the environment report

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

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