Mercury in Fish: Casting Caution to the Wind?
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An ad campaign called FishScam.com says government mercury advisories are inaccurate and meant to scare consumers. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to David Martosko of the Campaign for Consumer Freedom about the campaign. He also speaks with Dr. Leo Trasande of Mount Sinai Medical School who says studies show that, in fact, the government safety threshold for mercury should be even stricter. We also speak with reporter Sam Roe of the Chicago Tribune. His recent series "The Mercury Menace" revealed many fish deemed safe by the government contain high levels of mercury. (12:00)
Alito on Trial/ Jeff Young
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It's been 18 years since major environmental groups formally opposed a Supreme Court nominee. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young looks at their case against Alito. (05:00)
Pond Scum or Planet Savers?/ Bruce Gellerman
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Pond scum just might be the answer to solving the CO2 woes of the industrial age. Host Bruce Gellerman visits with Dr. Isaac Berzin, founder of GreenFuel Technologies Corporation. Berzin is working on a prototype that uses algae to convert power plant emissions into biofuels. (06:00)
Windy City Wileys
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Long the bane of farmers and ranchers, coyotes have been taking up residence in cities, where most of their human neighbors don’t even know of their existence. Chicago is one of their new stomping grounds. It’s thought that several thousand of the animals are now living in the Windy City. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with researcher Stanley Gehrt. (05:00)
Emerging Science Note/Star Times Three/ Emily Taylor
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As Living on Earth’s Emily Taylor explains, the North star, Polaris, is actually three stars, not one. (01:30)
Redwoods Revisited/ Jason Margolis
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One of the most heated and longest running environmental conflicts in the nation has drawn hundreds of tree sitters up into the Northern California redwoods. Now Pacific Lumber Company says it may have to file for bankruptcy, leaving the famous Headwaters agreement in doubt. Jason Margolis of KQED reports. (16:00)
Listen to birds among the California redwoods.
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: David Martosko, Dr. Leo Trasande, Sam Roe, Issac Berzin, Prof. Stanley Gehrt
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Jason Margolis
NOTE: Emily Taylor
GELLERMAN: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. Out of the smokestack and into the seafood: methyl mercury is a potent neurotoxin, but how much can you eat before it harms you? Fishscam.com takes on the governments’ standard.
MARTOSKO: If you want to follow that advisory, that’s a perfectly fine thing to do. But you shouldn’t be bamboozled into thinking you’re putting your health at risk by eating six ounces of tuna a week. It simply isn’t true.
GELLERMAN: And did you hear the one about the billions that got away? A Chicago Tribune investigation reveals the U.S. government isn’t monitoring mercury in fish at all.
ROE: It is sort of remarkable. It’s the one thing that kept us going when we first got into this, knowing that the government is really not taking basic steps to determine which species are more harmful than others.
GELLERMAN: Those stories – and saving the planet with the scum of the Earth – this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
[MUSIC: Boards of Canada “Zoetrope” from ‘In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ (Warp Records – 2000)]
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
Scientists agree, fish is good for you. High in protein and rich in omega 3 fatty acids, it's healthy for your heart and your brain.
Methyl mercury comes from natural sources and the burning of fossil fuels in power plants. And while there is general consensus on the benefits of consuming fish, just how much mercury is in our fish, and how much is safe to eat, is at the heart of an intense public debate.
This ad is part of a public service campaign produced for Earthshare, a coalition of environmental groups.
WOMAN: Mercury poisoning may cause neurological damage that impairs learning, language development, vision and memory.
MAN: According to the latest study, you shouldn't eat any fish.
GELLERMAN: This radio spot, produced for the Center for Consumer Freedom, says don't get hooked on mercury hype:
MAN: If you do eat fish, the latest study claims you could grow gills or start responding to the name “Flipper.”
MARTOSKO: The public is hearing so much, I think, in terms of scare tactics, this fear factor approach to fish, that, it’s unfortunate, but we thought we had to be a little bit irreverent, a little bit over the top, in order to get people’s attention.
GELLERMAN: Martosko believes government and advocacy group warnings about the dangers of mercury in fish are overblown, and potentially harmful. On the group's website, FishScam dot com, you can calculate how much fish you can eat before, his group says, you'd get a dangerous dose of mercury. For example, according to the FishScam calculator, an average woman of child bearing age weighing 161 pounds would have to eat 3.2 pounds of albacore tuna to put herself and her baby at risk.
MARTOSKO: Yeah, that’s true. According to the best science, and according to the science that the EPA uses to figure out where that line in the sand is where you might hurt yourself from eating food, if you’re 161 pounds you’d have to eat over three pounds of tuna every week for life before you should worry about it.
GELLERMAN: But I’m looking at the FDA/EPA advisory from 2004, and it says it’s six ounces per week.
MARTOSKO: Well, what they do is they divide everything by ten. This is a very standard practice in epidemiology and toxicology research. They find the level that actually might harm you and they apply some sort of a safety factor to it. That doesn’t mean that that safety-adjusted number is the magic, you know, harm threshold. And it simply isn’t. The truth is, when you hear a number from the EPA or the FDA about mercury in fish, you should mentally multiply by ten in order to find where the actual danger line might be.
Now look, there’s nothing wrong with being extra safe. That’s fine. If you want to follow that advisory, that’s a perfectly fine thing to do. But you shouldn’t be bamboozled into thinking that you’re putting your health at risk by eating, you know, six ounces of tuna a week. It simply isn’t true.
GELLERMAN: Now, you have studies that back this up?
MARTOSKO: Oh, yeah. Not only do I have studies that back this up, the EPA has them. I mean, the EPA knows the level of exposure that represents a hypothetical risk, but it adjusts that by a factor of ten to get what it calls a “reference dose.” And it’s this smaller number, this sort of hyper-cautionary number, that environmental advocacy groups often use in order to scare some Americans into believing that these tiny amounts of mercury in fish represent a health hazard.
GELLERMAN: I was looking at studies from the Faroe Islands, which is off Iceland, and another one from New Zealand. They suggest there is a health hazard, and at low doses.
MARTOSKO: Well, you know, there’s sort of a dueling studies mentality in the scientific world right now about mercury. There are two very well-regarded studies, one from the Faroe Islands and one from the Seychelles Islands. Both populations of these people eat a lot of fish. The Seychelles Islands study has come to the general conclusion that the mercury in the fish these people eat is not harming them at all. The Faroe Islands study found a very, very small health effect in some children on the order of a, say, an IQ shift of, you know, a tenth of a point. On a test, by the way, that’s got a margin of error of three to five points so it’s statistically insignificant. But they found something.
Our EPA says, ‘well goodness, these people found something and those people didn’t, we better just be careful and, you know, pay attention to the people who found something.’ I think you ought to pay a little more attention right now, at least while the science is evolving, to actual real-life people. Look at the population of Japan, for instance, that eats, you know, five to ten times as much ocean fish as we do – 74 percent of the women of childbearing age in Japan right now are above the U.S. reference dose for mercury. Now I ask you, are their kids, you know, woefully inadequate in math and science and cognitive abilities? Or are their children out-performing ours in math and science? You know, it seems to me that if there’s any real damage from the mercury, all these fish that the Japanese people eat, we ought to be able to see it in their kids.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Martosko, do you or does the Center for Consumer Freedom get money from the seafood industry, from coal companies, utilities?
MARTOSKO: Well, I know that we never accepted money from utilities or coal companies. I don’t know exactly which companies in the food sector support us. You know, it’s not my job to know. I really don’t pay attention. I do know that the vast majority of our, say, institutional funding, comes from the food sector. Beyond that, I just don’t know.
GELLERMAN: You were involved in the cigarette controversy, about having Americans be able to smoke cigarettes in public places.
MARTOSKO: Way back, and I think this is going back eight or nine years, long before I was there, I believe that my organization weighed in some on the rights of individual restaurant owners to allow their patrons to smoke in, you know, restaurants and bars. You know, it was more of a consumer-choice thing. We believed at the time, and we believe now, that consumers ought to be able to do what they want, free from whatever interference isn’t justified.
GELLERMAN: I was reading research by Dr. Leo Trasande, and he says, quote, “there’s a significant threat to the economic health and security of the United States posed by mercury poisoning and mercury in fish.”
MARTOSKO: Well, Dr. Trasande would have to actually produce a case of mercury poisoning from fish. There has been none actually documented in the United States, pretty much ever.
GELLERMAN: David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom has a point: massive mercury poisoning is a rare occurrence. But scientists measure methyl mercury in fish in parts per millions, and Dr. Leo Trasande says the effects are subtle. Trasande is assistant director for the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
TRASANDE: The science on methyl mercury toxicity is very strong. The National Academy of Sciences, in 2000, found effects even at very low levels as a result of methyl mercury toxicity.
GELLERMAN: So, what do you think of Mr. Martosko’s statement about your work, and not being any recent cases of mercury poisoning?
TRASANDE: Well, unfortunately we have between 300,000 and 600,000 silent cases of methyl mercury toxicity each year that have profound implications for the learning and development of our nation’s children. Because these children suffer loss in IQ, they are less well able to perform well in school, and, therefore, less well able to perform in the economy. Unfortunately, methyl mercury toxicity costs our nation $8.7 billion each year in lost economic productivity.
GELLERMAN: David Martosko, the research director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, says that the government’s reference dose is hyper-cautionary. That is, it took a factor, divided it by ten, and said that’s safe.
TRASANDE: Well, two major epidemiologic studies prove otherwise: one in the Faroe Islands and one in New Zealand. They both found consistent effects on learning and development in children at right around, and possibly below, the current EPA and FDA safety threshold. In fact, they suggest that the safety thresholds might have to be lowered further.
It’s important not to stop the general public from eating fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. They’re terrific for brain development, they’re terrific for preventing heart disease and stroke. But it’s unconscionable not to focus the attention on getting the mercury out of fish.
GELLERMAN: Leo Trasande is a pediatrician and author of numerous articles about the effects of mercury on children.
It's supposed to be the job of federal regulators to measure and monitor the amount of methyl mercury in the fish we eat. But a recent investigative series in the Chicago Tribune found that, for decades, the U.S. government knowingly allowed millions of Americans to eat seafood with levels of mercury exceeding it's own safety standards. Reporter Sam Roe co-authored the Tribune's series, “The Mercury Menace.”
ROE: First of all, we went out and we did a random sample of supermarkets in the greater Chicago area, and we bought popular fish, at each of these supermarkets, and we had them tested. Sent them out to a laboratory out at Rutgers University and had them tested for mercury, and found that there were incredibly high levels of mercury in a variety of popular seafood. And, in some cases, the levels were high enough where the government could seize the fish.
We also took a very hard look at canned tuna, especially light tuna. This is a very popular food in America, and one that the government specifically recommends for at-risk groups to choose if they’re concerned about mercury. And what we found is that there is a significant portion of this canned light tuna that is made with a high-mercury species, called Yellowfin, and often times the labels don’t suggest that. And so consumers going into the store buying canned light tuna, thinking they’re going to get low-mercury fish, can often get a high-mercury can and they have no way of knowing which can may be higher than the next can.
GELLERMAN: Isn’t there a federal testing program for mercury and canned tuna?
ROE: No, not really. In fact, there’s not really a testing program for any fish. They used to routinely test them years ago, but that stopped. They claim that, you know, finances is a problem. And it is sort of remarkable, it’s the one thing that sort of kept us going when we first got into this, knowing that the government is really not taking basic steps to determine which species are more harmful than others.
GELLERMAN: Now, you tested Walleye fish. Eighteen fish you tested, I guess, in your laboratory.
ROE: Yes, 18, and actually it may sound like a small amount but it’s actually many more numbers than the government has actually tested. The government has only tested four Walleye in the last 25 years, and it’s a very popular fish out here in the Midwest. And we found in the case of Walleye numerous samples were over the legal limit. And Walleye averaged over Canada’s limit, which is really interesting because all of the Walleye we’re getting in this country comes from Canada; and it averages over their safety limit in Canada and they’re shipping it down here.
GELLERMAN: So it’s safe to ship fish that would be banned in Canada and sell it in the United States?
ROE: That’s right. Canada’s mercury limit is much tighter than the U.S.; it’s half as much as what the U.S. is.
GELLERMAN: What’s been the effect of your investigation?
ROE: As far as official response, the FDA has opened an investigation into the canned tuna issue to see, you know, why there’s high-mercury tuna being put into a low-mercury choice. There’s been calls in Congress for some action on the FDA. And recently, here in Illinois, the governor proposed reducing mercury emissions at coal-fired power plants, a major emitter of mercury, to reduce those emissions by 90 percent over the next few years.
GELLERMAN: Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Roe. For more information on mercury in fish, check out our web site www.loe.org.
- EPA/FDA 2004 Mercury and Fish Advisory
- Environmental Working Group on Mercury and Seafood
- Got Mercury? Turtle Island Restoration Network Project
- Environmental Health Perspectives May 2005 article by Leo Trasande – “Public Health and Economic Consequences of Methyl Mercury Toxicity to the Developing Brain”
- Chicago Tribune series “The Mercury Menace”
[MUSIC: “Second Hand” from ‘Gamelan As A Second Language’ (Frog Peak – 2005)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up: No better than Bork. For the first time in 18 years, environmental groups formally oppose a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court - and say no to Alito. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Bang On A Can “Exquisite Corpses” from ‘Renegade Heaven’ (Cantaloupe Music – 2001)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The U.S. Senate will soon vote on whether Judge Sam Alito will become the next associate justice of the nation’s Supreme Court. If approved, Alito would replace the justice who was frequently the decisive vote on important environmental cases. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, is retiring after her replacement is chosen. After reviewing Alito’s record many environmental advocates are opposing his appointment to the high court. As Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, they are finding little in his confirmation hearings to ease their concerns.
YOUNG: Call it the case of enviros versus Alito, in which some of the country’s leading environmental groups argue against the president’s choice for the Supreme Court. Their exhibit “A”? T he judge’s 15 year record on the federal bench.
BOOKBINDER: In which he presents a clear and present danger to our national environmental laws. When Judge Alito goes wrong on those he goes very, very wrong.
YOUNG: That’s Sierra Club senior attorney David Bookbinder explaining why his group is doing something it hasn’t since Robert Bork’s nomination 18 years ago: oppose a high court nominee.
Bookbinder says Alito’s narrow interpretations of environmental law and Congressional authority undermine protections for water, air and endangered species.
BOOKBINDER: Judge Alito’s insistence that he has to read laws Congress intended courts to apply in the broadest fashion possible, that he has to read them in the narrowest possible fashion, flies in the face of both what Congress intended and the reality of how our legal system works.
YOUNG: Bookbinder says Alito’s view of federalism limits the reach of government regulation. And he worries that Alito could block some lawsuits seeking environmental protection. Under the concept called “citizen standing,” ordinary people can sue for enforcement if they think the responsible government agency isn’t doing its job.
That’s what happened in the case of Magnesium Elektron vs. New Jersey’s Public Interest Research Group. The group sued to stop pollution of a tributary of the Delaware River. A lower court found the chemical company had 150 violations of the Clean Water Act. But Alito voted to dismiss the case because the group had not proved it was directly harmed by the pollution and, therefore, lacked standing. He defended that decision during his confirmation hearing.
ALITO: The plaintiffs in that case had established injury in fact. The plaintiffs in the case alleged that they enjoyed the Delaware River in a variety of ways. They ate fish from the river, they drank water from river, they walked along the river. But there was no, the evidence before us did not show that there was any standing on the part of the plaintiffs. There was no evidence of harm to the Delaware River in any way from the discharges.
YOUNG: Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy pressed Alito, pointing out that in a similar case - Friends of the Earth vs. Laidlaw - the Supreme Court took an opposite view, making it easier for citizens to bring such suits. So, Leahy asked, does that mean “citizen standing” should stand as the law of the land?
LEAHY: Is Laidlaw settled law?
ALITO: Well, Laidlaw is a precedent of the Supreme Court, and my answer to the question there is the same: it’s entitled to the respect of stare decisis.
YOUNG: That’s a phrase Alito used a lot when hot topics came up. It’s Latin for “let the decision stand,” and it means a judge should generally follow the reasoning of earlier decisions. But it does not completely put the issue to rest. University of Chicago Law Professor Cass Sunstien says Alito is at odds with the justice he would replace, Sandra Day O’Connor, who was a critical vote defending citizen standing.
SUNSTIEN: That would be a big deal for Judge Alito to replace Justice O’Connor, would be to shift the law in a way that would probably – you can’t be sure – but would probably decrease the ability of ordinary citizens to have access to court to protect the environment.
YOUNG: But, overall, Sunstien says he does not find Alito "alarming from an environmental standpoint." Other legal experts judge Alito more harshly.
TURLEY: He is the perfect storm for environmentalists.
YOUNG: Jon Turley teaches environmental law at George Washington University. Turley says Alito’s endorsement of a theory called "the unitary executive" puts too much power in the hands of the president and not enough with people who challenge government agencies.
TURLEY: He combines a belief in the unitary executive with federalism beliefs with extremely antagonistic views of standing. You can’t get much worse than that for environmentalists.
YOUNG: Alito’s defenders point to cases where he held cities to strict air quality standards, punished companies for failure to report hazardous substances, and forced toxic waste cleanups.
Environmentalists counter those were cases in which the facts left Alito with little choice but to uphold lower court rulings. Now the Sierra Club is taking its argument against Alito to the airwaves.
AD: That's why we need Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor to protect Arkansas' rivers and drinking water, by opposing the nomination of Sam Alito.
YOUNG: The ads target Arkansas and Maine, whose senators are undecided on Alito. And it’s no accident the focus is clean water. Two major Clean Water Act suits on the Supreme Court docket would be among the first cases Justice Alito would hear if the Senate votes to confirm him. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
[MUSIC] Fieldwork “Infogee Dub” from ‘Simulated Progress’ (Pi Recordings – 2005)
GELLERMAN: A few years ago, Isaac Berzin traveled from Israel to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with two goals in mind: to get his post-doc in chemical engineering, and save the world.
Well, he got his degree, and now he’s closing in on the other goal – saving the world from global warming by using one of the most primitive forms of life--algae. You know, the yucky stuff that grows on the side of fish tanks and swimming pools. Pond scum. Just don’t call it that in front of Berzin.
GELLERMAN: Clearly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But according to Berzin, algae-- primitive one cell plants--are the world's champs at photosynthesis, capturing the suns rays and converting it to chemical energy. That makes the microscopic plants very special, and potentially very useful, in reducing greenhouse gases. On his laptop, Berzin shows me a video of the algae up close and personal.
BERZIN: So, what you're going to see on the screen now is a microscopic view of the algae. Belly dancing around they have a little mustache. They touch each other with the mustaches.
GELLERMAN: So, this is a plant? It’s a one-celled plant?
BERZIN: Algae are the fastest growing plants on earth. Their doubling time is measured in hours. My kids ask me, ‘oh Daddy it’s so cute it’s like pets. So, what do you do with them in the end?’ I say, ‘uh oh, I burn them.’
[SOUND OF DOOR; WALKING]
GELLERMAN: Not far from his office, Berzin takes me to his algae laboratory. It’s outside on the roof of MIT's 20 kilowatt power plant. A yellow brick smokestack towers overhead, and some of the power plant’s exhaust is fed through a row of Plexiglas tubes. Inside, the gooey green algae feed on the CO2 and NOX, nitrogen oxide.
GELLERMAN: Can you describe what we are looking at? It looks like, I don’t know, water gurgling through a bunch of tubes.
BERZIN: Actually, in professional terms it’s called a bioreactor. It’s nothing but three tubes connected together with some sea water and algae in them. And you can see the bubbles bubbling through the system. And you can kind of look at the bubble and follow it, and in the ten seconds or so that the bubbles are spending in the bioreactor 80 percent of the CO2 is moved and 85 percent of the NOX. And at the end of the day you harvest the algae, whatever was growing during the day, you take out of the system. It’s like a cow you milk it and you make biofuels from the algae.
GELLERMAN: So, you’re a farmer, you’re a high-tech farmer.
BERZIN: Yeah, that’s exactly the point. It’s really, really a new age of farming.
GELLERMAN: Granted, this prototype is just small potatoes. But, theoretically, if you created an algae bioreactor twice the size of New Jersey, you could supply the entire petroleum needs of the U.S. The motto for Berzin's company is waste not, profit more.
BERZIN: We believe that if you want to make an environmental revolution it should not come as the law. Okay? It should come as a great business. And if it’s a great business, it has life of its own. So, you don’t come to the power industry and tell them, ‘you guys are the worst polluters and I have to shut you down. I have to fine you for every…like a carbon tax, whatever.’ I think that’s the wrong approach. I think the right approach would be, ‘guys, you’re throwing all this CO2 away? Are you crazy? Let’s make more money.’ And that’s how the world will change. That’s how it will become a reality.
BERZIN: I’ll tell you what the problem is. You have to produce algae in a cost that will be cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels. Then you think, wait a minute, what does this technology need? It needs land, and you need water, and you need CO2. So, CO2 is not an issue. You’re located next to a CO2 generating facility. Water, you get to use any quality of water. Treated sewage water, brackish water, ocean water, any water available. The third thing is, the land, usually near these big power plants, no one wants to live. It’s non-fertile land, nothing grows there even. So, you don’t really compete with agriculture. So, how realistic this is? We believe it is realistic.
GELLERMAN: Isaac Berzin...founder and chief technology officer of Greenfuel Technologies Corp. You can see for yourself if algae are pond scum or planet savers. Check out our web site, www.loe.org.
[MUSIC] Susan Rawcliffe “Aquaknots” from ‘Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones’ (Ellipsis Arts – 1998)
GELLERMAN: If you live in the city, that mangy looking dog you spotted prowling through your backyard last night just might not be a dog. Seems coyotes are taking up residence in urban areas across the nation. And the influx has come as a big surprise to people in Chicago. Several thousand of the wild canines have taken a liking to the Windy City. Stanley Gehrt, assistant professor of environmental and natural resources at Ohio State University, has been studying the Chicago coyotes for six years. Professor, thanks for your time.
GEHRT: It’s a pleasure to be here.
GELLERMAN: What’s the biggest problem that coyotes have caused in, say, Chicago?
GEHRT: Well, unfortunately, there are conflicts that occur in certain cases between coyotes and people. And the most severe, potentially, could be when coyotes may attack a person. That’s been extremely rare across the Midwest and eastern part of the U.S. So, that’s the biggest concern, is fear for, primarily, children.
They do occasionally take housecats, especially. And then every once in a while you will have some that will take smaller dogs. Or, in the rare event, they may actually even attack large dogs, given certain circumstances.
GELLERMAN: Any upside on having coyote in cities?
GEHRT: We have found at least three different benefits that we have in terms of coyotes living with us. One would be they do have an impact on rodent populations. They also are the major predators of white-tailed deer fauns. And then, most recently, we’ve discovered that coyotes are major predators on Canada goose nests. And Canada geese, that’s another species that becomes a nuisance in urban areas.
GELLERMAN: Coyotes are kind of timid, I thought. You know, you look at their faces. I’ve seen pictures and they kind of look scared.
GELLERMAN: If coyotes are so wily, it must be very difficult to trap them.
GEHRT: It’s incredibly difficult. That’s one of the biggest challenges of any kind of research on coyotes, but particularly so in urban areas because we have to use many of the same traps that regular fur trappers might use such as leg-hold traps that are padded so they don’t hurt the animals, or cable-restraint devices, such as snares, with stops so that they don’t choke on them. But in urban areas, it’s complicated even more so by pets and other animals, such as the abundant raccoon.
GELLERMAN: Well, how were you able to track them?
GEHRT: We use radio collars and technology to try to follow them.
GELLERMAN: So, Professor Gehrt, if I understand correctly, you put these radio collars on them, they send out a beacon, and you track the beacon?
GEHRT: Right. We actually have two different types. We have one type that we call VHF which we follow with a truck with an antenna on top of it, which gets a lot of strange looks from people in downtown Chicago, but –
GELLERMAN: The Coyote Mobile!
GEHRT: (LAUGHS) Exactly. So we have that type of radio collars, and then we have a different type that actually transmits signals to satellites. And so the satellites can locate the coyotes for us and then we can download the data from the satellites.
GEHRT: Many of them will hide either in natural habitat, if any exists, such as in certain parks or golf courses or cemeteries. And then others may use people’s sheds, they may crawl under the decks behind their houses, or similar things like that.
GELLERMAN: Coyotes, they’re noisy, right? They howl?
GEHRT: We have some packs that howl frequently, and then we others that we’ve never heard them howl at all. We used to think that there’s a lot of residential area, and they’re living in neighborhoods, they’re less likely to vocalize because it would draw attention to them. But as the study’s progressed we have found more and more examples of packs that, even surrounded by people, sometimes they will vocalize.
We have another pack that vocalizes all the time. And, in fact, there’s a major emergency siren located in the center of their territory, and every Monday morning at 10 o’clock when the siren checks go off the pack howls at the siren.
GELLERMAN: Professor, can you imitate a coyote?
GEHRT: (LAUGHS) Maybe for a small fee.
GEHRT: I’m not the best.
GELLERMAN: Stanley Gehrt, an assistant professor of environmental and natural resources at Ohio State University, studies coyotes. Professor Gehrt, thank you very much for talking with me.
GEHRT: You’re welcome.
[MUSIC] Coyotes howling
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: tree huggers, a Texas tycoon, junk bonds, and a car bomb. We revisit the long running battle over logging California’s giant redwoods. A history of the Headwaters is next. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Emily Taylor.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
TAYLOR: The three wise men might have been wise, but one thing they didn’t know was that they were navigating by not one star, but three. Astronomers say they finally have proof that the North Star is actually a system of three stars: Polaris A, Polaris B, and now, Polaris Ab.
Polaris B has been distinguishable, even with small telescopes, since its discovery in 1780 by William Herschel. And after working with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers are now able to distinguish and photograph Polaris Ab.
Because of a gravitational tug on Polaris A, astronomers thought there might be another star in the system, but Ab’s close proximity to the main star and its relative dimness made it until now impossible to see until now. Polaris Ab is about 2 billion miles from Polaris A orbits Polaris A and orbits it once every 30 years.
Although the triple star system is 430 light years from Earth, astronomers are watching Polaris Ab in order to determine its mass and orbit. They say these bits of information will assist in measuring the distances to other galaxies and the expansion rate of the universe. But, for right now, true north is still true. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Emily Taylor.
GELLERMAN: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.
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[MUSIC: The Bemus Point “Infra Dig” from `Infra Dig’ (Level Green - 2006)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.
The Pacific Lumber Company has been cutting down redwood trees in northern California since the civil war. The massive, 350-foot tall redwoods once dominated the coast thriving in the region’s cool air and heavy seasonal rains. Pacific Lumber was a family-run business until 20 years ago when it was purchased by a Texas corporation, and now the giant timber company is on the brink of bankruptcy.
Pacific Lumber says it can’t cut enough trees to pay its debt. Environmental activists and local residents say the company has only itself to blame charging Pacific Lumber destroyed the forest and now there are no more trees to cut. It’s the latest chapter in the ongoing saga over logging in California’s Humboldt County. Jason Margolis has our story.
MARGOLIS: Pacific Lumber is located in the small town of Scotia, population 1,117. Scotia is a remnant of a bygone era, one of the nation’s last true company towns. Pacific Lumber owns the homes, the movie theater, and the school.
MARGOLIS: At noon, the town whistle still blows telling the workers it’s time for lunch.
MARGOLIS: At the deli, Mel Berti, who runs the meat counter and sits on a nearby city council, says just a few years ago he’d have 100 customers for lunch. Now, he’s lucky to get 20.
BERTI: It’s just so frustrating being here all my life and seeing so many people lose their job. You know, when they come in the store and say goodbye to you, there’s tears in their eyes.
MARGOLIS: Ask Berti who’s to blame, and he doesn’t hesitate.
BERTI: The environmentalists. They don’t care. They just don’t care.
MARGOLIS: Berti is referring to environmental organizations who have battled Pacific Lumber over the past two decades, through civil disobedience and the courts. But talk to Bill Bertain, another local, an attorney whose been fighting Pacific Lumber, and you get a different perspective. When asked who’s to blame, it’s hard for Bertain to control his temper.
BERTAIN: I mean, when you think about guys getting thrown out of work that didn’t have to get thrown out of work because one guy in Texas is trying to expand his wealth without considering the consequences to the people who are affected. It’s truly sad. I choke up when I think about it. And it didn’t have to be!
MARGOLIS: The modern saga of Pacific Lumber begins in 1985, far from the redwood forests of Humboldt County. It plays out in back offices of Los Angeles investment banks, on Wall Street, and in boardrooms in Houston. There, Texas financier Charles Hurwitz saw a gem of a company ripe for a takeover. Pacific Lumber had cautiously managed their forests for decades, and by 1985 it had the largest supply of virgin redwood forests in private hands left in the world. By Hurwitz’s equations, those trees represented a lot of profit.
Around the time of the takeover, Mark Harris was a young environmental lawyer who had recently moved to Humboldt County.
[PLANE STARTING UP]
MARGOLIS: He starts the engine for his Cessna propeller plane and takes me on a guided tour over Pacific Lumber’s 211,000 acres, shouting over the roar of the engine.
HARRIS: What I was seeing in 1988 and 1989, in this entire drainage, was giant swaths of forests. Just an unbroken chain in large part.
MARGOLIS: He says when Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam Corporation took over, logging practices here changed. The old company logged selectively; in 1986, Pacific Lumber began clear-cutting swaths of forest.
HARRIS: As we’re flying in now, you can see that there’s been just a colossal devastation, directly in front of us. There may be some greenery, but upon closer inspection, you can see that’s a lot of brush, baby trees, and not much else.”
MARGOLIS: Harris says the company cut too aggressively, often violating California timber laws and the Endangered Species Act. In the late 90’s, the California Department of Forestry briefly suspended the company’s license for repeated violations. Harris says this style of forestry took its toll. Today, sediment regularly clogs the rivers. Many of the great trees that once shaded waterways like Yagger Creek are gone.
HARRIS: Now, Yagger Creek temperatures are through the roof in the summertime. They cannot sustain, in large part, any type of fish, baby fish that are attempting…
MARGOLIS: When Charles Hurwitz purchased these lands for $863 million dollars, he borrowed much of the money through high-yield junk bonds. The transaction was helped by junk bond dealer Michael Milken and Wall Street financier Ivan Boesky; both later served prison time for securities violations. In order to pay off this debt, Hurwitz sold company property, took money from the employee pension fund, and started cutting a lot more trees. He doubled the rate of logging.
Charles Hurwitz declined to be interviewed for this story. Tom Herman managed his forests through much of the 1990’s and has worked in the timber industry on California’s north coast since the early 70’s. Herman says they took a sluggish company and did what any forester would do on commercial lands.
HERMAN: If you own land that was occupied by old growth timber, you should cut that first. Because timber in its old growth state does not grow. It’s at a state of equilibrium.
MARGOLIS: By cutting and creating a mix of young, old, and older trees, in decades to come different parcels would mature at different times. Herman says Pacific Lumber did what every other California timber company had already done decades before, and they were being unfairly targeted just because they had ancient trees left to cut. But, he says, this is private land, not a park.
HERMAN: You know, we were a corporation, and the corporation was set up to grow and harvest trees to make money. Okay? So, I’m not ashamed to say, ‘yeah, that’s our motivation.’ Now, our motivation to make profit, nobody ever communicated to me, we want you to beak the law or be uncaring, or damage the land or the environment to accomplish that. Never.
MARGOLIS: But environmentalists and many in the community saw the new policy as a betrayal of the old ways. Lawsuits quickly piled up. And a more radical environmental movement emerged, as well. The group Earth First! arrived on the scene. Activists began sitting in trees and chaining themselves to logging equipment in the late 1980’s and through the 90’s. Humboldt County became a magnet for environmentalists from across the nation.
MARGOLIS: Rallies became larger and more frequent. One of the movement’s main leaders was Judi Bari.
BARI: We have done everything in our power. We’ve worked through the system. We’ve changed their laws. We’ve put, quote-unquote, “the best forest” laws on the books. We’ve done everything we can to enforce them. And they still take every tree in the forest.
MARGOLIS: Bari helped organize what became known as Redwood Summer. In 1990, roughly 2,000 environmental activists, college students, and retirees came to Northern California for a summer of civil disobedience. Bari organized it along with Daryl Cherney.
MARGOLIS: With his large, bushy beard and curly hair, Cherney became a familiar face in Humboldt County, playing his guitar and singing at rallies, trying, often in vain, to lure the lumberjacks onto his side.
CHERNEY: [SINGING] Tell me, where are we going to work when the trees are gone? Will the big boss have us wash his car? Or maybe mow his lawn? I’m a man, I’m a man, I’m a lumberjack man, but I fear it ain’t for long. Tell me, where are we gonna work when the trees are gone? Now these corporate mergers make no sense to me.
CHERNEY: And we based our campaign on Freedom Summer, which took place in the Deep South, Mississippi and other southern states in the early 1960’s, where Jim Crow laws and segregation were just going unchecked until the eyes of the nation were cast upon what was going on down there. And we felt the eyes of the nation needed to be cast upon the redwoods so that people could see what was going on behind the redwood curtain.
CHERNEY: [SINGING] Tell me, where are we going to work when the trees are gone?
MARGOLIS: Then one day in 1990, Judy Bari and Daryl Cherney were on their way to Santa Cruz to promote Redwood Summer when disaster struck.
NEWSCLIP: An explosion tore through a car being driven by two Earth First! activists on an Oakland street today. Both are alive and have been hospitalized. Earth First! activist Judi Bari was seriously hurt with facial injuries and a pelvic fracture. Daryl Cherney suffered lacerated eyes and ears.
MARGOLIS: Both survived the attack. To this day, nobody knows who planted the pipe bomb, packed with nails. The two activists were initially held as suspects, accused of bombing themselves perhaps to raise publicity. But they were never charged. Bari and Cherney sued the FBI and Oakland police for false arrest and illegally searching their homes. They won that suit and a jury eventually awarded them $4.4 million dollars.
The protests and lawsuits hampered Pacific Lumber’s operations, but the company continued to log at a brisk pace. Until a funny, 8-inch seabird almost brought the company to its knees. Again, Daryl Cherney.
CHERNEY: The Marbled Murrelet is an amazing animal. It can fly 60 miles per hour. It has webbed feet, and so it needs a big branch to slide into, kind of like it’s sliding into home plate. It can’t land on a small branch because its feet are webbed. It didn’t have talons to grab.
MARGOLIS: In 1992, the federal government listed the Marbled Murrelet as threatened. One of its last remaining habitats was on Pacific Lumber’s property. Suddenly, the company couldn’t cut many of its trees. Pacific Lumber fought back, suing the federal government for lost property value. That’s when government officials stepped in and began negotiating a deal that would later become known across the country as the 1999 Headwaters agreement.
In it, Pacific Lumber would turn over a small grove of ancient redwoods for roughly $480 million. Pacific Lumber’s opponents, like attorney Bill Bertain, said the taxpayers got fleeced.
BERTAIN: Maxxam was paid about $480 million dollars for not cutting trees that they couldn’t legally cut in the first place because they had put the species in those timberlands in danger, and thereby made it legally impossible to log those areas.
MARGOLIS: Adding to a general distrust of Charles Hurwitz, he was under investigation for a $1.6 billion dollar government bailout of a failed Texas Savings and Loan, in which he had a controlling interest. Hurwitz’ supporters say he was mercilessly harassed by the federal government, which was never able to prove financial wrongdoing.
Pacific Lumber officials say the turmoil surrounding Charles Hurwitz is in the past. They say the company was reborn after the Headwaters Deal. Dan Dill is a senior wildlife biologist with Pacific Lumber and a fifth generation employee. He says more than 100 company scientists are out in the forest, ensuring this firm exceeds the standards of any other in California.
DILL: So you’ll see these other timber companies that are operating out there, and they’re operating every day. They’re not being necessarily criticized for their work, and they’re just kind of in the background. And here it is, we’re getting nailed day in and day out. At the same time, our buffer woods are bigger, our protection measures are bigger. We have really strong commitments to upgrading of roads, reducing sedimentation of the streams, to increasing the stream conditions for fish productivity.
MARGOLIS: These extra requirements are designed to protect threatened and endangered species like the Marbled Murulet, spotted owl, and red-legged frog. In exchange, the company can log in some areas considered critical habitat. Pacific Lumber CEO Robert Manne says this arrangement was supposed to streamline the approval process for logging trees.
MANNE: It’s all about the concept of balance. When we put this series of agreements together, it balanced the environmental protection with the social impacts and the economics of our company. We were assured predictability and certainty going forward from that date. And that we did not get.
MARGOLIS: Instead, many of the company’s timber harvest plans have been held up or stopped outright. That’s because, most recently, neighbors have argued successfully to state water authorities that Pacific Lumber’s logging is ruining their land.
WRIGLEY: We’ve been in the valley since 1885, but on this particular piece of land since 1903, and it has continuously been operated as an apple farm by my family.
MARGOLIS: Christy Wrigley walks through her apple orchards on the North Fork of the Elk River in Eureka. Pacific Lumber owns the property in the watershed above her home. She says Maxxam’s increased logging has filled the river with sediment. Now, she says, it regularly overflows, flooding her property. She no longer drinks the muddy river water.
WRIGLEY: We don’t have a river anymore. We don’t have a source of water. The most importation aspect about being able to live anyplace is clean water. This is not a source of good clean water. They have turned that river into an industrial waste ditch.
MARGOLIS: Pacific Lumber officials and scientists say they’re trying to fix this sediment problem and repair past damage. Still, many don’t trust Pacific Lumber, and some have again taken to the treetops to voice their protest. Most famously, Julia Butterfly Hill sat in one ancient redwood for two years in the late 90’s to keep it from being cut. Her act spawned many followers. As recently as two years ago, an estimated 26 people were living in Pacific Lumber’s trees. I visited one, occupied by a woman who calls herself “Remedy.”
WOMAN: [ON GROUND] How you doing today?
REMEDY: [IN TREE IN FAINT DISTANCE] Good.
WOMAN: [ON GROUND] I’m good. How's your battery?
MARGOLIS: At the base of this 1,200 year-old-tree, Remedy’s supporters brought cell phone batteries, food, and water; they took away trash and bathroom waste.
WOMAN: [ON GROUND] Hey Remedy, I needed you to send your empties
MARGOLIS: High above, “Remedy” completed the complicated transfer, using bags and ropes on a pulley system. The only way to talk to Remedy face-to-face was to climb up.
[SOUNDS OF HEART BEATING AND GRUNTING; BIRDS CHIRPING IN DISTANCE]
MARGOLIS: One hundred thirty feet up, wearing a blue bandana and eyeglasses, Remedy looks like the all-American girl next door, except she's a little dirtier and she lives in a tree. She says she’s here to raise public awareness.
REMEDY: Tree-sitting works because a lot of people don’t know that timber companies are still cutting down 1,000 and 2,000 year old trees. So, this really gets people’s attention.
MARGOLIS: Remedy pointed to a study, well-known in her circle, done by a Maxxam consultant in the late 1980’s.
REMEDY: The study actually showed the environmental degradation that would happen, the loss of endangered species habitat. The loss of jobs, sedimentation in the rivers. They predicted everything and they went ahead and did it anyway. So, it’s not like they just incidentally, accidentally screwed up the environment and had to layoff a bunch of people because of it.
MARGOLIS: Remedy says they want Pacific Lumber to stop clear-cutting, cutting old growth, spraying herbicides, and logging on unstable slopes.
REMEDY: If they do that then there will not be any more action against them. There will be no more protesting Pacific Lumber Company. They will then be the company that they’re trying to prove to everybody that they are.
MARGOLIS: Flash forward to today: There are still people living in trees. Pacific Lumber executives say nothing they do will please their critics, and the protests, lawsuits, and regulations have taken their toll. In its latest filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company warns of more layoffs, shutting down some operations, and bankruptcy. And if Pacific Lumber files for bankruptcy and sells its forests, it’s an open question what might replace all those hard fought environmental agreements. For Living on Earth, I’m Jason Margolis.
[MUSIC: This Invitation “Silent Topic” from ‘Music For Plants’ (Perfect If On – 2005)]
GELLERMAN: We leave you this week in the redwood forest of northern California. And with some of the birds, large and small that make their homes among the majestic trees.
[EARTHEAR: “Coastal Mountains/Redwood Forest” recorded by Paul Matzner from ‘Quiet Places: A Sound Walk Across Natural California’ (OM/Oakland Museum – 1992)]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Rachel Gotbaum, Ingrid Lobet and Susan Shepherd, with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, James Curwood and Michelle Kweder.
Our interns are Bobby Bascomb and Emily Taylor. Our technical director is Dennis Foley.
Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE dot org. Steve Curwood’s back next week. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.
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