Rebecca Williams

Reporter/Producer - The Environment Report

Rebecca has a natural science degree from the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources & Environment, where she had close encounters with escaped boars and poison sumac. Before getting into radio, Rebecca snapped photos of Mongolian diatoms and published a few papers in obscure scientific journals.

Now she spends her days reporting on everything from hungry watersnakes to heritage turkeys to people who live in 300 square foot houses.

She’s won several national awards for her work including a first place National Headliner Award at the network level for her stories on the uber-destructive emerald ash borer.

Toxic blooms of cyanobacteria have been forming on Lake Erie for several years now.

A kind of cyanobacteria called Microcystis produces a toxin that can hurt pets and make the water unsafe to drink. Back in 2014, Toledo had to shut down its drinking water supply because of the toxin.

The states around the lake – and Ontario - are working to cut back on phosphorus. It’s a nutrient that runs off from farms and wastewater treatment plants and makes those toxic blooms grow like crazy.

The Great Lakes Commission just launched a new pilot program with Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Ontario. It’ll be a trading program for phosphorus, and they’re calling it the Erie P Market.

Industries in the U.S. have made some progress cutting greenhouse gas emissions over the past couple of decades. But emissions are up from the transportation sector. This matters because transportation is the nation’s second-largest source of the emissions that are causing climate change.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

The U.S. and Canada have added polybrominated diphenyl ethers to their list of "Chemicals of Mutual Concern."

PBDEs are a class of flame retardants in furniture, electronics, car seats and the padding under our carpets. But the toxic chemicals don’t stay put. They leach out and build up in people and in wildlife.

Dave Dempsey is a policy advisor with the International Joint Commission. The IJC advises both countries on Great Lakes issues.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 48 million Americans get sick from eating contaminated food each year. That's one in six people.

One of the big challenges for companies is tracing those food products and getting them off the shelves quickly.

Kaitlin Wowak is an assistant professor of management at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business. She’s the lead author of a new study in the Journal of Business Logistics. She says a number of factors determine how difficult it is to recall a food product quickly.

Big, ugly blooms of cyanobacteria form on Lake Erie when excess nutrients — mostly phosphorus — run off from farms and sewage treatment plants. A kind of cyanobacteria called Microcystis produces a toxin that can hurt pets and make the water unsafe to drink.

That happened in Toledo in 2014, when the city had to shut down its drinking water supply.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tries to predict what’s going to happen with the blooms on Lake Erie each year.

We officially have 103 state parks in Michigan now.

The new park is called Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve. It’s 1,122 acres in Jackson and Washtenaw counties.  

The state just closed on its part of the land last week (717 acres). The Michigan Department of Natural Resources used $2.9 million from the Natural Resources Trust Fund to buy the property. Washtenaw County bought the rest of the land, and the park will be managed by both the DNR and the county.

Watkins Lake.
Legacy Land Conservancy

The state of Michigan and Washtenaw County have each purchased land for a new state park.

Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve spans 1,122 acres of Jackson and Washtenaw counties.

It’s been almost six months since the Flint Water Task Force blamed the culture of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for the Flint water crisis.

The Task Force said a culture of quote “technical compliance” exists inside the drinking water office.

Its report found that officials were buried in technical rules – thinking less about why the rules existed. In this case, making sure Flint’s water was safe to drink.

50 years ago, officials put Pacific salmon into the Great Lakes to eat an invasive fish called the alewife, and a huge sport fishery was born.

These days, you can still catch both coho and chinook salmon. But people are worried there's not enough food in Lake Michigan for chinook salmon.

Researchers say they’ve found grass carp eggs in the Sandusky River for the first time. The river flows into Lake Erie near Cedar Point.

Grass carp are a type of invasive Asian carp. This is the first time scientists have had direct confirmation that the fish are reproducing in the river.

Holly Embke found the eggs. She’s a master’s student at the University of Toledo.

“The reason we were looking where we were looking in the Sandusky River was because we thought there was the possibility of spawning, so it wasn’t wholly surprising to find eggs,” she says.

Flint’s water is still not safe to drink without a filter.

A lot of people have been asking whether the water is safe for bathing. Federal and state agencies say it is.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. has halted programs to reduce the number of cormorants in the Great Lakes region. The federal government and tribes in Michigan kill the birds to protect yellow perch, walleye and other fish. But the judge said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overstepped its bounds when it authorized killing cormorants in more than 20 states.

Peter Payette visited the Les Cheneaux Islands in Michigan this week to talk to people who live there.

There’s a coalition of federal and state agencies working to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

It’s called the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee. It just came out with its carp plan for this year.

The federal government has a competitive program for state wildlife grants.

Michigan and Wisconsin are getting $500,000 to help protect several species of bees and butterflies that are in trouble.

Jim Hodgson is with the Midwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“They’re partnering together to restore grassland, prairie, and savanna habitats that will benefit the rusty patched bumblebee, the yellow patched bumblebee, monarch butterflies, the frosted elfin, mottled dusty wing butterfly, and the endangered Karner blue butterfly,” he says.

It’s that magical time of year, when you need to start checking yourself for ticks.

The blacklegged tick is the kind of tick we have in Michigan that can transmit Lyme disease, and it’s been expanding its range in our state.

There's an ancient variety of squash that was largely forgotten about. But it’s been rediscovered.

Tribes around the Great Lakes region are sharing the seeds of this squash with each other and with small farmers.

Sarah Hofman-Graham works at Eighth Day Farm in Holland, Michigan. She invited me to a dinner party featuring a soup made from an ancient squash. The soup tasted sweet and mild.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

City officials around the country are trying to figure out how to make changes in their communities to adapt to climate change.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina looked at 44 of these climate adaptation plans, and found they were a mixed bag.

In 1973, a plant owned by Velsicol Chemical made a mistake and shipped a toxic flame retardant chemical to a livestock feed plant. The chemical is called polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB. It took about a year to discover the accident. Millions of Michiganders ate contaminated beef, chicken, pork, milk and eggs.

American Lung Association

Every year, the American Lung Association looks at the state of air pollution in U.S. cities. This year’s State of the Air report is out.

The group analyzes data from air quality monitors on two kinds of air pollution: ground-level ozone pollution (aka smog) and particle pollution – tiny particles from power plants and our cars and trucks.

Starting May first, if you live in Flint, officials with the EPA, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the city want you to flush water through your home or business every day.

They say you should take your water filter off your kitchen tap or flip the lever to bypass the filter, open your cold water taps in your kitchen and your bathtub all the way, and let them run for five minutes. They want you to do that every day for two weeks.

They’re calling the campaign Run to Restore.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

State officials talked about the Pall-Gelman dioxane plume at a town hall meeting in Ann Arbor last night. The meeting was hosted by State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor.

Rolf Peterson

This year’s winter study on the wolves and moose of Isle Royale is out today.

It says it appears there are only two wolves left – down from three last year, and a high of 50 in the 1980s.

Rolf Peterson is a research professor at Michigan Tech University. He says these last two wolves are closely related.

“They’re father and daughter and they’re also half-siblings, because they share the same mother," he says.

Washtenaw County

State Representative Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, will host a town hall this evening to talk about the Pall-Gelman dioxane plume.

The plume of 1, 4-dioxane has contaminated three square miles of groundwater under the city of Ann Arbor. The EPA says the solvent is likely to cause cancer.

The Canada warbler is declining throughout its range in the U.S.
US Fish and Wildlife Service

Some kinds of birds are doing better in our changing climate, and others are declining. These changes are happening in similar ways in both the U.S. and Europe.

Those are the findings of a new study in the journal Science.

Phil Stephens is a senior lecturer in ecology at Durham University in the UK, and he’s a lead author of the study. 

Stephens and an international team of researchers studied data on more than 500 common species of birds over a 30 year period (1980-2010) in both Europe and the U.S.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Because of the Flint water crisis, the U.S. EPA wants more transparency about where the nation’s lead lines are. Specifically, the EPA wants to know how many lead service lines there still are underground, and they want to know exactly where they are. As we reported Tuesday, many Michigan cities do not know this basic information, it’s not just Flint.

The EPA also wants water systems to post the results from water tests to prove cities are in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.

This week, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality gave the feds an update on these requests.

The Flint Water Advisory Task Force released its final report this morning. The report includes 44 recommendations. Gov. Snyder said in the press conference that the state is already working on 25 of those recommendations.

Task force co-chair Ken Sikkema said, "What happened in Flint is a clear case of environmental injustice."

One of the main findings of the report is that Gov. Snyder relied on bad information from MDEQ and MDHHS:

screengrab/YouTube

A U.S. House committee held a second hearing on the Flint water crisis Tuesday, taking testimony from some key players in that disaster.

Former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, former mayor Dayne Walling, former EPA official Susan Hedman, and Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards – whose independent research team helped reveal the high levels of lead in Flint water late last year – all testified.

But the hearing was defined largely by blistering criticism leveled at the U.S. EPA for failing to step in sooner.

White-nose syndrome is killing millions of bats in 27 states and five Canadian provinces. It’s a disease caused by a fungus.

Five of Michigan’s nine bat species can get the disease. The bats that hibernate underground are the ones at risk. And the northern long-eared bat is getting hit especially hard.

Researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz are studying bats in China that appear to be resistant to the fungus. 

USEPA

Federal experts are helping the state investigate rashes in Flint. The federal team is with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and they're doing what's called an ACE investigation (Assessment of Chemical Exposure).

The ACE team arrived in the city last week. It’s looking into possible connections between skin problems and the water in Flint.

It’s something lots of people have been wondering about.

MDEQ

The St. Clair River is on a list of toxic hot spots in Michigan. They’re called Areas of Concern.

The river is on this list because of a long history of industrial pollution. But people have been working to clean it up.

In order to take the river off the list, there are a number of problems that have to be fixed.

One of these is beach closings. Those can happen when untreated sewage gets into the river during storms. But officials say things are getting much better on that front.

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