Air Date: April 19, 1996
Reaching Beyond "Mount DIoxin"/ John Rudolph
At Escambia County in Pensacola, Florida, 41 residents in this small minority community have died from cancer in the past five years. Located between a chemical fertilizer plant and a wood treatment facility, residents complain of health problems including birth defects. This mostly African-American neighborhood anxiously awaits a pending decision from the Environmental Protection Agency to relocate them — soon. John Rudolph reports from Pensacola. (11:55)
Breathing Indoors: What Helps?
Steve Curwood talks with retired NASA researcher and indoor plant expert Bill Wolverton about what common house plants have been found to help with improving indoor air quality. (04:52)
My Sustainability/ Bill McKibben
Commentator Bill McKibben has a new understanding of the term "sustainability." He believes it has something to do with maturing, as opposed to growing. (03:43)
The Living on Earth Almanac
Facts about Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the "Grandmother of The Everglades." (01:20)
Antarctica Series, Part 2: Clean-Up Time/ Terry FitzPatrick
The otherwise pristine waters around Antarctica have been a garbage and waste dumping ground for scientific researchers based there for years. Now researchers are working to clean-up their acts as they go. Terry FitzPatrick continues with his 4-part Antarctica series, having recently traveled there for Living on Earth. (15:45)
Suburban Trapper/ Lisa Labuz
Reporter Lisa Labuz travels on house calls with a modern day trapper who removes wild animals from the homes of people who've strayed into their territory — the expanding rural suburbs. (05:42)
Sixth-grade science teacher Dan Shaw took his students into a burned down forest in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and turned it into a living science laboratory for his class. Steve Curwood asks him more about it. (03:25)
Copyright c 1996 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: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Julie Edelson-Halpert, Susanna Capelouto, John Rudolph,
Terry FitzPatrick, Lisa Labuz
GUESTS: Bill Wolverton, Dan Shaw
COMMENTATOR: Bill McKibben
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. In Pensacola, Florida, a community of African Americans lives next to a pile of toxic waste so high they call it Mount Dioxin. The Federal Government is balking at relocating them, but residents are pleading for help. They call Mount Dioxin a death trap.
WIGGINS: The lady across the street, her mama died of cancer. The man up the street, him and his brother died of cancer. The lady on the corner, she died of cancer. I don't want to grow up going through life knowing where, when I get about that age, I'm going to get cancer. I'm going to die.
CURWOOD: Also, research shows house plants can do a great job of cleaning the air you breathe. We'll have a list of the most effective varieties. And from writer Bill McKibben, a new twist on the old phrase "sustainable development." This week on Living on Earth, right after this news.
NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The Environmental Protection Agency wants to change how scientists calculate the risk of cancer from chemicals and pollutants. The Agency is proposing guidelines that depend less on animal testing and more on microbial data and genetic testing. The new criteria will include data from prolonged human exposure to chemicals in the workplace, along with one-time ingestion or inhalation. Currently, EPA assumes that if a substance causes tumors in lab animals it will do so in humans. But critics say tests involving massive doses of chemicals given to lab animals may overstate the risks. The revised screening process could mean more restricted or prohibited substances, but others could gain wider uses if new evidence suggests they are safe.
An unexpected combination of chemicals may have caused the so-called Gulf War Syndrome. A study has found that nerve gas protection pills taken by soldiers in the Persian Gulf War hurt the body's ability to neutralize 2 commonly used insect repellents before they can enter the brain. Because the tests were done on laboratory animals, the Duke University research doesn't prove this is the cause of the symptoms reported by Gulf War vets, which include headaches, fatigue, and memory loss. The Pentagon says it has no evidence of a new disease causing the symptoms, but attributes most symptoms to known illnesses. Still, the Defense Department has begun funding similar studies.
A Michigan electric company is unveiling a one of a kind solar power generating plant. The plant is getting backing from an unusual source: its customers, who have agreed to pay extra for the power. From Ann Arbor, Michigan, Julie Edelson Halpert reports.
HALPERT: The company targeted an area with overcast skies and long winters: an unusual spot for a solar facility. But photovoltaic panels used to tap the sun's energy can operate on available light and will produce 40,000 kilowatt hours a year to 200 customers on a centralized power grid. The company spent $250,000 to build the plant and $116,000 came from the Energy Department. Norman Stevens is a principal engineer for Detroit Edison.
STEVENS: The significance of this one is that it is the first system in the country that has its own customer base, where we, yes we do have the Federal subsidy, which brings the price down to where it will be in a few years. But we're showing that we have customers that are willing to cover the costs of the rest of that facility.
HALPERT: Customers signed up to pay an extra $6.59 a month for a supplement of sun power. And the only return for their dollar is a healthy environmental conscience. Pleased by the public response, Detroit Edison hopes to build 3 more solar plants in Michigan. The Ann Arbor facility will begin full operation next month. For Living on Earth, I'm Julie Edelson Halpert in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
NUNLEY: An Apache tribe and a consortium of utilities have ended their 5-year effort to store fuel rods from nuclear power plants on tribal land. Officials from the utilities and the Mescalero Apache tribe aren't giving up the plan entirely, but negotiations are suspended indefinitely and no more talks are planned. Local residents and New Mexico's Congressional delegation opposed locating the nuclear dump on Indian land, fearing radioactive spills or leaks. The nuclear power industry says a temporary site is urgently needed as power plants run out of storage space. Mescalero leaders hope the plan would add $250 million to the reservation's economy, but some tribe members oppose the plan on environmental grounds.
University of Georgia scientists have engineered a weed capable of cleaning up mercury pollution in soil and water. From Peach State Public Radio, Susanna Capaluto reports.
CAPELOUTO: Researchers in the University of Georgia's Genetics Department took a bacterial gene known to break down mercury to a less toxic level and put it into a small weed that's part of the mustard family. The genetically re-engineered plant turned out to process mercury at a relatively high rate, and the head of the university's genetics department, Richard Meagher, says in the future, the gene can be used to help clean up mercury contaminated sites.
MEAGHER: It was so good in the laboratory that I am sure that we could count on plants accelerating the rate of clean-up of one of these sites.
CAPELOUTO: But Meagher says it will take another 2 to 3 years until the process can be used in the field, and so far the Federal Government has not shown a lot of interest in it. For Living on Earth, I'm Susanna Capaluto in Atlanta.
NUNLEY: It's not just people who are looking for a nice condo in Florida. Baby lobsters off southern Florida's coast seem to like manmade cement structures as much as their natural homes in sea sponges. Sponges serve as the lobsters' natural shelter from predators, and when blooms of bluegreen algae wiped out the sponges from large areas of Florida Bay, lobster populations declined by as much as 70%. Researchers began placing artificial lobster shelters made of cinderblocks in the bay.
That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In Pensacola, Florida, 426 families are anxiously waiting to hear from the US Environmental Protection Agency. Their community sits in the middle of an abandoned industrial area heavily contaminated by toxic chemicals. The families, all of whom are African American, want the EPA to relocate them as part of an effort to clean up what's being called Mount Dioxin. But it's rare for the US government to move communities threatened by toxics. It's done so only in 14 cases, including the infamous sites at Times Beach, Missouri, and Love Canal, New York State. The EPA has promised a decision on the Florida relocation by the end of April. As John Rudolph reports, the situation in Pensacola could be an important milestone in the government's efforts to deal with toxic pollution in minority communities.
(Dogs bark on the street, followed by people milling indoors; a door opens and shuts)
RUDOLPH: It's a warm spring evening in Pensacola, Florida, but most people who live on East Pearl Street have already gone indoors. This is a community of modest one-story homes with tidy front yards. In her living room, Lisa Wiggins sits down to tell the story of her neighborhood. She's lived on this street for most of her life. Wiggins is 27, married, with 3 sons. She has fond memories of growing up here. But lately, she's seen many of her neighbors die.
WIGGINS: The lady across the street, her mama died of cancer. The man up the street, him and his brother died of cancer. The lady on the corner, she died of cancer. Most of the people -- I don't want to grow up going through life knowing where, when I get about that age, I'm going to get cancer. I'm going to die. I'll say that I'm going to live long enough to see my children grow and see my grandchildren grow, deal with that aspect of life and then, later on, I'll think about that. (Laughs. A child babbles and plays in the background.) You know? And it's just like, I know if we stay here, exposed to those kinds of chemicals, I mean we are not going to have a chance.
RUDOLPH: The chemicals Lisa Wiggins talks about were left behind by 2 factories that for decades flanked her neighborhood like bookends. One factory made chemical fertilizers. The other manufactured telephone poles and railroad ties. The factories provided jobs to local residents, but many in the community blame the factories for causing a wide range of illnesses, including cancer, birth defects, sores, rashes, even mental illness.
(A railway horn blares)
RUDOLPH: Several times a day freight trains snake through the heart of Pensacola. This sleepy city on Florida's Gulf Coast is best known as a vacation spot, but there's lots of industry here, too. When the 2 factories closed in the 1980s, they left a toxic stew that includes wood preservatives, pesticides, and dioxin, a chemical by product of many industrial processes. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemical substances known to man. In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency used its emergency powers under the Federal Superfund Law, and began digging up dioxin-contaminated soil at one of the abandoned factories. But the clean-up at the Ascambia Trading Company was suspended when funds ran out. Local residents claim EPA's actions made their health problems even worse.
WILLIAMS: Once they start digging the dirt up, people started experiencing eye irritation, skin rashes, breathing problems.
RUDOLPH: Margaret Williams heads Citizens Against Toxic Exposure, a neighborhood group that's been battling the EPA since digging started at the Ascambia site. Today the area is known as Mount Dioxin, a reference to the huge pile of contaminated soil left behind.
WILLIAMS: It wasn't treated or anything; it was just piled up and covered up. And that was an emergency situation that cost the government just about almost $7 million. And it just left that mountain of dirt there that's contaminated.
RUDOLPH: But long before EPA began digging at the Escambia Trading Company, local residents were showing signs of exposure to toxic chemicals. Margaret Williams holds a photograph of her granddaughter, as she describes the effects on her family.
WILLIAMS: This is one of my grandbabies, and when she was born this child had 6 toes, you know. And we had to have them operated on, and both my parents died from cancer, and I had one child that was stillborn and one born with respiratory problems, he died at 3 months. And we had an uncle who lived with us, he died from cancer.
MAN: Father God we come, relying that thou had been mighty good to us. You have brought us from a long ways. And Father God, we come tonight asking if thou would just give us a little release, because we know you're able. We're trusting in your name...
RUDOLPH: A prayer sets the tone for a meeting of the group headed by Margaret Williams. Citizens Against Toxic Exposure is asking the EPA to permanently relocate community residents before continuing with the clean-up. So far the EPA has resisted, but the Agency has promised that by the end of this month it will offer a plan that could include some form of relocation. The stand-off in Pensacola has developed into a major test of EPA policies. At issue is the Agency's long-standing reluctance to move people who live in or near Superfund sites. Joel Hirschorn is a former government official who was hired by the community group in Pensacola to be their technical consultant.
HIRSCHORN: I've been working in the Superfund program, you know, in one way or another since it began in 1980, and I can tell you that over the whole history of Superfund, there's always been this bureaucratic fear in EPA that if you started to permanently move people away from toxic waste sites there would be no end in sight. I mean, they're afraid that, you know, that too many Americans will want that from the government, and they're afraid of the costs involved.
(Industrial sounds, earth being moved)
RUDOLPH: An example of EPA's current approach to cleaning up Superfund sites near residential areas can be seen at the other abandoned factory that abuts the Pensacola neighborhood. If you were just driving by what used to be the Agrico Fertilizer Plant, you might assume that the fleet of dump trucks and yellow bulldozers there were preparing the ground for a new shopping center or office complex. But stop and read the signs posted on the chain link fence that surrounds the area. "Warning: No Trespassing. Contaminated Area. Avoid Contact With Soil and Water. " Workers operating the heavy machinery wear protective gear, respirators, and in some cases special plastic suits. James Robinson's house is just outside the fence.
ROBINSON: We had soil sample testing over my property over there, and they showed it was highly, was 4 times higher than the level it's supposed to be to, for anybody to live on it. And that had been proven. So we stayed here and started getting more, inhaling and breathing more of this stuff each and every day, you know? The only thing that looked back to me, that they didn't tell us to die out and then say well, yeah it was housing, you know. You know, because it's a minority neighborhood and a low-income neighborhood, and they don't seem to care about the people that live in here or they would get us out.
RUDOLPH: Many people share the view that this Pensacola community is a victim of environmental racism. All the residents are black. Some moved here decades ago because it was one of the only places in Pensacola where African Americans could buy property. Others arrived after a public housing project called Ascambia Arms was built near the Ascambia Trading Company. The situation is not unusual. Many studies have shown a disproportionately high percentage of blacks, Hispanics, and other minority group members live near areas that contain toxic waste. The National Environmental Justice Movement is pushing to change this situation. In 1994, President Clinton signed an executive order on environmental justice. Still, the EPA has never considered environmental justice issues when deciding whether to relocate minority communities affected by toxic pollution. Many environmental and civil rights activists hope the Pensacola case will mark a turning point in EPA policy. Again, Joel Hirschorn.
HIRSCHORN: I think if EPA doesn't do what's really right here, and if they don't really implement President Clinton's environmental justice initiative, I think they're going to pay a heavy price for it.
RUDOLPH: Hirschorn points out that just a few days after the EPA is scheduled to unveil its plan for Pensacola, the city will host a national conference on relocating minority neighborhoods affected by toxic pollution. So there's a good chance Pensacola will be in the media spotlight. But the EPA regional director in charge of the Pensacola case says his agency will not buckle under political pressure. John Hankinson says Pensacola is being handled under a pilot program designed to avoid setting any precedents.
HANKINSON: What I would hope would come out of this would be an application of the effort to broaden the look at the relocation issues, to invite in other partners, be they other Federal agencies or other state or local agencies or nonprofit groups, to try to develop a solution that both meets the health needs but is also appropriate to the local community.
RUDOLPH: In the 5 years since EPA began its emergency dig at the Ascambia Trading Company, 41 community residents have died. Those who could afford to move have left the neighborhood. But others are stuck. They can't sell their homes because their property is virtually worthless, and they are either too old or too poor to start over again. Lisa Wiggins is among those who are counting on EPA to rescue them from a desperate situation.
WIGGINS: I've been here since I was 4 years old. It is going to be sad for me to leave. It's going to be very sad. I had my first boyfriend here, I've met my husband here. You know, this area has a lot of memories for me, and it would be hard for me to leave here. But if it means the safety of my family, having some peace of mind, knowing that my children won't come to me running with a tumor on the side of their neck the next day. I... I would go. I would willingly go.
RUDOLPH: What are you going to do if the end of the month comes and the EPA says they're not going to relocate you?
WIGGINS: Well, like I said I'm not naturally able to buy a house. I guess I'll sit here and wait to die. But if I ever get on my feet to where I can move, me and my family will be gone.
(A radio blares music)
RUDOLPH: For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph in Pensacola, Florida.
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CURWOOD: You can help protect your family against toxic pollution with ordinary houseplants. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The air we breathe inside our homes and offices is often a good deal more polluted than what we find outside. In fact, the EPA has identified as many as 800 volatile organic chemicals swirling inside buildings. They seep from walls and ceilings; they're in our clothing, furniture, and carpets. But there's a simple and cheap way to offset many of these toxic gases: common house plants. Finding out which ones do the best job involves a good deal of research, the kind of painstaking work done by Dr. Bill Wolverton, an environmental scientist and retired senior researcher at NASA. He's been studying the cleansing effects of indoor plants for about 25 years.
WOLVERTON: My first interest, of course, was with NASA and looking into how one might develop a closed ecological life support system for future moon bases. And it led me to look back at planet Earth. How does the Earth sustain life? And it all boils down to green plants and the microbes that they culture on their roots. So that's what got me started looking at plants and particularly house plants, because they require low light and we can put those in buildings without requiring a tremendous amount of energy and lighting.
CURWOOD: Now, in our homes and offices, Dr. Wolverton, what are the greatest threats to indoor air quality?
WOLVERTON: Well back about 15 years ago with the energy crisis, we started to seal our homes and offices to make them more energy efficient. And at about the same time, we started to change the composition of materials in our homes and offices. Practically everything now, the desks, the furniture is made of synthetics. Also we started to use wall to wall carpeting which makes it nice, but unfortunately it gives off certain pollutants and particles. So what we've done over the years, in sealing up our home, we've created an unhealthy gas chamber inside our homes and offices.
CURWOOD: Now what can we do to counteract these effects and improve our air quality?
WOLVERTON: Well, answer is, take nature's living air filters, which are plants, design them in buildings or add them to buildings, and they will literally suck out these pollutants, absorb them, translocate them throughout the plant, break them down, or utilize the root microbes that they culture to help break them down. So it's a complicated process that the simple, innocent looking houseplant can do to help clean the air and hopefully save your health.
CURWOOD: And the five best plants that are easy to grow are?
WOLVERTON: Well, the ones that I prefer based on working with them for many, many years are the Peace lily, Areca palm, Lady palm, Ficus alii, and the Golden pothos.
CURWOOD: Now why are these better?
WOLVERTON: Number one is, they're very easy to grow. Number two is, they are among the top in removing undesirable indoor air polluting substances, such as formaldehyde. And number three is, they have what we call a high transpiration rate. In other words, they add healthy moisture to a room, and that is especially important in the winter time up in your part of the country where it's cold. The air gets dry and it makes you more susceptible. Your throat, nasal passage, dries out. You're more susceptible to these chemicals and to cold viruses and other things. So these plants, house plants, do a lot of good things for us in creating healthy indoor environments.
CURWOOD: Now I'm wondering, Bill Wolverton, just how many plants do I have to have in order to clean the air in my home or my office?
WOLVERTON: Well, that question has been asked so many times over the past 10 to 15 years, and we recommend that you use maybe 2 or hopefully 3 nice sized plants per 100 square feet.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time for us. My guest has been former NASA scientists Dr. Bill Wolverton. He's the author of the forthcoming book Eco-Friendly Houseplants. That will be published by Viking Penguin in the fall. Thanks so much.
WOLVERTON: Thank you. I've enjoyed it.
CURWOOD: Once again, that list is Lady palm, Areca palm, Ficus alii, Peace lily and Goldern pothos. For a free list of air purifying plants, call us at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or reach us by e-mail: LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Or write us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. You can also order a transcript or tape for $12.
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CURWOOD: Our economic system thrives on the concept of growth. More is better, we're prone to say, and that's why the concept of sustainability and the notion of limits to growth get a cool reception in many quarters. But commentator Bill McKibben says the problem isn't the concept of sustainability. The problem is the buzzword itself.
McKIBBEN: For some time now, environmental advocates have been converging on a similar idea: that the world's economies and societies now need to cease their pell-mell growth and begin the search for a stability that will keep them safely inside the planet's physical bounds. The buzzword that we've been using since at least the mid-1980s is: sustainability. But as buzzwords go, it's been unsuccessful in capturing the attention of most people.
The reason that sustainability has excited no one outside of narrow policy circles, I think, is because it refers to nothing in human experience. We are born. We grow. We die. These, therefore, become powerful metaphors. A growing economy. A dying civilization. These make intuitive sense to us. But we do something else in our lives, too, at least if we're lucky. We mature. We cease to grow physically, and instead begin the process of developing spiritually and intellectually and morally. And that's what we now must start to do as economies and societies and as a species. All the signals suddenly flashing back to us from the natural world -- the rising temperatures, the higher concentrations of CO2, the sudden spike in extinctions -- all these are signs that we've grown large enough as a civilization. That we must now mature.
Simply saying so doesn't get us very far, of course. The transition to an economy not based on growth will be extraordinarily difficult, calling on every intellectual resource we can muster. But words do count. They count enormously. Since at the moment the only good we can perceive is growth, that's where our energy goes.
And maturity could be a naturally attractive idea. We admire mature people. In many ways we admire them more than the people who have only energy to offer. We know, too, that maturity is a process, never completed, always a struggle to become more the person we want to be. And finally, we realize that self-restraint is the key virtue of maturity, the ability to sacrifice some impulse for the greater good of one's family or friends or nation.
Now we need to summon that same virtue as a society, even as a species. We need to be able to see that just as there is a certain wise satisfaction in foregoing a sports car to save for your child's education, so there's a certain satisfaction in beginning to share the world's wealth more equitably, so that the countries of the poor world needn't follow an environmentally ruinous course to development.
At the moment, our culture admires Donald Trump because he's grown his wallet so quickly. Our economists admire, say, China, because its economy has expanded so fast. But if we took a different measure of value, we might admire different people, different naions. Just as with a child, physical growth is much to be desired for a time. But just as with a child, the time comes to stop growing, at least in external ways, and start the more complicated, more interesting, and ultimately more fulfilling task of maturation. For this planet, that time is now.
CURWOOD: Author Bill McKibben lives in upstate New York. His most recent book is Hope: Human and Wild.
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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood.
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ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major support from the Ford Foundation for reporting on environmental and development issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; and the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: From our series on the Antarctic, taking out the trash at the bottom of the world. that's coming up in the second half of Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: Today we pay tribute to the author and environmental activist behind he campaign to save the Florida Everglades. Marjory Stoneman Douglas is called the "Grandmother of the Everglades." Perhaps we should start calling her the great-grandmother of the 'glades. Earlier this month she turned 106. Ms. Douglas lives in Miami, in the same cottage she's called home since 1925. She moved south from New England in 1915, when the Florida resort had fewer than 5,000 residents. She worked for the now defunct Miami News before turning her hand to books. At age 57, Ms. Douglas penned her most famous work, The Everglades: River of Grass. The year was 1947, and the book began to raise the nation's consciousness of the unique habitat of the Everglades, with its rare wading birds and other animals struggling to survive amid rapid urbanization. At the end of the book she wrote, "Perhaps even in this last hour, the magnificent, subtle, and unique region of the Everglades may not be utterly lost." And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: Congressional hearings are underway to ratify an international treaty to protect the environment of Antarctica. The pact bans mining and oil production on the continent for the next 50 years. It will also require scientists to remove their garbage. For decades research expeditions have dumped tons of waste throughout Antarctica. Even today, millions of gallons of raw sewage pour into pristine waters near science bases. The US has been one of the worst polluters, but is now working to clean up its operations. As part of his series from Antarctica, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports on the progress so far, and on the work that remain to be done.
(Sound of shoveling and digging)
FITZPATRICK: Steve Zebrowski is digging into Antarctica's past. With hand drills and shovels he's excavating a site in the MacGregor Valley, a region of immense glaciers and towering peaks.
FITZPATRICK: Mr. Zebrowski is not conducting scientific research. He's cleaning up a research camp abandoned by scientists nearly 20 years ago.
ZABROWSKI: The last great unexplored open spot in the world, and it's just... garbage.
FITZPATRICK: Uncovering this camp is a bit like an archaeological dig. Beneath 6 feet of snow, workers find canvas tents and wooden sleds, even an old kitchen with a jar of mustard frozen hard as a rock.
ZABROWSKI: Basically, everything was left here: the sleeping gear, some clothing, everything they used to live here, except all they took out was their rock samples and their personal bags. Everything else was left.
FITZPATRICK: In all, 30 tons of survival gear was abandoned, along with (raps on a drum) 10,000 gallons of fuel.
MAN: A barrel!
ZABROWSKI: Yeah, it's full. (Raps on drum)
FITZPATRICK: Antarctica is littered with hundreds of sites like this: relics of an era when protecting the environment was not a priority. In many places, international expeditions have left a heavy footprint. The French, for instance, destroyed several bird colonies in the 1980s while building an aircraft landing strip. Argentina let sled dogs run wild through penguin rookeries, killing thousands of birds. And the US irradiated thousands of tons of soil in the 1960s while testing a nuclear power reactor. The most visible problem, though, is garbage. To clean-up worker David Zastro, it's evidence of a short-sighted attitude researchers had about Antarctica.
ZASTRO: The place is so huge it can just absorb it all, and it just doesn't matter, but after a while it does. And it's what's starting to happen now. There's so much junk down there it's at least -- the way we feel, it's getting to be a little too much.
(Hauling and trucking sounds)
FITZPATRICK: Antarctic exploration generates staggering amounts of waste. Nowhere is that more evident than McMurdo Station, the sprawling US logistics base on the shores of the Ross Sea.
FITZPATRICK: McMurdo is a bustling facility with the gritty feel of the old Wild West.
(A door slams, creaks)
FITZPATRICK: Five million pounds of waste is generated here every year. More than a ton of trash per person.
FITZPATRICK: For decades, says Rick Kvitek of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, garbage here was dumped on hills and beaches, or on the ice pack that covers the sea each winter.
KVITEK: They had a policy for many years of just putting the season's garbage out on the sea ice with the expectation and hope that when the sea ice broke out it would carry it away. And as often as not the sea ice would just melt in place and the stuff would just go to the bottom.
FITZPATRICK: The ocean floor is now strewn with debris.
(Water bubbling, possibly through scuba gear)
FITZPATRICK: Underwater videos shot by Dr. Kvitek depict an astonishing scene.
KVITEK: There's hundreds of 55-gallon drums on the bottom and there's tractors and there's jeeps and there's track vehicles and there's airplanes all over the sea floor. It's a dump underwater in some places.
(Water bubbling continues)
FITZPATRICK: No one's sure what's inside the submerged chemical barrels. But the level of hydrocarbons and PCBs in sediment here is comparable to big city harbors inside the United States. Scientists are debating whether they should conduct a clean-up. The pollution seems to be contained to the harbor at McMurdo Base. Disturbing the rusty barrels might cause it to spread.
FITZPATRICK: When it comes to managing the waste dumped on land, however, the US has undertaken a major clean-up. Mountains of debris have been shipped to Seattle for proper disposal, and newly-created trash is immediately packaged for transport back to the US.
FITZPATRICK: This initiative began 5 years ago, funded by a $43 million appropriation from Congress. Eric Juergins directs the effort.
JUERGINS: The US program, several years ago I think, pretty much had the reputation of being pretty slovenly, where a huge operation, you've seen through town that we look to be somewhat of a crude industrial complex. And in the past we behaved that way. Now I think, if you talk to the international community that has Antarc programs, they'll all tell you that the US has really set the tone for how to do things properly. Our reputation has changed significantly.
(Breaking brick or glass sounds)
FITZPATRICK: The environmental initiative includes aggressive recycling. Buildings have a dozen different bins for people to segregate their trash; more than 60% of it is recycled.
TOMASI: My name's Paul Tomasi and I'm with Waste Management...
FITZPATRICK: To ensure people obey the rules, everyone must attend a 30-minute waste management lecture when they arrive on the continent.
TOMASI: We do recycle glass here on Antarctica. We recycle unbroken, clear, green and brown jars and glasses. We ask that...
FITZPATRICK: To Eric Juergins, this new emphasis is a natural step in the evolution of Antarctic exploration.
JUERGINS: Early on it was sort of an expeditionary mentality, and survival was number one. Then we went to a phase where we weren't sure how long we would be here, sort of a colonial type of a mentality, if you will, and that's where McMurdo grew up. It was only until we decided that we were going to have a permanent presence here in Antarctica, where we've got to the community sense, and lived up to our stewardship of Antarctica.
FITZPATRICK: However, this stewardship came as a result of pressure from environmental groups. In the 1980s, as international negotiators were discussing whether mining should be allowed in Antarctica, Greenpeace launched several investigative expeditions. The result: shocking photographs of garbage burning in huge open pits. According to Paul Bogart who directed the campaign, these photos demonstrated the need for strict environmental oversight of scientists.
BOGART: You can't hold these folks, take these folks necessarily at their word when they're talking about having the environment's best interests at heart. And so bringing that home to people really increased the pressure on countries to do something.
FITZPATRICK: What the 26 nations that conduct Antarctic research did was approve a sweeping set of environmental guidelines in 1991. The Madrid Protocol bans mining for 50 years and requires a pack it in, pack it out approach for trash. The protocol is now up for ratification in Congress. Environmentalists say it's weak in many areas and they'd like Congress to augment the treaty by extending US environmental laws to American activities in Antarctica. But they're supporting the protocol because the agency in charge of research, the National Science Foundation or the NSF, is showing a commitment to environmental protection.
Beth Marks heads a coalition called the Antarctica Project.
MARKS: In getting the US to finally agree on a bill which has just been introduced, we all had to concede that NSF has done a much better job recently in cleaning up the bases and in setting good environmental policy. And we have to just hope that these policies will continue even with a bill that is not as strident as we would have preferred.
(More trucking sounds)
FITZPATRICK: Although there's been progress in managing waste, several environmental problems remains. One of the most serious is oil.
(A motor revs up)
FITZPATRICK: Nearly 200,000 gallons of aircraft fuel, known as JP8, has been spilled at McMurdo Station over the years.
(Motor sounds continue)
FITZPATRICK: Research teams are now drilling holes to evaluate the extent of soil contamination.
(Motor sounds continue)
FITZPATRICK: John Holbrook is from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
(A shovel digs)
HOLBROOK: One way to test the presence of JP8 is just to stick your nose close by and smell it. I don't detect very much, maybe a little bit.
FITZPATRICK: I smell a little something.
HOLBROOK: Yeah, there's a little something there. But that is by no means strong. We've dug up soil samples and taken a whiff and it -- it almost reeks of the stuff in certain places.
(A high, whining sound)
FITZPATRICK: The samples are analyzed in the McMurdo labs by Mark Tumio from the University of Alaska.
(High, whining sound continues)
FITZPATRICK: The tests reveal several hot spots around the station. There's good news, though: the contamination hasn't spread very far.
TUMIO: It's not like they threw fuel on the ground. Fuel's a commodity here and you don't waste it, so, you know, spills were always accidental and they were controlled quickly. There's not much soil here, so there's not much depth to the soil. So that means what was spilled soaked up relatively, in a very small area, and tends to stay there. We don't get lots of rain to push stuff around; you don't have a lot of migration. So where it's spilled it's dirty, and not too far away it's still clean.
FITZPATRICK: Still, more than 700 drums of soil await decontamination. Dr. Tumio is experimenting with oil eating bacteria to see if there's a natural way to conduct the clean-up. As those tests continue, researchers are also evaluating Antarctica's biggest ongoing source of pollution.
(A toilet flushes)
FITZPATRICK: McMurdo Station discharges 66,000 gallons of raw sewage into the ocean every day. The prospect of building a $3 million sewage treatment plant is sparking debate. Some officials contend the sewage is quickly diluted in the ocean and treatment is unnecessary. But others point out that sewage is altering the natural mix of marine life. Clams and starfish have disappeared near the sewage outfall, replaced instead by worms and other organisms that tolerate human waste. In a small beachfront laboratory, Cathy Conlin from the Canadian Museum of Nature is examining tissue samples to see if sewage affects organisms beyond the McMurdo vicinity. It's a high tech procedure based on a simple truth: we are what we eat.
CONLIN: We all contain different isotopes of carbon and nitrogen and sulfur. And these proportions will differ according to what we eat. So if we eat all vegetables we'll have a certain proportion; if we eat all meat it will be a different proportion. Sewage has been demonstrated to have a certain, what you call, signature, a certain proportion. And if an organism is eating sewage, it will take up that proportion so it will register that signal.
FITZPATRICK: Dr. Conlin hasn't collected enough samples to reach a conclusion yet. In fact, officials would not allow her to dive for specimens this year near the sewage outfall, because of dangerous levels of bacteria. In effect, it was Antarctica's first beach closure.
(Water lapping on shore)
FITZPATRICK: The situation illustrates the choices officials must make when weighing the costs and benefits of working in a sensitive ecosystem. Eric Juergins, the environmental manager for McMurdo, maintains that some degree of ecological disruption is unavoidable.
JUERGINS: I have my doubts that man can go anywhere without leaving some impact. that being true, then, what you've got to do is try to consciously decide what impact you're going to leave, and try to measure that impact and determine whether the impact is worth what you're doing there.
FITZPATRICK: Scientists and environmentalists agree on one thing: researchers here are learning how the Earth works. And that is worth some measure of environmental impact. And even though a few researchers complain the environmental protections go too far, overall there's been a major change in attitude. Cornelius Sullivan is Director of Polar Programs for the National Science Foundation.
SULLIVAN: We've changed human behavior in Antarctica to comply with good environmental practice, almost to the point that McMurdo, which otherwise looks like a mining town, is a place you'd have a hard time finding a cigarette butt or a scrap of paper. Kind of like going to Disneyland and seeing people sweep things up. Here they don't have to sweep them up; they never put them on the ground and if they find one they pick it up. That's remarkable to me: human behavior being changed because the people believe in what we're doing here in an environmental sense is remarkable.
FITZPATRICK: When you travel just a few minutes away from even the biggest of Antarctic bases now, you're hard pressed to detect any trace that people are nearby. The goal is to keep it that way. For Living on Earth this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Our series from Antarctica continues next week with a look at the Great Antarctic Ice Sheets, and whether global warming is causing them to melt.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Local wildlife is getting just a little too wild for some suburbanites. That story coming up on Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many urban dwellers these days are leaving the big cities for homes and areas that offer rural beauty and open space. Of course, when people move to the outer 'burbs, there are certain things to consider. Get a good shovel to dig the car out of snowdrifts. A decent lawnmower. And the phone number of a licensed animal trapper, someone who could rid your house of creatures you now share the land with. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Lisa Labuz spent a recent Saturday with one such trapper and has this report.
LABUZ: Tom Sterai gets lots of unusual calls at unusual hours. People call Tom to have him evict unusual tenants from their homes.
STERAI: Squirrels, raccoons, skunks, possums, groundhogs -- I don't really do ground squirrels --
LABUZ: For nearly 13 years Sterai, the owner of All Wildlife Animal Eviction, has been ridding unwanted squirrels from attics, muskrats from window wells, and confused deer from suburban dining rooms. On this sunny Saturday, Tom is taking me on animal calls.
(Conversation inside a moving pickup truck)
STERAI: Right now, unfortunately, Mrs. Reporter, we're going to pick up a live skunk and hopefully things go well or you're not going to like traveling in this vehicle any more.
LABUZ: Oh, no --
STERAI: We're going to get to see real quick here if he's going to be all right. Last year I picked up about 120 skunks, and out of those 120 skunks... none of them sprayed.
LABUZ: Tom's blue pickup is piled high with small metal cages. The skunk traps are covered in cardboard in case an angry skunk decides to spray.
STERAI: I've got it, I've got it.
(A cellular phone rings)
STERAI: Hello. Yeah.
LABUZ: He also has 2 cellular phones which ring constantly. Business for Tom is brisk. He says it may be because more people are moving into far reaching suburbs and into the habitats of wild animals.
STERAI: And over the years, every once in a long, long time, every couple of years we would get a call in regards to, you know, we saw a beaver outside next to the lake. Well, I was always skeptical and said no, I've never seen a beaver. I would know, I -- you know -- trap animals for a living. Well, it comes to be now, you know, as the years have went on, I'd say we probably get a beaver call every other day, every couple days.
LABUZ: Although people living in these wooded suburbs move here to be closer to nature, many didn't anticipate animals moving in with them. While Sterai says that initially some homeowners are happy to let animals who do move in stay put, say, in an attic, they soon realize it's not a good idea.
STERAI: You have something in your home, you have to remove it. You can't just leave it stay up there, "Oh I don't mind them." They're trampling down the insulation, especially the raccoons move the insulation around a lot. They're pooping, peeing up there, bringing nesting in. We've taken as many as 6 leaf-sized garbage bags of squirrel nesting out of people's attics. That causes bugs and all sorts of fun problems.
LABUZ: But right now, Tom has a bigger problem on his hands: how to fetch a skunk without getting sprayed. As we pull up to a brick Colonial, Tom eyes 5 teen-aged boys in the driveway playing a radio and passing a basketball back and forth.
(A radio blares)
STERAI: Any talking going on could really screw up the situation here while I'm trying to remove him. You have a 50-50 chance whether he's going to spray. Everybody's got to get out of the yard and stay away. So here we go.
LABUZ: Tom puts on orange work gloves and sternly warns the kids and me of our impending doom should we get near the skunk. Wisely the kids take their radio and step across the street. I stay in the truck. Two days ago, Tom set a cage over the mouth of 1 of 2 holes of under the porch of this infested house, but since Tom has seen 4 sets of tracks he's not sure how many skunks are living here. I can see Tom's head over the hedge as he stoops down to peer inside. Reaching around the cage, Tom gently places one hand on either side and cautiously loosens the trap from the hole. He's caught one live but unmoving skunk. Tom gingerly lifts the package and nervously carries the live bomb to the back of his truck.
(Sound of the truck being loaded)
LABUZ: You got one.
STERAI: (Laughs) Yeah. Sure did. One stinky. And he's not, thank God.
LABUZ: After breathing a sign of relief, Tom re-sets a new trap in case the skunk has any friends.
(The pickup starts up)
LABUZ: We're soon off to Tom's next job: squirrels living in an attic in nearby Libertyville. Tom liberates most animals he traps in a large country release site. He says it's important for trappers to think about where and when they release animals.
STERAI: You don't want to just place animals in the winter time, per se, a possum. If you go and you let this possum go in the middle of winter, and you put him in the woods and he was living in the neighborhoods, there's a two-thirds chance that he is not going to make it.
LABUZ: But the weather is the least of this skunk's concerns. Because they're prone to rabies, Tom has to kill all the skunks he catches. He'll either use chloroform or an injection to put this one down. Unlike the skunk, Tom's not concerned about his future. He feels as long as cities continue to spread to outlying suburbs, his job is secure. For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Labuz in Chicago.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: On a scorchingly hot July day in 1994, a fire torched 4 acres of forest behind the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Nearly all of the trees were burned; a handful of birds and animals also perished. The city was preparing to bulldoze the ugly and dangerous area when they ran into a group of sixth graders and their science teacher. Dan Shaw and his students had turned the blackened acres into a laboratory. Mr. Shaw joins us now on the line from the Bosque Preparatory School in Albuquerque. Mr. Shaw, what made you think of turning this disaster into a laboratory?
SHAW: Part of the thing that I've been interested in doing is finding ways to engage my students in real scientific investigations. And the Bosque is a forest in Albuquerque that is changing dramatically. There is a lot of interest on both political and scientific levels as to what to do with that.
CURWOOD: What's it like to go out in the field with these kids?
SHAW: It's a lot of fun, more than anything else. It's the opportunity to watch kids build direct and visceral connections with their environment. They come to know a place by getting their hands dirty. That beats working any day.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) What kind of experiments do they do?
SHAW: They've been setting up small traps to capture insects and other arthropods. They looked at how there is life both within and outside of the fire area. They also looked at the role that fire played with the dominant tree species, the cottonwood.
CURWOOD: How well are your kids doing as scientists?
SHAW: It's a mixed bag. Some days we have some pretty good data that we generate and other days we have to go back and do it again. It's a learning process for all of us, and it's an opportunity for kids to realize that they have to be responsible for the data they collect, because it matters to someone just besides themselves on their own grade at the end of the semester. It matters to the wider community of scientists which they've joined.
CURWOOD: I was going to ask, who else is using their data?
SHAW: Several different government agencies. The City of Albuquerque that manages that piece of property; a conservancy district, which is a water management district; as well as the University of New Mexico.
CURWOOD: So sixth graders can do quite a lot, huh?
SHAW: You'd be surprised.
CURWOOD: What do the kids get out of this, do you think?
SHAW: One thing, without a doubt, is the understanding of what science is really about. No matter what you have to do with science, you have to be accurate, whether that's being in a laboratory with white lab coats or out in the field crawling through the bushes and underneath mosquitoes and whatever else is out there. They come to understand that science is an extended process; it's not just reading through a textbook and having a final answer. It's using resources like textbooks to get information, but then to go and apply those in the field.
CURWOOD: Mr. Shaw, thank you very much for talking with us.
CURWOOD: Dan Shaw is a science teacher at the Bosque Preparatory School at Albuquerque, New Mexico.
CURWOOD: And if you or someone you know has an interesting environmental story to tell, give us a call. Our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. If you want to mail us a letter, our postal address is Living on Earth, Post Office Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Special thanks to the National Science Foundation for transportation for our series on Antarctica, and to members station KPLU, Seattle. Senior producer for Living on Earth is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. The production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Liz Lempert, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Mark Borrelli, Susan Shepherd, Michael Argue, and Emily Atkinson. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.
(Music up an under)
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