water pollution

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. And it grows more so as plans continue to develop for finding and cleaning up the contamination left behind in this small town.

We've been working to bring you up to speed on the history of Velsicol Chemical in St. Louis, Michigan all this week. It's one of the most polluted places in Michigan. The company was sloppy, and mistakes were made when it first tried to contain its pollution on its old plant site.

Since then, the community has been working hard to push the government to give the city and the people in St. Louis a thorough cleanup. They hope that future generations won't have to deal with this toxic legacy.

The timeline looks okay below, but it look even better here!

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.

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

Today on Stateside:

  •         Emails from an order for 500,000 ignition switches by General Motors from December 18th have been released. Jeff Bennett broke the story for the Wall Street Journal and talks to us about the importance of these emails in a pending legal case.
  •           In Ann Arbor, kids caught spray-painting serve their community service time by cleaning up graffiti under the Juvenile Graffiti Removal Project. Listen to Sgt. Thomas Hickey of the Ann Arbor Police Department discuss his creative idea.
  •          Called “the greatest American player of all time” by Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, Chris Chelios has certainly left his mark on the city of Detroit and the Red Wings franchise. Listen to him discuss his new memoir, Made in America.
  •          While high-profile chemical spills and bacterial blooms have raised concerns about the safety of drinking water in the United States, it’s not the only pollutant reaching the water supply. Listen to chemist Andrea Sella report for the BBC on how the medicines we take are ending up in our environment.
  •          Rebecca Klaper, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences has been studying the presence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) within the Great Lakes. Listen to Dr. Klaper discuss the presence of PPCPs in the Great Lakes.
  •           East Jordan Iron Works has a 131-year history in the state of Michigan. You can’t walk across a street in Michigan without stepping on a manhole cover branded with their name. Listen to VP Thomas Teske discuss the history of the company.
  •          In the fight against blight in Flint, Gordon Young had a goal of raising $10,000 to tear down a single decaying home on Parkbelt Drive in Flint. After contributions from over 150 donors, Young has exceeded his goal by more than $1,000.
Steven Stinson

A large plume of clay-laden silt has clouded the waters in portions of East Grand Traverse Bay.

The plume has been linked to run-off from the construction site of Grand Traverse Town Center in Acme Township, a 160-acre multi-use development which will be anchored by a Meijer store.

Brian Jankowski of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said the run-off violates various state and federal permits.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

 

Lately, that green slime in the lake has been all over the news after it shut down Toledo’s water supply.

Journalists, city and government officials have been calling that green slime  “blue-green algae”, “toxic algae” or “toxic algal blooms.”

Well, turns out that’s not exactly right.

“That’s just maddening,” said James Bull, a professor of biology and environmental science. He works at Wayne County Community College and Macomb Community College.

He says it’s not accurate to call the green slime that shut down Toledo’s water system “a toxic algal bloom.” 

He wrote to Michigan Radio because we were some of the people using the wrong term.

“It’s wrong because even though these organisms superficially look like algae, I think we ought to understand that these really are a kind of bacteria,” Bull said.

He says scientists used to call this stuff “blue-green algae.” Now they call it “cyanobacteria”. He says calling cyanobacteria "algae" is like calling a dolphin a fish.

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.

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.

Gas prices from the past at the shuttered Logan's Gas and Deli near Battle Creek.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Every time you fill up, you pay seven-eighths of a cent per gallon of gas for a “regulatory fee” that was originally set up to help clean up the thousands of old underground storage tanks in Michigan.

Those pennies you pay at the pump add up to a $50 million pot of money each year.

It’s called the Refined Petroleum Fund. The fund worked initially. The money helped remove tens of thousands of old underground storage tanks in Michigan. When those old tanks leak, they can pollute the soil and ruin nearby water sources.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Massive blooms of cyanbacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) and dead zones in Lake Erie: These used to be major environmental problems around the most urbanized Great Lake back in the '60s and '70s, but they are problems once again.

Now, an international agency that keeps an eye on the health of the Great Lakes is calling for more action.

The International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian agency, wants sharp cutbacks on phosphorus runoff getting into Lake Erie.

Doc Searls / Creative Commons

An inland lake north of Muskegon is expected to reach a major milestone this year. Officials anticipate White Lake will be removed from a list of the most-polluted places surrounding the Great Lakes this year.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most of the pollution in White Lake was caused by a chemical company that dumped waste into the water.

micropterus_dolomieu / Wikimedia commons

So you know the saying, right? Stuff flows downhill? Myron Erickson knows a lot about that "stuff."

He heads up the sewage treatment plant that sits along the Grand River in Wyoming, Michigan (right next to Grand Rapids).

The screening room is where they take out the "grit." Erickson calls them "knick knacks."

"It's a small particle like sand, and also all things that come to us in sewage, like peas, and corn, and peanuts," says Erickson.

user william_warby / Flickr

Before I talk about the small bits of chemicals often found in drinking water, I want to direct some attention to the national water contamination story going on now because I think it reveals something.

The water is bad in West Virginia

The nation has its eyes on a nine-county area in West Virginia that’s under a state of emergency. A coal-processing chemical leaked into a river and poisoned the drinking water there. Cleanup is ongoing. As they attempt to flush the chemical out of their drinking water systems, officials are trying to determine what level of the chemical is safe.

Ken Ward Jr. of the West Virgina Gazette reports that local and federal officials are saying that "1 part per million" of  crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (the coal processing chemical) is safe for people to drink.

But Ward is having a tough time finding out what they based that number on:

Great blue heron covered in oil from the 2010 Enbridge oil spill near Marshall, Michigan.
Michigan's oil response Flickr page / State of Michigan

The Michigan Department of Community Health released its public health assessment of the waters and fish affected by the 2010 Enbridge oil spill.

You can read their report here.

They conclude the spill is "not harmful to health":

MDCH has concluded that no long-term harm to people’s health is expected from contact with chemicals in the surface water during recreational activities, such as wading, swimming, or canoeing. However, contact with oil sheen and globules in the river may cause temporary effects, such as skin irritation.

Fish from the Kalamazoo River and Morrow Lake were tested for oil-related chemicals, as well as chemicals that were previously found in fish there. Fish from areas impacted by the oil spill, including Ceresco Impoundment and Morrow Lake, had similar levels of oil-related chemicals as fish caught in Marshall Pond (upstream of the spill). All oil-related chemical levels were very low. Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels were similar to levels measured in fish caught before the oil spill.

The MDCH has released previous reports on the oil spill's effects on drinking water wells, and on the effects of submerged oil in the sediments of the Kalamazoo River.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

We excrete these drugs or dump them down the drain, and they find their way into our water.

Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in rivers and lakes have been documented before, but this research finds levels in Lake Michigan that could have deleterious effects on the ecosystem.

Thirty-two different drugs were found - 14 of them were found at levels "of medium or high ecological risk."

The study was published in the journal Chemosphere:

The environmental risk of PPCPs in large lake systems, such as the Great Lakes, has been questioned due to high dilution; however, the concentrations found in this study, and their corresponding risk quotient, indicate a significant threat by PPCPs to the health of the Great Lakes, particularly near shore organisms.

Brian Bienkowski wrote about the study for Environmental Health News. Of the 14 chemicals found in concentrations of concern, Bienkowski writes triclosan has been studied the most.

...it has proven acutely toxic to algae and can act as a hormone disruptor in fish.

“You’re not going to see fish die-offs [from pharmaceuticals] but subtle changes in how the fish eat and socialize that can have a big impact down the road,” said Kolpin, who did not participate in the study. “With behavior changes and endocrine disruption, reproduction and survival problems may not rear their ugly head for generations.”

The four most commonly found drugs were:

http://www.ewashtenaw.org/government/departments/environmental_health/card / Washtenaw County

As a plume of contaminated ground water keeps expanding in Ann Arbor, the city council wants the state to move faster to protect people from harmful exposure.

To be clear: Ann Arbor drinking water is safe.

But growing swaths of the city’s ground water is no longer a good idea to ingest (and again, the city is NOT getting their water from those areas,) thanks to chemical runoff from years ago.

That chemical compound is 1,4 dioxane and it seeped into ground water between the 1960's and 1980's when a manufacturer stored it in unlined lagoons.

Hunting for plastic pollution in the Great Lakes

Aug 29, 2013
Lewis Wallace

A research expedition recently set sail from Chicago to search for a Great Lakes garbage patch.

So-called "garbage patches" or islands are actually collections of tiny plastic particles that are choking up regions of the world’s oceans. The expedition has been testing the waters of Lakes Huron and Michigan for a similar phenomenon.

I met up with expedition organizer Asta Mail at a marina in downtown Chicago. It’s a hot day, and a street vendor immediately offers us bottled water.

Mail points down at a plastic bottle in Lake Michigan. It’s pretty easy plastic hunting.

USFS

It's been nearly a year since we launched Stateside, and we've put a lot of focus and attention on issues regarding our Great Lakes.

Today, we shifted our attention to another essential part of Michigan's water wonderland: our rivers and inland waters. How healthy are they? And what do we need to do as a state to preserve and protect them?

Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council of Southeast Michigan, joined us today.

On this Monday, July 22, four days after Detroit made history by filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, we spent the first half of the show breaking things down and figuring out where things stand in the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy ever.

And, we looked at what needs to be done to preserve and protect Michigan's rivers and lakes.

But, back to Detroit and what we know right now. A judge in Lansing will take a week to sort through arguments on whether the state Constitution protects Detroit’s pension funds from losses if the city goes bankrupt.

Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemary Aquilina says she will decide next Monday whether Detroit's bankruptcy filing violates the state Constitution, and its protections for pension benefits.

Assuming the Chapter 9 bankruptcy goes forward, Detroit will have to figure out how to reduce billions of dollars of debt. Creditors, of course, will push for the most money they can get, which means they're eyeing some of the city's most valuable and treasured assets.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The main airport in Grand Rapids is proposing to build a new system to prevent the buildup of a bacterial film in a nearby river. The system would be the first of its kind at airports in Michigan.

In the winter, airplanes across the state are sprayed down with a fluid to prevent the buildup of snow and ice.

At Gerald R. Ford International Airport, roughly a third of that de-icing fluid makes its way into a small creek nearby. Bacteria in the creek can easily break down the fluid but they create a smelly film in the process.

The state considers the bio-slime a nuisance, not a human health risk. But it does deplete the oxygen, choking out aquatic life.

Democrats in the state House have introduced a range of measures addressing women's health in Michigan. We talked to a state Representative about why she thinks it is time government gets involved in female health.

And, a fight over American Indian-themed school mascots could result in a $3 million budget cut for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

And, the Community Chorus of Detroit has been working hard on its mission to build and strengthen ties is Southeastern Michigan through song.

Also, the former bomber plant in Willow Run could become the new home of the Yankee Air Museum.

And, as prom-season is upon us, Michigan singer/songwriter Allison Downey of The Living Room brought us her memory of the big dance, a prom night that didn't quite go to plan.

First on today’s show, a subject that most of us would just as soon not spend much time thinking about but it is crucial to our health and well-being: septic fields.

Writer Jeff Alexander took a closer look at failed septic fields and the ways they're polluting our precious water, and his reporting is in the current issue of Bridge Magazine.

Jeff joined us from Grand Haven to discuss the issue.

user: Soil Science / Flickr

You're about to read something you might not want to spend much time thinking about, but that doesn't mean it's not important. 

That subject is septic fields. Of the 1.3 million wastewater treatment systems in Michigan, nearly 10 percent have failed. That's about 130,000 systems. 

With thousands of failing septic systems throughout the state, what's that doing to our water?

Michigan is the only state in the Union that doesn't have uniform standards governing how on-site sewage treatment systems should be designed, built, installed and maintained. 

Jeff Alexander recently examined the state of Michigan's septic fields in an article featured in Bridge Magazine

Michigan Radio's Cynthia Canty spoke with Alexander about what scientists at Michigan State are finding.

For those unsavory details and more, click the audio link above.  

cford3 / Wikipedia

Burning coal in a power plant creates byproducts called fly ash and bottom ash.  That ash contains a lot of bad stuff - mercury, lead, arsenic, to name a few.

While some plants ship the dry ash to landfills that accept hazardous materials, others mix the ash with water to make a slurry, which is moved into holding ponds.

Eventually, the water in those ponds is released into the nearest waterway.

Anderson Eye Care / Facebook.com

The Grand River hit a record high level in Grand Rapids over the weekend.  Volunteers spent hours filling sandbags to protect homes and city buildings.

City managers are still dealing with the flood waters. But they’re also planning for future storms.

Haris Alibasic directs Grand Rapids’ Office of Energy and Sustainability.

“Given the more intense and more frequent, intense rain events we’re probably going to be experiencing, as climate change is anticipated to really have a serious impact in the Midwest," he says.

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