The Environment Report

Tuesdays & Thursdays at 8:50 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.

The Environment Report hosted by Rebecca Williams explores the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan.

The site of the former Velsicol Chemical Corporation in St. Louis is going to take a long time to clean up.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The city of St. Louis, Michigan would much rather be talked about as the geographic center of the Lower Peninsula.

Instead, there's a lot of focus on the legacy of pollution here.

The story of Velsicol Chemical in St. Louis, Michigan is quite complicated. 

This week, we’ve told you about efforts to clean up the old Velsicol Chemical plant. There’s a threat to the local drinking water supply after the first attempt to clean up the plant failed. Birds still die from DDT, decades after the plant stopped producing it.

But we haven't told you who's paying to fix it.


Velsicol Chemical operated on the banks of the Pine River in St. Louis, Michigan from 1938 to 1978. It was the site of the infamous PBB mixup. The entire plant was buried in place and now it's leaking.
Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force

There are a lot of former industrial sites in Michigan that need to be cleaned up, but the Velsicol Superfund sites in St. Louis, Michigan are unusual in their size and in the amount of nasty chemicals lurking in the ground where people live, work and play.

The company tried to contain the pollution before, but its solution didn’t work. Ask some of the community members about that original plan and they say they could have told you it wasn’t going to work.

Mark Brush

 

About 10 years ago, a weird chemical started showing up in the drinking water in St. Louis, Michigan.

It was a byproduct of DDT. The insecticide is now banned in the U.S., but DDT was manufactured in St. Louis for 20 years.

Now, the city is working to get a new source of drinking water. 

An ailing robin fledging in Teri Kniffen's yard in St. Louis, Michigan in June of 2013.  Some of the highest levels of DDT ever recorded in bird livers and brains were found in this neighborhood.
Teri Kniffen

All this week we're bringing you stories about the chemical company responsible for the PBB tragedy in Michigan. Michigan Chemical accidentally contaminated the state’s food supply in the 1970s, but the legacy of that company is still very much with us today.

Michigan Chemical – which later became Velsicol Chemical – made more than just PBB, and it left these toxic chemicals behind in St. Louis, Michigan.

One woman insists something is wrong with the birds

Photo courtesy of Emory University

More than 40 years ago, Michigan’s food supply was contaminated. People’s health is being affected, even now.

All this week, we’re looking at the ripple effects left behind by the company that made that tragic mistake.

In 1973, the Michigan Chemical Corporation shipped a toxic flame retardant chemical to a livestock feed plant instead of a nutritional supplement. The chemical is called polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB. It took about a year to discover the accident. 

NOAA

The Great Lakes go up and down. It's just a fact of life. 

Water levels in Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron continue to be above their monthly averages for the first time in 16 years.

Julie Grant / Allegheny Front

The coal industry and conservative politicians say new carbon rules for coal-burning power plants will kill the industry, and they warn that without coal, extreme weather events, like last year's polar vortex, could leave people in the cold and dark. But how well does this argument hold up?

Brian Roth / Michigan State University

State officials recently updated the list of invasive species banned in Michigan. They added seven species to the list. That means you can’t have them in your possession or move them around.

Reid Frazier / Allegheny Front

Federal spending on scientific research hasn’t kept up with inflation in recent years, and it’s made it harder for researchers to fund their work. Some of them are turning to another source: crowdfunding. But this funding source raises new questions for scientists.  

Courtesy photo / Holland BPW

Federal regulators are proposing new rules to cut carbon dioxide emissions, and it looks like one community in west Michigan has a decent head start.

In case you missed it over the summer, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing cutting carbon emissions by 30% by 2030.

Power plants are the biggest producers of carbon emissions in the U.S.

Here in Michigan, coal powers half of all homes and businesses. So utilities are probably going to have to stop burning so much coal in order to meet the requirements, assuming they are approved.

The City of Holland owns a coal plant. The James De Young plant is 75 years old.

David Tenenbaum / UW-Madison News

More than 2,500 species of plants, fish and mollusks will be invading the internet soon.

It’s an effort by more than 20 museums and universities around the Great Lakes region (including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Central Michigan University). They’re teaming up to digitize their collections of species that are not native to the Great Lakes.

Ken Cameron directs the Wisconsin State Herbarium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he’s leading the project. He and his collaborators will be pulling fish and mollusks out of jars and taking dried plants out of drawers, taking photos of them, and uploading them to the online collection along with data about the species. He and his colleagues around the region will be doing this for 1.73 million specimens.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is figuring out new ways to try to block two species of Asian carp — bighead and silver — from getting into Lake Michigan. The Corps also wants to block other aquatic nonnative species from getting into the Lakes from the Mississippi River system.

They’re considering whether to put in new barriers near the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in the Des Plaines River near Chicago. The site is about five miles downstream from a system of electric barriers in the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal. Those barriers are essentially the last line of defense against Asian carp in the Chicago area.

“This may be a perfect site to implement a range of different kinds of technologies," says Dave Wethington, a project manager with the Army Corps in Chicago.

He says the Corps could put in barriers that block fish passage into the lock and dam, or more electric barriers. It could also put in special water guns that use pressure waves to deter carp.

User: ellenm1 / Flickr

Wetlands have all kinds of benefits for people and wildlife. But wetlands have also gotten in the way of farming and building. So, we’ve drained them over the years. 

The federal government has been trying to clarify what kinds of wetlands and small streams fall under the Clean Water Act.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a new rule that they say would clear up confusion. 

Annie Snider is a reporter who covers water issues for Greenwire in Washington, D.C. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and Snider says the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers took a broad approach to what fell under it.

"But in 2001, and then again in 2006, there were [Supreme] Court challenges that threw that into question. And after those, the questions of which waters, which streams, which creeks, which wetlands fall under federal power under the Clean Water Act was thrown into question," says Snider.

The 2006 ruling involved two cases out of Michigan. While one contested the rejection of a permit, in the other, the U.S. sued a Midland real estate developer for filling in a wetland property. The developer said the wetland was not a "navigable waterway" and therefore not covered by the CWA. However, until that point, the EPA interpreted "navigable waters" as being "waters of the U.S." and any waters or wetlands connected to one of these waterways. In its ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA's limitless authority over water.

After that decision, Snider says that regulators had to make case-by-case decisions about which streams and creeks are important to the downstream waters — the big rivers and lakes that do fall under the Clean Water Act.

user: adamshoop / Flicker

The cost of electricity could jump dramatically next month in the Upper Peninsula.

Residents there might have to start paying to keep a coal plant open that isn't entirely needed anymore. The increase will be a harsh blow to a region that struggles economically.

Brimley is a little town at the end of the road on Lake Superior’s south shore. There’s a bar, a casino and a couple motels. Brimley State Park draws campers here in the summer and into Ron Holden’s IGA grocery store.

"Basically the six weeks of summer pay for the rest of the year’s bills, " he says. On the wall of the IGA are deer heads, a black bear rug, and a flag that says, ‘American by choice, Yooper by da grace of God.’

But being a Yooper might cost more starting December 1. Holden expects his store’s electric bill will be $700 a month higher and he has no idea where he’ll get that money.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

More than 40 years ago, people in Michigan were poisoned. Researchers are still following those people today.

In 1973, a fire-retardant chemical called PBB, polybrominated biphenyl, accidentally got mixed into livestock feed.  It took a year to discover the accident. 

Studies estimate 70-90% of people in Michigan had some exposure to PBB from eating contaminated milk, meat and eggs. The MDCH says the "overwhelming majority of those who were exposed to PBB received very low levels."

Other people had higher levels of exposure.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta are studying the long-term health effects of exposure to PBB. The team was in Michigan this past weekend to continue the study. 

Earlier this week, when he won his second term, Governor Rick Snyder thanked his family, he thanked his supporters and he gave a shout-out to the Great Lakes.

“I still like to remind my fellow governors, four out of five Great Lakes prefer Michigan,” he joked.

So what do policy experts expect from Snyder in his next term?

James Clift is with the Michigan Environmental Council.

"I think what we’ve got is a confluence of a number of things coming to a head,” he says.

He says energy will be a big issue for Snyder.

“Is there going to be enough power in this region of the country to serve our needs in the upcoming years? Some federal regulations coming into play, with the utilities making some very large decisions about the energy future, and the clean energy legislation plateauing off in 2015.”

Clift is talking about our renewable portfolio standard. It requires Michigan utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity sales from renewable sources by 2015.

Snyder has said he’d like to see that standard raised – as long as it makes business sense.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Oil is flowing through Enbridge’s new pipeline in southern Michigan, but people who live along the pipeline say the job isn’t done yet.

Enbridge’s new Line 6B pipeline is in the ground and in service.  It runs for 285 miles across the state from Griffith, Indiana to Marysville, Michigan.

The company installed this new pipeline after their old pipeline burst and caused a massive oil spill in 2010.

To replace it, they had to cut down trees and tear up people’s land. Enbridge has hired contractors to restore those properties in phases.

But some landowners in the first phase of the project say they’re still waiting for work to be wrapped up.

Randall Schaetzl, MSU

News of a decline might sound surprising since there has been so much excitement and controversy over horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in recent years.

But not many high-volume, horizontal wells were actually drilled since 2010, and the company that led the recent fracking boom has left the state.

That leaves the industry and its watchdogs wondering where new action will come from.

Michigan Municipal League / Flickr

Grand Haven is the latest city to consider climate change in its master plan. It’s part of a grant-funded project called Resilient Michigan.

Harry Burkholder is a community planner with the program. He says they’re working with city and township officials to help them prepare for more extreme weather events like heat waves and intense rainstorms.

“A lot of communities are looking at ways to increase pervious pavement on sidewalks and parking lots; ways that you can collect rainwater right from your home or even from your business in large underground cisterns so it doesn’t automatically go into the sewer system,” he says.

Heavy rain events can overload sewer systems and lead to sewage overflows into rivers and lakes.

Resilient Michigan is also working with Monroe, Ludington, St. Joseph and East Jordan.

They’ll be launching a program with the Port Huron community in November, and Burkholder says they have enough grant money to work with one more Michigan community.

An emerald ash borer
User: USDAgov / flickr

Researchers with the U.S. Forest Service are looking for ash trees that survived the attack of the emerald ash borer.

The invasive insect has been spreading across the Midwest and beyond since 2002 - killing millions of ash trees in its wake.

Here's an animation showing the spread of the emerald ash borer from 2002 to 2014:

Clarence S. Metcalf Great Lakes Maritime Research Library

Michigan Radio's M I Curious project is a news experiment where we investigate questions submitted by the public about our state and its people.

As part of our M I Curious project, Shelly Scott asked Michigan Radio this question:

Have there ever been pirates on the Great Lakes?

“I thought: we’ve got such nice water bodies around here, why don’t we hear anything about fantastic things that happened on the Great Lakes?” she says.

Scott is an engineer at Ford and she’s also a leader of her daughter’s Girl Scout troop.  These 5th grade girls had some questions about freshwater pirates too:

“What do pirate ships look like? Was there any pirate treasure in the Great Lakes? How did they get away with stealing other people’s treasure?” asked Maria Kokko, Lilli Semel and Shannon Scott.

A diver inspects Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac for a possible dent.
Credit an Enbridge inspection video shared with the state of Michigan

We've been working to find an answer to the question, "What's the status of the aged Enbridge oil pipeline running through Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac?"

It was posed by Justin Cross for our M I Curious project.

One of the first things we discovered was that the company holds all the cards.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

A lot of us are curious about the oil pipeline running through the Straits of Mackinac.

Michigan Radio's M I Curious is a news experiment where we investigate questions submitted by the public about our state and its people.

As part of our M I Curious project, Justin Cross asked Michigan Radio this question:

What is the status of the aged Enbridge oil pipeline running through Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac?  

Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

Wastewater from fracked wells that produce gas and oil in Pennsylvania and West Virginia is coming to Ohio. 

Julie Grant, a reporter who has been researching this issue, says Ohio has become a go-to place for the nation's fracking waste disposal. Grant reports on environmental issues in Ohio and Pennsylvania for the program The Allegheny Front

"Energy companies point to the geology. They say the layers of underground rock that are better for wastewater storage are easier to access in Ohio, than in Pennsylvania’s hilly Appalachian basin," Grant says.

Pennsylvania is one of the top natural gas producers in the nation, but it’s more difficult to permit a disposal well there. Grant says there are only a few waste disposal wells in the whole state.

Ohio also has industry-friendly regulations. Oil and gas companies need permits to dispose of fracking waste underground.

In other states around the region, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, the Environmental Protection Agency has authority over those permits -- and the process can take a year or more. But in Ohio, the same permits can be issued in a matter of months. That's because Ohio has primacy over injection wells, so the state, not the federal government, issues the permits and the process is often faster.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

Lakes Michigan and Huron have recovered after more than a decade of low water levels.

Government scientists say the lakes rose above their historic average this month.

Just two years ago, the water was at the lowest level ever recorded.

The quick recovery has stifled an effort to engineer a solution to the problem of low lake levels in Huron and Michigan.

But proponents say it would be shortsighted to forget about the issue.

MCM Management Corp.

Detroit is in the middle of one of the most ambitious demolition campaigns the nation has ever seen, tearing down about 200 houses every week.

Many of the homes being razed are in neighborhoods where people still live. So Detroit officials sat down before the blitz to come up with some new regulations designed to keep people safe from dust, and from hazardous materials that could be in that dust – like lead, or asbestos.

user:yooperann / Flickr

The U.S. Forest Service has put out a report on how our warming climate is affecting forests in the U.P.

Stephen Handler is a climate change specialist with the Forest Service. He says, over the past several decades, we’ve been getting more extreme rainstorms in the region.

“So, more rain of two inches at a time, three inches at a time; and we’re seeing our winters, which is our characteristic climatic feature, shrinking, so, getting shorter and getting more variable, or getting less consistent snowpack,” he says.

In August of 2010, crews prepare to remove the broken section of Enbridge's Line 6B pipeline.
EPA

Federal, state, and local agencies took part in a mock oil spill Wednesday in northern Michigan along the Indian River.

The emergency drill conjured memories of the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill. About a million gallons of crude oil have been cleaned up from that spill. There’s some concern about whether Enbridge has made important internal changes to avoid future pipeline problems.

Carl Weimer with the Pipeline Safety Trust said one of the reasons Enbridge failed to prevent the pipeline break near Marshall, Michigan in July 2010 is not because the company was completely unaware of corrosion and a cracks in the pipeline.

He says Enbridge inspection teams weren’t sharing information with each other.

Enbridge Energy oil spill
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

There’s been a lot of controversy over TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. But there’s another company working to bring more tar sands oil into the U.S.

Enbridge Energy wants to increase the amount of heavy crude oil crossing the border from the Alberta tar sands into the Great Lakes region.

Lorraine Little is with Enbridge. She says Enbridge wants to move more oil on its pipeline known as the Alberta Clipper. That pipeline runs about a thousand miles from northern Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.

“Its purpose is to carry heavy crude oil from the oil sands in Alberta into our Superior terminal where then it can get off on other pipelines and serve refining markets around the Midwest region or other parts of the country,” she says.

Back in November of 2012, Enbridge filed an application with the U.S. State Department. The company wants to raise the capacity of the border segment of the Alberta Clipper pipeline to 800,000 barrels per day (they're currently transporting 450,000 barrels per day).

That permit is still under review.

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