The Environment Report

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The Environment Report hosted by Rebecca Williams explores the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan. Send us your story ideas by following the link above!

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The Environment Report
11:25 am
Tue August 12, 2014

MSU study finds partisan politics influence public views on environmental policy

Credit Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

These days, getting pretty much any kind of environmental policy made into law involves a lot of fighting and delay.

New research from Michigan State University finds Americans are becoming more divided over environmental protection and they seem to be getting their cue mainly from Congress.

Aaron McCright is a sociologist at MSU and the lead author of the study. He writes that things weren’t always so partisan. In fact, many landmark environmental laws were born during the Nixon Administration.

From 'Red Scare' to 'Green Menace'

But then the Soviet Union fell and, according to McCright's research, the American conservative movement (consisting of major conservative think tanks, wealthy families, and conservative foundations) moved its focus away from former communists toward what they saw as the 'green menace'.

"This really came through in the late 80s and early 90s, so this anti-environmentalism of the conservative movement was driving the changing policy stance of the Republican party and it's mostly because of a significant drop off in pro-environmental voting among Republicans in both the House and the Senate,"said McCright. "Whereas the Democrats just sort of continued on a light, upward trend in pro-environmental voting."

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The Environment Report
11:35 am
Thu August 7, 2014

Michigan township seeks "franchise agreements" with oil and gas drillers

A drilling operation. The state doesn't allow townships to regulate oil and gas drilling. Edwards Township doesn't have any active drilling at the moment, but township officials hope to use a sort of franchise agreement to work around state rules for future drilling.
Credit Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

One Michigan township wants to make special deals with oil and gas drillers. 

State law does not allow townships to regulate oil and gas drilling. But with all the controversy around fracking, some wish they could.  One township in northern lower Michigan is trying to work around that rule and have a voice.  

There are no active oil or gas wells in Edwards Township, a farming community near West Branch. However, there are some old wells that are capped off.

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The Environment Report
12:19 pm
Tue August 5, 2014

Report details ways to prevent, reduce cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Erie

Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

A toxin produced by a kind of cyanobacteria contaminated Toledo's water supply over the weekend. It left 400,000 people without drinking water.

Blooms of cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) like these happen when excess nutrients — mostly phosphorus — run off into Lake Erie from farms and sewage treatment plants.

The International Joint Commission is an independent organization that gives advice to the U.S. and Canada on Great Lakes issues. Earlier this year, the IJC put out a report on how to prevent these blooms.

Raj Bejankiwar, of the Commission's Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, is the lead scientist on that report.

Cyanobacteria blooms were a problem in the '60s and '70s, but then they went away and in the 2000s they started coming back. Bejankiwar says it's because of runoff, mainly from farms.

"We have to stop feeding algae their food, which is phosphorus. We use that extensively in the agriculture land and Toledo is right in the ground zero zone for algae, especially the Maumee River watershed." Bejankiwar adds that in the past few years, heavy storms have washed phosphorus-filled fertilizer from farms. "It ends up in the Maumee River and then finally in Lake Erie."

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The Environment Report
12:11 pm
Thu July 31, 2014

Making the Great Lakes safer for swimming, fishing and drinking the water

Apostle Island National Park on Lake Superior. The International Joint Commission's Health Professionals Advisory Board wants to examine contaminants at beaches among other indicators of the overall health of the Great Lakes.
User: carol mitchell Flickr

Just in case the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement isn’t on your summer reading list, here’s the gist of it:

It’s an agreement between the U.S. and Canada. One of the goals of that agreement is to make the Great Lakes more swimmable, fishable and drinkable.

The International Joint Commission is an independent bi-national organization. It gives advice to the U.S. and Canada on meeting those goals, among other things. The IJC has a Health Professionals Advisory Board, and the board’s come out with a report proposing five ways to measure risks to our health from contaminants and other hazards in the Great Lakes.

The advisory board is proposing these indicators:

  • The chemical integrity of source water
  • Biological hazards of source water
  • Illness risk at Great Lakes beaches
  • Identified risks at Great Lakes beaches
  • Contaminant levels in fish

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The Environment Report
12:41 pm
Tue July 29, 2014

Birding from the sky above southeast Michigan

Kensington Metropark from the sky
Dea Armstrong

Like most of us, Dea Armstrong has only seen birds from the ground. Today, she’s going to fly with them.

Armstrong is Ann Arbor’s city ornithologist, and watching birds from a hot air balloon is on her bucket list. I got a chance to tag along to find out what we’d see from the air.

“I’m so excited to see what it’ll be like to look from above and down. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to recognize the birds, of course, but it’ll be just so different,” she says.

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The Environment Report
8:50 am
Tue July 29, 2014

EPA holding public hearings on Clean Power Plan

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

For the first time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to require power plants to cut their carbon pollution. This week, the EPA is holding public hearings about the plan all around the country.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says the agency has already gotten more than 300,000 comments.

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The Environment Report
11:17 am
Thu July 24, 2014

After 4 years, major cleanup on the Kalamazoo River coming to a close

Workers assess damage at Enbridge oil spill site in 2010. The major aspects of the cleanup are expected to be wrapped up this summer.
EPA

It's been four years since the Enbridge pipeline Line 6B broke, creating the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

More than a million gallons of tar sands oil have been cleaned up from Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. This summer, crews are dredging areas of Morrow Lake.

Steve Hamilton is a professor of ecosystem ecology at the Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University. He’s served as an independent scientific advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency throughout the cleanup. I talked with him for today's Environment Report.

A few years ago, right in the heart of the cleanup, an EPA official said the agency was "writing the book" on how to remove tar sands oil from the bottom of a river.

Hamilton agrees: "First, before it even got to the bottom, we learned that in the first year, it stuck to surfaces of plants and debris that made a tarry mess that largely had to be manually removed." 

He says it was the removal of the submerged oil that made the cleanup last as long as it has.

"It is so incredibly difficult to remove submerged oil from a complex river, extending over nearly 40 miles."

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The Environment Report
11:44 am
Tue July 22, 2014

Carbon tax finds bipartisan support when funds are delegated to a specific cause

Some people think a tax on carbon dioxide is a good market-based approach to tackling climate change because it would require larger companies, such as power plants, to pay for their emissions. But it's a tough sell politically.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Economists often argue that we should use the market to fight climate change. Cap-and-trade legislation died in Congress back in 2010.  Some people think a tax on carbon dioxide is a better solution, but that would require large companies to pay for their carbon emissions.

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The Environment Report
11:38 am
Thu July 17, 2014

Climate change fueling increase in pollen, allergies

http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/images/indicator_downloads/ragweed-download1-2014.png

If even hearing the word “ragweed” makes your eyes water, you might be one of the nearly 45 million Americans with seasonal allergies. Researchers say climate change is fueling the rise in allergies and asthma.

Jenny Fischer has been taking over-the-counter medication for allergies for a long time. Without it, she suffers cold-like symptoms: a runny nose, sneezing and congestion. An allergy pill usually made it better. But a couple of years ago, things started to get worse.

“I’d be out at 5:30 in the morning walking my dog, and it would just be huffing and puffing. And, you know, I couldn’t catch my breath. It's scary," she said.

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The Environment Report
2:02 pm
Tue July 15, 2014

Researchers predict smaller cyanobacteria problem in Lake Erie this year

Algae blooms are predicted to be smaller in Lake Erie in 2014. Last year's bloom was large due to a relatively wet spring followed by a wet July.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

 

The forecast is in: the green goo will be back on Lake Erie this year, but it won’t be as bad as last year.

The big, ugly blooms of cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) happen when excess nutrients — mostly phosphorus — run off into the lake from farms and sewage treatment plants. Some of these kinds of cyanobacteria produce toxins can harm pets and make the water unsafe to drink.

Rick Stumpf is an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says they’re predicting this year’s bloom in Lake Erie will be significant, but not as bad as it has been in recent years. The blooms reached a record level in 2011.

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The Environment Report
8:46 am
Tue July 15, 2014

DEQ holding public hearings on fracking rules tonight and Wednesday

Credit World Resources Institute

State officials want to hear what you think about fracking.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wants to update the state’s rules on hydraulic fracturing. The DEQ is holding two public hearings this week on the proposed changes.

Hal Fitch is the chief of the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals.

“Starting about 2008, we started hearing increased public concerns. So we met with the environmental community, we met with the public in over 200 different forums and heard those concerns and formulated these rules based on what we were hearing,” he says.

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The Environment Report
2:55 pm
Thu July 10, 2014

Is the hybrid hype dying down?

Data shows that sales are down for hybrids like the Ford C-Max.
Ford Motor Company

People may talk about wanting to be environmentally friendly but, when it comes to buying new cars, the data show they aren't spending their green on being green.

Car buyers don’t actually end up buying hybrids and electrics even though they say it’s important to them.

"Hybrids and plugins tend to be more expensive," says Sonari Glinton, NPR’s auto reporter. The advance drive market [hybrids, electric vehicles, plugin hybrids] has accounted for 3.6% of the market in the first half of 2014, a decline when compared to 3.8 % in the first half of 2013. Glinton says this market plateau is partially because shoppers are acclimating to higher gas prices. He thinks the other reason is "the novelty of these [hybrid] cars has worn off, so it's not like there's a big new electric car that people are like 'oh I gotta go out and buy that car.' "

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The Environment Report
11:18 am
Thu July 10, 2014

Bass getting fat on invasive fish

A goby in Lake Michigan. Bass are getting bigger gorging on this invasive species.
Joi Ito Flickr

The bass are getting fat.

Lake Michigan was recently recognized as one of the best places in America to fish for bass. The booming fishery is one sign of what might be a major shift of the lake’s food web.

But that change is being driven by an increase in goby, an invasive species. And it could spell trouble for salmon— the most popular sport fish in Lake Michigan.  

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Michigan's Silent Poison (Part 5)
8:30 am
Fri July 4, 2014

One congressman has kept us in the dark about the health risks of arsenic

Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, delayed the U.S. EPA's health assessment on arsenic.
Credit wikimedia commons

Arsenic occurs naturally, and Michigan is one of a handful of states with unusually high arsenic concentrations in groundwater.

Arsenic was also used in insecticides for many years and it's still being used in some weed killers.

David Heath is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, and he investigated why a health assessment on arsenic from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been delayed.

Why does this health assessment matter?

Heath said when the EPA first wants to determine how dangerous a toxic chemical is, they first do the science. These assessments can take a long time and the arsenic assessment has been going on for more than a decade.

"It's not until they have done the science to figure out exactly how dangerous a chemical is that they can really take action on it," Heath said. "So it really does come down to 'this is how they protect your health.'"

A single member of Congress, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, was able to intentionally delay the EPA's health assessment for years.

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Environment & Science
10:45 am
Thu July 3, 2014

What should we do about the arsenic in our food? Experts say vary your diet, research ongoing

A rice farm in California. These test plots are being used by rice farmers to find ways to limit the amount of arsenic getting into rice.
FDA

All this week, we’ve been talking about the potential for elevated levels of arsenic in groundwater in Michigan.

The upshot of our reports:

  1. Arsenic levels in Michigan’s groundwater can be high.
  2. Arsenic is bad for you.
  3. Scientists are finding health effects at lower exposure levels.
  4. If you’re on a well, test it for arsenic.
  5. If the levels are high, you should consider doing something about it.

This one chart published by the Center for Public Integrity shows you why (the blue bar is arsenic):

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Michigan's Silent Poison (Part 4)
8:30 am
Thu July 3, 2014

These places in Michigan are still working on getting arsenic out of their drinking water

Sue Cherry, the director of Maple Tree Montessori Academy, said the school installed a reverse osmosis system to take out the arsenic. However, that system didn't meet EPA standards. The kids are told not to drink the water from the sinks.
Rebecca Williams Michigan Radio

There’s no way to tell if arsenic is in your water without testing it. Arsenic has no taste and no smell.

Certain parts of Michigan have higher than average levels of arsenic in groundwater. That’s especially true in the Thumb region and a few other counties in southeast Michigan. And that can be a problem if you’re on a private well.

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Michigan's Silent Poison (Part 3)
8:30 am
Wed July 2, 2014

There's arsenic in Michigan's well water, but not a lot of people are talking about it

Drilling a water well in Michigan.
Bushen Well Drilling. Facebook

Parts of southeast Michigan – especially in the Thumb – have higher than average levels of arsenic in the groundwater.

Arsenic can cause cancer. It’s been linked to bladder, lung and kidney cancer, and other serious health effects.

If you’re on city water, there’s a federal regulation that limits the amount of arsenic in it, but if you’re on a private well, it’s up to you to find out whether there’s too much arsenic in your water.

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Michigan's Silent Poison (Part 2)
8:00 am
Tue July 1, 2014

Michigan’s arsenic problem is among the worst in the nation. Here’s why that matters.

An arsenic testing kit can help private well owners know the arsenic levels in their drinking water. Michigan is one of a handful of states with unusually high arsenic concentrations in groundwater.

If you’re on city water, your drinking water has to comply with a federal regulation that limits the amount of arsenic in it, but if you’re on a private well, the federal and state governments do not limit the amount of arsenic in your well.

It’s up to you to test your well and decide whether to treat it.

Arsenic occurs naturally in rock, and it can get into groundwater.  Michigan is one of a handful of states with unusually high arsenic concentrations in groundwater.

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Michigan's Silent Poison
9:00 am
Mon June 30, 2014

Here's how to test and treat your drinking water well for arsenic

Sampling done from 1983 through 2003 shows where arsenic levels in groundwater are the highest in Michigan. Arsenic levels are in micrograms per liter.
Credit Michigan DEQ

In some parts of the U.S., arsenic in the groundwater is just a natural part of the geology. Michigan is one of several states where elevated levels of arsenic in ground water can be found.

This map shows the counties where these elevated levels have been found, but experts caution, elevated arsenic levels in well water can be found just about anywhere in Michigan:

There was a big push to educate people about the dangers of arsenic poisoning around a decade ago, but in some places in Michigan, people still don't know much about it.

And in some other cases, people know about it, but choose to ignore it, for one reason or another.

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Michigan's Silent Poison (Part 1)
8:55 am
Mon June 30, 2014

This mom didn't know why her family was sick until she checked their water

Renee Thompson and her family became ill after moving into a house in Ortonville. Later, she discovered that their well water had higher than average levels of arsenic.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

 

It’s been called “the mother of all poisons.” You can't taste arsenic and you can’t smell it, which is why it’s been the poison of choice for centuries.

“During the Middle Ages it was called the succession powder,” says Jerome Nriagu, professor emeritus of public health at the University of Michigan.

“That’s the way people got rid of the kings and queens if they wanted to become the king or queen themselves,” he said.

Arsenic, in very high doses, can kill you.

But arsenic is a naturally occurring element and doctors and scientists like Nriagu are working hard to understand how arsenic affects us today.

A family experiences mysterious health problems

Renee Thompson and her family were sick for three years without having any idea why.

“My children and my husband all became very ill after we moved into the house we had in Ortonville,” she said.

At the time, Thompson had recently given birth to her third child, Danica.

“My son was six, and he started to have severe chest pains, while my older daughter had headaches,” Thompson said. “My husband had GI bleeding, and I had become very fatigued with headaches and skin problems.”

Listen to Thompson explain what her family experienced:

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