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.

User Meridithw / Wikimedia Commons

Hydraulic fracturing is getting some attention this week in Lansing.  You’ve probably heard it called fracking.  It’s 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.

In Michigan, drillers have used the fracking method for more than 50 years and the state regulates the industry. 

But what’s new... is that drillers want to turn their drills and dig horizontally along the shale rock.  That makes the well site much more productive.  But it also uses a larger amount of chemicals and much more water - anywhere from a few million gallons of water to as much as eight million gallons of water per well.  After it’s used, that water is usually disposed of in deep injection wells.

Right now in Michigan, there are two experimental wells that are using the horizontal fracking method.

This week the Michigan House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Gas put out a report encouraging more natural gas production in the state.

Photo courtesy of NOAA

You’ve probably noticed we’ve had a strange spring.

This March – the warm temperatures broke 15,292 weather records across the country.   And last year... there were 14 weather-related disasters that each caused $1 billion – or more – in damages.

A new study finds a large majority of Americans are now connecting specific extreme weather events to climate change.

The study is part of a long-term project called Climate Change in the American Mind.  It’s by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication.

Here's an excerpt:

A majority of Americans say the weather in the United States is getting worse and many report that extreme weather in their own local area has become more frequent and damaging. Further, large majorities believe that global warming made a number of recent extreme weather events worse. Only about a third of Americans, however, have either a disaster emergency plan or an emergency supply kit in their homes.

Ed Maibach directs George Mason’s climate change center.  He and his colleagues found that 82 percent of Americans personally experienced one or more types of extreme weather or natural disaster in the past year.  I asked him how these experiences are affecting people’s understanding of climate change.

"We know that most Americans believe the climate is changing, and now, this latest survey shows us that a lot of people are connecting the experience of the extreme weather they’re experiencing to the fact that the climate is changing."

But he says not too many people understand the difference between weather and climate.

Photo courtesy of the Great Lakes NOBOB Team

Ships entering the Great Lakes can carry water from foreign ports. That water is held in their ballast tanks. It helps stabilize the ship.

Now, anytime you hear the term ballast water... do your eyes glaze over? Maybe you start thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner? Okay, so it’s not the sexiest topic. But it matters because sneaky little invasive species can hide in the ballast water... and catch a ride across the ocean.

“Invasive species, scientists think, are the worst problem facing the Great Lakes. They threaten the Great Lakes health, they threaten to crash the ecosystem, they threaten our economy.”

That’s Andy Buchsbaum. He directs the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation. He says when ships dump their ballast water in the Great Lakes, the invaders can get out.

“And if they find each other and fall in love, you have families of those critters and you actually have some real population problems like zebra mussels going wild in the Great Lakes.”

Zebra mussels have caused all kinds of havoc with Great Lakes ecosystems. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 30 percent of the invasive species in the Great Lakes have come in through ballast water.

Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio

We’re coming up on two years since a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy ruptured. More than 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilled into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

The Environmental Protection Agency says most of the oil has been removed from the creek and the river. But there’s still oil at the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. This spring, the company, the state and the EPA will be figuring out how much oil is left... and where it is.

“The pipeline break location was approximately a half mile upstream from here.”

Mark DuCharme is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. We’re standing on a two-lane road looking out at Talmadge Creek.

“Shortly after the spill, you couldn’t actually even see the creek. If you were down at this location, all you could see is oil. These banks were heavily oiled as well, so just catastrophic damage.”

He says things have come a long way at this site. Enbridge moved the creek out of its normal path... they actually diverted it and ran it through a pipeline. Then, they dug up the contaminated creek bed. Now, the creek is back in place. Enbridge put in clean soil, and then added seeds from native wetland plants.

Little green shoots are pushing up through the ground.

But there’s still a long road ahead. Mark DuCharme says Enbridge has more restoration work to do at Talmadge Creek... and then the DEQ will require long-term monitoring.

“Can we replace it to the exact condition it was prior? Probably not. Can we go back and put something back that will be an acceptable ecosystem? That’s the expectation.”

DuCharme says tar sands oil is very heavy, and very thick - and that has made the cleanup more difficult.

U.S. Forest Service

A group of planners and designers is arguing that we need to rethink the way we make our buildings. The U.S. Green Building Council and the University of Michigan recently put out a report: Green Building and Climate Resilience.

It says design teams should start making buildings that are better suited to a changing climate. That could mean redesigning heating and cooling and storm water systems, and it could mean changing the kind of landscaping we do.

Larissa Larsen is the lead author of the report. I met up with her on a corner in Ann Arbor to take a look at a new high rise apartment building that’s going up.

“This looks like a fairly traditional apartment building and that’s completely fine. We want to start thinking that this building is going to be inhabiting conditions that are different than what has been in Michigan for a long time.”

Photo by Holly Hadac

Coyotes have been making themselves at home in cities all over the country.    They’ve been showing up in big cities like Chicago and Detroit, and in a lot of suburban areas. 

But we don’t know a whole lot about Michigan’s urban coyotes.

A small research team from Wayne State University is trying to find out as much as they can.

But to do this... they have to act like urban coyotes... and become nocturnal.  Bill Dodge is a PhD candidate at Wayne State.  He heads up the research team. 

“They’ve found in other studies that coyotes especially around humans become much more nocturnal than say, out West.”

Dodge invited me to tag along on their 6pm to midnight shift one Friday night a few weeks ago. 

I met up with the group in a parking lot in northeast Oakland County. 

Bill Dodge puts on a headset and pulls an antenna and a mess of cables out of his trunk.

“I’m getting a signal on him but it’s really weak...”

They’re tracking a radio collared coyote that they trapped last summer.   

“We’ll go down the road a ways and take a listen to see if he’s closer.”

The team takes precautions to keep from being spotted by other people... as they cruise around these neighborhoods.

Holly Hadac volunteers with the coyote study.  She’s also a retired sheriff’s deputy.  She points out the red cellophane covering her car’s interior lights.

“My interior lights don’t go on when I start the car up.  I’ve got all the lights in my car blocked out, and that way keeps me incognito with what I’m doing.  So we keep our coyote safe so nobody knows where he is.”

“If someone doesn’t like coyotes, they might look for him.”

She says they’re worried someone might kill their research subject.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Williams

This week, we’re bringing you a series of stories on cancer and the environment.

Today, in the third part of our series, we’re going to St. Clair County.

The state of Michigan has confirmed a cancer cluster in the county. Since 2007, eight young children – and a possible ninth – have been diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer called Wilms tumor.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 550 children a year are diagnosed with Wilms tumor nationally.

Health officials ran a statistical analysis and found there are more cases of Wilms tumor in kids in the county than you’d expect to find.

Danielle Williams’ (no relation to Rebecca Williams) daughter Erika was the first to be diagnosed. She was seven years old.

“My daughter was playing soccer and she came home that night and we noticed she had a protruding lump on the side of her belly, and to the touch it was hot.”

An ultrasound revealed what looked like a six inch mass in Erika’s kidney. Erika had surgery to remove her left kidney ... and that’s when the doctors discovered the tumor was the size of a football.

“In the hospital, she quit... she didn’t speak. She didn’t really know what was going on but she knew it was serious. Because they’re so little they don’t know the serious(ness) of it, but her seeing me so broken, she just sat there in silence all the time and didn’t talk.”

The photo above shows a knotweed stand getting out of control in the Upper Peninsula/Photo by Vern Stephens.

Vern Stephens and Sue Tangora work for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. They happen to be married to each other. And they have a common enemy.

“This is on my radar of being a 10 on a scale of one out of 10.”

That thing they hate? It’s a plant. An invasive plant called Japanese knotweed. It’s sometimes also called Mexican bamboo. I met up with Vern and Sue at a busy intersection in East Lansing... on a corner lot where Japanese knotweed is going hog wild.

“It looks like bamboo. It gets up to 10-12 feet tall. It’s like being in a jungle, the canopy is above your head, generally in a lot of the sites, you can’t touch the canopy it’s that high above you.”

Maybe you’re thinking... so what? It’s a plant. In fact, it’s been a popular landscape plant in Michigan for years. People like it because it grows fast, so you can use it as a privacy screen to keep out nosy neighbors.

But this plant is crafty. It’s native to Japan, where it’s one of the first plants that comes up after a volcanic eruption. So it can actually push through volcanic rock. The problem with that is... it can also break through the foundation of your home.

“We know in England, Japanese knotweed has been known to be a problem there and it’s to the point where people have trouble getting insurance for homes, some of their insurance rates are really inflated. You see pictures of it growing up a wall inside someone’s home.”

(One couple in the UK had to demolish their home after a knotweed invasion - you can read that article here)

And actually – the knotweed on this corner lot is already breaking through the sidewalk.

Mark Brush/Michigan Radio

Black bears are doing really well in Michigan. The Department of Natural Resources estimates there are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 black bears in the state. They’re mostly in the U.P. and the northern lower peninsula. But in recent years... bears have been heading south and pushing into new territories.

Bears have been spotted in the Thumb, and around Flint, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek and Lansing.

Dwayne Etter is a bear researcher with the DNR.

The Environmental Protection Agency has just released a report on dioxins that’s more than 25 years in the making. 

Dioxins are a class of toxic chemicals.  They’re by-products of many industrial processes and some natural sources.

The EPA says dioxins are likely to cause cancer in humans.

The agency has finally released the first part of a report on just how toxic dioxins are. It looks at non-cancer health risks.

The report says high levels of dioxin exposure can cause developmental and reproductive effects... interfere with hormones and damage the immune system... and cause a severe skin disease called chloracne. 

The EPA says most Americans have low-level exposure to dioxins... mostly through high-fat fish, meat and dairy products.

But the EPA says low levels of exposure do not pose a significant health risk and does not recommend avoiding any particular foods because of dioxin.

You can read EPA's Consumer Fact Sheet and FAQs from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to learn more.

Muskegon County

Muskegon Lake is on a list of polluted hot spots around the Great Lakes called Areas of Concern. It made that list because of decades of industrial pollution.

Richard Rediske is a professor of water resources at Grand Valley State University. He says the last phase of cleanup is underway. The next step will be to improve habitat for fish and wildlife.

Rediske is working on projects to restore wetlands and remove debris at an old sawmill site. He says he expects it’ll take another five years to get Muskegon Lake off the Areas of Concern list. It was listed in 1985... so, getting the lake cleaned up and restored will end up taking more than three decades.

“That’s pretty much typical. White Lake to the north of us is actually going to be delisted this year so they’re a little ahead of us. It takes a long time to assess the problems and then fix them.”

Michigan has 14 Areas of Concern.

You can learn more about pollution hot spots in this feature story by The Environment Report.

 

Tracy Brooks/Mission Wolf/USFWS

Gray wolves in the western Great Lakes were recently taken off the endangered species list. Now, the state of Michigan is responsible for managing the wolf population.

Michael Nelson is a professor of environmental ethics at Michigan State University. He’s an author of a new report on people’s attitudes about wolves in Michigan. His report is based on a statewide telephone survey conducted in 2010. 

Nelson says they asked people throughout the state how they felt about the following four statements (on a five point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree):

  1. "I enjoy knowing wolves exist in Michigan."
  2. "I would be likely to purchase a license to hunt or trap wolves."
  3. "The decision to hunt wolves should be made by public vote."
  4. "Wolves should only be hunted if biologists believe the wolf population can sustain a hunt."

Michael Nelson says overall, Michiganders tend to value wolves.

"Generally, we found out that people enjoy knowing there are wolves in Michigan. This varies from place to place. We also found out that in general, the people of Michigan really support wildlife biology, wildlife science as an important way to make decisions about wolves."

But he says people’s feelings about wolves change based on where they live in the state.

Photo by Shawn Allee

The Environmental Protection Agency has missed its own deadline to release a major report on the health effects of dioxins. Dioxins are a class of toxic chemicals.

The EPA says dioxins are likely to cause cancer in humans. Since the mid-1980’s, the EPA has been working to define just how toxic dioxins are. Over the years, the agency has released drafts of the report. These drafts have been picked apart by scientists and industry. Then, the EPA goes back to working on it.

Last year, the EPA decided to split its dioxin assessment into two parts. One part will look at cancer risks; the other part will look at non-cancer health risks. The agency had promised to release the report on non-cancer effects by the end of January. But they missed that deadline.

The EPA did not want to be recorded for this story. They would only say they’re “working to finalize the non-cancer health assessment for dioxin as expeditiously as possible.”

Living with dioxin pollution

People in central Michigan have lived with dioxin pollution for more than three decades. The pollution is largely from a Dow Chemical plant in Midland. We’ve previously reported that EPA’s dioxin assessment could affect how much dioxin Dow might have to clean up.

Michelle Hurd Riddick is with the Lone Tree Council. It’s an environmental advocacy group based in Saginaw.

“We need our government to issue a clear scientific statement and report on the toxicity of this chemical. But unfortunately, it appears it’s probably politics as usual. And the monied interests, the lobbyists, they have the access, they have the influence and you know, public health be damned.”

The EPA has been under pressure from industry groups.

Great Lakes Commission

Asian carp have been making their way up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers toward the Great Lakes for decades.

A coalition of U.S. and Canadian mayors says the solution is to physically separate the Great Lakes basin from the Mississippi River system forever. In other words... they want to completely stop the flow of water between the two systems to permanently block carp from swimming up into Lake Michigan... and stop any kind of invaders from moving between the basins.

A new report out today outlines how that massive separation might happen.

Tim Eder is the executive director of the Great Lakes Commission. His group put out the report, along with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. The report identifies three different places on the Chicago waterway system where a physical separation could be put in place.

“It’s just putting some sheet piling, some metal and earth and concrete in the river to make a dam, basically.”

But the manmade system of canals in the Chicago area has been in place for a century (it was originally put in place to reverse the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan because untreated sewage was being dumped in the lake and making people sick - and even killing them).

Eder says there are a lot of people who depend on the waterway system as it is now.

“The river in Chicago now serves some really important purposes for managing floodwaters, for dealing with wastewater, and for transportation. Commercial transportation depends on that waterway, so our options propose solutions to maintain and even enhance all of those existing important uses of the waterway.”

When President Obama talked to the nation this week, he pointed out a guy from Michigan in the audience.

“When Bryan Ritterby was laid off from his job making furniture, he said he worried at 55, no one would give him a second chance. But he found work at Energetx a wind turbine manufacturer in Michigan. Before the recession the factory only made luxury yachts. Today it’s hiring workers like Bryan who said I’m proud to be working in the industry of the future.”

Last spring, Energetx Composites expected to increase its workforce from 40 employees to 300 sometime in 2012. We wanted to check in to see how things are going.

Chris Idema works in business development for the Holland-based company.

“You know, I can’t really comment on a specific number but we are definitely in growth mode right now, we are hiring and we expect to do so over the next several months.”

He says the biggest obstacle to his company’s growth is uncertainty in the market. Idema points to a federal tax credit that he says gives the wind industry some stability. That credit expires at the end of this year. It’s not clear what Congress will do about it.

Photo courtesy USFWS

Anthony Leiserowitz directs the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. He says the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is real. It’s mostly caused by people. And it’s serious.

“We know through multiple studies that over 95% of scientists agree about this.”

But... he says his studies and others show the number of Americans who believe climate change is happening has declined. 

Leiserowitz says there are a lot of reasons for that. A tough economy... declining media coverage...

“Then there’s actually been a very active campaign to discredit the science, to put out disinformation about the science. And that really kicked into gear in 2008 and 2009 because Congress was about to pass climate legislation. Forces that are perfectly happy with the status quo worked very, very hard to stop that effort and they were successful.”

So as a result of these factors and others... he says many Americans are confused about what to believe... or downright skeptical.

This was the topic of a conference put on by the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and the Union of Concerned Scientists at the University of Michigan last week. There were social scientists and climate scientists, religious leaders and members of the business community. They were here to talk about how the public climate change debate has become more about personal values and how you see the world than about the science.

(We are having problems with the "audio processing" file above. Please use the second link.)

In his second State of the State address, Governor Rick Snyder did not spend a lot of time talking about the environment. But he did say that agriculture, tourism, mining and the timber industry are key to the state’s future.

He also talked about his push to overhaul the state’s regulatory system.

“So far we’ve rescinded nearly 400 obsolete, confusing and burdensome regulations.”

Now... those 400 regulations are not all environmental. But Governor Snyder did call out one set of rules that was on the books.

“The Department of Environmental Quality has 28 separate requirements for outhouses, including a requirement that the seat not be left up.”

The governor got big laughs - it was the best punch line of the evening. But of course, there’s a serious undertone to the Governor’s plans for overhauling the way the state regulates businesses.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Asian carp have been making their way up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers toward the Great Lakes for decades. Bighead and silver carp are the species people are the most concerned about.

There’s been a lot of focus on keeping carp out of Lake Michigan.

But a new study finds carp might do well in Lake Erie and some of the rivers that feed the lake.

Patrick Kocovsky is a research fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He says it’s believed Asian carp need specific conditions to make babies.

“What’s currently believed is Asian carp require some kind of flood event in a tributary.”

He says the carp need just the right temperature... a river that’s flowing fast enough and a stretch of river long enough to reproduce.

Kocovsky and his team studied the major tributaries of Lake Erie. They found that the Maumee River is highly suitable for Asian carp to lay eggs.

The researchers found the Sandusky and Grand Rivers to be moderately suitable for carp.

Patrick Kocovsky says if carp can get into Lake Erie, the western side of the lake is likely to be the most hospitable.

Photo by Shawn Allee

The Dow Chemical Company is the second-largest producer of toxic chemical waste in the nation. That’s according to a new report by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The report shows that Dow produced more than 600 million pounds of toxic chemical waste in the reporting year 2010.

Ben Morlock is a spokesperson for Dow.

Morlock says 97% of that toxic chemical waste was treated, recycled or reused.

“We have on-site wastewater treatment plants, we have air pollution control equipment that incinerates contaminants so they’re not released into the air, we have equipment used in our manufacturing processes that captures chemicals and recycles them back into the process for reuse.”

He says the rest of that waste – the remaining three percent – was disposed of in accordance with the company’s state and federal permits.

“It is safe to say that most of that three percent is handled through land disposal, so for instance, it might go to a licensed secured landfill that is equipped to properly handle certain types of waste. So, I can tell you we audit the facilities we use for disposal and we make sure our waste is being handled properly if it leaves the site.”

He says Dow’s ranking on the EPA list reflects the size of the company. Dow is the nation’s largest chemical manufacturer.

The EPA’s report analyzes data from the Toxics Release Inventory. Industries in certain sectors are required by federal law to report their toxic chemical releases each year. This includes chemical manufacturers, metal mining, electric power companies and hazardous waste treatment.

nrc.org

The Palisades nuclear power plant is six miles south of South Haven on the shore of Lake Michigan.

The plant had five unplanned shutdowns last year. Four of those were unplanned reactor shutdowns. The fifth was a problem with the plant’s water pumps that did not affect the reactor.

Viktoria Mitlyng is a spokesperson with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  She says the Palisades plant is under scrutiny.

“There are so many issues in one year that have come up, you know, there’s certainly a concern. And we recognize that as a regulatory agency and are keeping a very close eye at what’s happening at the plant.”

The NRC has just issued a violation notice to the company that owns the Palisades plant - Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc. -  for a separate incident that happened in May.  A water pump at the plant failed - and regulators concluded that’s because one of the components was lubricated when it shouldn’t have been.

NRC says violation is of "low to moderate significance"

The NRC says this violation falls into a risk category of "low to moderate significance." But there’s a regulatory hearing expected next week to address two additional safety issues – one of which is what the NRC calls substantial safety significance.

That’s a much bigger deal than the water pump investigation finalized this week. In the more serious situation, the plant was offline for about a week last September because of a power outage. An electrical circuit at the plant broke when a worker was doing routine maintenance. The worker did not follow procedures for doing the work. When Lindsey Smith talked to NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng in November, she said the worker had actually gotten permission from his managers not to follow procedures.

“Nobody stopped in their tracks and said 'hey, what are we doing here? We need to rethink this.'”

People who are working on cleaning up the Great Lakes got some good news this week. After months of negotiations, the 2012 federal budget contains $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

That money will be used to clean up pollution, deal with invasive species and restore wildlife habitat. A lot of these projects are already underway.

Jeff Skelding is the campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. He says in a time when many budgets are getting slashed, funding for Great Lakes cleanup will remain steady.

“We have pretty much full support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Great Lakes Congressional delegation. I mean, they see the wisdom of infusing federal funding into the region, not only to clean up the Lakes which of course is very important, but the ancillary benefit we get from that is the economic benefits of investing these funds.”

The budget also includes more than $500 million to help Great Lakes states upgrade their aging sewer systems. When it rains, the sewers often get overloaded, and raw sewage can wash up on beaches.

Photo by Laura White

Mercury is a neurotoxin. The Environmental Protection Agency says mercury can be especially harmful for babies and kids. Mercury can affect their developing brains and harm their memory, attention, language and motor skills.

Mercury is naturally-occurring. Volcanoes emit mercury and so do hot springs, like the ones in Yellowstone National Park.

But the EPA points out... the largest manmade source of mercury emissions in the U.S. comes from coal-burning power plants.

Joel Blum is a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan. Blum says when power plants burn coal, mercury is emitted as a gas.

“In order to become toxic, it has to be transformed into a particular form known as methylmercury which is something that happens in the environment.”

So... mercury falls from the atmosphere, and is converted to methylmercury in the water. That toxic form builds up in fish... and it can build up in us when we eat fish.

But for years... there’s been a big debate about where that mercury goes when it’s released from a power plant smokestack.

“How much is deposited nearby, close to the plant, and how much goes into what we call global pool of mercury - basically goes into the atmosphere and stays there for a long period of time and mixes with mercury from other sources.”

Joel Blum and his colleagues have started to crack that puzzle with some careful detective work. They were able to track mercury emissions from a power plant in Florida... and they found that a high proportion of the mercury ended up nearby.

They did this by looking at chemical fingerprints.

DTE's St. Clair Power Plant in East China, Michigan.
user cgord / wikimedia commons

A new report from the group Environment Michigan says 115 inland lakes and rivers in the state have advisories for mercury pollution. Eating contaminated fish is the main way people are exposed to mercury.

Jessica Surma is with Environment Michigan. She says children are especially at risk for adverse health effects from mercury exposure.

“These can include lowered IQs, developmental disabilities and problems with motor control.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says electric utilities are by far the largest manmade sources of mercury emissions in the U.S. The EPA is planning to regulate mercury from power plants – for the first time ever.

John Austerberry is with DTE Energy.

“We agree with the goal of those regulations, but we are concerned that the federal rules will not provide sufficient time for the utilities to plan and install control systems.”

He says the company doesn’t know yet how much any new mercury control systems might cost or how much of that cost they might pass on to customers.

Photo by Sarah Payette

Most of us get our Christmas trees from a lot or a farm.

But if you have a saw and five bucks, you can cut down a tree in the national forest. Peter Payette took his family out to do it the old fashioned way and sent this report:

It’s true that five bucks is not much to pay for a tree, but it’ll cost you some time and gas money to get there.

The first stop is at a U.S. Forest Service office to buy a tag.

There’s one in Cadillac where Dianne Berry sells us our tags and helps us get our bearings.

“This is a two sided map... the other side has the area closest to Manistee. And on the Huron-Manistee we have almost a million acres.”

That means there are 500,000 acres of trees just on this side of the state, between Cadillac and Big Rapids!

Researchers at Indiana University have discovered two new kinds of flame retardant chemicals showing up in the air around the Great Lakes. These chemicals are added to polyurethane foam to help keep furniture and baby products from catching on fire.

They’re replacing other flame retardants called PBDEs that have been linked to neurological and developmental defects, and fertility and reproductive problems.

These newer chemicals are called brominated benzylates and brominated phthalates.

Ron Hites is an author of the study. His team found the chemicals in air samples from six sites around the Great Lakes... from Chicago to the remote Eagle Harbor in the Upper Peninsula. But he says it’s not clear yet what this might mean.

“We have very limited toxicology and virtually no information on ecological effects.”

Hites says one study suggests these chemicals can cause DNA damage in fish.

He says the concentrations of the chemicals in the atmosphere appear to be doubling every year or two in the Great Lakes region.

So how do you know if a product has flame retardants in it?

Experts say there's no way to know just by looking at a couch or car seat or baby changing pad whether it has flame retardant chemicals in it, but they say generally, if it has polyurethane foam and a label indicating it meets CA TB 117 (a California flammability standard that companies often meet by adding flame retardant chemicals), there's a very high probability the product contains flame retardants.

In a publication from the National Institutes of Health, Heather Stapleton, PhD says:

"I don't think we know much at all about the potential human health effects from exposure to these chemicals. What we do know is that infants are likely receiving more exposure to these chemicals than adults. Therefore, more research is warranted to determine if this exposure is leading to any adverse health effects."

The American Chemistry Council stands by the use of flame retardants.

But some scientists say these chemicals pose unnecessary risks.  The Green Science Policy Institute says many types of halogenated flame retardant chemicals are "persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic." The group has put out some guidelines for consumers.

You can learn more from The Environment Report's five part series on flame retardants.

 

Michigan lawmakers are debating this week how to help low-income families pay their heating bills. It’s turned into an urgent problem because of federal budget cuts... and a court decision that has tied up millions of dollars. Here’s how it works: there’s a program called the Low-Income Energy Efficiency Fund. If you get your power from DTE or Consumers Energy, you pay into that fund when you pay your energy bills... somewhere between one and two dollars a month. There’s been about $90 million dollars in that fund annually.

Photo by Terry Klein

Black bears have been doing well in northern Michigan for a while. There are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 bears in the state, mostly in the U.P. and the northern lower peninsula, but in recent years, bears have been on the move.

Some people are already getting a little closer to bears than they’d like to.

“There’s one coming up to inspect...”

Terry Klein is a commercial beekeeper and he’s checking on the hives in his backyard.

“These are in good shape if they’re that far down and there’s that much honey on them,” said Klein.

He lives in St. Charles. It’s about 20 miles southwest of Saginaw.

“This spring is the most recent fun we had with the bear, if you want to call it that.”

Klein had 20 hives set up near the Saginaw-Midland county line. Only two of them survived the winter. And those last two hives were the ones the bear decided to eat. He left behind a calling card.

“There was one very definite paw print in one of the frames that had fallen or got knocked out of the hive, and there were several other frames that you could see claw marks.”

Bears do love honey, but they also love to eat the bee larvae. So they can devour the entire hive.

Black bears are not just wandering into the Saginaw area. They’ve been showing up all over southern Michigan.

Photo courtesy of Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co.

For ten years, Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company has been pushing to mine nickel and copper near Marquette. The company started underground blasting of the mine in September.

The Department of Environmental Quality issued permits for the mine in 2007. But several of those permits have been challenged in court.

A circuit court judge in Ingham County recently upheld the mining permit.

Michelle Halley is an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. It’s one of the groups that challenged that permit. She says they’re concerned about the type of mining that will happen in the Eagle Mine. It’s sometimes called sulfide mining.

“The rock at Eagle is extremely acid producing, very high in sulfides and so once that rock is exposed to air and water, there’s really no debate it will begin producing acid.”

That acid is sulfuric acid. According to the Environmental Protection Agency... that acid can cause heavy metals to leach from rocks. The resulting fluid can be highly toxic to people and wildlife.

This is called acid mine drainage. On its website, Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company says there is a risk that it can happen. But the company says it’s taking a number of steps to reduce that risk.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

In honor of Thanksgiving... we're revisiting a Michigan farmer who raises heritage turkeys.

Those are turkeys that have a little bit of a wilder history. Some farmers are trying to keep these older turkey breeds from going extinct.

John Harnois has a yard full of turkeys. He says he knows his turkeys so well, he can speak their language.

"The turkeys pip, they bark, they gobble."

These turkeys are mostly males. They're trying to look all big and macho as they strut around in front of the hens. These birds are the Narragansett breed.

Sarah Hulett/Michigan Radio

Michigan’s only oil refinery is in the middle of a $2 billion dollar expansion project. Marathon Petroleum is expanding its refinery in southwest Detroit to process more heavy crude oil from Canada.

That expansion project is moving the footprint of Marathon’s refinery closer to people’s homes, especially the Oakwood Heights neighborhood in Southwest Detroit. A couple weeks ago, the company made a big announcement. Marathon is offering to buy about 350 homes in Oakwood Heights. The company is offering a minimum of $40,000 dollars plus half of what the home appraises for. There’s also money to help people relocate.

“We think it’s a very generous program. We think the neighborhood is going to be very happy with it.”

Tracy Case is with Marathon. He says the company is planning to demolish the homes it buys and create about a hundred acres of green space next to its refinery.

“You know, I think if you asked anybody in industry, or if you asked anybody that lives next to industry, they’d say yeah, that’s a good thing to have, to have the green space.”

He says the program is voluntary and no one will be forced to move.

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