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.

Photo by Rebecca Williams

At the moment, all royalties from oil and gas development in Michigan go into something called the Natural Resources Trust Fund. The trust fund money is used for improving wildlife habitat and parks and it's used to buy land for conservation.

But at a time when pretty much everything’s up on the chopping block... the future of that trust fund is in question.

State Representative Dave Agema (R) from Grandville has introduced legislation to divert oil and gas royalties away from the Trust Fund.

Under his proposal:

  • 60% of oil and gas royalties would go into the State Transportation Fund
  • 20% would go into the State Aeronautics Fund
  • the remaining 20% would go into the Natural Resources Trust Fund

The NRTF has been around since 1976. It was negotiated as part of a larger deal to allow oil and gas development in Michigan's Pigeon River Country State Forest.

I talked with the Michigan Environmental Council's policy director, James Clift, about this.  He says:

"Every corner of the state has obtained some of this trust fund money, either buying parkland or developing parkland, setting aside public land for hunting and fishing... It’s a very popular program and I think people are going to be very supportive of the way it’s spent currently."

Photo by Mary Hollinger, NESDIS/NODC biologist, NOAA

You've definitely seen mute swans: they're big, white birds with orange bills.  A lot of people love them.

But Michigan wildlife officials say there are too many mute swans in the state

So... the Department of Natural Resources and Environment is now proposing a change... one that’s making some people very angry.

Barbara Avers is a waterfowl specialist with the DNRE. She says mute swans are not native to the U.S. – they were brought over from Europe in the 1800's. Basically, because they’re pretty.

“They’ve grown exponentially in Michigan. They’re kind of many times the bullies of the marsh.”

Avers says mute swans eat a huge amount of vegetation in lakes. They can push out native birds, such as the trumpeter swan. And she says mute swans can snap and charge at people.

“Routinely each year we get reports of mute swan attacks on land, and kayakers, people on jet skis, people out fishing in a boat, and what we see is as mute swan population grows so do the number of conflicts we see.”

Callum Black / Flickr

The North Carolina based giant Duke Energy wants to build more than a hundred 500 foot tall turbines in rural Benzie and Manistee counties.  Bob Allen reports this proposed wind farm is causing divisions in communities up north.

Michigan officials have identified parts of these two counties as having the 2nd highest wind potential in the state. 

Alan O’Shea has been in the renewable energy business for the past thirty years. 

“We don’t have to wait for Michigan to heal. This project can heal northern Michigan. I mean there are people, workers that are here looking for jobs.”

But there also are people in the area opposed to this project.

gophouse.com

In his first State of the State address last night, Governor Rick Snyder made it clear that jobs are his first priority.

But he also made several announcements on conservation and park projects and the Pure Michigan tourism campaign. He announced that his budget recommendation will include annual funding of $25 million for the Pure Michigan tourism campaign.

“This program supports one of our strongest assets – our water resources and the treasures of the Great Lakes, and it’s an illustration of value for money. It’s positive for our image, and it’s positive return on our tax dollars.”

And he urged the legislature to quickly pass a bill that would implement the recommendations of the Natural Resources Trust Fund board. The board has recommended that $100 million be used to buy land for conservation and parks.

“These projects will positively impact every corner of our state. From Iron County in the Upper Peninsula to Traverse City, to Luna Pier in Monroe County. Also included is a significant expansion of the William T Milliken Park on the Detroit riverfront.”

In his address, Governor Snyder called the Great Lakes “economic engines.”

 

Photo by Flickr user Brandon Stafford

Many homeowners just can’t afford the upfront investment to make their homes more energy efficient. And many programs meant to defray some of that cost haven’t gotten much traction with consumers.

But Sarah Cwiek reports the federal government’s “BetterBuildings” program is trying to change that. It’s just now getting off the ground in Michigan with money from the 2009 stimulus package.

Sarah visited Chris Matus at his Ferndale home on the day he was getting an energy audit from Well Home's Kent Trobaugh.

The guys set up something called a blower door test to find out where the leaks were in Matus' home.  Then they roamed the house with an infrared camera.  The screen shows a landscape of blurred colors: gold is heat, purple is cold. Matus says the whole exercise reminds him of a certain movie from the 1980s.

“It feels like we’re Ghostbusting.”

Matus is getting about a thousand dollars worth of work done on his house today. But it only costs him 50. That’s because he’s taking advantage of the U.S. Department of Energy’s stimulus-funded BetterBuildings program. Michigan got 30-million dollars—the second-biggest chunk of any state.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sea lampreys are invasive parasites found in every one of the Great Lakes. It’s a fish with a round mouth like a suction cup. It latches onto big fish like trout and salmon... and kills them by drinking their blood.

It costs fisheries managers in the U.S. and Canada 20 million dollars a year to control the lamprey.

There’s one secret weapon in development that could eventually save them money... pheromones. Those are odors that male lampreys release to attract the lady lampreys.

I called Nick Johnson with the Michigan lamprey research team to find out how the team's third and final year of testing these pheromones is going.

You could call him a lamprey matchmaker.

"Pheromones are typically species specific, so they should have minimal impact to other species, they're highly potent, effective at very low concentrations. So once they're developed they could be applied relatively cheaply and with little environmental impact."

Photo courtesy of Herpetological Resource & Management

Crews are still out on the Kalamazoo River cleaning up oil from last summer’s spill.  More than 840,000 gallons spilled from a ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners, LP.  Right now, crews are focusing on cleaning the contaminated soil.

It’s not clear what the long term impacts will be on wildlife.

After the spill, rescue teams collected more than 2,400 birds, mammals, fish and reptiles... and took them to a rehab center to have the oil cleaned off. Most of the animals brought into the center survived.

This week, I talked with herpetologist David Mifsud, aka "Turtle Dave."  He was hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help with the initial wildlife recovery. He says turtles made up the majority of wildlife rescued from the spill site.

“We had some, their mouths were so tacky with the oil they could barely open their mouths. We saw some pretty devastating things.”

Flickr user: citizen of the deep

In past years, most of the so-called “green cars” at the North American International Auto Show were concept cars – not ready for prime time. This year is different.

The Toyota Prius has been America’s premier environmentally friendly car for ten years. Now, the car has some serious competition. Both the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf have an EPA fuel economy rating the equivalent of more than 90 miles to the gallon.

Tracy Samilton talked with Brad Berman, founder of plugincars.com

“Suddenly it makes the Prius' 50 mpg seem mild. Now it’s Toyota’s turn to say, hey, we’re still relevant.”

Toyota is turning the Prius into an entire brand. People going to the show will be able to see three new Prius vehicles, including a plug-in being unveiled in Detroit.

Photo by Suzy Vuljevic

Many art supplies contain lead, arsenic, asbestos and other potentially dangerous compounds.  The Environment Report's Tanya Ott profiles a Michigan artist who spends 8-12 hours a day working with spray paint.

Most of the time Larry Stephens paints outside. But in winter, he can’t. So he paints indoors, wearing a respirator or a dust mask. It’s not enough.

“You know within a couple of hours I’ll start getting dizzy. You’ll end up coughing up paint the next morning. You’ll go to blow your nose and it’ll be green and red and yellow and whatever colors you’re using that day.”

Experts say there are no large scale health studies of people who use art supplies.

But Dr. Steven Marcus – who is New Jersey’s poison control chief – says lead, arsenic and cadmium are found in some paint pigments. Stone carving can release asbestos into the air and cause lung disease. And some glues and cements contain chemicals that can cause neurological damage – including a condition called “wrist drop,” where sufferers actually lose strength in their hands.  

“And for an artist, that’s their bread and butter. They lose strength in their hands and they can’t be an artist.”  

Photo by Rebecca Williams

Governor Rick Snyder picked outgoing Republican state Senator Patty Birkholtz to lead the Office of the Great Lakes. As you might guess, the director of this office oversees all things Great Lakes. Birkholtz will advise the governor and make policy recommendations on everything from Asian carp to water use.

Birkholtz says protecting the Great Lakes will lead to a stronger economy.

“When we have a healthy Great Lakes system we have more jobs here in this state as well as regionally, and if we don’t have a healthy Great Lakes system it’s a detriment to not only the jobs situation but also businesses locating here."

Christmas trees in a pile for recycling
(Photo by mmhaffie, Flickr)

So you’ve put away all the ornaments and the lights and the tinsel... and you have that bare tree in your living room... what now?  It’s not illegal in Michigan to throw your Christmas tree away... but a lot of cities and counties do recycle them... and chip them up into mulch.  The recycling website Earth 911 lets you type in your zip code to find tree drop-off sites near you.

I talked with Marsha Gray - she's the executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. She says the first thing you should do if you want to recycle your tree is call the people who pick up your trash.

“You want to ask them if they do a separate collection for the trees. If they’re collecting them separately from your regular trash, that means they’re most likely recycling, probably chipping those trees into mulch. If they’re collecting at the same time and they’re going right into the bin that means they will go to the landfill."

Marsha's tips for recycling - or reusing your tree:

  • If your waste hauler won't recycle your tree... call your city or county park department.  There's a good chance they offer a drop-off site for the first few weeks of January.
  • Stand your tree up next to the birdfeeder for a little perching spot for birds while they wait their turn at the feeder.
  • Use the branches as plant stakes
  • If you're really ambitious, break out the chainsaw and remove the branches (you don't want to burn these in a fire - they can spark!), cut the trunk into logs, and add them to your log pile to season for a year.  Free firewood for next Christmas!
Michigan Supreme Court
Photo by larrysphatpage, Flickr

The Michigan Supreme Court says anyone can sue the state if they believe it's acting in a way that harms the environment. 

Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra talked with Nick Schroeck with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center to find out what this decision means. He says if a company wants to do something like discharge treated wastewater into a creek or a river, for example, it needs a permit from the state to do so:

“The way our environmental law works, you have to have a permit to pollute, as it were. That means that the state regulates the amount of pollution that’s allowed into the waters of the state.”

A House of Straw

Dec 23, 2010
The Trumpey house - made of straw
Photo by Steve Charles

Step aside, Three Little Pigs. 

Strawbale buildings have come a long way from the flimsy huts a wolf could blow down.  The Trumpey family in Grass Lake, Michigan, built their 2,000 square foot home from straw, clay, field stones all sourced locally - and timber salvaged from trees killed by the emerald ash borer. 

They're living off the grid - everything they do: washing laundry, firing up the sawmill, watching TV -  is powered by their solar panels (with a small backup generator for those cloudy weeks in the winter).

Joe Trumpey says fire is a considerable risk before you seal up the straw walls with adobe. 

“When you’re building the building all the open straw is a huge fire hazard at that point so we were really careful not to have any smokers around and no open fires. Once it’s coated with mud the fire proofing is really in place.”

You can hear Joe and Shelly talk about the experience of building with straw.

The stats:

  • 1500 bales of straw
  • the 18-inch thick walls are insulated with the straw, plastered on either side with adobe mud - giving the Trumpeys 2-3 times the insulation value of a conventional home
  • 50 tons of field stones, dug from their own farmland
  • 7 years of planning, 2.5 years in the making
  • Cost: about $75 per square foot - but the family did 99% of the labor themselves

Matt and Kelly Grocoff's house in Ann Arbor
Photo courtesy of Matt Grocoff.

The Environment Report has been following an effort to make a Michigan house the oldest net-zero house in America. That means in a year the home will produce as much energy or more than it uses. Lester Graham reports... the owners are at the point where they can reach that goal.

Matt and Kelly Grocoff bought an old house in a historic neighborhood in Ann Arbor a few years ago. Matt wanted to show that making an older home an energy efficient showcase made more sense than building new.  Kelly was just a little skeptical.

“When we first bought the house and Matt was talking about what he wanted to do and what some goals might be, part of me was sort of like yeah, yeah, you know. Matt’s a dreamer. He likes to think big. And it’s really happening.”

 

Find out how to assess your own home's energy efficiency.

Huron-Manistee National Forest
Photo courtesy of Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service

A man who’s been dogging the U.S. Forest Service to make some parts of the Huron Manistee Forest off limits to gun hunters and snowmobilers won his case in federal court this fall.

As Bob Allen reports, the Court says forest managers have to consider setting aside roughly 70,000 acres for quiet uses such as hiking, bird watching and cross country skiing.

Kurt Meister sued the Forest Service as one citizen, and it's unusual to get as far as he has with his legal challenge.  He says:

“This case isn’t about hunting. It’s not about gun hunting. It’s not about stopping gun hunting. It’s simply saying it shouldn’t be everywhere. And if you make it everywhere, you’re affecting other people’s rights.”

The Forest Service points out they have to manage forests for multiple uses, and try to balance those uses with a minimum amount of conflict.  Jeff Pullen is a biologist in charge of writing the plan for the Huron Manistee.

“Really, if you look at the 2,000 or so comments we got on the plan, we had one person asking for this. And we felt, from an agency perspective, it didn’t seem reasonable to develop a separate alternative that looked at this issue that one person was raising.”

 

Sooper Yooper

Dec 9, 2010
Billy Cooper, the Sooper Yooper
Painting by Mark Heckman, courtesy of Thunder Bay Press.

With 180 invaders already in the Great Lakes, it might take a superhero to keep them out.  Luckily, we have one: Sooper Yooper!   A new children's book written by Mark Newman and illustrated by the late Mark Heckman, features Billy Cooper, an ex-Navy Seal who lives in the U.P. with his scuba-diving bulldog, Mighty Mac.  I spoke with Mark Heckman's wife, Diane, and author Mark Newman about the book and Mark Heckman's legacy.

Top 3 Things to Know about Sooper Yooper:

  1. A dive in icy Lake Superior to catch a sea lamprey is not for the faint of heart.  Please leave this to the professionals.
  2. Billy Cooper is not a shapeshifter, nor does he have x-ray vision or invisibility.  Instead, he's super smart.
  3. Having trouble getting legislation passed in Congress?  No problem for Sooper Yooper.  He must have some mighty good lobbying skills.
Erika Celeste / Environment Report

This documentary is an in-depth look at the future of coal in this country.

The Environment Report explores the role that coal plays in our lives and in the lives of those who depend on coal mining for a living.

Can coal truly be a viable option in the new green economy?

Listen to the Documentary:

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Part 1

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