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Series & Documentaries

Beachgoers on a Lake Michigan beach in the Upper Peninsula.
Joseph Novak / Creative Commons

So you want to stroll along a Great Lakes beach. Can a cottage-owner come shoo you away?

Today we looked at the water rules in the Great Lakes State.

Wolf on Isle Royale.
IsleRoyaleWolf.org

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Several U.S. senators want the federal government to decide faster what to do about Isle Royale National Park's imperiled wolf population.

Scientists say only three gray wolves remain on the Lake Superior island chain. Their numbers have plummeted in recent years, probably because of illness and inbreeding complications. 

John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson / Isle Royale Wolf-Moose study

The ongoing study of wolves and moose on Isle Royale in Lake Superior has hit a critical juncture. Researchers in charge of the longest continuous study of a predator-prey system anywhere in the world released their annual report today. 

You can read the full report here.

The old Velsicol chemical plant site from across the Pine River.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The City of St. Louis, Michigan needs a new water system. That’s because pollution from the old Velsicol Chemical plant is leaking into St. Louis’ water supply

They’re planning to get that water upriver from the city of Alma.

Rolf O. Peterson / Michigan Tech

The winter study of the wolves and moose on Isle Royale is heading into its 57th year. 

The wolf-moose study is the longest continuous study of any predator and its prey in the world.

Scientists Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich spend seven weeks on the island in the middle of winter every year. They'll be heading back out in a few weeks.

The site of the former Velsicol Chemical Corporation in St. Louis is going to take a long time to clean up.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The city of St. Louis, Michigan would much rather be talked about as the geographic center of the Lower Peninsula.

Instead, there's a lot of focus on the legacy of pollution here.

The story of Velsicol Chemical in St. Louis, Michigan is quite complicated. 

The fence around the old Velsicol Chemical Plant site in St. Louis, Michigan.
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

This week, we’ve told you about efforts to clean up the old Velsicol Chemical plant. There’s a threat to the local drinking water supply after the first attempt to clean up the plant failed. Birds still die from DDT, decades after the plant stopped producing it.

But we haven't told you who's paying to fix it.


Velsicol Chemical operated on the banks of the Pine River in St. Louis, Michigan from 1938 to 1978. It was the site of the infamous PBB mixup. The entire plant was buried in place and now it's leaking.
Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force

There are a lot of former industrial sites in Michigan that need to be cleaned up, but the Velsicol Superfund sites in St. Louis, Michigan are unusual in their size and in the amount of nasty chemicals lurking in the ground where people live, work and play.

The company tried to contain the pollution before, but its solution didn’t work. Ask some of the community members about that original plan and they say they could have told you it wasn’t going to work.

Mark Brush

 

About 10 years ago, a weird chemical started showing up in the drinking water in St. Louis, Michigan.

It was a byproduct of DDT. The insecticide is now banned in the U.S., but DDT was manufactured in St. Louis for 20 years.

Now, the city is working to get a new source of drinking water. 

the nyerges family
Courtesy of Jane-Ann Nyerges

It's been over 40 years since the Michigan Chemical Corporation/Velsicol made a catastrophic mistake that affected millions of Michigan residents.

The company from St. Louis, Michigan, shipped a toxic flame retardant chemical to the Farm Bureau Service instead of a nutritional supplement. That chemical was PBB or polybrominated biphenyl.

PBB was mixed into livestock feed, but it took a year to discover the accident. Millions of consumers ate contaminated milk, meat, and eggs during this time.

Jane-Ann Nyerges was one of the farming families whose lives were changed after the PBB contamination.

An ailing robin fledging in Teri Kniffen's yard in St. Louis, Michigan in June of 2013.  Some of the highest levels of DDT ever recorded in bird livers and brains were found in this neighborhood.
Teri Kniffen

All this week we're bringing you stories about the chemical company responsible for the PBB tragedy in Michigan. Michigan Chemical accidentally contaminated the state’s food supply in the 1970s, but the legacy of that company is still very much with us today.

Michigan Chemical – which later became Velsicol Chemical – made more than just PBB, and it left these toxic chemicals behind in St. Louis, Michigan.

One woman insists something is wrong with the birds

Photo courtesy of Emory University

    

More than 40 years ago, Michigan’s food supply was contaminated. People’s health is being affected, even now.

All this week, we’re looking at the ripple effects left behind by the company that made that tragic mistake.

In 1973, the Michigan Chemical Corporation shipped a toxic flame retardant chemical to a livestock feed plant instead of a nutritional supplement. The chemical is called polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB. It took about a year to discover the accident. 

Detroit skyline.
user JSFauxtaugraphy / Flickr

Today a special edition of Stateside with the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Detroit after bankruptcy:

  • We examine how the city is trying to get public services back on track with new initiatives for street light replacement and more buses on the road. 
  • Residents discuss the benefits of living in Detroit’s rich cultural environment and weigh these costs with continuing to deal with crime in the area.
  • Many of the issues that led the city of Detroit to bankruptcy are also affecting Detroit schools. We review how Detroit’s education system has adjusted to the decline in funding and enrollment.
  • Detroit’s central business district has gained attention after large acquisitions from private corporations, but many residents worry this growth is bypassing neighborhoods.
  • More companies are also seeing Detroit as an opportunity, establishing themselves in the area and hiring more residents of the city.

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. 

Water running from tap
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.

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.

Amy Temple / The Center for Public Integrity

Arsenic is nearly synonymous with poison. But most people don't realize that they consume small amounts of it in the food they eat and the water they drink.

Recent research suggests even small levels of arsenic may be harmful. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been prepared to say since 2008 that arsenic is 17 times more toxic as a carcinogen than the agency now reports.

Women are especially vulnerable. EPA scientists have concluded that if 100,000 women consumed the legal limit of arsenic each day, 730 of them eventually would get lung or bladder cancer.

The EPA, however, hasn’t been able to make its findings official, an action that could trigger stricter drinking water standards. The roadblock: a single paragraph inserted into a committee report by a member of Congress, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found.

Bushen Well Drilling. / Facebook

Parts of southeast Michigan – especially in the Thumb – have higher than average levels of arsenic in the groundwater.

Arsenic can cause cancer. It’s been linked to bladder, lung and kidney cancer, and other serious health effects.

If you’re on city water, there’s a federal regulation that limits the amount of arsenic in it, but if you’re on a private well, it’s up to you to find out whether there’s too much arsenic in your water.

If you’re on city water, your drinking water has to comply with a federal regulation that limits the amount of arsenic in it, but if you’re on a private well, the federal and state governments do not limit the amount of arsenic in your well.

It’s up to you to test your well and decide whether to treat it.

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

Arsenic is a deadly poison, and there are people in Michigan getting arsenic at levels high above federal standards every time they drink the water coming from their taps.

Michigan Radio's "The Environment Report" is presenting a five-part series this week called "Michigan's Silent Poison," in partnership with The Center for Public Integrity and the public radio show "Reveal."

The Environment Report’s Rebecca Williams spoke on Stateside today, along with David Heath from the Center for Public Integrity.

“No organ system goes untouched by arsenic,” Williams said.

Extremely high doses of arsenic can kill you. Smaller doses have been linked to lung, bladder, skin, prostate, and liver cancers. You can also get arsenic poisoning with symptoms such as nausea, headaches, gastrointestinal pains, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Arsenic can be found in rice, apple juice, beer and wine, and drinking water. The levels are exceptionally high in private wells at people's homes, mostly in the thumb region of Michigan.

Sampling done from 1983 through 2003 shows where arsenic levels in groundwater are the highest in Michigan. Arsenic levels are in micrograms per liter.
Michigan DEQ

In some parts of the U.S., arsenic in the groundwater is just a natural part of the geology. Michigan is one of several states where elevated levels of arsenic in ground water can be found.

This map shows the counties where these elevated levels have been found, but experts caution, elevated arsenic levels in well water can be found just about anywhere in Michigan:

There was a big push to educate people about the dangers of arsenic poisoning around a decade ago, but in some places in Michigan, people still don't know much about it.

And in some other cases, people know about it, but choose to ignore it, for one reason or another.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

 

It’s been called “the mother of all poisons.” You can't taste arsenic and you can’t smell it, which is why it’s been the poison of choice for centuries.

“During the Middle Ages it was called the succession powder,” says Jerome Nriagu, professor emeritus of public health at the University of Michigan.

“That’s the way people got rid of the kings and queens if they wanted to become the king or queen themselves,” he said.

Arsenic, in very high doses, can kill you.

But arsenic is a naturally occurring element and doctors and scientists like Nriagu are working hard to understand how arsenic affects us today.

A family experiences mysterious health problems

Renee Thompson and her family were sick for three years without having any idea why.

“My children and my husband all became very ill after we moved into the house we had in Ortonville,” she said.

At the time, Thompson had recently given birth to her third child, Danica.

“My son was six, and he started to have severe chest pains, while my older daughter had headaches,” Thompson said. “My husband had GI bleeding, and I had become very fatigued with headaches and skin problems.”

Listen to Thompson explain what her family experienced:

“The programs we offer are the ones that (veterans) desire,” says Garland Williams, the University of  Phoenix’s vice president for military affairs.
Carlos A. Moreno / CIR

Update 10:30 p.m.

The showed has already aired on Michigan Radio. If you missed it, you can catch it again here.

Original post- 11:30 a.m.

Who’s really benefiting from the GI Bill? Why does the U.S. Coast Guard have some explaining to do? How much arsenic in our water is actually safe? There’s always more to the story.

“Reveal,” the radio show dedicated to investigative reporting, is back. Brought to you by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, the third pilot episode examines the value of a degree from a for-profit colleges reaping millions of dollars from GI Bill funds, explores the Coast Guard’s shaky safety record, exposes the backroom deals over arsenic in our water and delves into the secrecy around lethal injection drugs.

Catch Reveal tonight on Michigan Radio at 7 p.m.!

Here’s a rundown of the stories you’ll hear:

www.isleroyalewolf.org

It’s the 56th year of the study of Isle Royale’s wolves and moose. Researchers at Michigan Tech have just finished this year’s Winter Study.

Rolf Peterson is a research professor at Michigan Tech and he just spent his 44th winter on the island. I called him up to find out how the animals are doing. This year, the team counted nine wolves, up from eight last year.

“I guess I’d say they’re bumping along at the bottom, the bottom of where they’ve been for the last 56 years. So for the last three years, there have been either eight or nine animals total, and that’s as low as we’ve seen them.”

Isle Royale Wolf Moose Study

A wolf that fled from Isle Royale National Park over an ice bridge was found dead on the Minnesota mainland last month.

Researchers were unsure how the wolf died at the time, but a necropsy found that the five-year-old female wolf was shot with a pellet gun.

Lee Berquist of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has more:

MODIS / NASA

The last time I checked, the ice bridge to Isle Royale had not fully formed, but there's an ice bridge now.

Michigan Technological University's Rolf Peterson confirmed it in an e-mail to me last night.

"There's been a good ice bridge for the past 10 days."

test with bubble answers
User Alberto G. / Creative Commons / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The MEAP test has been used to evaluate kids and schools in Michigan for over four and a half decades.

The test is meant to make sure public schools are teaching kids the basics. But MEAP scores affect where parents decide to send their kids, neighborhood housing prices, city tax revenue, and city services.

Basically, the economics of a city rests on how well 8 and 9-year-olds perform on this single test.

State of Opportunity's Dustin Dwyer spent six weeks inside Congress Elementary in Grand Rapids, a school with consistently low MEAP scores. Dwyer followed a third-grade class as they prepared to take the test. He interviewed students, teachers, and parents, trying to figure out how much these numbers matter. What he found was, the test scores do not even begin to tell the story.

To hear the documentary now and learn more, visit the State of Opportunity website. 

Destroying things is easier than building them. It takes months to build a house, but you can destroy one in an afternoon. What’s baffling is that we always seem more willing to destroy than to build.

It is far easier to get lawmakers to approve money for war than to build things. For example, we spent at least $2 trillion on our 10-year war in Iraq. It would be interesting to try and explain what we got for it, other than about 200,000 dead people.

Congress easily approved that money. But imagine trying to get our elected representatives to approve anything like that sum to rebuild our nation’s roads and bridges and major cities. No one would even dare try.

I am mentioning all this because of a report released this week – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report on the options for keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. If you don’t remember, we are talking about two species of fish, bighead carp and silver carp that escaped into the Mississippi River more than 20 years ago.

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