Environment & Science

Environment
6:13 pm
Wed December 28, 2011

Consumers Energy further than DTE in meeting renewable energy mandate

cwwycoff1 flickr

Consumers Energy will take a big leap toward meeting the state’s renewable energy mandate next year.

State law requires utilities to get ten percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

Consumers Energy spokesman Dan Bishop says the utility will build 56 wind turbines in Mason County.  The project is called Lake Wind Energy Park.

"When Lake Winds begins producing electrons late next year in 2012, we will move from 5 percent to 8 percent, heading us towards the 10 percent requirement of Michigan’s law," says Bishop.

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Environment
12:53 pm
Tue December 27, 2011

Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area transferred to City of Saugatuck

April Scholtz takes down a private property sign on December 22, 2009 after closing on the property for the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. Now a coalition has tranferred the property to the City of Saugatuck.
The Land Conservancy of West Michigan

The City of Saugatuck has taken ownership of nearly 173-acres of dune land on the shores of Lake Michigan. A coalition of conservationists and foundations has worked for more than 6 years to buy the property from a private developer.

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The Environment Report
6:00 am
Tue December 27, 2011

Checking in with the Department of Environmental Quality

As the year winds down, we’re spending some time this week on The Environment Report taking a look at the state of our environment. On Thursday, we’ll hear from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters on just how well they think Governor Snyder has been protecting Michigan’s natural resources. But, first, today, we speak with the man whose job it is to keep your environment healthy. That would be Dan Wyant, Director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Cutting the DEQ’s Budget

I first asked Wyant about his department’s budget. It’s been cut and cut over the past decade; just this year alone it saw a 15 percent cut. The cuts do have an impact, says Wyant, but, “it’s forced [the department] to prioritize… think about what we want to accomplish. So, we’re focused around air quality and water quality and public health… and I think we can say, with some confidence, that we are seeing more environmental stewardship, not less.”

Economic Development

Governor Snyder has said one of the goals for the DEQ is for the department to be a part of Michigan’s economic development. Both Snyder and Wyant believe the DEQ has a role in the state’s recovery. “We know that it’s our role to ensure good environmental stewardship – that’s why we were created and that’s our job,” notes Wyant. But, he also says he thinks there are certain things the department can do to help businesses grow in the state. “We want to be recognizing permit timing so that businesses can get timely decisions and… we’re looking at old and antiquated, duplicates of regulation... and we want to address culture. We want to be a department of problem solvers. It doesn’t mean that we don’t wear the black hats and that we don’t have to tell people they can’t do things… but we really want to be a full partner with those that do business,” Wyant says.

Working with Lawmakers

Director Wyant was appointed by Republican Governor Snyder but he, also, works closely with the state legislature.  The GOP majorities in both the state House and Senate sometimes disagree with both Wyant and Snyder about certain environmental issues.  One such issue is wetlands protection. Wyant says he and the Governor will continue to push the legislature to keep the wetlands program. “The Snyder Administration and myself have been advocating very strongly to keep the program… We think the resource is really important for water quality, it’s very important for habitat and natural resources." And, he notes, he thinks he and the governor now have a majority of lawmakers believing that the program should be saved.

Looking to 2012

Wyant says the goal for 2012 will be focusing on one of the Governor’s favorite phrases, “Relentless Positive Action.” “We do that”, Wyant says, by, “encouraging more environmental stewardship – not less. We want to see Michigan’s economy recover – we think that’s good for the environment. And, lastly, the governor is very focused on customer service – our customers are the citizens of Michigan.”

Environment
3:40 pm
Thu December 22, 2011

Snowy owls travel southward in search of food, several Michigan sightings

The Snowy Owl is traveling south in search of food. There have been multiple sightings in Michigan.
Pat Gaines wikimedia commons

Snowy owls typically live in the northern reaches of the arctic tundra.

Living year round in the arctic shows how tough these birds are.

But this year they've been traveling south in search of food.

The owls have been spotted in states such as Massachusetts, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To see where they've been spotted in Michigan, click on the slides above for a Google Map.

So why are they flying down here?

Biologists think the growth in Snowy owl sightings around the U.S. is due to a drop in the owl's main prey in the Arctic - lemmings. Lemmings go through boom and bust periods, and right now, lemming numbers are probably down, so the owls are scrounging around here for rodents, rabbits, fish, or any other suitable food source.

Similar cycles occur with other birds of prey.

The Great Gray owl, which normally keeps to northern Canada forests, has been known to fly south when its food is in short supply.

Reporter David Sommerstein produced a story on Great Gray sightings in a piece he did for the Environment Report back in 2005.

It was a year the owls were flying south and was one of the biggest Great Gray owl migrations on record.

Take a listen to a "Rare Visit from a Northern Neighbor" - the audio file below.

I love hearing ornithologist Gerry Smith's reaction when he spots the "first Great Gray owl that's made it across the border."

"I'll be a son-of-a-gun. That is so... bler... I am now VERY enthusiastic! Hey! .... I'm going to get my scope..."

And while you're out, keep your eye's peeled for rare visit from another northern neighbor - the Snowy owl.

Here's one spotted in 2005 in Wisconsin:

We all should be so lucky.

Environment
2:37 pm
Thu December 22, 2011

More daylight starting tomorrow, happy solstice!

Checking out the sunset at Stonehenge circa 1985.
Mark Grant wikimedia commons

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

The BBC reports that "more than 1,000 people" gathered at Stonehenge in Wiltshire County, England to mark the occasion.

And Arch druid Rollo Maughfling remarked  "the solstice celebration had been 'a very jolly occasion.'"

So in Ann Arbor, the sunset tonight is at 5:05 p.m... tomorrow night it will come at 5:06 p.m.

But weirdly, the winter solstice does not coincide with earliest sunset times.

Justin Grieser explains why in the Washington Post. Grieser says it has to do with the sun's declination and the shifting time of solar noon:

In late November, the effect of a later-shifting solar noon begins to counteract the effect that the sun’s lowering declination has on pushing sunset earlier. Eventually, sunset reaches a minimum during the first week of December. While we would expect the earliest sunset to occur closer to the winter solstice, the rapid forward shift in solar noon causes sunset to creep later more than a week before then.

Science/Medicine
1:39 pm
Thu December 22, 2011

UM medical research institute launches $100,000 "translational science" prize

The University of Michigan's Taubman Medical Research Institute will reward a $100,000 prize to the top "translational science" practitioner each year starting in 2012.

Translational science is the practice of moving scientific research from a "bench" in a lab, to the "bedside" of a patient - or developing ways to move "laboratory discoveries to clinical applications."

From a Taubman Medical Research Institute press release:

The $100,000 award will be presented at the institute’s annual symposium, held each fall, to the clinician-scientist making the most significant contribution to translating basic research findings into medical practice. The winner will be asked to serve as keynote speaker for the event...

Nominations will be judged on their contribution to translating basic research findings into clinical applications and by the manner in which their clinical practice connects to their research. All clinician-scientists, regardless of country, are eligible, excluding U-M researchers.

A panel of scientists will choose the winner each year. The deadline for the first year's nominations is April 1, 2012.

The initial announcement of the contest came last October in an event with A. Alfred Taubman and Governor Rick Snyder. From AnnArbor.com's Juliana Keeping:

Billionaire A. Alfred Taubman will fund a $100,000 science prize — a carrot meant to lure the most talented “clinician-scientists” in the world to the University of Michigan, the university announced today.

Eva Feldman, the director of the 4-year-old A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute at the University of Michigan Health System, said Taubman wants “a 100,000 gift given to the best clinician scientists in the world.” We anticipate this person will come speak at our annual symposium each year; and anticipate it will bring exceptional clinician scientists to the University of Michigan.”

Environment
9:00 am
Thu December 22, 2011

Christmas tree debate: real or fake?

Lauren and her potted tree. It will stay outdoors until Christmas Eve, when it will be brought in for 14 hours.
Photo by Jennifer Guerra

There’s a long-running debate about which kind of Christmas tree is greener: real or artificial.  We wanted to try to settle that debate... or at least add to the discussion:

Lauren Northrop and her husband Tom are big fans of Christmas.

“We love celebrating it, I love decorating, but we always have this dilemma: what do we do about a tree?”

They didn’t want a plastic tree because it’s, well, plastic. And they didn’t like the idea of bringing a live tree into their house, only to have it die and then drag it out to the curb to be recycled.

So they skipped the Christmas tree thing altogether for the last four years. But then, their son was born.

They bought a live, baby Christmas tree with its roots still intact. That way, when Christmas is done and the ground thaws, they can plant it in their backyard.

“I was planning to keep the tree inside until December 25th so that we could decorate it and put lights on it. When we went to buy it they said if you do that, it probably won’t survive.”

That’s probably way too much hassle for most people.

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Environment
9:00 am
Thu December 22, 2011

Great Lakes restoration funding survives budget cuts

People who are working on cleaning up the Great Lakes got some good news this week. After months of negotiations, the 2012 federal budget contains $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

That money will be used to clean up pollution, deal with invasive species and restore wildlife habitat. A lot of these projects are already underway.

Jeff Skelding is the campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. He says in a time when many budgets are getting slashed, funding for Great Lakes cleanup will remain steady.

“We have pretty much full support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Great Lakes Congressional delegation. I mean, they see the wisdom of infusing federal funding into the region, not only to clean up the Lakes which of course is very important, but the ancillary benefit we get from that is the economic benefits of investing these funds.”

The budget also includes more than $500 million to help Great Lakes states upgrade their aging sewer systems. When it rains, the sewers often get overloaded, and raw sewage can wash up on beaches.

Environment
5:42 pm
Wed December 21, 2011

Enbridge gets EPA approval for 2012 oil spill cleanup plans

A view of cleanup work along the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek in August, 2010
(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

 The EPA this week gave approval to Enbridge Energy’s plans for continuing its cleanup of an oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.    The plan suggests major cleanup operations may change next year.  

More than 840 thousand gallons of crude oil spewed from a broken pipeline near Marshall in July, 2010.   The exact amount remains in dispute.     

Hundreds of workers have spent the past 17 months removing the oil from the river.    

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Environment
4:19 pm
Wed December 21, 2011

Great Lakes wolves to be taken off endangered species list

Canis lupus.
USFWS Midwest

Update 4:19 p.m.

The U.S. Interior Department announced today gray wolf populations in the Great Lakes region have recovered and no longer require the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

They will lose their federal protection as of January 27, 2012.

From a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release:

"Gray wolves are thriving in the Great Lakes region, and their successful recovery is a testament to the hard work of the Service and our state and local partners," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. "We are confident state and tribal wildlife managers in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin will effectively manage healthy wolf populations now that federal protection is no longer needed."

The Associated Press reports that Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Rodney Stokes says "the change will give state officials more flexibility to deal with problem wolves and make people more supportive of having the predators in their midst."

Wisconsin officials will issue permits allowing landowners to control "problem wolves" on their property.

11:25 a.m.

The wolf population in Michigan has been growing. Michigan DNR estimates put it at more than 650 animals for 2010-2011. The number was around 430 wolves in 2004-2005.

Wolves in the western Great Lakes region have been taken off the Endangered Species List before, and conservation groups have successfully sued the federal government to put them back on the list.

Now, the Associated Press reports western Great Lakes wolves will be delisted again.

From the AP:

The Obama administration is taking gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region off the federal endangered species list.

The Associated Press obtained a Wednesday statement in which Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the more than 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have exceeded recovery goals and
no longer need federal protection.

Responsibility for managing and protecting those wolves will be turned over to state wildlife agencies. The populations will be monitored for at least five years to make sure they remain at sustainable levels.

The Interior Department also says it's reconsidering a previously announced plan to remove endangered species protections for wolves in 29 Eastern states, even though they aren't believed
to have any established wolf populations. Officials say they'll decide on the status of Eastern wolves later.

State officials say they're prepared for federal delisting. The state of Michigan has a wolf management plan.

Once management is turned over to the state, people would have more flexibility in killing "problem wolves." From Bob Allen's report on The Environment Report:

The plan would give people the authority to defend against attacks on their pets and livestock, and it would allow them to cull wolves in places where they’re putting a lot of pressure on deer.

The current state management plan does not call for a hunting season on wolves. It would take an act of the state legislature to make a hunt a reality.

Environment
2:15 pm
Tue December 20, 2011

$300 million for Great Lakes cleanup, and a '12 Days of Invasive Species Christmas'

A map of 664 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects listed on the GLRI website.
greatlakesrestoration.us

One item that has escaped the budget tie-ups in Congress is funding for Great Lakes cleanup.

Congress approved $300 million in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for fiscal year 2012.

From the Associated Press:

The money was included in a larger spending bill that cleared the House and Senate last week and is awaiting President Barack Obama's signature...

Jeff Skelding of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition says next year's federal budget is a victory for people who depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water and jobs.

The approved funding keeps the ball rolling for the historic levels of federal investment in Great Lakes cleanup through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The Initiative was kicked off in 2010 with $475 million in restoration funds aimed at cleaning up toxic hot spots, curbing runoff pollution, fighting invasive species, and restoring habitat.

2011 saw a decrease in funding from Congress to just under $300 million.

Jeff Skelding, the campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, told Rebecca Williams of the Environment Report earlier this year that debate about funding for Great Lakes cleanup cuts across party lines:

"...one thing about the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is because of the nature of the program, federal funding to clean up the Great Lakes, and to help the economy, it's really a bi-partisan issue. We have really received great support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Great Lakes Congressional delegation. So that gives us hope as we stare down the significant cuts that are happening across the federal budget."

The AP reports the Great Lakes region is also "expected to get $533 million in loans for sewer upgrades."

Twelve Days of Aquatic Invasive Species Christmas

And for those who want to mix holiday cheer with aquatic invasive species (who can resist, really?)...

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Environment
9:49 am
Tue December 20, 2011

Fingerprinting mercury pollution

PhD candidate Laura Sherman setting up a rain collector in Crystal River, Florida.
Photo by Laura White

Mercury is a neurotoxin. The Environmental Protection Agency says mercury can be especially harmful for babies and kids. Mercury can affect their developing brains and harm their memory, attention, language and motor skills.

Mercury is naturally-occurring. Volcanoes emit mercury and so do hot springs, like the ones in Yellowstone National Park.

But the EPA points out... the largest manmade source of mercury emissions in the U.S. comes from coal-burning power plants.

Joel Blum is a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan. Blum says when power plants burn coal, mercury is emitted as a gas.

“In order to become toxic, it has to be transformed into a particular form known as methylmercury which is something that happens in the environment.”

So... mercury falls from the atmosphere, and is converted to methylmercury in the water. That toxic form builds up in fish... and it can build up in us when we eat fish.

But for years... there’s been a big debate about where that mercury goes when it’s released from a power plant smokestack.

“How much is deposited nearby, close to the plant, and how much goes into what we call global pool of mercury - basically goes into the atmosphere and stays there for a long period of time and mixes with mercury from other sources.”

Joel Blum and his colleagues have started to crack that puzzle with some careful detective work. They were able to track mercury emissions from a power plant in Florida... and they found that a high proportion of the mercury ended up nearby.

They did this by looking at chemical fingerprints.

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Environment
10:45 am
Sat December 17, 2011

St. Joseph pays for capture, relocation of coyotes

kabir Morguefile

ST. JOSEPH -- City officials are hoping to have coyotes roaming near downtown trapped and released into the wild.

The Herald-Palladium of St. Joseph reports two coyotes were sighted last week.

A business called Awesome Critter Gitters is being paid $25 per day by the city.  Owner Jim Sheffield says he will release the coyotes onto private land once they are captured.

Sheffield says his company typically euthanizes captured coyotes.

Coyotes are considered nuisances in a number of urban areas across Michigan, although they are not generally considered a threat to humans. They do prey on smaller animals, including pets.

Grosse Pointe Shores officials have said coyotes that wander too close to the Detroit suburb may have to be shot.  Bloomfield Hills ordered rifles with scopes and silencers in recent years to kill coyotes.

Energy
2:03 pm
Fri December 16, 2011

Palisades Nuclear Plant restarted; water pump valve malfunction blamed for shutdown

The Palisades Nuclear power plant in Van Buren County, Michigan.
nrc.org

The Palisades nuclear power plant in Van Buren County is operating again after a problem with its water pumps prompted a shutdown this week. It’s the fifth time the plant has shut down in the past year.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says a valve on the Palisades’ main feed water system opened unexpectedly on Wednesday. Operators had to take the reactor off line.

NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng says the Palisades plant is under investigation for three serious safety violations this year.

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Energy
9:34 am
Fri December 16, 2011

Palisades nuclear plant restarts after shutdown

COVERT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - The Palisades nuclear power plant on the Lake Michigan shoreline has restarted after a shut-down caused by a problem with its water pumps.

Operators of the southwestern Michigan plant say it returned to service and reconnected to the electric grid late Thursday night. Both of the plant's feed water pumps automatically shut down
Wednesday afternoon.

New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. owns the plant, which is in Van Buren County's Covert Township. Palisades is about 35 miles west of Kalamazoo and about 80 miles east-northeast from Chicago across the lake.

Palisades has had several recent operating problems, with two shutdowns in September and one each in August and January.

Environment
5:12 pm
Thu December 15, 2011

Detroit Green Garage looks for the meaning of "green"

The view inside the Detroit Green Garage
Detroit Green Garage via Facebook

People everywhere are trying to get a grasp on what “sustainability” and “green jobs” really look like.

That’s an especially urgent quest in a struggling industrial city like Detroit.

Some folks there have developed a building—and a community—that’s trying to find out. It’s called the Detroit Green Garage.                                                      

The Detroit Green Garage was a sort of garage at one point. It started off in 1920 as a Model T showroom just north of downtown Detroit.

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Environment
2:10 pm
Thu December 15, 2011

Cutting back on manmade mercury pollution

DTE's St. Clair Power Plant in East China, Michigan. The plant burns a blend of low-sulfur western coal and high-sulfur eastern coal. Coal-burning power plants are one of the biggest sources of man-made mercury pollution.
user cgord wikimedia commons

A new report from the group Environment Michigan says 115 inland lakes and rivers in the state have advisories for mercury pollution. Eating contaminated fish is the main way people are exposed to mercury.

Jessica Surma is with Environment Michigan. She says children are especially at risk for adverse health effects from mercury exposure.

“These can include lowered IQs, developmental disabilities and problems with motor control.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says electric utilities are by far the largest manmade sources of mercury emissions in the U.S. The EPA is planning to regulate mercury from power plants – for the first time ever.

John Austerberry is with DTE Energy.

“We agree with the goal of those regulations, but we are concerned that the federal rules will not provide sufficient time for the utilities to plan and install control systems.”

He says the company doesn’t know yet how much any new mercury control systems might cost or how much of that cost they might pass on to customers.

Pets
11:41 am
Thu December 15, 2011

Animal welfare group tracks, rates Michigan animal shelters

More than 100,000 cats and dogs are euthanized at Michigan animal shelters annually.
Nino Morguefile

A non-profit group that promotes a no-kill animal shelter philosophy says there are big winners and big losers among the state’s facilities.

The Michigan Pet Fund Alliance tracks the performance of the state’s animal shelters.

Chairwoman Deborah Schutt says The Humane Society of Huron Valley is the best large shelter in Michigan. In 2010, it reported a nearly 81 percent save rate of the animals it took in.

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Environment
4:36 pm
Tue December 13, 2011

Michigan's aging water systems

Rainwater Infiltration into Sewer Line
(Courtesy of the East Bay Municipal Utility District)

A coalition of union and environmental groups says it’s time for the federal government to invest more money in the nation’s aging water and sewer lines.    

The group points to the city of Lansing as an example. The Laborers’ International Union of North America says it would cost more than $280 million to fully repair and replace the capitol city’s aging water lines. It  estimates the cost statewide would be in the tens of billions of dollars. 

The union’s Ben Lyons says water systems everywhere are failing.  

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Environment
10:50 am
Tue December 13, 2011

Cutting down a Christmas tree in the national forest

Amelia Payette, age 9, with the tree her family decided to cut down.
Photo by Sarah Payette

Most of us get our Christmas trees from a lot or a farm.

But if you have a saw and five bucks, you can cut down a tree in the national forest. Peter Payette took his family out to do it the old fashioned way and sent this report:

It’s true that five bucks is not much to pay for a tree, but it’ll cost you some time and gas money to get there.

The first stop is at a U.S. Forest Service office to buy a tag.

There’s one in Cadillac where Dianne Berry sells us our tags and helps us get our bearings.

“This is a two sided map... the other side has the area closest to Manistee. And on the Huron-Manistee we have almost a million acres.”

That means there are 500,000 acres of trees just on this side of the state, between Cadillac and Big Rapids!

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