New Details on Bat-Killing Fungus

  • In caves where 200 to 300 thousand bats used to hibernate, scientists like Scott Darling have found that this year there are only hundreds. (Photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Scientists are racing to find a way to fight-off a fungus that’s killing bats. More than a million bats have died so far. Scientists believe entire hibernating bat species could be wiped out within two decades. Laura Iiyama reports the cause might have come from overseas:

Transcript

Scientists are racing to find a way to fight-off a fungus that’s killing bats. More than a million bats have died so far. Scientists believe entire hibernating bat species could be wiped out within two decades. Laura Iiyama reports the cause might have come from overseas:

Biologist Scott Darling knew something was wrong in a recent winter when he got several calls at his Fish and Wildlife office in Vermont. People told him about hundreds of bats flying in the air and dying in the snow. During winter, the furry mammals should be hibernating.

He went to Aeolus cave. It’s where the bats in the area should be crowded together on the walls and ceiling.

“Aeolus cave became a morgue. Bats freezing to death in clusters just outside the cave entrance. Most of the bats flew out of the cave onto the landscape to certain death.”

Where 200 to 300 thousand bats had hibernated just four years ago, this year there are just a couple hundred.

The dead bats had white nose syndrome.

The white powdery fungus was first noticed on bats in New York State in 2006. It’s spread into Ontario, Canada and as far south as Tennessee.

The fungus is not directly killing the bats.

Thomas Kunz is a professor at Boston University. He suspects the fungus keeps waking-up the hibernating bats.

“It may be simply the irritation from the fungus that is causing, if you have athlete’s feet, it itches.”

Instead of hibernating, surviving on their fat reserves, the bats keep waking-up. They burn off the fat. They get too thin. And they die.

Word spread about the fungus.

Thomas Kunz says some scientists recalled seeing a white fungus on bats elsewhere:

“Bat biologists in Europe have observed and reported that there are bats that do have the fungus although it doesn’t seem to be killing them.”

Scientists think someone visited a cave in Europe. Spores from the fungus got on clothing or shoes. Then that person wore the same shoes or clothing in a cave in the U.S. The spores were picked-up by the bats.

The bats huddle together in hibernation, easily spreading the fungus.

Often 90 percent of the bats are killed-off after the first appearance of the fungus. And Kunz says that may have been what happened to bats in Europe because we don’t find as many bats in European caves as there have been in North American caves:

“Now it’s very possible that in historic times there were large numbers of hibernating bats in Europe and these are the leftovers, these were the survivors that may be resistant to the fungus.”

So the arrival of the fungus may mean US bat species will permanently drop in numbers, like the bats in Europe.

David Blehert (blee-hurt) of the US Geological Survey says if that’s the case, it will be a dramatic change in life in caves in America and Canada.

“Whereas we have hibernation caves with 100 thousand, 300 thousand and even commonly lower ten thousand but those are rather common sites where we’ve seen the fungus decimate up to 95 percent and greater to the animals in the cave. Many of the European hibernation sites have between one and thirty animals.”

There’s no treatment for white nose syndrome. And even if a cure is found, it will be a very long time –centuries– before the bats recover. Bats reproduce slowly. The females have only one pup, one baby bat, per year. And there are over a million bats dead so far.

For The Environment Report, I’m Laura Iiyama.

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Renewing the Nuclear Past (Part 2)

  • Cooling units at the Vermont Yankee power station. Radioactive tritium (an isotope of hydrogen) has leaked into the ground near the center of the plant. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

Power companies hope to extend the working life of old nuclear reactors because it’s cheaper to run them than it is to build new reactors.
But old reactors require federal approval to renew their licenses.
For the past decade, power companies have been on a winning streak.
They’d gotten reactor licenses renewed every time they asked.
Shawn Allee reports one of the industry’s most recent bets went wrong:

Transcript

Power companies hope to extend the working life of old nuclear reactors because it’s cheaper to run them than it is to build new reactors.
But old reactors require federal approval to renew their licenses.
For the past decade, power companies have been on a winning streak.
They’d gotten reactor licenses renewed every time they asked.
Shawn Allee reports one of the industry’s most recent bets went wrong:

Vermont’s only nuclear reactor, Vermont Yankee, is likely to shut down in 2012.
The story of how that happened is unique in the nuclear biz.

Vermont Yankee’s license was set to expire in 2012 but eight years ago, a company called Entergy bought it anyway.

Entergy gambled the federal government would renew that license so Vermont Yankee could run another twenty years.

It seemed a safe bet, since the federal government never rejected a renewal application.

But Entergy also asked to expand Vermont Yankee, to produce more power.

That’s when Vermont’s state legislature stepped in.

The legislature said, if you want to expand, we want some say in whether you operate past 2012, regardless of what the federal government says.

No other state legislature has given itself this kind of authority.
This was an opening for anti-nuclear activists.

This video’s from a protest back in January.

Activists took it during their week long winter-time March to Vermont’s statehouse.

The protesters stopped for potlucks, speeches, and church songs.

Protester say they felt they were winning some support, but then they got an unexpected boost.

Here’s protester Bob Bady:

“We got a call that there was migrating plume of tritium under the plant and it was going to hit the press the next day.”

Bady says tritium is a kind of hydrogen that makes water radioactive.

In other words, Vermont Yankee was leaking radioactive water.

Protesters asked themselves, didn’t Entergy say these kinds of underground leaks couldn’t happen?

“The plant owner, Entergy, has incredibly low credibility particularly because they went before the legislature and vehemently denied there were even pipes underground, so that created a problem for them.”

The details are fuzzy, at least according to Entergy.

Here’s PR-guy Rob Williams.

“Clearly there was some kind of a miscommunication and then, uh, once we have a handle on it, we want to set the record straight.”

Entergy says its own investigation found employees did not lie about piping that could cause tritium leaks.

Vermont’s Attorney General is still determining that.

Regardless, some state senators said they felt they were lied to. Or Entergy did not know the plant could leak tritium. Either would be bad, so the state senate voted to shut the plant.

And that’s all Vermont law requires, so now Vermont Yankee’s slated to close in 2012.

But what happened with the tritium leaks?

PR-guy Rob Williams gives me a tour of Vermont Yankee.

From Entergy’s point of view, the system worked. It detected tritium in underground water.

“Right. Now, this is three wells we installed to specifically look for tritium. It gives you a good early warning that you’ve got a leak back in the piping.”

State health officials say tritium probably leaked near the center of the plant.

The state hasn’t found contaminated wells or other drinking water supplies.
Tritium is likely to move into the nearby Connecticut River, where it’ll be diluted.

As for the federal government, it’s unfazed.

The U-S Nuclear Regulatory Commission says Vermont Yankee leaked tritium before – several times.

At least 26 other reactors leaked tritium, too, but the NRC says the public’s safe.

In fact, the NRC has approved applications for license renewal at plants that had leaks just like Vermont Yankee’s.

The NRC is still reviewing that plant’s license renewal application … regardless of what the State of Vermont has to say about it.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Tomorrow, Shawn Allee looks at tritium leaks at one power plant that is across the river from a desalinization drinking water plant.

Related Links

Plug Pulled on Nuke Plant

  • Vermont Yankee Corp. is one of the oldest nuclear power plants in the country. (Photo courtesy of Vermont Yankee Corp.)

One of the country’s oldest nuclear power plants is setting its operating life shorter than expected. Shawn Allee reports:

Transcript

One of the country’s oldest nuclear power plants might have its operating life cut shorter than expected.

Shawn Allee reports:

The federal government has been leaning toward letting the Vermont Yankee reactor renew its license in 2012 for another 20 years.

But Vermont’s state legislature says has voted to shut it down – no matter what the federal government says.

One reason is the plant’s been leaking radioactive water.

State senator Peter Shumlin says plant owners said that couldn’t happen.

SHUMLIN: What’s worse? A company that won’t tell you the truth or a company that’s operating their aging nuclear power plant next to the Connecticut River and doesn’t know they have pipes with radioactive water running through them that are leaking and they don’t know because they didn’t know the pipes existed … neither is very comforting.

The federal government says the leaks have not been a health threat.

The closure of Vermont Yankee would be a setback for the nuclear power industry.

It’s trying to extend the operating life of reactors across the country, since its far cheaper to run old reactors than to build new ones.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

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THERE’S iPODS IN THEM APPLE TREES!

  • If you find a wooden apple like this one in a Vermont orchard, you can turn it in for a free iPod (Photo courtesy of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing)

Fall is in full swing, and in the
northern states, what better way to appreciate
the time of year than to go apple picking?
It’s the fall thing to do, right? Well, not
for everyone. Lulu Miller reports:

Transcript

Fall is in full swing, and in the
northern states, what better way to appreciate
the time of year than to go apple picking?
It’s the fall thing to do, right? Well, not
for everyone. Lulu Miller reports:

“Ooh that’s perfect! Perfect fall day. Little Chill in the air.”

That’s orchard owner Nick Cowles and we’re here with him at his orchard.

“Beautiful apple!”

Shelburne Orchards. Near Burlington Vermont.

“Looks out over Lake Champlain.”

And to hear him to tell it, an afternoon spent apple picking is pretty much as
good as it gets.

“Yeah. There’s something about gathering food with your family that’s primal
almost. I see people show up in their cars. The dad, the face is a little pinched. He
had to get the kids in the car. They didn’t really wanna come. His whole life is
stress. And then by the time, the difference in the face when he’s leavin’, it’s just
a whole different face.”

Everyone’s dream weekend, right?

Well. Not exactly. There is one group of people who just aren’t all that thrilled
about fall leaves and apple picking.

“Well yeah. The demographics of Vermont are a little scary right now. We have
the least number of folks in there 20s in the country.”

That’s Bruce Hyde, Commissioner of Tourism for the state of Vermont. He says
the 20-somethings are missing.

“I can understand after going to one of the great colleges we have in a rural state,
that a lot of folks wanna go and experience the big cities and sow their oats.”

And so, as the guy in charge of tourism, Bruce has a mission.

“We’re really trying to attract more young people to the state of Vermont.”

And here’s what he’s up against.

Lulu Miller: “Just wondering if you guys have any plans to go apple picking this
season?”

Student: “Not really. I’m not really into apples.”

Miller: “No?”

Student: “My age? It’s kind of about the debauchery. Sleeping in on Saturdays.
Not going apple picking with the folks. You know?”

I’m talking to college students in a park near New York University.

Student: “It’s not something that I would hear my friends being like, ‘can’t hang
out on Saturday! Going apple picking!’ I just can’t imagine that coming out of
their mouths.”

So what’s a commissioner of tourism to do?

“We were trying to figure out, what’s a way to get more young people into the
orchards? So we came up with an idea. A cute little idea.”

If apples just weren’t enticing enough to lure people to Vermont, Comissioner
Hyde thought, maybe there’s something else they’d prefer to find in the trees.
Like…

“An iPod!”

That’s right in the apple trees of Vermont.

“Macintosh. Courtlans. Red delicious.”

You can find iPods.

“Nano’s. A couple of touch’s. And the just the classic iPod.”

Now they’re not actually dangling from the trees.

“What we did is we made up wooden apples. They have the state seal on them.”

And if you find that, you can turn it and get an ipod.

“Yeah. And it really has brought a lot of people into the orchards. We haven’t
done any kinda survey. But the response I’ve heard from orchards is they’ve
never seen so few apples left on the trees.”

Orchard owner Nick Cowles agrees.

“Lotta people know about it, have heard about it. ‘Come on mom, lets go look
for the iPod!’ It’s a great program. It does what it set out to do. It really helps the
orchards. They’ve been very smart to do this.”

So what do the college students think?

Student: (laughs) “They’res gonna be iPods with apples!? No way!”

Miller: “Would that make you go? Would it up the ante at all?”

Student: “It absolutely does. I would definitely go apple picking if there was a
chance I could stumble across an iPod.”

But not all of them feel that way, in fact many of them pointed out that luring
people with iPods sounds so wrong. Kinda grinds against the notion of getting
people out into nature.

“Does that feel wrong? No.”

Orchard owner Nick Cowles.

“In my estimation, anything that brings families together, outside, doing
something like that – it doesn’t get any better than that. They’re out in the
orchard, runnin’ around, picking apples – that’s healthy. They’re doin’ it as a
family.”

(boys laughing. “Hey find me an apple!”

Apples. iPods. Whatever it takes.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lulu Miller.

(sound of biting an apple)

Related Links

Your Drugs in Your Water

  • Pharmaceuticals and other toxins have been found in lakes like this one, Lake Champlain. (Photo by Kinna Ohman)

Less than ten years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey found household drugs and
chemicals in almost every body of water they sampled. Each year since then, at least twenty
studies come out showing these chemicals can affect the hormone systems of wildlife –
and some studies have begun to look at effects on humans. Kinna Ohman reports that,
despite all this, little has been done to address the issue:

Transcript

Less than ten years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey found household drugs and
chemicals in almost every body of water they sampled. Each year since then, at least twenty
studies come out showing these chemicals can affect the hormone systems of wildlife –
and some studies have begun to look at effects on humans. Kinna Ohman reports that,
despite all this, little has been done to address the issue:



Every major water body in the United States, whether it’s a river, lake, or wetland,
probably has at least one scientist keeping an eye on it. Lake Champlain is no exception.
This large lake, forming much of the border between Vermont and northern New York,
has its share of scientists… and Mary Watzin is one of them.


Watzin’s the director of the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory in Burlington,
Vermont. She’s been studying how human pollution and activities impact the lake’s fish,
birds, and other water wildlife.


Watzin’s been around long enough to see quite a few of the big pollution problems resolved,
but you can’t help noticing some frustration when she talks about the latest issue:


“We’re cleaning up our act, at least with PCBs – we’re working on mercury – and
then there’s all this new generation stuff coming along.”


This new generation of pollutants includes the active parts of household chemicals and
drugs which have the potential to impact the hormone systems in wildlife. They’re in
detergents, cleaning products, and many types of drugs such as antidepressants, steroids,
and even birth control pills. Chris Hornback is with the National Association of Clean
Water Agencies:


“They’re coming from consumer products. In the case of pharmaceuticals, they’re
coming from drugs that our bodies aren’t completely metabolizing. Or, in some
cases, from unused pharmaceuticals that are being flushed down the toilet.”


And the problem is, once these drugs and chemicals leave our house, many of them aren’t
filtered out at wastewater treatment plants. Treatment plants were not designed to handle
these types of pollutants. So any lake or river which receives treated wastewater can also
receive a daily dose of these active chemicals.


Because these pollutants can number in the hundreds, just how to study them is under
debate. Mary Watzin says the old way just doesn’t work anymore:


“The classic way to examine one of these compounds is just to test it by itself. But
the fish aren’t exposed to these things by themselves, because they swim around in
the general milieu of everything that gets dumped out.”


But looking at how mixtures of household chemicals and drugs affect fish and other
wildlife can bring up more questions than answers. Because of this, Pat Phillips, a
hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey says we might want to concentrate on just
keeping these pollutants out of the environment:


“One of the things we see is that we see mixtures of many different compounds
coming into the wastewater treatment plants and coming into the environment.
And its very difficult to figure out what effect these mixtures have. But if we can
remove some of them, that makes a lot of sense.”


In the past, when the issue was industrial toxins, the solution was to control these toxins
at their source. This is because wastewater treatment plants weren’t made to deal with
industrial toxins in the same way they’re not made to deal with household drugs and
chemicals. But now, Chris Hornback says controlling this new generation of pollutants at
their source just isn’t practical:


“A lot of the substances that we’re talking about now including pharmaceuticals
and other emerging contaminants are coming from the households. So, those
sources are much harder to control. You can’t permit a household. A wastewater
treatment plant can’t control what a household discharges so that’s where public
outreach, and education, and pollution prevention efforts come into play.”


These efforts are really only starting. Some states have begun pharmaceutical take-back
programs to keep people from flushing unused medicines down the drain, but
participation is voluntary.


Everyone involved agrees that in order to solve this problem, it’s going to take people
thinking about what they’re sending down their drains. But just how to broach this
somewhat private topic is yet another question.


For the Environment Report, I’m Kinna Ohman.

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State Car Emissions Ok’d

  • Most of the cuts would come from tailpipe emissions, but the UCS says other improvements can be made in engine design as well.(Photo by Mark Brush)

A federal judge has ruled in favor of a state law aimed at cutting greenhouse gases from
cars and light trucks. Mark Brush has more:

Transcript

A federal judge has ruled in favor of a state law aimed at cutting greenhouse gases from
cars and light trucks. Mark Brush has more:


Like 11 other state laws – the Vermont law calls for a 30% cut in heat-trapping gas
emissions by 2016. Automakers sued Vermont saying these kinds of regulations would
hurt the industry and can not be made by individual states. A federal judge disagreed.


Michelle Robinson is with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She says the judge heard
from the group’s engineers. They designed a minivan that would meet these new
standards with technology that exists today:


“There’s no need to change the look of the vehicle or the performance of the vehicle in
any way. So you could maintain the levels of safety and performance that drivers expect
while improving the pollution performance of the vehicle.”


Aside from a likely appeal from the auto industry, the states are also waiting on the
Environmental Protection Agency. They have to get a waiver from the EPA before they
can enforce their laws.


For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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Lamprey Infests Lake Champlain

  • Two sea lampreys attached to a large fish. This predatory parasite is wiping out freshwater salmon and trout in Lake Champlain. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Government biologists working on Lake
Champlain, between New York and Vermont, say
they’re losing the fight against the sea
lamprey, a parasite that targets freshwater
salmon and trout. The lamprey population has
surged in recent years. Brian Mann reports
scientists say the best solution might be to
turn the fight over to federal biologists
who have had greater success fighting
lamprey on the Great Lakes:

Transcript

Government biologists working on Lake
Champlain, between New York and Vermont, say
they’re losing the fight against the sea
lamprey, a parasite that targets freshwater
salmon and trout. The lamprey population has
surged in recent years. Brian Mann reports
scientists say the best solution might be to
turn the fight over to federal biologists
who have had greater success fighting
lamprey on the Great Lakes:


On a gorgeous April morning, charter boat captain Richard
Greenough went fishing. He didn’t like what he found on his line:


“I went out this morning, I got one fish. Looked like it had been
sitting in front of a machine gun. It was skinny. It looked sick.
And that was a good one, because it’s alive.”


Lake Champlain’s freshwater salmon and trout are being wiped out by a
predator called the sea lamprey. The parasites are awful creatures – long and slimy
with circular suckers used to clamp onto the side of fish.


Back in the early 90s, New York and Vermont partnered with the US Fish
and Wildlife Service on an experimental project to kill lamprey, but
since 1998, the parasites have come roaring back. Speaking at a sea lamprey summit
in Burlington, Vermont, Captain Greenough says his customers regularly catch fish
that are half-eaten and scarred:


“It’s almost an embarrassment right now. Two years ago, I thought it
was bad with a 13-inch lake trout with three lampreys on it. Well, it’s
got so good we got a 12-inch with five on it last year.”


State biologists in Vermont and New York concede that the lamprey
response here simply isn’t working. Doug Stang is chief of fisheries
for New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation:


“You see in our current effort, even though substantial and
significant, just isn’t cutting it. We need to put forth more effort. Or
we need to pick up our toys so to speak and go home.”


Government biologists say abandoning an intensive lamprey program
would mean a complete crash of lake salmon and trout populations.
The fish are in danger of being wiped out by the lamprey. Biologists also say the parasites would likely begin feeding on other
species. One possible solution, Stang says, is turning the lamprey battle over
to the federal government, modeling the effort here after a much larger
lamprey program on the Great Lakes:


“This would provide us with a more centralized approach and this would provide us with a more a coordination for funding
and sea lamprey control efforts.”


The sea lamprey program on the Great Lakes isn’t a complete success.
The program is struggling with proposed funding cuts… and some
critics say the lamprey population in the Great Lakes is still too high.


Despite those concerns, Dale Burkett says the feds are ready to do more on Lake Champlain.
He heads sea lamprey control operations for the Great Lakes Fishery
Commission and works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service:


“The expansion in dollar amount would be somewhere around $310,000 more than is
currently being spent by the collective. I think the Fish and Wildlife
Service has indicated that they are willing, if tasked with that
responsibility, to step up to the plate.”


Federal scientists say that new investment would help to save a $250 million sport fishery.
Even so, the Federal takeover would be controversial. The main weapon
in this fight is a kind of poison called TFM that’s used to kill sea
lamprey larva in rivers.


On the Great Lakes, the use of TFM has a long track record, dating back
to the 1950s, but in New York and Vermont the practice is still
controversial. Joanne Calvi is with a group called the Poultney River
Committee. She says the toxins could affect other native species, including
several varieties of freshwater mussels that are considered endangered or threatened by state biologists:


“I’m opposed to chemical treatment with TFM to control native sea
lamprey in the Poultney River. I feel it should be prohibited.”


A new wrinkle here is the growing scientific consensus that the lamprey are a native species
and might not be invasive at all. Green groups say the parasite’s growing numbers reflect a larger problem with Lake Champlain’s eco-system.


Rose Paul is with the Vermont Chapter of the Nature Conservancy:


“We need to manage the lake’s species and habitats in a more holistic
way, that would help us identify root causes of problems.”


Scientists are experimenting with other methods of controlling lamprey including nest destruction, the release of
sterilized males, and trapping. But in the short term, government resdearchers say lampricide poison is
the only cost-efficient way to prevent the parasite from destroying Lake Champlain’s fishery.


For the Environment Report, I’m Brian Mann in Burlington.

Related Links

Commentary – Champlain a Great Lake?

Earlier this month (March, 1998) President Clinton signed a bill declaring Vermont’s Lake Champlain as one of the Great Lakes. The move was engineered by Senator Patrick Leahy in order to make Vermont universities eligible for federal research dollars. But the move created a firestorm of ridicule and protest. Last week, the Senate voted unanimously to remove the designation. The House is expected to do the same this week—a move that pleases Great Lakes Commentator Julia King: