Environment & Science

user thebridge / Michigan Radio

We’ve been waiting and waiting for spring to arrive, some of us less patiently than others.  April was a soggy, cold month; we even got a little snow dumped on us as Old Man Winter delivered his final hurrah.

The National Weather Service tells us not to expect miracles in May, either, and lays the blame firmly at the feet of La Nina. That’s El Nino’s little sister, which visits us periodically to unleash some nasty storms to our south and keep things chilly and clammy up here.

But in defiance of all that, spring did arrive in the last few days, in full regalia.

Photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Summer recreation may return to parts of the Kalamazoo River. Michigan health officials are studying the effects of an oil spill last summer. The spill dumped more than 800-thousand gallons into the river near Marshall.  If reports are positive, the no-contact order on areas of the Kalamazoo River may be lifted. The order banned swimming, boating and fishing.

Flame retardant chemicals help keep foam and plastics from catching on fire. They’re called PBDEs. That stands for polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

They’re in our couches, our office chairs and the padding under our carpet.

The problem is... they don’t stay put. Scientists have known for a while that the chemicals leach out of products and get into our bodies. Americans have the highest levels of anyone in the world.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies are suggesting links to problems with brain development, changes to thyroid systems, and fertility problems.

Photo courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant

New research finds that fish in the Great Lakes are contaminated with a chemical used in aircraft hydraulic fluids.

Researcher Amila DeSilva works for Environment Canada, which is like the EPA in the U.S.

She says there have been studies on a number of perflourinated chemicals. They’re used to make textiles, upholstery, paper, and many other things. Studies have shown these types of chemicals can have toxic effects in humans. But not much is known about a chemical called perfluoroethylcyclohexanesulfonate - or PFECHS for short.

DeSilva says no one has really studied whether it's toxic.

She wanted to see if PFECHS was in the environment, so she and her colleagues sampled water and fish in the Great Lakes, specifically lake trout and walleye:

“We were really, really surprised to find it in fish. Because, just based on the structure and our chemical intuition we thought, ‘okay, it would be more likely to be in water than in fish’ so when we found it in fish, when you find anything in fish, it’s a whole other ballgame because humans consume fish.”

DeSilva says other perflourinated acids are endocrine disruptors. That means they create hormone imbalances in humans, and they have other toxic effects. She says once these chemicals are released into the environment they don’t degrade, they just build up. That’s why use of some chemicals in this class is highly restricted in the U.S. and Canada.


The U.S. Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service today announced that it plans to remove the western Great Lakes gray wolf population from the Endangered Species list.

These are wolves found in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and areas adjoining these states.

Acting Service Director Rowan Gould was quoted in today's press release:

“Gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes are recovered and no longer warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. Under this proposed rule, which takes into account the latest taxonomic information about the species, we will return management of gray wolves in the Great Lakes to state wildlife professionals. We are confident that wolves will continue to thrive under the approved state management plans.”

There will be a sixty-day comment period before the rule is finalized.

Mary Detloff, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, says the state supports the decision and is ready to take over management of the species:

"The most recent estimate that we have of the minimum winter population for wolves in Michigan is around 687 animals which far exceeds our recovery goal here in the state. Our recovery goal was around 200-300 wolves."

Detloff says delisting the wolf would allow the state to deal with problem wolves.


There’s good news for people who enjoy cold, damp weather.  For the rest of you,  don’t put away your sweaters just yet. 

Remember how it snowed in early December and just kept on snowing – for months?

Remember how the calendar said spring had arrived, but we just got more snow -- and then lots of cold, rainy days?

Rich Pollman is with the National Weather Service in Detroit. He says things probably won’t improve much in May.

Photo by Rebecca Williams

Have you ever seen those plastic forks or spoons made from corn or potatoes? It’s a big trend right now.

They’re compostable. So in theory... this tableware breaks down into a dark, rich material that’s really good for gardening.

So you get the convenience of disposable plastic... without adding to the big pile of plastic trash.

But here’s where things get tricky.

Liz Shoch is with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. She's working with companies to rethink the way they package their products.

“One of the things we say a lot currently is there is no sustainable package and that goes for compostable packaging too. There’s always tradeoffs.”

The federal budget left many groups wanting more money, but those lobbying to restore Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes are actually pretty pleased with the President and Congress.

Andy Buchsbaum co-chairs a group that’s trying to get enough funding over five years to restore the Great Lakes. He says the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative didn’t get all the money it wanted in the 2011 federal budget. But Buchsbaum says given the tight economic times, the $300 million they did get will keep the program on track.

“The Great Lakes did remarkably well this year in the federal budget, and the people in this region will benefit from it.”

In Michigan, Buchsbaum says the money is being used to restore wetlands. It’s also being used to get rid of toxic hot spots, such as the so-called black lagoon in the Detroit River area. And it’s being used to prevent Asian Carp from getting into Lake Michigan.

Buchsbaum says both parties supported Great Lakes restoration because of the economic benefits, and everyone wants their children to be able to swim at the beaches and drink the water.

-Julie Grant for The Environment Report

Rodney Burton / creative commons

There's long been a tug of war between corn growers and sugar refiners over who can get their sweetener into more products. Reuters reports that high fructose corn syrup has been gaining on sugar lately because of higher sugar prices.

Now, sugar growers are suing over a ad campaign that is trying to change the image of high fructose corn syrup.

Michigan Sugar Company has joined a lawsuit against corn processors who are trying to rebrand high-fructose corn syrup as "corn sugar."

Photo by d.boyd, Flickr

The American Lung Association released its State of the Air Report this week.

More than a dozen Michigan cities made the list of the most polluted cities in the country for ozone pollution – also known as smog – and particle pollution – also called soot. The major sources of this pollution are factories and power plants... and our cars and trucks and even our lawnmowers.

The report has three separate lists of the most polluted cities.  There are lists for ozone pollution, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution.  Detroit ranked 17th most polluted for year-round particle pollution. Grand Rapids tied for 43rd worst ozone pollution.

Shelly Kiser is the director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Michigan. 

"Ozone is created in the atmosphere with a couple chemicals that need heat and light, so it's usually something we see in the summer. It increases your risk of early death, you're more likely to have asthma attacks. Particle pollution, on the other hand, is what we think of as soot, so it's tiny pieces of something that can blow in the wind, and they are so tiny that they can go way down in the deepest part of your lungs and really wreak havoc there. It increases your risk of death during high levels over a short period of time, or at low levels over a long period of time."

There is some good news in the report. Many Michigan communities have improved air quality over previous years and some Michigan cities actually made the list of the cleanest cities in the country.  The cleanest cities for particle pollution were the greater Lansing area and Saginaw.

Brown marmorated stink bug.
PSU Dept. of Entomology

The invasive skunk of the insect world has been found in four counties in Michigan.

Here are the counties where the Brown marmorated stink bug has been found:

  • Berrien
  • Eaton
  • Genesee
  • Ingham

If the bug feels threatened, or if you squish it, this stink bug... stinks.

But the damage it can do to crops is what has officials in Michigan worried.

The PSU Department of Entomology says the Brown marmorated stink bug damages fruit and vegetable crops by sucking plant fluids through its beak.

A piece in lansingnoise.com estimated the damage it could do:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture late last year looked at the potential damage to crops. Topping the list was the country's $2.2 billion apple industry. Michigan's share is $115 million worth, or 590 million pounds of apples harvested each year.

"I have these growers telling me that they fear this might be the worst pest in a generation for orchards," said Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, which represents the state's apple industry.

The bug has proven it can resist pesticides, so what's to be done?

Sabri Ben-Achour filed a report for NPR on how some researchers are looking into using foreign wasps to fight the bug:

Can wasps squash the stink bug plague?

Trissolcus wasps are from China, Japan and Korea. The same place where the invasive stink bug came from. The wasps are natural enemies of the Brown marmorated stink bug, so researchers want to know if they can release them in the U.S. without harming other native stink bugs that are beneficial.

The researchers say it will take them three years to find out. In the meantime, some farmers will continue to try to fight the bug with pesticides - Ben-Achour reports some farmers are asking the EPA to relax pesticide regulations.

This week, the Michigan Supreme Court's conservative majority reversed a major decision that allowed Michigan citizens to sue the state over pollution concerns.

In December, the high court ruled that state agencies that issue permits that result in harm can be named in a citizen suit. At the time, there was a liberal majority in the Court.

The office of Attorney General Bill Schuette asked the Court to rehear the case.

The newly conservative Court did that this week... and with an order reversed the December ruling.

Nick Schroeck is the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

“What the Court did is it basically potentially rolled back a layer of environmental protection by calling into question whether or not the state can be liable for its permitting decisions. So if the state permits something that goes on to harm the environment, arguably the state should be liable if they made a bad decision. And what the Court did is they’ve kinda called that into question.”

Schroeck says he expects this new decision will be challenged.

Can wasps squash the stink bug plague?

Apr 28, 2011

Home is where the heart is. It's also probably where a lot of stink bugs are right now, crawling out from cracks and crevices. They were introduced into Allentown, Pa., from Asia in the 1990s and have been spreading ever since, reaching seemingly plaguelike proportions in the mid-Atlantic states. But an experiment is under way to reintroduce the stink bug to its mortal enemy: a parasitic Asian wasp.

(Flickr Senor Codo)

Air quality is getting better in Michigan, according to a new report from the American Lung Association.  The association’s annual ‘State of the Air’ report says ozone and particle pollution rates have eased in Michigan during the past decade.    Lansing and Saginaw have some of the cleanest air among U.S. cities.  

Shelly Kiser is with the American Lung Association.     She says the report’s not all good news. 

National Weather Service

The National Weather Service has issued a "Tornado Watch" for much of Michigan until 10 p.m. tonight. A "tornado watch" means conditions are favorable for the development of tornadoes in and close to the watch area. The Michigan Counties included in the watch are: ALLEGAN ARENAC BARRY BAY BERRIEN BRANCH CALHOUN CASS CLARE CLINTON EATON GENESEE GLADWIN GRATIOT HILLSDALE HURON INGHAM IONIA IOSCO ISABELLA JACKSON KALAMAZOO KENT LAPEER LENAWEE LIVINGSTON MACOMB MIDLAND MONROE MONTCALM OAKLAND OGEMAW ROSCOMMON SAGINAW SANILAC SHIAWASSEE ST. CLAIR ST.

wikimedia commons

It's a case that has turned into a political football for the conservative and liberal incarnations of the Michigan Supreme Court.

In an order released today, the Michigan Supreme Court's conservative majority reversed a major decision that allowed Michigan citizens to sue the state over pollution concerns.

From the Associated Press:

The case involved the discharge of partially contaminated water to a popular trout stream. In December, the court's liberal majority used the case to give more rights to people to challenge
state regulators over certain environmental permits.

At issue is whether people have the right to sue the state over pollution concerns when the state issues things like pollution discharge permits.

The case that was argued involved the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), Merit Energy, and the Anglers of the AuSable.

Photo courtesy of USFWS

There’s a decision looming for Lake Huron that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. The state must decide whether it should keep putting chinook salmon in the lake. The fish has been the driving force behind sport fishing in the Great Lakes. But the salmon’s future in the Upper Lakes is now questionable.

It’s hard to overstate how drastically salmon transformed the Great Lakes after they were introduced more than 40 years ago.

Ed Retherford is a charter boat captain on Lake Huron. He says in the old days on a weekend in Rockport he’d see cars with boat trailers backed up for a mile or two waiting to launch. But that’s all gone now.

“You’d be lucky, except maybe for the brown trout festival, you’d be lucky to see twenty boats there on a weekend. It just decimated that area. You can imagine the economics involved.”

Chinook or king salmon practically disappeared from Lake Huron about seven years ago. Most of the charter boats are gone now because the kinds of fish that remain are just not as exciting to catch as salmon.

State officials figure little towns like Rockport lose upwards of a million dollars in tourism business every year without the fishery.

user greg l / wikimedia commons

From the Associated Press:

The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy has canceled an Earth Day program scheduled for Saturday after more than 600,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into wetlands near the event's Kalamazoo-area location.

Conservancy workers discovered the leak Thursday and a cleanup was under way Friday. The Kalamazoo Gazette reports that vandals caused the spill by blocking a sewer line with several logs.

Sue Foune of Kalamazoo's Public Services Department says lime has been scattered to destroy bacteria. She says the wetlands will absorb and treat the sewage and there should be no long-term

But conservancy stewardship director Nate Fuller says nutrients in the sewage will boost invasive cattails that the group has been trying to remove.

The vandalism was reported to police.

Image courtesy of the DOE

If you’ve ever been lost in the lightbulb aisle... things are getting a little easier. There’s a new label the federal government is requiring on lightbulb packages. It's modeled after the Nutrition Facts label on food.

But the label still needs some deciphering. Greenovation dot tv’s Matt Grocoff knows a thing or two about lightbulbs. I met up with Matt so he could show me how to read the new labels.

Business owners and politicians are trying to figure out how to make Michigan a manufacturing hub for things like advanced batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels.

They’re gathering at the Clean Energy Manufacturing Workshop in Ann Arbor today and tomorrow. The workshop is being put on by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy along with Ann Arbor SPARK.

Steven Busch will be paying pretty close attention.

He’s with Energetx Composites Company in Holland. It’s a spin-off company of Tiara Yacht. Before the economy went south, their main business was building high end yachts. Now, they make blades for wind turbines.

“The basic manufacturing process is very similar. We have the expertise on how to handle large, big, bulky things.”

He says they’re planning to stay in Michigan.

“Michigan offers the best engineering and manufacturing skill set probably in the world. Geographically, the Great Lakes are a great opportunity as a place to be able to ship products over the water.”

Busch says he’d like to see more training programs at universities and community colleges – and more retraining programs for former auto workers who want to get into the business.

Chris Broadbent

Protesters rallied at an energy forum hosted by the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce today. They’re calling on the Kalamazoo Chamber to cut its ties with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

(Photo by Scott Bauer - USDA)

Baiting deer is the subject of lots of debate in Lansing this month. There’s a ban on feeding deer in the Lower Peninsula that could be lifted in June. The restriction was a response to the discovery of chronic wasting disease in one deer in 2008. But as Peter Payette reported for The Environment Report no more sick animals have been found and the pressure is growing to let hunters bait wild deer.

Google Maps

Update 2:03 p.m.

Officials say the gasoline leak has been stopped. Still no word on how much fuel leaked from the storage tank.

From the Associated Press:

Officials say they've stopped a gasoline leak in Michigan and confirmed the source as a storage tank in the area.

Ingham County emergency officials said in a statement Monday that the tank and a related filling system in White Oak Township, about 55 miles west of Detroit, are owned by Marathon Pipe Line LLC.

A message seeking comment was left Monday by The Associated Press at Marathon's offices.

Wolverine Pipe Line Co., which also owns some tanks at the same storage site, has been working with the county on response to the leak since it was reported Wednesday.

The county says Marathon will take over work dealing with the leak from Wolverine. The amount of the spill remains unknown. There's no evidence of health hazards in the area.

9:07 a.m.

Authorities say they've found the source of the gasoline leak in Ingham County.

From the Associated Press:

Michigan authorities say they've traced a gasoline leak to the area of a storage tank holding 14,700 barrels of fuel. Ingham County Emergency officials said in a statement Sunday that they've found higher levels of spilled gasoline as their monitoring equipment approaches the Wolverine Pipeline Co. facility.

The large gasoline storage tank site is in White Oak Township, about 55 miles west of Detroit.

Some of the gas flowed about a mile down an open drain by the time a farmer reported the leak Wednesday.

The county says the suspected source of the leak is a tank that can hold up to 180,000 barrels of fuel. It says that while the amount of the spill remains unknown, it's nowhere near the capacity of the tank, which was mostly empty when the leak started.

Michigan Radio's Kyle Norris reported yesterday that officials from the Wolverine Pipeline Company were searching for the gasoline leak.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is holding a forum on pipeline safety today in Washington, DC.

Last summer’s massive oil spill in the Kalamazoo River and two fatal gas line explosions in California and Pennsylvania triggered the review of pipeline safety.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently announced a pipeline safety action plan.  The plan calls for pipeline operators to review their pipelines and quickly repair sections that are in bad condition.

Andy Black is the President and CEO of the Association of Oil Pipelines.  It’s a trade group that represents pipeline operators. 

“The industry strives for no accidents but I cannot assure you there will be none.”

He says despite the recent accidents, the industry’s safety record is improving.  The Transportation Department backs up that claim... saying accidents have decreased nearly 50% over the past 20 years.

You can find out what kind of pipelines run near your home, school or office on a new website from the DOT.

Children focus in on nature

Apr 18, 2011
user Rhonda Noren / Flickr

With the spread and advancement of home technology such as televisions, computers, cell phones, and video games, American children are spending less and less time outdoors. A baseball glove has been traded in for a remote control, and parents have gone from fretting over grass-stained jeans to fretting over their child’s apparent reclusiveness. Most kids today are more comfortable walking a parent through setting up Facebook account than they are walking through a forest. But the Udall Foundation, based in Arizona, is trying to reacquaint kids with the joys of exploring the natural world with their Parks in Focus program.

Parks in Focus is all about bridging the gap between technology and nature. Children, mostly middle school aged, are put in touch with Parks in Focus through the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Big Brothers Big Sisters. After providing each child with a digital camera to document their explorations, Parks in Focus program leaders take the children on camping and hiking trips in some of America’s most scenic parks. While trips originally went only to the Grand Canyon, Parks in Focus has expanded to several other states, including Michigan.

Bret Muter is the Michigan Program Coordinator for Parks in Focus. He says digital cameras act as security blankets for the kids, allowing them to have a familiar piece of technology in an unfamiliar world of mountains, streams, and creepy crawlies.

“If kids aren’t comfortable with nature, they’re typically comfortable with technology such as a camera, even if they don’t own one. So cameras serve as that safety net for exploring the environment, which may otherwise be unfamiliar or even scary to some kids.”

On top of just making the children more comfortable with the initial shock of being out in the middle of the woods, Muter says the cameras allow the kids to interact with their surroundings more than they normally would.

Flickr user nbonzey

The company that owns a pipeline that's leaking gasoline in Michigan is still searching for the source of the leak.   

Ingham County Emergency officials said in a statement Saturday that Wolverine Pipeline Company crews hope to find the leak within the next 24 hours and repair it. The Portage, Michigan-based company has contained the leak near a farm and a large gasoline storage tank facility about 55 miles west of Detroit.   

Some of the gas flowed about a mile down an open drain by the time the leak was reported Wednesday by a farmer. 

Crews continued digging temporary ditches Saturday near the storage tank to keep it out of the drain.   

Wolverine Pipeline says tests on wells in the area show that they pose no threat to human health.

Photo courtesy of the State of Michigan

Until last July, many people in Marshall had no idea an oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ran underneath their town.

Then, it broke. More than 840,000 gallons of thick, black oil from the Canadian tar sands poured into the Kalamazoo River.

“I think I can sum it up in one word and that is nightmare."

Deb Miller lives just 50 feet from the Kalamazoo River.

“The smell, I don’t even know how to describe the smell, there are no words. You could not be outside."

United States Geological Survey

Ecologists from the University of Michigan say invasive zebra and quagga mussels are causing dramatic changes to the ecosystems in northern Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Their report says action must come soon to stop the spread of the mussels in the Great Lakes.

Donald Scavia  is the Director of the University of Michigan Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute. He's one of the authors of a new report that says the changes are happening quickly and require more attention than they are getting now:

“Our management strategies need to be able to be reviewed and modified every couple of years rather than every couple of decades.”

Scavia said the zebra mussels make it difficult to predict the conditions of the Great Lakes from year to year.

Tim Wang / Flickr

DTE Energy has announced it will build three wind farms in Michigan's Sanilac and Huron counties.

The company expects to build around 50 wind turbines in total.

Legislators in Michigan set a renewable energy standard in 2008 that requires energy companies get 10% of their energy from renewable sources by 2015.

Right now, DTE energy says it gets "nearly four percent" of its energy from renewable sources.

These three new wind farms are part of DTE's plan to achieve the 10% goal.

DTE officials say they have acquired easements on 80,000 acres in Huron County and have completed wind and wildlife studies where the three wind farms will be sited.

From DTE's press release:

The Minden, Sigel and McKinley wind farms – which together will generate approximately 110 megawatts (MW) of electricity – will be sited on nearly 15,000 acres in Bloomfield, Sigel and McKinley townships in Huron County, and Minden and Delaware townships in Sanilac County.

The total cost of the wind farms is expected to be around $225 million. DTE is seeking contractors to start building the farms next year.

Michigan currently has wind projects in Cheboygan, Grand Traverse, Huron, and Missaukee counties.

Combined, these wind farms provide enough energy to power around 40,000 homes in Michigan, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

AWEA says Michigan's wind potential ranks 17th in the country - much of that wind potential is in the state's thumb area.

Photo courtesy of the State of Michigan/EPA

It was one of the largest oil spills in the Midwest... and it’s not over yet.

Crews are still cleaning up from last July’s oil spill in the Kalamazoo River. An oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ruptured... and spilled more than 840,000 gallons of heavy crude. The oil polluted Talmadge Creek and more than 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency say most of that oil has been sucked out of the river... and tens of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil have been removed.

But the work is far from done.

The EPA granted me access to one of the contaminated sites on the Kalamazoo River.  I met with Mark Durno, the Deputy Incident Commander with the EPA. He’s overseeing the cleanup teams.  We stood on the bank of the river as dump trucks and loaders rumbled over a bridge out to an island in the river.

“The islands were heavily contaminated, we didn’t expect to see as much oil as we did. If you’d shovel down into the islands you’d see oil pool into the holes we’d dig."

Workers scooped out contaminated soil... hauled it to a staging area and shipped it off site.

Mark Durno says the weather will dictate what happens next. He says heavy rainstorms will probably move oil around. They won’t know how much more cleanup work they’ll have to do until they finish their spring assessment.

“Once the heavy rains recede, we’ll do an assessment over the entire stretch of river to determine whether there are substantial amounts of submerged oil in sediments that still exist in the system.”

He says if they find a lot of oil at the bottom of the river... the crews will have to remove it.

Reports that Enbridge submitted to the EPA and the state of Michigan show the type of oil spilled in the Kalamazoo River was diluted bitumen. Bitumen is a type of oil that comes from tar sands. It’s a very thick oil, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines.