the environment report

An ailing robin fledging in Teri Kniffen's yard in St. Louis, Michigan in June of 2013.  Some of the highest levels of DDT ever recorded in bird livers and brains were found in this neighborhood.
Teri Kniffen

All this week we're bringing you stories about the chemical company responsible for the PBB tragedy in Michigan. Michigan Chemical accidentally contaminated the state’s food supply in the 1970s, but the legacy of that company is still very much with us today.

Michigan Chemical – which later became Velsicol Chemical – made more than just PBB, and it left these toxic chemicals behind in St. Louis, Michigan.

One woman insists something is wrong with the birds

Photo courtesy of Emory University

More than 40 years ago, Michigan’s food supply was contaminated. People’s health is being affected, even now.

All this week, we’re looking at the ripple effects left behind by the company that made that tragic mistake.

In 1973, the Michigan Chemical Corporation shipped a toxic flame retardant chemical to a livestock feed plant instead of a nutritional supplement. The chemical is called polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB. It took about a year to discover the accident. 

Randall Schaetzl, MSU

News of a decline might sound surprising since there has been so much excitement and controversy over horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in recent years.

But not many high-volume, horizontal wells were actually drilled since 2010, and the company that led the recent fracking boom has left the state.

That leaves the industry and its watchdogs wondering where new action will come from.

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?  

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.

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.

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.

Water faucet.
jordanmrcai / Creative Commons

This week, the Environment Report is taking a look at Michigan’s silent poison — arsenic.

Federal standards allow public drinking water supplies to have arsenic levels of up to 10 parts per billion (ppb), but these standards do not apply to private well owners (that's left up to the well owner to determine).

And in counties throughout Michigan, some wells have much higher levels of arsenic than this "maximum contaminant level" set by the EPA.

Higher levels of arsenic in drinking water have been linked to skin cancer, lung cancer, and bladder cancer, among others.

But are lower levels of arsenic a threat to human health?

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

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.

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

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:

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

I was surprised to find out recently that you can’t recycle household batteries in Ann Arbor anymore. I used to collect them in a little steel can, but Recycle Ann Arbor stopped taking them.

From Recycle Ann Arbor’s website:

Alkaline household batteries do not contain hazardous materials and may be disposed of in the trash.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

That’s right, bees rule. At least that what my second grader thinks after she studied them at school.

“You wrote bees rule. Why do bees rule?” I asked.

“I think it’s neat for how they can make it into honey and that they can speak to each other by doing a dance," she answered.

She, of course, isn’t the only one who think bees rule. A lot of us think they rule. Especially when you consider that around one out of every three bites of food we eat is the result of a bee.

But as you’ve likely heard, bees are in trouble. Beekeepers have been experiencing losses at alarming rates — and scientists across the country are scrambling to try to stop these losses. Whether from Colony Collapse Disorder, or other bee stressors, the problems bees face are more complicated than it once seemed.

Animal Planet

Would you:

A) run away screaming

B) attack them with golf clubs, weed whackers and curling irons, or

C) haplessly fall victim to them as you enjoy a quiet afternoon of fishing with your dog?

The residents of a fictional Michigan town do all of the above in "Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys" airing this week on Animal Planet. It's by the same people who brought us "Sharknado."

Watch the trailer below:

Really, it was only a matter of time. With its toothy suction cup for a face and razor sharp tongue, the sea lamprey was a horror movie villain just waiting to shine.

USDA Forest Service

The emerald ash borer is a little shiny green beetle that loves to feast on ash trees. The adult beetles only nibble on the leaves. It's the larvae you've got to watch out for. They munch on the inner bark of the ash tree, and mess with the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients.

The pest has killed tens of millions of ash trees in Michigan alone and tens of millions more in the states and provinces around our region.

Now researchers know a little bit more about how the emerald ash borer ate its way through the state.

R/V Laurentian NOAA / Creative Commons

You’ve probably heard about the big bad invasive silver or bighead carp, also known as Asian carp.

But there’s another invasive fish that’s roughly a third the size of the carp that’s already done a lot of damage to Great Lakes fisheries. Alewives have been a particular menace in Lakes Michigan and Huron. The invasive fish cause all kinds of problems for native lake trout.

Alewives scarf down lake trout eggs and very young fish. But even once lake trout grow big enough to turn the tables and eat the alewives, the invasive fish still cause problems.

Gas prices from the past at the shuttered Logan's Gas and Deli near Battle Creek.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Every time you fill up, you pay seven-eighths of a cent per gallon of gas for a “regulatory fee” that was originally set up to help clean up the thousands of old underground storage tanks in Michigan.

Those pennies you pay at the pump add up to a $50 million pot of money each year.

It’s called the Refined Petroleum Fund. The fund worked initially. The money helped remove tens of thousands of old underground storage tanks in Michigan. When those old tanks leak, they can pollute the soil and ruin nearby water sources.

user: Phil Roeder / Flickr

Farmers are finally able to head out into their fields, orchards and vineyards to see how everything fared over the winter. 

Ken Nye is a commodities specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau. 

He's expecting a lot of damage to Michigan fruits. 

Fifty years ago, Congress set out to guarantee future generations would always have access to America’s great outdoors in its most natural state. But several recent requests for wilderness protections have been languishing on Capitol Hill.  

In the past five years, just one new wilderness bill made it to law. This new law guarantees 35 miles of northern Lake Michigan shoreline will be forever left wild.

Good Harbor Bay

Archeologists studying a wooden beam pulled from northern Lake Michigan this summer can't say whether it is a piece of the first European ship to sail the upper Great Lakes or a post from an old fishing net. The group managing the project is close to issuing a report to the state archeologist, but it won’t reach any firm conclusion.

Read on to discover the evidence that points to each conclusion.

Enbridge

Enbridge Energy is still cleaning up oil left over from its pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River.  

The company has already recovered most of the oil, but it's still working to comply with an order from the federal regulators, who say they need to clean up another 180,000 gallons. 

According to Enbridge's new plan, they can start that cleanup March 15. But that's all dependent on this crazy weather. Right now, everything is frozen. But, if spring warms things up and there's flooding, that can also be problematic for the dredging process. 

Working on the broken oil pipeline near Marshall, Michigan
EPA

There are close to 70,000 miles of underground pipelines in Michigan carrying all kinds of materials around the state – things like natural gas, refined petroleum, and crude oil.

And for the most part, we really don’t notice these pipelines. That was true in Michigan until one summer day three and half years ago when this happened:

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Ice formed on the Great Lakes early this year, thanks to the arctic temperatures we’ve been experiencing.

And that should be good for lake levels, which have plummeted in recent years. Right?

Well, it turns out the answer to that question is a bit complicated.

Lake levels are affected by a number of factors, including temperature, precipitation, evaporation and ice cover.

5 Gyres

Ever seen a commercial for a face scrub or body wash that promises to “polish” your skin with “micro-beads?”

Or maybe one of the hundreds of these products already sits in your shower.

Ever wonder what those little beads are?

Chances are pretty good they’re plastic. And once they circle your drain and go down your pipes, chances are also pretty good they’re not going to get filtered out by your city’s sewage treatment plant.

Millions of tiny beads that look a lot like fish food

micropterus_dolomieu / Wikimedia commons

So you know the saying, right? Stuff flows downhill? Myron Erickson knows a lot about that "stuff."

He heads up the sewage treatment plant that sits along the Grand River in Wyoming, Michigan (right next to Grand Rapids).

The screening room is where they take out the "grit." Erickson calls them "knick knacks."

"It's a small particle like sand, and also all things that come to us in sewage, like peas, and corn, and peanuts," says Erickson.

user william_warby / Flickr

Before I talk about the small bits of chemicals often found in drinking water, I want to direct some attention to the national water contamination story going on now because I think it reveals something.

The water is bad in West Virginia

The nation has its eyes on a nine-county area in West Virginia that’s under a state of emergency. A coal-processing chemical leaked into a river and poisoned the drinking water there. Cleanup is ongoing. As they attempt to flush the chemical out of their drinking water systems, officials are trying to determine what level of the chemical is safe.

Ken Ward Jr. of the West Virgina Gazette reports that local and federal officials are saying that "1 part per million" of  crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (the coal processing chemical) is safe for people to drink.

But Ward is having a tough time finding out what they based that number on:

Hundreds of snowy owls have descended on the Great Lakes and Northeast as part of this year's "irruption." / toddraden

Every year, some snowy owls make their way south from their Arctic homeland in search of food, and some of us here in the Great Lakes region have been lucky enough to spot these magnificent birds on tree branches, or poles, or … near airports.

Airports have wide open treeless spaces, and can look a lot like home to snowy owls. And for wildlife specialists who work at airports from the Great Lakes to the Northeast, this has been a busy winter.

Eight owls trapped in one week at DTW

Pages