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

October 31, 2003

Air Date: October 31, 2003



MTBE & Liability / Jeff Young

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The carcinogenic gasoline additive MTBE has been found in water systems across the country and cleaning it up could cost tens of billions of dollars. Now, a clause in the massive energy bill before Congress could protect MTBE makers from contamination lawsuits. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports from Washington. (05:30)

Paying at the Pump

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Seventeen states have banned the use of MTBE in gasoline, and New Hampshire is thinking of doing the same. Host Steve Curwood visited with Kevin Waterhouse, owner of a gas station in Windham, New Hampshire. He tells how MTBE has leaked from his own gas pumps, and what he’s doing to keep his neighbors’ water MTBE free. (05:45)

Environmental Health Note/ Aspirin & Heart Disease / Kathy Lutz

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Living on Earth's Kathy Lutz reports on a study suggesting discontinuing aspirin therapy may lead to heart attacks for coronary patients. (01:20)

Almanac/The Big Freeze

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This week, we have facts about the first frozen peas. Ninety-one years ago, a naturalist discovered the secret of freezing foods while fishing in the Arctic tundra. (01:30)

Bat Hang-out Causes Problems for Local Melbourne Gardens

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The city of Melbourne, Australia contains a number of botanical gardens. It turns out native bats in the area think these gardens make for a perfect home. But local officials think otherwise. So they’ve embarked on a plan that includes convincing the bats the living is easier elsewhere. Sandy Hausman reports. (08:40)

EU Chemicals

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The European Union is gearing up to change the way chemicals are managed. The proposed legislation, called REACH, will require chemical companies to provide data on the safety of all chemicals produced, and to prove that there is a continued need for the most toxic chemicals. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Michael Warhurst, Senior Toxics Advisor of the EU World Wildlife Fund, about the REACH policy. (04:00)

Snake Crossing

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Forest Service road 345 is the only road in the U.S. that closes not for foot traffic, but snake crossings. The road lies smack in the middle of the reptiles’ yearly migration route. Host Steve Curwood talks with herpetologist Scott Ballard about just how heavy this snake traffic can get. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Ocean Life Evolution / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on a study that shows how the last great ice age may have ended when multi-celled organisms evolved into being. (01:20)

California Wildfires / Ingrid Lobet

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The California fires have cast a pall over much of the region. The smoke contains tiny particles that aggravate and sometimes cause breathing problems. Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet looks at just how much particulate the fires have propelled into the air. (05:00)

Healthy Forests

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As host Steve Curwood reports, a forest health bill recently stalled in the Senate sees movement because of the California wildfires. (01:10)

The Beast in the Garden

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In the late 1980s the cougar population near Boulder, Colorado grew so large and so accustomed to people that the wild animals started hanging out in neighborhoods and occasionally attacking pets. Eventually, and some would say inevitably, mountain lions went after people. Host Steve Curwood talks with former NPR science reporter David Baron about his new book "The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature." (09:50)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Michael Warhurst, Scott Ballard, David BaronREPORTERS: Jeff Young, Sandy Hausman, Ingrid LobetNOTES: Kathy Lutz, Cynthia Graber


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. The gasoline additive MBTE has helped clean the air, but it has also fouled drinking water. MBTE makers want a Congressional bailout, but opponents say “don’t go there.”

CURTIS: The immunity provision they’re seeking isn’t about common sense and it isn’t about the common good. It’s about special interest politics. It’s about how readily big money can buy itself an amendment in a bill like the energy bill these days.

CURWOOD: Also, when the border between civilization and wilderness is blurred, it can mean new realities for both people and predators.

BARON: Scott Lancaster’s death, even though he was killed by a mountain lion, that was not a natural death. That mountain lion that killed him, I believe, had its behavior altered in some very unnatural ways because of the landscape it was living in.

CURWOOD: It’s “The Beast in the Garden” this week on Living on Earth, first this.


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

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MTBE & Liability


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The chemical methyl tertiary butyl ether has done both good and bad things for the environment. MTBE, as it’s known, makes gasoline burn more efficiently in cars, reducing air pollution. But in 25 states it’s also a major source of water contamination. This cancer-causing chemical has been detected in water systems serving millions of Americans. And cleaning it up could cost nearly thirty billion dollars. The companies that make and use MTBE want Congress to protect them from some lawsuits seeking cleanup costs. And there’s a provision in the pending energy bill to do just that. Critics call it a special interest giveaway. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: Some call MTBE the "Houdini chemical.” It has a nasty habit of slipping out of gas storage tanks and into ground water supplies. Just tiny amounts can make water smell and taste like turpentine. And health officials suspect it could cause cancer and other health problems. So, faced with a massive cleanup some city water systems took the companies who make and use MTBE to court. American Waterworks Association Vice President Tom Curtis says court records show the companies knew decades ago about the problems with MTBE.

CURTIS: They knew that it leaked much more readily than other components of gas, that it spread more quickly and was enormously expensive to clean up. Nonetheless, they decided to use MTBE in their product. That makes that product defective according to at least a couple of juries in lawsuits that have been brought.

YOUNG: The oil and chemical companies settled one California contamination suit for almost 70 million dollars. Then, Curtis says, they turned from the courts to Congress.

The companies hired lobbyists like Frank Maisano to make their argument to the lawmakers who were crafting a sweeping energy bill.

MAISANO: MTBE is really not a defective product.

YOUNG: Maisano says the chemical is very good at its intended purpose of making gasburn more cleanly. That’s why the federal government encouraged the use of gasoline additives – such as MTBE or ethanol – in the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. Maisano says MTBE companies deserve protection from defective product lawsuits. He says that still allows for other lawsuits.

MAISANO: They’re still gonna be allowed to file dozens of suits regarding contamination based on negligence, spills, contamination of gasoline. And they’ll argue that “oh, that’s only gonna target the mom and pop gasoline store.” Well, the mom and pop gasoline store ought to be one of the targets. The reality here is storage tanks leaked, people mishandled the gasoline, and those are the people who ought to be responsible

YOUNG: Maisano also says the 29 billion estimated cost for MTBE cleanup is exaggerated. But the Waterworks Association’s Curtis says that figure is probably too low. And he says the approach Maisano suggests won’t come close to solving the problem.

CURTIS: The owner of gas station on the corner is probably a small businessman. He hasn’t been negligent in selling the product that was given to him by the gasoline manufacturers. Why should he pay the bill? So the immunity provision they are seeking isn’t about common sense and it isn’t about the common good. It’s about special interest politics. It’s about how readily big money can buy itself an amendment in a bill like the energy bill these days.

YOUNG: About the time lawmakers first considered the energy bill, and water systems filed the first MTBE suits, some of the chemical’s makers increased their efforts to influence Congress.

WEISS: Probably not a coincidence. Companies generally give more money when there is a specific concern they have.

YOUNG: That’s Steve Weiss with the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group tracking campaign funding. Campaign finance records show one of the country’s top MTBE makers, Lyondell Petrochemicals of Houston, gave about half a million dollars to candidates over the past five years. And the company’s lobbying expenses jumped from a modest 40 thousand a year five years ago to nearly three million dollars over the past year and a half. Weiss says Lyondell’s spending stands out.

WEISS: In the 2001-2002 election cycle the company was among top five contributors among all chemical manufacturers. And so far in 2003-2004 election cycle the company is number one among all chemical manufacturers in terms of campaign giving.

YOUNG: A Lyondell spokesperson was not available for comment. Lyondell’s top recipients in the House of Representatives are three Republican leaders: Energy Committee chair Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, Joe Barton of Texas and Majority leader Tom Delay of Texas. Those are also the strongest supporters of the liability protection for MTBE companies, most of which are in Texas and Louisiana. Staffers say the Congressmen were too busy to comment. They’re among the lawmakers rewriting the massive energy bill in a conference committee.

Observers say they expect the bill’s final version will not only shield companies from suits but make that protection retroactive to October first, or even earlier, blocking many recent suits already filed. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

Related links:
- Communities for a Better Environment
- Environmental Health Coalition

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Paying at the Pump

CURWOOD: MTBE has quickly become a national problem because the chemical rapidly infiltrates drinking water supplies. That means the slightest leak puts nearby wells and reservoirs at immediate risk. Seventeen states have voted to ban the chemical and others, including New Hampshire, are considering that step.


CURWOOD: In the town of Windham, New Hampshire, Kevin Waterhouse runs a country store and a gas station that’s been in his family for 81 years. Mr. Waterhouse joined me on the front porch of his store, and as we watched customers fill up, he told me how MTBE became a problem for him.


WATERHOUSE: Well, back in 1995 we were improving the development of our property here at the intersection of 111 and 128. We had a very old country store with two gas tanks, serving a regular and a super pump. Taking them out, we invited the Department of Environmental Services to come down and do soil samples to see what was under the old tanks. And they came back with the determination that we had MTBEs in the soil.

We then constructed our new tanks, pumps in a complete drainage system that would protect the whole property, keeping any water runoff from getting out onto state land. And we put in 12 test wells around the property to see where the flow from the original contamination was headed underground. What we found is that our remediation plans were working, cleaning up the old site, but we were getting a brand new contamination, much higher in quantities than we’d ever seen before outside of the new tanks.

And for the last four years we’ve been doing every test imaginable to find out where we’ve got a problem coming from. We have not found anything that would lead us to believe that the tanks aren’t tight. And yet we keep spiking for MTBEs.

CURWOOD: How frustrating is it to be taking all the steps that the engineers are telling you to take to solve this problem and you still haven’t solved it?

WATERHOUSE: Well, it’s extremely frustrating. We know that it’s our responsibility to not have a problem. We’re doing everything that we can imagine to correct any deficiency we might have. We can’t find one and yet the problem gets worse. We’re not finding any other chemicals from gasoline other than the MTBEs. The benzenes seem to be dissipating into the air and it’s only this one chemical that’s giving us a problem.


CURWOOD: What concerns do you have about the water quality itself here?

WATERHOUSE: This whole problem did not come in the usual fashion of – we didn’t find a water problem and then say where did the problem come from. We’ve actually done it from the correct way. We’ve found out there was a problem, then we’ve gone and tested the wells, told the people you do have a problem and we’re going to correct it for you. And we’ve purchased a filtration system for their home, to make sure that they have safe drinking water. That’s covered by the state of New Hampshire’s Odds fund. And we pay into our gas tax, and that money is used to make sure that we can clean up environmental hazards, or protect our neighbors from problems that we’ve created.

But from the information that I’ve gotten from the state of New Hampshire, this is definitely a cancer-causing agent. We thought we were putting this into our gasoline to protect the air. And it turns out that we may be protecting the air, but we’re destroying the water quality of our neighbors.

CURWOOD: How much do you worry about being sued by your neighbors?

WATERHOUSE: It is a concern to me. I know that, thanks to the state of New Hampshire’s prompt action, we have been right on top of keeping these people with good quality drinking water. But should one of my neighbors determine to sell their property, if they did not get the fair market value they were expecting, they may indeed look to me and want me to make up the difference.

CURWOOD: What do you think of the idea of Congress shielding the makers of MTBE from liability?

WATERHOUSE: I would have to be against shielding them because they either did know or should have known the cancer-causing potential of this chemical. If they didn’t know they should have done more testing before they chose this as the proper method of cleaning up the air.

CURWOOD: Compared to other problems you’ve had in the past, how serious is this MTBE problem for you?

WATERHOUSE: It’s actually been the most worrisome problem that I’ve experienced in my 12 years of running the family business. It affects everything that I try to plan for the future because it leaves me in a position of vulnerability. It’s something I can’t control. I can’t just make the business decision--if I spend more money I can correct the problem, it will go away. No matter what amount we have spent to ensure that we don’t have leaks into the ground, I’m still putting MTBEs into the ground. So it’s much more serious than anything else I’ve had to deal with.

CURWOOD: Kevin Waterhouse is the general manager of the Waterhouse Country Store, a family business in Windham, New Hampshire.

WATERHOUSE: Thank you very much.


[MUSIC: Mu-Ziq “Mushroom Compost” LUNATIC HARNESS (Astralwerks – 1997)]

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Environmental Health Note/ Aspirin & Heart Disease

CURWOOD: Just ahead: fear and fondness for Australia’s flying foxes. First, this Environmental Health Note from Kathy Lutz.


LUTZ: Aspirin has been around for a century, but only recently have scientists realized the drugs’ ability to thin the blood by preventing clots. Now doctors frequently recommend patients with coronary artery disease take aspirin to prevent heart attacks or stroke. But because it thins the blood, aspirin can cause bleeding. So, doctors often discontinue aspirin therapy when a patient is about to have any kind of surgery, even as minor as a dental procedure.

To find out how aspirin withdrawal can affect coronary patients a group of French researchers studied 1,236 heart attack victims at the University Hospital Pasteur in Nice between September 1999 and April 2002. Fifty-one of the patients were admitted about one week after they stopped aspirin therapy. The reasons for their aspirin withdrawal ranged from preparation for upcoming minor surgery to failure to follow doctor’s orders. Fifteen had a history of heart attack and 36 reported chest pain before their hospitalization.

Researchers presented their results at the recent American College of Chest Physician's meeting in Orlando. They called for more research and asked physicians and patients to be cautious when discontinuing aspirin therapy. And that’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Katherine Lutz.

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

[MUSIC: Mohammed Rafi “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” GHOST WORLD SOUNDTRACK (Shanachie-2001)]

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Almanac/The Big Freeze

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

[MUSIC: Percy Faith & His Orchestra “The Synchopated Clock” TELEVISION THEMES – 16 MOST REQUESTED SONGS (Columbia – 1994)]

CURWOOD: November is a time to batten down the hatches and stock up for the long winter. And for some folks, that means stuffing the freezer with plenty of food. The commercial frozen food phenomenon started with just one man and a fish out on the icy tundra of northern Canada. A naturalist and fur trader named of Clarence Birdseye traveled there in 1912.

He took notes on how Arctic people preserved their fish in barrels of seawater which turned the fish into popsicles in the icy wind. Birdseye realized that freezing foods quickly at extremely cold temperatures kept damaging ice crystals from forming. He took that observation to the bank, creating Birdseye Seafoods in 1922 and then marketing a highly successful line of frozen vegetables. Generations of Americans grew up eating Birdseye frozen peas.

Freezing today is a bit more advanced, says Olga Padilla Zakour, a food scientist at Cornell University. She's working on a consumer-friendly technique to eliminate the hassle of chipping away at that stubborn portion of peas that just won’t be parted from their frozen brethren.

ZAKOUR: We like to do freezing of the individual pieces of peas in which each pea is frozen before it is packaged. The peas will be suspended in cold air while they're being frozen and we can immerse them directly into liquid nitrogen.

CURWOOD: For the home freezer, Ms. Zakour recommends sealing foods in plastic bags or airtight containers to prevent dehydration and marking them with yearly expiration dates. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC: Percy Faith & His Orchestra “The Synchopated Clock” TELEVISION THEMES – 16 MOST REQUESTED SONGS (Columbia – 1994)]

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Bat Hang-out Causes Problems for Local Melbourne Gardens

CURWOOD: Melbourne is Australia’s second city, a center for fashion and the arts. It’s home to more than three million people and to a colony of thousands of flying foxes, a type of giant bat that’s taken up residence in the city’s lush botanic gardens. Australia’s population of grey-headed flying foxes has been in decline. So officials there have declared them a threatened species. Still, in Melbourne, the municipal gardeners say there are far too many, and they’ve hatched a unique plan to drive the big bats away. Sandy Hausman has details:


HAUSMAN: Melbourne is one of the fastest-growing cities in Australia with more than 4500 new residents arriving each year. It’s a flat, sprawling place of highways and high rises. Farms and orchards on the outskirts of the city are quickly turning into housing developments, and the bats which once fed on blossoms and fruit in the country are now becoming city dwellers.


TOOP: These are grey-headed flying foxes and some people refer to them as fruit bats.

HAUSMAN: Simon Toop is with the Australian Department of Sustainability and Environment. He’s standing in a dark, damp corner of Melbourne’s Botanic Garden called Fern Gully. In other parts of the park, visitors find rolling green lawns, tidy flower beds and elegant old trees from England, but Fern Gully is overgrown with tropical plants and overrun by bats. They soar overhead – their large, black wings silhouetted against a warm spring sun. They hang like black Christmas balls from every tree, chattering and squabbling to protect their turf:

(Photo: David Williams. Courtesy of Ku-ring-gai Bat Conservation Society )   

TOOP: We have four species of flying foxes that are endemic to Australia and they’re a large bat, one of the largest. They have a wingspan of up to one meter. They have a heavy cover of fur that stretches from their ankles to the tip of their nose, and their head’s grey as the name suggests.

HAUSMAN: The resident colony of bats – those living in Melbourne year-round – is about 8,000, but each spring as the animals prepare to mate and raise young the number grows. In 2001 there were about 20,000, the following year 25,000, and now there are 28,000 bats literally hanging around the trees. They pose no threat to human health but ecologist Toop says they’ve taken a toll on several trees that have grown in the public gardens for more than a century.

TOOP: By moving up and down the branches and by flying in and out, they are actually breaking the branches, stripping leaves. They were fouling the paths, especially during breeding season. They can have quite a pungent smell, which is an odor to attract mates, of course, so there was some controversy there.

HAUSMAN: At first, gardenkeepers tried using a sprinkler system to chase the bats away. They put fishing line in the trees and made loud noises. The bats were not impressed. The government then hired sharp shooters to visit the gardens and cull the flock, but that outraged animal rights activists like Debra Tabart.

TABART: Here we have one of the most majestic animals on the planet who has been vilified because it’s a bat and the Dracula movies and the whole thing. If you ever meet a flying fox face to face, they are the sweetest, cutest animals you’ll ever see.

HAUSMAN: The hunt was abruptly cancelled. Officials wouldn’t say how many flying foxes they had killed – perhaps because animal rights activists threatened to kill one tree for every bat that was culled from the colony. Now, the Department of Sustainability and the Environment has joined forces with several other agencies to try a different approach – building a new habitat about five miles from the gardens in a traditional bat flyway along the Yarra River. The state of Victoria has set aside a million dollars to remove non-native vegetation from the 10-acre site, then plant native trees and ground cover, install sprinklers and build a large cage where captive bats are kept.

TOOP: We have in there at the moment approximately 80 flying foxes, so we’re, hopefully, trying to capitalize on the gregarious nature of the species and the highly social nature of the species to attract them out there using the captured flying foxes – their smells, their sounds – to attract their friends.

HAUSMAN: To create the impression of an even larger colony, they’ve taken leaf litter from the botanic gardens and moved it to the new habitat at Horseshoe Bend. Food has been provided, recordings of large bat colonies play over loudspeakers, and plastic bats hang from artificial roosts installed to serve the flying foxes while newly-planted trees are growing.

TOOP: It’s become quite a social gathering place where they’ll come and meet and hang out with the decoys.

HAUSMAN: The problem is that passers by only visit, they don’t stay. So officials are getting more aggressive. Back at the botanic gardens they’ll fire starter pistols, blow airhorns, release balloons, wave flags and do other things calculated to annoy the bats. Animal activist Deborah Tabart says these tactics will stress the bats, but won’t work in the long run.

TABART: [LAUGHING] No, I think some of the bats might get slightly confused for a few days, but they’ll go home.

HAUSMAN: She’s skeptical about the need for bat relocation, pointing out that flying foxes live in a relatively small part of the gardens – on less than two and a half of the 100 acres – and she questions the campaign’s priorities:

HAUSMAN: I think it’s ill-conceived, and I see this all the time – short-term, silly logic and not understanding the big picture. And a lot of those trees are actually not Australian natives, so they’re saying this is protecting our cultural heritage. The bat is our cultural heritage. The pine tree that came from England is not, in my view.

HAUSMAN: In Sydney, the World Wildlife Fund fears this program could be bad news for other animals. If officials term bat relocation a success, the organization says communities all over Australia might begin to harass troublesome creatures to make them move on. It would be better, they say, to educate the public, to encourage tolerance and to plant more trees. Tabart agrees, adding that the government should promote the bats of Melbourne as a tourist attraction encouraging visits at dusk when thousands of flying foxes head out to feed:

TABART: If I was the government, I would say, “Come to Victoria. Come and see the bats lift off,” and then have a cup of tea afterwards.

HAUSMAN: Already the bats draw some visitors to the botanic gardens where they express support for the grey-headed flying fox.

MALE: I reckon they’re pretty good. I like the bats. They’re pretty groovy. Yeah, they’re a nice creature!


FEMALE: They don’t frighten me. They just sort of keep to themselves, I guess.

MALE 2: I reckon they’re alright. They’re just part of the garden. What’s the worst that can happen? They can always pooh on you but that’s about it.

MALE 3: I’m a fan of them. There’s a bit of a stench but I can handle that.

HAUSMAN: Simon Toop agrees the flying fox is a magnificent animal but insists a program is needed to protect the trees. He’s not sure relocation will work but says the Department of Sustainability and Environment plans to give it time.

TOOP: This has never been tried anywhere in the world before so essentially, we’re making this up as we go, of course in consultation with flying fox experts and other wildlife biologists. We’ve given ourselves two years to review the project, and if we consider it’s worthwhile, we will continue for a further one year.

HAUSMAN: There is, of course, the risk that bats will relocate – not to Horseshoe Bend but to suburban backyards. Officials say that should not be a long-term problem since flying foxes prefer large areas of dense vegetation near water and will soon move on in search of more suitable camps. The government has, however, established a hotline residents can call if a bat hangs around for more than a week or if a flock of more than 50 should take up residence. For Living on Earth, I’m Sandy Hausman in Melbourne.


MUSIC: [Portishead “Sour Times” DUMMY (Go! Discs Ltd. – 1994)]

Related link:
Sydney Bats

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EU Chemicals

CURWOOD: About ninety per cent of all chemicals sold used in Europe are unregulated, meaning manufacturers are not required to test or produce data about their safety. But that will change by 2006 when a new policy is expected to go into effect. It’s called Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals or REACH and it would shift the burden of proving chemical safety from the government to business.

Joining me to discuss this move is Michael Warhurst, Senior Toxics Advisor for the World Wildlife Fund, in its EU office in Brussels. Michael, tell me, just how would this legislation work?

WARHURST: Basically, the current situation in both Europe and the U.S. is that some years ago it was decided that from certain date any new chemicals coming on the market must have safety data provided by the companies. In the U.S. this was in the 70s, and in the EU this was in 1981. The U.S. was actually ahead of the EU in the regulations during the 70s. But what happened on that date was that any chemicals that had already been on the market were allowed to just continue on the market without the safety data.

And then a few years ago with Environmental Defense, for example, in the U.S., they examined the safety data available on these existing chemicals and discovered it was deficient. And what’s happened in the EU as a response to this lack of data is this new proposal called REACH, which basically says that over an 11 year period industry must provide safety data on these chemicals that have been on the market and are still on the market but for which the safety data are not currently available.

CURWOOD: What are some of these chemicals?

WARHURST: Basically, the majority of chemicals actually fit into this category, the pre-1981 chemicals. So, chemicals that have been under a lot of debate recently, for example P-Phos , which was produced by 3M, to make Scotch Guard, which 3M then decided to stop making. The brominated flame retardants, which are under debate because of their accumulation in the human body and in wildlife. And chemicals like bis-phenol A which has had debate because it’s a hormone disrupter, but it’s found in food can linings, for example.

CURWOOD: Chemical regulation pushes a lot of buttons, and I suspect that this proposal has had a bit of a big reaction in Europe, as well.

WARHURST: We do have a major lobbying campaign by the chemical industry. They’ve been fighting for many years the idea that they should actually have an obligation to provide safety data on all their chemicals. So we do have a big lobbying campaign. They tend not to like regulation as well, and there has been very aggressive political activity in Europe. But at the same time, if you have a chemical company that really does know how safe its chemicals are, and is taking care not to produce the worst chemicals, the impacts of this proposal will actually be positive, not negative.

CURWOOD: Now as I understand it, European leaders including Gerhard Schroeder, President Chirac of France, Tony Blair in the UK, are concerned about this policy, and say that if it’s implemented it is going to cost the chemical industry a lot of money needlessly.

WARHURST: It’s true that a few weeks ago Schroeder, Blair, and Chirac sent a letter to the European Commission calling for the chemicals policy to respect industrial competitiveness. But the reality is that the letter doesn’t actually say that the chemicals policy is a bad idea. I think it’s more complex than that. So what’s actually happening – and this is going to happen for the next two years – is that there is a very general acceptance of the idea of REACH. Once it comes out from the commission, the proposal will go to the European Parliament, the democratically elected body of the EU, and to all the EU member state governments. And these governments will be able to make their comments on the detail. And that will develop into a slightly modified proposal by the time the actual democratic process of the EU is resolved in the next two to three years on this proposal.

CURWOOD: Michael Warhurst is the Senior Toxics Advisor for the EU World Wildlife Office. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

WARHURST: Thank you.

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

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations and 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 Ginsburg in support of excellence in public radio.

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Snake Crossing

CURWOOD: For the past 31 years people driving through Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois have had to yield – not to pedestrians but to rippling reptiles. Every spring and fall for two months at a time, the U.S. Forest Service closes down Road 345 to let past thousands of migrating snakes. This single-lane gravel road is a major hurdle for snakes leaving their warm weather swamp for winter hibernating dens. Herpetologist Scott Ballard, with the state’s Department of Natural Resources, has walked Road 345 many times to monitor snake crossings and says he’s seen ‘em all.

BALLARD: Mostly, the largest population of snakes down there are water mocassins, also known as cottonmouths, that are venomous. But you can also find things like red milk snakes, western ribbon snakes, copperheads, timber rattlesnakes, earth snakes, brown snakes, king snakes. A number of different species use that road.

CURWOOD: Sounds like a pretty rough crowd.

BALLARD: Yeah, it’s – if you’re faint of heart with snakes it sometimes can be alarming. But even though they use this road quite a bit to migrate across, the road is two and a half mile in length, and if you walk the entire length of that road and see 20 or 30 snakes, you’ve seen a lot. When we were down there a couple weekends ago we were seeing a snake about every 50 feet. And it used to be one of the annual rites of spring for the locals to go down and see how many snakes they could run over in their cars.

CURWOOD: Uh, really.

BALLARD: Mm, hmm. And it’s been a big educational process to educate people in the values of snake conservation.

CURWOOD: And the value of snake conservation, for those who are skeptical listening to you right now?

BALLARD: Well, the best way to describe it to people is one average sized snake can eat up to nine pounds of rats and mice in a year. And nine pounds may not seem like a lot, but it will fill up a pillowcase. So, what I tell people is, every time you kill a snake in your yard or in the woods, it’s almost like dumping a pillow case full of mice out there because that’s pretty much what you did. And mice can carry things like rabies and hanta virus and stuff, so these snakes are actually keeping disease-carrying rodents under control for us.

CURWOOD: Which species tend to cross the road the fastest?

BALLARD: It depends on temperature. I’ve seen the cottonmouths go across the road pretty quick. But if it’s warmer, and that roads really hot and it’s warm on their belly, they’ll move across it faster than if it’s cool and they want to kind of sit on the road and absorb some of that heat for a while.

CURWOOD: Tell me Scott, how often do you help the snakes out themselves get across the road?

BALLARD: Well, if I come across something that I’m doing a mark-recapture study on – like a Mississippi green water snake, we have about 50 of those animals marked down there and we’re trying to determine what their population status is – if I slow the animal down by picking it up, weighing it, determining if it’s a male or female, and then clipping scales, I will then go ahead and put it on the other side of the road that it was headed to.

CURWOOD: Scott Ballard is a herpetologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Scott, thanks for taking this time with me today.

BALLARD: Well, thank you very much for the opportunity.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: where there’s smoke, there’s a possible health risk. The fallout from the California fires. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.

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Emerging Science Note/Ocean Life Evolution


GRABER: Hundreds of millions of years ago, there were times when the earth was covered in ice from the polar caps all the way to the tropics. But about 500 million years ago, these extreme ice ages ceased, and glaciers have yet to reach tropical regions again. Now some scientists in California believe they know why.

Climate scientist Andy Ridgwell and his colleagues at UC Riverside and Lawrence Livermore National Lab discovered that the extreme ice ages stopped just about the time life in the ocean began to develop from single-celled organisms to more complex, multi-celled creatures. One of these tiny creatures began to manufacture a shell from a substance calcium carbonate. Turns out that when calcium carbonate dissolves in ocean waters it makes the water less acidic. It also stabilizes the water, preventing wild swings in pH. And since the pH of ocean water regulates the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a more stable ocean pH means a more stable supply of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

No one knows exactly why these tiny creatures evolved shells. It might have been to support a larger body, or to protect themselves from predators. But by doing so, these sea animals changed the chemistry of the ocean, and stabilized the carbon dioxide enough in the atmosphere to help make earth habitable for life, as we know it.

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


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

[MUSIC: Sparta “Glasshouse Tarot” WIRETAP SCARS (Dreamworks – 2002)]

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California Wildfires

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. And coming up: “The Beast in the Garden.” What happened when the mountain lion comes home to Boulder, Colorado.

But first, all week long from California we’ve been hearing wrenching stories of dislocation as thousands of people have lost their homes to the fires running riot across the southern part of the state. Stories like those of Christine Thompson and her sister Janet Benton, who live near each other in a forested canyon on Lydel Creek, in the foothills east of Los Angeles.

BENTON: I’ve been trying to get a place up there for four years and we finally did. And I moved my daughter up there to get her out of San Bernadino and away from the gangs. And so I moved with her for safety’s sake. And she loved that little cabin. It’s the first time in five years that we actually had our own place. It was like we were just staring to get up on our feet, and we lost everything.

CURWOOD: Right now, no one’s stepping forward to help Christine and Janet rebuild when they leave the Red Cross shelter where they’re staying now, sleeping on cots. That’s because they didn’t own their homes. They’re renters. But Janet says her daughter has a plan.

BENTON: My daughter’s going to write Home Depot a letter and ask them if they’ll donate building materials, tell that that we’ve lost our home. It’s worth a try.

MALE: That’s wishful thinking.

BENTON: It could happen.

MALE: It could, I guess.

BENTON: [COUGHING] Yeah, I’ve had a cough for about two months, but it’s really bad tonight.

MALE: It’s getting worse.

BENTON: I’m having a hard time breathing tonight.

CURWOOD: Janet Benton’s cough is surely aggravated by the extra cigarettes she’s been smoking to ease her loss. But it can’t help that she and her fellow southern Californians have been inhaling a foul, yellow-brown pall, heavy with particulate.

Joining me to talk more about the fires and what they are propelling into the air is Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles. Ingrid, for the people who’ve lost their homes or, God forbid, a loved one, the air is clearly not their foremost concern right now, but 15 million people are breathing the smoky air over southern California. What’s it like?

LOBET: The smoke is thick. In some places you can’t see buildings you’ve gotten used to seeing every day. The EPA says the air is laden with particulate, as you mentioned. And this whole region often has more particulate than is considered healthy by the federal government in the first place. Some of these days, during the fire, small particulate levels have been five times what’s typical in Los Angeles. And peak levels reached 20 times what’s typical. In San Diego the air has ranged from unhealthy on one hand to hazardous on the other. In some places kids are not allowed out at recess right now, and I spoke with a pulmonologist yesterday, a lung doctor, who told me that doctors’ offices have been flooded by acute respiratory cases. Then I turned to John Kennedy, who manages technical support for the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, and asked him just how much particulate the fires have sent into the skies so far.

KENNEDY: We estimate that the particulate emissions that have come off of this fire is about 133 thousand tons so far.

LOBET: And that 133 thousand tons, Steve, is 800 times the amount released in one year by the average California refinery, and it’s just been a few days.

CURWOOD: No wonder the sky is grey-brown. What else do we know about what’s in the air?

LOBET: Well, we asked John Kennedy at EPA again to tally that, and when he came back he said that the fires have probably put out more than a million tons of gasses and particulate in all so far. And the majority of that total, he was surprised to find, is actually carbon monoxide.

KENNEDY: Yes, it is shocking, because you look at carbon monoxide levels which have been going downward – when a fire of this magnitude happens it puts out a lot of carbon monoxide. And that is of concern for people.

LOBET: Although all this carbon monoxide does not seem to be coming down to ground level where we would be breathing it.

CURWOOD: Yeah, thank God, it’s pretty deadly. Ingrid, tell me, how has the devastation of these fires – with human lives lost and so many homes burned – how is that related to people moving into a landscape where fire is to be expected, where there is a fire ecology?

LOBET: Well, you’re very right, it is related. We’ve pretty much used up all the flat land along this highly desirable edge of the country. And as people here continue to multiply, and as, also, we continue to look for homes that are kind of a refuge from a really urban life, we’re creeping up the hillsides and into the canyons where fire comes at pretty regular intervals.

And if you’ve found a little piece of paradise in one of these canyons, it can be really hard to heed the public safety warnings and cut down all the trees around your house to keep them from burning, when it could have been the trees that drew you there in the first place. One fire ecologist I spoke with, Ronald Quinn, told me that even he was very surprised at the number of people who were having to evacuate out of the San Bernadino Mountains, that there could even be 100,000 people living there now.

CURWOOD: Ingrid Lobet is Living on Earth’s west coast correspondent. Thanks, Ingrid.

LOBET: Thank you, Steve.

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Healthy Forests

CURWOOD: The California wildfires sparked new action in Washington on a controversial plan to thin trees on federal lands, what President Bush calls his Healthy Forests Initiative. The bill had stalled in the Senate. But in the wake of the devastating fires, California Democrat Diane Feinstein urged passage of a compromise.

FEINSTEIN: If ever there’s a case in point as to why we have to spend more time on the ground with forest action rather than debating them here it’s the ten fires in California. They are catastrophic. It’s time for this body and this Congress to act.

CURWOOD: The Senate compromise would spend 760 million dollars a year thinning trees on some 20 million acres considered to be fire risks. Unlike the version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives, the Senate emphasizes the thinning of forests near populated areas. Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon says it also includes protections for old growth forests and strengthens the right of citizens to challenge cutting plans, a provision the House seeks to limit.

WYDEN: I think the compromise that we have crafted here reflects a balanced approach. We are not stripping the American people of their rights to be heard with respect to forestry management. And quite the contrary, we protect all avenues of public participation.

CURWOOD: Some environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society, oppose both the House and Senate versions of the bill. They claim the measures would do little to prevent fires and give logging companies too much access to public forests. The two versions of the forest bills will have to be reconciled a conference committee.

[MUSIC: Beck “Peaches & Cream” MIDNITE VULTURES (Geffen - 1999)]

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The Beast in the Garden

CURWOOD: In the late 1980’s the cougar population near Boulder, Colorado grew so large and so accustomed to people that the wild animals started hanging out in neighborhoods and occasionally attacking pets. Eventually, and some would say inevitably, mountain lions went after people. Yet, few people took the threat seriously. That was until a mountain lion killed an eighteen-year-old high school student in nearby Idaho Springs. That tragedy is a jumping off point for former NPR science reporter David Baron’s first book “The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature.” David joins me now to talk about how people in the “garden” of Boulder reacted to this natural predator and how it changed their town. Welcome.

BARON: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: Tell me what a mountain lion looks like. How big is it?

BARON: Imagine a cat the size of a German shepherd – and that is a small mountain lion. Mountain lions routinely get over a hundred pounds. Male mountain lions occasionally get over 200 pounds. They can, supposedly, jump vertically 18 feet. They can easily get over a 10-foot fence in your backyard.

CURWOOD: What’s the difference between a cougar and a mountain lion and a puma and all these things?

BARON: Well, they’re all exactly the same thing. Mountain lions go by many different names. They are called cougars, pumas, catamounts, panthers. In Florida they’re called the Florida panther, but it’s all the exact same species.

CURWOOD: David, your book opens with, I’ve got to say it’s a gruesome description of the scene after a mountain lion attacked and killed 18 year old Scott Lancaster who’d been out jogging through the woods. Can you read your description of what the searchers discovered?

BARON: Sure. “The team climbed a sunny ridge beneath high tension power lines, and gained a view that stretched from the old cemetery to downtown. The men lowered their gaze and inspected around their feet. Pine cones lay in melting snow. Prickly pear cacti poked through soil of decomposing granite. Deer droppings littered the ground like piles of milk duds. It was then that one of the searchers pointed beneath a juniper. ‘We found him,’ the young man said. Steve Shelafo approached through crunching snow, and as he neared his eyes widened in disbelief. ‘None of us were prepared for what we found,’ he said later. ‘Not in the remotest sense.’ During his years in wilderness rescue, Steve had seen plenty of corpses, dismembered in plane crashes, bloated from drowning, crumpling after falling from cliffs. But this site was more than gruesome. It was both haunting and indescribably weird. The body, clothed in athletic gear, wasn’t sloppily mangled. It was carefully carved, hollowed out like a pumpkin. Someone had cut a circle form the front of the sweatshirt and the turquoise tee-shirt beneath, slice through the skin and bones, exposed the chest cavity, and plucked out the organs. After conducting this ghoulish, backwoods surgery, the killer had removed his victim’s face, and then sprinkled moss and twigs on the lower torso, as if to signify something profound, as if performing a macabre ritual. Is the murdered still on the mountain, Steve wondered? Then urgently and cryptically, one of the other searchers said, ‘hey, right behind you.’ Steve turned, fearing a madman with a shotgun. Instead he saw a wild animal. “

CURWOOD: And that animal was?

BARON: It was a mountain lion.

CURWOOD: Back for his kill.

BARON: Right. The reason I wrote about the discovery of Scott’s body in such detail was it really is central to the story. Because what happened to Scott was typical in every way of what a mountain lion will do to its prey, except that in this case the prey was human. Mountain lions will kill with a bite to the neck. They will then drag the body to a secluded location. They will open the chest cavity. They’ll eat the organs first. And then they’ll cover the body with twigs and moss and other debris, and wait around and come back when they’re hungry again.

CURWOOD: So, this goes right to the central question that your book raises, and answers. That is, how an attack like this could ever happen. I mean, what should we know about mountain lions, and humans, that can help us answer this question?

BARON: Well, until the attack on Scott Lancaster, if you asked a naturalist about mountain lion behavior you would pretty much hear the same thing from everyone. Which is that mountain lions are timid, elusive, nocturnal creatures. They would hunt at night or at dusk and dawn. They were though to be a wilderness species that basically needed vast, undeveloped areas to survive. But what we learned in the case of Scott Lancaster, and what, unfortunately, has been true more and more since, is that mountain lions have very well adapted to suburbia. And as they’ve moved into what is essentially an artificial environment, their behavior is changing. And so my argument is that Scott Lancaster’s death, even though he was killed by a mountain lion, that was not a natural death. That mountain lion that killed him, I believe, had its behavior altered in some very unnatural ways, because of the landscape it was living in.

CURWOOD: David, you have some tape of a 9-11 call made by leaders of a group hike who were being stalked by some mountain lions. Let’s take a listen to some of this.

MALE: Okay you guys, stay calm.

FEMALE: Yeah, try to keep them calm.

MALE: You guys should stay calm. Remain calm please.

FEMALE: How many adults do you have there?

MALE: We have five adults.

FEMALE: Okay. Have you tried anything at all, like scaring them? What have you tried?

MALE: We’ve all got sticks. We’ve all made a lot of noise. We’re all sticking together in a tight group.


MALE: We’ve all got these sticks and we’re raising our hands.


FEMALE: Try to keep them calm. They’re doing good.

MALE: You guys are doing great. Stay calm please.

CURWOOD: So what happened?

BARON: Well, this tape comes from Missoula, Montana, which is actually a city a lot like Boulder. A college town filled with a lot of folks who love the natural world, who moved to a place like that because they love to hike. The tape we’re listening to, I’m glad to point out no one was hurt in this incident. This was a group of about two dozen young hikers out for the day. They hikers ranged in age from about nine years old to 17 years old. And they were out with five adult counselors. And they were just finishing their lunch when two cougars came in from the woods. And at first they were thrilled to see the cats because you don’t get to see mountain lions very often in the wild. But very soon it became clear that these cats were stalking them. And so the counselors had everyone gather together in a tight group. They put the little kids into the middle. And the cougars, for about 20 to 25 minutes, were circling, pretty clearly eyeing the group trying to pick out someone that they could drag off, as they were looking for the littlest one to get. And after about 20 to 25 minutes, the cougars went away.

CURWOOD: Now, what in particular caused the population of mountain lions in the Boulder area to explode, to be so many?

BARON: Well, you have to go back to the, really the 19th and early 20th centuries. When all across the country mountain lions were a bountied predator. That changed in the mid-60s to late 60s. So by the 1970s and 80s, mountain lion populations were growing, in Colorado, as elsewhere, which was the point. Part of what explains the wildlife in downtown Boulder is the physical landscape, and part of it is the attitudes of people. So in terms of the physical landscape, Boulder, like a lot of urban and suburban communities today, is really a garden. People have irrigated beautiful gardens and lawns. Boulder has a dense urban forest – all of which is there because of human hands. But also Boulder is populated by a lot of people who moved there because they love the outdoors. So when there are deer in peoples’ yards, people love it. When black bears wander into town, people feel a little nervous, but also enjoy having the animals around. And that was the attitude, at first, towards mountain lions as well.

CURWOOD: As this issue emerged in Boulder, what did it do to local politics?

BARON: It really fractured the community. Because when the lions started to attack dogs, particularly parents with young children got very worried. And then you had a whole other group of people who felt that we humans were the problem, if you can’t live with wildlife you should move out, you don’t belong here in the Boulder foothills. And things got very heated. You had these community meetings going on at the time where people were shouting at each other.

CURWOOD: What exactly happened?

BARON: Well, the biggest part was about a year before Scott Lancaster was killed, in February of 1990, when things were starting to get heated, and people were starting to realize maybe we have a lion problem on our hands. There were some ranchers who were actually raising some exotic deer in the foothills outside Boulder. And one of their deer was killed by a lion. And it was probably the same lion that was attacking dogs in this neighborhood. And they decided to just go out and kill the lion themselves. And that just caused a firestorm of protest, and really caused the community to split. But in the end, virtually everyone agrees that their killing that cat was a good thing. Because once that lion was dead, there were no more dogs killed in that neighborhood.

CURWOOD: In your book, you describe a change in attitude in the folks in Boulder towards these big cats. What do you think caused that change and how has it affected the way that people regard mountain lions today?

BARON: I would say there’s more realism, and people are willing to accept that, okay, if a mountain lion is hanging around too much, it’s okay for the wildlife authorities to come in, shoot it with some rubber buckshot, give it a very unpleasant experience, and try to break that cycle of the lion seeing humans and human yards as a place to hunt.

CURWOOD: David Baron is author of the new book “The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature.” David, thanks for taking this time with me today.

BARON: My pleasure, Steve.

[MUSIC: Mu-Ziq “Hasty Boom Alert” LUNATIC HARNESS (Astralwerks – 1997) ]

Related link:
The Beast in the Garden

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

[MUSIC: Mu-Ziq “Hasty Boom Alert” LUNATIC HARNESS (Astralwerks – 1997) ]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week in a California without fire. This recording, made for the California Library of Natural Sounds, features an array of creatures that inhabit oak woodlands in the Sierra foothills.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Our staff includes: Carly Ferguson, Liz Lempert, Nathan Marcy, Susan Shepherd, James Curwood and Tom Simon. Al Avery runs our website. Our interns are Rebecca Griffin, Kathy Lutz and Wynne Parry.

Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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

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