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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The Environment Report
10:27 am
Tue September 23, 2014

Report says milder winters in U.P. are affecting forests

A trail to Rainbow Falls along the Black River Scenic Byway in the Western U.P. Winters in the U.P. are changing, and that means conditions are becoming better for some species and worse for others.
Credit 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.

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The Environment Report
8:50 am
Tue September 23, 2014

Honeybees collaborate with Kalamazoo artist on ArtPrize exhibit

A wood engraving of a honeybee, by Ladislav Hanka. Honeycomb was placed by the honeybees themselves.
Rebecca Williams Michigan Radio

The ArtPrize competition opens tomorrow in Grand Rapids. One of the exhibits will have live animals roaming all over the artwork.

Inter-species collaboration

There are a bunch of bees on West Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. People slow down to stare at the guy opening up the beehive. His name is Ladislav Hanka.

Hanka’s been an artist for several decades. He became a beekeeper four years ago when a friend put a box of bees on his kitchen table.

“The bees just awakened in me the need to be more involved. I don’t make my living from beekeeping and I don’t have to, thank goodness, because it looks like beekeeping is in such an eclipse now that there’s a question of whether there will be any pollinators left in the next few years for the crops,” he says.

He brought the bees to install in his exhibit in the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.  The museum’s theme for ArtPrize is collaboration.  Ladislav Hanka is crossing the species barrier with that theme.

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The Environment Report
10:38 am
Tue September 16, 2014

Enbridge plans to bring more tar sands oil into Great Lakes region

Cleanup of the 2010 Enbridge oil spill. The company wants to bring more tar sands oil from the Alberta oil sands region into the U.S.
Credit 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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The Environment Report
8:59 am
Tue September 16, 2014

Study suggests pesticides in rivers could harm insects and fish

U.S. Geological Survey

Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey have been monitoring pesticides in rivers and streams around the country for 20 years. They just released their findings, and they found there are levels of some pesticides that could be a concern for bugs and fish.

For example, they found the insecticide fibronil at levels that could cause harm. That chemical disrupts insects’ nervous systems.

The study, "Pesticides in U.S. Streams and Rivers:  Occurrence and trends during 1992-2011” is published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. 

Wes Stone, a hydrologist with the USGS, says some pesticides have been phased out and others have come on the market, and you can see that directly reflected in the water.

“What it shows is to stay on top of what’s in the environment, we’re going to have to constantly evolve and keep looking at the newest ones and evolving new methods to sample for them," he says.

But Stone says their study probably underestimates potential risks to aquatic life. He says there are more than 400 different pesticides in use, but he says funding is limited, so his agency only tests for a fraction of those pesticides in rivers and streams.

The Environment Report
10:15 am
Thu September 11, 2014

Michigan landowners say they were cheated, energy company disagrees, court to decide

Fracking wells
Credit Tim Evanson via Wikimedia Commons

This week, a Cheboygan District Court Judge ruled that Chesapeake Energy will go to trial for alleged fraud.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has accused the Oklahoma-based energy company of swindling landowners in northern Michigan.

Peter Payette is with our partners at Interlochen Public Radio and he has been covering this story.

How did all of this start?

Around May of 2010, the state auctioned off the right to drill for oil and gas on public land.

"And that auction saw prices that were astronomical. The state in one day raised as much money from the sale of oil and gas rights as it had raised in its entire history," Payette says. "And that's because out-of-state companies believed that by using these newer methods of horizontal hydraulic fracturing that they could make a lot of money by drilling deep down in the ground and taking out natural gas."

These companies went out to private landowners that summer and asked to explore their properties for oil and gas. The landowners signed leases. "And those promised what is called a 'order of payment' and in many cases the landowners did not receive payment and may say they were cheated and are owed money," Payette says.

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The Environment Report
10:10 am
Tue September 9, 2014

Scientists say eating your leftovers is good for you and the environment

Credit User: Kathleen Franklin/Flickr

Researchers have found that food waste has a big impact on the heat-trapping gasses we release into the environment.

Marty Heller is a senior research specialist with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.

In a new study, he and U of M's Greg Keoleian looked at the greenhouse gas emissions involved with the production of the food we eat and the food we waste.

“If we look at the greenhouse gas emissions associated with that food waste, it is equivalent to adding an additional 33 million average passenger vehicles to our roads every year,” Heller said.

Heller and Keoleian studied the emissions associated with about 100 different types of food. They discover that certain types of foods have the highest greenhouse gas emissions associated with their production.

"Typically we see a very distinct difference between foods that are animal based — meats, dairy —and foods that are plant based," Heller said.

"To a large extent that's because of the additional feed that is required to keep an animal alive and sort of their conversion efficiency of the feed that they consume."

He also found that some of those animals, cows in particular, emit a great deal of methane which is a very potent greenhouse gas emission.

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The Environment Report
11:42 am
Thu September 4, 2014

Sturgeon release party planned for Kalamazoo River

This Saturday, September 6, about 35 juvenile sturgeon will be released into the Kalamazoo River at New Richmond.
Photo courtesy of USFS, Rob Elliott

This Saturday, 35 baby sturgeon will be released into the Kalamazoo River at a sturgeon release party. It’ll be in New Richmond and it’s open to the public.

Lake sturgeon are ancient fish. They’re Michigan’s oldest and biggest fish species and can live to be more than 100 years old. Many populations of lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes were wiped out decades ago, but people have been working to bring them back.   

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The Environment Report
10:12 am
Thu September 4, 2014

Scientists hope E. coli genome sequencing will help track future outbreaks

This circular map shows the completed sequence of a particularly harmful strain of E. coli that has been tied to outbreaks of food poisoning.
Credit Systems Biology Research Group, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

A research team has produced the first complete genome sequencing of a strain of E. coli. This particular strain is associated with outbreaks of food poisoning that can be deadly.

Haythem Latif is on the research team at the University of California-San Diego.

“Although early detection is key to treatment, it has been known to cause severe renal failure in children,” Latif said.

He says the updated genome sequence for this strain of E. coli will help scientists tell one strain from another.

“During an outbreak, you may have 100 patients or whatever, that have had this and what you do is you’d type each of the different people’s pathogenic E. coli strain that they have and then you can trace it back to some kind of a source or some kind of lineage of a bacterial outbreak.”

Latif says sequencing technology has improved over time and that has allowed the research team to update the sequence for this strain.

The Environment Report
9:39 am
Thu August 28, 2014

Green goo growing in Lake Erie is not what you think it is

Western Lake Erie turns green from cyanobacteria blooms.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

 

Lately, that green slime in the lake has been all over the news after it shut down Toledo’s water supply.

Journalists, city and government officials have been calling that green slime  “blue-green algae”, “toxic algae” or “toxic algal blooms.”

Well, turns out that’s not exactly right.

“That’s just maddening,” said James Bull, a professor of biology and environmental science. He works at Wayne County Community College and Macomb Community College.

He says it’s not accurate to call the green slime that shut down Toledo’s water system “a toxic algal bloom.” 

He wrote to Michigan Radio because we were some of the people using the wrong term.

“It’s wrong because even though these organisms superficially look like algae, I think we ought to understand that these really are a kind of bacteria,” Bull said.

He says scientists used to call this stuff “blue-green algae.” Now they call it “cyanobacteria”. He says calling cyanobacteria "algae" is like calling a dolphin a fish.

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The Environment Report
11:20 am
Thu August 21, 2014

Critics say new Ohio law isn't enough to protect Lake Erie from fertilizer runoff

Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The recent Toledo water crisis has farmers in Michigan and Ohio on the defensive. They’re pointing to a number of voluntary efforts they’re making to reduce phosphorus runoff to Lake Erie. That runoff is the main food source for the blooms of a kind of cyanobacteria that release a toxin that led to the water shutdown. But farm groups and environmentalists say a new state law in Ohio that will certify the use of fertilizers doesn't go far enough or happen fast enough. 

"Basically, the new law will require that all farmers and certified crop advisors who spread chemical fertilizer on fields go through a certification process where they will learn how to spread the fertilizer in the right place, at the right rate, at the right time of year," says Karen Schaefer, an Ohio reporter who is covering this issue. "And the problem with it is: right now it does not include manure and the law does not go into effect until 2017."

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The Environment Report
12:54 pm
Tue August 19, 2014

Study finds food allergies are more common in inner-city children

A Johns Hopkins researcher found that inner city children are more likely to have food allergies — especially those related to milk and eggs.

A new study finds inner-city kids might have a higher than normal risk of developing food allergies.

Researchers studied more than 500 kids from birth through age 5, in Boston, Baltimore, New York City, and St. Louis.

Dr. Robert Wood is a professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore. He says normal food allergy rates are around 5-6%. But that rate went up when they looked at kids in the inner city.

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The Environment Report
11:46 am
Tue August 19, 2014

Dioxin cleanup downstream from Dow Chemical to enter next stage

Dow Chemical corporate headquarters in Midland, Michigan.
User mgreason wikimedia commons

The Environmental Protection Agency has a plan for cleaning up soil contaminated by dioxins along the Tittabawasee River floodplain. The floodplain extends along 21 miles of the river below the Dow Chemical plant in Midland.

The EPA says the dioxins, which can cause cancer and other serious health effects, came from waste disposal, emissions and incineration from the plant.

The EPA has been directing Dow to do temporary cleanups around people’s homes whenever the river floods.

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The Environment Report
11:23 am
Thu August 14, 2014

Flying unmanned helicopters for science in Michigan

Benjamin Heumann operates the helicopter at Wilderness State Park.
Central Michigan University / Steve Jessmore

You might’ve heard that Amazon is hoping to one day deliver packages to your door by little unmanned helicopters.

Now, scientists are getting into the act, too.

“This is our unmanned aerial vehicle; an electronically powered helicopter,” Benjamin Heumann says as he unpacks a 6-foot helicopter. We’re in the middle of a rare wetland called a prairie fen near Chelsea. Heumann directs the Center for Geographic Information Science at Central Michigan University.

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The Environment Report
11:25 am
Tue August 12, 2014

MSU study finds partisan politics influence public views on environmental policy

Credit Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

These days, getting pretty much any kind of environmental policy made into law involves a lot of fighting and delay.

New research from Michigan State University finds Americans are becoming more divided over environmental protection and they seem to be getting their cue mainly from Congress.

Aaron McCright is a sociologist at MSU and the lead author of the study. He writes that things weren’t always so partisan. In fact, many landmark environmental laws were born during the Nixon Administration.

From 'Red Scare' to 'Green Menace'

But then the Soviet Union fell and, according to McCright's research, the American conservative movement (consisting of major conservative think tanks, wealthy families, and conservative foundations) moved its focus away from former communists toward what they saw as the 'green menace'.

"This really came through in the late 80s and early 90s, so this anti-environmentalism of the conservative movement was driving the changing policy stance of the Republican party and it's mostly because of a significant drop off in pro-environmental voting among Republicans in both the House and the Senate,"said McCright. "Whereas the Democrats just sort of continued on a light, upward trend in pro-environmental voting."

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The Environment Report
12:19 pm
Tue August 5, 2014

Report details ways to prevent, reduce cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Erie

Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

A toxin produced by a kind of cyanobacteria contaminated Toledo's water supply over the weekend. It left 400,000 people without drinking water.

Blooms of cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) like these happen when excess nutrients — mostly phosphorus — run off into Lake Erie from farms and sewage treatment plants.

The International Joint Commission is an independent organization that gives advice to the U.S. and Canada on Great Lakes issues. Earlier this year, the IJC put out a report on how to prevent these blooms.

Raj Bejankiwar, of the Commission's Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, is the lead scientist on that report.

Cyanobacteria blooms were a problem in the '60s and '70s, but then they went away and in the 2000s they started coming back. Bejankiwar says it's because of runoff, mainly from farms.

"We have to stop feeding algae their food, which is phosphorus. We use that extensively in the agriculture land and Toledo is right in the ground zero zone for algae, especially the Maumee River watershed." Bejankiwar adds that in the past few years, heavy storms have washed phosphorus-filled fertilizer from farms. "It ends up in the Maumee River and then finally in Lake Erie."

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Investigative
4:08 pm
Fri August 1, 2014

VOTE! What do you want Michigan Radio to look into?

Logo design by Harrison Lott

It's time for our third voting round for M I Curious! This time, we've got questions about pirates on the Great Lakes, why people park their cars backwards, and an historic Detroit housing project.

These past couple months, we've asked you the following question on Facebook, Twitter, and on our website:

"What do you wonder about Michigan or its people that you want Michigan Radio to investigate?"

People chimed in with what they're curious to know more about.

Right now, we're looking into the status of the pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. And we're digging into the history of the "Michigan left turn" for Stateside.

Now, it's time for you to vote on which question you would like us to investigate next. 

Voting will be open for one week. After that, we'll investigate the question with the most votes.

The resulting story could be a radio piece, a multimedia online post, or an interview segment with Cynthia Canty – or it could be a combination of all three.

The Environment Report
12:11 pm
Thu July 31, 2014

Making the Great Lakes safer for swimming, fishing and drinking the water

Apostle Island National Park on Lake Superior. The International Joint Commission's Health Professionals Advisory Board wants to examine contaminants at beaches among other indicators of the overall health of the Great Lakes.
User: carol mitchell Flickr

Just in case the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement isn’t on your summer reading list, here’s the gist of it:

It’s an agreement between the U.S. and Canada. One of the goals of that agreement is to make the Great Lakes more swimmable, fishable and drinkable.

The International Joint Commission is an independent bi-national organization. It gives advice to the U.S. and Canada on meeting those goals, among other things. The IJC has a Health Professionals Advisory Board, and the board’s come out with a report proposing five ways to measure risks to our health from contaminants and other hazards in the Great Lakes.

The advisory board is proposing these indicators:

  • The chemical integrity of source water
  • Biological hazards of source water
  • Illness risk at Great Lakes beaches
  • Identified risks at Great Lakes beaches
  • Contaminant levels in fish

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The Environment Report
12:41 pm
Tue July 29, 2014

Birding from the sky above southeast Michigan

Kensington Metropark from the sky
Dea Armstrong

Like most of us, Dea Armstrong has only seen birds from the ground. Today, she’s going to fly with them.

Armstrong is Ann Arbor’s city ornithologist, and watching birds from a hot air balloon is on her bucket list. I got a chance to tag along to find out what we’d see from the air.

“I’m so excited to see what it’ll be like to look from above and down. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to recognize the birds, of course, but it’ll be just so different,” she says.

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The Environment Report
8:50 am
Tue July 29, 2014

EPA holding public hearings on Clean Power Plan

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

For the first time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to require power plants to cut their carbon pollution. This week, the EPA is holding public hearings about the plan all around the country.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says the agency has already gotten more than 300,000 comments.

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The Environment Report
11:17 am
Thu July 24, 2014

After 4 years, major cleanup on the Kalamazoo River coming to a close

Workers assess damage at Enbridge oil spill site in 2010. The major aspects of the cleanup are expected to be wrapped up this summer.
EPA

It's been four years since the Enbridge pipeline Line 6B broke, creating the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

More than a million gallons of tar sands oil have been cleaned up from Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. This summer, crews are dredging areas of Morrow Lake.

Steve Hamilton is a professor of ecosystem ecology at the Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University. He’s served as an independent scientific advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency throughout the cleanup. I talked with him for today's Environment Report.

A few years ago, right in the heart of the cleanup, an EPA official said the agency was "writing the book" on how to remove tar sands oil from the bottom of a river.

Hamilton agrees: "First, before it even got to the bottom, we learned that in the first year, it stuck to surfaces of plants and debris that made a tarry mess that largely had to be manually removed." 

He says it was the removal of the submerged oil that made the cleanup last as long as it has.

"It is so incredibly difficult to remove submerged oil from a complex river, extending over nearly 40 miles."

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