Air Date: June 28, 1996
Politicians United on Clean Drinking Water
Renewal of the Clean Water Act recently swept through the House and the Senate. Could safe drinking water be a safe political move in this election year? Steve Curwood talks with Alan Freedman of Congressional Quarterly about the new legislation and how it may impact business and communities. (05:28)
An Olympic Hurdle: Chattahoochee River Pollution/ Gwendolyn Glenn
The Chattahoochee River runs through Atlanta, home of the forthcoming 1996 summer Olympic games. But the river that will be on display is subject to pollution from rapid development, and a deadline is fast approaching to reduce dumping; which could mean an end to the city's swift growth. Gwendolyn Glenn reports on the rise of Atlanta and its relationship with the Chattahoochee. (07:05)
Electric Car Road Test/ Matt Binder
Honda and General Motors are driving forward with their plans to have new electric vehicles on the road this coming fall. Producer Matt Binder just took a spin in some of the test cars and reports from San Francisco where E.V. momentum continues despite wavering legislation. (07:55)
The Living on Earth Almanac
Facts about... Mount Pinatubo. (01:15)
Vanishing Migratory Birds/ Tatiana Schreiber
Several familiar songbird species have seen their numbers dying off in recent years. While their wintering grounds in South and Central America have been disrupted, so have their northern breeding grounds, and possibly many areas along the flyway. Scientists are studying the likely causes in a new study of New England's Connecticut River Valley. Tatiana Schreiber reports. (08:15)
A Unique School: College of the Atlantic/ Andrea DeLeon
A small college at Bar Harbor on the coast of Maine has some big ideas. Andrea DeLeon profiles the College of the Atlantic, which focuses its four year curriculum on the study of Human Ecology and is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. (08:30)
Listener calls and letters on recent LOE segments. (02:00)
Organic Gardening With Evelyn Tully Costa: Love Bugs
Steve Curwood speaks with Living on Earth's resident organic garden expert Evelyn Tully Costa about ways to use insects to your advantage, such as using helpful bugs to get rid of the pesky ones in your garden. (06:20)
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: Jennifer Schmidt, Lisa Labuz, Gwendolyn Glenn, Matt Binder, Tatiana Schreiber, Andrea DeLeon
GUESTS: Alan Freedman, Evelyn Tully Costa
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
The first major environmental bill of the current Congress is finally heading toward the President's desk. The Safe Drinking Water Act renewal has Republicans looking ahead to the election.
FREEDMAN: The Republicans have two problems. One, they don't have a lot of environmental legislation to their credit. And two, they don't have a lot of legislation, period, to their credit. That has really sort of forced them to the table with their Democratic counterparts and really put a lot of pressure on them to get a deal on drinking water.
CURWOOD: Also, Atlanta's hopes for a post-Olympics economic boom may be dashed by water pollution problems and a ban on new development.
AKAVAN: What are you gonna say, come here, invest, bring your plants, bring your offices, bring your headquarters, but don't flush the toilet? That's a very bad message.
CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, right after the news.
NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The Clinton Administration wants to add to the list of industries required to disclose their toxic chemical emissions. Currently, 20 industries including oil refineries and chemical plants must prepare Toxic Release Inventory reports for nearby residents about potential pollution in their communities. The Clinton plan would add electric utilities, incinerator operators, recyclers, and mining concerns to that list. The new rule should go into effect by the end of the year. A number of industries are resisting the plan, saying it imposes burdensome and expensive reporting requirements. A bid by a Washington State Indian tribe to resume whaling has been put on hold. The US government has withdrawn its request on behalf of the tribe amid growing international opposition. KPLU's Jennifer Schmidt reports.
SCHMIDT: Macaw tribal leaders had asked that the tribe be allowed to kill 5 gray whales a year for cultural purposes. The Macaws have a centuries-old tradition of whaling, but haven't hunted the animals in decades. The US government backed the request, arguing that gray whale populations are healthy and that the Macaws have the right to whale under a treaty signed in the 1800s. But the request generated a storm of protest at the annual International Whaling Commission meeting in Scotland. Hundreds of environmental and animal protection groups signed petitions expressing their concern that if the Macaws are allowed to hunt whales it will pave the way for increased whaling worldwide. Opponents argued that the Macaws had not shown they needed the animals for food. The US delegation was also under pressure because America is traditionally one of the strongest supporters of an international ban on commercial whaling. There was little immediate explanation for the decision to withdraw the petition, but one Macaw tribal leader said deferring the request to whale for another year will give the tribe time to respond to some of the concerns that have been raised. For Living on Earth I'm Jennifer Schmidt reporting.
NUNLEY: Africa's countries will face mass starvation unless farmers, politicians, and aid agencies join forces to halt the spread of deserts. A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says African desertification is caused by the twin problems of deforestation and drought, and Africa is more severely affected than any other continent. Some 60% of its land surface is now arid, making it difficult for farmers to cultivate crops. The report says desertification in Africa stems from the rapid expansion of agriculture, inappropriate farming methods, and over-grazing by livestock, a response to Africa's rapidly expanding population. The agency also warns that at least 150 million people around the world will be forced to migrate to other areas in the next half century as more farmland turns to desert.
US livestock are beefing up on junk food. A nationwide grain shortage has some farmers turning to undersized corn flakes and beer malt to feed cattle and hogs. And that's driving up prices of food industry leftovers at the Chicago Board of Trade. From Chicago, Lisa Labuz reports.
LABUZ: It's likely that Bossie's eating beer byproducts and Porky's munching on stale cookies. High demand and low supply has caused a grain shortage this year, prompting farmers to substitute couch potato foods for livestock feed. Jim Tofelin, a commodities trader with cereal byproducts north of Chicago, says the alternative feed market is booming. Grain hulls, floor sweepings, and cereal leftovers are selling for up to $145 a ton this week, double the price of a year ago. With corn at a premium, Tofelin says, byproducts do help farmers make a profit.
TOFELIN: The byproducts in the food plants are generally sold at less money than corn. And it gives the -- you know, there's an advantage to using it, then, for the farmer who's trying to lower his feed costs, especially today when the price for beef, for pork, is so low.
LABUZ: The Illinois Farm Bureau estimates that the grain shortage won't end any time soon. They say by August the nation will have only a two-week grain supply and predicts farmers next year will again be feeding Lucky Charms and Gummi Bears to their livestock. For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Labuz in Chicago.
NUNLEY: Power plants may soon be developing a sweet tooth. British and American scientists say they've discovered a way to make clean fuel from sugar. Using enzymes from bacteria living near hot underwater vents, the process converts glucose into pure hydrogen and water without producing carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels which contributes to global warming. Energy researchers have long been seeking just such a clean and cheap way to produce pure hydrogen as an alternative to pollution-creating fossil fuels and nuclear reactors. And there's hope the new hydrogen technology may one day be used to fuel automobiles as well.
That's this weeks Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Superfund. The Endangered Species Act. The Clean Water Act. All of these major Federal environmental protection laws and more are past due for renewal, and none have been acted upon by the current Congress. But with elections looming and pressure mounting on the Republican majority to improve its environmental image, one major environmental law has recently swept through both the House and the Senate. The Safe Drinking Water Act tells municipal water systems and other suppliers what contaminants and how much of them may be in our water. And the revisions now being hammered out would radically alter how the Environmental Protection Agency measures water quality. The new law would for the first time give the EPA the flexibility to regulate pollutants on the basis of relative risk. It would also require the EPA to measure the amount of radon in drinking water. And, as Alan Freedman of Congressional Quarterly tells us, it would require the Agency to screen for hormone-disrupting chemicals.
FREEDMAN: It would direct EPA to go out and identify those chemicals found in the environment that get into our bodies and mimic the hormone estrogen. These estrogen-mimickers, byproducts of DDT, for example, are linked to infertility rates as well as cancer rates. The importance of this is that once these estrogen-mimickers are identified the environmentalists contend that there will be kind of a greater understanding between what is actually in drinking water and the possible health effects.
CURWOOD: This bill marks a departure, doesn't it, from setting particular substances and rates of exposure to substances and giving the EPA a lot more latitude?
FREEDMAN: Yeah, that's right. Actually, the current drinking water law basically says to EPA, you shall come up with 25 new contaminants every 3 years. In other words you have to go out and you have to find things in the water that are dangerous and go out and regulate that. That stemmed from the 1980's when the Democrats passed the law, mainly because they felt the EPA wasn't enforcing the law, and they wanted to prescribe to EPA how it should enforce environmental laws. But as a practical matter, EPA simply couldn't keep up with that schedule. So what this law would do is it would essentially put in a place a much more flexible standard setting process, where EPA would go out and identify possible chemicals that could be dangerous, and once they have that list they could pick a few every couple years to regulate. It would be much less prescriptive in that sense.
CURWOOD: There's a new provision in this bill about giving the public more of a right to know.
FREEDMAN: Well this is an interesting provision. It would require your local water system to give you a listing of the contaminants in your water, or the chemicals, the substances that are in your water. If for example the substance were to exceed a standard, they would then have to describe to you in fairly straightforward English what the health effects of that particular chemical is. This is considered to be a good thing by many of the water systems around the country, because they feel it actually builds trust between themselves and the community. I've talked to a lobbyist for the water system who said that this is good for public relations. I should say that not everybody likes this. There's a fear that this will be sort of an unfunded mandate, that this is going to create kind of an onerous prescription on individual water systems. At House Committee Markup, one of the conservative Republicans on the committee, for example, said that there would be panic in the streets. So far there's really not much evidence that similar right to know language for example in California has caused that kind of panic. But that is mainly the criticism against this provision. That the public simply is not ready or capable of sort of taking in this information, because they don't have the background or something along those lines to sort of take it in.
CURWOOD: Do the environmental activists like this provision? Are they comfortable with this?
FREEDMAN: In the best of worlds they would like there to be a more prescriptive language. But I think what the environmentalists are doing is they're making a holistic judgment about this bill. They're looking at the bill in totality, and on balance they like what they see. Ill give you one big example of that. This bill will authorize $7.6 billion through the year 2003 for infrastructure improvements for your local drinking water systems. The environmentalists consider this a real step forward because its real money going out into the country and actually going towards improving the quality of drinking water. And that's going to make -- you know, the perception is that that's going to make drinking water safe for everybody, and that's a positive thing.
CURWOOD: Now why has this measure received such overwhelming bipartisan support? Ninety-nine to zip on the Senate side, the House overwhelmingly in favor. What's going on here?
FREEDMAN: The Republicans have two problems. One, they don't have a lot of environmental legislation to their credit. And two, they don't have a lot of legislation, period, to their credit. So this is just a big, big bill for them. That has really sort of forced them to the table with their Democratic counterparts and really put a lot of pressure on them to get a deal on drinking water. In turn the Democrats who don't need this bill in a political sense as much as the Republicans have really held out for provisions like right to know, for example, that they think of as important. Unlike a lot of other environmental bills this year like the Superfund bill, for example, you don't see the kind of heavy industry lobbying that you see in other bills. This is a bill that primarily affects public water systems. So you have none of the factors that have really taken down other environment, major environmental bills.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Alan Freedman covers environmental issues for Congressional Quarterly. Thank you, sir.
FREEDMAN: Thank you.
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CURWOOD: After years of anticipation, Atlanta is finally just about ready to host the 1996 international Olympic games. The Olympics can boost the economy of a region for years afterwards, and the Atlantans are hoping that they, too, will see a post-Olympics development boom. But these dreams may vanish if Atlanta doesn't clear a big hurdle: a fast-approaching deadline to cut the pollution it dumps in the Chattahoochee River. Under state rules if the deadline is missed, the city would face a ban on new construction. From Atlanta, Gwendolyn Glenn reports.
GLENN: The Chattahoochee is a 436-mile river that flows from Georgia's northern mountains to the Florida line. The river is a major source of drinking water for state residents. It is also the place where hundreds of millions of gallons of treated wastewater are dumped each day into the Chattahoochee, and along with the wastewater comes the chemical phosphorous.
WIRD: Phosphorous is a nutrient, a fertilizer. Phosphorous is also a human waste.
GLENN: David Wird is with Georgia's Environmental Protection Division.
WIRD: When you and I flush our toilet, that's a source of phosphorous to the city. Its not harmful, its not a toxic. It's an aesthetic problem, it does not look good, it might interfere with some of the fishing. It certainly doesn't make it pleasant to swim through.
GLENN: In the late 1980's the state required all cities to reduce the amount of phosphorous in their wastewater to .75 milligrams per liter. All of the cities complied except Atlanta. As a result, several environmental groups, businesses, and individuals downstream of Atlanta are suing the city. Among them is Robert Hancock. He owns a large tract of land 60 miles south of Atlanta along the murky waters of the Chattahoochee.
HANCOCK: It's an open septic tank. And as a result, we have no community benefit from it whatsoever.
GLENN: Hancock recently built a 20-acre lake on his land so that his family can fish, swim, and raft during outings on the property, something they are unwilling to do in the Chattahoochee.
HANCOCK: I'm kind of bitter because if we were able to use the river for the same sort of recreational purposes, we would have no reason to build the lake. We'd have fishing and swimming and boating and those sorts of things. And that's not just my burden, it's a -- my entire county has spent millions of dollars building reservoirs to hold water for a county-wide water system because they can't take water in out of the Chattahoochee.
(Water being pumped)
GLENN: The R.M. Clayton plant in Atlanta is one of 3 along the Chattahoochee that has not been upgraded to reduce phosphorous. Because treatment plants like this one are much older than plants in other communities, the state granted Atlanta several extensions on meeting the phosphorous limits.
NUNGUESSER: In retrospect they probably gave us too much time.
GLENN: City wastewater manager Philip Nunguesser. He says when charges of environmental racism forced the city to scrap a plan to run the phosphorous-laden wastewater through an African American community, state officials lost patience.
NUNGUESSER: When the community opposition came up, it became a very difficult decision for us to make. Because it was such a difficult decision without pressure, the city didn't want to go through the pain of making that decision.
GLENN: Now the state is giving Atlanta until July the 4th to meet the phosphorous limit or face fines up to $100,000 a day and a citywide moratorium on development. The timing could not be worse. The summer Olympics open in Atlanta July 19th and Mayor Bill Campbell hopes the cities water problems will not hurt its chance to attract new business.
CAMPBELL: We're now meeting the .75 level on most days. So we feel confident that we'll be able to meet it by the July deadline of this year. Our post-Olympic development is going to proceed unabated.
GLENN: But David Wird from the states Environmental Protection Division is not so optimistic.
WIRD: There's no way that the city of Atlanta will meet the July deadline. The moratorium connection will kick in, and the fines will kick in. The city of Atlanta knew since 1989 the requirements of state law. They know they've been polluting the river for that long, so I think that it's -- it's fair punishment, and hopefully it will be effective to keep them on track.
GLENN: For now, construction continues in Atlanta, but the possibility that the city may soon stop issuing building permits is making some developers nervous.
AKAVAN: We have to move a lot faster, we have to change our schedule dramatically in some cases, as we go through this process.
GLENN: Bauman Akavan develops residential properties in downtown Atlanta.
AKAVAN: Here we are on the eve of the Olympics, virtually, where Atlanta stands to have an exposure to several billion people across the globe, hopefully encouraging them to come and visit, to come and invest. This is probably a once ever opportunity. What are you going to say? Come here, invest, bring your plants, bring your offices, bring your headquarters, but don't flush the toilet? That's a very bad message.
GLENN: A building moratorium is already in effect in parts of midtown and southwest Atlanta, stemming from another water problem that is costing the city $20,000 a day in fines.
GLENN: The shrill sounds are coming from a conveyor at this treatment plant, which screens out trash and disinfects bacteria laden water from Atlanta's sewers and streets when it rains. The moratorium and fines went into effect because the southwest and midtown plants had not been completed or upgraded to process the runoff before it flows into the Chattahoochee. Chattahoochee River Keepers Fund executive director Sally Bethea says this problem has left the river unsightly, polluted, and filled with contaminated fish.
BETHEA: The fish in the river south of Atlanta show levels of chlordane, PCBs, mercury, and other toxic chemicals at such a level that it's -- that location is in the top 5 spots in the country for these chemicals in fish tissue.
All right, everybody. On behalf of the people of Atlanta we hereby break ground on a new Clear Creek treatment facility.
GLENN: City officials say they are working at a breakneck pace to build new plants and upgrade old facilities to avoid future penalties. If work on the plants that handle the street and sewage runoff is not completed by 2001, the fines will increase to $100,000 a day.
(Water running from the tap)
GLENN: In the meantime, city taxpayers will field the brunt of the wastewater treatment problems in the form of increased water bills, which analysts estimate could rise by 77% over the next few years. For Living on Earth, I'm Gwendolyn Glenn in Atlanta.
(Water continues running)
CURWOOD: The future is now for electric cars. Details just ahead on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Earlier this year California repealed what had been a ground breaking mandate that 2% of all new cars sold by 1998 run on electricity. There's still a mandate for 10% of cars to be electric by the year 2010, but in the meantime car makers can follow a more flexible plan that calls for more modest sales and more research and development. Many electric cars that will be tried on the road before then will merely be conversions of existing gas-powered models. But 2 major car makers, General Motors and Honda, have announced that they'll have all new electric cars in their showrooms, some as soon as this fall. From San Francisco, producer Matt Binder gives us a preview.
(Beach Boys music plays: Help me Rhonda, help, help me Rhonda...)
BINDER: Its a pleasant Saturday morning in the well-to-do San Francisco suburb of Pleasanton, and the town is holding its yearly Human Race, a charity 10-kilometer foot, bicycle, and wheelchair race.
(Announcer: Okay, we need everybody down to the starting line right now. Everybody to the starting line, as the race is about to begin.)
BINDER: The pace car for the Human Race is a General Motors EV-1, an electric car that GM says it will sell in California by the end of this year.
(Announcer: Get set .... Go! Cheers amidst music.)
BINDER: After the race I got a chance to ride in the EV-1 with GM's Steve Hass.
(A car door closes.)
HASS: Okay, lets hear it go. It's running right now.
BINDER: Oh. (Laughs)
(An electric motor whirrs up.)
BINDER: Eee -- like a rocket -- holy Bob. How many horsepower is it?
HASS: A hundred and thirty seven.
BINDER: Then he let me drive it. Okay. Im gonna floor it. (Hears motor whirring up) Wow. Zero to 60 in 8 seconds flat, pretty peppy even for a gas-powered car. But the EV-1 has some other features that take a bit of getting used to. It's just a 2-seater with a small trunk. The shift console is raised to about elbow level to make space for the huge battery pack underneath the car. There are a lot of clicking sounds because electrical switches rather than hydraulic valves control the brakes and steering. And there is an extra horn on board, a discrete little one used to warn bicyclists and pedestrians that the stealthy car is approaching.
(The horn beeps)
BINDER: Not as loud as ...
(The louder horn beeps, then the smaller one)
HASS: Its not as obnoxious. (Laughs)
BINDER: Initially the EV-1 will be sold only in southern California and Arizona. GM hasn't announced the price, but its expected to be about $35,000. And that's with relatively inexpensive lead-acid batteries, not much different from the ones in normal cars, though the EV- 1 has literally a ton of batteries on board. But even this much electrical capacity can power the EV-1 only 40 to 90 miles between charges, depending on how its driven and whether the lights, heat, or air conditioning are used.
(Sound of the car being driven on the road)
BINDER: To get more range Honda is planning to use a different type of battery in its electric car, which will be available in southern California at the end of 1997.
BEINENFELD: Looking under the hood of the electric vehicle you'll see very few things that are familiar.
BINDER: Robert Beinenfeld shows off a slightly dinged-up prototype of the Honda EV at the company's R&D center in Torrance, California. The car was rear-ended by a fellow journalist during a recent test drive. It's a 4-passenger hatchback with a tiny bit of storage space behind the rear seats. It has much slower acceleration than the GM EV-1, but because of its new type of batteries the Honda EV has a longer range.
BENENFELD: It is an advanced nickel-metal hydride battery. It will give you a range between charges on a test cycle of about 120 miles.
BINDER: But that 30 miles or so of additional range comes at a steep price. While the lead acid batteries in the GM car cost a few thousand dollars, the first generation of nickel-metal hydride batteries cost more than $15,000. Beinenfeld says it would be impossible to sell the car for what it cost to produce it right now, so the company plans to lease it for what it says will be a competitive rate and chalk up the loss to research and development.
(Electric car running on the road)
BINDER: The big question for both Honda and GM is now that they're producing electric cars, will people want them? Auto makers have been arguing for years that consumers won't buy electric vehicles with a limited range, but Dan Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis says his research shows that range won't be an issue if the price is right.
SPERLING: We find compelling evidence, overwhelming evidence, that there's a large number of households that would be willing to buy a vehicle with very limited range. With range even less than 100 miles. And that's because most households now have 2 or more cars. So its very easy for them to accommodate a second or third or fourth vehicle that has limited range.
GERRITY: UC Davis isn't in the business of earning a positive return on capital for
BINDER: David Gerrity, an auto industry analyst for Smith, Barney Investment Company in New York, believes the low range electric vehicle market is tiny.
GERRITY: I think consumers have shown by their choice of vehicle over the last several years and even in this year, that consumers want to have multi-purpose vehicles. That's why you have the popularities of vehicles like sport utility vehicles, why you have the popularity of vehicles like minivans. They don't want to spend a lot of money to buy a car that's only good for doing a small range of activities.
BINDER: Dan Sperling responds that electric cars have one big attraction that may lure people away from those jeeps and minivans. Electric vehicle owners will never have to drive into a gas station again. But even as electric vehicles begin to enter the marketplace, debate still rages over whether the technology is ready and whether it will continue to develop quickly enough to sell 110,000 electric vehicles in California in 2003. Dan Sperling.
SPERLING: The real key to what happens with the mandate is what happens with General Motors EV-1 car. If that car is successful, then there's going to be tremendous pressure on the industry to follow through and pursue and comply with the 10% requirement in 2003. If the EV-1 is successful, that in itself undermines any argument that the technology is not ready.
BINDER: Most car companies are betting that electric vehicle technology won't quickly improve, and they're letting GM and Honda take all the risks. Those two companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing all new electric vehicles, while the other auto makers are basically converting one of their gasoline powered cars to electric and selling the minimum number required in the agreements they made with the state. GM and Honda are betting the public will be impressed by their technological prowess and commitment to more environmentally safe vehicles. It could pay off big for GM and Honda, or they could end up driving their expensive new electric chariots of fire into a fiscal brick wall. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder in San Francisco.
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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: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm yogurt - - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfields goal is to make you feel good inside.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: Coming up, a visit to some of the vanishing habitat of some of America's vanishing songbirds. Keep your dial right here on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: The volcanoes that dot the Pacific Rim from South America to Indonesia are appropriately called the Ring of Fire. The unfortunate jewel in that ring is the Philippines. The island nation is home to some 200 volcanoes, and 5 years ago this summer one of them exploded in the worlds largest eruption in more than a century. Mt. Pinatubo blew as much as 10 cubic kilometers of ash and gas 20 miles into the air. The ash blotted out the sun and coated nearly 8,000 square miles of land. A simultaneous typhoon created a near-Biblical disaster. The combination brought flows of volcanic mud or lahares cascading down mountains, burying 17 villages. A million people were forced from their homes and more than 300 were killed. Five years later mudslides around Pinatubo continue to bury villages, killing dozens of people a year. For scientists, though, Pinatubo was a gold mine. The so-called Pinatubo Effect caused by ash in the atmosphere cooled the Earth for several years after the explosion. It enabled researchers to understand better the chemistry of both global climate change and ozone depletion. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth almanac.
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CURWOOD: The numbers of many songbirds have been falling for some time, including some warblers, verios, thrushes, flycatchers, and sparrows. Scientists blame disruption of their wintering grounds in Central and South America and their breeding grounds in the north, but they also suspect that conditions are changing along the flyways between the two. There are many questions about the changing ecology of these migration routes, and as Tatiana Schreiber reports, a new study of New England's Connecticut River Valley hopes to answer some of them.
SCHREIBER: It's about 4 in the morning. The birds we're hearing now are right outside my house in southern Vermont. I'm awake this early because I'm meeting a biologist from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science about 60 miles up the Connecticut River.
(Bird song continues. Fade to gear being moved and a zipper being pulled.)
McFARLAND: The ten points are about 200 meters apart, straight line down the river, so --
SCHREIBER: That's Kent McFarland, a self-described bird geek, one of dozens of professionals and volunteers involved in the Migratory Bird Stopover Habitat Survey.
McFARLAND: Ninety percent of the birds I detect are by ear, you know, we're not going to see very many at all. We're going to be hearing most everything. Which is good for radio. (Laughs)
(Footfalls on brush)
SCHREIBER: The survey is a 3-year project looking at the resources neo-tropical birds need during migration. Other studies have shown that deforestation, forest fragmentation, and pesticides have harmed birds on their wintering grounds in South and Central America and their breeding grounds in the north. This study will help determine the importance of the Connecticut River Valley as a migratory flyway between the two.
McFARLAND: Because these birds are flying a hell of a long ways, and they have to stop at key areas and refuel. If they're not able to do that, they're not going to make it. And so, you know, it's not only the breeding ground and their wintering site, but it's also in between.
(Water flows; birds sing)
SCHREIBER: Study participants will survey birds at hundreds of count sites in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, over 5 weeks each spring. The count sites are located throughout the watershed.
McFARLAND: A lot of these birds are after insects, and most of the insects are eating the leaves. So I'm thinking they'll probably follow the tree phenology right up the Connecticut, up the tributaries and into the highlands.
(Footfalls on brush)
SCHREIBER: Blue flags mark the points where McFarland settles in to focus on birdcalls and songs.
McFARLAND: (whispering) What I'm doing is I'm just noting every bird minute by minute for 10 minutes. Um -- and I just note whether it was in, out, or flying over my imaginary 50- meter circle.
SCHREIBER: McFarland points out a red-eyed verio foraging in an oak tree.
McFARLAND: Back from the Amazon basin.
SCHREIBER: When did it come back?
McFARLAND: Oh, it showed up, oh, 3 weeks ago maybe.
SCHREIBER: This is the last of the spring migration counts. One more count this summer will assess how the number of breeding birds compares to the numbers that flew through during migration.
McFARLAND: That's a cool bird. That's a very cool bird, great-crested flycatcher.
(Bird song continues)
As McFarland notes down a great-crested flycatcher, I try to figure out how he knows he's not hearing the same bird twice. He says that's the art to the science. By listening closely he can distinguish individual birds by their movements.
McFARLAND: Now that nuthatch that we heard over there, it slowly traveled. I was listening to it and now its right above us.
SCHREIBER: But if there's any doubt, he says, leave it out. It's a judgment call.
McFARLAND: You know chickadee? They're all phoe-beee. (A chickadee calls.) Hear it? There's also a king bird, but its way, its probably across the river. (A robin calls.) Oop - - robin. (The robin calls again.) A peewee way out there. Eastern wood peewee, which is nicely named because they actually say pee-wee. Of course they do that to every bird.
SCHREIBER: McFarland points out that with farmland, roads, power lines and development, it was a challenge to find sufficient areas of uninterrupted hardwood forest in which to conduct the study. This fragmentation of the forest is also the reason some songbirds are in trouble in the first place. The edge between forest and field is prime habitat for bird predators like raccoons and possums, and its attractive to certain birds.
McFARLAND: Chestnut-sided warblers, you know, back in Audubon's day, were very, very, very rare. He saw very few chestnut-sided warblers. Now, I mean, around here, you can't swing a stick without hitting one. So -- (laughs) you know, that's because all the edge, because they love the edge.
McFARLAND: We're actually going to jump this fence.
MC FARLAND: It gets tricky in a couple of places. But things like wood thrushes on the other hand can, have been shown to be sometimes artificially attracted to the edge, and consequently that's where the cowbirds are and so they've been really heavily hit by cowbirds in many areas. And they're really declining quite rapidly.
SCHREIBER: McFarland says brown-headed cowbirds prefer edge habitat and are expanding in the east, crowding out other birds.
McFARLAND: Wood thrushes are in a heap of trouble. Enjoy the song while you can because it's going fast.
SCHREIBER: We didn't hear any wood thrushes on our walk.
SCHREIBER: The migratory bird study is taking place within a new fish and wildlife refuge encompassing the length of the Connecticut River 420 miles from Canada to Long Island Sound. McFarland says the broad area covered by the refuge and the survey is vital because what happens in one part of the watershed affects every other part.
McFARLAND: This spring, since there was a cold spell, the birds got dammed up in Connecticut, it seems, for a little while, and kind of hung out there. And then they moved on up here to Vermont. So if there's no habitat in Connecticut for them to hang out while the weather got better farther north, then they wouldn't be coming farther north, because they wouldn't exist.
SCHREIBER: The refuge, named for late Massachusetts Congressman Sylvio Conti, is unusual in that it includes not only wild areas but human habitat: cities, roads, and industry. The idea is to find ways to balance the needs of humans and other species.
SCHREIBER: Do you think it's a workable concept?
McFARLAND: Hmm. It has to be. (Laughs) Or we're in big trouble. If you kick around in the woods a lot as a biologist, you see some pretty devastating effects going on with things, from frogs on up to birds and butterflies. That things are, things are getting hammered by humanity, and eventually it climbs its way up and its humanity that's going to get hammered.
SCHREIBER: Like the cautious biologist he is, McFarland won't speculate on what he's noticed so far, since comparative data won't be available for 2 more years. At that point study leaders will sit down with the Fish and Wildlife Service and recommend ways to preserve biological integrity in the area. The most likely recommendation is that mature woodland along the river valley should be protected as critical habitat for migrants.
SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Norwich, Vermont.
(Bird calls continue)
CURWOOD: Are bugs eating your garden? Learn some organic tricks to send them packing. Coming up later in this half hour of Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: People concerned about environmental change are sometimes criticized for failing to see what others call the big picture. For instance, valuing rare plants and animals over jobs and communities. But a small college on the coast of Maine maintains a steady focus on the big picture. Students of the College of the Atlantic spend 4 years steeped in the study of human ecology. Andrea DeLeon of Maine Public Broadcasting has this profile of the pioneering school as it prepares for its 25th anniversary.
(Calling gulls and flowing water)
DeLEON: College of the Atlantic is synonymous with its setting: a former estate right on the ocean in Bar Harbor at the doorstep of Acadia National Park. Anywhere on the small campus you are within earshot of gulls, fishing vessels, wind and water. And the ocean is a primary classroom for the school, where students study whales aboard a research vessel and map clam flats with the aid of computer imaging.
(Gull calls continue)
DeLEON: Their creative work is rich with images of the sea, too. It must be tempting to drift off during a class and stare out at the watery expanse. But on this morning there is no dreaming, only nervous preparation.
(Students milling indoors)
DeLEON: It is 2 weeks before graduation and a group of advanced land use students are preparing for their final presentation. Their mission: to convince the developer, who has just purchased an historic Bar Harbor farm, to consider conserving at least part of the valuable parcel.
WOMAN: Today we will present you with an overview of the information we have gathered about the property, followed by a summary of the zoning and its restrictions. Then we will describe 3 scenarios we have explored as potential uses of the property and the various --
DeLEON: The students are nervous but it's clear they have the developer's interest. The meeting seems more like a session before a local planning board than a class of undergraduates. But then, these undergraduates have also testified before the local planning board, arguing for a change in zoning they feel would benefit the town of Bar Harbor. Its typical of the hands-on approach to education at College of the Atlantic, where students and faculty seem to view everything from transportation issues at Acadia National Park to small-town politics as a learning opportunity. Theirs is a very big classroom. The school denies the separation between biology and literature, between environmental science and fine art. Every undergraduate receives the same degree: Bachelor of Arts in Human Ecology.
BOARDMAN: Human Ecology for me is really trying to see the relationships between the things that are in the world.
DeLEON: Richard Boardman is the college's academic dean.
BOARDMAN: On the scientific side it emphasizes plants and animals and those organisms. When we start to bring humans into that, many other kinds of issues become involved issues that have to do with cultural institutions, values, ideas, dreams, hopes and so on. And it becomes a much more complicated study.
DeLEON: Like many on the faculty, Dean Boardman's move to College of the Atlantic 17 years ago was something of a rebellion against the traditional academic institutions in which he was trained. This school is radically different. The teachers are not grouped into disciplines and departments. While one specializes in science and another in history, all are faculty in human ecology, and all are expected to bring that holistic perspective into their teaching.
BOARDMAN: The problems that are in the world, environmental problems or social problems or other kinds of problems, are themselves really complex. And that it is often unnecessary to have this kind of point of view, to be able to understand what the problem actually is, and also maybe how to address it.
DeLEON: College of the Atlantic graduates go on to do many things, but a good number go into land use planning, environmental education, careers in environmental policy and the sciences. Its course schedule includes environmental journalism and chemistry and philosophy of nature. There's a seminar on eco-tourism and one called voluntary simplicity. And even the more traditional fare, like calculus and Shakespeare, are taught with a human ecologist's perspective whenever possible. The school was conceived around the time of the first Earth Day in an era when so-called environmental education was finding new interest, and when concern about the quality of the nation's air and water was high. Founding faculty member William Carpenter says the school was formed around the radical notion that a traditional education was actually the cause of the world's environmental problems.
CARPENTER: It wasn't uneducated or ignorant people that were causing the environmental crisis. It was actually, you know, people at -- the captains of industry and the leaders of research were allowing this to happen. And I think it was felt that it must be something wrong with their education.
DeLEON: 1995 graduate Damon Lear makes a living dragging for scallops in Penobscot Bay. Eventually he hopes to help manage the local fisheries. He says his COA education combined with commercial fishing experience allow him to see all sides of a controversial subject.
LEAR: I think fisheries are important to the culture of this area, and its tough to -- its tough to deal with management up here from people who really don't have the experience. Making a living that way and -- and knowing the local culture, and its something that's worth preserving. It'll take science and social studies combined together.
(A crowd gathered for commencement exercises)
DeLEON: While many other so-called experimental colleges of about the same age have languished or adopted more traditional missions, College of the Atlantic has remained stable, quietly developing research expertise in sophisticated computer mapping and the whales that inhabit the colleges North Atlantic back yard. Dan Dendanto started out sweeping floors at Allied Whale, the school's whale study center. Five years after graduating from COA, he is the director of the center's Fin Whale Study Program.
DENDANTO: If you are so determined, you really can get your hands involved with real world research projects. I think, as an undergraduate I was really prepared to enter the research world in a capacity that surpassed even my peers who had Bachelors of Science degrees compared to my Bachelors of Arts and Human Ecology.
(A band plays)
BOARDMAN: It gives me a great deal of pleasure to welcome all of you today to this graduation ceremony, the 24th in the history of the college --
DeLEON: In early June friends and family of the school's 50 senior students gathered under a big tent on the north lawn. Numerous graduates spoke. One offered a Native American prayer of gratitude to the earth; another referred to his self-designed course of study as a calculated wandering. But such wanderings may not suit all students. Many say wallflowers would not flourish in a program that requires students to set their own course of study and encourages them to aggressively question their teachers, each other, and themselves.
MAN: You were such a bad influence on my child! (Laughter)
DeLEON: New graduate Valerie Cope concentrated on creative writing at the school. She admitted that the flexibility could be overwhelming, but she hopes the multidisciplinary focus will help her.
COPE: I think that eventually this, having this freedom is going to help me. Because I've been able to explore the sciences and arts and design, and integrate them into my writing.
DeLEON: Valerie Cope says it may be tough for her to make the transition into the traditional graduate writing program she's headed for at Sarah Lawrence College. Jaime Torres will soon begin work at the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Venezuela. He says it's the perfect position for a young man who defines himself as a human ecologist.
TORRES: He's an anthropologist, he's an artist. He's a biologist. And most importantly of all he's a human being.
DeLEON: Jaime Torres joins the 850 other alumni of the College of the Atlantic. The Bar Harbor school celebrates its 25th birthday next year. Faculty member William Carpenter says coming of age poses its own challenge to College of the Atlantic: to remain fresh and willing to question itself and the world around it. For Living on Earth this is Andrea DeLeon.
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CURWOOD: And now a word from you, our listeners.
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CURWOOD: A listener to WLRH in Huntsville, Alabama, wrote to us about a reference in our Fathers Day interview about animal dads. We said the tragedy of human fathers who take off before their kids have a chance to know them is the norm in much of the rest of the animal kingdom. That prompted this response: "Your remarks were cruelly insensitive to fathers deprived of access to their children, and they were particularly inappropriate on Father's Day."
While Lisa Lee, who listens to us on WCPN in Cleveland, called to voice her concern about our story examining the benefits of breastfeeding versus the risks of exposing babies to toxic chemicals that concentrate in breast milk.
LEE: What is the alternative? How did the toxins get in our breast milk? By eating beef and milk and other things? Well, I think that we ought to point out that formula is probably worse, when it comes to toxins, than breast milk. I don't want this article to send women rushing out to buy formula.
CURWOOD: Kate Pennington, a member of La Leche League from Newcastle, Maine, heard the same report quite differently. Ms. Pennington wrote, "I was pleased to hear your recent segment affirming the importance of breastfeeding. Thank you for raising awareness of this issue in such a sensitive and thought-provoking way. My only disappointment was that you could have emphasized more clearly the health risks of formula feeding."
CURWOOD: If you'd like to make a comment or request a tape or transcript of the show, drop us a line at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. The e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Or you can call us toll free at 1-800-218-9988. Please remember to include a daytime telephone number.
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(Grade B movie sound track with giant insects buzzing and a woman screaming)
CURWOOD: It's them! They creep, they crawl, they fly, they slime, they chew, they suck, nibble, devour, they never give up!
(Soundtrack continues with gunshots, a man yelling: Get the antennae! Get the antennae! Bang! Bang!)
CURWOOD: Bugs swarming all over our carefully created gardens, destroying months of hard work and our food! Could we control these toxic hordes without toxic chemicals or John Wayne?
(Soundtrack continues; a giant bug wails and bites the dust)
CURWOOD: With us now from Brooklyn to answer that question is Living on Earth's organic gardening commentator Evelyn Tully Costa. Welcome, Evelyn.
TULLY COSTA: Hey, Steve. Sounds like you have a little trouble up there in your garden. Whats eatin ya?
CURWOOD: Oho, that's not funny, Evelyn. My plants are in, I'm watering, mulching, I've loaded the soil with lots of organic matter. The roses are blooming, my tomatoes and cucumbers look wonderful, they're sending flowers -- but I've got this small problem. In fact thousands of them. I'm sharing my vegetables and flowers with lots of ravenous bugs and my garden's the main course!
TULLY COSTA: Okay. Okay, Steve, calm down. Its true, its true. Insects are our number one competitors on this planet. They eat our food, they eat our clothing, our houses and us. They even give us terrible diseases. I'm not saying we should ignore bugs, but before we reach for all those toxic chemicals and the machine guns, please be careful that the cure isn't worse than the problem.
CURWOOD: Yeah, right, that's all well and good. But come on, what about those sap-sucking aphids that are out there destroying my tomatoes right now!
TULLY COSTA: Okay, all right, so now its personal, I understand. Why don't you take the divide and conquer approach to pest management instead of the slash and burn? After all there's some one percent of those bugs are pests, and the rest, that's 99%, we can use those to eat up the bad guys. So why don't we start with the aphids since they've started with your tomatoes?
TULLY COSTA: These sucking, clustering little bugs are definitely a major problem throughout most of North America, so our listeners will be familiar with these guys. Now wherever you have aphids you have ants, because they are involved in this kind of weird but very fascinating relationship, okay. Aphids produce this sweet sticky nectar called honeydew, which ants love to drink. And in exchange for this fruit juice the ants herd the aphids around and protect them. So in a way, aphids are cows for ants and ants are cowboys for aphids. So the idea is to divert the ants from the aphids and leave the aphids vulnerable to other critters. So you got to put coffee grinds around the base of plants to keep the ants away from their dairy herd. Now once the aphids are left unprotected, all sorts of other critters who dine on them will move in and serve themselves.
CURWOOD: Aah -- so let me get this straight. Its like, you know, the ants are the enforcers in the neighborhood. They have this protection thing with these aphids, they get all of their juice. And if we can, like, scare them off then, hey, the aphids are vulnerable and they won't eat my tomato plants, huh?
TULLY COSTA: Yeah. I mean the trick is, with all of this using natural controls to keep your garden in shape is to lure the good guys, we're calling beneficials, to feed on the bad guys, we're calling pests. Now for example ladybugs which everyone's heard of and wants in their garden, their favorite snack happens to be those nice, soft, juicy aphids.
TULLY COSTA: Lacewings love aphids, too, but if the ants are on guard like you said, they'll eat mealybugs, thrips, small caterpillars and mites instead. So you want them to chow down on the aphids first, that's lacewings, and then they'll move on to these other guys you definitely don't want in your yard.
TULLY COSTA: Now, another really neat predator to encourage in your back yard are the tiny bracketed wasps. Now these do not sting humans. They will take out a lot of bugs that we don't want around. Now the wasp table manners are right out of the movie Alien, a little bit gross, they lay their eggs inside a number of bad bugs like the tomato hornworm, for example. The hornworm, which is this big, fat, plump caterpillar, becomes a living feeding station for lots of little larvae which are sucking the vital juices from inside the hornworm, slowly killing them, so that the hornworm cannot snack on your garden.
CURWOOD: (Makes gross sound) Oh boy, well I guess -- I guess I got to go along with this science fiction bug war happening, cause I mean, if this is what I can do to get it to work to my advantage I'm gonna do it but -- ugh! What a mess! Tell me, what do I do to invite the good guys to dinner and get them to chow down on the party crashers?
TULLY COSTA: Well, what I've been saying all along: diversity diversity diversity. You have to grow lots of flowers, which I'm assuming you're doing anyway.
CURWOOD: My wife likes that.
TULLY COSTA: Okay. Well, the flowers will attract beneficials with their nectar and pollen. And when the pest populations are low because the good guys have fed on the bad guys, they will return to these flowers for their nectar and pollen. And that will provide food for the troops while they're waiting for the bad guys to come back in again for another battle. So you want to have something blooming for the entire season. You also might try to grow a little patch of grass. That will attract ground beetles, rove beetles, and tiger beetles, and they eat a lot of bad things. And you want to allow for a little wild spot in your garden.
CURWOOD: Hey, that's real easy for me.
TULLY COSTA: Okay, all right, less weeding for you, Steve.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Yes.
TULLY COSTA: And a little watering hole for the good bugs to slurp from time to time in between their hunts. And do not use pesticides; you will destroy the good guys with the bad, you will leave your garden unprotected. The bad guys will come back in, wipe your garden out, and you won't get your tomatoes, Steve.
CURWOOD: Okay. I'm getting the picture, now. Its the basic lesson here. You gotta create an entire ecosystem, huh? It's everything from the soil to the bug balance.
TULLY COSTA: Right right right right thats right. Theres no magic bullet to winning over nature with poisons, because it always comes back to you twice as strong in a bad way. This garden war is really about balancing with the scales tipped in our favor most of the time. So if we set the stage with an arsenal of diversity to favor beneficials, you'll make it through the season and you'll get your tomatoes.
CURWOOD: Now how can I tell which are the good bugs and which are the bad bugs?
TULLY COSTA: Well, it turns out that the May/June issue of Organic Gardening has a great lineup of the good guys and the bad guys, and Organic Gardening is put out by Rodale Press, which has been publishing organic gardening books for, I think at least the last 30 or 40 years. And they have an enormous listing of books on this topic. And go down to your library and bug them to carry not only the magazine (Curwood laughs) but also the books, which are just filled with really good information on how to do organic gardening.
CURWOOD: Okay, Evelyn. Well I'm all charged up. I am off on a tiny game hunt now in my back yard armed with coffee grinds and Ill let you know who wins. Till next time.
TULLY COSTA: Great. Good luck, Steve.
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CURWOOD: Living on Earth's senior producer is Chris Ballman. Senior editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Segment producers include George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, and Liz Lempert. And our production team also includes Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Susan Shepherd, Peter Shaw, and interns Paul Masari, Heather Kaplan, and Jennifer Senkler. The engineering team includes Karen Given and Mark Navin at WBUR and Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini at Harvard University. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Im Steve Curwood, executive producer.
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