Environment & Science

One year ago tonight, mine rescuers discovered the remains of the last four missing coal miners deep inside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

There had been hope that the four had made it to refuge chambers and were still alive. Optimistic rescuers carried four sets of breathing apparatus with them, hoping they would be used to bring the miners safely to the surface. The bodies of 25 other miners were found four days earlier.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Earlier this week, I joined a bus tour organized to bring community leaders from Grand Rapids to visit Detroit. One of the many cool places we visited that hasn’t made it into my writing so far is Earthworks Urban Farm. I didn’t want to overlook it – so here’s the second installation of what Detroit can teach other cities in Michigan about urban farming.

bigmikesndtech / flickr

The clean-up of industrial waste in Muskegon Lake will start next month. The lake is contaminated with mercury and other pollutants that get into fish and wildlife. The Muskegon River flows through the lake on its way to Lake Michigan.

Kathy Evans is with the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission.

“U.S EPA and the state of Michigan entered into the agreement to clean up Muskegon Lake and the community sees this as very beneficial to the local economy, to the environment to the fish and wildlife habitat and the water quality here in Muskegon Lake and to Lake Michigan.”

The clean-up is being paid for by the state and federal governments and is expected to cost twelve-million dollars.

user 3rdParty / flickr

The state will be closing twenty-three state forest campgrounds beginning in May. The campgrounds are not state parks. They’re camping sites along rivers, lakes or trails. Most of the sites to be closed are in the Upper Peninsula.

Mary Dettloff is with the state Department of Natural Resources.

"These are primarily rustic camping sites. There’s no electrical hook up like there is at a state park. State Forest campgrounds tend to cater to people who are into more of just a tent camping experience."

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is closing the campgrounds because they’re not heavily used and the state doesn’t have money to maintain them. Dettloff continues:

"Not only did we pick the ones that are underperforming in terms of bringing in revenue but they’re also ones that are close to other state forest campgrounds. So we’re not going to be denying the opportunity to use the state forest campgrounds to people because there will be other ones nearby that will remain open."

The trails and land around the campgrounds will still be available to visitors after the campsites are removed.

Photo courtesy of isleroyalewolf.org

The wolves of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior could be in trouble.

For 53 years, researchers from Michigan Tech have been studying the island’s wolf and moose populations.

This year... they found there are fewer wolves – just 16. And only a couple of females that can still have babies. Rolf Peterson has been studying the wolves for more than four decades.

He says it's not clear why some of the wolves are dying.

"In late 2009, six of the ten females we had in the population died. That was just an unusual, presumably a fluke. Only one of the females was radio collared and she died in a very unusual way, she died giving birth."

He says the outlook for the existence of wolves on Isle Royale is uncertain.

"It could be just a little hurdle they have to jump through. It also could mean the beginning of the end if those one or two females should die without giving birth to a female. And if neither of the two pups we thought we saw this year are female, then that's it. The population would go extinct because there are no females."

At this point, he doesn't think people should intervene. But he says there could come a point where the National Park Service might introduce new female wolves from the mainland. Peterson says the males on the island would readily accept new females if the existing females die.

The wolves keep the island's moose in check. The research team has found that the moose population is currently around 500 animals. If the wolves go extinct, Peterson says the moose would be in trouble too.

"They'd increase to the point where they'd starve to death catastrophically."

Peterson has spent most of every year for four decades living among the wolves and moose on the island with his wife Candy.  But he says there's still plenty to be discovered.

"Almost everything that happens there surprises me. We're almost unable to predict the short term future. I guess the resiliency of wolves in general does usually surprise me. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they pulled out of this one. But exactly how they're going to do it is what's fascinating."

You can learn more about the research team and the wildlife here.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-MI, is the "richest" member of Congress from Michigan, according to CQ Roll Call.
Republican Conference / Flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled four years ago that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate planet-warming greenhouse gasses... if the agency found those gasses are a threat to human health and safety. In 2009, the EPA found greenhouse gasses are a threat... and the agency started taking steps to regulate emissions from industries such as coal-burning power plants and automobiles.

For months now, many members of Congress have been trying to block the EPA from doing that. The latest people to climb on board are from Michigan: Republican Representative Fred Upton and Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow.

Fred Upton chairs the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. He not only wants to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses... he wants to repeal the EPA’s scientific finding that greenhouse gasses are harmful.

Ryan Werder is the political director for the nonpartisan group Michigan League of Conservation Voters. He says since he was appointed Chair, Congressman Upton has shifted to the right politically.

“He was always a good, moderate, reliable voice. Before, when he said climate change was a reality and something we had to consider. He suddenly removed that from this website and acts as if climate change is non-existent.”

Jeffrey Simms Photography / Flickr

Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin and Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, will co-chair the U.S. Senate’s Great Lakes Task Force for the next two years, the Associated Press reports.

Levin has been on the task force since 1999. Kirk is taking over the position for fellow Republican Senator George Voinovich who retired earlier this year. The AP explains:

The bipartisan group deals with Great Lakes issues that involve the federal government. It has supported an interstate compact to protect water supplies and funding for programs such as invasive species control and cleanup of contaminated sediments.

Kirk said Tuesday he hoped the panel also would develop legislation to crack down on dumping raw sewage into the lakes.

In a statement released on Senator Levin's website yesterday, Levin said:

“I am pleased that Senator Kirk will serve as co-chair of the task force, and I’m excited about our prospects to protect and enhance our Great Lakes. The task force has led the way to passage for legislation to clean up contaminated sediments, fight invasive species and prevent the diversion of precious fresh water from the Great Lakes basin. I look forward to working with Senator Kirk and I am confident that he will help add to that important legacy.”

Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency

Enbridge Energy says last July's oil spill of at least 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan cost the company $550 million in 2010, according to the Associated Press. The figure comes from an Enbridge report. The $550 million does not include insurance recoveries, fines and penalties. From the AP:

Public officials say they don't know when the Kalamazoo River will reopen for public use as the cleanup continues. Oil flow through the 286-mile-long pipeline resumed in September.

The Enbridge pipeline runs from Indiana to Ontario.

The Kalamazoo Gazette reports that, in addition to the oil spill in Marshall, the company spent $45 million on a spill in Romeoville, Illionis in September:

The report shows that Enbridge lost $16 million in revenue from the transfer of oil while the pipelines were shut down. Both spill cleanups and pipeline repairs contributed to an overall operating loss of $24.7 million, according to the report. Enbridge had a net loss of $137.9 million at the end of the year, compared with net incomes between $250 and $400 million in previous years. This was the first time the company reported a loss in at least five years.

Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

Last May, oil and gas companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying up rights to drill in Michigan. By summer, private landowners in northern Michigan had signed leases promising record payments to drill on their land. But by the end of the year, the frenzy over the new gas play had fizzled. And, as Bob Allen found out, hundreds of people were claiming they’d been cheated.

The first person to file suit against the gas companies in Emmet County is Mildred Lutz.

A sturdy 92 years old, she still keeps a garden and cans her own vegetables.

Last summer, a man knocked on her door and offered to pay her almost a hundred thousand dollars for the oil and gas deep underground beneath her farm.

Mildred had just lost her husband of sixty-nine years, Carl. And she thought the money would come in handy for a whole list of expenses, including funeral costs. So after talking it over with her five children, she signed a lease and took the document to the bank in Alanson to be notarized.

She never heard another word from the oil and gas developers and she never got paid.

And how does she feel about that?

“Well, not very good. I don’t know, I’ve always kind of had the feeling of trusting a lot of people, I guess. I hate to see people being dishonest. When you do that, you’re just really hurting a lot of people that were depending on this.”

Attorney Bill Rolinski says he’s heard from a lot of people who ended up in the same boat as Mildred Lutz.

Google Maps

Land and groundwater in the city of St. Louis, Michigan has been contaminated with chemicals from the Velsicol Chemical Company.

Now the city will get $26.5 million to help set up a new water supply  system.

According to the EPA, Velsicol (formerly known as the Michigan Chemical Corporation) "produced various chemical compounds and products at its fifty-four acre main plant site in St. Louis, Michigan, such as hexabromobenzene (HBB), 1,1,1-trichloro-2,2-bis(p-chlorophenyl) ethane (DDT), polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), and tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate (tris)."

The EPA says the company produced these chemicals from 1936 until 1978.

From the Associated Press:

ST. LOUIS, Mich. — A federal judge has approved a $26.5 million settlement for a central Michigan community whose water supply was contaminated by a chemical company in the 1950s and 1960s.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas L. Ludington in Bay City signed an order approving the deal on Thursday.

The city of St. Louis, Mich., hopes the settlement with Rosemont, Ill.-based Velsicol Chemical Co. will help pay to replace the water system that serves the area, which is contaminated with a byproduct of the pesticide DDT.

The settlement of the 2007 lawsuit was approved this week by the City Council.

The city says money for the settlement includes $20.5 million from an insurance company for Velsicol and $6 million from a trust related to a former parent company.

The EPA lists the threats and contaminants in the community:

On-site groundwater is contaminated with DDT, chlorobenzene, carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene (TCE), and other chlorinated compounds. On site soil samples revealed contamination with PBBs, copper, chromium, zinc, and magnesium. The sediments of the Pine River were also contaminated with similar contaminants through direct discharges from the site; however, surface waters do not show any significant impacts. Potential risks exist for people who eat contaminated fish and wildlife in the vicinity of the site.

stabenow.senate.gov / senate.gov

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow is seeking to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions for two years.

According to Grist.org, the Senator's amendment has four elements:

  • A two-year suspension of stationary source greenhouse gas regulations
  • Preventing any future California waiver for tailpipe greenhouse emissions
  • Excluding regulation of biofuel greenhouse emissions related to land-use changes, or of any greenhouse emissions from other agricultural activities
  • Allocating $5 billion to the Advanced Energy Project tax credit

Stabenow says her amendment is aimed at protecting small businesses. A written statement from Stabenow was quoted in the Kalamazoo Gazette:

"My amendment is a common-sense approach that allows protections from carbon pollution, determined by scientists and public health experts, to continue being developed while providing businesses the support and incentives they need as they reduce pollution, generate new clean energy technologies and create jobs."

Norm Hoekstra / Creative Commons

Governor Rick Snyder signed the bill authorizing more than $102 million in grant money for more than 100 recreation projects and land acquisitions across the state. Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith reports one of the largest grants will preserve dune-land along the Lake Michigan shore.

Peter Homeyer is executive director of The Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

“West Michigan and a lot of communities around the state are going to see projects now that are going to add to parkland and improve parks right close to home where folks can get out and enjoy nature with this new bill.

(Tim Van Gorp)

State health officials insist the public does not have to worry that a radioactive isotope linked to the Japanese nuclear crisis has been detected in a routine air sample taken on Monday in Lansing.  

Kelly Neibel is the acting spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Community Health. 

 “There’s absolutely no reason for people to be concerned about this.  The levels detected are very minute and they pose no health threat to people.”  

The state routinely tests air samples taken near Michigan’s three nuclear reactors. The last unusual reading was recorded after the Chernobyl accident in the mid-1980s. Neibel downplays the potential health effects of the isotope from the Japanese nuclear crisis to people living in Michigan.  

"All of us are exposed to radiation every day.   Some of that’s from natural sources…to manmade sources…like medical x-rays.”

Radioactive isotopes linked to the Japanese nuclear crisis have been reported in many other U.S. states. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user tEdGuY49

Detroit is home to one of the world’s largest incinerators. That facility burns around 800,000 tons of trash every year.

The issue has sparked passionate conflict in Detroit for more than 20 years. And a recent public hearing—on whether to give the incinerator’s new owners tax credits—showed that conflict is just as intense as ever.

(USGS)

Large factory farms have lost a major court case in the Michigan Court of Appeals. The case involves farming operations with hundreds, sometimes thousands of animals. They are often called CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.

The appellate court upheld a lower court ruling that the state could require large confined animal feeding operations to get pollution discharge permits before opening. Farm groups challenged the state rule insisting they should only need a permit after releasing manure causing water pollution.  But today, the three judge panel disagreed:

We conclude that the DEQ was fully authorized to require CAFOs to either (1) seek and obtain an (federal) permit (irrespective of whether they actually discharge pollutants), or (2) satisfactorily demonstrate that they have no potential to discharge.  The circuit court  properly denied plaintiffs’ motion for summary disposition and granted summary disposition in favor of the DEQ.

Ann Wiowode  is the director of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club. She welcomes this week’s ruling. 

 “That is essential in insuring they’re not allowed to begin operation and potentially pollute the water  without going through proper review.”

But while she welcomes the decision, Wiowode says more work is needed to protect Michigan from water pollution connected to agriculture. 

 “We think the regulations are still too weak.  And based on our experience, the permits themselves have many things that could be improved.”   

The Michigan Farm Bureau expressed disappointment with the decision.

Scio Residents for Safe Water

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is holding a public meeting tonight about changes to the 1,4-dioxane groundwater cleanup plan in Ann Arbor.

The meeting will be held at 7:00 p,m. at Abbot Elementary School, 2670 Sequoia Parkway, Ann Arbor.

From the MDEQ:

Vistavision / Flickr

All the unclaimed deposits from Michigan cans and bottles really add up. The state gets about $12 million a year out of it.

A small amount of this money goes back to the retailers who sell the containers. But most of it is used for cleaning up old industrial land or toxic waste. The state also uses the money to finish the clean-up of federal Superfund sites.

With budget cuts, money for pollution clean-up is harder to come by. Anastasia Lundy is with the Department of Environmental Quality. She says her department used to rely on Michigan’s general fund.

"Well the programs that are funding environmental clean-up no longer receive any general fund whatsoever, so this has increased our reliance on these bottle bill funds to try to keep the programs meeting the most critical needs."

The state wants as much money in the clean-up fund as possible. They’re worried they are losing money to people they call smugglers. These are people bringing cans into Michigan from other states for deposit money.

This might sound like the Seinfeld episode where Kramer and Neuman drive cans and bottles into Michigan. But the state is getting serious about cutting down on bottle deposit fraud. So, they want bottle manufacturers to put a special mark on containers sold in Michigan. Bottle return machines would then only take containers with the mark-Michigan containers.

The state changed the bottle bill to require manufactures to add the mark, and the manufacturers are now suing the state over the changes to the bill.

The American Beverage Association is bringing the suit. They didn’t return calls for comment on this story. But, they’ve told other media outlets that making special cans and bottles for Michigan will be expensive and they don’t want to do it.

Retailers are siding with the state in the suit. Mike Lashbrook is the President of the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesaler Association.

"Well, you know, this issue, the fact that there is this smuggling that’s been going on, it’s not a joke like the Seinfeld episode. It is a major problem.

He says retailers are also worried about losing money to bottle smugglers.

The state has already put a little over a million dollars into upgrading the bottle machines to read the special mark. If the Beverage Association wins their case the state will lose this money.

Nuclear Regulatory Agency

Congress will hear testimony on Tuesday morning from experts in nuclear energy to determine what lessons can be learned from the crisis in Japan.

Dave Lochbaum is the director of the Nuclear Power Project, part of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says the United States needs to be prepared for disaster "not on bright sunny days, but on days when the infrastructure may be damaged or compromised and impede the ability of people to get out of harm’s way."

Lochbaum says U.S. plants are at risk for the same problems that nuclear plants in Japan are facing:

“It’s U.S. reactor technology that was used there, under similar regulations that are here in the United States, so faced with similar challenges, we’d probably experience similar outcomes and I think the United States and Congress more broadly will take steps to better protect Americans from that outcome. ”

There are three nuclear power plants in Michigan

-Bridget Bodnar, Michigan Radio Newsroom

(courtesy of astronautscholarship.org)

This weekend you’ll have a chance to buy a piece of Michigan and space history. A state of Michigan flag, carried on board Apollo 15,  to the moon and back, is being auctioned. All three members of the Apollo 15 crew had ties to the University of Michigan.

The online auction benefits a science scholarship program. Former NASA astronaut Al Worden piloted the Apollo spacecraft. The Michigan native hopes the 8 by 12 inch flag will attract a lot of bidding. 

“I would expect it to bring in 5 or 6 thousand dollars.  I think the last one that sold at auction I donated brought in almost $6 thousand.”

Worden says the online auction is raising money for science scholarships. 

 “We give out something like 25 scholarships…10 thousand dollars each…every year…which means we have to raise a lot of money.  And one of the ways we do that is by selling artifacts that are donated by astronauts who’ve made a flight…and that is kind of a mainstay how we raise our money.”  

The online auction of NASA memorabilia concludes Saturday night at 10 pm. Anyone interested in bidding on the space flag should go to ‘AstronautScholarship.org’.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Its been months since an oil pipeline ruptured near Marshall, spewing more than 800,000 gallons of heavy crude. Since last July, hundreds of clean-up workers have been removing tons of contaminated soil along the Kalamazoo River in Calhoun County. That work goes on, and while it does, public use of the river will remain on hold.

The Battle Creek Enquirer is reporting today that Calhoun County officials say they don't know when public use of the river will be allowed. Jim Rutherford is with the Calhoun County Public Health.

"Until I know it's a safe environment, I'm still going to keep the closing on...the last thing I want is for somebody to get exposure (to oil), get hurt or worse as a result of getting tied up in the boom." 

The clean up along the Kalamazoo River slowed as winter weather moved in last fall. But, an Enbridge Energy spokeswoman says they are transitioning now to more aggressive oil removal work. The EPA's investigation into the oil spill continues.

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