve collected, well, more than 6,000 animals easy. I’ve cut up and collected the skulls from more California sea lions than any other person alive.

HOBAN: It’s hard to believe this all started with one skull back in 1953. Ray was in art school and was studying Georgia O’Keefe and German photographer Andres Feineger, both of whom had given him an appreciation of bones as sculpture.

BANDAR: Bones are beautiful. They’re fantastic pieces of sculpture. And so once they’re cleaned up, God…they’re art pieces. But they also can tell you a functional story about the life of the animal.

HOBAN: Ray eventually became a high school biology teacher and he continued to collect bones during his spare time. Now, after 40 years of beachcombing, his tall frame and tattered blue field jacket are familiar to wildlife authorities all along the California coast. Perhaps what’s startling is that most of his vast collection is stored at his San Francisco home.

BANDAR: The house is actually an art museum and natural history museum. And a bone palace.

HOBAN: Where do you live in your house?

BANDAR: Oh, I have plenty of place to live. There are bones on all three levels, and the third level has thousands of skulls on display.

HOBAN: Ray shows off the sculptural qualities of bones throughout the house, from abstract pelican pelvises over the fireplace to snake skeletons curled up in glass cases. In Ray’s house, bones are art and bones are humor. There’s a set of moose antlers in the bathtub and a ceramic cup full of penis bones on the dining room table.

But Ray doesn’t collect just for himself. In fact, that would be illegal. He has permission from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to collect, and his findings are donated, at least in spirit. Because Ray’s home is actually an official annex of the academy.

LONG: One of the reasons why Ray has such a huge number of specimens at his house is because we don’t have the room here to store them.

HOBAN: Douglas Long is the head of ornithology and mammalogy at the Academy of Sciences. Last year when the academy made plans to renovate, Long knew they needed to accommodate Ray’s bones. So he sent architects to Ray’s house to take measurements.

LONG: I didn’t tell these people what they were going to run into, and I knew that they would be completely blown away by what they saw. And it was about 10, maybe 15 minutes before their jaws become un-slackened.

HOBAN: Long says a collection like Ray’s is invaluable to science. In just the past year researchers have taken tiny drillings from teeth in Ray’s sea lion skulls to study environmental toxins. Other scientists compared chemicals in the sea lion teeth from before and after an El Nino to examine changes in the animals’ diets.

LONG: People have come up with some fantastic ways of looking for scientific information from these specimens, so there are techniques that will come up in the future that we have no idea now. Who knew about DNA a hundred years ago? Who knew about isotopic chemical analysis from teeth ten years ago?

HOBAN: Over the years Douglas Long has learned to defend Ray’s hobby and what some people see as his weird, relentless search for dead animals.

Ray Bandar holds a 7 1/2 foot Red Kangaroo that was found dead on a road in Queensland, Australia, 1981. (Photo: Alkmene Bandar) Ray Bandar cleans one of three male California Sea Lion skulls, Ano Nuevo Island, California, circa 1970’s.

LONG: I think he’s weird because he doesn’t have a TV, doesn’t have a computer, doesn’t drink alcohol, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t even eat junk food unless it’s free, and I think that is probably the weirdest thing about him. I think there’s absolutely nothing weird about having the drive to understand nature and to collect scientific information for our institution. That’s normal.

HOBAN: For Ray, collecting has been almost an act of faith. He has no way of knowing what use scientists will find for these bones, these studies in shape and light. They have been his life’s work and they’re his gift to the future.

Now Ray’s legacy is on display at the California Academy of Sciences. And soon there will be a permanent space dedicated to his collection. But he has no intention of resting.

BANDAR: In a month and a half I’ll be 75.

HOBAN: So, isn’t it time to quit?

BANDAR: Hell no. As long as my legs still hold up and there’s still stuff on the beaches, I’m going to work the beaches. As long as there’s still stuff to get from the zoos, I’ll be collecting stuff.

HOBAN: At this rate, the academy had better plan a big extension.

For Living on Earth, I’m Rose Hoban in San Francisco.

[MUSIC: Richard Warner “Spirit Wind” Quiet Heart/Spirit Wind Enso Records (1996)]

CURWOOD: This month you can hear author Sy Montgomery read from her new book “Search for the Golden Moon Bear” on the Living on Earth website.

MONTGOMERY: In glossy monsoon soils they leave their footprints. With five rounded toes and a long heel pad on the back foot, their footsteps look like those of giant humans. But you could spend years exploring these tangled rainforests and never see a moon bear. Instead, you would find them, as we did, caged in back of tourist hotels, chained outside of city pharmacies, and at markets like this one.

CURWOOD: It’s the search for the golden moon bear, all this month on our website, livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.


And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Town Creek Foundation and the Wellborn Ecology 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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Pigeons in the Park

CURWOOD: Many New Yorkers are resigned to the fact that parks and pigeons are an eternal partnership. But Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan is trying out a novel plan to get rid of the winged loiterers and their droppings. Park administrators have called in a team of hawks to scare off the pigeons. Tom Cullen is the raptor specialist who is running the program. Tom, how do you and the hawks on your crew go about getting rid of the pigeons in the park?

Harris’ Hawk (Photo: Southwest Wildlife)   

CULLEN: Basically the Harris’ hawk is a bird that's specifically designed to catch ground quarry, things like rodents and squirrels, rabbits. The pigeons don't realize that the particular hawk that I'm using is not well adapted to catch them, and what we're relying on is the instinctive behavior of pigeons to avoid hawks. We're not actually hunting the pigeons, per se, in the park. What we're doing is we're using that natural fear to build the stress level up, so that the pigeons basically avoid the area because there's a predator on the prowl.

CURWOOD: How do you control your hawks?

CULLEN: Basically, we use the ancient methods of falconry to train the birds. Basically, they're taught to come to us for food. And so we control them that way. My birds are trained to follow me like a dog would, except, of course, they follow me from treetop to treetop.

CURWOOD: So what sort of controls do you use, your body, your voice? How do you do this?

CULLEN: A little bit of both. I can get their attention by yelling at them or whistling to them so that they turn their head. But because they're so visually orientated, what I have to do to actually bring them down is show them something, either a lure that's dragged along the ground or actually just a small piece of meat, and place it in my gloved hand and they come down to that.

CURWOOD: Maybe you could let us hear what it sounds like when you call one of your hawks back to you.

CULLEN: Oh just kind of a [WHISTLES] and you can hear her bells in the background here. She wears bells so that I can locate her if she were to go down into cover. So I kind of hear a jingle-jingle as she follows me along.

CURWOOD: What's her name?

CULLEN: The one I have on my fist at the moment is called Starbuck.

CURWOOD: So she does caffeine in the morning, I take it.

CULLEN: Well, they're kind of a dark, chocolatey-brown bird with a little bit of, kind of, reddish shoulders. And I named one of them Mocha, so then I ended up naming another Java. So Starbuck just kind of seemed to fall in line.

CURWOOD: You're a man who enjoys a good cup of coffee.

CULLEN: That's right.

CURWOOD: You know, if these pigeons get moved out of Bryant Park, and then may be they get moved out of Times Square, and maybe they get moved out of…

CULLEN: Well they can always go to Jersey. That would suit me. [laughter] As long as they're out of Bryant Park, I'm happy. Again, if I leave, it's more than likely they're going to come back in again. So it is a kind of maintenance program that we're doing here.

CURWOOD: Tom Cullen is a raptor specialist. He talked to us from Bryant Park in New York. Hey, are you going to fly your birds now?

CULLEN: Yes. [BELLS RINGING] There we go.

CURWOOD: Thanks a lot, Tom.


Related link:
Bryant Park website

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Emerging Science Note/WTC Fallout

CURWOOD: Just ahead: the story of what happened when the Superfund stigma came to Silver Valley, Idaho. First, this note on emerging science from Jessica Penney.


PENNEY: When the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, 2001, it covered lower Manhattan in ash and left a layer of sediment at the bottom of the Hudson River. Scientists now hope that this ash layer may help them learn more about the geology of the New York Harbor.

A team of researchers from University of Massachusetts in Boston took river-bottom sediment samples at two unused piers on the lower west side of Manhattan one month after the disaster. They found unusual concentrations of calcium, strontium and sulfur. These are all elements found in gypsum drywall and in ash from the Twin Towers.

They are still trying to determine how much of the ash fell from the sky onto the river, and how much washed into the water after rainstorms later in September. This distinct layer of chemicals could wash out to sea. But the researchers say it may remain on the bottom of the river and become a permanent geological marker of the tragedy.

Having a clear and distinct sediment layer from a specific event will allow the researchers to learn more about the movement of particles in the harbor. The researchers went back to the Hudson last July and took more samples from different locations. They are analyzing the data in what they say will become an ongoing effort to monitor the fate of the World Trade Center ash. That's this week's Note on Emerging Science. I'm Jessica Penney.


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

[MUSIC: Thievery Corporation “Liberation Front” The Richest Man in Babylon ESL Music (2002)]

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Silver Valley

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

When the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, its mandate seemed clear, if daunting: to cleanse the nation if its of past environmental sins, to resurrect dead and dying rivers, industrial sites, and toxic towns. Yet when the EPA announced plans to expand a Superfund site in northern Idaho, many people who live there railed against the Superfund stigma being stamped on their towns and businesses. Idaho's governor threatened to throw the EPA out of the state. One resident even suggested shooting Superfund officials found trespassing on private property. From Idaho's Silver Valley, producer Guy Hand explains why the EPA's campaign to clean up a century's worth of mining debris sounds less like noble work than warfare.

HOPPER: The EPA is probably the worst thing that's ever happened to America.

HAND: Bob Hopper takes a long, hard drag on his cigarette. He owns a mine here in the Silver Valley.

HOPPER: You, as an individual, you have lost every right that you think you have. You have none because of the EPA. And the only reason that you don't know it is because nobody has jumped on you yet.

HAND: Hopper feels jumped on. EPA workers are prowling around outside his office, inspecting his waste water line.


HAND: And that's got the veins in Hopper's neck bulging, and his dog barking. This mine, the Bunker Hill mine, was once one of the most productive silver mines in the world. Now, it's part of a Superfund site. And even though Hopper didn't own the mine during its polluting heyday, he's inherited its toxic legacy. It's an inheritance he thinks he doesn't deserve.

HOPPER: You have to understand, there is no private property as far as the EPA is concerned. They have things called unilateral administrative orders, and all they have to do is issue you one. They can come right through the middle of your house.


HAND: To understand why 20 years ago the EPA declared a large chunk of the Silver Valley the Bunker Hill Superfund site, why they now plan to expand that site to an area of Idaho larger than Yosemite, and why locals are so upset, it helps to get underground. In the dark, the complicated history of western mining is easier to see.


HAND: As the rail car descends through level after level, you begin to see the sheer size of the undertaking. You begin to see how the hundreds of mines that dot this steep-walled valley could pull more than five billion dollars worth of silver and other minerals, out of these mountains, and how they could bring prosperity to isolated towns, build schools and hospitals. And how a mere hole in the ground could sprout a fierce, unconditional kind of loyalty.


GROTH: We just came in a little over two miles, and we're in the area now that's called the load-out area. This is kind of the heart of the mine.

HAND: Jon Groth is too young to have worked here during the Valley's boom times, but his grandfather did. So did his father, until he died in a mining accident. Still, Groth likes it down here, surrounded by cool, wet stone.


GROTH: This is where the hoist operator spent his day. Right now, this hoist is much larger than anything we need, so for now, it's just kind of on standby here. We've got it in mothballs.

HAND: You can see a mix of pride and sadness on Groth's face. You see it on lots of faces here in the Silver Valley; a pride in having been at one time part of the most productive silver mining region in the world, a sadness that it's gone. Some blame the EPA, yet not all the region's miners feel good about the work they did here.

PIEKARSKI: I spent 27 years and 23 days in that hellhole.

HAND: Eighty-six year old Pete Piekarski worked in the smelter during the boom times.

PIEKARSKI: They polluted this valley for all the years that that smelter operated. As soon as you'd get on swing shift, they'd kick up the air blast and the valley would fill plumb full of smoke. Wake up the next morning, and from here to St. Marie's was smoke. So they polluted this valley steady from 1917 until the day they, until they shut down.

HAND: What finally brought the valley's pollution problem to national attention was the bag house fire of September, 1974. The bag house was the smelter's smoke filtration system, and Mitch Killebrew saw it catch fire.

KILLEBREW: And we were out on the track field when the bag house went up.

HAND: He was just a kid then, attending school a stone's throw from the burning building.

KILLEBREW: And it just turned this whole area here just black, just black, you know? And they just had us go into the school. I mean hey, you could hardly, you could hardly breathe. It was terrible.

HAND: Huge clouds of lead-tainted smoke erupted from the smelter's stacks, but Gulf Resources, the Texas-based company that owned the Bunker Hill mine at the time, just kept the smelter running.

OSBORN: The board of directors for Gulf Resources met, and we know what they did, because they actually wrote it down in their board minutes. They calculated how much it would cost per child if they got caught polluting the community.

HAND: John Osborn is a physician who's worked to clean up mining pollution for years. He says children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning.

OSBORN: And they used the figure of $4,000 per kid, according to their notes. And they concluded they stood to make a lot of money if they continued operating. So they did. And the result was this incredible amount of lead was dispersed over these people's homes, over their yards. And by April, some of the highest lead levels ever recorded in children were being recorded in the families of those people who lived downwind from the smokestacks.

HAND: It took months before the state of Idaho, a mining-dependent state, shut the smelter down. By that time, an estimated 20 years' worth of unfiltered heavy metals had rained down on mining communities. In 1983, the EPA declared a 21-square-mile rectangle within the Silver Valley, an immediate health emergency and a Superfund site.


HAND: But lead-tainted air wasn't the only problem. The valley's metallic past has left behind mountains of mining debris. It's heaped on the banks of creeks and rivers. It clogs old mines. And with every rain, those heavy metals flush downstream. That's why the EPA frequently inspects mine owner Bob Hopper's waste water line, despite his resentment.

GRANDINETTI: That water needs to be treated. It's at a pH of about two.

HAND: Cami Grandinetti is an EPA Project manager. She believes there are compelling reasons why the agency frequently visits Bob Hopper's mine.

GRANDINETTI: And just to put this in perspective, the load of zinc that comes out of that mine untreated is the single largest source of metal load to the river, to the entire system, in the entire basin.

HAND: Millions of pounds of heavy metals flow from Silver Valley mines every year. They kill fish, plant life, water foul, and threaten human health all the way into Washington state. That's why the EPA wants to expand its Superfund site through the whole watershed, the Coeur d' Alene Basin. But the communities including in this new plan don't want the headaches they've seen inflicted on the Bunker Hill site. Cami Grandinetti.

GRANDINETTI: When we first showed up doing our investigation in the 80s, there was not the intense negative feeling about EPA. There was really a sense that things had gone wrong at the smelter, that there was a lot of lead contamination that was hurting the local populations, and people were happy that we were there, and doing something about cleaning up the area.

HAND: But after years of Superfund work, years of bulldozers and bureaucrats, many locals lost patience with the EPA.

GRANDINETTI: It's so in their face. It's happening in their yards. It's happening at the complex. The mines are shutting down, and EPA is right on the tails of all of that. So it's easy to point to EPA and the environmental cleanup as the source of the problem.

HAND: A local writer literally targeted the EPA as the source of the problem when he wrote a fiery editorial in the local paper.

GRANDINETTEI: Where he recommended that people arm themselves, and shoot EPA and state people if they tried to come on their property.

A sign posted at the entrance to Silver Valley mine.
(Photo: Guy Hand)


HAND: David Bond is the freelance writer who wrote that, and many other anti-EPA articles. He sits on a barstool in one of his favorite Silver Valley hangouts.

BOND: I said it tongue in cheek, but you know, bloody hell. Whatever it takes. These guys are Nazis. They're coming in here like a bunch of Gestapo, jack-booted thugs, and are screwing over people that are my friends.

HAND: Bond takes a sip of beer. He's tired of this fight and it shows. He says everybody in the Silver Valley is tired, afflicted with a kind of Superfund fatigue.

BOND: God damn it, don't misunderstand me, okay? The original EPA guys that came up here to do this cleanup were decent, honorable people. And I swear to god [laughter] if you don't include this, I'll hunt you down and kill ya. They were good, good people. What you've got now is a bunch of little Gestapo and I, I would not suggest that anybody not use any means available constitutionally or otherwise, to oppose them.

HAND: Bond, and other EPA critics, believe the agency has overstated the environmental and health threats present in the Silver Valley, labeling it, in Bond's words, the Valley of Death, merely to keep themselves employed. Ron Roizen, another EPA critic, agrees.

ROIZEN: When you create a national bureaucracy or a national institute organized around a problem, there is a tendency for that research to exaggerate and enhance the scope of problems that it purports to be addressing, because that institution has to beg for money from Congress.

HAND: Roizen says he's ploughed through a mountain of the EPA's own documentation to come up with that conclusion. He's confident that lead poisoning poses no risk to his eleven-year-old daughter. In fact, he plans to defy the EPA if they try to remove the soil from his yard.

ROIZEN: Now, if they come here, I'll tell you right now, they can't do my property. I refuse. I'm just going to flat-out refuse.

HAND: EPA toxicologist Marc Stifelman doesn't understand people like Roizen. He says there's overwhelming scientific evidence that proves a health risk to children in this watershed.

STIFELMAN: It's just silly to argue about lead health effects.

HAND: He says the data the EPA uses to justify its Superfund program are widely accepted.

STIFELMAN: They're accepted by CDC. They're accepted by EPA, ATSDR, the World Health Organization. They're accepted by the AMA and the Academy for Pediatrics.

HAND: Stifelman says the effects of lead poisoning are seldom obvious – lowering IQ and other cognitive functions in real, but subtle ways.

STIFELMAN: Because the effects are subtle and somewhat silent in nature, you can deny their existence, but there is really no scientific basis to that today.

HAND: Yet Roizen is unconvinced. He says you only have to look outside to see the truth.

ROIZEN: And I would actually ask you to just look out the window. I mean, if you look out the window and you see this lovely, beautiful, green, lush and historically rich town and the valley it's in, it just doesn't ring. I mean, it doesn't ring that you're in a Superfund site.


HAND: Yet there are people in this valley who see plenty of environmental problems.

MILLER: On the left what we're seeing, this little knoll, it's where the Bunker Hill Mine and Smelter dump their raw mine waste.

HAND: Barbara Miller is driving through Kellogg Idaho, past a mile and a quarter long mound of mining debris – 70,000 tons of cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead. It sits smack in the middle of town, and right on the banks of the Coeur d' Alene River.

MILLER: Technical advisors have pointed out to us that EPA's containment of this site is not acceptable; that it's causing leaching, still, into the river.

HAND: She believes the Silver Valley is filled with similar examples of how the EPA has not overstated the problems, but in many cases minimized them.

MILLER: I think that EPA is allowing the politics and the special interests to set the agenda. I believe that the tourism industry that is strongly backed by the mining industry, are having their say with mostly what does not get done here.

HAND: Miller says the EPA has set standards for the clean-up much lower here than they set them in other Superfund sites; that they haven't cleaned up the interior of homes. That they even hesitate to put up signs warning children not to play in contaminated soils.

For her activism, the national press has called her the Erin Brockovich of north Idaho. The Ford Foundation has awarded her organization a large grant. But here in the Silver Valley, her home, she gets less praise.

MILLER: I've been jailed.

HAND: Miller says she's been jailed, received death threats, had people sneak into her yard and destroy property, even steal her dog. All because she wants the EPA to do the job it's been mandated to do. But Dick Martindale of the EPA thinks the agency is doing exactly what it's been mandated to do.

MARTINDALE: There are entire towns that are cleaned up now. I mean, they are now safe to human health. And what more can you ask for? Ecologically we're going to be cleaning up areas that are going to improve the fisheries. It's going to improve water foul habitat. It's just unreal. It's just an absolute benefit for the greatest number of people over the longest period of time, and we're in it for the long haul.


HAND: For the EPA, the long haul is another 30 years. That's the additional time it wants to take to clean these rivers, streams and mountain towns. For the agency's critics, that's far too long. And now they'll have a say. EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman recently agreed to hand majority control of the project to a commission dominated by Idaho political interests. It's an unprecedented move that will likely limit the scope of the cleanup. Yet scientists say 30 years is nothing. Time, when it comes to hard rock mining, is better expressed geologically. They estimate that cleansing this watershed of toxins could take 500 years. From the mines of north Idaho, I'm Guy Hand for Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder “Canoes Upstream” Music By Ry Cooder BMI (1981)]

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth.

Next week, more tourists are going to our national parks than ever before. But not more tax dollars. Officials say without relief, the parks are in danger of falling into permanent neglect.

MALE: Last year, at this time, if you would have walked down the hallway, you would get vertigo because it was so much slanted in – it was falling into this lake.

CURWOOD: Repairing the parks, next time on Living on Earth. And don’t forget that between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to our website, livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

[FOREST SOUNDS, MONKEY CALLS: David Dunn “Northern Muriqui/Woolly Spider Monkey” Caratinga Earth Ear (2001)]

We leave you this week with a little monkey business. Douglas Quin recorded and then sonically condensed a day in the life of a group of Wooly Spider Monkeys who live near the Caratinga Biological Station in the Atlantic forest of Brazil.


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: Andy Farnsworth, Jennifer Chu, Tom Simon, Susan Shepherd, Elizabeth Klein, Carly Ferguson, Nathan Marcy, and Liz Lempert. We had help this week from Maggie Villiger, and special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our interns are Carolyn Johnson, Julia Keller, Taylor Ferguson and Mary Beth Conway.

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

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stoneyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stoneyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation.

MALE ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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