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

January 15, 1993

Air Date: January 15, 1993


Rocky Flats Investigation / Scott Schlegel

Scott Schlegel reports from Denver on the controversy surrounding the US Justice Department's plea bargain with the defense contractor Rockwell International over environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant. Three Congressional committees are investigating the Justice Department's conduct in the Rocky Flats case and several other environmental prosecutions. (05:43)

Oil and Water Mix in the Shetlands / Stephen Beard

Stephen Beard reports from the Shetland Islands on the Braer tanker disaster. As hosts to one of Europe's largest tanker terminals, Shetlanders have taken strict and successful precautions against spills from their own operations, and they are angry that the regulations did not apply to passing tanker traffic. (10:37)

Prognosis: Oil Spills Inevitable

Steve talks with Faith Yondo, editor of the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, about the possibility of preventing disasters such as the Braer in the future. Yondo says that while nations are moving to impose stricter regulation on tanker operations, large spills are inevitable as long as we want to ship and consume oil. (04:28)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jennifer Ludden, Melissa Mancini, Scott Schlegel, Stephen Beard
GUESTS: Faith Yondo

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Federal grand jurors in Colorado who investigated environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant have made an unprecedented request: they want Congressional immunity to speak out against what they say is prosecutorial misconduct.

TURLEY: This is an historic case. The reason Congress has never faced this is because no grand jury has ever had to go public in the history of this country with criticisms.

CURWOOD: And as Britain copes with a massive oil spill off Scotland's coast, some experts say such spills are inevitable.

YONDO: There's sort of a misperception on the part of the public that you can prevent oil spills. You can, you can take precautions against them, but the fact is, as long as we're transporting oil by tankers there is a risk of a spill.

CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth. First the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

Quebec will complete of one of its massive hydroelectric projects on the shores of James Bay, now that Cree Indians have settled a lawsuit against the controversial development. From Montreal, Jennifer Ludden reports.

LUDDEN: Government-owned Hydro Quebec will pay the Cree $125 million dollars over fifty years for environmental damage wrought by the massive James Bay I project in northern Quebec. Cree leaders say the deal is not a sell-out. They say the project's dams have already ruined natives' hunting lifestyle, so they'll use the settlement money to develop new economies. The Crees remain firmly opposed to the second phase of the James Bay project, known as Great Whale. That development is undergoing an exhaustive environmental review. Meanwhile, its future is less certain, since the recession has reduced projected demand for power. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Ludden in Montreal.

NUNLEY: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia will cooperate on environmental and other issues affecting their common border region at the top of Europe. The new regional initiative, in an area long dominated by East-West tensions, comes in response to environmental hazards in northwestern Russia. Norwegian officials say nuclear waste dumps in northern waters, substandard nuclear power plants and industrial air pollution are among the top priorities.

More than 60 years after the last whooping crane disappeared from Florida, a small group of the birds are being released into the wild there. As Melissa Mancini reports, it's the first phase in a program to re-establish the whooping crane in Florida

MANCINI: There are only 237 whooping cranes left in the world, and in Florida, where they used to be abundant, there are none. The release program is part of an overall effort to restore Florida's wetlands, and Julie Landenberg of the International Crane Foundation, says whooping cranes are important to that effort because they help monitor the environment.

LANDENBERG: Cranes are wetlands sentinels. If the wetlands of the world aren't healthy, then the cranes aren't healthy, and so the fact that many cranes like the woodland cranes are endangered suggests that there's problems with the habitat.

MANCINI: For the next few weeks, the cranes in Florida's release program will be restrained to prevent them from flying away. When the restraints are removed, the birds are expected to return to the area for food. Over the next ten years it's expected 200 whooping cranes will be released in the program. For Living on Earth, I'm Melissa Mancini on the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in central Florida.

NUNLEY: The pollution that's choking many US cities is also spoiling the view for visitors to America's national parks and wilderness areas. A new National Research Council report says air pollution has cut average visual ranges by one-half in the West to four-fifths in the East. The report, commissioned by the Departments of Interior, Energy and Agriculture, found that 'scenic vistas in most US parklands are often diminished by haze that reduces contrast, washes out colors and renders distant landscape features indistinct or invisible'. It also says current pollution control plans won't solve the nation's visibility problems.

This is Living on Earth.

The Clinton Administration is just moving in, but environmentalists are already turning up the heat. Environmental groups have unleashed a slew of new policy proposals, hoping to shape the agenda of an administration that has promised to be more pro-environment than its predecessor. The agenda includes action on global warming, population, and endangered species. Larry MacDonald headed a team at the University of Colorado Law School which presented water policy recommendations to what he hopes will be a receptive administration.

MACDONALD: We hadn't have such a transition in twelve years, and I think there was a real sense that this was an opportunity, that these were new people looking for fresh ideas and that's what we were trying to offer.

NUNLEY: Some of the proposals are getting a hearing. A recent report by the National Commission on the Environment calls, among other things, for higher gas taxes. Commission director Amelia Salzman says that's already been put on the table.

SALZMAN: We were one of many, obviously, people who were proposing an increase in the federal gas tax, but that has suddenly, I think, gained tremendously in momentum and I think we might have a bit to do with that. I hope we had a little bit to do with that.

NUNLEY: At least one member of Salzman's commission has landed a top job in the new Administration. . . Alice Rivlin, who's been tapped for assistant budget director.

Japanese automakers Toyota and Nissan are said to be joining forces to develop an electric vehicle to compete with the big three in the US. The report comes just weeks after GM, Ford and Chrysler announced they may share research to help speed development of a commercially-viable electric car.

And bike commuting is getting a boost in Glendale, Arizona, where some municipal employees are being given bikes to ride to work. The program is part of a clean air initiative. So far, about fifty city employees have been issued bikes recovered by police as unclaimed property. Workers who commute by bike 3 days a week for a year get to keep them, and the waiting list is growing. Glendale has also put bike racks on commuter buses, and is building bike lanes to encourage two-wheeled commuting.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Rocky Flats Investigation

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

For some time, Congress has been investigating allegations that high officials in the US Justice Department improperly quashed criminal cases against a number of allegedly serious polluters. Investigators for the House Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice recently said there are questions of political influence involving these prosecutions. One of the probes involves the massive pollution at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, outside of Denver. And in a highly unusual move, members of the grand jury that investigated the Rocky Flats case have broken their vow of silence, and asked for immunity to testify before Congress about their concerns. From Denver, Scott Schlegel has our story.

McKINLEY: Special Grand Jury 89-2 is a cross-section of the people of Colorado and of the United States of America. We were called as the citizenship to do our duty and that is what we have done . . . (fade under)

SCHLEGEL: For two and a half years, Wes McKinley was foreman of Special Grand Jury 89-2, the grand jury investigating the dumping of hazardous waste at Rocky Flats, where until three years ago, triggers for America's nuclear arsenal were built. The grand jury recommended that the Justice Department indict specific employees at Energy Department contractor Rockwell International for committing environmental crimes at Rocky Flats. But government prosecutors rejected their recommendation and instead struck a deal with Rockwell, in which the company agreed to pay an $18.5 million dollar fine and no company employees would be charged. The fine was a record for violations of Federal environmental laws, but it still amounted to less than Rockwell had earned in performance bonuses in the last three years of its operation of Rocky Flats. That arrangement provoked more than half the grand jurors to speak out, and at a press conference in mid-November, McKinley read a letter he and other grand jurors had sent to President-elect Clinton.

McKINLEY: Please direct the District Attorney to appoint a special Federal prosecutor or a suitable independent person to investigate whether any Federal criminal laws or rules may have been violated during the course of the special grand jury's investigation . . . (fade under)

SCHLEGEL: McKinley and the Rocky Flats grand jurors aren't alone in their call for an investigation of dealings deep inside the Justice Department, as well as the Department's handling of the Rocky Flats and other environmental prosecutions. Attorney and George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley represents the grand jurors. He's also conducted a study, for the House Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice, of the Justice Department's record in environmental prosecutions.

TURLEY: What is so damaging in the Rocky Flats case is it is a microcosm of sorts, of all of the problems identified by three separate Congressional committees. Those committees have identified a general pattern that has existed for twelve years at the Department of Justice. What Rocky Flats says is that it is not unique, it's one of as many as thirty cases that have been identified to date that are very similar, where individuals are escaping liability, at times where corporations are escaping entirely from liability.

SCHLEGEL: Turley says these cases, including the Rockwell case, raise the question of possible political influence in the prosecution of environmental crime by the Justice Department. What separates the Rockwell case from the others is that the grand jurors took the highly unusual step of going public with their dissent and in turn the Justice Department has threatened to prosecute the grand jurors for violating their oath of secrecy. Justice Department officials in Denver and Washington refused to comment on the investigation of the grand jurors. However, the department is defending its actions in the case against Rockwell. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Myles Flynt takes issue with twelve grand jurors' finding that Rockwell workers should have been indicted.

FLYNT: We have a standard within the Department of Justice that applies to all crimes, which is that you do not seek an indictment unless based on the evidence that the prosecutor has, the prosecutor believes that he will be able to obtain a conviction. We don't bring, seek an indictment simply to test something and to send a message.

SCHLEGEL: Some members of the grand jury would like to tell Congressional investigators why they disagree with the Justice Department. Three separate Congressional committees are investigating the Department's record on environmental crimes. Attorney Jonathan Turley says he'll ask Congress to give jurors immunity from prosecution for speaking out about the Rockwell case, although he doesn't know what will come of that request.

TURLEY: I don't deny that this would be a rather historic event, but this is a historic case. I mean the reason Congress has never faced this is because no Grand Jury has ever had to go public in the history of this country with criticisms.

SCHLEGEL: Under the government's agreement with Rockwell, company employees can no longer be prosecuted in the Rocky Flats case. But grand jurors say Congress and the American people need to know what really happened at Rocky Flats, so the same thing doesn't happen elsewhere. As one grand juror put it, what the public knows so far is only the tip of the iceberg. A spokesperson for incoming Attorney General Zoe Baird declined to comment on Justice Department prosecution of criminal environmental cases, pending her confirmation.

For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel in Denver.

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(Music up and under)

Oil and Water Mix in the Shetlands

CURWOOD: European Community environment and maritime officials will meet in Brussels on January 25th, to discuss strengthening anti-pollution laws and oil tanker regulations. The meeting was called after the wreck of the supertanker Braer, which lost power in a hurricane-force storm and broke up on the rocks in Scotland's Shetland Islands. Virtually all of the 26 million gallons of light crude aboard the ill-fated vessel went into the water, twice as much oil as the Exxon Valdez spilled in Alaska in March of 1989. As Stephen Beard reports, the Shetland spill has local residents worried about their future, and British authorities scrambling to mitigate the damage.

(Sound of airport intercom: "British International Airways departure. . ." , fade under )

BEARD: Two miles from the rocks where the tanker ran aground, Sumber Airport has never been busier. The salvage and the cleanup operations have been coordinated here. Helicopters ferried the salvagemen through gale-force winds to monitor the stricken vessel from the air. More than a thousand reporters from around the world have poured into the airport too, arriving to watch what Shetland Councillor Willie Tate says is nothing less than a fight for the island's survival.

TATE: The sea is all-important to the Shetland Islands. It's always been our main indigenous industry. We depend very, very much on the sea, and we depend equally on the land, and both these are being destroyed by this black oil that's coming ashore on the islands.

(Wind noise)

BEARD: Whipped by the wind into a fine spray, the Norwegian crude has soaked the whole of the southern tip of the island. The grass has been turning brown. Many of the sheep that graze on it have been moved inland. Inside the taxi, on the short drive to the coast, you taste oil on your lips. The driver says you can't escape the pungent fumes.

CABBIE: Drivin' around down here, it's been monstrous, that smell in the car has just been ridiculous, of oil and diesel really. And like it's been leavin' a film of oil over the whole car really, and the windscreen and that. Which means it can't, the windscreen wipers just seem to skim over the top of it. Guess it's no wonder the locals are gettin' a bit worried about their health, like, havin' to breath this in the whole time.

(Sound of waves crashing on shore)

BEARD: Quindale Bay has borne the brunt of the pollution. Before the tanker ran aground, just along the coast, the bay was a bird-watchers' paradise: a playground for kittiwakes and shags and eiderducks -- thousands of seabirds nest and breed on the cliffs at nearby Fitful Head. Hundreds of them have now been washed ashore dead or dying. Pete Ellis, Shetland conservation officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, stands at the edge of the bay, surveying a desolate scene.

ELLIS: The sea is just full of oil here, and the foam, and these very, very large waves, it's just horrible really. The only birds you can see at the moment are gulls, which are scavenging dead fish which have been killed by the oil. And it's one of the most picturesque bays, the head of the bay's a mile-long white sandy beach, there's that, green rolling hills in the background, which are all covered in blown oil now, a very light covering. And it's just tragic.

(Sound of heavy surf and wind)

BEARD: Twenty-two miles north, at Scallaway on the west coast of the island, farmer Mary Isbister is anxiously scanning the sea through the rain-lashed windows of her conservatory. A fierce tide has now carried the oil slick past Mary's farm. She's deeply worried about her crops and her livestock.

ISBISTER: We grow all the traditional crops, we keep all the traditional animals. In fact, the real breeds of ducks and geese, there's only two pair of our Shetland this year, there's about six in the whole island. So, we must take great care to keep them in, two nights we've been taking them inside, we're following the slick up the road at the moment, it remains to be seen just how far and how bad it is. But you must take precautions to take them in tonight.

BEARD: Farming, fishing and knitwear are the Shetlands' main source of income, earning the whole group of islands some hundred million pounds a year. Tourism's important as well. During the summer months, visitors outnumber islanders two to one. These industries, says Mary Isbister, have obviously been jeopardized by the oil spill.

ISBISTER: Absolutely, all our industries depend on our clean atmosphere, and so it's devastation. We've always farmed as environmentally-friendly as possible, we've never used chemicals, we do everything with a bit of care. Now, we're absolutely helpless, we can do absolutely nothing about it.

BEARD: Some of the islanders have tried to stave off disaster. There are dozens of salmon farms operating along this coast. Each of the salmon cages contain more than a hundred thousand pounds' worth of fish. In heavy seas, and violent winds, some of the farmers went out in tugs, battling to encircle the cages with protective booms. John Pottinger didn't bother. In his case, he didn't think the booms would work. Here in a pub called the Fisherman's Arms in Scallaway, he sought shelter from the storm and solace as he contemplated what the oil could do to his livelihood.

POTTINGER: The beach is our farm, and it's wiped out. There's no way we can put booms round our farm, it's too rough, it's a very, very exposed site. We have a fairly great overdraft at the bank, and we have passed no guarantees in at the bank, and if the bank forecloses because we can't produce, then we lose everything. I could go bust. If that happens, then I'll lose everything I've worked for the last twenty-five years.

BEARD: The threat to the salmon farms' survival hasn't only been physical. The oil slick has been having a baleful psychological effect on the whole industry.

POTTINGER: Supermarkets have withdrawn certain salmon from the shelves, and that's not only going to apply to Shetland salmon, it's going to apply to shellfish, whitefish, everything -- everything that comes out of the sea is not going to be sellable on the mainland of Britain, or France, or Japan, or whatever. It is a catastrophe.

BEARD: In a bid to reassure fish buyers, the Shetland Fishermen's Association swiftly imposed a ban on the harvesting or the catching of fish within 400 square miles around the tanker. The government says it will do its utmost to insure that every islander who suffers loss is fully compensated. But it's made clear that eventually the polluter must pay. Claims will have to be met largely by insurance companies. The government has played an energetic and highly visible role in the aftermath of the disaster. No fewer than four ministers have flown over the wreck, including the Secretary of State for Transport, John McGregor.

McGREGOR: Well, it's obviously a very tragic situation, and a very distressing one to see. But from the talks I've had already, it's clear that everyone feels that we've pulled out all the stops, everything possible is being done, and the chief executive of the Shetland Town Council has just told me that he's extremely satisfied with the way we've responded.

BEARD: The government has sent out two inquiries: one to consider the movement of all environmentally-hazardous cargoes around the British coast, and the other to investigate the causes of the Braer disaster, whether the ship's crew of Greeks, Poles and Filipinos sailing under the Liberian flag of convenience were to blame -- whether the Shetland Coast Guard responded too slowly or too quickly, leaving the ship to founder on the rocks when it could have been towed to safety. For the islanders, however, the fundamental question is -- why is any oil tanker allowed in storm conditions to sail along Shetland's southern coast, through a channel just 22 miles wide? The Braer, says councillor Willie Tate, should have taken another route.

TATE: It could have gone equally as well along the north coast of Shetland, north of Muckofludder (?), it could have gone round there. Why it had to come south around Shetland and come through this narrow sound, I find it very, very hard to believe why in a force-12 gale, hurricane-force winds, that the skipper took the tanker into this narrow sound. It's one of the worst pieces of water along the British Isles.

BEARD: It's one of the ironies of the Braer disaster that at the northern end of the island, not far from Scallaway, is the largest oil terminal in Europe. It handles millions of tons of North Sea oil a year. It has an excellent safety record: only one minor spill since it opened fourteen years ago. Controls are rigorous because of the island's ecological fragility. Councillor Tate is outraged that these safeguards do not apply to passing traffic.

TATE: I've very, very angry that this sort of thing has got to happen to these beautiful islands. That is utterly deplorable, and I hope that the British Government will try to do anything in its power internationally, that they'll add exclusion zones around certain areas of the British Isles, certain sensitive areas, needs to be protected.

(Surf sounds)

BEARD: The day before the Braer ran aground in high winds and heavy seas, the island made public its plans for a conference in March, the title: 'Managing the Marine Environment.' The brochure's opening paragraph is prophetic: 'Situated at the crossroads of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean,' it reads, 'the Shetland Islands are in a unique geographical position to monitor the destructive impact of man's actions on the sea.'

For Living on Earth, I'm Stephen Beard on the Shetland Islands.

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(Sound of surf fades)

Prognosis: Oil Spills Inevitable

CURWOOD: It may take years to assess all the damage from the Braer oil spill, and for its lessons to have an impact on shipping regulations. But one lesson of the tanker disaster is already clear -- current clean-up technology just can't deal with a spill in the sort of raging seas in which the Braer foundered. Faith Yondo is the editor of the Oil Spill Intelligence Report. I spoke with her shortly after the vessel had broken up.

YONDO: Normally when oil spills, there are certain ways you can clean up, certain response options. The problem with the spill in the Shetland Islands, and this really is a very severe spill because of this, is there, the weather prohibits any use of mechanical recovery equipment. So what they've used is dispersants, which is a common technique in the UK, that's the first line of response. And so the chances of them recovering any oil probably aren't very great in that situation. These techniques have limitations, as we're seeing in the Shetland Islands. You can't use booms and skimmers when you have thirty feet, forty feet, sixty feet seas, they just won't work. And so that's a problem, it's definitely a problem, and that's an area that everyone's trying to work, is there a good way to clean up, and so far no one's found an answer, there's no answer at this point.

CURWOOD: Are we valuing safety enough when it comes to oil spills?

YONDO: I would say yes, I think there's sort of a misperception on the part of the public that you can prevent oil spills, and my feeling is that you can, you can take precautions against them, but the fact is, as long as we're transporting oil by tankers there is a risk of a spill. And there's really nothing that can be done to -- there are things that can be done, but there is nothing, even environmentalists that I've talked to concede that you're going to have oil spills. The only way you get rid of spills is if you stop transporting oil, period. And I don't think as many conservation measures as you could put in, you would ever get to that point, because we live in an industrialized society. And so the public, the choice that the public is offered with, do you want to stop being dependent on oil, do you want to stop putting gas in your cars, do you want to stop having, putting, using fuel oil in your homes, and if they're willing to say yes -- which I'm not -- if you're willing to say yes, and everyone else is willing to say yes, then fine. And if you want, you know, in a sense we're all part of the problem, in the fact that we are all dependent, so . . .

CURWOOD: Well, I'm wondering -- what is acceptable risk here? What would it cost to cut the risk here of spills to one-tenth of what we've seen the last three years, three major spills -- what would it take to turn that to three major spills over thirty years? One every ten years instead of one every year, is what we're looking at now. Not to eliminate . . .

YONDO: It is about that, that's, that's, what you're saying is just not correct. Usually there are two or three major spills a year. We keep, there are spills every day. There are a lot of huge spills that could have turned either way and could have been a complete disaster. There are tankers that get into trouble in the middle of the ocean and sink to the ocean floor. And in, this kind of widespread severe environmental impact is rare. It does happen in one or two large spills a year. For example, last year there was a spill off the coast of Mozambique, there was the spill in Spain, and then there was the spill that absolutely got no coverage whatsoever in Uzbekistan, where eight million gallons, eighty million gallons of oil spilled, that's four times what we're talking about now in the Shetland Islands. That got no coverage whatsoever because it was in Uzbekistan. And that probably caused some severe damage. And so you have, what you tend to see, what we tend to see in the statistics is you have two to three large spills every year, and then everything else is a medium to a small spill, which probably, usually don't cause much damage, though not necessarily so, depending on the incident.

CURWOOD: And in your view, little if anything could be done to reduce these spills.

YONDO: No, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is, what can be done is already starting to be done, and I think you continue to see it done. You start looking at issues of, one of the biggest things you can't control is human error and weather, so then the debate starts switching towards tanker design, exclusive zones, restrictions on tankers traveling in bad weather conditions.

CURWOOD: But the sum and substance, even with all those changes, not a whole lot could be done to reduce these spills.

YONDO: Even with all those changes, you're going to see spills. It's inevitable that we're going to have oil spills.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Faith Yondo is editor of the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, published in Arlington, Massachusetts. Thank you.

YONDO: Thank you.

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(Music up and under)

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Peter Thomson produces and edits our show, Deborah Stavro directs. Our coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page and Colleen Singer Cox. Our engineer is Laurie Azaria, with help from Bob Walker and Gary Walleik. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Theme music up and under funding credits)


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