Environment & Science

Dea Armstrong

Like most of us, Dea Armstrong has only seen birds from the ground. Today, she’s going to fly with them.

Armstrong is Ann Arbor’s city ornithologist, and watching birds from a hot air balloon is on her bucket list. I got a chance to tag along to find out what we’d see from the air.

“I’m so excited to see what it’ll be like to look from above and down. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to recognize the birds, of course, but it’ll be just so different,” she says.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

For the first time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to require power plants to cut their carbon pollution. This week, the EPA is holding public hearings about the plan all around the country.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says the agency has already gotten more than 300,000 comments.

James Marvin Phelps / Flickr

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and the state Department of Environmental Quality have sent a warning letter to Enbridge Energy. It says the company has to do a better job of securing an oil pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac.

“We just want to make sure that this pipeline’s going to be safe," said Dan Wyant, director of the DEQ. He says a leak in the pipeline would have implications throughout the Great Lakes.

“A lot of concern about this pipeline. Sixty years it’s been safe, but we’re in a position, Attorney General Schuette, I as the chief environmental officer of this state, to ensure we don’t have a problem on this pipeline,” he said.

Enbridge quickly responded it would add more anchors to its pipeline. Four years ago, a break in an Enbridge pipe dumped about a million of gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Working on the broken oil pipeline near Marshall, Michigan
EPA

It's been four years since the Enbridge pipeline Line 6B broke, creating the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

More than a million gallons of tar sands oil have been cleaned up from Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. This summer, crews are dredging areas of Morrow Lake.

Steve Hamilton is a professor of ecosystem ecology at the Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University. He’s served as an independent scientific advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency throughout the cleanup. I talked with him for today's Environment Report.

A few years ago, right in the heart of the cleanup, an EPA official said the agency was "writing the book" on how to remove tar sands oil from the bottom of a river.

Hamilton agrees: "First, before it even got to the bottom, we learned that in the first year, it stuck to surfaces of plants and debris that made a tarry mess that largely had to be manually removed." 

He says it was the removal of the submerged oil that made the cleanup last as long as it has.

"It is so incredibly difficult to remove submerged oil from a complex river, extending over nearly 40 miles."

NOAA.gov

Scientists are working to identify a cyanobacteria bloom near the Maumee River. It's a yearly event that occurs during the warm summer months.

Researchers at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory confirmed that the cyanobacteria bloom has been intensifying over the last week.

Also known as blue-green algae, it can be harmful to the aquatic environment and to people. People shouldn't swim in a bloom- it can cause skin rashes or even severe stomach problems.

Tim Davis is a research biologist with the lab. 

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Economists often argue that we should use the market to fight climate change. Cap-and-trade legislation died in Congress back in 2010.  Some people think a tax on carbon dioxide is a better solution, but that would require large companies to pay for their carbon emissions.

Citizen groups are suing the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality over an air permit it granted to a Dearborn steel plant.

Two months ago, the MDEQ issued the permit to the Severstal plant. It allowed the facility to continue polluting at levels that had previously been cited by the state.

Enbridge Energy oil spill
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

This week marks four years since a pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy burst. It was a segment of Line 6B located just downstream from the pump station in Marshall.

The result? More than 1,000,000 gallons of oil have been recovered from Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

Michigan Radio's West Michigan reporter Lindsey Smith and The Environment Report’s Rebecca Williams joined Stateside to talk about the effects of the spill four years later.

The spill affected about 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River, from Marshall downstream close to Kalamazoo. The bulk of the oil has been cleaned up. Smith said the river is still useable; you can swim, fish, and do other things that you could do before the spill. 

However, cleanup is still going on. The EPA is dredging Morrow Lake this summer and there are still areas of the river that are closed. Williams said there might always be some oil left in the area.

“What agencies here in Michigan have said is that you often don’t want to take all the oil out of sensitive habitats because you could end up doing more damage,” Williams said.

Smith said the dredging process can be very invasive and hurt a lot of habitats. After the ordered dredging is over, there will be more passive collection, that won’t be as harsh on the environment.

Wikimedia Commons

It's the 50th anniversary of the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University.

Those five decades have seen enormous changes in America's space program and in the way we think of space.

Shannon Schmoll, the director of MSU's Abrams Planetarium, said that planetariums have evolved and changed a lot through the last five decades, and a lot of those changes are seen in technology. Schmoll said the ability to use digital projection allows planetariums to show things beyond earth.

“We can fly out to Mars and can actually fly through Valles Marineris, which is a canyon on Mars about the size of the United States,” she said. “So we can actually travel the universe, so to speak, which is very exciting,” she said.

Schmoll said the knowledge that has been acquired over the decades provides planetariums with a lot more excitement.

“We still have people who come in and they have tons of questions about what’s going on in space. They want to know what’s going on with Hubble, what’s going on with the new missions,” she said. “ It’s a sense of wonder that just never goes away with what’s out there."

*Listen to the full story above. 

James Fassinger Stillscenes

State environmental officials have rejected a plan to allow piles of petroleum coke to be stored at a location along the Detroit River.

Pet coke is an oil refinery by-product that’s used as an industrial fuel.

The state Department of Environmental Quality said the proposal by Detroit Bulk Storage did not address problems with blowing black dust.

Complaints about dust plumes were among the reasons why Detroit ordered the open piles of pet coke removed from a riverfront location in the city.

Member of the public with a “No Fracking” sticker on her clothes as she testifies before a panel of environmental regulators.
Rick Pluta

State environmental regulators will put the finishing touches on new rules regarding “fracking” now that public hearings have wrapped up. They expect to have the new rules adopted by the end of the year, but the state’s rules may not be the final word on the controversial drilling process

“Fracking” is a drilling method that pushes water and chemicals into wells to force out oil and gas deposits.

http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/images/indicator_downloads/ragweed-download1-2014.png

If even hearing the word “ragweed” makes your eyes water, you might be one of the nearly 45 million Americans with seasonal allergies. Researchers say climate change is fueling the rise in allergies and asthma.

Jenny Fischer has been taking over-the-counter medication for allergies for a long time. Without it, she suffers cold-like symptoms: a runny nose, sneezing and congestion. An allergy pill usually made it better. But a couple of years ago, things started to get worse.

“I’d be out at 5:30 in the morning walking my dog, and it would just be huffing and puffing. And, you know, I couldn’t catch my breath. It's scary," she said.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

 

The forecast is in: the green goo will be back on Lake Erie this year, but it won’t be as bad as last year.

The big, ugly blooms of cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) happen when excess nutrients — mostly phosphorus — run off into the lake from farms and sewage treatment plants. Some of these kinds of cyanobacteria produce toxins can harm pets and make the water unsafe to drink.

Rick Stumpf is an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says they’re predicting this year’s bloom in Lake Erie will be significant, but not as bad as it has been in recent years. The blooms reached a record level in 2011.

World Resources Institute

State officials want to hear what you think about fracking.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wants to update the state’s rules on hydraulic fracturing. The DEQ is holding two public hearings this week on the proposed changes.

Hal Fitch is the chief of the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals.

“Starting about 2008, we started hearing increased public concerns. So we met with the environmental community, we met with the public in over 200 different forums and heard those concerns and formulated these rules based on what we were hearing,” he says.

Wikimedia Commons

Fish populations native to Michigan such as lake sturgeon, walleye, and lake whitefish have been declining in recent years.

As a result, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has built spawning reefs in rivers around Michigan, including the St. Clair River.

A spawning reef is a crevice-filled rock bed designed to mimic the natural limestone reefs that previously existed.

Jeff Insko

A proposed natural gas pipeline could run through Michigan on its way to the Canadian border.

ET Rover, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, is planning a pipeline that would run through about 180 miles of Michigan. Some of it would track the same route as the controversial Enbridge 6-B pipeline that was recently replaced.

The company has sent out about 15,000 letters to landowners on and around the proposed line, asking for permission to do land surveys.

ET Rover will then submit a plan to the federal government for review. Vicki Granado is the company's spokesperson.

"It’s important to Energy Transfer that we reach out and communicate and meet people and we talk to them," said Granadao.  "It’s also important that as we do work in these communities, that we are very respectful of people’s property and of all of the environmental concerns."

Jeff Insko is a landowner in Oakland County whose backyard was torn up for the Line 6B project.

"The prospect of having to go through it all over again is utterly demoralizing," said Insko. "People are disheartened and some of them are angry; some of them are stubborn and ready to fight."

ET Rover will hold an open house tonight in Fenton to update residents on the proposal.

– Reem Nasr, Michigan Radio Newsroom

James Marvin Phelps

New computer modeling from the University of Michigan shows the possible effects of an oil spill under the Straits of Mackinac. It shows oil would spread widely across Northern Michigan shorelines.

The National Wildlife Federation  says twin pipelines under the Straits are in poor condition and could rupture.

“To have an oil spill of the magnitude that’s potential … with the reach, the scope, and the travel that would occur from such a spill – it would be a deathblow for Great Lakes ecology and economy,” said Andy Buchsbaum, executive director the NWF’s Great Lakes Natural Resources Center.

“Everybody recognizes that that spill would be devastating,” he said. “And I think that this report actually puts a scientific point on how devastating it would be.”

The pipelines are operated by Enbridge, the company responsible for the 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge says the pipelines are operating safely.

Below are videos of U of M's Straits of Mackinac contaminant release scenarios:

Ford Motor Company

People may talk about wanting to be environmentally friendly but, when it comes to buying new cars, the data show they aren't spending their green on being green.

Car buyers don’t actually end up buying hybrids and electrics even though they say it’s important to them.

"Hybrids and plugins tend to be more expensive," says Sonari Glinton, NPR’s auto reporter. The advance drive market [hybrids, electric vehicles, plugin hybrids] has accounted for 3.6% of the market in the first half of 2014, a decline when compared to 3.8 % in the first half of 2013. Glinton says this market plateau is partially because shoppers are acclimating to higher gas prices. He thinks the other reason is "the novelty of these [hybrid] cars has worn off, so it's not like there's a big new electric car that people are like 'oh I gotta go out and buy that car.' "

Joi Ito / Flickr

The bass are getting fat.

Lake Michigan was recently recognized as one of the best places in America to fish for bass. The booming fishery is one sign of what might be a major shift of the lake’s food web.

But that change is being driven by an increase in goby, an invasive species. And it could spell trouble for salmon— the most popular sport fish in Lake Michigan.  

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Michigan Radio's "The Environment Report" has just wrapped up a week-long series called Michigan's Silent Poison.

Reporter Rebecca Williams worked in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and the public radio show Reveal to explore the problem of arsenic in well water.

Williams said Michigan has a serious problem with arsenic in private wells that can lead to major health issues.

Public water supplies have federal limits to regulate arsenic levels in water, however, private wells are not regulated.

The Thumb region in Michigan has the largest problem with high arsenic levels in private wells. Levels are as high as 20 times more than the federal accepted limit for arsenic in public water.

During the series Michigan’s Silent Poison, Williams made efforts to talk with someone from the Michigan Department of Community Health, but no one was made available. After the series aired, the Department said they would make someone available to speak.

Jennifer Gray is a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Community Health. She answered some of the questions on Stateside today.

*Listen to full interview above. 

EPA workers sample the air near the Enbridge oil spill in Michigan
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

A "who's who" of environmental groups say a 67-year-old pipeline in the straits of Mackinac  could be a serious threat to the Great Lakes.

The pipeline is owned by Enbridge.  

Howard Learner is head of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

"It's an old aging pipeline," says Learner.  "We can't afford to have happen in the Great Lakes what happened with the Enbridge pipeline and the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.  You know, it's already been a couple of years and we are still cleaning it up.  "

In 2010, more than a million gallons of oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River after an Enbridge pipeline rupture.

Lerner's group, along with 16 other major environmental groups in Michigan, have sent a letter requesting an urgent meeting with Governor Snyder about the pipeline.

Learner says Enbridge may not be maintaining the pipeline properly, including not installing enough supports for the pipeline. 

And he says the company may be sending oil through it under too much pressure, but there's no way to know until the state forces the company to disclose the information.

There's also a question whether state  regulations written more than 60 years ago meet current standards.

*Correction - A previous version of this story said "more than a million barrels of oil spilled." It was more than a million gallons. Story corrected above.

Sean_Marshall/ flickr

Three demolished General Motors plants could get state approval for cleanup, starting next year.

The Racer Trust took over all of GM's shut down sites after the company's bankruptcy in 2009. Now the trust is awaiting approval from the Department of Environmental Quality for a remediation plan for the Lansing-area properties.

The goal is to redevelop them for other uses, like industrial parks or housing units.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

There are more than 12,000 vacant lots in Flint, and Genesee county is trying to change that.

Edible Flint is a non-profit organization that helps residents turn these vacant lots into urban gardens.

The group offers classes, resources and helping hands to get new gardeners started.

This year the group will host its sixth annual Food Garden Tour.

The tour will provide transportation to 15 gardens around the city that showcase different techniques of local growers.

Deb Hamilton is with Edible Flint.

Joel Trick / USFWS

The Kirtland’s warbler is starting its migration from Michigan to the Caribbean.

By the time the song birds return to their Michigan breeding grounds next year, the Kirtland’s warbler may no longer be listed as an endangered species.  

jordanmrcai / Creative Commons

This week, the Environment Report is taking a look at Michigan’s silent poison — arsenic.

Federal standards allow public drinking water supplies to have arsenic levels of up to 10 parts per billion (ppb), but these standards do not apply to private well owners (that's left up to the well owner to determine).

And in counties throughout Michigan, some wells have much higher levels of arsenic than this "maximum contaminant level" set by the EPA.

Higher levels of arsenic in drinking water have been linked to skin cancer, lung cancer, and bladder cancer, among others.

But are lower levels of arsenic a threat to human health?

Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, delayed the U.S. EPA's health assessment on arsenic.
wikimedia commons

Arsenic occurs naturally, and Michigan is one of a handful of states with unusually high arsenic concentrations in groundwater.

Arsenic was also used in insecticides for many years and it's still being used in some weed killers.

David Heath is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, and he investigated why a health assessment on arsenic from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been delayed.

Why does this health assessment matter?

Heath said when the EPA first wants to determine how dangerous a toxic chemical is, they first do the science. These assessments can take a long time and the arsenic assessment has been going on for more than a decade.

"It's not until they have done the science to figure out exactly how dangerous a chemical is that they can really take action on it," Heath said. "So it really does come down to 'this is how they protect your health.'"

A single member of Congress, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, was able to intentionally delay the EPA's health assessment for years.

morguefile

The state has approved a permit for a controversial exploratory oil well in Scio Township close to Ann Arbor.

The approval came despite fierce opposition from residents and Scio Township's board of trustees.

Adam Wygant is with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

He says because of the public comments, the state took two months to study the application - much longer than the 24 days it normally takes to approve a permit for an exploratory oil well.

Wygant says oil wells tend to be less disruptive than people fear, and often, they get used to them.

FDA

All this week, we’ve been talking about the potential for elevated levels of arsenic in groundwater in Michigan.

The upshot of our reports:

  1. Arsenic levels in Michigan’s groundwater can be high.
  2. Arsenic is bad for you.
  3. Scientists are finding health effects at lower exposure levels.
  4. If you’re on a well, test it for arsenic.
  5. If the levels are high, you should consider doing something about it.

This one chart published by the Center for Public Integrity shows you why (the blue bar is arsenic):

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

There’s no way to tell if arsenic is in your water without testing it. Arsenic has no taste and no smell.

Certain parts of Michigan have higher than average levels of arsenic in groundwater. That’s especially true in the Thumb region and a few other counties in southeast Michigan. And that can be a problem if you’re on a private well.

michigan.gov

The Michigan Court of Appeals says state regulators were correct to deny a drilling permit to developers who want to put oil wells on private land surrounded by a state forest.

The developers said the state should either grant the permit, or compensate them for their lost investment. They want to put 11 wells on private property surrounded by the Pigeon River Country State Forest in northern lower Michigan. The state Department of Environmental Quality said the wells were either in designated no-drill zones, or were too close to water.

“The takeaway from this decision is that you can’t drill an oil well just any old place in the state of Michigan,” said DEQ spokesman Brad Wurful. “There are some areas that are off limits.”

And the decision says since that was clear up front, the developers don’t get a payback from the state.

“What the court said was, everybody knew this beforehand going into this and it was clear,” Wurful said. “Nobody got surprised here. They simply wanted to do something that was not allowed and the court upheld that. We’re pretty pleased with the decision, obviously.”

The developers can file a new permit request with plans to use different technology, like directional drilling. They can also take their case to the Michigan Supreme Court.

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