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.

Karl Rosaen

Figuring out how your food is grown is not always easy to do. Sometimes there are labels saying things like “free-range” or “certified naturally grown” but it can take some work to figure out what that means.

“So as a consumer, it’s just kind of like, ugh, I give up.”

Cara Rosaen and her husband Karl wanted a lot more information. They wanted our food system to be more transparent.

“And so we said, okay let’s just take you back to the story, to the pictures, all the things that are the core of the farm that will make you really know that that’s the truth, you know, go way beyond and way deeper than a label.”

Brett Groehler, Director of Photography / UMD

Researchers are sending robots where no scientist has gone before: under the ice in Lake Superior during winter.

This week, researchers from the University of Minnesota-Duluth put their first robot in Lake Superior to test it. Think of them as robotic divers... they travel up and down on cables and collect data. The cables will be anchored to the bottom of the lake.

Erik Brown is one of the lead researchers and the acting director of the Large Lakes Observatory at UMD.  He says the harsh winters on Lake Superior make it too dangerous for people to go out on ships and collect data.

John Klein Wilson / Michigan Radio

It’s something we don’t like to talk about, but cancer is all around us. It would be hard to find someone who hasn’t been touched by cancer - not just someone you know - but someone you love.

In Living with Cancer, a special one-hour documentary from Michigan Radio, we'll explore how much we really know about the connections between cancer and the chemicals in our environment.

We’ll meet both regular people and scientists trying to figure out if certain towns around Michigan are struggling with more cancer cases than other places because of current or past pollution. You'll hear about whether or not turning to the courts makes sense when it seems a company might to be blame for putting people at risk of cancer or other illnesses. Finally, we'll look at where we go from here. What do researchers know, and where are they looking next?

Listen live at 3pm on air on Michigan Radio or you can listen to the show at the audio links below:

Maybe you’ve noticed you haven’t been swatting a lot of mosquitoes this summer. 

“It’s been a strangely quiet year for nuisance mosquitoes in particular.”

Michael Kaufman is a mosquito expert and an associate professor at Michigan State University. 

“Most people think all mosquitoes are a nuisance and I guess I’d have to agree with that. But the ones most people complain about come out in large numbers after rain events or spring snow melts and things like that.”

Think of nuisance mosquitoes as the kind that attack you in swarms.

Kaufman says it’s been so dry that we haven’t had the usual bursts of mosquitoes that you get after a big rain. 

But he says ironically, our hot, dry summer has been ideal for the species of mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus.  The species Culex pipiens is the one experts are most concerned about... and those guys like it when it’s hot.

“The Culex breed in areas that don’t necessarily need that much water. A really good source of them for their larval development is what we call catch basins or parts of storm sewer drainage systems.”

Kaufman says they also like standing water in bird baths and kiddie pools.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Crews with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, along with the Ohio DNR, are searching Lake Erie for Asian carp this week.

They’re stepping up their sampling efforts because of lab results that showed six water samples from Lake Erie had positive environmental DNA hits for Asian carp. Those water samples were from August 2011.

The teams are now out on the lake to see if they can find any more evidence of bighead or silver carp in the lake.

Todd Kalish is the Lake Erie Basin Coordinator with the Michigan DNR.  He says a positive eDNA sample could mean there are live Asian carp in Lake Erie... but there are other possibilities.

"A positive DNA sample basically means that some part of a carp was left behind within 24 hours of a sample being taken. And so it could’ve been a scale or mucus or excrement. Basically what it tells us, and what we assume, that environmental DNA means there was a silver or bighead carp in that area within 24-48 hours of the sampling."

YouTube

A Michigan man who once belonged to a costumed band of self-professed real-life superheroes has been sentenced to time served in jail after pleading guilty in a deal with prosecutors, the Associated Press reports.  More from the AP:

Adam Besso was nicknamed "Bee Sting" and pleaded June 22 to a misdemeanor charge of attempted assault with a weapon. The agreement with prosecutors calls for the 36-year-old Sterling Heights man to be released after sentencing. Besso apologized at his court appearance Monday before formally receiving the sentence of 102 days already served and two years' probation. Authorities say Besso's shotgun fired in April as he struggled with a man at a trailer park in the Flint suburb of Burton. Police say he was wearing a bulletproof vest, black leather jacket with a bee logo, shin guards and knee pads.

"Bee Sting" was once part of a larger group known on the Internet as the "Michigan Protectors."

User: Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Boost for Detroit neighborhoods, schools

Governor Snyder was in Detroit yesterday to kick off an intensive neighborhood stabilization effort. It will focus on 3 neighborhoods, anchored by 9 Detroit schools.  Sarah Cwiek reports:

The effort kicked off outside Clark Preparatory Academy in Detroit’s Morningside neighborhood, on the city’s east side. Morningside is one of three communities that will get state help to demolish the abandoned homes dotting the neighborhood, and clean up the area. Lansing also plans to send in some state police patrols, and will put social workers in the neighborhood schools.

Governor Snyder says Detroit must strengthen its neighborhoods if the city is to truly come back.

“That’s the goal. We’re doing this because we believe it will work, and we want to get good experience and do continuous improvement, and then continue to ramp up the program.”

The state is putting $10 million into the effort so far, and Snyder says more could become available. City officials say the state helps supplement existing blight eradication programs.

 Republican Senate candidates hold primary season debate

Three Republicans running for their party’s U.S. Senate nomination appeared together yesterday in their only televised debate of this primary season. Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra, charter school executive Clark Durant, and former judge Randy Hekman are running. Rick Pluta reports:

The dredge, the Arthur J, sinking on Lake Huron. The boat is owned by MCM Marine.
U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard says crews have salvaged a dredging barge that sank earlier this month in Lake Huron. The Associated Press reports crews re-floated the 100-foot Arthur J early this morning, and were in the process of taking it to a maintenance dock.

From the AP:

The Arthur J went down July 19 more than a mile from the Michigan shore near Lakeport, roughly 65 miles northeast of Detroit. A 38-foot tugboat that capsized at the same time was recovered earlier. The barge recovery operation stalled last week because of strong winds and choppy waters.

No one was hurt when the two vessels went down nearly six miles north of the entrance to the St. Clair River. Some fuel escaped after the accident, leaving a sheen on the water that reached land.

In a statement, the Coast Guard said salvage crews resumed dive operations Sunday at about 9 a.m. and successfully re-floated the dredge by using compressors to blow air into watertight compartments:

A stressed maple tree in Ann Arbor.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

City officials in Holland, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor are asking for a little help from residents. They're asking people to start watering trees along city streets – the ones between the curb and the sidewalk. 

Kerry Gray is an Urban Forestry & Natural Resources Planner with the City of Ann Arbor.

"Most of the trees are currently really under a lot of stress.  So we would obviously love people to water the street trees but we’d also love them to pay attention to the trees on private property as well."

She says trees need water immediately if you see wilting or curling leaves and if leaves or needles are dropping off.  Newly planted trees are especially at risk.

Here are some guidelines the Ann Arbor city foresters recommend for watering trees:

  • The morning hours are usually the best time to water
  • Slow, deep soakings are better than frequent light watering for both newly planted trees and established trees
  • For newly planted trees and small trees up to 4", a good watering is 10 gallons per inch of tree diameter applied in the mulched area around the tree, once per week.  A 3" diameter tree would need 30 gallons of water (3" x 10 gallons).  Newly planted trees should be watered weekly during the first 3 growing seasons.
  • For established medium trees (5"-12"), a general guideline for watering during prolonged dry periods is 10 gallons of water for every 1 inch diameter, three times per month.  For example, an 8" diameter tree will need 80 gallons of water.  To water, place a sprinkler or soaker hose in the dripline of the tree.  The dripline is the outer extent of the branch spread.  Move the sprinkler/hose around to ensure that all the roots in the dripline are watered. 
  • For large trees (greater than 13"), 15 gallons of water for every inch of diameter, two times per month during prolonged dry periods. A 14" tree would need 210 gallons of water. To water, use the method described above for medium trees. For established trees, do not water within 3 feet of the trunk; this can lead to root rot.
  • In normal precipitation years, mother nature provides the water an established tree needs and supplemental watering is typically not necessary.   

Lester Graham/Michigan Radio

If you’re a duck, this is a good news, bad news story. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes surveys of the ten most abundant duck species every year. 

Brad Bortner is Chief of the Division of Migratory Bird Management at the Fish and Wildlife Service.  He says this year’s survey recorded 48.6 million ducks. That’s the highest number of ducks recorded since the agency started keeping records in 1955.

"We’ve had a series of very good years on the prairies, with excellent water conditions and great habitat management and restoration programs," he said.

He says more than half of North America’s duck breeding happens in the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas and eastern Montana.  It’s nicknamed America’s duck factory.

Bortner says species such as mallards, gadwalls and redheads are all doing great, and he says the breeding duck populations in Michigan are doing well, too.

So, that’s the good news.  The bad news: some other duck species are not doing so well. 

Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Power outages continue
 Utilities say crews worked through the night to restore electricity to thousands of Michigan homes and businesses without power following this week's severe thunderstorms, the Associated Press reports. From the AP:

Wicked Delicate Films, LLC.

When was the last time you were someplace so dark that you could look up at the night sky and actually see the stars? Not just a handful, but hundreds or thousands?

“The Milky Way when it rises here looks like a thunderstorm coming toward you.  And you think, oh my god, it’s going to cloud over and it’s not, it’s the Milky Way rising, it’s the edge of our galaxy coming up.”

That’s a scene from a new documentary. It’s called The City Dark and it airs on PBS stations starting tonight (check your local listings).

The film takes a look at our love affair with artificial light – and why humans and wildlife need the night sky.  Ian Cheney directed and produced The City Dark and we spoke with him for today's Environment Report.  Cheney grew up in rural Maine but has been working in New York City. I asked him why he wanted to make this film.

Ian Cheney: Well, when I moved to New York City, one of the first things I realized was that I was missing the night sky, and that launched me on a journey to explore this broader topic of light pollution and how artificial light affects our world.

University of California-Santa Barbara

Scientists know a lot about how natural places process carbon dioxide.  But there hasn’t been a lot of research into what happens throughout the year in the green spaces in cities and suburbs.

Emily Peters is an author of a paper out this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research.  She’s been looking at how plants and trees in one suburban neighborhood take in carbon dioxide during the year... and how they offset the carbon dioxide people in the neighborhood emit – by say, driving their cars.

“In the summer we found the uptake of carbon dioxide from the vegetation is enough to offset fossil fuel emissions – just in the summer.”

She says evergreen and leafy trees took in more CO2 during the middle of the summer. Lawns did the best job of taking in CO2 during the spring and fall.  But Peters says those plants did NOT balance out the total amount of carbon dioxide released in the suburban neighborhood by burning fossil fuels over the year. 

If you're wondering: do certain species of trees do a better job than others?

"That is the question everybody wants answered - we can’t go out with this study and tell city foresters they should plant more of this kind of tree vs. this kind of tree."

Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Thunderstorms cause power outages

Utilities say more than 200,000 homes and businesses across Michigan are without power following several days of thunderstorms and hot weather, the Associated Press reports. From the AP:

DTE Energy Co. says about 175,000 of its customers were without power Thursday morning after a new round of damaging thunderstorms made its way across the state, knocking down trees and power lines. Since Tuesday, DTE says about 300,000 of its customers have been affected. The National Weather Service says wind gusts above 60 mph were reported as storms crossed the state Thursday. The Flint Journal reports 23,800 Consumers Energy customers without power in Genesee County. WSGW-AM reports 5,500 without power Midland and Gladwin counties.

Appeals court reinstates Blackwell case

The state Court of Appeals has reinstated an embezzlement case against the former emergency manager for Highland Park. Sarah Hulett reports:

Arthur Blackwell II is accused of taking $264,000 in payments that were not authorized by state officials. The appeals court decision reverses a lower court ruling - which had dismissed the case. The lower court agreed with Blackwell - who said as the city's emergency manager, he had the authority to sign the checks to himself. The appeals court says there's enough evidence that Blackwell acted improperly to try him. Blackwell was appointed to fix Highland Park's finances in 2005, by then-governor Jennifer Granholm. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy says she's pleased with the appeals court decision.

Debate over sand dune development

Governor Snyder signed legislation recently allowing Great Lakes property owners to use tillers to dig up plants on the shoreline, as long as they get a federal permit. But another fight is brewing over relaxing environmental rules to make it easier for developers to build on sand dunes. Rick Pluta reports:

Michigan has very stringent rules that prohibit building on environmentally sensitive dunes. Developers say it is possible to build on dunes set back from the shoreline without harming the view, or causing other environmental damage. The measure to relax those rules stalled just before the Legislature took its summer break, but negotiations continue in an effort to break the impasse. James Clift is with the Michigan Environmental Council. He says there may be some room to relax the rules, but he says the state needs to ensure the Great Lakes shoreline is protected.

“So if the state of Michigan isn’t stepping up, these are dunes that are globally rare resources that are going to be under development pressure.”

Clift says the dunes are a draw for tourists, and also serve as habitat for rare or threatened species.

Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Enbridge may face record penalty for 2010 spill

Enbridge Energy is responsible for the pipeline rupture that spilled more than 843,000 gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River and Talmadge Creek near Marshall, MI.  EPA estimates that number is more than 1 million gallons.  Steve Carmody reports the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration  (PHMSA) has spent the past few years reviewing the events that led up to the oil spill.  

PHMSA’s investigation found multiple violations of its hazardous liquid pipeline safety regulations related to integrity management, failure to follow operations and maintenance procedures, and reporting and operator qualification requirements. PHMSA issued its notice and proposed civil penalty to Enbridge in a Notice of Probable Violation. The agency is proposing a fine for Enbridge of $3.7 million, which would be a record civil penalty. Enbridge has said the company expects to spend $700 million cleaning up the spill.

Michigan to receive $23.8 million from settlement of drug marketing case

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says the state is in line to get $23.8 million as part of a $3 billion settlement of an improper drug marketing case against GlaxoSmithKline LLC, the Associated Press reports. From the AP:

The U.S. Justice Department said Monday that the British pharmaceutical giant agreed to the payment and is pleading guilty to promoting two popular drugs for unapproved uses. The federal government says the company also admits failing to disclose important safety information on a third drug. Michigan was among states that sued the company. Schuette says GlaxoSmithKline underpaid the rebates in owed for drugs paid through Michigan's Medicaid program. The Justice Department says the $3 billion combined criminal-civil fine will be the largest penalty ever paid by a drug company.

June auto sales 

Analysts say U.S. auto sales continued to buck the otherwise poor economic news in June. Tracy Samilton reports:

Larry Dominique of True Car Dot Com says June car sales should be up about 18% from last June.    That's a pretty healthy increase given worries about the recession in Europe and the barely moving unemployment numbers in the U.S. 

Dominique says he will be interested to see what kind of cars people bought toward the end of June -- when gas prices went down noticeably. 

"Typical of Americans we tend to have short memories, so as fuel prices go down we tend to go towards larger displacements and trucks."

Dominique says Honda and Toyota had especially good sales in June.  He says the two companies have largely recovered from the tsunami last spring.

Working on the broken oil pipeline near Marshall, Michigan
EPA

Enbridge Energy is planning to replace an old pipeline that runs through Michigan.

It’s called Line 6B. That’s the same line that broke in Marshall nearly two years ago.  The Environmental Protection Agency says more than one million gallons of tar sands oil spilled into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. 

Since the spill, Enbridge has been making repairs on that pipeline.   

Joe Martucci is a spokesperson for Enbridge. He says the new pipeline will cut down on the number of repairs they’ll have to make.

"The purpose and need of it is integrity driven and also to increase the capacity of the line at the same time."

After the Marshall spill, Enbridge was ordered to reduce the pressure in Line 6B.  That means there’s a lot less oil flowing through that pipeline now than there was before the spill.

Martucci says the new pipeline will allow Enbridge to double the amount of oil they can transport, up to 500,000 barrels per day.  There is the potential for the pipeline to move as much as 800,000 barrels per day. But Joe Martucci says they would have to add more equipment to do so, and file a new application with the state of Michigan.

He says oil from Alberta’s tar sands region will be the main product in their new pipeline. 

"The refiners and others are telling us they want more access to this oil and you know, it’s our job to try and provide them with a transportation capacity that makes that available."

Some landowners and environmental groups are worried about the idea of more tar sands oil moving through the Great Lakes region.

Cornell University

Communications towers make all kinds of things possible. Emergency responders, TV stations, and wireless networks need them, and of course, when you listen to stories on the radio, they come to you by way of a tower.

These towers have lights on them at night so pilots can see them and avoid running into them.

But it turns out, some kinds of tower lights can be deadly for migratory birds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other groups recently looked at bird-tower collisions in the U.S. and Canada. The study estimated that close to 7 million birds are killed each year. Neotropical songbirds that migrate at night are the most affected.

Joelle Gehring is a senior conservation scientist at the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. It’s part of Michigan State University.

"We don’t understand the exact psyche of what’s going on with birds and why they’re attracted into the lights," she said, "but it is not unlike a moth attracted into a porch light."

She says during the spring and fall migration, birds that fly at night can get confused by the steady-burning lights on towers. She says cloudy or foggy nights make it hard for birds to navigate using stars.

"Some people believe that when the stars are obscured from vision of these migratory birds who are using stars and sunrise and sunset for navigation, that that is when they are drawn into the lights of the communication tower, that is when they start circling and circling and potentially hitting a guy wire or becoming simply exhausted," she said.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

When you’re driving around southeast Michigan, you might happen to see three women on the side of the road. They’re all moms, but their kids are grown up. They work part time. They fill their free time by picking up trash... for fun.

"This is a beautiful area, and yet we have piles of garbage there."

Melinda Fons is with her friends Moy Garretson and Karen Rooke in suburban Detroit.

Karen: "Wagons roll!"

They get plastic grabbers and garbage bags out of the trunk. And they head into a little wooded patch next to a busy two-lane road.

Karen Rooke starts on the edges.

"I’ve got some cups, a newspaper and a plastic bag. And a credit card... ooh this is good. I’ll take that to the police."

The three women crawl under trees and into bushes to get the trash. There’s a pile of Styrofoam peanuts, empty rum bottles, a tire... and two more credit cards.

Karen: "I picked up 20 vodka bottles once and Listerine. I think it’s the kids that go drink down there. It’s just a quiet road, and have the Listerine so their parents – they think - don’t know. We were young once too!"

Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Romney to wrap up Battleground Bus Tour in Michigan

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is on a tour of half a dozen battleground states that winds up tomorrow in Michigan. Michigan Public Radio’s Rick Pluta reports:

Romney will make three campaign stops and attend a pair of fundraisers.  Matt Frendeway is with the Michigan Republican Party.  He says the swing through Michigan is a signal that Romney will make a strong play for Michigan and its 16 electoral votes.

"He’s going to come to Michigan and talk to folks who are struggling under President Obama’s economy, under his failed policies. He’s going to be visiting small towns and talking to folks about the difficulties they’ve faced, the 400,000 Michiganders here who are still out of work, looking for work, looking for jobs."

Democrats have tried to make an issue of Romney’s opposition to federal loans to GM and Chrysler. But two recent polls show the race for Michigan’s 16 electoral votes is tightening.    
   
Rich Robinson tracks political spending for the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. He says Romney appears to be benefiting from advertising by independent groups attacking the president’s job performance.

"They’re not explicitly saying, ‘Don’t vote for this guy,’ but the effect of what they’re doing is pretty obvious."

The Republican presidential nominee last won Michigan in 1988.

Palisades reactor from ouside
Mark Savage / Entergy Nuclear Operations

The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven has an aluminum water tank that’s used in case of emergencies or when the plant needs to be refueled.  That water tank has been leaking for several weeks.  On Tuesday evening, the Palisades plant was shut down so workers can fix the leak.

The shutdown this week was a planned outage – so, in other words, the plant operators saw this coming.

Mark Savage is a spokesperson for Entergy, the company that owns the Palisades plant.  He says this tank has been leaking for several weeks. It’s an old aluminum tank that holds 300,000 gallons of water.  He says the tank is the same age as the Palisades plant: 40 years old.

It’s considered to be a small leak and the company has been collecting the water and monitoring it for weeks.  But on Tuesday the amount reached 31 gallons per day... and that was the threshold where the company determined the leak had to be fixed. So that means taking the plant out of service.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in charge of oversight on the country's nuclear power plants. NRC spokesperson Viktoria Mitlyng says the water leaking out of the tank does not pose any safety hazard.

"They’re collecting that water; it has no way of getting out of the plant. It cannot go outside and it does not pose a threat to plant workers and at this rate of leakage it does not compromise the plant’s stability or safety."

Entergy's Mark Savage declined to say how long the outage will last.  But he says the procedure is pretty straightforward:

"Shut the reactor down - which we’ve done, unload the water from the tank, find the leak, repair the leak, fill it up again and start the reactor back up."

This time around the shutdown was planned.  But Palisades had five unplanned shutdowns last year – and one of those was considered to be of substantial safety significance.  Because of that the power plant now has one of the worst safety ratings in the country, and that means the federal government is watching the plant more closely. NRC spokesperson Viktoria Mitlyng says they want to see how the plant operators handle this repair... and find out what caused the leak in the first place.

Moosewatch volunteers mark an antler
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Wolves and moose are at the heart of the world’s longest running study of a predator and its prey.  The drama unfolds on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.

But it’s a big island, almost entirely wilderness.

The researchers from Michigan Tech say they can’t cover all that ground alone. 

So they have a program called Moosewatch.  It’s a backcountry expedition where you pay to help out with the wolf-moose study.  But be warned: it’s no easy little walk in the woods.

"We’re going to trash through the understory here for a third to half of a mile and see if we can find some dead moose."

That’s Jeff Holden. He’s a Moosewatch group leader, in charge of a group of six (himself plus five volunteers).  We’re going to push our way into the thick forest.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

All this week, we’re visiting an island archipelago in Lake Superior.  Isle Royale National Park is so remote you can only get here by ferry or seaplane.  It's mostly wilderness.  Cell phones don’t work here. 

Wolves and moose have the run of the island.  It’s an ideal place for people who study the big mammals.

"A nine month old calf.  It looks like it might’ve just fallen down the rocky edge and never got up."

Rolf Peterson has come across a moose skeleton.  Mourning cloak butterflies are lapping up sodium from the bones.  With a yank and a twist, Peterson rips off the skull. 

"I think it’s least disruptive if we just saw off the back leg."

Every bone tells a story.  Peterson can tell how the moose lived and how it died.  He can tell whether it fell and broke its ribs, whether it starved or was killed by wolves.  

"We look for any abnormalities in any of the bones.  And particularly, how big it was, what its early developmental history and nutritional history was, which is key to its adult health."

Over the past 54 years, researchers have collected more than 4,ooo moose skeletons on the island.  The bones offer clues about the moose population – and about the wolves.  Wolves got here by crossing an ice bridge from Ontario in the late 1940’s.

This study of wolves and moose is the longest running study in the world of a predator and its prey.  Rolf Peterson has been involved for 42 years of the study. He’s been here through the brutal black fly summers and the harshest winters. He and his wife Candy live in an old fishing cabin on the island for much of the year.

Flame retardant chemicals are in many of the products we use in our homes and offices. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies suggest the chemicals could be linked to a variety of health problems. / Reiner Kraft

A flame retardant chemical that’s used in insulation and electrical equipment is showing up in food. It's called hexabromocyclododecane or HBCD. 

Here's what the Environmental Protection Agency says about the chemical:

HBCD is found world-wide in the environment and wildlife. It is also found in human breast milk, adipose tissue, and blood. It bioaccumulates in living organisms and biomagnifies in the food chain. It is persistent in the environment and is transported long distances.

HBCD is highly toxic to aquatic organisms. It also presents human health concerns based on animal test results indicating potential reproductive, developmental and neurological effects.

Flame retardant chemicals are used in hundreds of consumer products. Certain kinds of these chemicals leach out of our couches, our TVs, our carpet padding and many other things in our homes. They've been found in household dust and in food, and they're getting into our bodies.

Linda Birnbaum is the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Toxicology Program.

She’s a senior author of a study out today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives and I spoke with her for today's Environment Report.  For the study, the team purchased 36 samples of foods common in American diets from Dallas, Texas supermarkets, including peanut butter, poultry, fish and beef.  HBCD was detected in 15 of the samples.

"We primarily found it in fatty foods of animal origin, so fatty animal products. This is a chemical that loves to be in the fat, and that’s where we’re finding it."

Williams: "Now, were the levels you found high enough to be of concern?"

Birnbaum: "The levels are very, very low. I would call this micro-contamination. In our 2010 study where we looked at the total presence of this chemical, at that point we estimated that the daily intake was about 1,000 fold lower than what is believed to be a safe dose."

HBCD is showing up in people's bodies. The study states that food "may be a substantial contributor to the elevated α-HBCD levels observed in humans."

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Let’s say you own a beach house. You might want to pull out some plants or mow them or smooth out the sand to make it look nice.

At the moment, if you want to do any of these things, you need a permit from both the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Maggie Cox is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. She says her department has to make sure everyone can walk on the beaches, and she says sensitive wetlands need to be protected.

"Your property line is down to the water’s edge – but the state also holds in trust for the public the land up to ordinary high water mark."

Last week, the Michigan Senate passed legislation that would eliminate the state permit for beach maintenance.

Several environmental groups are opposed to that.  (You can check out this Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council brochure on beach grooming.)

The DEQ’s Maggie Cox says her agency will still have oversight of beach maintenance in wetland areas.

"In areas that are mostly sand or mostly rock, you no longer have to get a permit from the department. But in areas that are wet or coastal wetlands, made up mostly of bulrush or other vegetation, you’re going to have to still come to the department and the Army Corps for a permit."

Logan Chadde/Michigan Radio

Enbridge Energy operates the pipeline that ruptured in Marshall almost two years ago.  The Environmental Protection Agency says more than one million gallons of thick tar sands oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River.  The oil spill is still being cleaned up.

Since the spill, Enbridge has been making repairs on that pipeline. It’s known as Line 6B.

Now, the company plans to replace the entire pipeline from Griffith, Indiana to Marysville, Michigan. 

On The Environment Report yesterday, we heard from Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Communications Director Brad Wurfel about his agency's views on the safety of hydraulic fracturing.

In the interview, he said drillers have been using hydraulic fracturing since the 1960's to drill vertical wells. 

We pointed out there are important differences between traditional vertical drilling and a newer method called horizontal hydraulic fracturing. The new method allows drillers to get natural gas that's much deeper underground.

One of the things to note:

With the more traditional, vertical hydraulic fracturing we’re talking about tens of thousands of gallons of water – horizontal hydraulic fracturing uses millions of gallons.

This is water that’s contaminated and cannot be used again.

In the interview, Brad Wurfel said:

"In 50 years and 12,000 wells around the state, we’ve never had to respond to an environmental emergency with hydraulic fracturing."

I followed up with him on this point today, to ask about this leak that my colleague Lester Graham reported on in February 2011:

The Associated Press reports a leak has shut down a drilling operation not too far from Traverse City.

It's not yet clear whether it will damage underground water sources.  It does raise questions as to whether Michigan regulations are adequate to protect the environment while exploiting the gas reserves in the state.

Here is Wurfel's response:

World Resources Institute

Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – is a method of drilling for natural gas.  Drillers use fracking to get to the gas that’s trapped in tight shale rock formations below the water table.  Fracking pumps a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a well under high pressure to force open the rock and extract the gas. (You can check out this in-depth series by Michigan Watch's Lester Graham)

In Michigan, drillers have used the fracking method for more than 50 years and the state regulates the industry.  But they’ve been drilling vertical wells.

There’s been more interest lately in horizontal fracking – that’s where companies drill horizontally along the shale rock up to a mile or more.  That makes the well site much more productive.  It has lead to a boom in gas drilling and production and more jobs in some parts of the country.

But horizontal fracking also uses much more water. 

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulates fracking.

I spoke with Brad Wurfel, the Communications Director for the DEQ.  You can listen to the interview above.

Q: So – let’s start with water use.  With the more traditional, vertical, fracking we’re talking about tens of thousands of gallons of water – horizontal fracking uses millions of gallons.  This is water that’s contaminated and cannot be used again. What kinds of studies are being done to ensure water supplies are adequate for horizontal fracking in Michigan?

Brad Wurfel: With horizontal fracturing, they’re tens of thousands of feet down under the ground. So it does require more water, but it also requires fewer wells. Every user who uses a lot of water has to register that use as part of their permitting process.  And if it looks like the water withdrawal proposal is going to harm the environment, that permit gets denied.  Or the company gets sent back to the drawing board to find a new way.

Q: What happens to the contaminated fracking fluid when it comes back out of the well?

A: It’s handled very carefully because in other states where the regulation hasn’t been as good, that’s been one of the key problems with hydraulic fracturing.  The amount of chemical that’s in that water is really small – it’s one half of one percent.  We require that operators use steel tanks to contain it and that it’s sent to a deep injection well for disposal.

Q: A recent article in the Battle Creek Enquirer quoted MDEQ geologist Michael Shelton, who said that 6.7 million gallons of water can be used in a single fracking well.  So – one half of one percent of 6 million gallons is still 30,000 gallons of chemicals.

A: Well, when you figure the dilution, it’s not an eminent threat to the environment. That said, when you combine it with the saline that comes back up, it does make it something that we want to handle very carefully, and we do.

Q: A 2011 Congressional report found these chemicals can range from things considered harmless like salt and citric acid to chemicals that can pose serious health risks.  Things like benzene, formaldehyde and lead.   But that report also found that many of the chemicals or the chemical mixes were listed as trade secrets. What does the DEQ require companies to disclose about the chemicals they use? 

A: We get Material Safety Data Sheets, and in the event there was ever a problem with a hydraulic fracture in the state of Michigan, every component used and its percentage would be disclosed immediately to emergency responders.  We haven’t ever had a situation where we’ve needed to use it.  That said, most of what’s in hydraulic fractures is under trade secret for the mix, not the actual chemicals.

Q: But companies can still protect the mixes of chemicals they consider trade secret, right?

A: That’s correct.

Q: So, if you suspect there’s water contamination at a well site, how will you know what chemicals to look for?

A: Well, those chemicals would be... present in the environment.  And we could obviously look at what was used there and see if it was evident in say, a water supply.  That’s a pretty big hypothetical.  We’ve been hearing a lot from folks who’ve got fears about what might happen.  And I can’t speak to what might happen.  I can speak to the fact that in 50 years and 12,000 wells around the state, we’ve never had to respond to an environmental emergency with hydraulic fracturing. It’s been done safely.

DNR

Starting at 9am this morning, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will hold an auction to lease state-owned drilling rights for oil and natural gas. 

The state is offering drilling rights on more than 108,000 acres in 23 counties.  These auctions are usually held twice a year.  The minimum bid is $12 dollars an acre.

Mary Uptigrove is the acting manager of the DNR’s Minerals Management Section.  She says acquiring drilling rights is the first step in exploring for oil and gas.

“The lease is just a proprietary right that’s administered by our department. It does not give them the right to actually start drilling a well.  They have to seek other approvals from the Department of Environmental Quality for the drilling permit.”

The leases last five years, and the companies have the option to extend them.

Uptigrove says industry groups usually nominate parcels for the auction.  The state gets 1/6 of the royalties of any oil or gas that comes out of the ground.  That money is used to maintain state and local parks and to buy land.

Maryann Lesert lives near the Yankee Springs Recreation Area in Barry County. 

She’s worried the auction will lead to drilling under the park land... especially a kind of drilling for natural gas called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. (To learn more, check out this recent article by Michigan Radio's Lester Graham about the benefits and risks of fracking)

“It’s beautiful land, it has beautiful bodies of water and the environmental and water impact threats from fracking are of great concern.”

Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio

The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor tested 179 kinds of garden products, including garden hoses, tools, gloves and kneeling pads.  They found 70% of the products contained levels of "high concern" of one or more toxic substances... including lead, cadmium and mercury.

From the report:

  • 30% of all products contained over 100 ppm lead in one or more component. 100 ppm is the Consumer Product Safety Commission Standard (CPSC) for lead in children’ products.
  • 100% of the garden hoses sampled for phthalates contained four phthalate plasticizers which are currently banned in children’s products.
  • Two water hoses contained the flame retardant 2,3,4,5-tetrabromo-bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (TBPH).

Jeff Gearhart is the Ecology Center’s research director.  He says the biggest concern is garden hoses – because a lot of people like to drink out of them on a hot day.

"We found that one-third of them contained lead in excess of the U.S. drinking water standards that apply to products like water faucets."

He says the problem is – garden hoses are not regulated.  Some hoses have warning labels telling you not to drink from them.

But Gearhart says they tested some polyurethane and natural rubber hoses and found they were lead-free.

"There’s a variety of polyurethane-based hoses that are made out of food-grade polyurethane and have lead-free fittings that are on the market. And there’s also natural rubber hoses we tested that don’t have the types of contaminants that are typical of the vinyl hoses."

NTSB

A new report argues that our current laws are not strong enough to protect the Great Lakes from major oil spills. 

The National Wildlife Federation wanted to look at pipeline oversight after the massive tar sands oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in 2010.  The spill was the result of a ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy.  (The official cause of the spill is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board)

Sara Gosman is an attorney who wrote the report for the National Wildlife Federation.

"Federal laws are inadequate and states have not passed their own laws to fill in the gaps."

We’ve previously reported the spill ran through some of the highest quality wetlands in Michigan.

Sara Gosman says federal laws on oil pipelines do not protect all environmentally sensitive areas.  Instead, the laws cover something called high consequence areas.

"It’s a term of art used by the federal pipeline agency.  It’s a bunch of different areas.  For environmental purposes, it’s commercially navigable waterways, areas with threatened and endangered species and drinking water sources."

Gosman says federal government data show 44% of hazardous liquid pipelines in the country run through places that could affect high consequence areas.  She says that means companies have to do special inspections on those segments of pipelines... but not necessarily on the rest of the pipelines.

"This means 56% of hazardous liquid pipeline miles do not have to be continually assessed, have leak detection systems or be repaired on set timelines."

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