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.

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

http://www.seafoodwatch.org/

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."

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. 

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.

Brian Wilcox / BYU

There are all kinds of diseases and other problems that are hurting honeybees. One of them is a bacterial infection called American Foulbrood and it’s been a problem for bees around the country for decades. The disease kills bee larvae and can lead to the entire hive collapsing.

Researchers at Brigham Young University have come up with a natural way to fight back. They’re using a kind of virus — a phage — that infects and replicates within a bacterium.

"This is using nature in order to fight nature, basically," says Sandra Burnett, an associate professor of microbiology and molecular biology at Brigham Young.

"We see phages naturally in the environment, so what our goal has been is to find phages that will infect this bacteria, and capture [these phages] and have them ready to actually do an attack and kill the bacteria for us."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.   

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.

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