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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Environment
10:49 am
Thu May 5, 2011

Aircraft chemical found in Great Lakes fish

Researchers from Environment Canada found a chemical used in aircraft fluids in lake trout in the Great Lakes.
Photo courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant

New research finds that fish in the Great Lakes are contaminated with a chemical used in aircraft hydraulic fluids.

Researcher Amila DeSilva works for Environment Canada, which is like the EPA in the U.S.

She says there have been studies on a number of perflourinated chemicals. They’re used to make textiles, upholstery, paper, and many other things. Studies have shown these types of chemicals can have toxic effects in humans. But not much is known about a chemical called perfluoroethylcyclohexanesulfonate - or PFECHS for short.

DeSilva says no one has really studied whether it's toxic.

She wanted to see if PFECHS was in the environment, so she and her colleagues sampled water and fish in the Great Lakes, specifically lake trout and walleye:

“We were really, really surprised to find it in fish. Because, just based on the structure and our chemical intuition we thought, ‘okay, it would be more likely to be in water than in fish’ so when we found it in fish, when you find anything in fish, it’s a whole other ballgame because humans consume fish.”

DeSilva says other perflourinated acids are endocrine disruptors. That means they create hormone imbalances in humans, and they have other toxic effects. She says once these chemicals are released into the environment they don’t degrade, they just build up. That’s why use of some chemicals in this class is highly restricted in the U.S. and Canada.

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Environment
11:06 am
Tue May 3, 2011

It's not so easy to get rid of that potato fork

A driver opens up one of the 20-foot high compost piles at Tuthill Farms. He'll add the new compostable waste to the hot core of the pile, then cover it back up.
Photo by Rebecca Williams

Have you ever seen those plastic forks or spoons made from corn or potatoes? It’s a big trend right now.

They’re compostable. So in theory... this tableware breaks down into a dark, rich material that’s really good for gardening.

So you get the convenience of disposable plastic... without adding to the big pile of plastic trash.

But here’s where things get tricky.

Liz Shoch is with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. She's working with companies to rethink the way they package their products.

“One of the things we say a lot currently is there is no sustainable package and that goes for compostable packaging too. There’s always tradeoffs.”

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Environment
10:53 am
Tue May 3, 2011

Money for Great Lakes restoration

The federal budget left many groups wanting more money, but those lobbying to restore Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes are actually pretty pleased with the President and Congress.

Andy Buchsbaum co-chairs a group that’s trying to get enough funding over five years to restore the Great Lakes. He says the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative didn’t get all the money it wanted in the 2011 federal budget. But Buchsbaum says given the tight economic times, the $300 million they did get will keep the program on track.

“The Great Lakes did remarkably well this year in the federal budget, and the people in this region will benefit from it.”

In Michigan, Buchsbaum says the money is being used to restore wetlands. It’s also being used to get rid of toxic hot spots, such as the so-called black lagoon in the Detroit River area. And it’s being used to prevent Asian Carp from getting into Lake Michigan.

Buchsbaum says both parties supported Great Lakes restoration because of the economic benefits, and everyone wants their children to be able to swim at the beaches and drink the water.

-Julie Grant for The Environment Report

Environment
11:23 am
Thu April 28, 2011

The state of Michigan's air

Photo by d.boyd, Flickr

The American Lung Association released its State of the Air Report this week.

More than a dozen Michigan cities made the list of the most polluted cities in the country for ozone pollution – also known as smog – and particle pollution – also called soot. The major sources of this pollution are factories and power plants... and our cars and trucks and even our lawnmowers.

The report has three separate lists of the most polluted cities.  There are lists for ozone pollution, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution.  Detroit ranked 17th most polluted for year-round particle pollution. Grand Rapids tied for 43rd worst ozone pollution.

Shelly Kiser is the director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Michigan. 

"Ozone is created in the atmosphere with a couple chemicals that need heat and light, so it's usually something we see in the summer. It increases your risk of early death, you're more likely to have asthma attacks. Particle pollution, on the other hand, is what we think of as soot, so it's tiny pieces of something that can blow in the wind, and they are so tiny that they can go way down in the deepest part of your lungs and really wreak havoc there. It increases your risk of death during high levels over a short period of time, or at low levels over a long period of time."

There is some good news in the report. Many Michigan communities have improved air quality over previous years and some Michigan cities actually made the list of the cleanest cities in the country.  The cleanest cities for particle pollution were the greater Lansing area and Saginaw.

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Environment
11:07 am
Thu April 28, 2011

Can the state be held liable in lawsuits over permits?

This week, the Michigan Supreme Court's conservative majority reversed a major decision that allowed Michigan citizens to sue the state over pollution concerns.

In December, the high court ruled that state agencies that issue permits that result in harm can be named in a citizen suit. At the time, there was a liberal majority in the Court.

The office of Attorney General Bill Schuette asked the Court to rehear the case.

The newly conservative Court did that this week... and with an order reversed the December ruling.

Nick Schroeck is the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

“What the Court did is it basically potentially rolled back a layer of environmental protection by calling into question whether or not the state can be liable for its permitting decisions. So if the state permits something that goes on to harm the environment, arguably the state should be liable if they made a bad decision. And what the Court did is they’ve kinda called that into question.”

Schroeck says he expects this new decision will be challenged.

Environment
12:15 pm
Tue April 26, 2011

Salmon fishery on the rocks

The Chinook salmon was initially introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1870s. Michigan, New York and Wisconsin reintroduced the Chinook salmon to the Great Lakes in 1966.
Photo courtesy of USFWS

There’s a decision looming for Lake Huron that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. The state must decide whether it should keep putting chinook salmon in the lake. The fish has been the driving force behind sport fishing in the Great Lakes. But the salmon’s future in the Upper Lakes is now questionable.

It’s hard to overstate how drastically salmon transformed the Great Lakes after they were introduced more than 40 years ago.

Ed Retherford is a charter boat captain on Lake Huron. He says in the old days on a weekend in Rockport he’d see cars with boat trailers backed up for a mile or two waiting to launch. But that’s all gone now.

“You’d be lucky, except maybe for the brown trout festival, you’d be lucky to see twenty boats there on a weekend. It just decimated that area. You can imagine the economics involved.”

Chinook or king salmon practically disappeared from Lake Huron about seven years ago. Most of the charter boats are gone now because the kinds of fish that remain are just not as exciting to catch as salmon.

State officials figure little towns like Rockport lose upwards of a million dollars in tourism business every year without the fishery.

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Environment
12:01 pm
Thu April 21, 2011

Understanding the new "nutrition facts" for lightbulbs

The new label on lightbulbs
Image courtesy of the DOE

If you’ve ever been lost in the lightbulb aisle... things are getting a little easier. There’s a new label the federal government is requiring on lightbulb packages. It's modeled after the Nutrition Facts label on food.

But the label still needs some deciphering. Greenovation dot tv’s Matt Grocoff knows a thing or two about lightbulbs. I met up with Matt so he could show me how to read the new labels.

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Environment
11:12 am
Thu April 21, 2011

Business owners, DOE officials meet for clean energy manufacturing workshop

Business owners and politicians are trying to figure out how to make Michigan a manufacturing hub for things like advanced batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels.

They’re gathering at the Clean Energy Manufacturing Workshop in Ann Arbor today and tomorrow. The workshop is being put on by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy along with Ann Arbor SPARK.

Steven Busch will be paying pretty close attention.

He’s with Energetx Composites Company in Holland. It’s a spin-off company of Tiara Yacht. Before the economy went south, their main business was building high end yachts. Now, they make blades for wind turbines.

“The basic manufacturing process is very similar. We have the expertise on how to handle large, big, bulky things.”

He says they’re planning to stay in Michigan.

“Michigan offers the best engineering and manufacturing skill set probably in the world. Geographically, the Great Lakes are a great opportunity as a place to be able to ship products over the water.”

Busch says he’d like to see more training programs at universities and community colleges – and more retraining programs for former auto workers who want to get into the business.

Environment
11:45 pm
Mon April 18, 2011

Deer baiting ban to be lifted?

Baiting deer (often with corn, apples, sugar beets or carrots) has been banned for three years in the Lower Peninsula.
(Photo by Scott Bauer - USDA)

Baiting deer is the subject of lots of debate in Lansing this month. There’s a ban on feeding deer in the Lower Peninsula that could be lifted in June. The restriction was a response to the discovery of chronic wasting disease in one deer in 2008. But as Peter Payette reported for The Environment Report no more sick animals have been found and the pressure is growing to let hunters bait wild deer.

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Environment
11:27 am
Mon April 18, 2011

Regulators, industry reps attend pipeline safety forum

The U.S. Department of Transportation is holding a forum on pipeline safety today in Washington, DC.

Last summer’s massive oil spill in the Kalamazoo River and two fatal gas line explosions in California and Pennsylvania triggered the review of pipeline safety.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently announced a pipeline safety action plan.  The plan calls for pipeline operators to review their pipelines and quickly repair sections that are in bad condition.

Andy Black is the President and CEO of the Association of Oil Pipelines.  It’s a trade group that represents pipeline operators. 

“The industry strives for no accidents but I cannot assure you there will be none.”

He says despite the recent accidents, the industry’s safety record is improving.  The Transportation Department backs up that claim... saying accidents have decreased nearly 50% over the past 20 years.

You can find out what kind of pipelines run near your home, school or office on a new website from the DOT.

Environment
10:25 am
Thu April 14, 2011

Health concerns after the oil spill (part 2)

The Kalamazoo River a few days after the oil spill last July.
Photo courtesy of the State of Michigan

Until last July, many people in Marshall had no idea an oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ran underneath their town.

Then, it broke. More than 840,000 gallons of thick, black oil from the Canadian tar sands poured into the Kalamazoo River.

“I think I can sum it up in one word and that is nightmare."

Deb Miller lives just 50 feet from the Kalamazoo River.

“The smell, I don’t even know how to describe the smell, there are no words. You could not be outside."

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Environment
10:34 am
Tue April 12, 2011

Oil lingers in Kalamazoo River (Part 1)

A Great Blue Heron covered in oil after the Enbridge oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.
Photo courtesy of the State of Michigan/EPA

It was one of the largest oil spills in the Midwest... and it’s not over yet.

Crews are still cleaning up from last July’s oil spill in the Kalamazoo River. An oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ruptured... and spilled more than 840,000 gallons of heavy crude. The oil polluted Talmadge Creek and more than 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency say most of that oil has been sucked out of the river... and tens of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil have been removed.

But the work is far from done.

The EPA granted me access to one of the contaminated sites on the Kalamazoo River.  I met with Mark Durno, the Deputy Incident Commander with the EPA. He’s overseeing the cleanup teams.  We stood on the bank of the river as dump trucks and loaders rumbled over a bridge out to an island in the river.

“The islands were heavily contaminated, we didn’t expect to see as much oil as we did. If you’d shovel down into the islands you’d see oil pool into the holes we’d dig."

Workers scooped out contaminated soil... hauled it to a staging area and shipped it off site.

Mark Durno says the weather will dictate what happens next. He says heavy rainstorms will probably move oil around. They won’t know how much more cleanup work they’ll have to do until they finish their spring assessment.

“Once the heavy rains recede, we’ll do an assessment over the entire stretch of river to determine whether there are substantial amounts of submerged oil in sediments that still exist in the system.”

He says if they find a lot of oil at the bottom of the river... the crews will have to remove it.

Reports that Enbridge submitted to the EPA and the state of Michigan show the type of oil spilled in the Kalamazoo River was diluted bitumen. Bitumen is a type of oil that comes from tar sands. It’s a very thick oil, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines.

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Environment
12:42 pm
Thu April 7, 2011

Isle Royale's wolves to go extinct?

Wolves on Isle Royale in Lake Superior
Photo courtesy of isleroyalewolf.org

The wolves of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior could be in trouble.

For 53 years, researchers from Michigan Tech have been studying the island’s wolf and moose populations.

This year... they found there are fewer wolves – just 16. And only a couple of females that can still have babies. Rolf Peterson has been studying the wolves for more than four decades.

He says it's not clear why some of the wolves are dying.

"In late 2009, six of the ten females we had in the population died. That was just an unusual, presumably a fluke. Only one of the females was radio collared and she died in a very unusual way, she died giving birth."

He says the outlook for the existence of wolves on Isle Royale is uncertain.

"It could be just a little hurdle they have to jump through. It also could mean the beginning of the end if those one or two females should die without giving birth to a female. And if neither of the two pups we thought we saw this year are female, then that's it. The population would go extinct because there are no females."

At this point, he doesn't think people should intervene. But he says there could come a point where the National Park Service might introduce new female wolves from the mainland. Peterson says the males on the island would readily accept new females if the existing females die.

The wolves keep the island's moose in check. The research team has found that the moose population is currently around 500 animals. If the wolves go extinct, Peterson says the moose would be in trouble too.

"They'd increase to the point where they'd starve to death catastrophically."

Peterson has spent most of every year for four decades living among the wolves and moose on the island with his wife Candy.  But he says there's still plenty to be discovered.

"Almost everything that happens there surprises me. We're almost unable to predict the short term future. I guess the resiliency of wolves in general does usually surprise me. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they pulled out of this one. But exactly how they're going to do it is what's fascinating."

You can learn more about the research team and the wildlife here.

Environment
12:15 pm
Thu April 7, 2011

Blocking EPA's regulation of greenhouse gasses

Michigan Congressman Fred Upton (R)
Republican Conference Flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled four years ago that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate planet-warming greenhouse gasses... if the agency found those gasses are a threat to human health and safety. In 2009, the EPA found greenhouse gasses are a threat... and the agency started taking steps to regulate emissions from industries such as coal-burning power plants and automobiles.

For months now, many members of Congress have been trying to block the EPA from doing that. The latest people to climb on board are from Michigan: Republican Representative Fred Upton and Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow.

Fred Upton chairs the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. He not only wants to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses... he wants to repeal the EPA’s scientific finding that greenhouse gasses are harmful.

Ryan Werder is the political director for the nonpartisan group Michigan League of Conservation Voters. He says since he was appointed Chair, Congressman Upton has shifted to the right politically.

“He was always a good, moderate, reliable voice. Before, when he said climate change was a reality and something we had to consider. He suddenly removed that from this website and acts as if climate change is non-existent.”

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Environment
10:28 am
Tue April 5, 2011

Landowners sue gas companies over leases

Natural gas drilling rig in Wyoming
Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

Last May, oil and gas companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying up rights to drill in Michigan. By summer, private landowners in northern Michigan had signed leases promising record payments to drill on their land. But by the end of the year, the frenzy over the new gas play had fizzled. And, as Bob Allen found out, hundreds of people were claiming they’d been cheated.

The first person to file suit against the gas companies in Emmet County is Mildred Lutz.

A sturdy 92 years old, she still keeps a garden and cans her own vegetables.

Last summer, a man knocked on her door and offered to pay her almost a hundred thousand dollars for the oil and gas deep underground beneath her farm.

Mildred had just lost her husband of sixty-nine years, Carl. And she thought the money would come in handy for a whole list of expenses, including funeral costs. So after talking it over with her five children, she signed a lease and took the document to the bank in Alanson to be notarized.

She never heard another word from the oil and gas developers and she never got paid.

And how does she feel about that?

“Well, not very good. I don’t know, I’ve always kind of had the feeling of trusting a lot of people, I guess. I hate to see people being dishonest. When you do that, you’re just really hurting a lot of people that were depending on this.”

Attorney Bill Rolinski says he’s heard from a lot of people who ended up in the same boat as Mildred Lutz.

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Environment
12:00 pm
Thu March 24, 2011

Rebranding the Great Lakes Seaway

The Dutch-flagged, Dane-piloted Avonborg was carrying 75 wind turbine blades to Burns Harbor, Indiana, on Lake Michigan, on the opening day of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Photo by David Sommerstein

Another sure sign of spring: the Great Lakes shipping season kicked off this week.

Millions of tons of cargo travel by boat on the Great Lakes every year– freighters from the Atlantic Ocean that enter the Lakes by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The first freighter of the 53rd Seaway season eased through the locks in Montreal on Tuesday. David Sommerstein visited Montreal for the opening ceremonies.  He found out that Seaway officials are trying to rebrand the Seaway:

The first freighter rumbling into the St. Lambert Lock was the Dutch-flagged "Avonborg."  It was loaded up with wind turbine parts.

David spoke with Terry Johnson, the U.S. chief of the St. Lawrence Seaway:

"Wind turbines have been increasingly coming in and it’s nice to be able to see something that is visual. This is good."

The windmill parts bound for Indiana aren’t just a good photo opp. They’re the perfect image the Seaway wants to project these days – that it’s the greenest, cheapest way to transport goods. Shipping is far more fuel efficient than trucking.

Ross Fletcher of BBC Chartering contracted this ship.

"Those 75 blades represent 75 truckloads that aren’t going to travel between Montreal and the U.S. Midwest, so we’re taking 75 truckloads off the highways."

The Seaway’s been trying to reinvent itself since it was built in the 1950s.

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Environment
2:32 pm
Tue March 8, 2011

State might allow mining in the Waterloo Recreation Area

Rachelle Mann at the top of a hill overlooking the current mining operations owned by Aggregate Industries. The potential new mining site – 72 acres of the Waterloo Recreation Area – is to her top right.
Rebecca Williams Michigan Radio

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment wants to allow sand and gravel mining in the largest park in the lower peninsula – the Waterloo Recreation Area.

The DNRE is considering allowing mining on 72 acres of the 20,000 acre park.

It would be the first time mining would be allowed in the Waterloo Recreation Area.

Aggregate Industries, a Maryland-based company and a subsidiary of a Swiss-owned company, wants to do the mining.

The company has already been mining right on Waterloo's western boundary.

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Environment
11:43 am
Thu March 3, 2011

The do-it-yourself snow and ice test

Matt Grocoff says icicles are pretty, but they are also a bad sign that your roof could be suffering water damage, drip by drip.
Photo by Matt Grocoff

In the winter... there’s a quick and easy way to find out where your house is leaking energy... just by looking at your roof a day or two after a good snow. Greenovation.tv’s Matt Grocoff invited me along on what he calls a drive-by energy audit.

Here's what to look for:

  1. Icicles are pretty... but they're a sign that your attic needs more insulation. Heat from your house is escaping and melting the snow.
  2. If you have ice clogging your gutter, it can cause damage to the gutter... and ice can get underneath your roof shingles and damage your roof.
  3. You can use a roof rake to clear snow from your roof... but it's just a short-term fix. A better solution is to check out the non-profit group Michigan Saves to find a qualified contractor, who can come out and perform an energy audit and find your home's leaks and advise you on how to fix them so you can save energy and money.
Environment
9:57 am
Tue March 1, 2011

Decline in Americans' belief in global warming

A polar bear on thin ice
Photo courtesy of Joel Garlich-Miller, USFWS

For the past decade, researchers have been studying what Americans believe about climate change.

For several years, more and more of the public has agreed that climate change is taking place. But recently, the number of people who believe climate change is happening is falling.

I talked with Barry Rabe, a professor in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

He’s the author of a new report that draws on the latest public opinion surveys.

Here's what he had to say about the report, which found fewer people believe the Earth is warming:

"We found in the United States as well as in Michigan that there appears to be an upward trajectory of this in the past decade. Do you think global temperatures are warming, independent of the question of human causation, and other questions about perceptions of global warming consistently increasing, probably peaking in late 2008.

Since that time in the United States, we’ve seen a drop of about 18-20 percentage points on some of the very basic, standard survey questions that have been used for some time in the U.S. and really around the world.

In our latest survey which comes from November 2010, we actually see a little bit of bouncing back up again, not back to those November 2008 levels but for our purposes what this suggests is public understanding and perception of climate change is really a pretty volatile area of public opinion.

The numbers move around quite a bit from year to year, much more than we would have ever anticipated."

He thinks one main reason why belief in global warming has dropped over the past couple years is because a lot of people are affected by the weather in their own backyards.

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Environment
2:58 pm
Thu February 24, 2011

Beekeepers' favorite invasive

Spotted knapweed, or star thistle, is a favorite of bees. Some beekeepers say star thistle honey puts Northern Michigan on the map.
(Photo by Flickr user JanetandPhil)

Researchers from Michigan State University are trying to control an invasive plant called spotted knapweed. They’ve released two foreign beetles that eat the plant on small plots of state land.

Knapweed spreads a carpet of purple flowers over old farm fields and alongside roads in mid-summer.

But as The Environment Report's Bob Allen discovered, beekeepers rely on those flowers for making honey.

Spotted knapweed tends to dominate any landscape where it takes hold. Its roots send out a chemical substance that kills nearby plants.

But researchers in several states think they’ve found a way to keep it in check. They’ve released two species of tiny European weevils.

One attacks knapweed’s roots, the other eats its seeds.

Doug Landis is a bug specialist at Michigan State University. He says in some test plots the bugs have knocked knapweed back as much as 80%.

“These insects don’t eliminate knapweed. But they can reduce its density to the point where it becomes a more manageable part of the plant community.”

Knapweed is found in every county in Michigan but especially in sandy soils. And land managers want to get rid of it because it crowds out native wildflowers and grasses that supply food and shelter to a wide variety of insects, birds and other wildlife.

But beekeepers say the plant has a lot of value for them. They even have a more poetic name for it... star thistle. And they say it produces a light, mild, pleasant tasting honey that puts northern Michigan on the map.

“It’s one of the best honeys in the country.”

Kirk Jones runs Sleeping Bear Apiary in Benzie County.

He says his star thistle honey is in demand in stores and restaurants across the country.
And it’s the only source of surplus nectar available for his bees late in the season.

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