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.

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Transportation
2:27 pm
Tue November 1, 2011

Governor Snyder touts higher speed Rail for Michigan

The 135 miles of rail line from Dearborn to Kalamazoo will be owned by the state of Michigan. The state is purchasing the line from Norfolk Southern Railway with the help of federal stimulus money. Once completed, the upgraded line will increase speeds.
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."

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Environment
1:19 pm
Thu October 27, 2011

Advanced battery show comes to Michigan

David Salguero from Mission Motors with the Mission electric superbike.
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.

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Environment
9:54 am
Thu October 6, 2011

Army Corps to turn up juice on carp barrier

Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Chuck Shea at the electric barrier system in Romeoville, Illinois.
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.

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Environment
10:02 am
Tue September 27, 2011

Chefs try to get Americans to eat Asian carp

Chefs Tim Creehan (left) and Phillipe Parola with a bighead carp.
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.”

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Environment
12:08 am
Thu September 22, 2011

The Enbridge oil spill's effect on wetlands

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.

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Environment
10:09 am
Tue September 13, 2011

What we can learn from 3.5 million dead fish

Bill Fink is the Museum of Zoology's Curator of Fishes.
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.

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Environment
11:56 am
Thu September 8, 2011

Platte Lake cleaner after years of salmon hatchery pollution

Platte Lake
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.

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Environment
11:40 am
Thu September 8, 2011

DuPont promises to reimburse homeowners for trees killed by herbicide

Blue Spruce is one of the species of trees that can be affected by Imprelis.
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.

Environment
10:57 am
Tue September 6, 2011

Study: Phthalates affect child development

The federal government has banned certain types of phthalates in children's products, but the chemicals are still in many other products including cars, flooring, shower curtains, cosmetics, shampoos and lotions.
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.

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Environment
6:51 pm
Thu September 1, 2011

Health concerns lingering after Kalamazoo River oil spill

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.

Environment
12:14 pm
Wed August 31, 2011

Swimming Upstream: A documentary from The Environment Report

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.

Environment
10:39 am
Thu August 18, 2011

"River Gypsies" studying three large Michigan rivers

Dr. Emma J. Rosi-Marshall and technician Dustin Kincaid from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies introduce a mix of nutrients into the Manistee River, so they can track how the river processes the nutrients.
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.”

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Environment
10:28 am
Tue August 16, 2011

Deconstructing Detroit

This 1930's bungalow in Southwest Detroit is being deconstructed. But first, the team has to clear the home of everything inside.
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.

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Environment
10:26 am
Thu August 11, 2011

White House issues first ever fuel economy standards for biggest trucks

Medium and heavy duty trucks built in 2014 through 2018 will have to meet new fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards.
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.

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Environment
10:00 am
Tue August 9, 2011

Company unveils new wind turbine plant

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.

Environment
11:00 am
Thu August 4, 2011

Crews looking for Asian carp in Lake Calumet

Kate Gardiner Creative Commons

Crews in Chicago are on the hunt for Asian carp this week. The term Asian carp refers to two species: bighead and silver carp. The crews are looking for the carp in Lake Calumet, which is linked by a river to Lake Michigan. Asian carp have been found in the rivers that feed into Lake Michigan from Illinois.

John Rogner is the assistant director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He says they’re looking for live carp after finding carp DNA in Lake Calumet.

He says it could mean there are live Asian carp in the lake.

“But there are some other possibilities. One is that there is DNA that comes upstream from downriver from boat hulls; it might be coming from restaurants in parts of Chicago that come out through the storm sewers.”

Some restaurants in the city serve Asian carp, so waste water could contain DNA from the fish. Rogner says people could also be releasing live carp into the lake, even though that’s illegal.

He says so far this week, they have not found any live bighead or silver carp in Lake Calumet.

Environment
10:41 am
Thu August 4, 2011

Koi herpesvirus shows up in wild Michigan fish

Koi are susceptible to koi herpesvirus, and so are carp and goldfish. Officials want to study whether native Michigan fish, such as minnows, are also at risk.
Photo by Flickr user: eye of einstein

State officials say they’ve discovered a virus for the first time in wild fish in Michigan. It’s called koi herpesvirus.

Gary Whelan is with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

He says the virus might have contributed to the death of several hundred common carp in Kent Lake last June. Whelan says the virus is known to affect common carp, goldfish and koi. And it can be fatal.

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Environment
10:49 am
Tue August 2, 2011

Sea lampreys gaining the upper hand

The mouth of a lamprey. It uses suction, teeth, and a razor sharp tongue to attach itself to its prey... and then it starts drinking blood.
Photo courtesy of USFWS

For fifty years Canada and the U.S. have been battling an eel-like creature across the Great Lakes. Sea lampreys are parasites that drill holes in fish to feed on blood and body fluids. They often kill the fish. The sea lamprey was one of the first invasive species to arrive in the lakes, and it’s the only invasive to be successfully controlled by humans.

But in recent years, the lamprey has been getting the upper hand in the struggle. As Peter Payette reports there might be more setbacks in the near future:

If you’re on a lamprey control team you get to see all the prettiest streams and rivers in the Great Lakes. That’s because lampreys like clean water.

“Part of our problems recently have been some of the streams that were too dirty to harbor lampreys have been cleaned up and now we have lampreys in parts of the Saginaw River. We never had lampreys in that up until 15 or 20 years ago.”

Ellie Koon supervises one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife treatment teams. They spend the warm months killing young lampreys by the thousands.

They treat rivers using a chemical called lampricide. It’s a poison that rarely hurts other fish. In fact, during a treatment the fish get a feast they normally wouldn’t. Young lampreys look a bit like worms at this stage and stay in the mud. But when they’re poisoned they swim out where fish can grab them.

Ellie Koon and one of her team members, Hank Cupp, say fish and other animals in the river pig out.

“You can almost hear the fish burping the day after we treat. You can see them swimming around with lampreys hanging out of their mouths that they can’t swallow.”

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Environment
10:27 am
Wed July 27, 2011

Life on the Kalamazoo River: oil & wildlife (part 2)

A volunteer prepares to clean oil from the feathers of a heavily-oiled Canada goose at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Marshall, Michigan in 2010.
Photo courtesy of the EPA

It was the largest inland oil spill in Midwest history... but we still don’t know exactly what it will mean for life around the river.

One year ago, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy broke. More than 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil polluted Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

People who were there say the river ran black. Turtles, and muskrats and Great Blue Herons were covered in oil. It’s not clear what all this will mean for the river and the wildlife that depends on it.

“It’s really a big unknown. We don’t have much experience with oil spills in freshwater rivers in general.”

Stephen Hamilton is a professor at Michigan State University.

“This new kind of crude, the tar sands crude oil, with its different chemistry, all makes this a learning experience for everybody involved.”

Tar sands oil is very thick, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines. We’ve previously reported that federal officials say the nature of this oil has made the cleanup more difficult. In fact, the cleanup has lasted longer than many people expected. The Environmental Protection Agency says there are still significant amounts of submerged oil along 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

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Environment
11:35 am
Thu July 21, 2011

Big changes for Michigan's regulatory system?

Governor Rick Snyder
Photo courtesy of the State of Michigan

Back when Governor Rick Snyder was on the campaign trail... he promised to make dramatic changes to the way the state regulates businesses.

“Our regulatory system is backwards in this state. Not only the amount of regulation, but how people are being treated. Lansing is treating us as if we’re bad and should be controlled.”

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