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.

Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio

There’s a bloom of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie right now. Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are predicting it could become the second worst on record.

Riding down the Kalamazoo River on a tube. As part of a settlement with the state, Enbridge built access points to the river. Those who know the river say they're seeing more people enjoying it these days.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history happened right here in Michigan. Now that five years have passed, we checked in with people who were affected by the spill.

Enbridge Energy’s Line 6B broke open on July 25, 2010. The massive oil spill changed life for a lot of people in the small town of Marshall and along the Kalamazoo River.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

You might’ve heard about cougars being spotted in Michigan. There are also cougars out west and there’s the Florida panther. But what we’re talking about here is something called the eastern cougar.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Especially in the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers burned their waste in big, open-air pits. They burned everything from tires, batteries, and plastic to human and medical waste.

Curtis Gibson is an Air Force veteran. He served in Afghanistan in late 2011.

“I’d see things floating in the air — burned papers — you see them floating through the air so you know you’re taking something in,” Gibson says.

He says he had a medical exam when he came home to Detroit.

Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio

In Afghanistan and Iraq, especially in the early years, soldiers burned their waste in big, open-air pits. 

“A burn pit’s just a big hole in the ground. You push dirt up and just have trash there, and light it on fire and walk away,” says Army veteran Eric Mullins.

Mullins and I met up in Campus Martius Park in Detroit, near where he works.

He served in Iraq in 2003 and again in 2008. On his first tour, he was assigned to burn barrels of human waste.

Flickr / bitznbitez

The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with the state of Michigan, other states, and industry groups in a challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions rules.

The justices ruled the EPA was unreasonable when it refused to consider costs in its initial decision to regulate mercury emissions from power plants.

Read the Supreme Court's ruling in Michigan vs. EPA here.

flickr user Andres Pérez / Flickr

Scientists study chemicals for their potential to cause cancer, but usually they examine them one at a time.

And yet, we’re exposed to mixtures of different chemicals every day.

Great Lakes Fishery Commission

If you ever get a chance to meet a sea lamprey, you won’t forget it.

They look like an eel but they’re actually a fish. They have a suction cup for a face, with hundreds of razor sharp teeth.

Aerial photo of the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station near Kincardine Ontario.
Chuck Szmurlo / Wikimedia Commons

The decision on a nuclear waste storage site near Lake Huron has been kicked down the road a bit.

Flickr / Sarah Craig, Faces of Fracking

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 25,000-30,000 new oil and gas wells were drilled and hydraulically fractured annually in the U.S. between 2011 and 2014.

A feature article in the journal Health Affairs says the body of research on the potential health effects of all this fracking is "slim and inconclusive."

Zachary Huang / MSU

Honey bees are under attack from a lot of threats.

Researchers say varroa mites are the biggest threat. They suck blood from bees, and can kill entire colonies.

Zachary Huang is an associate professor at Michigan State University. He says these mites use a special skill to attack bee hives. They can change how they smell, so the bees don’t know they’re there. They can actually mimic the smell of a honey bee.

CDC

The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor has just come out with its 5th report on toxic chemicals in car seats. The nonprofit group analyzes car seats for the presence of heavy metals and flame retardants.  Flame retardant chemicals can migrate out of products like car seats and build up in dust, and then they can get into our bodies.

Terry Kreeger / Wyoming Game and Fish Department/CWD Alliance

Last week, state officials confirmed they found chronic wasting disease in a wild deer for the first time. Michigan now joins 22 states and two Canadian provinces where the disease has been found.

A bighead carp at the Shedd Aquarium.
Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey want to find out where Asian carp eggs will have the most success.

They’re using a model nicknamed FluEgg to predict which rivers in the Great Lakes region are the most suitable for Asian carp to reproduce. The fish are not established here yet, but scientists want to be ready in case they do get in and get comfortable.

Relative sizes of ticks at different life stages.
CDC

Time to break out the long pants: tick season is back!

The past couple of years we've had a tick boom along the west side of the state and it's happening again this year.

Rich Keith spends a lot of time with ticks. He’s the director of the Kalamazoo Valley Bird Observatory. He and his wife Brenda have been doing tick surveys every year since 1997 for university researchers in Michigan and elsewhere.

Monarch caterpillars can die if they are exposed to milkweed that has been treated with neonicitinoids, a type of insecticide.
Monarch Watch

Monarch butterflies need milkweed to survive, but some plants you buy for your garden could be toxic to them.

There’s been a big drop in the monarch butterfly population. By some estimates, they’ve declined by more than 90 percent over the past 20 years.

On the Kalamazoo River just downstream from the confluence of Talmadge Creek. Around 1 million gallons of tar sands oil spilled into the river in 2010.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Today, the state of Michigan announced a settlement with Enbridge Energy over the largest inland oil spill in American history.

The state’s $75 million consent judgment with Enbridge won’t be coming as a huge cash payment. Most of the money has already gone to, or will be going to river restoration or recreation projects along the Kalamazoo River.

Illustration courtesy of U.S. Global Change Research Program

 

Our climate is changing and people are working out ways to adapt.

A new report takes a look at how climate change is affecting weather in the U.S. and what people are doing to try to get ready for more changes in the future.

Aerial photo of the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station near Kincardine Ontario.
Chuck Szmurlo / Wikimedia Commons

The Bruce Nuclear site sits across Lake Huron from Michigan’s Thumb region.

Ontario Power Generation wants to bury some of its nuclear waste on the site in Kincardine, Ontario. All of the company’s low and intermediate level waste would be buried there forever, far underground.

All photography and graphic design by Dave Brenner / SNRE

Bearded woodsmen are everywhere.

The Associated Press calls the look "lumberjack chic."

Outside magazine dubbed it lumbersexual (think: opposite of metrosexual). It's loosely defined as someone who looks like a lumberjack but hasn't chopped down an actual tree.

Couches will flame retardants in them will still burn.
Mark H. Anbinder / Flickr

This week, we’re bringing you a series of stories about firefighters and cancer. Firefighters say they’re worried about getting exposed to certain kinds of toxic flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals are everywhere. They’re called polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs. Firefighters are exposed to these chemicals in the line of duty, but they aren’t the only ones exposed.

For decades, these chemicals have been added to the foam in our couches, our chairs, and the padding underneath our carpets.

But they don’t stay put.

Kathy Evans, West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission

They're known as "Areas of Concern" and Michigan had 14 of them at one time.

Now, we have 12 of these toxic places where pollution from the past is lingering.

This summer, work crews will tackle the next phase of cleanup in the Muskegon Lake area.

Martin Schwalbe

There’s plastic trash in every one of the Great Lakes.

That plastic includes junk people leave at the beach, microbeads from consumer products such as shower gel, face wash and toothpaste, and pellets from plastic manufacturing.

NOAA

More than 7,000 square miles of land in the Great Lakes region changed in some way from 1996 to 2010. That’s roughly equal to the surface area of Lake Ontario.

That’s according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Leslie Clapp / Courtesy NestWatch

Spring means Michiganders breaking out the shorts when it's above 40 degrees, grocery store aisles full of marshmallow bunnies, and itty-bitty baby birds.

You can help keep an eye on those babies as part of the citizen science project NestWatch. It's a program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Cornell Lab has been monitoring nesting birds for 50 years, and more than 130 studies have relied on the data from NestWatch.

Rusty Tanton / Flickr/user

Lawmakers want to overhaul our nation’s chemical safety law, but there’s a lot of disagreement about how to do that.

In the U.S., chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

If officials at the Environmental Protection Agency want to ban a chemical, they need to provide a lot of proof that it’s harmful for us or the environment. As the EPA's Dale Kemery once explained to me, "EPA can ban chemicals if it can demonstrate that they present an unreasonable risk. This is a relatively high regulatory standard and requires a substantial amount of high quality exposure and hazard information."

The law we currently have on the books is 39 years old. It’s called the Toxic Substances Control Act or TSCA. It’s been widely criticized as toothless and outdated.

Allen Kurta / Eastern Michigan University

  

The northern long-eared bat is a little thing with brown fur.  And its ears are longer than average, for a bat.

In winter, it hangs out in mines and caves in the Upper Peninsula.

The old Velsicol chemical plant site from across the Pine River.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The City of St. Louis, Michigan needs a new water system. That’s because pollution from the old Velsicol Chemical plant is leaking into St. Louis’ water supply

They’re planning to get that water upriver from the city of Alma.

Kalamazoo Valley Bird Observatory

It’s another big year for the majestic white birds from the north.

Snowy owls summer in the Arctic. Sometimes they fly south in the winter in big migrations called irruptions.  In a typical year, we might end up with a few dozen snowy owls in the Great Lakes region.

But in an irruption year the owls can come south by the hundreds or even thousands.

Diane McAllister

People who identify birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count logged a record 5,090 species this winter. That’s just about half the bird species in the world.

It’s part of a huge data collection effort each winter. It’s run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, and also Bird Studies Canada.

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