The Environment Report

Tuesdays & Thursdays at 8:50 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.

The Environment Report hosted by Rebecca Williams explores the relationship between the natural world and the everyday lives of people in Michigan.

An emerald ash borer
User: USDAgov / flickr

Researchers with the U.S. Forest Service are looking for ash trees that survived the attack of the emerald ash borer.

The invasive insect has been spreading across the Midwest and beyond since 2002 - killing millions of ash trees in its wake.

Here's an animation showing the spread of the emerald ash borer from 2002 to 2014:

Clarence S. Metcalf Great Lakes Maritime Research Library

Michigan Radio's M I Curious project is a news experiment where we investigate questions submitted by the public about our state and its people.

As part of our M I Curious project, Shelly Scott asked Michigan Radio this question:

Have there ever been pirates on the Great Lakes?

“I thought: we’ve got such nice water bodies around here, why don’t we hear anything about fantastic things that happened on the Great Lakes?” she says.

Scott is an engineer at Ford and she’s also a leader of her daughter’s Girl Scout troop.  These 5th grade girls had some questions about freshwater pirates too:

“What do pirate ships look like? Was there any pirate treasure in the Great Lakes? How did they get away with stealing other people’s treasure?” asked Maria Kokko, Lilli Semel and Shannon Scott.

A diver inspects Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac for a possible dent.
Credit an Enbridge inspection video shared with the state of Michigan

We've been working to find an answer to the question, "What's the status of the aged Enbridge oil pipeline running through Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac?"

It was posed by Justin Cross for our M I Curious project.

One of the first things we discovered was that the company holds all the cards.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

A lot of us are curious about the oil pipeline running through the Straits of Mackinac.

Michigan Radio's M I Curious is a news experiment where we investigate questions submitted by the public about our state and its people.

As part of our M I Curious project, Justin Cross asked Michigan Radio this question:

What is the status of the aged Enbridge oil pipeline running through Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac?  

Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

Wastewater from fracked wells that produce gas and oil in Pennsylvania and West Virginia is coming to Ohio. 

Julie Grant, a reporter who has been researching this issue, says Ohio has become a go-to place for the nation's fracking waste disposal. Grant reports on environmental issues in Ohio and Pennsylvania for the program The Allegheny Front

"Energy companies point to the geology. They say the layers of underground rock that are better for wastewater storage are easier to access in Ohio, than in Pennsylvania’s hilly Appalachian basin," Grant says.

Pennsylvania is one of the top natural gas producers in the nation, but it’s more difficult to permit a disposal well there. Grant says there are only a few waste disposal wells in the whole state.

Ohio also has industry-friendly regulations. Oil and gas companies need permits to dispose of fracking waste underground.

In other states around the region, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, the Environmental Protection Agency has authority over those permits -- and the process can take a year or more. But in Ohio, the same permits can be issued in a matter of months. That's because Ohio has primacy over injection wells, so the state, not the federal government, issues the permits and the process is often faster.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

Lakes Michigan and Huron have recovered after more than a decade of low water levels.

Government scientists say the lakes rose above their historic average this month.

Just two years ago, the water was at the lowest level ever recorded.

The quick recovery has stifled an effort to engineer a solution to the problem of low lake levels in Huron and Michigan.

But proponents say it would be shortsighted to forget about the issue.

MCM Management Corp.

Detroit is in the middle of one of the most ambitious demolition campaigns the nation has ever seen, tearing down about 200 houses every week.

Many of the homes being razed are in neighborhoods where people still live. So Detroit officials sat down before the blitz to come up with some new regulations designed to keep people safe from dust, and from hazardous materials that could be in that dust – like lead, or asbestos.

user:yooperann / Flickr

The U.S. Forest Service has put out a report on how our warming climate is affecting forests in the U.P.

Stephen Handler is a climate change specialist with the Forest Service. He says, over the past several decades, we’ve been getting more extreme rainstorms in the region.

“So, more rain of two inches at a time, three inches at a time; and we’re seeing our winters, which is our characteristic climatic feature, shrinking, so, getting shorter and getting more variable, or getting less consistent snowpack,” he says.

In August of 2010, crews prepare to remove the broken section of Enbridge's Line 6B pipeline.
EPA

Federal, state, and local agencies took part in a mock oil spill Wednesday in northern Michigan along the Indian River.

The emergency drill conjured memories of the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill. About a million gallons of crude oil have been cleaned up from that spill. There’s some concern about whether Enbridge has made important internal changes to avoid future pipeline problems.

Carl Weimer with the Pipeline Safety Trust said one of the reasons Enbridge failed to prevent the pipeline break near Marshall, Michigan in July 2010 is not because the company was completely unaware of corrosion and a cracks in the pipeline.

He says Enbridge inspection teams weren’t sharing information with each other.

Enbridge Energy oil spill
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

There’s been a lot of controversy over TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. But there’s another company working to bring more tar sands oil into the U.S.

Enbridge Energy wants to increase the amount of heavy crude oil crossing the border from the Alberta tar sands into the Great Lakes region.

Lorraine Little is with Enbridge. She says Enbridge wants to move more oil on its pipeline known as the Alberta Clipper. That pipeline runs about a thousand miles from northern Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.

“Its purpose is to carry heavy crude oil from the oil sands in Alberta into our Superior terminal where then it can get off on other pipelines and serve refining markets around the Midwest region or other parts of the country,” she says.

Back in November of 2012, Enbridge filed an application with the U.S. State Department. The company wants to raise the capacity of the border segment of the Alberta Clipper pipeline to 800,000 barrels per day (they're currently transporting 450,000 barrels per day).

That permit is still under review.

U.S. Geological Survey

Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey have been monitoring pesticides in rivers and streams around the country for 20 years. They just released their findings, and they found there are levels of some pesticides that could be a concern for bugs and fish.

For example, they found the insecticide fibronil at levels that could cause harm. That chemical disrupts insects’ nervous systems.

The study, "Pesticides in U.S. Streams and Rivers:  Occurrence and trends during 1992-2011” is published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. 

Wes Stone, a hydrologist with the USGS, says some pesticides have been phased out and others have come on the market, and you can see that directly reflected in the water.

“What it shows is to stay on top of what’s in the environment, we’re going to have to constantly evolve and keep looking at the newest ones and evolving new methods to sample for them," he says.

But Stone says their study probably underestimates potential risks to aquatic life. He says there are more than 400 different pesticides in use, but he says funding is limited, so his agency only tests for a fraction of those pesticides in rivers and streams.

Tim Evanson via Wikimedia Commons

This week, a Cheboygan District Court Judge ruled that Chesapeake Energy will go to trial for alleged fraud.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has accused the Oklahoma-based energy company of swindling landowners in northern Michigan.

Peter Payette is with our partners at Interlochen Public Radio and he has been covering this story.

How did all of this start?

Around May of 2010, the state auctioned off the right to drill for oil and gas on public land.

"And that auction saw prices that were astronomical. The state in one day raised as much money from the sale of oil and gas rights as it had raised in its entire history," Payette says. "And that's because out-of-state companies believed that by using these newer methods of horizontal hydraulic fracturing that they could make a lot of money by drilling deep down in the ground and taking out natural gas."

These companies went out to private landowners that summer and asked to explore their properties for oil and gas. The landowners signed leases. "And those promised what is called a 'order of payment' and in many cases the landowners did not receive payment and may say they were cheated and are owed money," Payette says.

User: Kathleen Franklin/Flickr

Researchers have found that food waste has a big impact on the heat-trapping gasses we release into the environment.

Marty Heller is a senior research specialist with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.

In a new study, he and U of M's Greg Keoleian looked at the greenhouse gas emissions involved with the production of the food we eat and the food we waste.

“If we look at the greenhouse gas emissions associated with that food waste, it is equivalent to adding an additional 33 million average passenger vehicles to our roads every year,” Heller said.

Heller and Keoleian studied the emissions associated with about 100 different types of food. They discover that certain types of foods have the highest greenhouse gas emissions associated with their production.

"Typically we see a very distinct difference between foods that are animal based — meats, dairy —and foods that are plant based," Heller said.

"To a large extent that's because of the additional feed that is required to keep an animal alive and sort of their conversion efficiency of the feed that they consume."

He also found that some of those animals, cows in particular, emit a great deal of methane which is a very potent greenhouse gas emission.

Photo courtesy of USFS, Rob Elliott

This Saturday, 35 baby sturgeon will be released into the Kalamazoo River at a sturgeon release party. It’ll be in New Richmond and it’s open to the public.

Lake sturgeon are ancient fish. They’re Michigan’s oldest and biggest fish species and can live to be more than 100 years old. Many populations of lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes were wiped out decades ago, but people have been working to bring them back.   

Systems Biology Research Group, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

A research team has produced the first complete genome sequencing of a strain of E. coli. This particular strain is associated with outbreaks of food poisoning that can be deadly.

Haythem Latif is on the research team at the University of California-San Diego.

“Although early detection is key to treatment, it has been known to cause severe renal failure in children,” Latif said.

He says the updated genome sequence for this strain of E. coli will help scientists tell one strain from another.

“During an outbreak, you may have 100 patients or whatever, that have had this and what you do is you’d type each of the different people’s pathogenic E. coli strain that they have and then you can trace it back to some kind of a source or some kind of lineage of a bacterial outbreak.”

Latif says sequencing technology has improved over time and that has allowed the research team to update the sequence for this strain.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

 

Lately, that green slime in the lake has been all over the news after it shut down Toledo’s water supply.

Journalists, city and government officials have been calling that green slime  “blue-green algae”, “toxic algae” or “toxic algal blooms.”

Well, turns out that’s not exactly right.

“That’s just maddening,” said James Bull, a professor of biology and environmental science. He works at Wayne County Community College and Macomb Community College.

He says it’s not accurate to call the green slime that shut down Toledo’s water system “a toxic algal bloom.” 

He wrote to Michigan Radio because we were some of the people using the wrong term.

“It’s wrong because even though these organisms superficially look like algae, I think we ought to understand that these really are a kind of bacteria,” Bull said.

He says scientists used to call this stuff “blue-green algae.” Now they call it “cyanobacteria”. He says calling cyanobacteria "algae" is like calling a dolphin a fish.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Michigan took a big step forward this summer in the business of fish farming. The state issued a permit to expand the Grayling Fish Hatchery more than tenfold.The hatchery raises trout for restaurants and grocery stores.

The expansion comes as interest in fish farming is growing nationwide and there is now talk of going offshore into the open waters of the Great Lakes.

The Grayling Fish Hatchery could soon be the largest aquaculture operation in Michigan by far.

Dan Vogler is one of the owners of Harrietta Hills Trout Farm based near Cadillac. He hopes the expansion is a sign of a growing fish-producing industry in Michigan.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The recent Toledo water crisis has farmers in Michigan and Ohio on the defensive. They’re pointing to a number of voluntary efforts they’re making to reduce phosphorus runoff to Lake Erie. That runoff is the main food source for the blooms of a kind of cyanobacteria that release a toxin that led to the water shutdown. But farm groups and environmentalists say a new state law in Ohio that will certify the use of fertilizers doesn't go far enough or happen fast enough. 

"Basically, the new law will require that all farmers and certified crop advisors who spread chemical fertilizer on fields go through a certification process where they will learn how to spread the fertilizer in the right place, at the right rate, at the right time of year," says Karen Schaefer, an Ohio reporter who is covering this issue. "And the problem with it is: right now it does not include manure and the law does not go into effect until 2017."

User mgreason / wikimedia commons

The Environmental Protection Agency has a plan for cleaning up soil contaminated by dioxins along the Tittabawasee River floodplain. The floodplain extends along 21 miles of the river below the Dow Chemical plant in Midland.

The EPA says the dioxins, which can cause cancer and other serious health effects, came from waste disposal, emissions and incineration from the plant.

The EPA has been directing Dow to do temporary cleanups around people’s homes whenever the river floods.

Central Michigan University / Steve Jessmore

You might’ve heard that Amazon is hoping to one day deliver packages to your door by little unmanned helicopters.

Now, scientists are getting into the act, too.

“This is our unmanned aerial vehicle; an electronically powered helicopter,” Benjamin Heumann says as he unpacks a 6-foot helicopter. We’re in the middle of a rare wetland called a prairie fen near Chelsea. Heumann directs the Center for Geographic Information Science at Central Michigan University.

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."

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.

A cyanobacteria bloom on Lake Erie in 2013.
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."

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

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.

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.

Working on the broken oil pipeline near Marshall, Michigan
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."

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.

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.

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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