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.

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Environment
9:16 pm
Tue February 22, 2011

Anglers of the Au Sable issues report on oil & gas pipelines

The Au Sable River
Photo courtesy of National Scenic Byways

The Anglers of the Au Sable has issued a new report that details the group’s concerns over oil and gas pipelines in northern Michigan. They’re especially worried about protecting the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers.

John Bebow is with the Anglers group. He says they started investigating pipelines after the major oil spill last summer in the Kalamazoo River. A pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners broke... and spilled more than 800,000 gallons into the river.

“And we quickly determined an even bigger pipeline owned by the same company flows under the Au Sable and its tributaries numerous times.”

That pipeline is called Line 5. It’s the largest oil pipeline in the Midwest... and it goes through the very heart of the Au Sable watershed. The report notes that Line 5 carries as much as 22 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids beneath the Au Sable River every day.

John Bebow calls the Au Sable a world class trout stream. He says if there were an oil spill... it would be devastating.

“The Au Sable River is a major magnet for tourism and recreation. It is a river life up there.”

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Environment
11:50 am
Tue February 15, 2011

Funding cuts to Great Lakes restoration?

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative provides money for habitat restoration, keeping invasive species out of the Lakes, and cleaning up polluted areas.
Rebecca Williams Michigan Radio

President Obama released his 2012 budget yesterday.

In it, he calls for major cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The goal of this multi-year program is to restore habitat... clean up pollution... and keep new invasive species out of the Lakes.

Initially, President Obama requested $475 million for the first year of the program. He got that under a democratic Congress.

Congress is wrestling with how much money to allocate for the second year (this current fiscal year).

President Obama's budget deals with the third year of GLRI funding.  Obama wants to cut $125 million out of next year’s budget for the program.

I talked with Jeff Skelding, the campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, to find out what this might mean. He says:

"The state of Michigan has a huge stake in this. They need their share of that funding to insure that restoration activities proceed forward under severely challenging economic times."

Skelding calls the GLRI "probably the most historic restoration program ever enacted by Congress for the Great Lakes." He says there is strong bi-partisan support for the program from the Great Lakes Congressional delegation, which makes him hopeful.

Environment
11:33 am
Thu February 10, 2011

Grand Rapids puts a price tag on city trees

Grand Rapids is trying to take better care of its city trees.
Photo courtesy of Fellowship of the Rich, Flickr

The City of Grand Rapids is working to revive its urban forest. Lindsey Smith visited the committee in charge of the effort to find out how things are going.

Three things to know about trees in Grand Rapids:

  1. The committee values the 61,000 trees within the city’s boundaries at $71 million.  (How'd they get that number?  It's based on the benefits trees provide: capturing storm water runoff, increasing property values, improving air quality and reducing heating and cooling costs for nearby buildings.)
  2. In 2010, more than 1,500 trees were planted in Grand Rapids.
  3. This year they’re working to add a wider variety of native trees - to better protect the urban forest from new pests and disease.  (i.e. things like the uber-destructive emerald ash borer)

Lindsey talked with Dottie Clune, the committee chair.  She says the importance of trees is often overlooked - especially these days with tight city budgets.

“We know that for every dollar we spent on the municipal urban forestry program we received $3.60 in benefits. That’s a pretty good return on investment.”

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Environment
11:13 am
Thu February 10, 2011

Partial ban on hunting & snowmobiling in national forest?

The Huron-Manistee National Forest
Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service has to consider making 70,000 acres off limits to firearm hunting and snowmobiling in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. That’s about seven percent of the Huron-Manistee.

It’s doing this because the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Service to do so... and that’s because of a lawsuit brought by a guy named Kurt Meister. Meister is an attorney, representing himself in the case. He’s trying to get areas that are already designated as non-motorized set aside for quiet recreation. 

“There ought to be some place in the forest where you can go cross-country skiing or snow-shoeing or kayaking or hiking or ride your horse without having to listen to the noise of other people and the guns and machines they use.”

This week, the Michigan House and Senate are discussing three resolutions. Those resolutions express opposition to any potential ban on hunting and snowmobiling in the Huron-Manistee. The resolutions couldn’t stop the federal agency – but it's basically a show of hands against a ban.

The resolutions are:

  • House Concurrent Resolution 2: sponsored by State Rep. Bruce Rendon (R-Lake City) - Passed the House Committee on Natural Resources, Outdoor Recreation and Tourism on Tuesday
  • House Resolution 17: sponsored by State Rep. Peter Pettalia (R-Alpena) - Passed the House Committee on Natural Resources, Outdoor Recreation and Tourism on Tuesday
  • Senate Resolution 6: sponsored by State Senator Goeff Hansen (R-Hart) - Being considered today in the Senate Committee on Outdoor Recreation and Tourism

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Environment
11:42 am
Tue February 8, 2011

National bike routes for Michigan

Organizers are making progress on designating two national bicycle routes through Michigan.  As Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith found out, they're hoping the routes will attract tourists to the state.

A group of avid cyclists is working to designate bike routes sort of like the U.S. Department of Transportation designates interstate freeway systems. You can ride on two of these routes in Michigan already – they travel mostly along county roads.

  • Number 20 is an east-west route from Ludington to Marine City.
  • Number 35 is a north-south route that stretches for hundreds of miles along the Lake Michigan shore.

Kerry Irons is with Adventure Cycling, the non-profit that’s spearheading the effort.

“Nothing moves by at a high speed. You don’t have to get off and stare at the lake, you know, get out of the car and stare at the lake, the lake is there for 400 miles. That’s the essence of bicycle touring and the driver behind this national network which is going to be a couple hundred thousand miles of established bicycle routes by the time it’s all done.”

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Environment
11:25 am
Tue February 8, 2011

Suing the state over pollution permits

A case that pinpoints a key issue in Michigan’s water law could come back before the state Supreme Court. The office of Attorney General Bill Schuette has asked the court to rehear the Anglers of the Au Sable case. The issue is: whether citizen groups can take state agencies to court to protect the environment.

Here's the nut of the case:

  • The Anglers group won their suit in the lower court to protect one of the state’s prime trout streams. The Department of Environmental Quality had given Merit Energy permission to pump more than a million gallons a day of treated wastewater into a creek at the headwaters of the Au Sable River.
  • The Court of Appeals upheld the ruling against the oil company but exempted the Department of Environmental Quality from the lawsuit. The Appeals Court said the issuing of a permit doesn’t cause harm to the environment... it’s the person with the permit that could do that.

So Anglers asked the Michigan Supreme Court to review that part of the ruling.

And in December the high court overturned the lower court and said state agencies that issue permits that result in harm can be named in a citizen suit.

The Court upheld clear language in the Michigan Environmental Protection Act that says any person can bring suit to protect the environment.

Jim Olson, an attorney for the Anglers, says the decision upholds state environmental law that’s been in place for more than forty years.

“Permits that cause harm can be brought into Circuit Court and people can bring it out into the open and judges can make decisions so agencies can’t hide behind the cloak of bureaucracy.”

Since December, a conservative majority is back in control of the Supreme Court.

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Environment
11:00 am
Thu February 3, 2011

Oil & Gas Royalties for Parks - or Roads?

Royalties from oil and gas development in Michigan currently go into the Natural Resources Trust Fund. That money is then used to buy land for parks, habitat, and create public access for recreation.
Photo by Rebecca Williams

At the moment, all royalties from oil and gas development in Michigan go into something called the Natural Resources Trust Fund. The trust fund money is used for improving wildlife habitat and parks and it's used to buy land for conservation.

But at a time when pretty much everything’s up on the chopping block... the future of that trust fund is in question.

State Representative Dave Agema (R) from Grandville has introduced legislation to divert oil and gas royalties away from the Trust Fund.

Under his proposal:

  • 60% of oil and gas royalties would go into the State Transportation Fund
  • 20% would go into the State Aeronautics Fund
  • the remaining 20% would go into the Natural Resources Trust Fund

The NRTF has been around since 1976. It was negotiated as part of a larger deal to allow oil and gas development in Michigan's Pigeon River Country State Forest.

I talked with the Michigan Environmental Council's policy director, James Clift, about this.  He says:

"Every corner of the state has obtained some of this trust fund money, either buying parkland or developing parkland, setting aside public land for hunting and fishing... It’s a very popular program and I think people are going to be very supportive of the way it’s spent currently."

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Environment
10:56 am
Tue February 1, 2011

No rehab for mute swans?

A pair of mute swans.
Photo by Mary Hollinger, NESDIS/NODC biologist, NOAA

You've definitely seen mute swans: they're big, white birds with orange bills.  A lot of people love them.

But Michigan wildlife officials say there are too many mute swans in the state

So... the Department of Natural Resources and Environment is now proposing a change... one that’s making some people very angry.

Barbara Avers is a waterfowl specialist with the DNRE. She says mute swans are not native to the U.S. – they were brought over from Europe in the 1800's. Basically, because they’re pretty.

“They’ve grown exponentially in Michigan. They’re kind of many times the bullies of the marsh.”

Avers says mute swans eat a huge amount of vegetation in lakes. They can push out native birds, such as the trumpeter swan. And she says mute swans can snap and charge at people.

“Routinely each year we get reports of mute swan attacks on land, and kayakers, people on jet skis, people out fishing in a boat, and what we see is as mute swan population grows so do the number of conflicts we see.”

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Environment
10:18 am
Thu January 27, 2011

Wind turbines close to home

There's a lot of debate about how close wind turbines should be built to homes.
Callum Black Flickr

The North Carolina based giant Duke Energy wants to build more than a hundred 500 foot tall turbines in rural Benzie and Manistee counties.  Bob Allen reports this proposed wind farm is causing divisions in communities up north.

Michigan officials have identified parts of these two counties as having the 2nd highest wind potential in the state. 

Alan O’Shea has been in the renewable energy business for the past thirty years. 

“We don’t have to wait for Michigan to heal. This project can heal northern Michigan. I mean there are people, workers that are here looking for jobs.”

But there also are people in the area opposed to this project.

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Environment
9:58 am
Thu January 20, 2011

Environment in the State of the State

Governor Rick Snyder at last night's State of the State address.
gophouse.com

In his first State of the State address last night, Governor Rick Snyder made it clear that jobs are his first priority.

But he also made several announcements on conservation and park projects and the Pure Michigan tourism campaign. He announced that his budget recommendation will include annual funding of $25 million for the Pure Michigan tourism campaign.

“This program supports one of our strongest assets – our water resources and the treasures of the Great Lakes, and it’s an illustration of value for money. It’s positive for our image, and it’s positive return on our tax dollars.”

And he urged the legislature to quickly pass a bill that would implement the recommendations of the Natural Resources Trust Fund board. The board has recommended that $100 million be used to buy land for conservation and parks.

“These projects will positively impact every corner of our state. From Iron County in the Upper Peninsula to Traverse City, to Luna Pier in Monroe County. Also included is a significant expansion of the William T Milliken Park on the Detroit riverfront.”

In his address, Governor Snyder called the Great Lakes “economic engines.”

 

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Environment
1:54 pm
Tue January 18, 2011

Energy efficiency makeovers for Michigan neighborhoods

A house set up with a blower door test. Energy auditors use this device to find out where the leaks are in your home.
Photo by Flickr user Brandon Stafford

Many homeowners just can’t afford the upfront investment to make their homes more energy efficient. And many programs meant to defray some of that cost haven’t gotten much traction with consumers.

But Sarah Cwiek reports the federal government’s “BetterBuildings” program is trying to change that. It’s just now getting off the ground in Michigan with money from the 2009 stimulus package.

Sarah visited Chris Matus at his Ferndale home on the day he was getting an energy audit from Well Home's Kent Trobaugh.

The guys set up something called a blower door test to find out where the leaks were in Matus' home.  Then they roamed the house with an infrared camera.  The screen shows a landscape of blurred colors: gold is heat, purple is cold. Matus says the whole exercise reminds him of a certain movie from the 1980s.

“It feels like we’re Ghostbusting.”

Matus is getting about a thousand dollars worth of work done on his house today. But it only costs him 50. That’s because he’s taking advantage of the U.S. Department of Energy’s stimulus-funded BetterBuildings program. Michigan got 30-million dollars—the second-biggest chunk of any state.

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Environment
4:19 pm
Fri January 14, 2011

Playing matchmaker for sea lampreys

The mouth of a lamprey. It uses suction, teeth, and a razor sharp tongue to attach itself to its prey.
Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sea lampreys are invasive parasites found in every one of the Great Lakes. It’s a fish with a round mouth like a suction cup. It latches onto big fish like trout and salmon... and kills them by drinking their blood.

It costs fisheries managers in the U.S. and Canada 20 million dollars a year to control the lamprey.

There’s one secret weapon in development that could eventually save them money... pheromones. Those are odors that male lampreys release to attract the lady lampreys.

I called Nick Johnson with the Michigan lamprey research team to find out how the team's third and final year of testing these pheromones is going.

You could call him a lamprey matchmaker.

"Pheromones are typically species specific, so they should have minimal impact to other species, they're highly potent, effective at very low concentrations. So once they're developed they could be applied relatively cheaply and with little environmental impact."

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Environment
3:45 pm
Fri January 14, 2011

Oil spill's effect on turtles and toads

A recently rescued oiled turtle ready for cleaning.
Photo courtesy of Herpetological Resource & Management

Crews are still out on the Kalamazoo River cleaning up oil from last summer’s spill.  More than 840,000 gallons spilled from a ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners, LP.  Right now, crews are focusing on cleaning the contaminated soil.

It’s not clear what the long term impacts will be on wildlife.

After the spill, rescue teams collected more than 2,400 birds, mammals, fish and reptiles... and took them to a rehab center to have the oil cleaned off. Most of the animals brought into the center survived.

This week, I talked with herpetologist David Mifsud, aka "Turtle Dave."  He was hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help with the initial wildlife recovery. He says turtles made up the majority of wildlife rescued from the spill site.

“We had some, their mouths were so tacky with the oil they could barely open their mouths. We saw some pretty devastating things.”

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Environment
11:31 am
Tue January 11, 2011

Green cars: the new black

The Chevy Volt - the Car of the Year for 2011.
Flickr user: citizen of the deep

In past years, most of the so-called “green cars” at the North American International Auto Show were concept cars – not ready for prime time. This year is different.

The Toyota Prius has been America’s premier environmentally friendly car for ten years. Now, the car has some serious competition. Both the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf have an EPA fuel economy rating the equivalent of more than 90 miles to the gallon.

Tracy Samilton talked with Brad Berman, founder of plugincars.com

“Suddenly it makes the Prius' 50 mpg seem mild. Now it’s Toyota’s turn to say, hey, we’re still relevant.”

Toyota is turning the Prius into an entire brand. People going to the show will be able to see three new Prius vehicles, including a plug-in being unveiled in Detroit.

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Environment
11:55 am
Thu January 6, 2011

Toxins in art supplies

Larry Stephens became a professional artist when he was laid off from his auto job two years ago. He's been doing well, even selling paintings to ABC for the TV show Detroit 187.
Photo by Suzy Vuljevic

Many art supplies contain lead, arsenic, asbestos and other potentially dangerous compounds.  The Environment Report's Tanya Ott profiles a Michigan artist who spends 8-12 hours a day working with spray paint.

Most of the time Larry Stephens paints outside. But in winter, he can’t. So he paints indoors, wearing a respirator or a dust mask. It’s not enough.

“You know within a couple of hours I’ll start getting dizzy. You’ll end up coughing up paint the next morning. You’ll go to blow your nose and it’ll be green and red and yellow and whatever colors you’re using that day.”

Experts say there are no large scale health studies of people who use art supplies.

But Dr. Steven Marcus – who is New Jersey’s poison control chief – says lead, arsenic and cadmium are found in some paint pigments. Stone carving can release asbestos into the air and cause lung disease. And some glues and cements contain chemicals that can cause neurological damage – including a condition called “wrist drop,” where sufferers actually lose strength in their hands.  

“And for an artist, that’s their bread and butter. They lose strength in their hands and they can’t be an artist.”  

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Environment
10:49 am
Thu January 6, 2011

New Great Lakes leadership

The view from the Empire Bluff hiking trail.
Photo by Rebecca Williams

Governor Rick Snyder picked outgoing Republican state Senator Patty Birkholtz to lead the Office of the Great Lakes. As you might guess, the director of this office oversees all things Great Lakes. Birkholtz will advise the governor and make policy recommendations on everything from Asian carp to water use.

Birkholtz says protecting the Great Lakes will lead to a stronger economy.

“When we have a healthy Great Lakes system we have more jobs here in this state as well as regionally, and if we don’t have a healthy Great Lakes system it’s a detriment to not only the jobs situation but also businesses locating here."

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Environment
12:04 pm
Tue January 4, 2011

Recycling your Christmas tree

Christmas tree drop-off sites are becoming more common.
(Photo by mmhaffie, Flickr)

So you’ve put away all the ornaments and the lights and the tinsel... and you have that bare tree in your living room... what now?  It’s not illegal in Michigan to throw your Christmas tree away... but a lot of cities and counties do recycle them... and chip them up into mulch.  The recycling website Earth 911 lets you type in your zip code to find tree drop-off sites near you.

I talked with Marsha Gray - she's the executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. She says the first thing you should do if you want to recycle your tree is call the people who pick up your trash.

“You want to ask them if they do a separate collection for the trees. If they’re collecting them separately from your regular trash, that means they’re most likely recycling, probably chipping those trees into mulch. If they’re collecting at the same time and they’re going right into the bin that means they will go to the landfill."

Marsha's tips for recycling - or reusing your tree:

  • If your waste hauler won't recycle your tree... call your city or county park department.  There's a good chance they offer a drop-off site for the first few weeks of January.
  • Stand your tree up next to the birdfeeder for a little perching spot for birds while they wait their turn at the feeder.
  • Use the branches as plant stakes
  • If you're really ambitious, break out the chainsaw and remove the branches (you don't want to burn these in a fire - they can spark!), cut the trunk into logs, and add them to your log pile to season for a year.  Free firewood for next Christmas!
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Environment
11:11 am
Tue January 4, 2011

Supreme Court Gives You the Right to Sue the State

The Michigan Supreme Court
Photo by larrysphatpage, Flickr

The Michigan Supreme Court says anyone can sue the state if they believe it's acting in a way that harms the environment. 

Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra talked with Nick Schroeck with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center to find out what this decision means. He says if a company wants to do something like discharge treated wastewater into a creek or a river, for example, it needs a permit from the state to do so:

“The way our environmental law works, you have to have a permit to pollute, as it were. That means that the state regulates the amount of pollution that’s allowed into the waters of the state.”

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Environment
10:56 am
Thu December 23, 2010

A House of Straw

Joe and Shelly Trumpey with their two daughters, Autumn and Evelyn, in front of the strawbale home they built themselves.
Photo by Steve Charles

Step aside, Three Little Pigs. 

Strawbale buildings have come a long way from the flimsy huts a wolf could blow down.  The Trumpey family in Grass Lake, Michigan, built their 2,000 square foot home from straw, clay, field stones all sourced locally - and timber salvaged from trees killed by the emerald ash borer. 

They're living off the grid - everything they do: washing laundry, firing up the sawmill, watching TV -  is powered by their solar panels (with a small backup generator for those cloudy weeks in the winter).

Joe Trumpey says fire is a considerable risk before you seal up the straw walls with adobe. 

“When you’re building the building all the open straw is a huge fire hazard at that point so we were really careful not to have any smokers around and no open fires. Once it’s coated with mud the fire proofing is really in place.”

You can hear Joe and Shelly talk about the experience of building with straw.

The stats:

  • 1500 bales of straw
  • the 18-inch thick walls are insulated with the straw, plastered on either side with adobe mud - giving the Trumpeys 2-3 times the insulation value of a conventional home
  • 50 tons of field stones, dug from their own farmland
  • 7 years of planning, 2.5 years in the making
  • Cost: about $75 per square foot - but the family did 99% of the labor themselves

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Environment
10:40 am
Tue December 21, 2010

Oldest Net-Zero House in America

Matt and Kelly Grocoff have taken the last major step toward becoming net-zero: installing solar panels.
Photo courtesy of Matt Grocoff.

The Environment Report has been following an effort to make a Michigan house the oldest net-zero house in America. That means in a year the home will produce as much energy or more than it uses. Lester Graham reports... the owners are at the point where they can reach that goal.

Matt and Kelly Grocoff bought an old house in a historic neighborhood in Ann Arbor a few years ago. Matt wanted to show that making an older home an energy efficient showcase made more sense than building new.  Kelly was just a little skeptical.

“When we first bought the house and Matt was talking about what he wanted to do and what some goals might be, part of me was sort of like yeah, yeah, you know. Matt’s a dreamer. He likes to think big. And it’s really happening.”

 

Find out how to assess your own home's energy efficiency.

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