the environment report

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

Kyle Norris/Michigan Radio

Meet the Gold family. They're modern day homesteaders. 

Their goal is to live as self-sufficiently as possible on their three-acre farm in Ypsilanti. (They often say they use yesterday's knowledge combined with today's technology.)

Two years ago they started the Michigan Folk School. The school promotes traditional folk arts and the preservation of forest and farmland.

To find out why the family started the school, and why they became homesteaders in the first place, listen to this week's Environment Report, right here.

Steve Maslowski/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Imagine walking down a picturesque beach along Lake Michigan, and stumbling upon the carcasses of dead birds. That’s a very real and unpleasant problem along Lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario and Erie. (It’s not as big of an issue in Lake Superior because of the lake’s colder water temperatures.)

Loons and other deep-diving birds are suffering from a disease called avian botulism. It’s form of food poisoning that kills wild birds in the Great Lakes ecosystem.

NOAA

A fish that was almost wiped out in the Great Lakes is making a comeback in Lake Huron.

Lake trout are suddenly doing what biologists have been trying to get them to do for more than 40 years: They’re making babies.

Lake trout used to be a mainstay of Great Lakes commercial fishing in the first half of the twentieth century. The Lakes would produce 15 million pounds of the fish every year.

Then the sea lamprey came in and sucked the life out of the lake trout populations.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Over the last decade, women have switched to making much healthier choices at the seafood counter.

First, let's make it clear: fish is healthful food.

But, fish can contain traces of mercury, some fish more than others. And to make sure you don’t consume too much of that toxin, you need to know which fish have heavier loads of mercury.

Why?

Because mercury is a toxic contaminant that can cause neurological damage. For women who could have children or who are pregnant, too much mercury could mean developmental problems for their babies.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Hydrogen fuel cells, compressed natural gas, all-electric… what kind of cars are we going to be driving in a few years?

The LA Auto Show wrapped up… and the next big show is the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Hall in Detroit in January.

There, of course, is a lot of well-orchestrated hype at these big auto shows. If you’re looking for a clear direction on what we’ll be driving in the future, it’s still a mixed bag. But, new advances are dominated by efficiency improvements in the internal combustion engine.

wikimedia commons

Back in 2007, I was doing a story on CAFOs in Wood County, Ohio.

I was waiting for my interviewee to return home when I spotted a gang of turkeys appear at the edge of the woods.

I had some time to kill, so I channeled my inner Marlin Perkins, got out my "shotgun" microphone, and attempted to record some wild nature sounds. (A "shotgun" microphone does not shoot anything, it's simply a long microphone that collects sound from far away.)

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The Gratiot County Wind Farm has 133 wind turbines scattered over more than 30,000 acres. It's the largest wind farm in Michigan. Each 1.6 megawatt wind turbine can generate enough power for 350 homes.

And this is what it sounds like when you stand directly beneath a wind turbine that stretches more than 450 feet into the sky with the wind blowing between 10 to 15 mph.

(Listen below - You can hear the turbine slow down - I think it's neat, but I'm a nerd.)

Scientists pushed to share their data sooner

Nov 21, 2013
Scott Bauer / USDA, ARS

Some policymakers say scientists hold onto their data too long. They say by the time the information is released, it can miss the window for addressing pressing problems.

The federal government is urging scientists to share their data sooner, but good data is like gold to scientists.

It can solve a lingering puzzle, and lead to professional success. That's why some scientists are considered data hoarders. They protect the information they collect.

But in a recent survey of over 1,300 scientists, Carol Tenopir found more of a spirit of collaboration than competition.

Tenopir participates in a National Science Foundation project called DataOne. Her job is to figure out how to overcome barriers to data sharing and broaden access to information.

Though only a small percentage of scientists said they actually share their data, she was surprised to find many are eager to do so.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Wolves are doing fine in many parts of the Upper Midwest, so much so that people are hunting them now.

But a protected population of wolves on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior has plummeted.

Sarah Kerson / Michigan Radio

Ask any kid about their favorite part of the school day and they’ll likely give you one response - recess.

But for kids with disabilities, going outside isn’t always easy.  Traditional playgrounds aren’t always safe for these kids.

Haisley Elementary in Ann Arbor just renovated its playground to specifically accommodate for students with disabilities.

The school has a large population of kids with disabilities. Most of these kids can’t talk. Many have a hard time sitting up right. Some are in wheelchairs. Some have Autism.

There’s a new project out of Michigan Technological University in Houghton that involves phone apps.

The idea is to use apps to share information with professional researchers.

So far the team of professors and students have made four web apps.

  1. They help people measure beach safety,
  2. air pollution,
  3. community ethnography,
  4. and mushroom locations.

Alex Mayer is a Professor of Environmental & Geological Engineering at Michigan Technological University and he’s the project’s director.

courtesy: USEPA

It used to be environmentalists did not want to talk about adapting to climate change. They were concerned adapting to the changes meant dodging the big job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

That thinking is changing.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The Michigan Public Service Commission has submitted a report on renewable energy to Governor Snyder. That report indicates renewable energy is getting cheaper and more varied, ranging from wind and solar to biomass and ground source heat pumps.

But the surprising point in the report was this statement:

“...it is theoretically technically feasible for Michigan to meet increased Renewable Portfolio Standards of as much as 30% from resources located in the state.”

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The EPA says greenhouse gases are pollution. The Supreme Court has agreed. But Michigan sued the EPA saying you can’t regulate that pollution from smokestack industries because it would hurt the economy.

The Supreme Court has already ruled the EPA has the authority to regulate the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. The agency found CO2 emissions from fossil fuels endanger the public health and the environment. That was regarding a case involving cars and trucks. But whether that pollution comes from a tailpipe or a smokestack, it’s the same pollution.

NCI

Environmental Health Sciences professor Andrew Maynard teaches one of the University of Michigan's only classes focused on blogging.

Here you can listen in on an exchange he has with his students:

Maynard says learning how to communicating online is a skill crucial to his students' professional success.

“I would say very strongly scientists should blog, and they should blog because it forces them to become very familiar with the state of the science in specific areas,” says Maynard.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

For some people it’s not geese flying south… or robins… but another much bigger bird that signals winter is on its way.

This past weekend a couple dozen or so people gathered in a remote area near Jackson to watch cranes, the Greater Sandhill Crane to be specific.

“Yeah! I thought it would be beautiful to see several hundred of them coming in at the same time. I think they’re gorgeous,” said Beth King from Durand.

flickr Kate Gardiner

There’s a lot of time, money and effort being spent to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

To keep them out, we first have to know where the carp are.

Biologists often go out and sample water from rivers and lakes to look for carp. They test the water for genetic material, and some of those tests have turned up positive for Asian carp.

Last year, 20 samples turned up positive hits in Lake Erie. The positive DNA hits raise alarm bells that an invasive carp species might be establishing a population in the Great Lakes.

But the presence of carp DNA does not mean an actual fish was swimming in that area.

Allen Chartier / Great Lakes Hummernet

With the chill in the air now, you might guess that most hummingbirds would have ditched Michigan for a more tropical place.

The Ruby-throated hummingbird is the bird you’re most likely to see in Michigan, and it has flown south, for the most part.

But Allen Chartier still wants you to keep an eye out on your backyard feeders.

He studies hummingbirds and he’s the project director for Great Lakes Hummernet.

“The chances that what you’re looking at is a Ruby-throat is about 50/50, because there are western species that start showing up.”

He says you might get a chance to see a Rufous hummingbird.

“I kind of think of these little birds as each one has certain superpowers, and the Ruby-throat’s superpower is that it’s the smallest bird that can fly across the Gulf of Mexico nonstop. Now the Rufous hummingbird’s superpower is that it’s very cold tolerant. So there are many of these birds that have stayed around in Michigan and Ohio until January and then they move on.”

He says the males are a reddish-brown color with a glowing orange throat and a white breast. But the females look a lot like Ruby-throats.

So if you see one, take a picture of it and e-mail to Chartier. He says he’ll identify the bird and use your sighting in his research.

Here’s his e-mail address: amazilia3 at gmail.com

Algal blooms causing concern in northern lakes

Oct 8, 2013
Flickr

For years Lake Erie has been the poster child in the Great Lakes for the problem of toxic algae.

More recently, though, the problem has been showing up farther north around Lake Michigan.

Figuring out the causes of the algal blooms can be tough since watersheds are complex systems but some environmentalists are pointing the finger at corn. It’s a valuable cash crop today and could be a growing part of the farm landscape in the Great Lakes in the years ahead.

Algal bloom hits Mason County

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Big, ugly blooms of cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) are reappearing in the western basin (and sometimes the central basin) of Lake Erie.

The blooms 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 that are among the most powerful natural poisons on Earth.

Over the past decade, these cyanobacteria blooms have been common in Lake Erie. And scientists predict climate change could make the problem worse.

Making Michigan wine with cheaper solar energy

Sep 3, 2013
Interlochen Public Radio

Crain Hill Vineyards in Leelanau County is touted as the first in Michigan to run 100% on solar power, and a start-up energy business sees an opportunity for homes and farms because of the steep price drops to install solar in the last year.

Robert Brengman owns Crain Hill Vineyards with his two brothers. He says it’s been a goal from the beginning to tread lightly in this place.

“We’re looking at having a zero carbon footprint on this vineyard, in this winery. I mean that to me is exciting,” Bregnman said. “I think it’s a little part. And we’re trying to do our part of keeping this beautiful area the way it is.”

They won’t be buying electricity generated by burning fossil fuels. There are three new solar arrays mounted on steel poles on a south facing slope that are within sight of the winery’s tasting room.

Tom Gallery designed the system for Crain Hill and says the arrays are built to gather as much sunlight as possible.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

A new oil pipeline is going underground in Michigan.

Enbridge Energy says this new pipeline will be bigger (36 inches vs. 30 inches) - it will pump more oil to the Marathon refinery in Detroit - and they say the pipeline will be safer. (The map in the slideshow above shows where the new line is going in.)

CDC

On today's Environment Report, we talked about ticks.

Michigan State University entomologist Howard Russell told me that tick season is booming in Michigan this year.

And the boom is happening in areas where ticks were relatively rare a few years ago.

Specifically, Russell says the blacklegged tick population is expanding in Michigan. Those are the bad ones. The suckers that can carry Lyme disease.

cford3 / Wikipedia

Burning coal in a power plant creates byproducts called fly ash and bottom ash.  That ash contains a lot of bad stuff - mercury, lead, arsenic, to name a few.

While some plants ship the dry ash to landfills that accept hazardous materials, others mix the ash with water to make a slurry, which is moved into holding ponds.

Eventually, the water in those ponds is released into the nearest waterway.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

For the first time in nearly a half century, people will be encouraged to fish along a portion of the Red Cedar River as it winds its way through the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing.

At a ceremony Monday near the campus’s western edge, MSU dignitaries, including Sparty, took turns dumping buckets of Steelhead trout into the meandering Red Cedar River.

Organizers want anglers to start casting their lines into the Red Ceder in hopes of reeling in the sportfish.

That’s a big change.

Mark Savage / Entergy Corporation

This week Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner William Magwood came to South Haven to tour the Palisades nuclear power plant in nearby Covert Township.

Magwood did not respond to requests to comment on how his tour went or why he chose to come.

He’s the second commissioner to visit the plant in less than a year. NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng says that many high-level visits in such a short time is “not necessarily” uncommon.

“You can draw your own conclusions about that because I cannot do that for you,”Mitlyng said.

Kevin Kamps is with the anti-nuclear watchdog group Beyond Nuclear. Unlike the media, he and several others got a chance to sit down with Commissioner Magwood.

“There were some hints around the edges that it’s because of the problem plagued nature of Palisades and he even used the word disappointment for continued problems out there,” Kamps said.

2012 was a crazy year for the Palisades. Get a feel for it in our timeline on Palisades here.

Michigan chefs experiment with Asian carp

Mar 26, 2013
Sarah Payette

One of the strategies to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes is to eat the fish now living in the Mississippi River. But finding a market for millions of pounds of carp is not easy. Peter Payette wondered if people could get excited about Asian carp as a seafood delicacy. So he put some in the hands of chefs in Traverse City:

Asian Carp doesn’t taste like much. In fact, you might describe its taste as neutral.

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