Environment & Science

Environment
3:40 pm
Thu January 12, 2012

Dow Chemical Co. ranked second-largest toxic waste producer in the nation

Imerman Park sits on the flood plain of the Tittabawassee River. Signs along the trail warn walkers about dioxin contamination in some of the park's soil.
Photo by Shawn Allee

The Dow Chemical Company is the second-largest producer of toxic chemical waste in the nation. That’s according to a new report by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The report shows that Dow produced more than 600 million pounds of toxic chemical waste in the reporting year 2010.

Ben Morlock is a spokesperson for Dow.

Morlock says 97% of that toxic chemical waste was treated, recycled or reused.

“We have on-site wastewater treatment plants, we have air pollution control equipment that incinerates contaminants so they’re not released into the air, we have equipment used in our manufacturing processes that captures chemicals and recycles them back into the process for reuse.”

He says the rest of that waste – the remaining three percent – was disposed of in accordance with the company’s state and federal permits.

“It is safe to say that most of that three percent is handled through land disposal, so for instance, it might go to a licensed secured landfill that is equipped to properly handle certain types of waste. So, I can tell you we audit the facilities we use for disposal and we make sure our waste is being handled properly if it leaves the site.”

He says Dow’s ranking on the EPA list reflects the size of the company. Dow is the nation’s largest chemical manufacturer.

The EPA’s report analyzes data from the Toxics Release Inventory. Industries in certain sectors are required by federal law to report their toxic chemical releases each year. This includes chemical manufacturers, metal mining, electric power companies and hazardous waste treatment.

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Commentary
11:28 am
Thu January 12, 2012

Physics and Politics

The scientific and political communities in this state and country often live in largely separate worlds. Former Congressman Vernon Ehlers, a physicist from Grand Rapids and a classy gentleman, was one of the few who managed to bridge that gap.

Smart scientists know that they usually don’t want to focus political attention on what they are doing. Smart politicians, a somewhat rarer breed, know enough to mostly leave scientists alone.

But there was a development yesterday that united both Michigan’s scientists and politicians in concern.

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Environment
10:51 pm
Wed January 11, 2012

Palisades acknowledges mistakes; insists less risk than regulators think

The Palisades nuclear power plant on the Lake Michigan shoreline.
NRC.gov

Officials from Entergy Corporation, the company that operates the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven, appeared in front of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday.

The company is hoping to avoid getting another safety violation; it was issued one already this month. “We’ve lost the trust of our neighbors. We’ve lost the trust of our corporation and we’re going to fix that,” said David Hamilton, general manager of plant operations. The hearing was about two separate incidents at the plant last year.

Entergy Corporation “concurs” with NRC’s findings

The more serious of the two incidents was a week-long shutdown of the power plant last September. It went offline because of an electrical outage at the plant that happened because a worker didn’t follow proper procedures during routine maintenance.  “This was an event that allowed my electricians to feel that they could put themselves at such risk; I apologize if I get emotional but I could’ve killed somebody on the weekend of September 25th,” Hamilton said.

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Environment
11:57 am
Wed January 11, 2012

Saugatuck Township board to discuss federal case over dune land

Hundreds of people packed a high school gym the night Saugatuck Township's board agreed to accept the proposed settlement.
Lindsey Smith Michigan Radio

Officials in Saugatuck tonight will discuss their options in a federal case between the township and a private developer who wants to build on 300 acres near Lake Michigan coastal dunes.

Last July Saugatuck Township voted to accept a settlement with the billionaire developer. The settlement would have allowed a 25-suite hotel, limited retail space and other development plans on his 300 acres along the Lake Michigan shore.

But in November a federal judge in Grand Rapids rejected the settlement because he said it violated state zoning laws. The judge also ruled it didn’t resolve any of the developer’s claims that the township unfairly re-zoned his property.

Tonight the township board will meet with its attorney for the first time since the last federal court action in November. The meeting is not open to the public and it’s unclear if the board will make any decisions tonight.

Environment
1:30 am
Wed January 11, 2012

Operators of Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in front of federal regulators today

Wednesday officials from the company that operates the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in South Haven will appear in front of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. An NRC investigation found a week-long shut-down of the power plant last September was of “substantial safety significance”.

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Environment
9:47 pm
Mon January 9, 2012

High-tech research buoy gathers lots of offshore wind data, but future funding is uncertain

The yellow research buoy pictured by NOAA's live webcam on January 9th, 2012. The buoy will still collect wind data from this location before heading back out to the middle of Lake Michigan in early March.
Lindsey Smith Michigan Radio

An 8-ton research buoy that’s been floating around Lake Michigan collecting detailed data about wind conditions offshore has been brought back on land for the winter.  With the mild winter the buoy stayed about four miles offshore for twice as long as researchers expected; 58 days instead of 30. 

Turning data over to researchers

Arn Boezaart heads the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center that’s operating the buoy from Muskegon. He’s been able to see 10 minute averages of wind conditions in real time. But now that the buoy is back on land, he’s got data cards with wind data for every second the buoy was out there; plus data on bats and birds that flew by.

 “I literally keep looking at this plastic bag in my brief case with this data card sitting in it and thinking ‘people don’t realize how valuable this is,” Boezaart said. “I sort of feel like I’m carrying gold bars in my case here. This is really first of its kind data.”

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Energy
9:32 am
Fri January 6, 2012

Palisades plant goes offline for maintenance work

The Palisades nuclear power plant is on the shore of Lake Michigan six miles south of South Haven.
wikimedia commons

COVERT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - The Palisades nuclear power plant in southwestern Michigan is being shut down temporarily for maintenance.

Spokesman Mark Savage said in a statement that control room operators removed the plant from service Thursday night. The plant is near Lake Michigan in Van Buren County's Covert Township.

Savage says the plant was being cooled down Friday morning.

The maintenance work involves the system that controls the nuclear reactor's power level.

There are 45 seals that form a boundary between the cooling system and the atmosphere inside the building that houses the reactor. Officials say one of the seals is showing signs of wear and will be replaced.

Savage says the plant will return to service when the job is finished. Palisades is owned by New Orleans-based Entergy Corp.

Environment
11:25 am
Thu January 5, 2012

NRC issues violation notice to Palisades nuclear power plant

The Palisades nuclear power plant on the Lake Michigan shoreline.
nrc.org

The Palisades nuclear power plant is six miles south of South Haven on the shore of Lake Michigan.

The plant had five unplanned shutdowns last year. Four of those were unplanned reactor shutdowns. The fifth was a problem with the plant’s water pumps that did not affect the reactor.

Viktoria Mitlyng is a spokesperson with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  She says the Palisades plant is under scrutiny.

“There are so many issues in one year that have come up, you know, there’s certainly a concern. And we recognize that as a regulatory agency and are keeping a very close eye at what’s happening at the plant.”

The NRC has just issued a violation notice to the company that owns the Palisades plant - Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc. -  for a separate incident that happened in May.  A water pump at the plant failed - and regulators concluded that’s because one of the components was lubricated when it shouldn’t have been.

NRC says violation is of "low to moderate significance"

The NRC says this violation falls into a risk category of "low to moderate significance." But there’s a regulatory hearing expected next week to address two additional safety issues – one of which is what the NRC calls substantial safety significance.

That’s a much bigger deal than the water pump investigation finalized this week. In the more serious situation, the plant was offline for about a week last September because of a power outage. An electrical circuit at the plant broke when a worker was doing routine maintenance. The worker did not follow procedures for doing the work. When Lindsey Smith talked to NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng in November, she said the worker had actually gotten permission from his managers not to follow procedures.

“Nobody stopped in their tracks and said 'hey, what are we doing here? We need to rethink this.'”

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Energy
12:16 pm
Wed January 4, 2012

DTE cuts power in parts of Detroit and Highland Park for maintenance

user wheat_in_your_hair Flickr

12:16 p.m.

As it turns out, the planned power outage in parts of Detroit and Highland Park were over by the time the post was put up below. The Associated Press reports:

A planned power outage has wrapped up earlier than expected in part of Detroit and Highland Park after crews worked to repair some underground lines.

DTE Energy Co. said Wednesday's outage affected about 3,500 customers in Detroit and the Detroit enclave.

Officials said the power was shut down to the area as planned about 6 a.m. EST. The power was back on before 11 a.m, more than three hours earlier than expected.

11:35 a.m.

Around 3,500 DTE Energy customers in Detroit and the Highland Park area have had their power cut while the utility company performs "routine maintenance."

Some question whether the timing of the routine maintenance was wise given the cold temperatures.

Fox News in Detroit reports the maintenance was originally scheduled for this past fall:

DTE Energy told FOX 2 the routine maintenance was originally slated for late September or early October, but together with city officials and community leaders, they decided January fourth would be better. That way schools aren't impacted.

A video posted by the Detroit Free Press shows at least two customers in the area are taking the outage in stride.

The Free Press reports that three activity centers have been opened as warming centers in the area:

...the City of Detroit has designated three recreation centers as warming centers.

The warming centers are Northwest Activities Center, 18100 Meyers Road; Butzel Family Center, 7737 Kercheval, and Farwell Community Center, 2711 E. Outer Drive.

The power is expected to be turned back on at 2 p.m. Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek is following this story as well.

Environment
9:00 am
Tue January 3, 2012

Michigan homeowners improve on energy efficiency

The team installs the blower door test.
Photo by Meg Cramer

by Tanya Ott for The Environment Report

It’s cold outside… and maybe inside, if your house isn’t properly insulated. Home energy efficiency is a big issue and a new study gives Michigan kudos for making it a priority.

Randy Rice has lived in his Southgate, Michigan house for 13 years. He’s lived there – and often shivers there…

“Certainly believe that the air was leaking upstairs. We could feel some breezes. I just saw dollars flying out the window.”

Rice replaced the windows five years ago and it helped… but he still worries about leaks around the windows. So he called in...

“Amanda Godward, with Ecotelligent Homes. I’m the owner and energy auditor.”

Godward’s first step is to interview customers like Randy Rice. She takes house measurements, checks out insulations in the attic and windows. Then…. she goes all high tech with the “thermal infrared scan.”

“We use this to find flaws in the insulation, in the walls, without having to do any destructive testing.”

She turns on a fan that pulls all of the air out of the room. It creates a vacuum so cold air from the outside is pulled inside. She can see, on a scanner, all the little cracks and holes where air is sneaking in.

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Environment
8:03 am
Thu December 29, 2011

How green is your governor?

Rick Snyder was the first Republican running for governor to be endorsed by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV), a lobbying group that advocates for conservational and environmental laws and protection.

The MLCV has been tracking Governor Snyder’s position on environmental issues through the “How Green is your Governor” scorecard, an online evaluation that rates the administration’s environmental policy decision - green is good, red is bad, and yellow is neutral.

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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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