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.

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 presents the findings of its final report.
Screenshot from livestream

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.

Kate Langwig and Joseph Hoyt collecting samples from a cave in northwest Wisconsin.
Jennifer Redel

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.

Mark Durno / EPA

There’s all kinds of testing going on in Flint to try to figure out what’s happening in the drinking water system. The state and the Environmental Protection Agency are each doing different kinds of tests.

The EPA is about to launch a new kind of test. It’s called a pipe rig.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

If you’ve never had norovirus, you’re a very lucky person. It’s highly contagious and can knock you down.

“Either diarrhea or vomiting. Some people also have both at the same time, which is obviously the most unpleasant of all the outcomes,” says Christiane Wobus, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Medical School who studies norovirus.

Roughly 150 students got sick with the virus on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus last week.

If you’re a scientist, this outbreak is an opportunity.

Bert Cregg, MSU

You might’ve noticed there’s something strange going on with the spruce trees in your neighborhood.

It’s called spruce decline and it’s mostly affecting Colorado blue spruce.

Spruce decline is pretty much what it sounds like – the lower branches on the tree start turning brown and dying.

A sentinel team, L to R: Dave Maynard, DEQ, Brian Petroff, a plumber with UA Local 370, and Flint residents Douglas Banks and Eric Harvey.
Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Teams of plumbers, employees with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and Flint residents have started visiting 400 homes in Flint this week. The state of Michigan calls these homes “sentinel sites.”

The state says 156 of these homes are known to have lead service lines. Other homes are places where kids have tested high for lead in their blood.

Bryce Feighner is with the MDEQ.

The 40-foot long RV was converted into a doctor's office on wheels.
Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Kids in Flint will soon get checkups from a doctor’s office on wheels. The 40-foot long blue RV is a new initiative from Hurley Children’s Hospital to help kids who have been exposed to lead.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, was in Flint on Friday to announce the arrival of the clinic.

“We’re talking about being able to make sure children get testing, get information about what to do in terms of nutrition, getting their regular doctor visits; any specialty care they need for themselves as well as their families,” she says.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

The people in charge of the drinking water in Flint didn't do their jobs correctly.

A state-appointed emergency manager forced the city to switch where they got their drinking water from to try to save money. The city switched water sources from Lake Huron water from Detroit, to water from the Flint River. And when they made the switch, they failed to understand that there was something Detroit was adding to the water to protect them.

Phosphates.

These phosphates create a protective layer inside drinking water pipes.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

It’s been almost four months since Flint went back to buying water from Detroit’s water system.

Here’s the good news: Since January, more than 90 percent of water tests have come back below the federal action level for lead of 15 parts per billion.

But there are still some insanely high lead levels in some homes. Take a look at a map of where those are, and you'll see there’s no pattern.

map of michigan
Screencap from Google Maps / Google / Google

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is holding public meetings on Tuesday about a proposal to divert water from Lake Michigan.

Waukesha, Wisconsin wants to build a pipeline to the Great Lakes.

It has a radium problem in its groundwater supply. Radium occurs naturally, but it’s a carcinogen.

The city wants to divert 10.1 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan in the beginning, and up to 16.7 million gallons a day by 2050.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced yesterday afternoon they’ve sent a “public health strike team” to Flint.

HHS says it has sent in more than a dozen officers with the Commissioned Corps. That’s a uniformed service of public health experts.

They’ll be doing follow-up medical visits with kids whose tests have come back with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Flint River and water plant
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

It's still not safe to drink the tap water in Flint.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced it's stepping in to test water, along with the state.

Mark Durno is the on-scene coordinator for the EPA. He says the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is still in charge of testing for lead in water samples from people’s homes. Durno says the EPA is then going into the homes with very high lead levels (greater than 150 ppb) to find out what’s going on.

The DEQ did not require Flint to treat its water to prevent lead from leaching from old pipes and faucets.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Donations of bottled water have been flooding into Flint.

Making sure people have safe drinking water is the top priority in Flint right now. But some people are wondering about one side effect of the water crisis: where all those empty bottles are ending up.

The Flint River and the Flint water treatment plant.
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued an emergency order under the Safe Drinking Water Act. State and city officials in Flint will now have to take immediate steps to address the Flint water crisis.

The EPA says the state and local responses to the water crisis have been inadequate to protect public health, and the agency says these failures continue.

Here's what the EPA said in a statement Thursday evening:

People in Flint are relying on bottled water while officials try to figure out how to fix the tap water.
Michigan State Police

In his State of the State address this week, Governor Rick Snyder apologized to people in Flint for the water crisis. 

“I’m sorry most of all that I let you down,” he said. “You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth, and I have a responsibility to tell the truth.”

The governor said he would release his emails related to Flint. Those emails came out late yesterday afternoon.

In general, the emails didn’t divulge anything big. They pretty much underscored what’s already been revealed. That the state didn't recognize the severity of the problem, and downplayed or dismissed the warning signs.

screen shot / House TV

In his sixth State of the State address tonight, Governor Rick Snyder outlined a plan to deal with the short-term damage wrought by the Flint water crisis.

 

Snyder was contrite in the speech, during which he laid out the many failings of state and local government in the decision to pump water from the Flint River.

 

“I’m sorry, and I will fix it,” Snyder said. “Government failed you.”

 

Among other things, Snyder’s plan includes $28 million for:

 

Credit Flickr user David Salafia/Flickr / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Researchers are looking into the possible ripple effects of lead exposure. 

After the city of Flint switched to the Flint River for its drinking water, experts found the number of kids with elevated levels of lead in their blood doubled.

Even low levels of lead can cause kids to lose IQ points and end up with behavior problems.

photo of a monarch butterfly
user Jim, the Photographer / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

This week, two environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety, put the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on notice.

They’re planning to sue the agency because they say it’s dragging its feet on protecting the monarch butterfly.

Taylor Ogilvie is the general manager at Mt. Brighton.
Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Taylor Ogilvie would really like to make some more snow. He’s the general manager at the Mt. Brighton ski area. So far, conditions haven't been quite right very often.

Standing at the bottom of one of the hills, Ogilvie gestures to the mostly green slopes. "We’re looking at a bunch of water," he says. "Kind of icy, snowy stuff that we put out of our snow guns last night.”

He says they’ve had a few good days, but for the most part, it’s been too warm and too humid for snow-making to work well. So they’ve just been waiting.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Updated 10:30 p.m.

Virginia Tech researchers accuse Michigan health officials of trying to “stonewall” the investigation into lead in Flint’s drinking water.

The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, are available online. 

Marc Edwards says newly obtained internal documents show Department of Health and Human Services employees tried to hide evidence that matched the increased lead levels in children found by doctors at Hurley Medical Center.

The Flint River and the Flint water treatment plant.
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The Environmental Protection Agency launched a federal audit -- Governor Rick Snyder appointed a panel to look into it -- and there is a federal class action lawsuit underway.

Everyone wants to know how the water went bad in one of Michigan's biggest cities.

NASA Goddard Media Studios

It’s possible to track air pollution from space.

NASA scientists did that with high-resolution satellite maps. To gather the data, they used an ozone monitoring instrument on board NASA’s Aura satellite. That tool tracks atmospheric gasses.

The team of NASA scientists tracked emissions of nitrogen dioxide from 2005 to 2014. Nitrogen dioxide comes from cars, power plants, and industries, and it plays a major role in forming smog.

Flickr user Jenn Durfey/Flickr

Waukesha wants to build a pipeline to the Great Lakes.

The city is in southeast Wisconsin, 17 miles from Lake Michigan. It has a radium problem in its groundwater supply.

Radium occurs naturally, but it’s a carcinogen.

Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, says as the city’s groundwater supply has been drawn down, it’s made the high radium concentration worse.

“And ultimately the radium exceeded the federal drinking water standard and we are now under a court order to come into compliance with that, and the means by which we are going to do that is to develop a new water supply,” he says.

The city has to come up with a permanent solution for its radium problem by 2018.

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