Safety Awards for Big Polluters

  • Some say that workplace safety awards promote complacency. (Photo courtesy of the NIEHS/DOE)

The companies associated with the two biggest accidents this year both recently got safety awards from the government. Lester Graham reports.

Transcript

The companies associated with the two biggest accidents this year both recently got safety awards from the government. Lester Graham reports.

The Mineral Management Service announced BP was a finalist for a safety award in May. Then, the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killed eleven men, and spilled –who knows how much– oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration gave the coal company Massey Energy three safety awards last year. Then the Upper Big Branch Mine exploded. 29 miners died.

In an opinion piece in The Hill , The President of the Steelworkers union, Leo Gerard, argued those awards promote complacency– a sort of ‘see we’re already doing it.’

David Uhlmann is a law professor at the University of Michigan. He served for seven years as Chief of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section. He says awards can prod companies to do better… but…

“There’s always going to be some companies who cut corners, who put profits before safety, who put profits before their obligations to protect the environment.”

BP was to get its award in May. The safety awards ceremonies were postponed.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

Big, Bad Snake Ban?

  • It’s estimated there are already hundreds of thousands of pythons, anacondas and boa constrictors breeding in the Florida Everglades. (Photo Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to stop people from bringing giant snakes into the country. Rebecca Williams reports pythons, anacondas and boa constrictors are getting a little too comfortable in the U-S:

Transcript

The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to stop people from bringing giant snakes into the country. Rebecca Williams reports pythons, anacondas and boa constrictors are getting a little too comfortable in the U-S:

It’s estimated there are already hundreds of thousands of pythons, anacondas and boa constrictors breeding in the Florida Everglades.

Ken Warren is with the Fish and Wildlife Service. He says some of the snakes can get up to 20 feet long and 300 pounds. People buy them in pet stores and some release the snakes when they get too big.

It’s become a noticeable problem in the last 15 or 20 years. But the Fish and Wildlife Service is only now starting the process to ban the importation of these snakes.

“It takes a while before you realize the threat. As soon as the threat became pronounced and identified we started to look at the various actions we could take to help get it under control.”

He says it’s getting to be a bigger problem because the snakes are eating endangered species.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Billions for Better Rail Service

  • High speed trains may be sprouting up across the country in light of the recent initiative. (Photo courtesy of Black Leon)

The U.S. government is spending billions of dollars to improve the nation’s railroads and passenger train service. But those billions will be just the beginning of the cost of updating rail service. Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

The U.S. government is spending billions of dollars to improve the nation’s railroads and passenger train service. But those billions will be just the beginning of the cost of updating rail service. Lester Graham reports:

New investments in higher-speed rail are making passenger rail supporters almost giddy. Eight billion dollars from the Recovery Act is seed money for new high-speed routes in California and Florida and improvements for existing routes in other regions.

At a recent National Press Club panel discussion, Amtrak’s Joseph McHugh said Amtrak is not getting any of that money… but it’ll improve the freight railroads on which Amtrak operates its trains.

McHugh: And that means higher speeds, reduced trip time, additional frequencies, improved facilities, and a higher level of reliability for our services all around the country.

Beyond that first eight-billion dollars, the Department of Transportation’s so-called TIGER grants mean a few billion dollars more for further upgrades railroads and depots that tie into commuter rail, light rail and other mass transit.

Supporters of rail are expecting big things from the investments.

But others see spending billions upon billions of dollars on passenger rail as wasted money. They don’t see the utopia of transportation in better, faster trains. Many online comments from readers of stories on higher-speed rail indicate they don’t want the government to subsidize rail projects. They see it as stealing from necessary highway and bridge improvements. Others are more political, saying the government is trying to imitate the high-speed rail of Europe when –they feel– Americans are more independent and prefer cars.

So the debate sometimes devolves into — car versus train. Or individuality versus socialism.

Susan Zielinksi heads up the Universtiy of Michigan’s SMART transit project. She says that’s the wrong way to view it.

Zielinski:I think we get ourselves stuck in the polarization and this isn’t about getting rid of cars.

She says better passenger rail and tying it in to better mass transit gives more people more choices. She notes not everyone has access to a reliable car.

Environmentalists add… the train is just more environmentally friendly. Howard Lerner is with the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Lerner: On a per-passenger-mile basis, rail is about three times as efficient as travel by car in terms of fuel efficiency, six times as efficient as travel by air. So, there are pretty substantial pollution reduction benefits, both in terms of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants when it comes to traveling by rail.

But the investment of billions of dollars during the Obama administration is generally considered just the down payment on the cost of bringing U.S. passenger rail service into the 21st century. Just a couple of years ago the Bush administration tried to zero-out the Amtrak budget. A future president might do the same.

Susan Zielinksi at the University of Michigan believes the improvements in rail service we’ll see in just the next several years will prove this investment is worth it.

Zielinski: Congress is not going to be able to go backwards on this. This is going to usher in a whole new set of industry opportunities, of economic development in communities, of new opportunities for jobs.

But even people who like the idea of improved passenger rail service say if this doesn’t result in the trains arriving on time… doesn’t fix the problem of having no transportation once they arrive at the depot… doesn’t spiff up the drab Amtrak train cars… and keep train ticket prices reasonable… it’ll be hard not to keep piling into the car or cramming themselves into an airline seat.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

Guns in National Parks

  • Guns are no longer prohibited in America's national parks. (Photo courtesy of Fenners)

People can now carry guns in national parks. The National Park Service is adapting to the new law. Samara Freemark reports:

Transcript

People can now carry guns in national parks. The National Park Service is adapting to the new law. Samara Freemark reports:

The new policy means a reversal for the nation’s 392 National Park sites. Firearms have been prohibited in the parks.

But now….

Whatever law you were under in that state outside of the park now applies in the national park unit.

That’s National Park Service spokesman David Barna. He says that means that parks everywhere except Illinois and Washington DC will allow firearms.

But different states have different laws about the specifics – for example, whether you can conceal your weapon or not.

Barna says that could get complicated.

Appalachian Trail passes over 14 states. Yellowstone National Park is in 3 states. And the burden is going to be on the public to know those various laws.

Barna says the Park Service will help gun owners out with website updates and postings in park facilities.

But he says they can’t put up notices every time a park trail crosses a state line.

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.

Related Links

Postal Service Delivers Data

  • The Postal Service is getting no stimulus money for making its federal buildings more energy efficient. It’s all going to be done with the revenue it makes when you buy a postage stamp. (Photo courtesy of the US Postal Service)

The US Postal Service is the first
government agency to report how much
of the greenhouse gases it emits.
Five-point-three metric tons a year.
Lester Graham reports on how it plans
to reduce its emissions:

Transcript

The US Postal Service is the first
government agency to report how much
of the greenhouse gases it emits.
Five-point-three metric tons a year.
Lester Graham reports on how it plans
to reduce its emissions:

The post office goal is to reduce emissions 20% by the year 2020.

Sam Pulcrano is the Vice President of Sustainability at the Postal Service. He says, over the next six years, they’ll cut fuel consumption by 20% and energy use by 30%. They’re already doing energy audits of the 500 largest postal facilities.

“And where it makes business sense, we’re replacing things like roofs, the HVAC systems, replacing windows with more energy efficient windows and lighting with high-efficiency lighting.”

Graham: “There’s been some consideration of eliminating Saturday delivery. Is that figured into your calculations on reducing greenhouse gases?”

“It will if and when Congress gives us the ability to do so.”

The Postal Service is getting no stimulus money for making its federal buildings more energy efficient. It’s all going to be done with the revenue it makes when you buy a postage stamp.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

‘Copters in National Parks?

  • Leading Edge Aviation has put in an application to offer as many as 300 helicopter tours a year around the edge of Crater Lake. Travis Warthen is the company Vice President. (Photo by Jessica Robinson)

When Congress returns from its August
recess, one of the tasks on the agenda is
confirming President Obama’s pick to head
the National Park Service. If confirmed,
Jonathan Jarvis will have some tough
decisions to make about what kinds of tourist
attractions to allow in the parks. Jessica
Robinson reports on the latest proposal to
add aerial sightseeing tours at a National
Park in Oregon:

Transcript

When Congress returns from its August
recess, one of the tasks on the agenda is
confirming President Obama’s pick to head
the National Park Service. If confirmed,
Jonathan Jarvis will have some tough
decisions to make about what kinds of tourist
attractions to allow in the parks. Jessica
Robinson reports on the latest proposal to
add aerial sightseeing tours at a National
Park in Oregon:

Nearly 8,000 years ago, Mount Mazama spit out ash and lava and collapsed in on itself, leaving what became Crater Lake.

Park Superintendent Craig Ackerman says the stillness of the blue waters is matched only by the stillness in the air.

“You can stand on the east flank of Mount Scott and you can absolutely hear the wind whispering through the white bark pines and the hemlocks.”

It’s true – there are moments when it’s just your footsteps, the wind, and the birds.

But then, at the popular viewpoints, there are the other species you find at many national parks: like Toyotas, Winnebagos, and Harleys.

(sound of a motorcycle)

Now, a company up the road in Bend, Oregon, has a proposal that could add one more sound to the mix.

(sound of a helicopter)

Leading Edge Aviation has put in an application to offer as many as 300 helicopter tours a year around the edge of Crater Lake. Travis Warthen is the company Vice President.

“I mean, it really is a majestic sight to see. And, the noise level is less than that of a car – you know, definitely motorcycles, RVs, the bus tours. I mean, it’s difficult for us to understand the huge opposition.”

At 1,000 feet up, he says, the choppers sound to someone on the ground, about as loud as a normal conversation.

“So you say, ‘it’s already compromised by the motorcycles and the motor-homes, so what’s wrong with a little more?’”

That’s Scott Silver. He’s executive director of Wild Wilderness, a group he started with a friend to monitor motorized recreation on public lands.

Silver sits in his back yard, just across town from the aviation company proposing the tours. He says National Parks should provide a respite from some of the noise we’re used to in everyday life. As he explains this, a passing helicopter interrupts our interview.

(sound of a helicopter)

“That’s actually the helicopter from the hospital. But, okay, it’s no big deal really in town. It’s just a distraction. But everyone still stops and looks up if it’s flying over a national park. And really, why should visitors have need to look up to listen to sounds over head?”

National Parks advocates worry that helicopter flights at the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park, and others are making commercial tours the norm for parks visitors. They’re hoping Obama’s pick to lead the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis – a former Crater Lake biologist – will reverse the trend.

But here’s the rub: there’s nothing stopping you from flying over any National Park right now – if you have a private plane.

And Jeff Allen, head of the Crater Lake Trust, wonders if that’s fair.

“There’s a part of me that feels like, if you’re going to allow it at all, I’d rather see regular folks be able to have that experience, than have you have to go out and own a plane or know someone who owns a plane.”

Aerial tours of Crater Lake won’t be offered any time soon though. There’s a hefty backlog of similar requests at other parks – and they’ll all have to go through not one but two federal bureaucracies: the National Park Service and the FAA.

For The Environment Report, I’m Jessica Robinson.

Related Links

Green Last Requests, Part Three

  • One graveyard in Chicago is comprised of over 2.2 million dead at 43 cemeteries - that's a lot of land to maintain (Photo by Todd Melby)

During the past couple of centuries,
the typical graveyard hasn’t changed
much. Its central features still include
tombstones, winding paths, trees and
grass. Some critics want cemeteries to
ban tombstones, stop fertilizing, and
institute other green practices. Todd
Melby reports that traditional burial
practices die hard:

Todd Melby and Diane Richard produced a documentary on green burial called “Death’s Footprint.” You can listen to it here .

Transcript

During the past couple of centuries,
the typical graveyard hasn’t changed
much. Its central features still include
tombstones, winding paths, trees and
grass. Some critics want cemeteries to
ban tombstones, stop fertilizing, and
institute other green practices. Todd
Melby reports that traditional burial
practices die hard:

I’m in a mausoleum with Roman Szabelski. He’s the head of Catholic Cemeteries for the
Archdiocese of Chicago. He’s punching information into a computer.

Catholic grave locator: “Spell out the last name of the deceased that you are trying to
locate using the touch-screen keyboard …”

“So I’ve just keyed in my family name and I’m pushing search. Florence Szabelski is my
mother so I’m asking it to show that record to me.”

Szabelski started mowing grass at the cemeteries in 1979. Today, he presides over 2.2
million dead at 43 cemeteries. That makes Catholic Cemeteries one of the nation’s largest
graveyards.

Other than the high-tech grave locator, Szabelski says his customers prefer things the old
fashioned way.

“We come from a very conservative tradition where people want their 3 by 8, their grave,
to look like their backyard, which is perfectly manicured.”

Some people would like to change that. Advocates of something called green burial say
the perfectly manicured grass, the granite tombstones, the concrete burial vaults, the big
wooden or metal coffins, all of it, is wasteful.

Instead, they’d like to see graveyards filled with native grasses and flowers, rocks used as
grave markers, biodegradable coffins or no coffins at all.

So far, there’s not much demand for green burial.

Most people here are like Charlene and Margaret Villarreal, who are sitting near their
mother’s grave at Queen of Heaven Cemetery. Until her mother’s recent death, Margaret
Villareal had no reason to visit a cemetery.

“I’m 45 years old and nothing has brought me to the cemetery. Nothing, until she passed
away.”

The Villareals have decorated their mother’s grave with red roses, a crucifix festooned
with purple ribbons and a Chicago Cubs pennant.

On this day, they’ve come to honor their mother’s birthday.

Charlene Villarreal: “I’ve planned it since the day she died. I knew I would be here.”
(long pause)

Margaret Villarreal: “Oh get a grip. If she were here …”

Charlene Villarreal: “Sorry, Ma. It’s not as bad as it was on Mother’s Day. (Pause)
(Sniffles) I’m OK.”

They chose a traditional funeral for their mother. Her body was embalmed, which
allowed for an open casket. That casket was placed inside a concrete vault and buried. A
grave marker notes that she was a “loving wife and mother” who will always be in the
hearts of her family.

Margaret Villareal fears a green burial would have robbed her mother of the respect she
deserved.

“Here we are. We’re in the United States. That’s traditionally not how it’s done. You
might do that with animals. But as humans go there is more of a process of dignity
involved. You know, it sounds like that’s something you would do in a mass burial with
some kind of a tragedy like the Chicago fire but not something you’d do to remember
your loved one.”

Environmentalists dispute that. They say most people simply don’t know enough about
green burial to make an informed decision.

Whether that’s true or not, Roman Szabelski of Catholic Cemeteries is plowing ahead
with his plans. He’s got plenty of land on hand for tomorrow’s dead.

“We’re sitting in Queen of Heaven Cemetery right now, which is roughly about a 300-
acre site. About 100 of those acres are leased to the golf course next door. As we need the
property, the golf course will go from 18 to 9 to zero and a driving range and that
property will be used.”

When Szabelski adds up all the land Catholic Cemeteries owns, he figures it can keep
doing business as usual for the next 100 to 200 years.

For The Environment Report, I’m Todd Melby.

Related Links

Heading Out on a BioBlitz

  • JP Anderson, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park Ranger, at the start of National Geographic and the National Park Service's 2009 BioBlitz at The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. (Photo by Enrique Pulido)

The National Park Service has a slightly embarrassing problem. It manages some of the nation’s most
environmentally valuable land – but it doesn’t have a full account of plant and animal species that live in
the parks. One remedy is the BioBlitz. A BioBlitz is a kind of whirlwind count of all the species in a
specific place. The Park Service has been co-sponsoring BioBlitzes with National Geographic. We sent
Shawn Allee to their latest:

Transcript

The National Park Service has a slightly embarrassing problem. It manages some of the nation’s most
environmentally valuable land – but it doesn’t have a full account of plant and animal species that live in
the parks. One remedy is the BioBlitz. A BioBlitz is a kind of whirlwind count of all the species in a
specific place. The Park Service has been co-sponsoring BioBlitzes with National Geographic. We sent
Shawn Allee to their latest:

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is spread along Lake Michigan’s southern shoreline.

During this BioBlitz, scientists and volunteers fan out in teams to search the sand dunes, woods, and
grassland around here.

At first, the mood’s high, but then it rains kinda hard.

We’re supposed to be counting species for 24 hours, but at first, we can’t even get out of our cars.

(ring of a phone)

“Hello? Yeah. We’re stuck in traffic, here. We came out here and I thought we were going
out in the wrong direction.”

I hitch a ride with Dr. Patrick Leacock. He’s a mycologist, a kind of mushroom expert.

I’m actually lucky to be on his BioBlitz team, because organizers from National Geographic and the National Park Service want people to count all the species
in the park.

And they mean everything – not just plants and animals that are a cinch to find.

Allee: “Are fungi something you feel that the average person doesn’t think about when it comes
to biodiversity?”

Leacock: “Yeah, there’s people, you tell them you study mushrooms, and they talk about their
athlete’s foot, or they think there’s only six different kinds or something like
that.”

Leacock says, in fact, the Indiana Dunes Lakeshore has at least 600 fungi species. He hopes the
BioBlitz team will add to that list.

Leacock: “Here we are.”

Allee: “I’m hunting mushrooms with three trained mycologists and there are six other volunteers on my team here. One of them is Zachary Benes – he’s just 9 years old. But, I gotta say, Dr. Leacock is pretty lucky
to have Zachary on the team – since he’s found the most mushrooms of anyone on the team.”

Benes: “Is it poisonous?”

Leacock: “Nope. A real mushroom.”

Tang: “Yeah.”

Allee: “Looks like you found another one, too. Where’d you find it?”

Benes: “Over there by the wood.”

Leacock: “This is collybia sub-sulphurea. Do you know what sulfur means?”

Benes: “No.”

Leacock: “It’s a kind of a yellow-orange color. So, this might be a new record for the dunes. So that’s a good one. Was it
just the one?”

Benes: “Yeah. Just the one.”

Leacock: “It’s in good shape.”

Along the trail, I chat with Yaya Tang. She’s one of the other mycologists on the team.

Tang says she’s glad to see BioBlitz volunteers search for elusive species of bats, bugs, and fungi.

“I feel like that’s an issue with biodiversity in general. Where people care about things that are cute or
that they see immediately. Like, there’s insects, too, that don’t get a lot of attention.”

Allee: “Dr. Leacock, we’re pretty much finished here. You got this container of many varieties
of fungi we’ve collected within an hour, would you have been able to get this many
yourself? If you had come out here on your own?”

Leacock: “No. The more people you have searching, that helps a lot. Different people will see
different things, too, I think. So we’ve 14 or 15 things right in my box. We have two that might be new
records for the dunes.”

The BioBlitz at The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore lasts another 20 hours.

A few days later, Dr. Leacock writes me.

He tells me volunteers turned up at least one fungi specimen no one had ever seen in the Dunes park.

It’s a small success – enough that National Geographic, the Park Service, and other groups are
planning more BioBlitzes across the country.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Green Last Requests, Part Two

  • Steve Dawson is an undertaker trying to give people greener options (Photo by Todd Melby)

When businesses begin offering
earth-friendly alternatives to
traditional products, it often
takes a while for those items
to catch on. The funeral industry
is no exception. Todd Melby reports
on one undertaker’s attempt at
greening death:

Todd Melby and Diane Richard produced a documentary on green burial called “Death’s Footprint.” You can listen to it here .

Transcript

When businesses begin offering
earth-friendly alternatives to
traditional products, it often
takes a while for those items
to catch on. The funeral industry
is no exception. Todd Melby reports
on one undertaker’s attempt at
greening death:

Steve Dawson is an undertaker who lives above his funeral home business.
His backyard looks like many here in suburban Chicago. It’s full of cherry
trees and apple trees and he’s got one of those round, above ground
swimming pools. Next to the pool, there’s a small building that looks like a
two-car garage.

We step inside.

“This is the crematorium. This is a cremation retort. As you can see it’s a
fairly large machine.”

That retort is a big furnace. It’s also a big part of Dawson’s business here at
Sax-Tiedeman Funeral Home.

Dawson: “We have a body that has been dropped off here for cremation. If
this is bothering you because we have a body here, I will do what I can to
get the body out of the way.”

Melby: “No, I’m fine.”

Dawson: “We’ll go back over here and get this started.”

(sound of the crematory furnace)

“That starts out the blowers, which is a purging blower, to basically clear
out anything that might be in the way there.”

After the furnace starts, it takes about two hours to finish the process. Then
Dawson takes the remains over to a machine that sifts through what’s left.

Dawson: “What we do is we go through there and sort through the
cremated remains.”

Melby: “This is actually what happens at the end, obviously.”

Dawson: “Right.”

Dawson collects all the prosthetics, those titanium knee and hip joints, in a big
can nearby. They get recycled.

That’s important to Dawson. At home, he’s a passionate recycler of soda pop
cans, newspapers and other household items.

“My family calls me the recycling Nazi because I get after them to put it all gets
put in the recyling bin.”

On the job, he tries to be green too.

Dawson knows that cremation — an option chosen by nearly 1 in 2 Americans —
has environmental downsides. Many older people have mercury dental fillings.
During cremation, that cancer-causing toxin vaporizes and goes up into the
atmosphere. Heating up the cremation furnace also eats up energy.

Dawson is also a savvy businessman. He believes more Americans are going
to want green choices, even when buying death products.

That’s why he’s embraced green burial. Sax-Tiedemann is Chicago’s first —
and so far only — green-certified funeral home. So in addition to selling
baseball-themed urns and big wooden caskets, Dawson has other choices
too.

“In this area here, we have rental caskets and up on the top, these are e-caskets,
Eco-caskets. These are made out of bamboo and these are designed to be
biodegradable.”

Although most Jews and Muslims skip embalming, the procedure is still quite
popular among Christians. Green death advocates are opposed to embalming
because of the formaldehyde used in the process. So to get certified, Dawson had
to buy a new machine.

“This is a three-body cooler. Inside a three-body cooler, this is what we use to be
able to hold remains without embalming. The temperature in the cooler is kept at
roughly 42 degrees. That’s enough to be able to slow down the decomposition
process.”

(funeral music)

A chilled body will hold for a day or so, which is usually enough time for friends
and family to gather and say good-bye. As baby boomers begin dying in big
numbers, Dawson expects more of them to choose green burial.

For The Environment Report, I’m Todd Melby.

Related Links

Penguin Species in Peril

  • African penguins at the Bristol Zoo in England (Source: Arpingstone at Wikimedia Commons)

At the north pole… polar bears are threatened by melting sea ice. Now, on the other end of the earth… some penguin populations are dropping because of climate change and other threats. Rebecca Williams reports:

Transcript

At the north pole… polar bears are threatened by melting sea ice. Now, on the other end of the earth… some penguin populations are dropping because of climate change and other threats. Rebecca Williams reports:


Melting sea ice and warmer ocean temperatures are affecting the fish that penguins eat. Overfishing and oil pollution are other threats.


Pamela Hall is with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency wants to put seven species of penguins on the endangered species list.


“Hoping that by going forward with the listing of these particular penguin species we’ll be able to work with countries to do some cooperative conservation.”


The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the government to get these penguins on the list. The group is upset that the agency denied protection for the Emperor penguin. You might remember them from the movie “March of the Penguins.”


Government scientists say the emperor penguin populations are stable right now… though they say that could change in the future.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links