Life on the River: Suing & Settling With Enbridge (Part 3)

  • Wayne and Sue Groth used to live near Talmadge Creek, where the oil spill occurred last summer. They eventually sold their home to the energy company, Enbridge. (Photo by Steve Carmody)

A year ago… a ruptured pipeline spewed more than 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River.

The crude oil had a big environmental impact. It also affected the lives of thousands of people living in the spill zone. The pipeline’s owners have spent the past year reimbursing many of them for their losses. Steve Carmody has the final part of our series:

Wayne Groth says the odor of the oil was overpowering the first night. Talmadge Creek runs right past the home he and his wife Sue lived in for 22 years. The oil flowed down Talmadge Creek into the Kalamazoo River.

Wayne Groth says it wasn’t long after the spill that clipboard carrying employees of Enbridge started walking through his neighborhood, promising to clean up oil. He says they made another promise too…

“They said if you’re still not happy with the job… you could sell your property to them. They would buy it from us.”

Wayne Groth says he and his wife initially were only half interested in Enbridge’s offer to buy their home. He says they were satisfied with the cleanup, but…

“They kept asking ‘Do you want us to do an appraisal on your property?’ I kept telling them no. But my accountant is the one who told me ‘you really should have them do that and take a look at the opportunities that are out there to buy another piece of real estate. It’s a buyer’s market now.’”


It’s definitely been a buyers’ market for Enbridge. Eventually, Enbridge bought the Groths’ home… and has bought or is buying another 137 homes in the spill zone.

Enbridge has not only been buying homes. It’s also been settling claims with hundreds of people affected by the spill in other ways.

Jason Manshum is an Enbridge spokesman. He says the pace of damages claims against Enbridge that was once a torrent has slowed to a trickle.

“We’re not seeing the high volume of claims that we were 10 months ago, or even six months ago, that number has decreased the further away from the incident last summer. So in that regard, it’s winding down.”

Enbridge has settled more than 2300 damage claims.

But not everyone is happy with Enbridge’s efforts.

Attorney Bill Mayhall represents 16 families that are suing Enbridge. Mayhall says overall, Enbridge has in many instances treated people fairly and compensated them well. But he does have a problem with the damage claim system that the pipeline company set up after the spill. Under the system, people made their damage claims directly to Enbridge.

“In other words, Enbridge was judge and jury as to whether you had a legitimate claim or not. As opposed to having a neutral third party that didn’t have conflict of interest making those decisions.”

Mayhall says Enbridge was quick to compensate for property damage… but has resisted paying damages for health related claims. An Enbridge spokesman insists the company has settled some claims related to health complaints.

Mayhall says his clients will be deposed this week by Enbridge attorneys. He says unless a settlement can be reached in the next few months, their cases may end up going to court… a process that may take years.

But for others affected by the spill, their lives have moved on.

(sound of birds chirping)

“It’s just wild grasses and wildflowers growing out there.”

Wayne Groth is standing on the deck overlooking the backyard of his new home south of Battle Creek. He and his wife Sue moved late in the spring.

It’s a lovely home, with only one possible problem.

“We’ve got another little creek running by our house and we discovered after we bought this place there’s another pipeline real close by. I thought that was a little ironic.”

But Wayne and Sue Groth say they’re not worried another pipeline breach could force them out of their home again.

For the Environment Report, I’m Steve Carmody.

Life on the River: Oil & Wildlife (Part 2)

  • A volunteer prepares to clean oil from the feathers of a heavily-oiled Canada goose at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Marshall, Michigan in 2010. (Photo courtesy of the EPA)

It was the largest inland oil spill in Midwest history… but we still don’t know exactly what it will mean for life around the river.

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

One year ago, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy broke. More than 840-thousand gallons of tar sands oil polluted Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

People who were there say the river ran black. Turtles, and muskrats and Great blue herons were covered in oil. It’s not clear what all this will mean for the river and the wildlife that depends on it.

“It’s really a big unknown. We don’t have much experience with oil spills in freshwater rivers in general.”

Stephen Hamilton is a professor at Michigan State University.

“This new kind of crude, the tar sands crude oil, with its different chemistry, all makes this a learning experience for everybody involved.”

Tar sands oil is very thick, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines. We’ve previously reported that federal officials say the nature of this oil has made the cleanup more difficult. In fact, the cleanup has lasted longer than many people expected. The Environmental Protection Agency says there are still significant amounts of submerged oil along 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

Stephen Hamilton says no one knows what the long term effects of the oil spill will be.

“We suspect there were very large impacts on the base of the food chain which will have ripple effects up the food chain.”


He says research on marine mammals and fish after oil spills shows there can be organ damage and negative effects on reproduction. But he says there hasn’t been much research on freshwater oil spills.

Researchers at Michigan State University and Western Michigan University have studies underway.

And there are six government agencies and two tribes collecting data on the river. They’re working on something called the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. That’s a report that’ll try to quantify the impact of the oil spill on wildlife and on the river ecosystem.

Enbridge is also involved with this damage assessment.

Stephanie Millsap is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She says her agency and the others involved – they’re called trustees – are working with the oil company.

“Which means that the trustees and Enbridge jointly develop the study plans and jointly go out and collect the data together. That provides the basis so both Enbridge and trustees are confident in how the data was collected.”

Millsap says Enbridge will be held accountable for the costs of the damage assessment. And the company will have to pay for habitat restoration and compensate the public for loss of recreation on the river.

She says so far, their studies have found fish are less abundant in Talmadge Creek and several places in the Kalamazoo River. And they’ve found a drastic reduction in some species of insects that fish and birds rely on for food.

“It’s going to be a number of years before we fully understand what those impacts have been to the environment and to wildlife.”

Enbridge officials say the company is committed to cleaning up the oil and restoring the area to the way it was before the spill. But both the company and the EPA admit it’ll be impossible to clean up every last drop of oil.

Jason Manshum is an Enbridge spokesperson. He says right now, they’re focusing on meeting the EPA’s deadlines for cleanup.

“If there’s ever a time when we need to come back, even in an isolated area, we’ll do that. So the testing and monitoring of the watershed will go on for many years.”

But he could not say who would be responsible for doing that testing… or whether Enbridge would be liable for problems that might turn up years down the road.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how well Enbridge officials have kept their promise to compensate residents for damages.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Life on the River (Part 1)

  • Last July, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy burst, spilling more than 843,000 gallons of oil from the Alberta tar sands into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. This photo was taken on July 19, 2011 - oil still remains in the creek and the river. (Photo by Lindsey Smith)

Workers are still trying to clean up thick tar sands oil that’s settled at the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. It’s been one year since more than 840-thousand gallons leaked from a broken pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy. Lindsey Smith reports life for those living near the accident site has not returned to normal yet:

“See those clumpies?”

Deb Miller points out black goopy masses as big as my fist floating on the Kalamazoo River. We’re behind Miller’s Carpet store in the village of Ceresco – 6 miles downstream from where the pipe broke.

Most of the oil that’s left is submerged below the water. There are around 200 acres that state regulators still classify as heavily contaminated. This is one of the worst.

Here, I can still see oil clumps everywhere – in the water, on the banks, on strips of bright orange boom. Workers in neon vests dot the river banks. I pick up a faint smell – sort of like nail polish remover.

Miller says she certainly doesn’t sit out and enjoy the view anymore. She’s used to waking up to the sound of air boats and helicopters. She’s still drinking bottled water because she’s worried her well could become contaminated.
Miller’s learned more than she’s ever cared to know about pipelines and wishes could move away from her nightmare.

“The home that we live in was my husband’s family home. But if it was up to me – I would’ve been gone the week of the spill.”

Many have left. Miller says that’s changed her neighborhood forever.
“ I don’t blame anyone for getting out. There’s just too much unknown. There’s just too much unknown.”


(sound of knocking on doors)

I tried talking to people really close to the spill site. Door after door – no one answers. Some of the homes are obviously empty. Three people answered the door but refused to talk to me.

A big black SUV pulls up as I’m walking back to my car. Self-described outdoorsman Craig Ritter jumps out and introduces himself. He’s from Jackson. He’s been kayaking this section of the Kalamazoo River for years. He says the river looked like “black death” the day after the spill happened.

“The river was black. You couldn’t even hear the water. The water going over the rocks didn’t sound like water going over the rocks. It almost sounded like a kid sucking on a super thick milkshake I mean it was just (makes milkshake noises).”

We go behind an abandoned house with a porta-john for workers parked in the driveway. Ritter says the river looks a lot better on the surface. He pokes a stick into the shallow water. A blue oil sheen bubbles up along with some black-tar-like substance.

“That horrible or what? Want to go for a swim?”

No one has been able to fish or swim in this part of the river for a year. Officials hope to open part of the river to recreation by the end of next month.
Ritter looks down, wipes the sweat from his forehead and shakes his head.

“Unfortunately I don’t think that life on the river is going to be the same.”

(sound of fountain)

In downtown Marshall I meet Renold Stone – he goes by Big Rey. He and his son Little Rey cool off in the shade near a city fountain. Big Rey tells me the oil spill didn’t change his life too much. His son chimes in though, reminds his dad they haven’t gone fishing at all this year.

“Actually they float, they get their floaties on, they float inside the river with their fishing poles and fish. Now they messed that up, can’t do that no more. “

Enbridge promises they’re here until the spill site is clean.

But Big Rey is cynical. He thinks Enbridge is going to do whatever it has to do to get by and that’s it. So he’s not too sure he’ll let his son go swimming or fishing in the river anytime soon.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lindsey Smith.

Overhauling How Michigan Regulates Industry

  • Governor Rick Snyder speaking at the Michigan Farm Bureau in 2010. (Photo by Lindsey Smith)

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee just passed a bill that contains some pretty major cuts to Great Lakes funding.

There are a couple of things being targeted:

One is Great Lakes Restoration money. That’s being used to clean up pollution, restore habitat and fight invasive species. That pot of money is facing a 17 percent cut.

There are also much bigger cuts aimed at a program that helps cities upgrade their sewage treatment plants… and keep the sewage from overflowing into rivers and lakes. That program’s getting cut by 55 percent.

Jeff Skelding directs the Healing our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. He calls the bill a huge step backward.

“And let me be crystal clear on the following point: gutting clean water programs will not save the country money. In fact, it will cost us more.”

He says problems like sewage contamination on beaches and invasive species are getting worse.

The bill could come up for a full House vote as early as this weekend.

(music bridge)

This is the Environment Report.

Back when Governor Rick Snyder was on the campaign trail… he promised to make dramatic changes to the way the state regulates businesses.

“Our regulatory system is backwards in this state. Not only the amount of regulation, but how people are being treated. Lansing is treating us as if we’re bad and should be controlled.”

Now the state Legislature is trying to make good on that promise. There are two packages of bills – one that has passed the House and one that has passed the Senate. They have similar goals. The bills would prohibit the Governor – and also any state agency – from making a new rule that’s more stringent than federal standards. For example… the federal government has laws to protect Great Lakes water, but Michigan might want to make those laws stronger.

If these bills pass, only the Legislature would have that power.

James Clift is the policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council. He calls these bills a power grab by the Legislature. He says it could lead to lawmakers intentionally stalling on new regulations.

“We could potentially see I think an erosion of our environmental protections. Where because of gridlock in the Legislature places where the Governor would step forward and protect Michigan’s natural resources or public would be prevented. And unfortunately that Pure Michigan we’re advertising around the country maybe starts to not be so pure anymore and maybe we don’t become that tourist destination state.”


He says federal laws aren’t always one size fits all. He says there are cases where Michigan needs stronger laws to protect unique resources.

“Most of the environmental laws at the federal level are designed to be a floor. States can’t drop below this point. But why would we want to have the laws that were designed to protect water in Arizona or New Mexico be the laws designed to protect the Great Lakes?”

Those special state laws could still be put into effect. But Clift says it could become much more difficult to do so.

Some people say state agencies have too much power.

Russ Harding is with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He says the state’s regulatory system hurts businesses… and job growth. He says elected officials should be the ones in charge of making new regulations.

“And that doesn’t mean that Michigan can’t regulate let’s say a Great Lakes issue where the state might want to decide to be more stringent than the federal government. They can do that. All it says is that legislators need to vote on that and make that decision not some unelected bureaucrat that is not accountable.”

Harding says state agencies should enforce laws, but not be able to make new laws.

Michigan lawmakers are expected to take this issue up again when they return in the fall.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Giving Policymakers a Bird’s Eye View

  • LightHawk volunteer Bob Keller donates his Cessna and flight time for environmental causes. (Photos by David Sommerstein, courtesy of LightHawk)

Environmental issues can be tough to convey to the public – and to policymakers – because they’re landscape-scale. Flying high above, say, a forest, a factory, or a wetlands complex can give better perspective.
But few environmental groups can afford to pay for private flights. For 30 years, the not-for-profit group LightHawk has been bringing together volunteer pilots and environmental causes. David Sommerstein reports:

I arrive at the teeny Potsdam airfield in northern New York State as a single-engine Cessna swoops onto the runaway and rolls to a stop.

“Lemme get out here…” [clunk]

Pilot Bob Keller squeezes out and stretches.

DAVID: “How’s the flight down?”

“A little cloudy here, more cloudy than I thought, but we’ll go back under the clouds.”

Keller’s athletic-looking with a full mustache. He’s a retired financial planner, and now a volunteer for LightHawk.

Every time Keller takes someone into the air for LightHawk, it costs him about 200 dollars an hour. He’s says he loves the outdoors, so it’s a worthwhile donation.

“In order to enjoy the outdoors, you have to try to protect it, so that there’s still places to go that aren’t shopping malls and housing developments.”

(ON HEADSET: “Potsdam traffic… departing runway 6…” [pilot chatter]

Headsets on, we take off. In the air, Keller’s like a tour guide, pointing out old paper mills, a water bottling plant, a snaking river.

“Notice all the horseshoes and curves and all the marshy and swampy area. It’s hard to really grasp how big this area really is without flying over it.”

It can be hard for environmental groups to persuade politicians or potential donors that something’s worth protecting or saving from pollution, without seeing the big picture firsthand.


“So much is evident from the air. It takes a knowledgeable individual to see those things.”

Kelley Tucker is the eastern region programs manager for LightHawk. The group runs a thousand missions a year on behalf of green groups in 10 countries in North and Central America.

“We’ve seen people come down with enormous amounts of scientific data that makes a difference in a board room, in a government office, in a legal decision.”

In southwestern Michigan, for example, photos from LightHawk flights have compelled state inspectors to monitor manure lagoons on cattle and hog farms more closely.

“We’ve seen lagoons at extreme capacity and actually have seen run-off of animal waste into the waterways from those.”

Lynn Henning is with the Sierra Club and the Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan. The groups have done more than 30 flights with LightHawk, sometimes bringing aboard inspectors from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Henning says those flights make a difference.

“Being able to see what they can’t see from the ground. Areas around the facilities that have died or have been torn out or tree lines removed or lagoons added, and they’re very helpful.”

[pilot chatter]

Back aboard Bob Keller’s Cessna, we bank over emerald green forests and hills. Keller says his passengers come away with more than pictures and data.

“You see it from the air, it just enhances the sense of majesty.”

It’s that sense of awe that LightHawk and its partners hope lingers with decision makers long after the plane touches back down.

For The Environment Report, I’m David Sommerstein.

Illegal Wolf Kills Spiking in Michigan’s UP

  • Some hunters in Michigan's upper peninsula say the wolves' "sacred cow" status is causing more animosity toward the animals. (Photo courtesy of

No other wildlife species, it seems, causes such extremes of emotion as the wolf.

Some people want to protect it at any cost.

Others want to shoot the animal on sight.

And in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula illegal wolf kills are spiking.

Wildlife officials say they can defuse the situation if they can just get gray wolves removed from the endangered species list.

Bob Allen reports.

More about the history of wolves in Michigan

More about removing Michigan wolves (included in the western GL wolf population) from the Endangered Species List

Michigan’s Wolf Management Plan

More on Michigan’s Isle Royale Wolves (the longest study of any predator-prey system in the world)


The return of gray wolves to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula more than twenty years ago was not cause for alarm, at first.
But that’s changed drastically in the last few years as more sportsmen are convinced wolves are now decimating the white tail deer population.

Larry Livermore manages the 35,000 acre Hiawatha Sportsman’s Club, about an hour’s drive west of the Mackinaw Bridge.

LIVERMORE: “There was no hatred of wolves until people created the hatred by not allowing them to be managed.”

As long as the wolf is under federal protection it can only be killed if it’s causing imminent threat to human life.
The wolf population in Michigan is more than six times the goal set for them under the Endangered Species Act.

And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now trying for the fourth time to remove gray wolves from the protected list in the Upper Great Lakes states.
So far, national wildlife protection groups have managed to block those efforts in federal court.

The groups contend wolves still need to expand into northeastern states before protections are removed.
Larry Livermore says while all this legal wrangling is going on members at the eighty year old Hiawatha Club are giving up their memberships and selling their places because the deer hunting has become pathetic.

LIVERMORE: “You have a whole bunch of honest law abiding citizens who have finally had enough and say, you don’t care about us, you don’t understand our dilemma here and so we will take it into our own hands. And that’s happening here. People who I never dreamed would say I would shoot a wolf are telling me that they will shoot one.”

There was a spike in illegal wolf kills in the U.P. last year.
Wildlife officials found fifteen collared wolves shot out of an overall population pushing near 700.
And the Department says poaching is on the upswing again this year too.

But Brian Roell is not alarmed about it.
He is the go-to wolf guy for the DNR in Marquette.
He says illegal kills are not reducing the overall population.

And Roell says once federal protection is gone people will stop feeling like the wolf is being treated as a “sacred cow”.

ROELL: “Being able to empower people to actually take some control back is going to go a long way in helping people come to live with wolves.”

DNR officials have a management plan ready to go once the wolf is delisted.
The plan would give people the authority to defend against attacks on their pets and livestock.
And it would allow them to cull wolves in places where they’re putting a lot of pressure on deer.

But some sportsmen’s groups want to go further than that.
They want the state to open a hunting season on them.
Sportsmen say if wolves are treated more like bears with limited harvests then the animals will have some value to people.

But Nancy Warren thinks the top predator has its own value in the natural order of things.
In the summertime, she takes visitors out at night to howl with wolves on her property in the western U.P.
She says the number of deer killed by wolves and reported threats to humans are being exaggerated.
But she agrees the state ought to be able to manage problem wolves.

WARREN: “Let people see that the state is able to manage these wolves. And we could get rid of some of these myths and the misinformation and see that, yeah, we can live with wolves.”

Warren fears a return to the bad old days when wolves were considered varmints and poisoned or shot on sight.

But Brian Roell with the DNR doesn’t see wholesale slaughter of wolves coming back into play.
Because once the wolf comes off the endangered species list, he says, no one is going to want to risk having to put it back on again.

Urban Coyotes Make Themselves at Home

  • Bill Dodge is a PhD student at Wayne State University. He's leading a team of researchers looking into the behavior of urban coyotes in Oakland County. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Coyotes have been moving into the city. There have been sightings in a lot of American cities, including Chicago and Detroit.

You could potentially see coyotes almost anywhere in Michigan, but not a whole lot is known about the state’s urban coyotes.

There’s a small research team from Wayne State University that’s trying to figure the animals out. They want to find out how many coyotes are living in cities. And they want to know what they’re eating, and how they survive.

More about urban coyotes in Chicago

More about urban coyotes in Los Angeles County

A video of a Canadian and a coyote

Ghosts in the Cities


(sound of traffic whizzing by)

A few weeks ago, one day just after dawn, I met up with the team at the side of a road in Oakland County. We crossed the road to get to a grassy, undeveloped piece of land. The group fanned out to look for evidence of coyotes… that is: tracks, and scat. After just a few steps, we found tracks.

Bill Dodge is a PhD student at Wayne State, and he’s the team leader.

“Coyote tracks are a lot neater than dog tracks, with coyotes usually the trail pattern is pretty straight as if they know where they’re going.”

A minute later… more evidence.

“We’ve got a scat up here.”

The lucky guy who gets to collect that scat is Nick Marengo. He’s an undergrad at Wayne State.

“I’m going to fill out a data form… bag it… and collect it. RW: So is this the job that falls to students mostly? (Nick laughs) Bill: No I’ll pick up scat… RW: it’s not beneath you? (laughs) Bill: It’s not beneath me to pick up coyote scat.”

I’ll spare you the finer details… but basically, they’re finding out what the coyotes are eating. Bill Dodge says people often think urban coyotes are eating garbage and people’s pets… but that’s actually not very common.

“Voles, mice, eastern cottontail rabbits, those are the top three food items.”

He says anywhere there’s green space with a little bit of cover… there are coyotes. Even highway interchanges and Detroit Metro Airport.

They’re also trying to trap coyotes so they can put radio collars on and track them.

So far… they haven’t caught any. You know that thing you’ve heard about coyotes being wily? Bill Dodge says that’s true.

“They’re resilient. We’ve been trying to eliminate them for about 100 years and they’re still around and they’ve actually done well and prospered in urban areas.”

Both coyotes and wolves were bountied and killed for decades in Michigan. Bill Dodge says coyotes really rebounded in the 1980s. And he says it appears that coyotes have been moving into Michigan cities over the last decade or so.

“Territories outside urban areas are full so they’re moving into urban areas where there’s marginal habitat but it’s habitat in itself.”

And he says that’s making some people worried that coyotes might eat their pets. He says problem coyotes might have to be killed. But he says relocating coyotes won’t work.

“It’s kind of futile. We could remove the coyotes in this area and the void would just be filled by other coyotes.”

He says coyotes are just here now… and people will need to learn to co-exist with them.

He says there haven’t been any reported attacks on people in Michigan. But there have been a few reports of pets being attacked.

Research suggests that conflicts are more likely to happen when coyotes lose their natural fear of people. And that happens when people feed coyotes – either on purpose or accidentally.

Holly Hadac is volunteering for the coyote research project.

“With coyotes, it’s all about the food. That’s why we say a fed coyote is a dead coyote.”

She says it’s a good idea to bring pet food indoors, and secure compost piles with a cover. And never feed a coyote directly. She says even though coyote attacks on pets are rare, you should still keep an eye on your pets.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Sugar Beet Industry Rebounds

  • Sugar beets in a contest at a state fair. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user kregarious)

The Michigan sugar beet industry faced a near collapse in the 1990s. The price for sugar was low and growers experienced poor yields. But the industry’s made a comeback. It is now a 450-million dollar industry statewide.
Bridget Bodnar reports:

Sugar beets are large white beets that grow well in Michigan’s cooler climate. In fact, farmers have grown sugar beets in the bay area for more than 100 years.
The beets are planted at the end of April and harvested at the beginning of September. From then until March, the beets are processed into sugar. Refineries run 24 hours a day and seven days a week with no breaks for holidays. If machines were to stop in the middle of the process, sticky molasses would harden inside the equipment. In the end, the sugar beets become white granular sugar, powdered sugar, or brown sugar. If you’ve bought a bag of sugar at a Michigan grocery store, chances are it’s sugar beet sugar from the Michigan Sugar Company.

Things are going pretty well for the Michigan sugar industry now. But twenty years ago, the industry nearly dissolved. Steve Poindexter is a sugar beet specialist with Michigan State University:

“The sugar industry, back in the ‘90s, was struggling, trying to get production up. The yields were down and not going up, and profitability was very low.”

That was the result of a push towards raising beets with higher sugar content. The experiment was a failure. The low yields caused many farmers to stop growing beets. Things got so bad, Michigan sugar beet farmers were granted almost 20 million dollars in disaster funds.

In addition, MSU and the Michigan sugar industry decided to form a partnership to reinvigorate the sugar beet industry. They’ve since doubled the number of sugar beets grown per acre in Michigan. They also improved the amount of sugar harvested from each beet.

A related article

More about the sugar beet industry


But there were other problems with the industry. The two sugar processing companies in Michigan were private companies with share-holders. Low returns on sugar beet sugar prompted the owners to sell. The sugar beet farmers decided to buy the refineries and create a cooperative sugar beet industry in Michigan.
All sugar grown in Michigan is now part of the Michigan Sugar Company cooperative.

Ray VanDreissche is a sugar beet farmer. He’s also with the Michigan Sugar Company. He says farmers produce better sugar because they have a greater stake in the end product now:

“The growers are investing money to become more efficient, get better extraction, investing into new equipment such as that new packing equipment which is increasing sales, it’s just a good combination all the way around.”

VanDreissche says the company has started to see more demand from Michigan consumers who want to “buy local.” He has also seen more interest from Michigan companies who want to buy from other Michigan companies:

“Whether it would be somebody that’s making something like Jiffy, Jiffy Mix, or cereal manufacturers, somebody that’s making baked goods, ice cream, as a matter of fact, a lot of the fudge that’s made on Mackinac Island is primarily from the Michigan Sugar Company.”

VanDreissche says, because of the increased demand, they were able to hire more workers in recent years.

The sugar beet industry does not receive direct federal subsidies. Instead, there are import quotas on foreign sugar. But, sugar beet farmers still have limits on their growth. The federal government regulates how many units of sugar the industry can produce. A surplus one year means farmers will have to plant fewer beets the next year.

But sugar beet farmers are optimistic. There’s a growing interest in “natural” sweeteners that’s made sugar beet sugar more popular than ever.

For the Environment Report, I’m Bridget Bodnar.

Karate Farmers Take Back the Neighborhood

  • Hakim Gillard works at the Harvesting Earth farm and he also works at King Karate in Flint. (Photo by Kyle Norris)

Residents in Manistee and Benzie counties are receiving surveys in the mail this week. The survey will ask questions about wind energy.

Christie Manning is a visiting professor at Macalester College in Minnesota. She’s supervising the survey.

“To understand what it is about wind energy development that creates a sense of pro or anti in individuals, what are the various factors that tip a person to feel one way or the other?”

Township officials will use the survey results to help them with future zoning decisions.

There’s also an online version of the survey that’s available to anyone who lives in Michigan.

You can take the online survey here

This is the Environment Report.

King Karate is a martial arts studio that’s been in the Flint area for 22 years. But in the past few years, the couple who run the studio have broadened their definition of self-defense…and that’s why they’ve added farming to their arsenal. Kyle Norris explains:


18 year old Hakim Gillard has a lot on his plate today.

First he’s got to harvest vegetables for tomorrow’s farmer’s market…

“Then I have to finish weeding the rest of the inside of the second greenhouse. Then I have to go to karate to teach. It’s like superman I get out of my work clothes and go right into my karate clothes.”

Gillard is a second-degree black belt and he teaches younger kids at King Karate.

He also works on the karate studio’s farm.

Dora & Jacky King own King Karate. They started the Harvesting Earth Farm in 2008.

Dora King says they were noticing that the kids they taught were struggling with things like attention deficit disorder, asthma, even obesity.

And they wondered about the connection between those conditions and what kids were eating.

“We would see kids with just sugar just a bunch of 100% sugar stuff, whether it was the pops or the fruity drinks or it was a lot of stuff with dyes in it.”

The karate studio is located in a food desert — with dozens of liquor stores, but not a lot of places to buy nutritious food.

Dora King says they realized self defense extends beyond physically protecting yourself from another person.

“Whether it’s what I eat, what I think, who I hang out with. All those aspects come into my self defense.”

Vacant lots are another problem in the neighborhood.

One spot, across the street from the karate studio, became a place where people dumped mountains of trash.

In fact, Jacky King says neighbors approached the karate studio asking for help with the situation.

“They came to us personally and said is there anything we can do about this dump? And this had been dumped on for over 20 years.”

So the Kings spent their own cash and bought the property… and they cleaned up years of industrial trash.

Then they tested the soil, continuously, and nursed it back to health.

There are now two greenhouses on two acres of land.

They’ve also got honey bees… and 30 chickens. And solar panels power the greenhouses.

Students have to volunteer their time on the farm in order to advance to a higher level belt in karate.

And some of those kids are amazed to find out that food actually comes from the dirt.

Hakim Gillard says he didn’t know too much about growing food before he became a karate farmer.

But next year he’s headed to Mott Community College to study agriculture and business.

“I’ve learned if you feed people the right kinds of food they’ll feel a lot better on the inside. And if they see the good things in their neighborhood they won’t have those bad thoughts like I’m going to go down the street and see a dope house or bad things like that.”

Gillard says now other people in the neighborhood cut their grass and weed their yards. And take better care of where they live.

In fact, the Kings like to say the whole idea behind the farm is kind of like those TV shows… where people “flip” a house.

But in this case, they’re flipping an entire neighborhood.

For the Environment Report, I’m Kyle Norris.

The Harvesting Earth Farm just won “Best Small Farmer of the Year” award in Michigan, given by the federal government (from the NRCS, which is the USDA). It recognizes people farming in environmentally friendly ways who are also making their communities better places.

Toxic Substances in Great Lakes Fish (Part 7)

  • Advice on how to clean fish and cut away fat to minimize your consumption of certain contaminants. (Image courtesy of Wisconsin Sea Grant)

Today, we wrap up our series, “Swimming Upstream.” Dustin Dwyer traveled all around the Lower Peninsula to gather stories for this series. And today we have a story we wish we didn’t have to do. It’s the story of toxic substances in our fish:

A few weeks ago, Joe Bohr got a surprise. He’s a researcher for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He was looking at some numbers for PCB contamination in carp caught in canals in St. Clair Shores.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a group of chemicals that were used in all kinds of industrial products before they were banned in the 1970s. They’ve been found to cause cancer and other health problems.

Bohr says normally if you’re looking at PCB concentrations in fish, four parts per million is pretty high.

“But I looked at those numbers, and the highest one was over 200 parts per million, and that’s 50 times higher than you normally see.”

It was the highest PCB concentration found in any fish ever in the state of Michigan.

The source is still a bit of a mystery. But there are ongoing tests, and health officials have gone door-to-door to warn people about eating fish from the canals.

Luckily, contamination this severe is rare. But here in Michigan we don’t have the luxury to assume all our fish are safe to eat. We have a history of industrial pollution, and many harmful chemicals find their way to our water, and build up in our fish.

Kory Groetsch, is a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Community Health.
He says before you eat fish, it’s a good idea to check the state’s fish consumption advisory.

“If you follow the fish advisory, we can confidently say that you don’t really face any increased risk. If you’ve been eating more than that, well, it doesn’t mean you’re going to actually have any negative health outcome. But what you can do is you can talk to your doctor.”

But following the fish advisory is easier said than done. The current advisory is about 30 pages of charts and symbols that take you through dozens of types of fish in dozens of waterways.

We can make a couple of generalizations. Usually, smaller fish like perch are safer to eat. Bottom feeders like carp and catfish are more risky. But it can vary quite a bit depending on where the fish comes from, so again, check the advisory.

Michigan’s fish consumption advisory

Michigan’s Eat Safe Fish brochure


Also, the risk from these chemicals isn’t the same for everyone. Women who are, or who could become pregnant are at extra risk. So are small children and people who already have health problems.

And Groetsch says how you prepare the fish can also make a big difference.

“Cutting away belly fat, back fat, taking off the skin, scraping off the grey sort of tissue on that fillet, and then cooking it on a grill or on a rack in some way that lets fat drip away will reduce significantly the amount of these chemicals in that fish.”

But even that doesn’t work for all of the chemicals. Mercury can’t be cut away.

Mercury is also unique in another way. Most of the toxic substances in Michigan’s fish are actually going down, and they have been for years. But mercury is slowly building up in Great Lakes fish.

Mercury can be especially harmful to brain development for babies and children.

Joe Bohr from the DEQ says most of the mercury in our fish comes from coal-burning power plants.

And while there’s been a lot of talk about alternatives, the reality is coal power doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

So if you still hope to be eating Michigan fish 50 years from now, unless there’s a dramatic change, Bohr says the mercury numbers won’t be good.

“I would say it be a scary number, a number where you wouldn’t want to eat the fish, right?”

Dustin: “At all.”


For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.