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.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

The lumbering boom in Michigan in the 1800s made some people very rich.

It also left a lot of waste behind. 

Terry Heatlie and I took a walk in the mud on the south side of Muskegon Lake.

“We don’t have to go very far to see slabwood – I see some sticking out there. Slabwood is what was left over when they squared off the logs to make planks. So, this is the outside of the log, and back in the 1800s, apparently they had no use for that, so they just threw it in the water.”

Aerial photo of Talmadge Creek after Enbridge oil spill
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

We’re rounding the corner on the three year anniversary of the Enbridge oil spill near Marshall.

The cleanup isn’t over yet and so far, more than a million gallons of thick tar sands oil have been cleaned up from the Kalamazoo River and Talmadge Creek.

State officials have been looking at possible health risks from the spill.

This week, the Michigan Department of Community Health released a report on drinking water wells along the spill zone.

Forestland in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula.
user {inercia} / Flickr

The state Senate passed a controversial bill this week.

Senate Bill 78 would prohibit the Michigan Department of Natural Resources from setting aside an area of land specifically to maintain biological diversity. Basically, that means protecting the variety of plants and animals that live in an area.

Senator Tom Casperson sponsored the bill. He has argued that the DNR has too much authority to set aside land.

Here's what the bill would do (excerpted from the Senate Fiscal Agency floor summary):

--Prohibit the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Natural Resources Commission from promulgating or enforcing a rule or an order that designates or classifies an area of land specifically for the purpose of achieving or maintaining biological diversity.
-- Delete the conservation of biological diversity from the DNR's duties regarding forest management, and require the Department to balance its forest management activities with economic values.
-- Eliminate a requirement that the DNR manage forests in a manner that promotes restoration.
-- Provide that a State department or agency would not have to designate or classify an area of land specifically for the purpose of achieving or maintaining biological diversity.
-- Delete a legislative finding that most losses of biological diversity are the result of human activity.

Critics of the bill say it could tie the DNR’s hands.

Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say even low levels of lead in blood can affect a child’s IQ, their ability to pay attention and their performance in school. Kids are most often exposed to lead in paint in homes built before 1978.

Robert Scott is with the Michigan Department of Community Health. He says over the past several years, there’s been great progress in cleaning up lead contamination in old homes in the state. He says lead poisoning in kids in Detroit has dropped more than 70 percent since 2004.

“I do want to emphasize though, that with this steady decrease over the years, there are still pockets in Detroit and other places where the rates are still much higher,” says Scott.

Photo by USFWS; Joel Trick

The Kirtland’s warbler is a songbird with an enviable travel schedule. The birds spend the winter in the Bahamas, and in the spring, they come home to the Great Lakes region – mostly to Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula.

The warbler has been on the endangered species list for 40 years. But it’s been doing well lately. Federal officials say the birds have met their recovery goal.

But it’ll take a lot of work to manage the birds even after they’re taken off the endangered species list.

Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

I recently got a chance to hang out with Tom Brady.  

Nope, not the football star. 

But this Tom Brady is working on making a name for himself. Brady just wrapped up his Masters degree. He’s an aerospace engineer, and now he's also the chief financial officer of SkySpecs LLC.

He holds up something that looks half-insect/half-helicopter. It’s an autonomous flying robot. In other words... it has a mind of its own. Brady says it finds its way around with cameras and computer vision.

“Basically, what these things are: they carry sensors to places that an inspector would otherwise have to,” he says.

Say, down into a sewer or up to the top of a wind turbine.

Courtesy of Patrick Streit

If you like to hunt and fish, depending on what license you buy, you might have to pay more.

Governor Rick Snyder wants to make some big changes to the hunting, fishing and trapping license system in Michigan. He talked about these changes when he unveiled his proposed 2014 budget. Right now, there are 227 different license categories. Those would shrink to just 31.

Ed Golder is a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He says some licenses will cost more, but others will cost less (for example: there would be a base resident hunting license fee of $10. If you wanted two deer tags, that'd cost you $20 apiece, for a total of $50, compared to $30 for the same license package now). Bridge Magazine took a look at how our current hunting and fishing fees compare to other states.

Michigan.gov

If you're feeling like you've heard this story before... you're right.

Senator Tom Casperson-R (Escanaba) has introduced a bill, Senate Bill 78, that would prohibit the DNR from setting aside an area of land specifically for the purpose of maintaining biological diversity (basically, to protect the variety of plants and animals that live in an area).  The DNR could not make or enforce a rule to do that.

This bill is similar to one Senator Casperson introduced last fall, SB 1276.

Casperson says he’s concerned the DNR wants to set aside too much land, and that people won’t have access to it.

Clare Brush

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been recording water levels for almost 100 years. In January, the levels in the Lake Michigan and Huron system dipped to the lowest levels ever recorded.

That’s causing problems for commercial shipping and recreational boaters.

Peter Payette has been covering this story for Interlochen Public Radio and I spoke with him for today's Environment Report.

Payette said the issue that is front and center is the need for more dredging in the smaller harbors and marinas. He says they have not been getting help from the federal government - help that used to be there.

"Traditionally, it’s been the federal government through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has dredged these channels to keep them open, and that has not been happening, and so now with the lake levels lower that problem is really being exacerbated," said Payette.

Michael Paul / Johns Hopkins University

Flu season started early and came in swinging. Health officials say it’s been a moderate to severe flu season for most of the country.

Curtis Allen is a spokesman with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"In Michigan, it’s still at a high level of activity. Hopefully you’ll see less and less as we go on. But influenza is notoriously unpredictable and there could also be another peak," Allen says.

The DeYoung Power Plant in Holland burns coal. The city is switching over to natural gas soon.
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

In Michigan, we get more than half of our electricity from coal.  All of that coal is imported from other states.

In a couple weeks, you’ll get a chance to weigh in on how we’ll use energy in the future.

When Governor Rick Snyder gave his Special Message on Energy and the Environment last fall, he said he wanted to hold forums around the state to talk about energy.

University of Minnesota

When you use anti-bacterial soap, there’s a good chance there’s an ingredient called triclosan in it. It’s also added to things like body washes, some toothpastes, and dishwashing soap. You can find it listed as an ingredient on the label for many of those products.

But the Food and Drug Administration says there’s no evidence that using soap with triclosan in your home or office is any better at keeping you from getting sick than regular soap and water.  (Health experts say a good rule of thumb is to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds: the length of time it takes to sing the "happy birthday" song twice.)

The FDA says triclosan is not known to be hazardous to humans. But the agency is re-evaluating the safety of triclosan in light of animal studies showing the chemical alters hormone regulation... and also because of studies suggesting that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Tart cherries, the main cherry crop in Michigan.
Emily Fox / Michigan Radio

You probably remember that extreme weather was not kind to Michigan crops last year.

Frank Szollosi is with the National Wildlife Federation.

“We lost more than 80 percent of our apples and peaches, we lost grapes and cherries. Our cherry farmers saw 90 percent of its crop destroyed because of the unusually warm winter last year followed by hard freezes,” he says.

The federal government has put out a new draft report on how our climate is changing. More than 240 scientists wrote the report.  It’s called the National Climate Assessment.

Agriculture is one of the key messages of their chapter on the Midwest.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

U.S. and Canadian leaders are getting together in Chicago tomorrow to talk about water.

There’s a pact between the two countries. It’s called the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.  It takes on all sorts of threats to water in our region, from toxic chemicals to runoff from farms and sewer overflows from cities.

Lyman Welch is with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. He says when the agreement was first signed 40 years ago, it was promising.

MSU

Lake sturgeon are amazing fish. They can weigh several hundred pounds and they can live to be 100 years old.

Sturgeon used to be abundant throughout the Great Lakes region. But they were overfished, and construction of dams on rivers where they spawn hurt their reproduction. They’re now a state threatened species.

Tim Cwalinski is a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He says these days, sturgeon are carefully managed.  There are a few fishing seasons for sturgeon in different parts of the state.

The season for sturgeon in Black Lake in Cheboygan County opens February 2nd. Tim Cwalinski says there are about 1,200 adult sturgeon in the lake.  The quota this year is just six fish total for all the fishermen combined.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

It used to be that fuel-efficient cars were not taken all that seriously. But that has changed.

Jim Motavalli is the author of High Voltage and a blogger for the New York Times and Car Talk. He spoke with me for today's Environment Report from the North American International Auto Show. 

Motavalli points out that there's no special section for "green cars" at the auto show.

"I think what we’re seeing is green technology has been incorporated into pretty much all of the cars on display here, so the green cars aren’t in a little special penned-in area. That’s inherently a good thing. And maybe at this auto show 2013, we’re not seeing a lot of electric car introductions or plug-in hybrid introductions; what we’re seeing is 'eco' incorporated into every model that’s introduced here, including the Corvette Stingray and the Grand Cherokee Jeep SRT, both of which have eco modes or eco buttons, because every automaker is being driven towards the 2025 goal of 54.5 mpg fleet average, which the federal government is demanding."

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

The Great Lakes are incredibly complex. There are just a lot of moving parts.

A new project is taking on a giant task... to try to predict the future of the Great Lakes and what we might want the region to look like.

21 research institutions from the U.S. and Canada are collaborating on the Great Lakes Futures Project

It’s not just a classroom exercise.  Along with researchers and grad students, government officials from the U.S. and Canada are involved, and so are industry and environmental groups.

Callum Black / Flickr

With all the buzz around the fiscal cliff in Congress, something happened that you might’ve missed.

There’s a federal tax credit. It’s called the wind energy Production Tax Credit, and it was about to expire at the end of last year.

At the final hour, Congress extended that tax credit, and President Obama signed the bill.

It now covers wind projects that start construction in 2013.

Peter Kelley, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association, says the credit gives tax relief for the first ten years of a wind farm.

The redder the higher the difference from average temperature, June-August 2012
NOAA

The experts are still finalizing the data, but it looks like 2012 will go on the books as the warmest year in the U.S. in recorded history (ever since 1895).

I spoke with state climatologist Jeff Andresen for today's Environment Report. He's also a professor of geography at Michigan State University. He says in Michigan, we also came close to setting a record last year.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

State officials have opened up a competitive grant program for river cleanup projects.

People can buy a special fundraising license plate in Michigan. It’s called the water quality protection plate and it funds small grants to local governments for river cleanup projects.

Bill Dimond is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He says the DEQ collects the fees from those license plates. Then an agency called the Great Lakes Commission decides who receives the grants. The cities and towns have to provide 25%.

University of Michigan

The Great Lakes are under a lot of stress. 

34 different kinds of stress, to be exact.

That’s according to a research team that has produced a comprehensive map showing many of the things that stress the Great Lakes.  Think: pollution, invasive species, development and climate change... just to name a few. 

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven has been going through some significant challenges over the past couple of years. It’s been shut down eight times in two years, and federal regulators downgraded its safety rating to one of the worst in the country.

Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith has been writing about the plant through the turmoil. She joined me on today's Environment Report to take a look back at the events of the past year.

S. Giesen / NOAA GLERL

More than 180 non-native species have already made a home in the Great Lakes basin, and more could make their way in.

Scientists and government officials have their eyes on a watchlist of 53 species that are most likely to become established in the Great Lakes region if they get in.

Take for example: killer shrimp.

Rochelle Sturtevant is a Regional Sea Grant Specialist for Outreach at NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab in Ann Arbor.

michigan.gov

The company Orvana Resources is one step closer to getting the approval it needs to build a new mine. The Copperwood Mine is proposed for a site north of the town of Wakefield in the western U.P. The state is reviewing the company’s final environmental permit.

The Department of Environmental Quality has already given the company mining, wastewater and air permits.

Governor Rick Snyder gave what his office calls a "special message" on the environment yesterday: Ensuring our Future: Energy and the Environment. He touched on all sorts of topics: renewable energy, brownfields, land and water, timber and mining and many others.

But his main point: you can’t separate economics from energy or the environment.

“There’s not two separate worlds. There’s not a world of just environment, nor a world of energy or economics. It’s a symbiotic relationship and they tie together,” he said.

michigan.gov

Governor Rick Snyder is considering whether to make some changes to Michigan’s parks.

Last year, the Governor appointed a panel on state parks and outdoor recreation.  Their mission was to come up with a vision for the future of Michigan’s parks and state forests.

Erin McDonough is the executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. She was co-chair of the panel.

Bruce Power / Ontario Power Generation

The Bruce Nuclear Power Plant sits on the Ontario side of Lake Huron. It’s across the lake from Michigan’s Thumb region.  Ontario Power Generation owns the plant. 

The company wants to store the lower level nuclear waste from all of their plants underground, near the Bruce plant.

They’re proposing to dig almost a half mile underground to build the facility. It would be a little more than half a mile away from the shore of Lake Huron.

user kahle / MorgueFile.com

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are in all kinds of consumer products.  We're exposed to these chemicals every day. They're in our couches, our TVs, our cars, our office chairs, the padding beneath our carpets, and the dust in our homes. They're building up in pets, wild animals and fish. They're even in some of the foods we eat.

Scientists are finding these chemicals in newborn babies, and the breast milk those babies drink.

USFWS Midwest

We reported last week that Michigan lawmakers are considering legislation to make gray wolves a game species (State Representative Matt Huuki (R-Atlantic Mine) introduced HB 5834. Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) introduced a similar bill (SB 1350) in the state Senate). These bills would make it possible to have a hunting and trapping season for wolves. 

SB 1350 cleared a Senate committee late last week.  It now moves to the full Senate. 

But a number of tribes in Michigan are opposed to a wolf hunt and that could hold the process up. 

Clare Brush

Lake Michigan and Lake Huron could hit record low water levels in the next six months.  That’s according to a projection by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are functionally one body of water – they’re connected at the Straits of Mackinac. They’ve been below their long-term average for more than a decade.

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