Flame Retardant Chemical Detected in Food

  • Flame retardant chemicals are in many of the products we use in our homes and offices. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies suggest the chemicals could be linked to a variety of health problems. (Photo courtesy of Reiner Kraft)

A flame retardant chemical that’s used in insulation and electrical equipment is showing up in food. It's called hexabromocyclododecane or HBCD. 

Here's what the Environmental Protection Agency says about the chemical:

HBCD is found world-wide in the environment and wildlife. It is also found in human breast milk, adipose tissue, and blood. It bioaccumulates in living organisms and biomagnifies in the food chain. It is persistent in the environment and is transported long distances.

HBCD is highly toxic to aquatic organisms. It also presents human health concerns based on animal test results indicating potential reproductive, developmental and neurological effects.

Flame retardant chemicals are used in hundreds of consumer products. Certain kinds of these chemicals leach out of our couches, our TVs, our carpet padding and many other things in our homes. They've been found in household dust and in food, and they're getting into our bodies.

Linda Birnbaum is the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Toxicology Program.

She’s a senior author of a study out today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives and I spoke with her for today's Environment Report.  For the study, the team purchased 36 samples of foods common in American diets from Dallas, Texas supermarkets, including peanut butter, poultry, fish and beef.  HBCD was detected in 15 of the samples.

"We primarily found it in fatty foods of animal origin, so fatty animal products. This is a chemical that loves to be in the fat, and that’s where we’re finding it."

Williams: "Now, were the levels you found high enough to be of concern?"

Birnbaum: "The levels are very, very low. I would call this micro-contamination. In our 2010 study where we looked at the total presence of this chemical, at that point we estimated that the daily intake was about 1,000 fold lower than what is believed to be a safe dose."

HBCD is showing up in people's bodies. The study states that food "may be a substantial contributor to the elevated α-HBCD levels observed in humans."

Birnbaum: "There have been several studies done, a few studies in the U.S., not large studies of the entire population, but a few studies in the U.S. and some studies in Canada and Europe and Asia, which have found low levels of this compound in either human blood or breast milk."

But she says it's not clear whether those levels pose a health hazard to people.

Birnbaum: "We know very little, really, about the toxicity of HBCD. There have been some animal studies which suggest it could affect neurodevelopment and that it’s an endocrine disruptor. But we have really no data to speak of in humans yet, and again, the animal data is very limited."

Williams: "And HBCD is certainly not the first flame retardant chemical that has shown up in food or people’s bodies…"

Birnbaum: "No, it’s not. These are chemicals that are produced in high volume and are used in many products we all come into contact with."

She says the flame retardants that have received the most study are PBDEs, polybrominated diphenyl ethers. (You can learn more about PBDEs in a five-part series we produced in 2010: Is Fire Safety Putting Us at Risk?)  These are types of flame retardants that have been widely used in furniture.  Several types have been phased out or will be in coming years… but they are persistent in the environment.

"And it’s only within the past couple years that people have begun to look to see whether the effects that we see in experimental animals and in wildlife are also occurring in humans. And we’re finding that the animal data is in good agreement with what we’re beginning to see, now that we’re looking, in the human population."

Birnbaum says the human and animal studies are suggestings links between PBDEs and problems with reproduction, neurodevelopmental effects, and endocrine disruption.

Williams: "At this point, do we know enough about HBCD’s potential toxicity to try to reduce our exposure?"

Birnbaum: "I think we really don’t know where our exposure is coming from for HBCD. The presence of it in our food suggests that that would be one route of exposure. There is only very limited information for us to get an idea of how much might be in dust to try to understand is it dust or food which is going to be our major source of exposure to HBCD. The detection of these chemicals in our food, this is really just a pilot study, it says it’s been detected. The levels are actually a little bit lower than have been reported in some European foods. But it would really be nice to have a larger statistically-based sampling of the American food supply."


The Chicago Tribune recently published an investigation of the tobacco and chemical industries called "Playing with Fire." Here's an excerpt:

The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world. The toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home, packed into couches, chairs and many other products. Two powerful industries — Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers — waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of these chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.



Spruce Tree Disease & Beach Grooming

  • A seedling with dead terminal buds due to a Phomopsis canker on the main stem below the dying buds. (Photo courtesy of MSU Extension)

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

The landscape of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula has been changing over the
decades. Some of the changes are intentional… some accidental…and some
are simply a mystery. Rina Miller reports:

In the sixties and seventies … Dutch elm disease left tree-lined streets

These last few years saw the Emerald Ash borer leave its trail of
destruction across the state. And now Michigan’s spruce and pine trees are in decline.

Bert Cregg is an associate professor of horticulture and forestry at
Michigan State University.

He says one culprit is called Phomopsis. It’s a fungus that has been around for
a long time. It used to affect just seedlings and smaller trees. But now
it’s killing larger trees, too. And scientists don’t know why.

“Is this an environmental set of conditions? Is there something going on
with the pathogen itself? So there’s really lots more questions than
answers at this point, other than we’re seeing a lot of trees starting to

Cregg says the Phomopsis fungus is primarily affecting blue, white and
Norway spruce used for landscaping. Those trees are not native to Michigan.

He says it progressively kills branches…and eventually the whole tree.

Cregg says a couple of things can be done. He says if you spot dead branches, you should prune them … and get rid of lower limbs to help with air circulation.

He also says if you’re planting spruce trees … don’t group them closely
together, because that makes them more vulnerable to fungus.

And if you’re not sure what’s going on with your tree…call an expert.

“So if you can get a sample into our diagnostics lab, or another tree care
provider that knows what they’re looking at. If it can be identified as
Phomopsis, then there is a possibility of treating with a fungicide.”

You might also be noticing branch dieback on pine trees along roadways and
in state forests. Cregg says any number of things could be causing that…
including a type of blight or insects… or maybe just normal variations in
weather affecting tree growth. They just don’t know yet.

For the Environment Report, I’m Rina Miller.

(music bump)

This is the Environment Report.

Let’s say you own a beach house. You might want to pull out some plants
or mow them or smooth out the sand to make it look nice.

At the moment, if you want to do any of these things, you need a permit
from both the state and federal government.

Maggie Cox is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. She
says her department has to make sure everyone can walk on the beaches. And
she says sensitive wetlands need to be protected.

“Your property line is down to the water’s edge – but the state also
holds in trust for the public the land up to ordinary high water mark.”

Last week, the Michigan Senate passed legislation that would eliminate the
state permit for beach maintenance.

Several environmental groups are opposed to that.

The DEQ’s Maggie Cox says her agency will still have oversight of beach
maintenance in wetland areas.

“In areas that are mostly sand or mostly rock, you no longer have to get
a permit from the department. But in areas that are wet or coastal
wetlands, made up mostly of bulrush or other vegetation, you’re going to
have to still come to the department and the Army Corps for a permit.”

But the Army Corps does not regulate mowing on beach areas. So if the state permit requirement goes away, property owners would be able to mow plants on sandy beach areas without any oversight. Environmental groups say that’s a problem.

But Ernie Krygier disagrees. He’s the president of Save Our Shoreline. That’s a group of property owners that wants to preserve the right to groom beaches.

“We’re not about people going out into the lake with bulldozers. In
fact the DEQ still does have the ability to police the shoreline. If some
goofball wants to take a fence down to the water’s edge to stop people
from walking down the beach, they have the ability to come in and make him
remove it.”

Krygier says his biggest concern is an invasive plant called phragmites that he wants to be able to remove from his beachfront property.

The legislation now moves to the state House.

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

Salmon Debate & Smart Thermostats

  • The Desperado heads out at sunrise to go after Pacific salmon in Lake Michigan. (Photo by Lester Graham)

How many salmon can Lake Michigan support?

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

That’s the critical question state fishery biologists have to answer this year.

Everyone involved in the salmon fishery is worried about its future… and now some sport fishing groups say drastic action might be required. They want the state to stop putting more fish into the lake. Peter Payette reports:

There’s not much food for salmon in Lake Michigan these days because invasive species are changing the food web.

But there are a lot of salmon, because more and more are being born in the wild as opposed to in fish hatcheries. That combination of too many fish and not enough food wiped out the salmon in Lake Huron almost a decade ago and they never returned.

That’s why the state has proposed reducing the number of salmon stocked in Lake Michigan by 30-50 percent.

But last month the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fisher’s Association urged lake managers to consider ending all stocking for two years.

Now a charter boat association in Muskegon has endorsed that idea too.

Paul Jensen is part of that group.

“We need to make a radical move to change the pattern and what we don’t want to do is duplicate what happened on Lake Huron.”

But ending stocking might not sit well with some anglers. For decades, more fish stocking meant more fish being caught.

But researchers say the situation is bleak.

The salmon fishing is great so far this spring. But that’s a problem because it means there’s still a lot of fish in a lake without much food.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

This is the Environment Report.

A lot of us have smartphones… you’ve probably heard of smart meters… and now there’s something called a smart thermostat for your house.

I met up with energy expert Matt Grocoff of Greenovation.tv to find out more:


“The old school thermostats that were programmable were meant to reduce your energy costs. But in 2009, the EPA did a study and found out that nobody was programming them. So, the new breed of smart thermostats do a lot of these things for you without you even thinking about them. They’re called learning thermostats. They learn from your own behavior. So the best thing to do I think is to show you Joe Capuano’s. We’re in his house now and he’s got one of these smart thermostats.”

Rebecca: “All right, hi, Joe.”

Joe: “Hello, Rebecca.”

Rebecca: “We’ve been hearing that this thermostat learns from you. So, is it watching you? What do you mean by that?”

Joe: “It has a sensor in it so that it actually notices the motion that takes place in the house. So during the day, when you’re moving around it knows there’s something going on so it’ll keep the temperature at the temperature you set. When the activity drops off and there’s nobody in the house, it’ll actually set back down to what it calls the “away” temperature. And the way it learns is that it follows the patterns that you have, so instead of programming it, it actually says, okay, from this time to this time there’s no activity in the house, so that’s the schedule I’m going to set.”

Rebecca: “So if you’re upstairs it doesn’t just drop down and make it colder while you’re upstairs?”

Joe: “I’d have to be upstairs for more than two hours before that would happen.”

Rebecca: “So, why is this better than my dumb thermostat at home that I just actually turn the heat down on at night before I go to bed?”

Matt: “These know the humidity level in your house. They know the temperature outside. They know the temperature inside. So they can take all of that data and that information and optimize your comfort by cutting your energy costs, by a huge amount. We’re not talking four or five percent. We’re talking 20-30% for these things.”

Rebecca: “Do you know if you’ve saved any money yet?”

Joe: “I don’t know for sure. I won’t know for sure until we have another really cold winter to confirm it. I think in the long run that I will save money. I’m definitely going to pay for what I put into the cost of the thermostat.”

Rebecca: That was Joe Capuano talking about his smart thermostat – along with energy expert Matt Grocoff of Greenovation.tv. We should note these new thermostats do cost more than the traditional kind. They range in price from $100 to upwards of $400.

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

New Renewable Energy Standard for Michigan?

  • Green Energy Futures / Flickr

This is the Environment Report. In for Rebecca Williams, I’m Zoe Clark.

The Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs coalition wants to increase the state’s renewable energy standard to 25 percent by 2025.

That would mean that a quarter of all the energy used in Michigan would come from renewable sources like the wind and sun. The coalition is trying to collect enough signatures to put the issue before voters in November.

And, interestingly enough, the proposal is getting support from both Democrats AND Republicans.

Steve Linder is President of Sterling Corporation, a Republican consulting firm. He says his organization is behind the proposal for business reasons.

“While we don’t like government mandates, this allows us to use manufacturing capacity in Michigan rather than bringing in $1.6 billion worth of coal from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. So, this is really a business to business ballot initiative and we are very comfortable in making the business and economic case that this keeps dollars in our state and it keeps us at the cutting age of new types of manufacturing technology,” Linder says.

Mark Fisk, a Democrat, is co-partner of Byrum & Fisk, a political consulting firm. He says he’s working on behalf of the initiative because of the jobs it’ll bring to the state and the environmental benefits of renewable energy.

“This initiative will create thousands of new Michigan jobs and help boost Michigan’s economy by building a clean energy industry right here in our state. And, it gives Michigan cleaner and healthier air and water. It’ll protect our Great Lakes, reduce asthma and lung disease, and ultimately save lives,” Fisk says.

James Clift is Policy Director at the Michigan Environmental Council. The MEC is part of the Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs Coalition.

James, right now, how much energy does the state get from renewable sources?

James Clift: We’re at about three and a half percent and we’re hoping to get up to about five percent this year.

ZC: Now, there’s already a renewable energy mandate in place in the state. The legislature passed it in 2008 and it says that Michigan needs to get to 10 percent by 2015. So, how big of a change would this new proposal be if it is, indeed, passed in November?

JC: Actually, it’d be about the same ramp-up that we’re currently doing today. We’re increasing about one and a half to two percent a year. So, this would increase us another 15 percent over 10 years – so, about one and a half percent a year. So, it’s a nice, steady transition to cleaner energy.

ZC: And, what would the environmental impact be?

JC: The Michigan Environmental Council commissioned a report last year looking at the nine oldest coal plants in Michigan. That report found that Michigan residents have health care costs and damages of about $1.5 billion a year – just from those nine oldest coal plants. So, transitioning away from coal to clean more renewable energy, we hope will put a significant dent in those health costs that we are currently occurring.

ZC: And, finally, why a ballot proposal? Why not go through the legislature like the earlier mandate?

JC: Well, the bottom line is that the legislature is not going to do anything. So, it’s going to be up to the people to say we want cleaner energy in the future and we want more of our energy dollars being spent on Michigan workers and Michigan products.

ZC: James Clift is Policy Director at the Michigan Environmental Council. James, thanks so much.

JC: Thank you.

ZC: Utility companies in the state think a ballot proposal mandating an increase in Michigan’s renewable energy use is the wrong approach. They say energy policy should not be changed by amending the state constitution.

Neighbors Feel Pressured by Enbridge’s New Pipeline Plans

  • Beth Duman with one of her four dogs. (Photo by Logan Chadde/Michigan Radio)

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

Enbridge Energy operates the pipeline that ruptured in Marshall almost two years ago.  The Environmental Protection Agency says more than one million gallons of thick tar sands oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River.  The oil spill is still being cleaned up.

Since the spill, Enbridge has been making repairs on that pipeline. It’s known as Line 6B.

Now, the company plans to replace the entire pipeline from Griffith, Indiana to Marysville, Michigan. 

Joe Martucci is a spokesperson for Enbridge. He says the new pipeline will cut down on the number of repairs they’ll have to do.

"We could do the maintenance activities, we do them all the time.  But the thinking is, by putting in new pipe, it would reduce the number of them and there’d be less disruption for landowners and local communities over the long term."

He says the new pipeline will also allow Enbridge to double the amount of oil they can transport to refineries in Detroit, Toledo and Sarnia, Ontario.

The current Line 6B pipeline often runs right through people’s backyards.

"When the pipeline broke in Marshall I said, wait, I live on that pipeline too."

Beth Duman lives in Livingston County.  She’s lived on this spot out in the country with her husband for 25 years. 

"This is where the new pipeline is going, right under my clothesline.  Their easement is going to take all my shade trees around my house and it’s going to take out my deck and we’re going to have to move the well."

Duman says they knew there was a pipeline here when they bought this place – but they just didn’t think too much of it at the time.  She wants the pipeline to be replaced, but she says she has run into trouble with the land agents who represent Enbridge.  Duman says the agents have been approaching landowners, asking them to sign contracts for the pipeline work.  In some cases, the company wants to purchase additional acres of easement for the new pipeline.

"The first time the first guy came, he was friendly for a few minutes. Then when I started saying this is my life, this is my business, this is where I live, he said you know, we could just condemn you.  Doesn’t really mean they’re going to take your house but it means you’re going end up in court, which most of us don’t have time to do. And so that ends up being a threat."

Several people I talked with said the same thing: they’ve felt intimidated by Enbridge land agents.  And they say they no longer trust the company.

For four months, Enbridge contractors worked on a section of pipeline running through Connie Watson’s backyard.  She points to the foundation of her house.

"We’re looking at several cracks in our foundation that happened during the months Enbridge was on our property with all their equipment. This house shook, vibrated and moved constantly."

Watson says she brought this up to her Enbridge land agent, and asked to be compensated for the damage.

"He said he finds many people will accuse Enbridge of things just so they can get their house remodeled.  I had to ask him to quit saying it, you know, it was so offensive."

We asked Enbridge spokesperson Joe Martucci to respond to these landowners who say they’re being bullied by Enbridge land agents. 

"You know it’s difficult to respond to those specifics, because it’s secondhand information. I don't know the landowners, I don't know the land agents, I don't know exactly what transpired.  But I can give you a general comment on that which is that Enbridge certainly doesn’t condone any type of bullying behavior on the part of the land agents whatsoever, or any type of intimidation."

He says Enbridge trains its land agents to avoid litigation and come to a mutual agreement.  (Martucci says landowners can call a special hotline the company set up for any concerns: 866-410-4356)

Enbridge has not yet gotten approval for the second phase of its pipeline project.  It will cover 160 miles of pipeline in Michigan east of Ortonville and west of Stockbridge.  There’s a hearing in Lansing on June 6th. This is when people who live along those parts of the pipeline can legally intervene and become more involved in the process.

Michigan Retailers Importing Cherries

  • Smeltzer Orchards in northern Michigan had to import cherries - for the first time ever. (Photo by Bob Allen)

When you scoop up ice cream with cherries in it this summer or add a handful of dried cherries to your salad chances are the fruit won’t be from Michigan. Or even from the United States.

Extremely unusual weather this spring has crippled the state’s entire tree fruit industry. The bulk of the nation’s tart cherry crop is produced here. But as Bob Allen reports, not everybody in the industry is jumping to import fruit from overseas:

The official estimate for the size of the cherry crop won’t be in for a few more weeks.

Even the most optimistic projections for the amount of fruit on the trees amounts to less than ten percent of what the state typically grows.

Tim Brian is president of Smeltzer Orchards in Benzie County.

He grabs a stem from a tart cherry tree and with his thumbnail slices open several buds.

“And right there you can see that brown pistil right there, that’s cooked. There isn’t a single good one in this whole cluster.”

A bizarre stretch of hot weather in early March woke trees up from winter dormancy. That was followed by more than a dozen nights of hard freezing temperatures.

Brian thinks there will be entire orchards that won’t be harvested at all this year even if there is a scattering of fruit in them.

“I mean, with $4 fuel, even if there is only ten cherries on a tree that’s not going to be economically feasible to harvest.”

Smeltzer’s has been in the business for well over a century.

The company runs a medium sized processing plant that freezes and dries cherries.

Inside the plant, a dozen people are pitting and sorting sweet cherries.
The thing is… these cherries are from Chile.

“Normally we would not do this. This is actually the first time we’ve done something like this.”

Normally they would be Michigan cherries if not local. That’s because typically, a processor such as Smeltzer keeps a supply in the freezer.

But the crop was modest the last two years and demand for cherries was high. So the company sold most of what was in storage and now the cupboards are nearly bare.

That’s why Brian is scouring Europe for tart cherries right now. He’s got a big shipment coming in from Poland.

Some of that Polish fruit will go to Cherry Republic. The retailer sells everything cherry from dried fruit to jams, salsas to wine.

Owner Bob Sutherland was surprised when he couldn’t buy frozen cherries a couple of weeks ago. But he was able to bid on some Polish cherries in time to gear up his summer production. And he’s kept his sense of humor.

“Yes, and all four of our stores will be flying the Polish flag and our employees are going to be wearing the Polish emblem right on their shoulders. So, we’ll have fun.”

The imported cherries come at a higher price.

But Cherry Republic plans to stretch its supply and keep costs down by mixing other fruits into its products.

Sutherland thinks if the industry pulls together and keeps its head up it will weather this storm of bad luck.

“You know, we want to keep working. This is a $300 million industry up in northern Michigan…cherries. And we don’t want it to shut down.”

The cherry industry nearly came to a standstill back in 2002 after a devastating spring freeze basically wiped out that year’s entire crop.

Don Gregory is an owner of one of the largest fruit orchards in the north. And he’s also part of one of the region’s biggest processors of dried and frozen cherries.

He says the company hasn’t decided yet whether to go with imports this year.

“As growers we’ve always been afraid of imports. And boy we don’t want imports coming in and taking over our market.”

But Gregory thinks one thing is pretty sure, there will be fewer cherry products on store shelves for years to come.

In fact, some say the industry was just getting fully back on its feet after the crop was wiped out a decade ago.

For The Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.

Interview: DEQ on the Safety of Fracking

  • A gas drilling rig in Appalachia. (Photo by User Meridithw / Wikimedia Commons)

Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – is a method of drilling for natural gas.  Drillers use fracking to get to the gas that’s trapped in tight shale rock formations below the water table.  Fracking pumps a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a well under high pressure to force open the rock and extract the gas. (You can check out this in-depth series by Michigan Watch's Lester Graham)

In Michigan, drillers have used the fracking method for more than 50 years and the state regulates the industry.  But they’ve been drilling vertical wells.

There’s been more interest lately in horizontal fracking – that’s where companies drill horizontally along the shale rock up to a mile or more.  That makes the well site much more productive.  It has lead to a boom in gas drilling and production and more jobs in some parts of the country.

But horizontal fracking also uses much more water. 

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulates fracking.

I spoke with Brad Wurfel, the Communications Director for the DEQ.  You can listen to the interview above.

Q: So – let’s start with water use.  With the more traditional, vertical, fracking we’re talking about tens of thousands of gallons of water – horizontal fracking uses millions of gallons.  This is water that’s contaminated and cannot be used again. What kinds of studies are being done to ensure water supplies are adequate for horizontal fracking in Michigan?

Brad Wurfel: With horizontal fracturing, they’re tens of thousands of feet down under the ground. So it does require more water, but it also requires fewer wells. Every user who uses a lot of water has to register that use as part of their permitting process.  And if it looks like the water withdrawal proposal is going to harm the environment, that permit gets denied.  Or the company gets sent back to the drawing board to find a new way.

Q: What happens to the contaminated fracking fluid when it comes back out of the well?

A: It’s handled very carefully because in other states where the regulation hasn’t been as good, that’s been one of the key problems with hydraulic fracturing.  The amount of chemical that’s in that water is really small – it’s one half of one percent.  We require that operators use steel tanks to contain it and that it’s sent to a deep injection well for disposal.

Q: A recent article in the Battle Creek Enquirer quoted MDEQ geologist Michael Shelton, who said that 6.7 million gallons of water can be used in a single fracking well.  So – one half of one percent of 6 million gallons is still 30,000 gallons of chemicals.

A: Well, when you figure the dilution, it’s not an eminent threat to the environment. That said, when you combine it with the saline that comes back up, it does make it something that we want to handle very carefully, and we do.

Q: A 2011 Congressional report found these chemicals can range from things considered harmless like salt and citric acid to chemicals that can pose serious health risks.  Things like benzene, formaldehyde and lead.   But that report also found that many of the chemicals or the chemical mixes were listed as trade secrets. What does the DEQ require companies to disclose about the chemicals they use? 

A: We get Material Safety Data Sheets, and in the event there was ever a problem with a hydraulic fracture in the state of Michigan, every component used and its percentage would be disclosed immediately to emergency responders.  We haven’t ever had a situation where we’ve needed to use it.  That said, most of what’s in hydraulic fractures is under trade secret for the mix, not the actual chemicals.

Q: But companies can still protect the mixes of chemicals they consider trade secret, right?

A: That’s correct.

Q: So, if you suspect there’s water contamination at a well site, how will you know what chemicals to look for?

A: Well, those chemicals would be… present in the environment.  And we could obviously look at what was used there and see if it was evident in say, a water supply.  That’s a pretty big hypothetical.  We’ve been hearing a lot from folks who’ve got fears about what might happen.  And I can’t speak to what might happen.  I can speak to the fact that in 50 years and 12,000 wells around the state, we’ve never had to respond to an environmental emergency with hydraulic fracturing. It’s been done safely.

Michigan Drilling Rights on the Auction Block

  • A map of the 23 counties where oil and gas drilling rights are up for auction today. (Image courtesy of DNR)

Starting at 9am this morning, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will hold an auction to lease state-owned drilling rights for oil and natural gas. 

The state is offering drilling rights on more than 108,000 acres in 23 counties.  These auctions are usually held twice a year.  The minimum bid is $12 dollars an acre.

Mary Uptigrove is the acting manager of the DNR’s Minerals Management Section.  She says acquiring drilling rights is the first step in exploring for oil and gas.

“The lease is just a proprietary right that’s administered by our department. It does not give them the right to actually start drilling a well.  They have to seek other approvals from the Department of Environmental Quality for the drilling permit.”

The leases last five years, and the companies have the option to extend them.

Uptigrove says industry groups usually nominate parcels for the auction.  The state gets 1/6 of the royalties of any oil or gas that comes out of the ground.  That money is used to maintain state and local parks and to buy land.

Maryann Lesert lives near the Yankee Springs Recreation Area in Barry County. 

She’s worried the auction will lead to drilling under the park land… especially a kind of drilling for natural gas called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“It’s beautiful land, it has beautiful bodies of water and the environmental and water impact threats from fracking are of great concern.”

If drillers decide to go after oil and gas in this area, they won’t be able to set up their drills on the surface.  They’d have to drill from land nearby.

If they use horizontal fracking, they’d pump a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a well under high pressure to force open rock and extract the gas.

Horizontal fracking can use millions of gallons of water per well.  After it’s used, that water is usually disposed of in deep injection wells. 

Maryann Lesert  is bothered by that idea.

“Those millions of gallons of water per well are never going to return to the area water table, to the area watersheds, to the Great Lakes basin. That’s water that’s gone forever.”

Before any of this can happen… companies first have to pay for the rights to drill and get state approval for their drilling operations.

The state is barred from auctioning drilling rights for some places, including Great Lakes bottomlands and critical sand dunes.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.

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This is the Environment Report.

A private club in the Upper Peninsula has filed suit to stop the construction of a new mine in Marquette County.  It’s the first federal lawsuit to stop the project.  Peter Payette reports:

The nickel and copper mine, owned by Kennecott Eagle Minerals, has received permits from the state.  But the Huron Mountain Club says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to sign off too.

The club owns nearly 20,000 acres of forest downstream from the mine on the Salmon Trout River.

The lawsuit says sulfuric acid produced by sulfide mining could pollute the river, and the club is quote “horror-struck” by the prospect of the watershed collapsing because part of the mine will be dug directly underneath it.

The lawsuit also says the federal government needs to consider the potential for damage to Eagle Rock, a site near the entrance to the mine that is sacred to American Indians.

The mine has been under construction since 2010 and an attorney for the Huron Mountain Club expects Kennecott will argue that it is too late to bring up this issue.

But Rick Addison says it was the company’s decision to build the mine without the necessary permits.

"The lateness argument has no resonance to me, it’s simply the last refuge of the environmental scoundrel."

In a written statement, Kennecott says the mine has been extensively reviewed and already survived multiple legal challenges.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

And that’s the Environment Report for today. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Lead in Garden Products & Loosestrife Beetles

  • A warning label on the packaging of a garden hose. (Photo by Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio)

The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor tested 179 kinds of garden products, including garden hoses, tools, gloves and kneeling pads.  They found 70% of the products contained levels of "high concern" of one or more toxic substances… including lead, cadmium and mercury.

From the report:

  • 30% of all products contained over 100 ppm lead in one or more component. 100 ppm is the Consumer Product Safety Commission Standard (CPSC) for lead in children’ products.
  • 100% of the garden hoses sampled for phthalates contained four phthalate plasticizers which are currently banned in children’s products.
  • Two water hoses contained the flame retardant 2,3,4,5-tetrabromo-bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (TBPH).

Jeff Gearhart is the Ecology Center’s research director.  He says the biggest concern is garden hoses – because a lot of people like to drink out of them on a hot day.

"We found that one-third of them contained lead in excess of the U.S. drinking water standards that apply to products like water faucets."

He says the problem is – garden hoses are not regulated.  Some hoses have warning labels telling you not to drink from them.

But Gearhart says they tested some polyurethane and natural rubber hoses and found they were lead-free.

"There’s a variety of polyurethane-based hoses that are made out of food-grade polyurethane and have lead-free fittings that are on the market. And there’s also natural rubber hoses we tested that don’t have the types of contaminants that are typical of the vinyl hoses."

He says they also did an experiment to see what kinds of chemicals might leach into water that's sitting in a hose, and left out in the sun.  Water sampled from one hose contained 0.280 mg/l (ppm) lead. This is 18 times higher than the federal drinking water standard.

The authors of the report have these recommendations:

  • Read the labels: Avoid hoses with a California Prop 65 warning that says “this product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects and other reproductive harm.” Buy hoses that are “drinking water safe” and “lead-free.”
  • Let it run: Always let your hose run for a few seconds before using, since the water that’s been sitting in the hose will have the highest levels of chemicals.
  • Avoid the sun: Store your hose in the shade. The heat from the sun can increase the leaching of chemicals from the PVC into the water.
  • Don't drink water from a hose: Unless you know for sure that your hose is drinking water safe, don’t drink from it. Even if it is labeled safe for drinking, flush it out first before sipping. It’s also a good idea to wash your hands after handling a hose since lead can transfer to your hands and then from your hands to your mouth when eating. Even low levels of lead may cause health problems.
  • Buy a Lead-free hose: One easy way to cut down on the amount of lead in your immediate environment is to get a lead-free garden hose. Not only will it drastically reduce the amount of lead being deposited in your yard, it will also virtually eliminate direct exposure when watering by hand or tending to the garden. A lead-free garden hose is also safe for children to get a much-needed drink or play in the sprinklers, and pets will also be spared of potential lead poisoning from water bowls filled from the hose. The hoses are often white with a thin blue stripe, and are commonly sold in marine and recreational vehicle (RV) stores. An RV lead-free garden hose can also come in a beige color with blue stripe, to match the beige paint of many RVs. Although sold for RV and marine use, these hoses serve as great lead-free garden hoses.
  • Test your soil: It's  a great idea to check the nutrient levels, but you can also check the levels of metals like lead. Another important source of lead includes lead paint.
  • It’s not just lead: Our test also detected phthalate plasticizers in both the PVC hose materials and in the water left standing in a PVC hose. Some of these phthalates are the same phthalates which have been banned in children’s products. We also detected bisphenol A (BPA) in water left standing in a PVC hose. BPA is used as an antioxidant in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics and as an inhibitor of end polymerization in PVC.
  • Avoid PVC: PVC needs potentially hazardous additives and stabilizers to make it “rubbery.” Instead, try a top-quality, food grade polyurethane hose that meets Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards or an old fashion natural rubber hose. Search on-line “polyurethane garden hose” or “rubber garden hose” for options.
  • Watch the brass: The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) limits lead in brass in residential water fixtures to no more than 2,500 ppm. Garden hoses ARE NOT regulated by the SDWA, and our tests show 29% of brass connectors contained greater than 2,500 ppm lead. Opt for a hose that is drinking water safe and lead free. Non-brass fittings (nickel, aluminum or stainless) are more likely to be lead-free.


This is the Environment Report.

Purple loosestrife is a widespread invasive plant. It’s taken over wetlands in every state in the U.S. except Florida. But now, Lindsey Smith reports scientists consider purple loosestrife an invasive species success story:

Purple loosestrife are those tall bright purple flowering plants you see mixed in with cattails lining the edge of many lakes and wetlands. It was first recorded in Michigan more than 160 years ago near Muskegon.

Doug Landis is a scientist at Michigan State University.

“But like many invasive plants, once they get a foothold they become much more aggressive invaders.”

Purple loosestrife can grow up to ten feet tall. And with each plant producing 2.5 million seeds a year, it quickly crowded out other native plants. People began to notice in the 1950’s that ducks, geese, and other waterfowl hate nesting in ponds overrun by loosestrife. And other native species have a hard time finding food.

“Basically every method to control purple loosestrife was tried and ultimately they decided that all the conventionally means were failing and they really needed to look at biological control.”

That means they had to find something to eat it.

(birds singing)

It’s mid-morning at Huff Park in Grand Rapids. Sunny, maybe 50 degrees, just warm enough for volunteers to begin spotting their targets moving around in the park’s wetlands.

“You have to kind of pick a spot, kind of watch it a little bit.”

That’s Jacqueline Bilello… she’s the stewardship coordinator at the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

She crouches down in front of a newly budding purple loosestrife plant. She points out the tell-tale signs she’s looking for… little holes in the leaves.
“Got our first beetle.” (laughs)

Bilello carefully gathers the tiny black and red loosestrife beetle in a homemade bug trap. It’s passed around so the rest of the volunteers can see what they’re hunting for.

In a couple of hours the group has captured about 80 beetles… plenty to establish a new population at a nature preserve about ten miles away.

Entomologist Doug Landis says this beetle loves eating purple loosestrife. That’s all it eats in its native home in Europe. The beetle was first introduced in Michigan in 1994.

“The beetles become very abundant. They knock down the population of loosestrife but in doing so they’ve kind of eaten themselves out of house and home.”

So the beetles travel to find more purple loosestrife. Or, if they’re lucky, some people help them out. Landis says groups like this one in Grand Rapids regularly capture and release beetles to target specific areas.

So far, the beetle hasn’t adapted to eat any other plants. And Landis says it hasn’t caused any known secondary problems.

“15 years ago purple loosestrife was pretty much unchecked in southern Michigan. And now where I find purple loosestrife I almost always find the beetles.”

Landis says we can never get rid of purple loosestrife. But the beetles are keeping the plant under control most of the state.

For the Environment Report, I’m Lindsey Smith.

Report: Pipeline Laws Inadequate

  • The pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy that ruptured in July 2010. (Photo courtesy of NTSB)

A new report argues that our current laws are not strong enough to protect the Great Lakes from major oil spills. 

The National Wildlife Federation wanted to look at pipeline oversight after the massive tar sands oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in 2010.  The spill was the result of a ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy.  (The official cause of the spill is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board)

Sara Gosman is an attorney who wrote the report for the National Wildlife Federation.

"Federal laws are inadequate and states have not passed their own laws to fill in the gaps."

We’ve previously reported the spill ran through some of the highest quality wetlands in Michigan.

Sara Gosman says federal laws on oil pipelines do not protect all environmentally sensitive areas.  Instead, the laws cover something called high consequence areas.

"It’s a term of art used by the federal pipeline agency.  It’s a bunch of different areas.  For environmental purposes, it’s commercially navigable waterways, areas with threatened and endangered species and drinking water sources."

Gosman says federal government data show 44% of hazardous liquid pipelines in the country run through places that could affect high consequence areas.  She says that means companies have to do special inspections on those segments of pipelines… but not necessarily on the rest of the pipelines.

"This means 56% of hazardous liquid pipeline miles do not have to be continually assessed, have leak detection systems or be repaired on set timelines."

But she says it’s hard to find out exactly where the boundaries of these high consequence areas are.  That’s because after September 11th, the federal government started keeping the maps of these areas secret for national security reasons. 

The report identifies another problem with oversight of oil pipelines. 

Basically, pipeline companies do not have to ask the federal government for permission to site a new oil pipeline… unless the pipeline crosses an international border.  Individual states do have a say if they have laws on the books. 

In the Great Lakes region, Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois require permits for new oil pipeline construction. 

But Sara Gosman says the federal government is not paying enough attention to where new oil pipelines are built.

"At the federal level, we don’t have any oversight of routing of pipelines. For natural gas pipelines they do, but not for oil."

Gosman says the federal agency that’s in charge of pipelines – the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration – is specifically not allowed to regulate siting and routing of oil pipelines. 

Sara Gosman says the result of all this – is that the Great Lakes are not adequately protected from another big oil spill.

"Pipeline spills may well happen. Everyone agrees getting to zero is the important goal. Whether we can ever get to zero… hard to know."

We requested comment on the new pipeline safety report from industry groups.  Both Enbridge and the Association of Oil Pipelines said they were not able to respond to the report by our deadline.

In January this year, President Obama signed a new pipeline safety act into law.  It doubles the maximum fine for safety violations and it authorizes more government pipeline inspectors. 

Carl Weimer is the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.  His group has been pushing for better oversight of pipelines. 

"There’s a major significant incident on a pipeline somewhere in the country about every day and a half.  If you look at just the last five years, just on hazardous liquid pipelines, there have been over 1,700 incidents spilling more than 23 million gallons of liquid into the environment."

He says the new pipeline safety act is a start.

"But many of the most important sections of that bill just required more study and did not actually correct the problems."

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

We asked PHMSA for comment on the new pipeline report.  The agency sent this email statement:

PHMSA’s Response:  PHMSA will take NTSB’s findings about Marshall, Michigan very seriously. PHMSA is committed to improving pipeline safety and protecting the public and the environment. Pipeline safety requires a combination of enforcement, information sharing and transparency and public education. Secretary LaHood called on pipeline operators to repair, rehabilitate and replace the highest risk lines.  PHMSA has stepped up enforcement actions and proposed pipeline safety rulemakings and issued advisories covering damage prevention programs & increased penalties, expanding the use of excess flow valves and replacing cast iron pipelines. PHMSA held pipeline safety workshops in March on leak detection and remote controlled valves.

In addition, the President’s FY 2013 budget request will support PHMSA’s focus on enforcement and accountability by providing more resources to boost PHMSA’s capability in overseeing pipeline operators, including $177 million for pipeline safety to hire more pipeline inspectors, increase coordination with the states and increase public education efforts like calling 811 before digging.

-Jeannie Layson, PHMSA’s director for Governmental, International, and Public Affairs