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

January 29, 1993

Air Date: January 29, 1993


Judge Releases Rocky Flats Report / Scott Schlegel

Scott Schlegel reports from Denver on the latest twist in the increasingly unusual case of the prosecution of environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. The judge in the case has released a secret grand jury report blasting the management of the plant and demanding indictments, along with a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges by prosecutors. (04:04)

New Administration Bolsters Endangered Species Act / Michael Richards

Michael Richards reports from Washington on the upcoming Congressional fight over reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. In the face of strong support for the act from the Clinton administration, many opponents to the act seem to be softening their rhetoric. (04:57)

Fighting the Elephant Wars

Steve talks with zoologists Delia and Mark Owens about elephants, economics and their efforts to prevent poaching in Zambia's North Luanaga reserve. The Owens are authors of the new book The Eye of the Elephant. (10:35)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Clifford Smith, Bebe Crouse, Scott Schlegel, Michael Richards
GUESTS: Mark Owens, Delia Owens

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

A brewing scandal over the handling of criminal prosecutions of Federal environmental laws has taken a unique turn: a Federal judge in Denver has released parts of a grand jury report that's being directly contradicted by Federal prosecutors.

NORTON: There were a raft of allegations for which there was absolutely no evidence.

CURWOOD: Also, the upcoming battle in Congress over endangered species. And, a naturalist's tale of a shooting war to protect endangered elephants in Africa.

OWENS: I would fly anti-poaching missions at night, looking for these huge meat-drying fires that would be loaded with up to four or five elephants, and they would open fire on the airplane with military weapons. You could see the tracers flicking up and so forth.

CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth. Right after the news.

Environmental News

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

As the US debates the merits of a broad-based energy tax, leaders of the European community are saying that action in Washington may spur a similar move in Europe. From Brussels, Clifford Smith has the story.

SMITH: An official statement from the European Community Commission says an energy tax in the US would open the door for Europe to act likewise. The Commission says an energy tax would improve the environment by reducing carbon emissions. The statement, issued by the new EC Environment Commissioner, Mr. Paliokrassos of Greece, points out that the Commission has already proposed what it calls an environment and energy tax. Member states, however, have been making their approval conditional on the US and Japan adopting a similar tax. European taxes on gasoline are already much higher than in the United States, and Europeans don't want that competitive disadvantage to grow wider. Commissioner Paliokrassos puts it positively: a US energy tax, he says, would open new opportunities for Europe and American to work together on world environment problems. For Living on Earth, I'm Clifford Smith in Brussels.

NUNLEY: Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says President Clinton's economic stimulus package should include measures to restore national parks and improve services on Native-American lands. Babbitt wants the administration to put more money into buildings, trails, and ecosystem management on public lands. Laying out some priorities for the huge department after 12 years of conservative administrations, Babbitt also called for changes in below-market grazing and mining leases, and a review of the lucrative concessions contract for Yosemite National Park.

Mexico won't accept outside enforcement of environmental laws connected with the North American Free Trade Agreement. That's according to a source close to the Mexican government. During the election campaign, President Clinton proposed setting up a tri-national commission to enforce environmental laws throughout North America. The Mexican source says his country is willing to share information about environmental problems with trade partners, but 'will never accept" what it regards as intrusion by those partners into internal Mexican affairs. Candidate Clinton had endorsed the trade agreement, as long as it contained enforceable environmental laws.

Winter has brought choking smog back to Mexico City . . . And renewed battles among government agencies about what should be done. From Mexico City, Bebe Crouse has the story.

CROUSE: This time it was the nation's secretary of health who came under fire. Former staff members say the ministry imposes a gag rule on employees, forbidding them from publicizing information about the health threat of the city's air. That information was released instead by a more unlikely source: the National Commission for Human Rights. The commission reported that the city's air pollution posed great health threats, demanding drastic measures to fight it. But the only new measure the city has taken to combat the smog was its decision to begin public schools one hour later. That's in hopes of reducing traffic jams. Despite that, smog levels continue to be as bad as last year, when the air was considered unhealthy more than 300 of 365 days. For Living on Earth, this is Bebe Crouse in Mexico City.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

The United States and six other Western nations have agreed jointly to fund safety improvements in 60 nuclear reactors in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The multi-million dollar fund is intended to prevent disasters like the 1986 Chernobyl accident, and guarantee an energy supply to the former Communist countries. The deal will also create significant new business for Western companies.

For the first time, the Russian government has admitted that more than 450 thousand people have suffered the effects of accidents and dumping at a nuclear weapons plant in the Ural Mountains. The Mayak plant, which opened in 1948, has suffered two major accidents, the most recent in 1967. Russia is spending billions of rubles on clean-up and health care in the area. But they warn that the military dumps still in operation at Mayak have the potential to produce 20 times the radiation of Chernobyl.

The much-heralded emission-trading markets set up by the 1990 Clean Air Act don't appear to be catching on yet. The New York Times reports that few utilities have opted to buy pollution credits from cleaner power plants, rather than reducing their own pollution. The Times article called the pollution market "a non-starter". But Environmental Defense Fund lawyer Joe Goffman, an architect of the system, predicts credits trading will pick up:

GOFFMAN: To say that it's alarming that the emissions trading market is developing slowly is a little bit like saying that it's alarming that a newborn doesn't already know how to speak and to walk.

NUNLEY: Goffman says the mid-nineties are likely to be bullish years for the pollution credits market, as more utility managers look at tough emission standards slated for the year 2000.

A Mexican zoo official hoping to buy a contraband gorilla in Florida got a primate, all right -- one a little further along the evolutionary scale than he expected. Victor Bernal, the director of zoos and parks for the State of Mexico, was shopping in Miami for black-market apes. He and two companions took delivery of what appeared to be a gorilla -- until the animal drew a gun and announced it was an agent for the FBI. All three were charged with trafficking in endangered species.

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

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Judge Releases Rocky Flats Report

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

When President Clinton's Justice Department gets up and running under a new Attorney General, it will face a number of thorny problems. Among them are allegations by Congressional investigators and others that Federal prosecutors have a pattern of going too easy on environmental criminals. There are more than 20 such cases being tracked by Capitol Hill, and many of the questions involve civil service prosecutors who wouldn't ordinarily be replaced by a new administration.

One of those prosecutions under scrutiny involves the hazardous waste scandal at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant outside Denver. And this case has recently taken an extraordinary turn: a Federal judge has released portions of a secret grand jury report that recommended aggressive prosecutions, along with a point-by-point response from the Federal prosecutors who rejected the jury's findings. From Denver, Scott Schlegel reports.

SCHLEGEL: When Rockwell International agreed last March to pay $18.5 million dollars in fines for environmental crimes at Rocky Flats, the Department of Justice hailed the largest hazardous waste settlement in US history. But members of the grand jury that investigated the case for two and a half years believe the fine was just a slap on the wrist for Rockwell. For months, the jurors pressured U-S District Judge Sherman Finesilver to release their report, which they say shows reckless disregard for environmental laws by both Rockwell and Department of Energy workers. The report was leaked to a Denver newspaper. Finally, in response to a lawsuit by Denver news media, Finesilver released heavily-edited portions of the report. In it, the grand jurors describe Rockwell and the U-S Department of Energy as being co-conspirators in an ongoing criminal enterprise at Rocky Flats. The report also alleges intentional violations of Federal environmental laws regulating the storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes. In releasing the report, Judge Finesilver accused the jurors of relying on rumor and conjecture and engaging in political argument outside the bounds of the case. The attorney who's representing the grand jurors, Jonathan Turley, says in many ways the report is a victory.

TURLEY: The position of Judge Finesilver and the Department of Justice has been that they would not release this report and specifically they would not answer criticisms by the grand jurors themselves who had been dismissed as uneducated or somehow uninformed.

SCHLEGEL: But Turley says it's difficult to fully understand the report when so much information was left out, including allegations of crimes committed by specific employees of Rockwell and DOE. The grand jury's report was also accompanied by point-by-point responses from prosecutors. The Justice Department says that what the grand jury labels as criminal is not. Outgoing US Attorney Mike Norton says the responses weren't meant to be a rebuttal to the grand jury charges, as much as a review of facts in the case.

NORTON: I think it should be clear to anyone that reads, takes time to read the document, which I hope people will for a change, that there were a raft of allegations for which there was absolutely no evidence.

SCHLEGEL: But prosecutors and jurors agree on at least one major point, that the Department of Energy was at times Rockwell's puppet at Rocky Flats. The release of the report comes as the grand jurors are under threat of prosecution for violating their oath of secrecy, and the Rocky Flats case is one of more than 20 environmental cases in which the Justice Department's conduct is being reviewed by Congress. Sources close to the congressional investigation say there are many troubling details of the Rocky Flats case which are not the original grand jury report and have yet to be made public. The jurors say they'll ask Congress for immunity so they can testify about the case. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel in Denver.

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New Administration Bolsters Endangered Species Act

CURWOOD: The Endangered Species Act is shaping up as another key environmental test for the new administration. The law was up for renewal last year. But with a hostile President, and election-year tensions over the spotted owl, Congress decided to wait before taking it on. As Michael Richards reports from Washington, there appears to be growing support for passing a stronger endangered species law this year.

RICHARDS: The debate, as framed by the Reagan and Bush administrations, was about the conflict between the environment and the economy. It's the way eco-debates have been framed now for decades, and might have continued to be, had President Bush been re-elected. But for the Clinton administration, as for much of the environmental community, the new approach is to reverse the terms of the debate and instead connect environmental protection and economics. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said as much about the Endangered Species Act during his Senate confirmation hearings.

BABBITT: When we start extinguishing links in the ecological web of the Western landscape, we take enormous risks and ultimately threaten our ability to live in harmony and productively in that environment. And I believe that the concept beneath the Endangered Species Act is sound and indeed vital to our economic interests.

RICHARDS: Babbitt will be the Cabinet officer most responsible for administering the Act. And his comments amount to the clearest and strongest Administration support for the Endangered Species Act in 12 years, according to Massachusetts Congressman Gerry Studds. As chairman of a House panel overseeing the law, Studds led last year's tactical retreat by those supporting a stronger Endangered Species Act.

STUDDS: There is a fundamental change now. I think that you don't have to orate much to see the difference between Bruce Babbitt on the one hand or Manuel Lujan or James Watt on the other. This is a sea change, if one can say that with respect to the land.

RICHARDS: Such strong statements from the Administration could encourage reluctant Democratic lawmakers to get behind the Act more forcefully. The Administration's statements are already reaching the business community. One representative of an important business lobby said new political realities are making for new strategies. While some, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, still want endangered species decisions to be based more on immediate economic impact, other large organizations representing US commercial interests are ceding ground to the environmental community. They now agree that science alone should decide whether to list a species as endangered or not. Stuart Hardy of the US Chamber of Commerce says the issue now for business is getting clear and predictable guidelines.

HARDY: A critical element in this equation has to be to make sure that everybody understands what will be required of landowners and businesses in affected communities early on in the process, so that everybody has time to accommodate the listing.

RICHARDS: What business groups like the US Chamber of Commerce don't want are sudden changes that can lead to sudden shutdowns. This is what happened with the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest.

A broad coalition of environmental groups want to make the process more predictable, too. The way to do it, they say, is to adopt what's called an eco-system approach to protecting endangered species. It would identify critical habitats and set up broad protection plans long before a creature is so sparse that only drastic action can save it. Some business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, say they're interested. Pamela Eaton of the Wilderness Society says such eco-system approaches would both provide more predictability and greater protection.

EATON: You can get into a cascade of species in the same system, that if you could have addressed it in a broader sense, you might have avoided those species ever needing to be listed or addressed singly. We're seeing that in the Pacific Northwest, with the spotted owl, the marbled meerlet, the salmon, and then we have other species that are likely to come onto the list if we don't take a broader perspective in how we address the problems out there.

RICHARDS: That broader prospective will no doubt be a critical component of a Northwest forests summit that Vice President Gore is set to chair later this year. All sides hope to bring the thorny spotted owl controversy to a close during the conference -- thus relieving some of the tension surrounding the Endangered Species Act. No date has been set, although it's expected during the spring. Until then, deliberations about the future of the Endangered Species Act are likely to be put on hold. Massachusetts Congressman Gerry Studds, whose Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee oversees the Act, says the political climate just won't be right until the fiery passions raised by the spotted owl dispute subside.

For Living on Earth, this is Michael Richards in Washington.

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Fighting the Elephant Wars

CURWOOD: One of the most endangered animals on the planet is the African elephant. Over the last thirty years so many have been killed for their hides, their meat and especially their ivory tusks, that fewer than 15 percent are left. Several years ago zoologists Mark and Delia Owens went to Zambia to study lions, but they quickly found themselves embroiled in a major battle to save the gentle giants.

DELIA OWENS: Elephants are very sensitive animals, they have a very strong family group. The females will stay in the group in which they're born, so you have grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, all in a group. The matriarch will be 60 years old. So they've known each other, they know each other for years and years, they communicate, they do a lot of touching, they lean against each other when they're sleeping -- there's a lot of feeling among the group. Unlike other animals, when they're being shot, the elephants will actually run towards the individual that has been shot and try to lift it up. And so therefore instead of one being shot, sometimes the whole group is shot, because they'll actually stay around trying to aid the ones that are wounded. And this has had a tremendous impact on their social behavior. In North Luanga now, we almost never see normal family groups; they've been broken up -- none of the matriarchs are left, basically we have a bunch of teenagers running around trying to survive.

CURWOOD: In 1990 an international ban on the trade in ivory was adopted by much of the world, through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, better known by its acronym, CITES. The ban has helped cut elephant poaching substantially. In their new book, The Eye of the Elephant, Delia and Mark Owens chronicle their struggles to save elephants in Zambia's North Luanga reserve, before the CITES ban. They stopped by recently to talk about that fight, and their efforts to create other sources of income for people who had little opportunity to make money, except through poaching.

MARK OWENS: Poaching was the number one economy in the whole district, in an area the size of Maine. And basically what we've tried to do is supplant an illicit economy based on poaching with a legal economy based on microindustries that we've helped the people start in villages.

CURWOOD: How is that working, and where did you get the money for it?

DELIA OWENS: Well, the way to tell you how it's working is, when we started this project one thousand elephants were being shot a year, and in 1992 only two elephants have been shot. So it has been very successful but it was not easy. What happened was, at first the villagers were suspicious. A few would join us, but then some of them would work making furniture during the week and then on the weekends they'd still go poaching. So it took a long time, and you see the other problem was that the game scouts who were supposed to be protecting the park were corrupt -- they were poaching as well. The game warden was one of the biggest poachers. We had no one we could turn to for assistance. And so we had to just keep trying, and eventually more people joined us, but the more successful we became, the angrier the large operators became. It's like a drug cartel -- you have these men at the top that are organizing the whole thing. They became very angry. So they actually sent an assassination team in to kill us.

CURWOOD: And what happened?

MARK OWENS: They actually came to a high bank behind our camp, about 250 yards from our camp, and they were all armed with AK-47 assault rifles. And informants had tipped us off that they were coming in about 24 hours earlier, and we only had three guns -- one rifle, a shotgun and a pistol, all sporting guns. And we dressed our staff up, some of our Bemba tribesmen who were working for us, we dressed them in khakis and gave them sticks and gave them the few guns we had, and we all sort of paraded around camp looking very officious and military, and --

CURWOOD: You scared 'em off, huh?

MARK OWENS: Well, they came, they actually crawled through the grass to within sixty yards and apparently even took sight on me as I walked to our workshop and, but then they saw these other guys walking around with guns and they talked it over and decided it was too risky for them at that point, so they backed away. But they were regularly shooting at the airplane. I would fly anti-poaching missions at night, looking for these huge meat-drying fires that would be loaded with up to four or five elephants, and they would open fire on the airplane with military weapons. You could see the tracers flicking up and so forth. So it was quite a, it turned into quite a bush war.

CURWOOD: What about all of this has discouraged you the most? When did you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror -- I guess you don't have a mirror there (laughter) -- but when did you saw, I don't know if I can do this any more?

MARK OWENS: Well, I think the most discouraging point came when one group in particular that we called "camp group" were coming around and coming actually into camp and feeding on the marulla fruits at our bedroom cottage and so forth. And one morning we got up and we were wandering down the footpath through our camp toward the kitchen area, and we were going to fix breakfast, and Delia said, look, Mark, there's Survivor. We stood there just in the warm morning light watching this elephant just across the river from camp feeding, and all of a sudden a fusillade of gunfire broke out , and there were military weapons rattling everywhere around, and they were shooting at Survivor, and his group, the rest of his group. And we grabbed the guns and went and grabbed the guys that work for us -- or actually, they just charged across the river without any firearms -- and I was trying to cover them with my gun and two other guys with the other two guns, and they could have been cut down by these poachers, but . . . Anyway, Survivor disappeared and we thought he'd either been killed or wounded or would die of his wounds, and we couldn't find the poachers but eventually found some elephants they'd killed and chopped the tusks from. And I went up in the airplane that late afternoon, and I found the poachers, where they were camped for the night along a river not too far from our camp. And I flew to Mpeka, which is the nearest town from us, and I got some game scouts and brought them out and showed them the camp from the air, and they refused to go after them. They said, aw, we've been on patrol recently, we don't have to go on patrol. And that was it for me. I just thought, what in the world are we doing here, and it was at that point, actually, that I decided, to hell with this, and I yanked the door off the plane, turned the seat around and put one of my best workers in the seat with a shotgun loaded not with buckshot but with a special shotgun shell that projects a cherry bomb, a firecracker, to a hundred yards, which then goes off with a tremendous explosion and a lot of light and flash but no shrapnel. And then I took off that night and flew at night, and flew down a mountain canyon near this poacher's camp and stayed low behind the trees, because I knew they'd shoot at me. And then popped up over their camp at the last second and just turned a tight spiral around their camp, and the first cherry bomb that Kasekola shot went right into their campfire and it exploded, it shot burning embers all over their camp and set their tents on fire, so it was a fairly gratifying feeling for me. And then for weeks after that I kept flying these sorties against poachers at night, and eventually we cleared them out of the valley. And then within a couple of months after that the CITES ivory moratorium was enacted, and it just helped us tremendously, because suddenly it just undercut the poachers' incentive for coming in against us.

DELIA OWENS: After CITES banned the international trade of ivory, elephant poaching in East Africa dropped by 80 percent. In our area, it has dropped by even more than that. Besides the CITES ban on ivory, the other thing that really helped us was that last year, in 1991, the Zambian people decided that they wanted a free, democratic government, and the majority of people came out and insisted on having a free election, which they had never had, they only had a one-party state. And they elected Fred Toluba, their new president, and he enacted a very strong new law against poaching. And also Zambia joined the ban, and now we have the support of the government. Now we have a new game warden who's not corrupt, we have a new Chief of Police who's not a poacher. And so it's just like a different place now.

CURWOOD: I know you're biologists, zoologists -- you're not economists -- but briefly, what's the economic model, and give me some numbers if you can, for this new economy that you're trying to set up.

MARK OWENS: Basically our approach has been the carrot and the stick. We make it very expensive for poachers to come into the wilderness area to poach, and at the same time relatively more profitable to stay out of there. A man would make ten dollars for shooting an elephant, for example. Well, it doesn't take much of an industry to replace that.

DELIA OWENS: So we started this program of giving alternatives to the poachers. We would train, we'd say, okay, we'll take anyone who's interested and we'll train you. And for example, in the village of Chebonza, we trained some of the men to be carpenters, and we bought them all the tools that they needed, we helped them get a system of buying lumber from somewhere else, and the whole system was free enterprise. Once they started producing furniture, then they would have to start paying our project back, on a monthly basis they have to pay us back, so it's not a free handout. When they pay us back we use this money to go to another village and start up another project.

MARK OWENS: For example, we, another group, we started a sewing cooperative in another village. And this group of women is making the covers for the chairs that the carpenters are making in another village. So we have one business now feeding another business. And in the same village with the carpenters another man is hacking metal out of an old truck body and making mousetraps and rattraps out of that.

CURWOOD: Now, how did you pay for all of this? How could you afford as naturalists, as zoologists, to go into a local town and transform their economy, say, well, you'll go to work as a carpenter or as a seamstress or whatever?

DELIA OWENS: It was difficult, Steve. We had to actually raise the money for that so we started our own foundation in this country, the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, based in Atlanta, and now we have over 200 people working on this program. In fact, it's been so successful, we had a man come up to us not long ago and say, I want to work for your project, but I believe I have to be a poacher first! And we said, no, you don't have to be a poacher first.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much, Delia and Mark Owens, author of The Eye of the Elephant. Thanks for joining me.

DELIA / MARK OWENS: Thank you, thanks for having us, Steve.

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Peter Thomson produces and edits our show. The director is Deborah Stavro, and the coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page and Colleen Singer Cox. The program is engineered by Laurie Azaria, with help from Chris Barry and Bob Connolly. 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.

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