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.

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.


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.

User:Phils1stPix / Flicker


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service commissioned a report on the commercial grass carp industry. Grass carp are one of four species of Asian carp that officials are concerned about.

They’re used to control vegetation in lakes and ponds, and some people like to eat them. 

Mobile technology can help pinpoint when and where children are exposed to air pollution.
American Chemical Society

A team of researchers in Spain attached sensors to school age kids. Then, they used a smartphone to track how much air pollution (black carbon, a component of soot) they were exposed to at home and school in real time. The researchers did this work as part of a larger epidemiological study on air pollution and brain development.

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen is an author of the study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. He says the real time monitoring fills in gaps in data and gives a better picture of what the children are exposed to during the day.

He says they’re working to make this technology available to everyone.

Arsenic is poisonous. But scientists are still trying to figure out what it does to us at very low doses.

A research team has found breastfed infants have lower exposure to arsenic than babies who exclusively drink formula.

Rachel Kramer / User: Flickr

A research team has discovered high levels of flame retardants in bald eagles in Michigan.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are in all kinds of consumer products.  They're in our couches, our TVs, our cars, our office chairs, the padding beneath our carpets, and the dust in our homes. But the chemicals don’t stay put. They leach out and build up in people and in wildlife.

"What we found was that some of the eagles, particularly in Michigan, had some of the highest exposures to flame retardant chemicals in the world," says Nil Basu, a professor at McGill University in Montreal.

jordanmrcai / Creative Commons

Flint switched from Detroit’s water system last year and is now using the Flint River until it can hook up to Lake Huron.

But there have been major problems. Residents complain about the water tasting and smelling bad. The Department of Environmental Quality cited Flint in December for violating the Safe Water Drinking Act. 

David Kenyon / Michigan DNR

Snowy owls spend their summers 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.

Last year was a mega-irruption, a really rare event. Snowy owls came south by the thousands. Some birds got all the way down to Florida and Bermuda.

Scott Weidensaul is one of the founders of Project SNOWstorm. It’s a group of owl experts who are raising money to track the owls

There’s a new report card of sorts out on fish sold commercially from the Great Lakes.

It’s from Seafood Watch. That’s a program at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

The coal-burning Presque Isle Power Plant in Marquette, Michigan is being kept afloat by ratepayers in the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin.
WE Energies

In his State of the State address this week, Governor Snyder said we need a long-term energy policy.

“It needs to be an adaptable policy, because of the lack of federal policy and the challenges of a global marketplace," he said. "We need to focus on important things such as eliminating energy waste, and the conversion from coal to natural gas—an asset of the state of Michigan—and renewables."

State capitol
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Our environment laws in Michigan have become sharply more partisan in the past 14 years.

That statement comes from an analysis by MIRS News in Lansing. Reporter Craig Mauger examined about 200 new laws that the Michigan Legislature enacted from 2000 to 2014. 

He noted several changes.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Automakers are showing off everything from supercars to trucks to electrics at the North American International Auto Show this week. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton is covering the show in Detroit.

She says there are quite a few hybrids and electrics on display including the highly anticipated debut of a hybrid supercar — the Acura NSX - a "three motor sport hybrid."

Tiago J. G. Fernandes / Wikimedia Commons

Monarch butterflies are declining.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to add the monarch butterfly as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The agency just launched a one-year review of the butterfly’s status.

Rolf O. Peterson / Michigan Tech

The winter study of the wolves and moose on Isle Royale is heading into its 57th year. 

The wolf-moose study is the longest continuous study of any predator and its prey in the world.

Scientists Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich spend seven weeks on the island in the middle of winter every year. They'll be heading back out in a few weeks.

Michigan State University

Scientists look all over the Earth for things called drug leads. Those are things that could eventually make new medicines.

Researchers at Michigan State University have discovered an enzyme in a species of poisonous mushroom.

Jonathan Walton is a professor of plant biology at MSU.

University of Michigan's Climate Center

Our climate is already changing in the Great Lakes region. And people who manage our cities are finding ways to adapt.

“We’re seeing changes in our precipitation patterns; we’re seeing more extreme precipitation events, " says Beth Gibbons, the director of the University of Michigan’s Climate Center. Her group has released a new online tool for cities in the region. 

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. 

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.

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.

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.