FIGHT FOR AMERICA’S LONGEST RIVER (Part 2)

  • Barge companies question the science of the Army Corps of Engineers' studies that indicate habitat restoration and changes in river management help threatened species and other wildlife. (Photo by Lester Graham)

The US economy relies heavily on the nation’s rivers to transport goods bound
for foreign markets. Each year river barges carry hundreds of millions of
tons of cargo to busy ports. Traffic is bustling on some rivers, but it’s dying on
others. Commercial shippers say their situation is made worse by attempts to
balance their interests against conservation. In the second of three reports,
Kevin Lavery explains why some barge companies say mismanagement is
squeezing them out of the marketplace:

Transcript

The US economy relies heavily on the nation’s rivers to transport goods bound
for foreign markets. Each year river barges carry hundreds of millions of
tons of cargo to busy ports. Traffic is bustling on some rivers, but it’s dying on
others. Commercial shippers say their situation is made worse by attempts to
balance their interests against conservation. In the second of three reports,
Kevin Lavery explains why some barge companies say mismanagement is
squeezing them out of the marketplace:


In 2004, America celebrated the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of
Discovery mission to the West. At the start of the 19th century, the Missouri River
was center stage in an age of discovery.


By the start of the 21st century, the river was in an age of discontent. Riverboat
companies, environmentalists, Indian tribes and state governments were
deadlocked in legal battles over water releases.


Paul Davis’ shipping terminal in Boonville, Missouri has been around for 36
years. In 2004, he watched two major shippers call it quits. One of them,
Blaskey Marine, was a family venture:


“And Blaskey had been in the towboat business on the Missouri River for as long as I can
recall, and business just got too tough for them, so they just gave it up. And that’s what
really was the beginning of the end in our involvement with barges, at least for the time
being.”


Industry watchers say the riverboats have been clanging their death knell for
a long time. In 1977, barges carried just over 3 million tons of cargo. Since then,
floods, drought and market forces have cut barge shipments by two-thirds. Chad
Smith is with the environmental group American Rivers in Lincoln, Nebraska:


“They don’t move a lot of tons, and agriculture basically dictates that grain moves the
market by truck and rail. Everybody agrees those numbers don’t lie.”


But everyone doesn’t agree. Paul Rhode is with the national shipping advocacy
group Waterways Council, Incorporated:


“People say barge traffic is dying on the Missouri. That’s not true. Barge traffic is being
killed by the way the Missouri river is managed right now.”


Rhode blames the industry’s woes on the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal
agency that regulates the Missouri River.


In May 2006, the Corps released more water than usual from a South Dakota
reservoir. The rise was meant to tell an endangered fish, the pallid sturgeon, to
spawn. Rhode says that artificial rise in the spring later lowered the river’s depth
in the summer. He says unpredictable flows kept shippers from carrying a lot of
freight… and making long-term plans:


“The levels could be managed much better. We don’t need a spring rise. We need water
down here in August and September. Barge traffic has been cut short by leaps and
bounds over the past few years, in part because of the spring rise issue.”


How short? Despite heavy rains earlier this year, the Corps plans to shorten the
navigation season by at least 45 days. That means shippers who normally finish
in December will be lucky to still be hauling by Halloween.


But there’s only so much water that can be released from upstream
reservoirs… and the Corps stands by its decision to raise the river. Spokesman
Paul Johnston says biologists are encouraged by the data they’re seeing on the
pallid sturgeon. And he says the man-made flood pulses are minor:


“They’re certainly not aggressive, at least in our perspective, and I know that there are
people who think that it’s too much too soon. But if we don’t do anything, then we
certainly will not have any data to back up any decisions.”


Historically, the Corps’ decisions tended to favor riverboats, especially in the
1930’s, when the Corps turned 735 miles of the Missouri into a shipping channel.
American Rivers’ Chad Smith says while that was viewed as the best course for
the river then, its time to set a new one:


“It’s now the year 2007 and I think our hopes and dreams have changed. And it’s probably
time for Congress to go back and see what’s happening in this basin with market forces in
agriculture and a lot of these big drivers that put pressure on the way we use and manage
the Missouri now, and see if there are things we need to do differently.”


Smith suggests some of those uses of the Missouri River might be changing
soon. With their balance sheets already razor-thin, barge operators worry those
changes might sink them.


For The Environment Report, I’m Kevin Lavery.


ANCHOR TAG: Tomorrow, Kevin reports on how the recreation and wildlife
preservation search for their place on the Missouri River.

Related Links

Enviro-Groups Sue to Protect Wolves

  • The Fish and Wildlife service ruled that wolves in certain states no longer need protection, but some groups feel that decision might put wolf populations at risk again. (Photo by Katherine Glover)

Wildlife groups have gone to court, seeking to reverse a recent federal
decision that took the grey wolf off the list of protected
species. Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

Wildlife groups have gone to court, seeking to reverse a recent federal
decision that took the grey wolf off the list of protected
species. Chuck Quirmbach reports:


The Fish and Wildlife Service ruled in February that the wolf
population was strong enough in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan that
the wolves no longer had to be listed as endangered or threatened. The
states can euthanize problem wolves or even develop a wolf hunt.


But three groups have just filed a lawsuit over the federal action.
Rebecca Judd is an attorney with the Humane Society of the United
States. she says the door has been opened to large attacks on the wolf
population.


“We don’t think that the wolf’s recent progress toward recovery should now
be squandered by exposing them to killings and state-authorized hunting
and trapping programs.”


The Fish and Wildlife Service says the states in the western Great
Lakes region have good plans for protecting the grey wolf, but the
federal agency is preparing a five year monitoring effort.


For the Environment Report, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

Related Links

Feds Say No to Private Developers

For most of the last century, the federal
government has engaged in a practice known as “land
swapping.” That’s where the federal government sells
or trades land with private property owners. In recent
years, land swapping has become increasingly controversial
as developers build neighborhoods on previously undeveloped
public land. But one federal agency has put an end to the
practice. Some conservationists hope this recent development
represents a new era for the protection of federally-owned
land. Matt Shafer Powell reports:

Transcript

For most of the last century, the federal
government has engaged in a practice known as “land
swapping.” That’s where the federal government sells
or trades land with private property owners. In recent
years, land swapping has become increasingly controversial
as developers build neighborhoods on previously undeveloped
public land. But one federal agency has put an end to the
practice. Some conservationists hope this recent development
represents a new era for the protection of federally-owned
land. Matt Shafer Powell reports:


In the 1930s and 40s the federal government used eminent domain, or the threat of it, to
seize land all over the country. It bought up the land to build dams to make electricity.
One of the biggest projects took place in the Southeastern US. That’s where the federal
government created the Tennessee Valley Authority and flooded much of the Tennessee
River Valley. What was once deep gullies and hillsides became lakes and reservoirs
surrounded by forests. The TVA still owns about 300,000 acres of undeveloped land
throughout the region. For most of the last seventy years, the public has used this land
for recreation and conservation. Billy Minser is a wildlife biologist. He says the public
is very protective of that land:


“It provides outstanding public resource for recreation and beauty, it gives people a place to
rekindle the human spirit, a place to relax, hunt, fish, camp, bird watch or maybe to sit
home and think about how pretty the lakes are.”


In 2003, the TVA angered conservationists like Minser when it traded some of that land
to a residential developer, who built an upscale subdivision on it, and it happened again
last year with another swatch of pristine lakeshore property. Minser claims those deals
betrayed the public, but they also betrayed those families who lost their land to the
government years ago:


“If the government takes your house and bulldozes it down because it’s not enough value
and then sells it to me so I can build another house on it in the same place. Is that right?
That’s wrong. That is absolutely wrong and the public’s done with it.”


Land exchanges are nothing new. Federal agencies like the US Forest Service and the
Bureau of Land Management have been swapping land with private property owners and
state and local governments for decades. The practice is often used to fill in holes in
national forests or get rid of land that the government can’t use. Glenn Collins is with the
Public Lands Foundation. In some cases, he says the feds end up with more and better
land, but that means a lot of previously untouched land ends up in the hands of
developers:


“The federal lands that are placed into private ownership invariably go into development.
Either the land, the large blocks are subdivided into smaller blocks on paper, there may
be roads, improvements, it’ll be put up for sale.”


Over the years, the public has become increasingly wary of these land swaps. In the
Tennessee Valley, public outcry about the deals eventually forced a change in the TVA’s
philosophy. The agency’s Board of Directors recently voted to approve a new policy that
bans the sale or trade of TVA land to private residential developers:


“All those in favor of the committee’s policy on land, say aye.”


“Aye.”


“Opposed?”


“No.”
That one dissenting vote came from board member Bill Baxter, demonstrating the fact
that not everyone is wild about the ban. In explaining his “no” vote, Baxter echoed the
sentiments of economic development officials who worry that an all-out ban on
residential development will compromise their chances of attracting people and money to
the region. Baxter used the example of rural communities that would normally have a
hard time attracting industry:


“Perhaps their best hope for doing some economic development and increasing the tax
base so they can improve the schools for their kids and their roads and their health care is
to have some high-end residential development. It’s a beautiful part of the country and
we’re fortunate that a lot of people want to retire here.”


In the end, Baxter’s claims that residential development is economic development failed
to resonate with either the public or his colleagues on the board. After the vote at the
TVA’s board meeting, Michael Butler of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation called the
new policy a “monumental accomplishment.”


“I think it’s also part of a sound quality-of-life and tax policy into the future to look at
how we use conservation lands to really develop a sustainable way to have a growing
economy, which has got to be part of the equation, and to have a place where these
people can go enjoy themselves that isn’t in front of a television set all the time.”


The fact that the government used eminent domain to acquire a lot of the TVA’s land
means the people in the region are passionately vigilant about what happens to it, but the
public’s passion for land isn’t exclusive to the Tennessee Valley. And so the decisions
made here could have a long-term effect on the way the government approaches future
land exchanges throughout the country.


For the Environment Report, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

Related Links

Airplane De-Icers Harm Aquatic Life

  • Fluids from de-icers and anti-icers can end up in creeks and lakes, harming the aquatic life that dwell there. (Photo courtesy of the EPA)

A new study indicates fluids used to remove or prevent ice buildup on planes can still be
harmful to aquatic life. But the research shows some of the chemicals are more toxic
than others. Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

A new study indicates fluids used to remove or prevent ice buildup on planes can still be
harmful to aquatic life. But the research shows some of the chemicals are more toxic
than others. Chuck Quirmbach reports:


The US Geological Survey has been testing the different fluids used as de-icers and anti-
icers on airplanes. The solutions often flow into storm sewers that end up in creeks and
lakes. Researcher Steve Corsi says when the products are used during extreme weather
conditions, they can build up in the environment:


“Intense freezing rains are usually the worst ones. Where you might see a little bit higher
concentration, there’s more risk.”


So the federal agency exposed minnows, algae and other sensitive aquatic organisms to
the de-icers and anti-icers. Corsi says de-icers are not as toxic as they used to be but anti-
icers that prevent ice buildup on airplanes are still toxic. The results of the tests are being
sent to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is considering restrictions on how
the fluids are used.


For the Environment Report, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

Related Links

PROTECTING CHILDREN FROM TAINTED FISH (Part II)

The people most at risk from contaminants in fish often don’t know it. Different chemicals found in fish from many inland lakes, including the Great Lakes, can be harmful to human development. State governments issue fish consumption advisories that recommend limiting eating such fish. In the second of a two-part series on contaminants in fish… the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports that not everyone learns of the advisories:

Transcript

The people most at risk from contaminants in fish often don’t know it.
Different chemicals found in fish from many inland lakes, including the
Great Lakes, can be harmful to human development. State governments
issue fish consumption advisories that recommend limiting
eating such fish. In the second of a two part series on contaminants in
fish… the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports that not
everyone learns of the advisories:


Horace Phillips likes to fish. He can often be found casting a line into a
lagoon off of Lake Michigan on Chicago’s south side. He says he and a lot of
his fishing buddies know about the fish consumption advisories, but he doesn’t
think he eats enough to matter…


“Sure, it’s always good to know, but, as I say, I’m not consuming that much fish.”


That’s because Phillips gives away much of the fish he catches. Like a lot of
anglers, he enjoys the sport, and shares what he catches with friends and
relatives. He doesn’t remember getting a fishing guide when he got his fishing
license, but the retailer was supposed to give him one. It not only outlines limits
on the amount of fish an angler can take, but also includes recommendations
on how much fish he should eat in a given month.


But Phillips says he thinks he learned about fish contaminants from the
newspaper. He never really thought about passing on the warning to people
with whom he shares his fish.


“I suppose the same literature that’s available to me is also available to them.”


But often the people who prepare the fish or who eat the fish don’t have a
clue that there’s anything wrong with the fish.


We should note here that fish is nutritious. It’s a good low-fat, lower calorie
source of protein. Eating fish instead of higher-fat and cholesterol laden foods
is believed to help lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure,
diabetes and several forms of cancer. Pretty good food, fish.


But some fish contain PCBs – polychlorinated biphenyls – believed to cause
cancer. Chlordane, a pesticide, has been found in fish. And methyl mercury is
found in some fish. These chemicals can cause serious health problems,
especially for children and fetuses. They can disrupt the systems that
coordinate the nervous system, the brain, and the reproductive system.


Studies have shown women store some of these chemicals in their
fat tissue until they become pregnant. Then, those chemicals are passed
to the child they’re carrying. Studies have indicated that of mothers
who ate three or more fish meals a month, those with the highest exposure
gave birth to children with health problems.


They had significant delays in neuromuscular and neurological development.
Those children continued to show short-term memory problems at age four… and
significant reduction in IQ and academic skills at age seven.


Barbara Knuth is a professor of Natural Resource Policy and Management at
Cornell University. She says given the health concerns with eating too much contaminated fish, the information about restrictions needs to be more widely distributed.


“Where we need to focus effort now is not so much on the angler, but we need to be focusing
on the people with whom they’re sharing those fish, the women, their wives, mothers
of childbearing age, women of childbearing age, children, because that’s where we now know,
scientists now know – who are studying this – where the real health effects are.”


But where to start? After all, the fish might come from a friend… it might be at the deli… it could be on the plate at a local restaurant. There are no rules requiring a notice that fish is from a lake, or the ocean, or farm-raised. So, how do you get the word out?


One federal agency is working to get the information to those at highest risk by going through their doctor. Steve Blackwell is with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.


“We’ve taken on trying to reach health care providers that are serving the target
population, the most at-risk population of women, children, pregnant women and reach those
groups such as OBGYNs, family physicians, pediatricians with this information to help raise
awareness within that group that serves the at-risk population to try and make sure that they’re receiving the message and they’re not telling their patients something different from what the patients may be hearing outside that realm.”


Whether the doctors are actually passing on the concerns about contaminated fish is a
whole other question. But assuming they are, there’s still another concern. Many of the women who are most at risk might not see a doctor until the day the baby is due. Poor women… the very same women who might rely on fishing for a good part of their diet… might not be told
about the risks.


And so their children are born into poverty… and the added burden of chemicals that can hurt their development. Blackwell says reaching those women is something the federal government cannot do alone.


“You want to reach those people through local leaders, through churches, through
institutions that aren’t medical.”


And that’s best done, Blackwell says, by local government, not the federal
government. But state budgets are strapped. And, in some cases, states are
reluctant to raise awareness of an issue that they really can’t fix. A source within
a state agency told us that an higher-ranking official indicated to
him that he didn’t want to assign a full-time person to work on fish contamination
awareness alone because it would send the wrong political message. Another state stopped publishing fish consumption advisories as a budget cutting move… that is… until local reporters exposed that particular budget cut.


In short, warning pregnant women and women of childbearing age about the dangers of
eating too much contaminated fish and how that could damage their children’s
intellectual and physical development has not gotten enough attention yet to become a
political priority.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.