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

November 26, 1993

Air Date: November 26, 1993


California Wildfires / Stephanie O'Neill

Stephanie O'Neill reports from Pasadena on the environmental aftermath of California's recent fires. The fires were bad news for at least two species of threatened birds living in the area. But in the long run, biologists assert that fire is a necessary part of the area's ecology. (06:22)

Paint Recycling / Terry Fitzpatrick

Terry Fitzpatrick reports on the problems of paint recycling. Disposing of paint safely and properly is expensive; recycling seems like an attractive alternative. Despite difficulties with contamination and cost-effectiveness, a few industrious paint recyclers think that they can make the process pay off. (06:05)

America's Biggest Mail Junkies

Host Steve Curwood talks to Will Nixon, Assistant Editor of E-Magazine, about his magazine's recent Junk Mail Hall of Shame. The list points the finger at a few companies who make sure that our mailboxes are never empty. (03:56)

Last Native Speaker / Nancy Lord

Commentator Nancy Lord reflects on the extinction of a native language, and the loss of its unique perspective on the natural world. (03:35)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c)1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Va Lynda Robinson
REPORTERS: Lynn Terry, Kim Motylewski, Thomas Lalley, Stephanie O'Neill, Terry Fitzpatrick
GUESTS: Will Nixon

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The Southern California wildfires ravaged plants and animals as well as people. But scientists say the natural ecosystem there includes fire.

HUGHES: All of the plants evolved with fire. Some of those seeds must have fire in order to germinate. So a fire is not an ecological disaster by any means, in the Santa Monica mountains. It can be a great human disaster, but it's not a disaster for the ecology.

CURWOOD: Also, from writer Will Nixon, the Junk Mail Hall of Shame. And what's at the top of his list?

NIXON: Victoria's Secret. It kept showing up, week after week after week. One summer we got eight copies of it.

CURWOOD: And wondering what to do with all those leftover cans of paint in your garage or basement? Recycle. That and more this week on Living on Earth, first the news.

Environmental News

ROBINSON: I'm Va Lynda Robinson with this week's environmental news.

Midwestern farmers are swamping the Federal government with requests to turn their formerly flooded fields back into wetlands. The farmers, faced with the high cost of fixing broken levees and removing sand from fields, have inundated the US Soil Conservation Service with pleas for aid, but the emergency wetlands reserve program only has enough money to convert 15,000 acres. A wetlands expert with the Environmental Defense Fund said the program was obviously too small, but he added even this small program signals a new awareness of the dangers of farming in a floodplain.

A program to save dolphins caught in the tuna nets of Mediterranean fishing trawlers is in danger. From Paris, Lynn Terry reports on the stalled proposal to create a dolphin sanctuary.

TERRY: About eight thousand Mediterranean dolphins are killed each year in driftnets. The nets are banned by most countries, but under international law, they can only police their own territorial waters, extending 12 miles offshore. That means that about 80% of the Mediterranean is not policed. An international convention, due to come into effect next year, would give countries the right to protect fauna in a 200-mile zone. Environmentalists say that means that proposed sanctuary could be created by dividing up the Mediterranean into large sections. But the conflicting interests of the 18 countries bordering this limited body of water has blocked an agreement. For Living on Earth, this is Lynn Terry in Paris.

ROBINSON: Much of the ecological damage to oceans is caused by everyday activities rather than high-profile environmental disasters.That's according to a recent report by the Worldwatch Institute. Author Peter Weber says routine fishing practices and a steady influx of toxins, sediments, and nutrients cause widespread damage to the oceans.

WEBER: Half of the oil that enters the ocean comes from cars, factories and other land-based sources.

ROBINSON: The report stresses the need for greater regulation of fishing, coastal development and inland sources of water pollution.

The Clinton Administration will give $75 million dollars over five years to the International Planned Parenthood Federation. The grant signals a fundamental shift in US population policy. Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski has more.

MOTYLEWSKI: Since 1984, no international agency offering abortion services or counseling could receive US funds for any purpose. The new policy still prohibits the use of US money for abortions, but doesn't prevent agencies which happen to perform them from obtaining US funds for other reproductive health programs. An official with the US Agency for International Development said the funding decision will allow greater access to family planning information, and likely spur other countries to increase their aid for population programs. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski.

ROBINSON: This is Living on Earth.

Leftover land mines kill or maim thousands of civilians every month, according to new report by Human Rights Watch and the Physicians for Human Rights. The report estimates about 100 million mines litter the countryside of more than 60 nations. Among the worst affected nations are Cambodia, Afghanistan, Somalia and Kuwait, where the mines render large tracts of land uninhabitable and unproductive. The report says removing the mines is an expensive and time-consuming project which many poor nations cannot undertake.

The Clinton Administration wants to secure a substantial share of the world's growing global environmental technology market for the US. From Washington,Thomas Lalley reports on the Administration's plan for greater government /industry cooperation.

LALLEY: Making good on a promise made last Earth Day, President Clinton plans to expand US exports of environmental technology. This includes products for prevention, remediation, and control of pollution. Over the next decade, demands for these products and services is expected to grow in some areas as much as five times what it is now. But the US is facing stiff competition from Japan and Germany., whose corporations often receive governmental support. So the Clinton Administration plans to coordinate efforts from all areas of the Federal Government to disperse new information about environmental technology to corporations and to streamline regulations regarding testing and marketing of new products and cleanup techniques. As many as 60,000 US corporations will be affected by the Administration's plan. For Living on Earth, this is Thomas Lalley in Washington.

ROBINSON: San Antonio, Texas is the best place to live in the United States, from an environmental perspective. The city ranked number one in the World Resources Institute "Green Cities Index." Last year's number one, Honolulu, slipped to fourth place due to increasing water quality problems. Last on the list: St. Louis, Missouri.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Va Lynda Robinson.

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(Theme music up and under)

California Wildfires

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

Hundreds of people lost their homes and three people lost their lives to the wildfires that recently charred the hillsides around Los Angeles. Beyond the human tragedy, the infernos killed some endangered wildlife and leveled important habitat. But while there were many losses, naturalists say that over the long term, the fires also have a positive effect on the ecology of the area. From Los Angeles, Stephanie O'Neill reports.

(Sound of helicopter)

O'NEILL: The flames that roared through this once-quaint Pasadena neighborhood here at the base of the San Gabriel mountains were among the first of 14 fires that burned nearly 750 structures and 173,000 acres. Only ash-covered skeletons remain of the thick shrubbery and leafy trees that made Pasadena Glen an oasis, set back from LA's urban sprawl. Most of the cabin-like homes that abutted the steep mountain slopes are now piles of twisted, charred rubble. And for now, at least, the sound of birds is gone. In its place is the heavy drumming of fire department surveillance helicopters on patrol, and barking dogs tethered to the tents and RV's set up by residents who want to rebuild. Donald McMullen raced from work that day to watch the neighborhood he'd lived in all his life burn down.

McMULLEN: All you could see looking up here was just a wall of fire. It didn't matter who was here. There was no way to stop the house from burning. The winds were coming down so fast that if you go and look in these canyons, a lot of stuff isn't even burned off up maybe 20 feet in the air, a lot of the branches and stuff. It came right down the canyon and there was no stopping it.

O'NEILL: That was the case with most of the fires throughout the LA region. And when they weren't burning human homes, the flames, fueled by the notorious, hot and strong Santa Ana winds, devoured the dry hillsides - frightening away those animals who could escape and consuming everything that could not. But despite the massive losses of plants and animals, wildlife biologists and environmentalists say fire is essential to wildlands. Eldon Hughes is with the Sierra Club.

HUGHES: In the Santa Monicas, the plants are endangered, but all the plants evolved with fire. Some of those seeds must have fire in order to germinate. So a fire is not an ecological disaster by any means in the Santa Monica mountains. It can be a great human disaster, but it's not a disaster for the ecology.

O'NEILL: Some botanists are predicting that as the burned areas regrow, we can expect to see many more plant species than were there before. Hughes agrees, and says in some regions that hadn't burned for up to 30 years, the chaparral, which is a thick evergreen shrub common to Southern California, was so overgrown it prevented many other plants from taking root.

HUGHES: Now, whomp! That whole overstory is gone, you've laid down a bed of fertilizer in the form of the ash and all these plants come back. I think out in Orange County, the Tecate cypress - it's a small tree, it grows about 25 feet tall. Those cones never open unless there's a fire. Those cones drop to the ground and they rot, they're gone. A fire comes through and every cone opens and the next year, there'sTecate cypress coming up everywhere.

O'NEILL: But the post-fire assessment isn't all good news. Among the non-human victims who made headlines was the California gnatcatcher, a bird the Federal Government lists as threatened. US Fish and Wildlife officials estimate the fires killed or displaced 6 percent of the gnatcatcher population and 17 percent of the nation's coastal cactus wrens, a bird that's being considered for Federal protection. Again, Eldon Hughes.

HUGHES: The gnatcatcher obviously needs the coastal sage. The sage will come back. How do you balance fires when they're needed and not have this huge holocaust? And the answer is, burn it in small pieces, burn it at the right times of year, one, when it is wet and won't get away and also when the gnatcatcher isn't nesting so it can fly to the next available brush and not be in danger.

O'NEILL: But in the past five years, controlled-burn programs have been greatly restricted by air pollution officials. And whether that changes remains to be seen. Shortly after the fires, there were concerns that with the habitat for some protected species gone, much of the burned land here would be vulnerable to development. But Hughes says that won't happen.

HUGHES: The decisions are being made by the Fish and Wildlife Service. They're not fooled. That land is sage habitat. They know it burns, they know it will come back. And what you're trying to do there is end up with a habitat management plan that says we can build on certain parts if we keep the rest of it available to the gnatcatcher and I'm sure this is going to get counted in the bank, whether there are plants on it right now or not.

O'NEILL: While many of the Southern California blazes were set by an arsonist, fire is nevertheless part of the natural cycle, as are the resulting floods and mudslides. Rudy Lackner is a regional planning administrator for LA County. He says given these natural threats, people who build here need to understand the risks.

LACKNER: Because of the Santa Ana winds that are possible, the grading of the slopes that you have in part of the mountains around us, the potential for flood mudflow, I don't think I'd sleep very comfortably under certain, if I wasn't fully protected.

O'NEILL: But as the recent blazes proved, full protection from fire is impossible. Still, neighborhoods like Pasadena Glen continue to be among the most desirable precisely because of the thick trees and brush that attract wildlife, but can make such areas dangerous. People have been moving out to these neighborhoods for decades and residents, like many here, are aware of the natural dangers, but say it's worth it. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

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(Fade helicopter, music up and under)

Paint Recycling

CURWOOD: Hazardous waste is usually something you want to get rid of. But increasingly, industry is finding that hazardous waste can be recycled. Now people at home are beginning to find out that their hazardous waste, too, can be re-used. A prime example is paint. Millions of partially-used cans of paint clutter basements, storerooms and garages, and when they're finally tossed, municipalities usually have to put them into expensive toxic waste containment. But more and more, despite a variety of chemicals and colors, paint is being recycled. Reporter Terry Fitzpatrick has the story.

(Sound of workers' voices: "It looks like some old paint . . . this is phosphoric acid . . ." fade under)

FITZPATRICK: Once a month in Tucson, Arizona, people line up at the East Side Fire Station to drop off an eclectic mix of household hazardous waste.

MAN: Paint, insecticide, pesticides, just about everything, just about anything that's toxic.
FITZPATRICK: Where'd you get get all this stuff?
MAN: My father-in-law passed away about three weeks ago, and we were cleaning out his workshop.

FITZPATRICK: Hundreds of communities have programs like these, to prevent household hazardous waste from polluting the groundwater near the town dump, or contaminating sewage or septic systems. But many cities are learning that collecting the waste is only half the job. It's expensive to bury the household waste in specially-designed industrial landfills, especially so for paint.

DUXBURY: Over fifty percent of the material that comes into a household hazardous waste program is unwanted paint. So approximately fifty percent of that cost may be associated with what you do with that unwanted paint.

FITZPATRICK: Dana Duxbury is an environmental consultant in Andover, Massachusetts. She sparked the movement to establish household hazardous waste collection throughout the country. Now she's leading an effort to deal with all the waste that's collected.

DUXBURY: And in order to find more economically viable and more ecologically sound ways of managing that material, rather than burying it or burning it, we decided that we would try to encourage the reuse and recycle.

FITZPATRICK: Experts in the paint industry say there's a problem with Duxbury's idea. Oil-based paint contains petroleum solvents, which make it hazardous to throw away. Latex paint contains solvents too, though in far smaller amounts. These solvents are among the things that make paint a much more complex substance than aluminum or glass, and so paint is tougher to recycle. Vance Stogner runs the Benjamin Moore paint factory in Milford, Massachusetts. He doesn't want to recycle paint.

STOGNER: There are a lot of barriers to doing that. One of them is, is that, in fact it's probably the most mentioned one, is that there is really no way of telling what type of contaminants have been added to the can of paint. They could pour pesticides, PCB's, waste oil, whatever you want, and it's really very very difficult to attack. So there's a very very extreme concern with whatever might be coming back as a post-consumer paint ready for recycling.

FITZPATRICK: Despite this difficulty, there has been growing pressure on the paint industry to begin nationwide recycling. Two states, Vermont and California, have restricted the flow of paint into their landfills. So the EPA commissioned Dana Duxbury to lead a summit meeting of paint manufacturers and environmentalists.

DUXBURY: When the paint industry arrived there they were sure that the other people in the room wanted all paint companies to take back all unwanted paint. At the conclusion of the meeting they learned that that was not the objective of the people in the room. But indeed what the paint industry themselves said that if paint was pretested for contaminants, that there might be as many as a third of the paint companies in the country that were non-automated companies that would be willing and able to process old paint in their facility.

FITZPATRICK: It turned out that the technical headache for major paint manufacturers could be an economic opportunity for upstarts.

( VOICE: That's the latex, this is the semi-gloss latex. That's no good . . .)

FITZPATRICK: The Green Paint Company in Manchaug, Massachusetts, sorts cans of old paint one by one. Green Paint's owner, Scott Herbert, says that household hazardous waste programs were making a mistake in the way they collected paint. Most programs pour all the paint into large barrels for disposal.

HERBERT: We want the product in its original container. If you take it all on site, dump it all into a 55-gallon drum, what you'll get is a gray utility paint, whether it's latex or oil-based. The market value of that type of product and the market itself is very limited.

FITZPATRICK: By keeping the original cans, Herbert's company can mix more marketable types and colors of recycled paint. He gets paid by cities to haul away the cans that people bring to collection programs. With this free source of raw material, he can afford the labor costs of sorting the paint. Herbert is the only manufacturer that sorts paint like this. He's sold 4,000 gallons so far, and he's trying to land a contract to supply recycled paint for a major home improvement store, Home Depot. While the collection of paint may fuel the development of recycling at other small factories, the industry is working to remove the concern over paint in the first place. They're using fewer toxic ingredients which will make paint safer to use and to throw away. Environmentalists welcome that change and say avoiding the need to collect paint would be the best solution of all. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry Fitzpatrick reporting.

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(Music up and under)

America's Biggest Mail Junkies

CURWOOD: Take a peek in your mailbox. What do you find, nearly every day you look? Almost inevitably you pull out things that you didn't ask for - catalogues, circulars, and pleas for money from almost every imaginable cause. Most people consider it junk mail, and whether or not you bother to open it, most of it ends up in the trash. All this bulk mailing is certainly adding bulk to landfills, says Will Nixon, who is the associate editor of E Magazine. Nixon and his office mates collected their junk mail for a while last summer, analyzed it ,and put together a Junk Mail Hall of Shame. Among their biggest offenders: Publishers Clearinghouse, and its perpetual packets of sweepstakes materials.

NIXON: That to me is a classic case of the way that mailers send out letters that are actually like home activity kits. You lick, you paste, you peel, the theory being that the longer it takes you to get through the letter, the more likely you are to pay attention to what's in it and actually do it and buy something. But all of that activity kit material contaminates these letters for recycling.

CURWOOD: Who's next?

NIXON: Victoria's Secret. It kept showing up, week after week after week, and one summer we had 8 copies of it. And for fun I looked up one item in the catalog, the Cullen Bra, and found that the price never changes. The cover changes but I don't think much else does.

CURWOOD: So you think that's Victoria's Secret, eh?

NIXON: Exactly.

CURWOOD: And next?

NIXON: We chose American Express, which is a credit card company. If you sign up for an American Express card, you pay for it in your mailbox with all kinds of mailings for products. All you wanted was the credit car; you wind up getting all kinds of mail.

CURWOOD: Now all of this isn't related to companies trying to sell something, there are also solicitations from environmental groups begging for money. Will Nixon, how much do environmental groups and other charities contribute to the problem of what you call "junk mail"?

NIXON: Alot. Non-profit organizations, including environmental groups who, in a way, are the most guilty here because it smacks of hypocrisy, rely a great deal on direct mail to raise money. Non-profit groups send out about 12 billion pieces of mail a year and they also have a cheaper mailing rate than for-profit companies. They're encouraged to do it.

CURWOOD: If you were in charge of changing how we handle so-called junk mail, what would you do?

NIXON: I would try to come up with methods for the polluter to pay. Right now, bulk mail is cheaper to mail than first-class mail. If you send out a letter first class and it's rejected or can't be delivered, it will be returned to you and that's included in the price of the first-class stamp. Bulk mail, if it's not delivered, it becomes the Post Office's responsibility to dispose of it somehow. That responsibility should go back to the company that mailed it so that then the public that doesn't want to receive a letter will send the letter back and the person who sent it initially actually has to pay for it to be returned and that would make them much quicker, I think, to stop sending out letters that aren't wanted.

CURWOOD: I wonder if people really do like this. I mean, how many letters, how many real letters, personal letters, do we get each week on average, Will Nixon?

NIXON: One point five. Depressing as it is.

CURWOOD: So that means all week long, all six days that a letter carrier could give you something, if there wasn't junk mail, the odds are only one of those days would give you a letter.

NIXON: That's true. That's true.

CURWOOD: So maybe all this junk mail makes us feel like we have a place on the planet, that somebody remembers we're out there.

NIXON: (Laughs) It's true.

CURWOOD: Writer Will Nixon is an associate editor of E Magazine. And by the way - the magazine sent us three press releases about their Junk Mail Hall of Shame.

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(Music up and under)

Last Native Speaker

CURWOOD: Alaska's Kenai Peninsula witnessed an extinction of sorts this past summer. Not of a fish or insect, but of a piece of its ancient, unique human culture. Commentator Nancy Lord has some thoughts.

LORD: Peter Kalifornsky died last June, just as the early King salmon were running in the rivers, the purple lupine bursting to bloom. The last speaker of the language native to Alaska's Kenai Peninsula was lost to lung cancer at the age of 81. Just as our people have dozens of ways of identifying and describing what we English speakers can only call snow, the Denina Athabaskans who lived along Cook Inlet in south central Alaska developed a language to match their homeland. In a culture where getting to the right place, finding food, and getting home again were matters of survival, the people needed words that were precise and recognized the relationships between places, events and members of the shared community. That community, in Denina culture, included animals and land, as well as humans. Like so many other Native Americans, the Denina were forbidden under the American school policy of forced assimilation to speak anything but English. Kalifornsky, who spend five years in school, recalled being beaten with a stick for using his language. But he also spent many of his early years with elders who trained him, he said, in the real old-time Denina way. In his last two decades, after a life of subsistence hunting and trapping and wage work, Kalifornsky became a self-taught writer and scholar, dedicated to saving and sharing some part of his culture. One day Kalifornsky took a drive to the mountains and spoke of what he saw there. These words that match the landscape translate awkwardly into "ridge-broken-up-into-knolls-almost-bare; ridge- with-knolls- pointing- up; ridge-sloping-to-a-point; pointed-up-mountain; sloping- mountain," and so on. He recorded another series of words for how trees grow: "they-grow-on-upper-mountain-slope; they- grow-up-the-mountain-in-strips; they-grow-up-the-mountainsides; they-grow-through-the-pass." Imagine these words in your vocabulary, and then imagine how their use would affect what you see, the intimacy with which you would know your surroundings and your place in them. There's a poetry too to the Denina language, a level of metaphor we miss in our English substitutes. The landmark I call Sixty-Foot Rock the Denina knew as Soles-of-Feet-Waving. Across the inlet Mount Redoubt was The-One-with-Creased-Forehead. Other place names told the Denina what they needed to know for their provisioning and safety: Rocks-Are-There-Place, Down-Feathers-Lake, Blueberry-Place, Where-Boats-Get-Snagged. No-Good-Lake didn't freeze solidly and was therefore dangerous to cross in winter. Just yesterday a friend told me that his three-year-old daughter uses the Denina word for raven - hoh-koi-nee . It makes sense to her, this white child, because it sounds like the raven's own speech. A particular language belongs no less to a place than a particular species of bird. Its extinction is a serious loss, not only to the people who inhabit that place, but to the necessary diversity of the world. Kalifornsky's life and work taught us all something about how to see, to listen, to respect what belongs.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord lives and writes in Homer, Alaska.

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. We'd like to hear from you with your questions and comments. Give us a call on our listener comment line, at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. Transcripts and tapes are ten dollars.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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