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.

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.

warrenski / Creative Commons

Michigan voters rejected Proposal 3 on Tuesday. The proposal would’ve required utilities to get 25 percent of their electricity sales from renewable sources by the year 2025.  It was controversial partly because it would’ve amended the state constitution.

Howard Edelson is the campaign manager for CARE for Michigan. The group worked to defeat the proposal on behalf of the state’s utilities.

Tracy Brooks/Mission Wolf/USFWS

Gray wolves in the Great Lakes region came off the endangered species list this past January.  There are about 700 wolves in Michigan now.  A decade ago, there were just under 300. 

Now, state lawmakers are considering legislation to make gray wolves a game species in Michigan. That would open the door to a possible hunting and trapping season for wolves.

Adam Bump is the Bear and Furbearer Specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.  He says most of the wolves are in the western Upper Peninsula and that’s causing some conflicts with people.

warrenski / Creative Commons

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

Soon, you’ll be asked whether you want more of our electricity to come from sources like the wind and the sun.

Proposal 3 will ask voters to amend the state Constitution to require utilities to get 25 percent of their electricity sales from renewable sources (the proposal defines these sources as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower) by the year 2025. 

NOAA

A new project is going to try to predict the future of the Great Lakes. 

It’s called... wait for it... the Great Lakes Futures Project.  It’s a collaboration of 21 universities from the U.S. and Canada. 

Don Scavia is the director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan. He’s one of four project leaders.  He says students will team up with a counterpart from the other country, along with a faculty mentor.  The teams will develop white papers outlining the biggest things driving change in the Great Lakes region. 

“They’ll be looking at things like climate, economics, demographics, chemical and biological pollution, invasive species. Looking back, what have the trends been in the past 50 years and what do we expect trends to look like in the next 50 years?”

Scavia says climate change is making everything more complicated.

Asian carp leaping out of a river.
glfc.org

Crews will begin an intensive search for Asian carp in the Chicago area tomorrow after finding more DNA evidence of the fish in waterways close to Lake Michigan.  Officials found the genetic material above a system of electric barriers that are intended to keep carp out of Lake Michigan.

Chris McCloud is with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He says crews will go out this week on the North Shore Channel and an area of the Chicago River and look for carp.

"We are very confident that if there are Asian carp present in the Chicago Area Waterway System, that they are in very, very low numbers."

Wind power could feature prominently in Michigan energy production if voters amend the state constitution to include a new renewable energy standard.
cwwycoff1 / flickr

This is a story I produced for NPR's Morning Edition.  Editors were interested in Proposal 3 in Michigan because, if it passes, it would be the first time a state constitution would be amended for a Renewable Portfolio Standard. We'll be looking at this proposal in more detail in future reports.

There are business effects to some of the more than 170 statewide ballot measures to be decided in next month's elections. In California, voters will determine if labels should be required on genetically-modified food. People in Arkansas will vote whether to increase taxes for highways and bridges. And one measure in Michigan is capturing attention - whether the state constitution should be amended to change how utilities get their electricity.

Kennecott Eagle Minerals

The Eagle Mine near Marquette is under construction. It will be mining mostly nickel and copper along with smaller amounts of other metals.

The company Rio Tinto owns the mine.  They’ve received their state and federal permits, but those permits are being challenged in court.  The mine has been divisive in the community.  A lot of people want the mining jobs, and many others are worried about the impacts the mine could have on Lake Superior and nearby rivers.

Dan Blondeau is a spokesperson for Rio Tinto.  He says the company will be spending about a million dollars on environmental monitoring that’s required by their permits.  But he says residents have been telling them that wasn’t enough.

“For the last several years, community members have told us they’d have more trust in environmental monitoring if it was done independently.”

Michigan.gov

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has the authority to set aside land to make sure biodiversity is preserved. Basically, that means the DNR can designate an area to protect the variety of plants and animals that live in that place.

But new legislation seeks to greatly limit that authority.

Senate bill 1276 would prohibit the DNR from setting aside an area of land specifically for the purpose of maintaining biological diversity.  The DNR could not make or enforce a rule to do that.

Senator Tom Casperson is one of the bill’s sponsors. He says the DNR has too much power to set aside land for the purpose of conservation.

"They need to have authority but when it comes to the direction where we’re going as a state with our public lands, I think there needs to be some checks and balances."

Logan Chadde / Michigan Radio

Enbridge Energy is replacing one of its pipelines that runs through lower Michigan.  They’re replacing Line 6B. It’s the same pipeline that broke in Marshall two years ago.  The new pipeline will allow Enbridge to double the amount of oil they can transport to refineries in Detroit, Toledo and Sarnia, Ontario.

To build the pipeline, the company says it needs additional easement next to the current 60 foot easement that runs through many people’s backyards. 

Enbridge says many people who own land along the pipeline route have signed contracts with the company.  But Enbridge is taking people who refuse to sign contracts to court.

In a courthouse in Howell yesterday, a judge heard arguments against more than a dozen landowners. (Some of the cases were settled yesterday afternoon, involving the Munsell farming family. The settlement requires Enbridge to stay within the existing 60 foot easement on the Munsell's property, but does allow Enbridge to temporarily use additional land as workspace for the new pipeline.)

Connie Watson and her husband Tom are among the defendants. 

"Enbridge has taken us to condemnation. Eminent domain is another word for it.  And because we wouldn’t sign their contract as it was, they brought us to court to take the land."

The Watsons say they’re frustrated with Enbridge because of experiences they’ve had with the company in the past.

USDA

If you’re thinking of planting trees or shrubs in your yard... the U.S. Department of Agriculture has guidelines for what to plant depending on where you live. It’s called the Plant Hardiness Zone Map.  It’s based on average minimum winter temperatures.  So you can use it to decide if the kind of tree you want to plant will make it through the winter without freezing to death.

This past January, the USDA updated this map for the first time since 1990. 

But one researcher argues it’s already out of date.

Nir Krakauer is an assistant professor of civil engineering at the City College of New York. He says the USDA used the annual minimum temperatures between 1976 and 2005 to make their map.  He updated that map with more recent data.

“In general, a lot of Michigan might be a half zone less cold than the USDA map would show.”

Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee

You've probably seen those YouTube sensations: the jumping carp.

Silver carp are the jumpers.  If there are a lot of them packed in shoulder to shoulder in a river channel... it can be dangerous.

Duane Chapman is a leading carp expert. He’s with the U.S. Geological Survey in Missouri. 

“They’ve hurt a lot of people – I’ve been hurt by them – I’ve seen a couple of broken jaws, people have been knocked off boats.”

Asian carp were imported to the U.S. in the 1970’s and used in research ponds and fish farms.  At some point, they escaped, and they’ve been making their way up the Mississippi River system ever since.

The question that's on a lot of people’s minds now, is what will happen if Asian carp get established in the Great Lakes. 

Mercedes Mejia/Michigan Radio

Today, we continue our week-long series on Asian carp and the Great Lakes.

Most of the efforts to keep bighead and silver carp out of the Great Lakes are focused on the shipping canals in the Chicago area.  But there are other ways the carp could get into the Great Lakes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at more than a dozen other possible watery routes carp could take.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

There’s new evidence that Asian carp could be in western Lake Erie.

Last month, crews took 150 water samples from Sandusky Bay and the Sandusky River.  They were testing for traces of genetic material from Asian carp. The results just came back this week.  20 of those samples tested positive for the presence of silver carp.

Now, these positive samples could indicate there are live carp in the lake.  But biologists say the genetic material could’ve also come from dead carp, or fish-eating birds or boats that came into contact with Asian carp.

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."

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