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

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.

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.

Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio

A little more than 50 years ago, Delores Leonard and her husband moved into their red brick ranch in Detroit.

“I selected it because the sun comes up over there in the morning and I was thinking about my flowers.”

They’ve raised their two kids here and now they have four grandchildren and five great-grandkids and they all live nearby.

But she says on any given day... she doesn’t know what she’ll smell when she steps outside.

“Sometimes it’s a kerosene odor. Sometimes it’s a horrible stench, like at a slaughterhouse. Sometimes, you’re out in public and people will say, ‘where do you live?’ And they’ll say,’ oh yes, I know that area, that stench, I don’t see how those people live there.’”

“There” is zip code 48217. It’s a corner of Southwest Detroit packed with heavy industry.

There’s the state’s only oil refinery, owned by Marathon Petroleum. The salt mine. The city’s wastewater treatment plant. DTE’s coal-burning power plant. Severstal Steel. And many more.

Delores Leonard grew up just a few streets over, in River Rouge. She remembers asking her dad why people were covering their cars with tarps.

“And he said it was because of the fallout, the pollution. Well, if they’re covering their cars so the paint pigmentation won’t peel, then what happens to the person who lives and who’s breathing all this stuff?”

Like Delores Leonard, a lot of people have lived here their whole lives.

Earlier this week, there was a landslide at a coal-burning power plant in Wisconsin. We Energies operates the plant. On their property, there’s a ravine next to a bluff on the shore of Lake Michigan. That ravine is filled with coal ash.

Coal ash is what’s left over when coal is burned to create electricity and it can contain toxic substances like arsenic, mercury and lead.

When the bluff collapsed on Monday, mud, soil, and coal ash spilled into Lake Michigan.

Barry McNulty is with We Energies.

“The vast majority of the debris including the soils and even coal ash, remain on land today. But a portion of that debris certainly spilled into Lake Michigan, which includes three vehicles, we believe, some coal ash, different soil from the bluff,” McNulty said.

McNulty said they don’t know how much coal ash got into the lake, but he said they are installing booms and using skimmers to clean up the spill.

The cause of the spill is under investigation.

user Want2Know / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder met with lawmakers, federal officials and the railroad industry yesterday to talk about the future of rail transportation in our state.

Rick Pluta is the State Capitol Bureau Chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He was at the Michigan Rail Summit and he joined me to talk more about this.

So Rick, what did the Governor say?

Rick Pluta: Rebecca, the governor is a big fan of rail service. He says it's a big part of the future of the state.

This is what he had to say to this rail summit:

"This isn't about a piece of rail in Michigan. This is about being the centerpiece of a broader logistical connection that goes all the way from St. Louis to Chicago to Detroit and I would like to see it continue on to Toronto and to Montreal."

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

A lot of people are looking at advanced batteries as the next big industry for the state of Michigan. Especially things like lithium ion batteries that are in your cell phone and laptop... and power most electric cars. Right now there are 17 Michigan companies either producing – or planning to produce – advanced batteries.

And so – with all the buzz about batteries – the Battery Show came to Novi this week.

It’s an international trade show... and the industry’s so new, this is only the second time the show has been held.

“We have critical mass here in Michigan around the battery industry. We are globally significant now.”

That’s Nick Cucinelli. He helps researchers at the University of Michigan build start-up companies around technologies they invent. He’s really into advanced batteries... and the promise they hold for the way we’ll use energy in the future.

Photo by Rebecca Williams

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.

Government officials are trying to keep the carp out of Lake Michigan. One of the main methods they’re using is electrical shock. There’s a man-made canal near Chicago that connects the Mississippi River system with Lake Michigan. And on that canal is a system of three underwater electric barriers built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

I recently had a chance to visit the electric barriers. You can’t see the actual barriers, because the electrodes are underwater. But the Army Corps invited me into the control room of Barrier 2B. It looks about like you’d guess – lots of computers and gauges. There are a couple large mounted Asian carp on the shelves.

Chuck Shea is a project manager with the Army Corps.

He says the barriers repel fish by emitting very rapid electric pulses into the water... which, if you’re a fish, is not a whole lot of fun.

“The idea is, as a fish swims in, the further it goes it’s getting a bigger and bigger shock and it realizes going forward is bad, it’s uncomfortable, and it turns around and goes out of its own free will and heads back downstream.”

The electric bill for this barrier runs between $40,000 and $60,000 a month.

Photo by Rebecca Williams

Two species of Asian carp, bighead and silver carp, have been swimming their way north toward the Great Lakes for decades. A lot of people are trying to keep the carp out of the Lakes.

Yesterday, attorneys general from around the country announced they’re putting more pressure on Congress to speed up action on Asian carp.

Some people think one solution is to create a market for the fish.

There are a couple of companies working to sell Asian carp to China... where the fish are considered a delicacy.

But winning over the American palate is much harder. Carp have a bit of an image problem... and they are full of bones.

“We are spoiled here, we like convenience. Everybody expects to have fish without bones, right? And that’s the issue.”

This is Chef Phillipe Parola. He’s from Baton Rouge and he wants you to learn to love Asian carp.

Parola is one of the chefs who tried to get Americans to eat nutria. Nutria look like oversized rats. So that didn’t go over so well.

Two years ago, Chef Parola found his new calling. He was out fishing in Louisiana, where the Asian carp are thick.

“With ten minutes, this fish started jumping everywhere. I’m like, what in the heck! Two of them, one after the other, landed right at my feet.”

He kept the giant carp, put them on ice, and took them home.

“To my surprise, when I saw the meat, as a professional chef, I knew right on that there’s no way that this fish could be bad, literally. When I went and cooked it, I'm going to tell you, it tasted between scallops and crab meat, there is no doubt.”

It’s been more than a year since a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy ruptured. More than 843,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilled into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

The Environmental Protection Agency says much of that oil has been removed from the creek and the river. But the EPA says there are still close to one hundred areas of submerged oil on the bottom of the river. Enbridge is now working to remove that oil.

The company recently missed an EPA deadline to clean up all of the submerged oil and contaminated soils.

Jason Manshum is an Enbridge spokesperson.

“Well, you know, while we have focused on completing that directive by that deadline, we have not been willing to sacrifice that work quality solely in order to meet a specific date on a calendar.”

Manshum says they ran into a number of obstacles... hot weather, storms, and a shortage of the special equipment they need. And the biggest challenge: those areas of submerged oil expanded.

“Keep in mind, the river is obviously a moving body of water, nothing stays constant, nothing is the same. So we found some of those submerged oil locations had shifted and some had expanded.”

Both Enbridge and the EPA have previously stated that it’ll be impossible to clean up every last drop of oil.

“It’s pretty common, most people think it should be easy to get it all out, and it’s just really not.”

Mike Alexander is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He’s one of the incident commanders on the cleanup site.

“When you get down to smaller quantities, they get harder to get, just the nature of how the river’s different at different locations, it gets trickier, it’s not an easy project, it’s going to take time.”

The spill happened smack in the middle of some of the most sensitive wetland areas in the state.

Photo by Rebecca Williams

Here in Michigan, we have the world’s largest collection of dead fish. At least, the world’s largest collection that’s based at a university.

There are about 3.5 million fish in this collection. It belongs to the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan.

Bill Fink is the director of the Museum of Zoology and Curator of Fishes.

He’s offered to take me on a guided tour. We take the elevator to the basement... where there’s row after row of shelves full of glass jars... full of fish.

“These specimens are from Japan and they were collected in 1920s – we have specimens that are well over a hundred years old now and they look fine.”

Bill Fink says these fish have been collected from all over the world, sometimes at great risk to the scientists. He points out the box of jars from Vietnam.

“They were collecting during war, the Mekong River Survey. They were shot at and captured and escaped and there were lots of adventures.”

Bill Fink is not just the curator here... he also goes out in the field. He says some of the fish themselves are dangerous for the collectors.

“We also have a huge collection of piranhas right here...I’ve been there when people have been bitten but I personally have not been bitten. I’m really careful.”

Fink shows me some amazing fish... like the tiny anglerfish with its appendage that glows in the dark at the bottom of the ocean.

Photo by Chris Harnish, courtesy of Interlochen Public Radio

Decades ago, residents sued to stop a fish hatchery in northern Michigan from polluting a lake. More than thirty years later, the legal battles have ended and the pollution has been greatly reduced.

Northern Michigan is home to some of the clearest blue lakes in the world, like Torch, Glen and Crystal.

Once upon a time Wilfred Sweicki says Platte Lake in Benzie County was in that league.

“It was extremely clear, never quite as clear as Crystal or Glen but nearly so.”

Unfortunately for Sweicki and other homeowners on Platte, fishery biologists did something nearby that changed the Great Lakes dramatically.

They planted Pacific salmon in the Platte River.

That was in the late sixties and soon a billion dollar fishery was born.

A hatchery was built and animal waste from millions of fish began pouring into Platte Lake. The waste contained the nutrient phosphorus.

Phosphorous caused algae to bloom, clouding the water and killing a variety of aquatic animals and plants.

It even caused chemical changes in the sediment of the lake bottom that produced milky clouds of a clay-like substance that collects on stones and docks.

Arthur Chapman / Flickr

A few months ago, reports started coming in that an herbicide made by DuPont was hurting and killing trees. The Environmental Protection Agency recently ordered DuPont to stop selling the herbicide Imprelis. DuPont had suspended sales shortly before that. The herbicide was used by lawn care companies to kill weeds on lawns and golf courses starting last fall.

Bert Cregg is an associate professor of horticulture at Michigan State University.

He says Imprelis can cause a range of different injuries to blue spruce, Norway spruce and white pine.

“You might see like in a big white pine, you might see a little bit of top growth doesn’t look quite right, you’ll see the twisting and curling, stunting of the top of the tree, in other cases, yeah we’ve seen the tree killed outright.”

This week, DuPont announced a program to process damage claims from property owners. DuPont declined an interview. But in a statement, the company said property owners with approved claims will receive replacement trees – or cash compensation.

DuPont’s also facing a number of lawsuits, including a class action suit brought by a woman from Allen Park, Michigan.

Source: Toniht at Wikimedia Commons

Phthalates are a class of chemicals that have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system. They’re used in all kinds of consumer products including flooring, cars and cosmetics.

A new study published today finds a significant link between pregnant women’s exposure to phthalates and negative impacts on their children’s development.

Robin Whyatt is a professor in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and she’s the lead author of the study. She and her team have an ongoing study of more than 700 mothers and their children that began in 1998.

For this particular study, they looked at about half of those mother-child pairs. They measured phthalate levels in the mothers’ urine and compared those levels to several developmental tests on their children, who are now three years old.

“As levels in the mothers' urine went up, the child’s motor development went down significantly.”

She says the types of phthalates they studied appear to affect the babies’ brain development while they’re still in utero.

“Three of the phthalates were significantly associated with behavioral disorders, or behavioral problems: anxious, depressed behaviors, emotionally reactive behaviors, withdrawn behavior.”

Whyatt says they controlled for a long list of factors. They looked at tobacco smoke, lead, pesticides, and other toxic substances.

“We controlled for race and ethnicity, gestational age. We looked at marital status, we looked at a number of different indicators of poverty and also how much hardship a woman was going through.”

And she says still, there was a significant link between the mothers’ phthalate levels and their children’s development.

“Our findings are concerning because saw a two to three fold increase in the odds that the child would have motor delays and or behavioral problems.”

But she says more research is needed. And parents should keep in mind that any individual child’s risk is low.

It’s been more than a year since a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy ruptured... spilling more than 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River. The cleanup continues. And people who live near the river say they’re worried about what they might have been exposed to when the spill happened... and what they might still be getting exposed to.

The majority of the oil has been cleaned up, but there are still significant amounts of submerged oil on the bottom of the river.

The Michigan Department of Community Health recently put out a report on the risks of contact with that submerged oil.

Jennifer Gray is with the MDCH.

“We concluded that in terms of long term health issues, so health issues that would stay with you after the contact was done, or things like developing cancer, that contact with the chemicals in the submerged oil wouldn’t really cause these kinds of effects.”

She says people could have short term health effects from contact with the oil - things such as skin irritation.

The assessment did not include any health risks from breathing in chemicals from the remaining oil. Jennifer Gray says her agency is currently evaluating air monitoring data from the early days of the spill... and says they’re continuing to look at other ways people might be exposed to the oil that remains.

The areas of the Kalamazoo River that were affected by the spill are still closed for recreation.

People who live near the spill site want local officials to conduct a long-term health study.

Riki Ott is a marine toxicologist from Alaska. She’s spent the past two decades charting health problems from people who live near the site of the Exxon Valdez spill and last year’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She’s in Battle Creek this week to talk with people affected by the Kalamazoo River spill.

“I could have zipped back in time and it would be the same things as Exxon Valdez residents and workers, the same thing I’ve heard in the Gulf for a full year and here now. Headaches, dizziness, nausea, rashes, these things are not going away. People want answers.”

Ott says it’s too early to rule out the potential of long term health effects from the Kalamazoo River oil spill.

“If the state is acknowledging there could be short term health effects, then that means there could also be long term health effects.”

The Calhoun County Health Department has petitioned the federal government for a long term health study on residents.

Photo by Lester Graham

We've been spending the past couple months going on fishing trips, and talking to people who fish for fun and for a living... to bring you stories about everything you never knew you wanted to know about fish and fishing in the Great Lakes.

Today, you can hear the result of our effort in a special one-hour documentary we're calling Swimming Upstream.

We'll tag along on a salmon fishing trip with Lester Graham, go on an Asian carp rodeo on the Illinois River, meet commercial fishers (both tribal and non-tribal), and go fishing with Dustin Dwyer as he gets into the mind of a fish.

We think of the Lakes today as a great place to play on the beach, to swim, to go fishing. But those huge, beautiful lakes are changing.

The changes are happening so fast that the agencies which manage fishing cannot keep up with them.

On average, a new foreign species gets into the Lakes every seven months. Each could be a threat to the lakes and the fish in the lakes. We explore the health and future of the Great Lakes, and hear stories about fish and the people who catch them.

Listen to it here:

Or tune in today at 1pm and 8pm on Michigan Radio to hear Swimming Upstream and let us know what you think.

Find out more about fish consumption advisories: in Michigan,  in Ohio, in Wisconsin, in New York, and in Illinois.

Photo by Tom Kramer

This summer, a group of scientists are studying five large rivers in the Midwest… including the St. Joseph, the Muskegon and the Manistee rivers in Michigan. It’s part of a three year study of how large rivers process fertilizers – and how things like farming and wastewater affect the rivers.

Tom Kramer spent some time with this group that calls themselves “The River Gypsies” - here's his story:

The forecast says there is a 50/50 chance of thunderstorms, but the River Gypsies can’t slow down for a little rain.

This group of 13 scientists, PhDs, grad students and undergrads has had three weeks to study five rivers in two states – packing up and moving to a new campground every three or four days. Picnic tables have become temporary laboratories.

Jennifer Tank, a professor at Notre Dame, says one of her students wasn’t all that prepared for this nomadic lifestyle.

“Now he did bring a Samsonite suitcase that weighs about 100 pounds into the field with him, but I know that next year he’ll have a great dry bag… so he’s learning as he goes along.”

Photo by Rebecca Williams

Nearly a quarter of the homes in Detroit are empty. That’s more than 79,000 vacant homes, according to the last Census.

Of those, Mayor Dave Bing’s office considers 12,000 to be dangerous. They’re burned out, or falling apart. They attract squatters and drug dealers. So the city is paying contractors to demolish them.

But another group of people says some of these homes don’t have to be demolished. They can be taken apart board by board... and the materials can be salvaged.

Photo courtesy of EPA

When you’re on the highway, you see all those big 18-wheelers... the cement trucks and trucks hauling logs... the refrigerated trucks heading to the grocery store... pretty soon, all these kinds of trucks will be seeing some changes.

David Friedman is with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says these trucks are cleaner than they used to be.

Jeff Kubina / flickr

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, is in Michigan today. She’s visiting for a ribbon cutting at Ventower Industries in Monroe. It’s a company that will be making towers for wind turbines.

The Monroe facility will serve as Ventower's main U.S. operation.

35 employees will start work this week, and as many as 300 could eventually work there.

Scott Viciana is the company’s vice president. He says the plant is built on the site of a former industrial landfill.  So first, they had to clean up the land.

“We stumbled across less (sic) concerns in the end than we thought potentially we could.”

Ventower got state and federal tax credits to clean up the brownfield site.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson says that makes it a double win for the environment.

"What we see here today is a return to use. A return to use for a site that will preserve green space, but also support a clean energy economy."

Ventower officials say the Monroe site is ideal because it can ship parts by road, rail, and a Great Lakes port.