Cleaning Up a Pollution Puzzle in Ann Arbor

  • Kevin Lund of MDEQ shows a sample of oil and water he collected when he dug a hole in the bank of the Huron River. The analysis they did on the samples they collected showed that the contamination was coming from the old MichCon manufactured gas plant. (Credit: Mark Brush / Michigan Radio)

by Mark Brush

The city of Ann Arbor recently spent more than one million dollars rebuilding an old mill race along the Huron River. The Argo Cascades is a series of little waterfalls and pools where kayakers and people floating in inner tubes come to cool off.

But downstream from the Cascades on the other side of the river, there’s a problem.

There's been pollution lurking underground for some time from an old industrial plant, and two years ago regulators found that some of the pollution was making its way into the Huron River.

The days before natural gas

Kevin Lund is a senior geologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Remediation Division. He told me to really understand what’s getting into the Huron River, you have to understand some history.

So he took me to a small parking lot about a quarter mile away from the river. It's directly across the street from the Amtrak station on Depot St.

He showed me an old brick and mortar foundation that was installed, he thinks, around the 1870s or 1880s. This bit of old foundation is one of the only things left of an old manufactured gas plant.

Back in the day, they manufactured gas here. Lund said the gas was originally used for street lights.

"There would be lamplighters, and then the extra gas was used for the people who could afford it to cook with and to light with," said Lund.

They made the gas by heating up chunks of coal, and trapping the gas that came off.

Manufactured gas plants were built all over.  Any city or big hospital or company that needed gas often had one of these plants nearby.

Wherever they made gas from coal, they had a lot of leftover material. By-products such as coke, coal tar, and ammonia could be sold.  But even so, there was still a lot of waste.

Burying the leftovers

Leftover coal tar, chemicals, and some metals, whatever they couldn’t sell, they often dumped.

“You got to remember they were no waste disposal facilities back in the day, and they didn’t move this stuff too far off their properties," said Lund. "So if there was a low depression in the property where they were doing the coal gasification, the waste products tended to find themselves over there.”

The old foundation Lund showed me was from the original gas plant in Ann Arbor.

It burned down, so they built a bigger one right next to the Huron River. As the town grew, so did the demand for coal gas.

Coal was brought in by the train load.

But in 1939, natural gas came to Ann Arbor, and that pretty much ended things for manufactured gas plants. Gas no longer had to be made. They could just pull it out of the ground.

The buildings were torn down, and they moved on.

The past bubbles to the surface

But old bricks aren’t the only things you’ll find around these sites. To get a look at what else was left behind, Lund takes me down to the bank of the Huron River next to the Broadway Bridge. Since there's been a drought, we can walk part way out into the river bed.

He scraped the gravel under the shallow water with his boot, and up popped a pool of black, gooey liquid.

Lund and another colleague from MDEQ discovered this stuff in the river bed two years ago.

“We were just collecting samples along the way and were finding exactly this all the way through here. And one of the locations that we dug, a hole in the bank, it filled with oil,” said Lund.

MichCon is the company responsible for the site. They took over the gas works in Ann Arbor in 1938 when the company consolidated several gas companies across the state. After natural gas came to the city a year later, the manufactured gas plant pretty much stopped operations. The buildings were torn down in the 1950s, and the site was used as a service center up until 2009.

Shayne Wiesemann is an environmental engineer with DTE Energy, MichCon's parent company. He's also the project manager for the cleanup on the site in Ann Arbor. He said MichCon has been monitoring the site since the 1980s, when he said they became aware of the problems there.

"These are exceedingly complex projects," said Wiesemann. "There were industrial operations here for nearly 50 years. You really have to do your homework."

Cleaning up our forefathers' mess

So far, Wiesemann said they've spent around $3 million on monitoring and clean up efforts. They've cleaned up some hot spots up on the property. They excavated 1,700 yards of underground contamination in 1998, and 5,000 yards in 2006. They also ran a groundwater cleaning system on the site for 5 to 6 years.

When they learned about the pollution coming in contact with the Huron River from the MDEQ, they began to develop a plan to clean it up.

In the first week or two of August, the company plans to spend another three to four million dollars to start digging the pollution out of the river bed and its banks.

He said over a two to three month period, they’ll haul out around five to six hundred semi-truck loads of contaminated dirt (25,000 cubic yards). Wiesemann says they hope to finish this cleanup sometime in late October to early November.

"We’re going to excavate the material, we’re going to take it to a type two landfill, and then we’re going to restore all that material with clean backfill," said Wiesemann. "And then we’re going to put on a cap, and this cap is going to prevent any future contaminant migration to the sediment that we backfill into the surface water within the river."

A company spokesman said the entire cost of this project could be passed onto MichCon ratepayers. Up until this point, the company says it has been able to use payments from insurance claims to pay for monitoring and cleanup.

During the cleanup, big trees will have to be removed along the river bank (other trees will be replanted), and when they begin to dig into the polluted sediment, it can be like cracking a spoiled egg open.

There could be strong odors – smells of naphthalene (like mothballs) or creosote. MDEQ officials said air monitors will be operated during the remediation to make sure the air is safe to breathe. Wiesemann said their contractors will use covering foams on the contaminated soil and other work practices to keep the chemical smells to a minimum.

Once this project is done, the old coal tar will be out of the river, but there will still be some pollution on the site.

Wiesemann says they’ll wait to see how the community wants to use the land to determine further cleanup.

A pollution problem around all of Michigan

This cleanup is big for an old manufactured gas plant, but it's not as big as the pollution cleanup DTE is working on at its "Station B" site along the Detroit River.

"The Broadway site… we’re looking 25,000 yards of material, and we’re going to excavate that material over two to three months, and then on the far end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Station B site where we’ve excavated nearly 300,000 yards of material and we’ve been doing it since last year," said Wiesemann.

MDEQ's Kevin Lund said, in addition to the site in Ann Arbor, he's actively working on polluted sites in Adrian, Albion, and Jackson, and he knows of others in Bay City and Grand Rapids.

It’s estimated there are around 70 old manufactured gas plant sites in Michigan. The two big utility companies in the state, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, are responsible for 40 of them (DTE – 17, Consumers Energy 23).

But for some of the rest of these old plants, with so much time passing since they’ve closed, finding the people responsible for cleaning them up can be difficult. And the tar, oils, and chemicals will be underground for future generations to find.

Wind Potential & Taking Stock of State Land

  • (Photo credit Bug Girl/Flickr).

Scientists are analyzing new data that’ll determine whether offshore wind farms are viable in Lake Michigan and the data is more detailed than any available from the Great Lakes so far.


A floating eight-ton research buoy is collecting the data. There are only three such vessels in the world and this is the first one launched in the United States.

The buoy has been anchored about 37 miles off shore for about two months now. Recently crews retrieved the first set of data cards – with information about wind conditions and any bats and birds that fly by. Scientists are now analyzing that data.

Arn Boezaart heads the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center that’s operating the buoy. "I think we are getting data at this point that will be very useful and will validate the fact that the wind conditions at mid-lake are very promising for potential future use as a commercially viable wind source," Boezaart says.

But right now there is no clear path to proposing an offshore wind farm in the Great Lakes inside the Michigan border.

Of all the land in Michigan, the state owns about 20 percent.  That’s about four million acres. And, some people think that’s too much. Some people think it’s not enough. Regardless, every few years, there’s a new call to take a look at how much land is owned by the state, and how it’s being used.

Governor Snyder signed a law recently that limits how much land the state can acquire while the state Department of Natural Resources conducts a study of what the state has and how it’s used.

“The state itself owns millions of acres of land, let alone cooperating with the private sector and there’s no cohesive strategy on how we manage our resources for both terrestrial things like – land-based things, but also aquatic. So one of the things I’d like to see in the special message is setting the framework of how we’re going to evolve over the next few years to have comprehensive strategy for how we’re going to manage land and aquatic resources in the state of Michigan," the Governor said recently.

The state’s been acquiring this property for more than 150 years. The state got a lot of this land in the 1880s and 90s as loggers turned to farming clear-cut acres –failed, and failed to pay their taxes. The state acquired more land from unpaid taxes during the Great Depression.

A lot of it now is state parks, forests and recreation areas. The state manages this land with a few purposes in mind like recreation and habitat preservation. And, some of the land is used for extracting natural resources like timber, gas drilling, and mining.

The state also bought a lot of this land from money raised by leasing drilling and mining rights.

Governor Snyder’s idea is, maybe, the state can strategically sell and acquire property to do things like create a Lake Huron to Lake Michigan trail system for bikers and hikers. They’d stop and camp or use hotels and restaurants along the way.

But those decisions have implications – especially to the real estate market.  And to local governments that might or might not derive some tax benefits based on what happens.

We can expect to hear more from Governor Snyder about how the state plans to manage the land it owns when he delivers a special message on the environment this fall.

Enbridge and the Kalamazoo River: Two Years After the Spill

  • Enbridge building in Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo by user Kyle1278 / Wikimedia Commons)

It's been two years since a busted pipeline spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. 

Michigan Radio's Zoe Clark and Steve Carmody discussed what has happen since then, and how it affects the environment and the company involved.


Zoe Clark: Enbridge has already spent more than $750 million trying to clean up the spill.  Where does the clean up effort stand?

Steve Carmody: At this point, there is still oil in the river.  Most of the river has been reopened. There is a section of the delta that leads into Morrow Lake which is still off-limits to the general public, because work is being done there, and there are other pockets along the river where oil still exists.

ZC: What is the river like these days? Can you sill see or smell oil?

SC: When I've been along the river, and I've been in different parts of it, you cannot smell it like you could in the early days, and even as much as a year later. But there are portions, especially where they're continuing to work to remove oil, where there obviously is still something there. But the amount of oil that is present in the environment in most of the river area is greatly diminished. However, again, there is still some oil in the environment, and there will be for quite a long time.

ZC: Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation recommended a nearly $4 million fine against Embridge.

SC: That's correct, and that's the largest fine that the department of transportation has issued in a pipeline break like this.  Now, the cleanup itself is more than $800 million, and that is continuing. So $3.7 million, while it is a lot of money, is really a rather small amount of money compared to the entire cost to Embridge.

ZC: Also, another report came out from the National Transportation Safety Board.

SC: They delivered a scathing report against Enbridge and about how they handled the report when it occurred. They started noticing alarm bells going off, which apparently is not that unusual; anomalies crop up, alarms sound.  But they allowed the alarms to sound for 17 hours before they realized something had happened, and the only reason they found out something had happened is they received a call from the utility people here in the state of Michigan that there was a strong smell of petroleum in the air.

ZC: So what happens now?

SC: Enbridge still has some time to respond to the federal government for the fine, and that discussion will continue on. Embridge's stock price is about 50 percent higher now than it was two years ago, and you can look at that and say it is because of our demand for oil that the demand is so great. The price Enbridge has had to pay for the past two years, is more than compensated by what needs to be done from this point forward. Enbridge is facing other issues as well. What happened here in Michigan is affecting Enbridge's ability to build a $5 billion pipeline in Canada, because there's a lot of anger about what happened here, and they don't want it to happen there in Canada. But, the project has the strong support of the government in Ottowa. So, all of the negative publicity that has come out of this oil spill is probably not going to affect Enbridge's ability to move forward from this point.

Coping With a Historically Low Crop in the Cherry Capital

  • A blossom on a cherry tree (Photo by Markus Lehtonen).

The great loss of cherries

Earlier this month most of the counties in Michigan were designated disaster areas for agriculture. Michigan is the largest producer of tart cherries in the nation and this year, the state lost 90 percent of its crop.

Ben LaCross is one of the many farmers who is trying to cope in what is known to be the Cherry Capital of the world. He manages 750 acres of cherries in Leelanau County, just outside Traverse City.


While walking through his cherry orchard next to his family’s home he points out that there are zero cherries on the trees when usually around this time of year, each of his trees would be holding 50 to 100 pounds of the crop.

LaCross just got done harvesting his cherry crop for the season. He said in a normal year he harvests 4.5 million pounds of cherries in five weeks. This year it only took one week to harvest 4 percent of his annual yield.

“So what we harvested this year in a week we would normally do on an average day,” LaCross said.

The freeze

The loss of cherries in the region is a result of an early tease of summer followed by a frost.

“You don’t tend to associate a natural disaster with 80 degree sunny days,” he said.

LaCross said after more than a week of warm weather in March, the buds on his cherry trees began to swell, only to be decimated by 19 nights of freezing temperatures a few weeks later. LaCross said this may be the worst harvest in recorded history.

A decade of bad harvests

Cherry growers talk a lot about 2002. That was a terrible year as well. But LaCross says farmers had tarts in reserve back then that they could sell to pay the bills.

“So it has basically taken us 10 years to regain those markets and now we have another catastrophic freeze event,” he said.

And this time around, there are no reserves. Because the last two harvests have been lean ones.

“There’s nothing in the inventory pipeline to supply our customer bases,” LaCross said.

Getting creative with the few cherries available

So that means LaCross is going to have to import cherries for the first time in order to keep his customers.

“We are trying to be creative to how we can stretch what little of a crop there is out there,” he said.

And LaCross isn’t alone.

In Traverse City shoppers are tasting the 15 dozen cherry products sold at Cherry Republic. Here you can find chocolate covered cherries, cherry peanut butter and cherry salsa to name a few.

Owner, Bob Sutherland said he is creating new products this year to stretch the few cherries available by mixing more cranberries, nuts and chocolate into the company’s treats.  

“For the first time we have a truce with cranberries. And the war with cranberries is on a one year off,” Sutherland said.

And like LaCross, Cherry Republic will also be importing cherries for the first time in the business’ history.

“Our first choice is Michigan but I want to keep my bakers baking, my jammers jamming and our driers going so we do need to source cherries wherever we can,” Sutherland said.

That means when people start seeing cherry products from Michigan companies this year, a lot of those cherries will be coming from places like Poland and Turkey.

What's next for cherry growers

But back on Leelanau peninsula, cherry farmer Ben LaCross is hopeful there will be a good harvest next cherry season.

“There’s an old saying in farming that, ‘we’ve had two good years in the cherry business, 1991 and next year.’ So we can’t wait for next year at this point,” he said.

The government is working on ways to help farmers like LaCross. Low interest loans are available to farmers this year and the federal Farm Bill could give growers more help, like adding crop insurance for boutique fruits like tart cherries.  In the meantime, farmers will hope Mother Nature will produce a fruitful crop next year.

Emily Fox- Michigan Radio Newsroom

Stressed-Out Trees & the Lure of Up North

  • The Empire Bluff hike in northern Michigan. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

City officials in Holland, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor are asking for a little help from residents. They're asking people to start watering trees along city streets – the ones between the curb and the sidewalk. 

Kerry Gray is an Urban Forestry & Natural Resources Planner with the City of Ann Arbor.

"Most of the trees are currently really under a lot of stress.  So we would obviously love people to water the street trees but we’d also love them to pay attention to the trees on private property as well."

She says trees need water immediately if you see wilting or curling leaves and if leaves or needles are dropping off.  Newly planted trees are especially at risk.

Here are some guidelines the Ann Arbor city foresters recommend for watering trees:

  • The morning hours are usually the best time to water
  • Slow, deep soakings are better than frequent light watering for both newly planted trees and established trees
  • For newly planted trees and small trees up to 4", a good watering is 10 gallons per inch of tree diameter applied in the mulched area around the tree, once per week.  A 3" diameter tree would need 30 gallons of water (3" x 10 gallons).  Newly planted trees should be watered weekly during the first 3 growing seasons.
  • For established medium trees (5"-12"), a general guideline for watering during prolonged dry periods is 10 gallons of water for every 1 inch diameter, three times per month.  For example, an 8" diameter tree will need 80 gallons of water.  To water, place a sprinkler or soaker hose in the dripline of the tree.  The dripline is the outer extent of the branch spread.  Move the sprinkler/hose around to ensure that all the roots in the dripline are watered. 
  • For large trees (greater than 13"), 15 gallons of water for every inch of diameter, two times per month during prolonged dry periods. A 14" tree would need 210 gallons of water. To water, use the method described above for medium trees. For established trees, do not water within 3 feet of the trunk; this can lead to root rot.
  • In normal precipitation years, mother nature provides the water an established tree needs and supplemental watering is typically not necessary.   

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This is the Environment Report.

A lot of us in Michigan are passionate about going up north.                                                                                

“I remember the good old days when my dad would pack us up in the station wagon and head up north. It was 80 acres in the middle of nowhere …I’m heading to Petoskey on Wednesday and on Thursday or Friday to Whitefish Point and Tahquamenon Falls…Tomorrow I’m making my annual pilgrimage to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.”

Those are comments from Facebook fans, answering the question, “Anyone headed up north this weekend?” But where is up north & why do we love going? Reporter Kyle Norris takes a look:

The definition of “up north” is incredibly personal. It has to do with where you’re from and where you’re headed. But there seems to be a general consensus, of where it begins, at least for people in the Lower Peninsula.

"In Michigan I think the north begins right about halfway across mitten—or you can be a little more exact and say Highway 10. Somewhere between Claire & Luddington."

That’s nature writer Keith Taylor.  He says the world around you begins to change quickly…once you cross that line.

"You suddenly start seeing white pines and white birches. So the trees change."

Taylor says people have always craved a landscape that’s different from the hustle and bustle of their everyday lives. For people who lived in Detroit in the ’20s & ’30s… going “up north” just meant traveling one county over. These days “up north” usually means driving a couple of hours in the car. Taylor says we’re lucky that in Michigan there are a lot of places close by.

“It’s the interesting thing about our state there’s the major industries to the south employing all those people and we’re so close to the edge of the wilderness.”

Denise & David Frick have a little cottage near Kalkaska. They love going up north because of the beauty & peacefulness.

Denise: "Even when you’re up there the air is even cleaner, you can feel the difference as soon as you arrive. Of course it’s a vacation property—so there’s no mail up there, there’s no work, there’s no desk, you go up there to relax."

David: "And we have a TV up there that gets like two-and-a-half stations, with rabbit ears."

When the Fricks get ready to go up north from their home in Ann Arbor… it’s a low-key affair.

David: "We can look in the cooler right now.' KN: 'Yeah, I wanna know what’s in the cooler. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be cold to be in the cooler?'"

David: "No! The cooler contains black pepper which we ran out of. Hershey Bars, for making ‘smores. Some belts for a drill press and an extension cord."

The Fricks say their idea of a good time up north is sitting around and looking at the lake. Writer Keith Taylor says being outside is another appealing aspect.

"One could be confronted by things that appear just a little more wild, a little bit around the edge. You could get lost in woods, although probably not forever. You might run into a bear. And that would change things, that would add a little bit of excitement without really, really threatening your life."

The concept of going “up north” is not unique to Michigan or even to America. But we have the Great Lakes. And as Keith Taylor says, there’s nothing like all that fresh water, anywhere in the world.

For The Environment Report, I’m Kyle Norris.

Urban Tree Hunter Gathers Data in Detroit

  • Chris Kort examines a tree in Detroit. (Photo by Meg Cramer)

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

There’s so much to know about what’s happening in the world around us, and that information gives us insights into patterns and changes that could have a big impact on our lives. But all of that requires a lot of data – and somebody has to go out and get it. Meg Cramer met up with one of those people:

Chris Kort and I are standing by the curb on McDougall St on the north side of Detroit. We’re looking at a tree. Kort is tapping the screen of the tablet computer he’s carrying, he marks where the tree is, then adds details like its size, species, and health.

When we finish with this tree, we move on to the next one.

“I try not to miss anything, I’ve got to get every single tree. Never ending process.”

Kort does this all day long, walking up and down Detroit streets, counting every tree on city property.

“Since March I have surveyed 13,468 trees. And counting.”

The data from this survey will go to the city, the state, and scientists at the US Forest Service. It will tell a story about what’s happening to trees in the city.

A database like this has to be built manually by people like Chris Kort. Tree by tree. Kort is like the human version of the Google street view car – roving up and down blocks and adding to his map. He notices details that most people miss.

“I’ve actually been collecting pennies on the sides of the roads for, like four months. I cashed in 2,200 pennies yesterday. People just don’t pick them up anymore apparently. Ooh, we’ve got a different tree here. We’ve got an elm tree!”

Mostly, researchers are trying to nail down the basics, like what kinds of trees are in the city, and how many there are. But they’re also testing a new survey method, a survey that measures damage caused by invasive species.

That’s because Detroit is where the Emerald Ash Borer was first discovered back in 2002. It probably arrived in the wood of untreated shipping palettes. Now, it’s all over the Midwest. The insect infests and kills Ash trees.

“I would say we’ve surveyed maybe 8,000 ash trees since I’ve been here. Every single one of them is dead or dying.”

Kort is a surveyor for Davey Resource Group. The company worked with the US Forest Service to develop the Insect Pest Detection protocol. The Detroit tree inventory is the first time it’s being used.

Surveyors like Chris Kort note damage from all kinds of things – including invasive species.

Researchers will unpack that data to identify new trends, and learn more about old ones. Like how the Emerald Ash Borer spread through the city and beyond.

Chris Kort shows me some of the symptoms he’s looking for on a dying ash tree. First, there’s the hole where the insect crawled out, it’s shaped like an upper case “D.”

“You can see the D shaped exit holes, really obvious.”

And the galleries, grooved doodles on the trunk.

“So in between the bark and the tree this bug is crawling around, making this indentation I would call it, where it chewed away so it can move.”

One of the goals of the new pest detection protocol is to learn more about invasions at all stages so that researchers – and communities – can do a better job finding them before they get this far along.

David Nowak is a project leader with the U.S. Forest service.

“Nationwide, there’s billions of trees in urban areas, but in cities there’s often millions of trees.”

“But you also have millions of people. The people if they’re educated can start looking at some of these things, they can be detectives – if you will – or detectors of these insects and diseases when they come in. And maybe provide that information to experts to help determine what’s happening.”

Once the Detroit database is set up it can be monitored and updated by people in the communities.

The hope is that this relationship between communities and researchers will mean a quicker response for groups that are trying to keep invasive species in check.

For the Environment Report, I’m Meg Cramer.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.

Retooling Brake Pads & Duck Boom

  • (Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Washington and California recently adopted laws that ban all but traces of copper in automotive brake pads by the year 2021. The two states say the metal gets into watersheds and hurts endangered salmon. The decision could change the way brakes are made around the world, as Tracy Samilton reports:

Copper is a great material for brakes. It's durable, and it absorbs heat and noise. But it comes with an environmental price. Ian Wesley is with the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Each time a driver uses their brakes, a small amount of the material gets worn off, and when it rains, that can be washed into streams and rivers.

About a third of the copper in some watersheds in California and Washington State comes from brakes. And copper is not good for salmon, because it wreaks havoc with their ability to smell.

Salmon release a pheromone when they perceive a threat. Other salmon react to the scent by dropping to the bottom of the water and staying there, very still.

"When they do that, it helps them avoid the predators, but if there's even very low levels of copper in the water, they can't smell this pheromone, and they continue to swim around kind of oblivious to the danger that's nearby."

The phased-in ban by the two states will likely affect everyone. That's partly because it's just too expensive to develop a product for one or two states.

Terry Heffelfinger is head of product engineering for Affinia Global Brake. He says European car companies still use an older style of brake that doesn't use copper. But many Americans don't like them, because they're noisy.

"They also make your wheels dust more than ceramic materials."

Heffelfinger says it will take time to develop a copper-free brake as quiet and dust-free as the kind that's being phased out.

By the way, while they were banning copper in brakes, California and Washington also banned asbestos in brakes. A few non-domestic car companies still use asbestos brakes here. That ban will take effect in just three years. For the Environment Report, I'm Tracy Samilton.

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If you’re a duck, this is a good news, bad news story.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes surveys of the ten most abundant duck species every year. 

Brad Bortner is Chief of the Division of Migratory Bird Management at the Fish and Wildlife Service.  He says this year’s survey recorded more than 48 million ducks. That’s the highest number of ducks recorded since the agency started keeping records in 1955.

“We’ve had a series of very good years on the prairies, with excellent water conditions and great habitat management and restoration programs.”

He says more than half of North America’s duck breeding happens in the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas and eastern Montana.  It’s nicknamed America’s duck factory.

Bortner says species such as mallards, gadwalls and redheads are all doing great.  And he says the breeding duck populations in Michigan are doing well too.

So… that’s the good news.  The bad news… some other duck species are not doing so well. 

Brad Bortner says conditions that are good for some species are not good for others.  Diving ducks hang out in deeper wetlands… and there was enough water to support them.  But the shallow wetlands dried up.

“We had a loss of temporary and shallow wetlands because of lack of rain and the mild winter that has affected breeding habitat for some of the early nesting dabbling species.”

The survey finds there were drastic wetland declines in some areas of the prairie regions. Brad Bortner says habitat loss is a big concern…

"Loss of habitat through agriculture and other development.”

But at the moment… Brad Bortner says the high numbers for many duck species are a pretty good sign.  He expects hunters and bird watchers will see plenty of ducks this fall.

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

Green Space and CO2 & the City Dark

  • The Milky Way above an AZ observatory. (Credit: Wicked Delicate Films, LLC.)

Scientists know a lot about how natural places process carbon dioxide.  But there hasn’t been a lot of research into what happens throughout the year in the green spaces in cities and suburbs.

Emily Peters is an author of a paper out this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research.  She’s been looking at how plants and trees in one suburban neighborhood take in carbon dioxide during the year… and how they offset the carbon dioxide people in the neighborhood emit – by say, driving their cars.

“In the summer we found the uptake of carbon dioxide from the vegetation is enough to offset fossil fuel emissions – just in the summer.”

She says evergreen and leafy trees took in more CO2 during the middle of the summer. Lawns did the best job of taking in CO2 during the spring and fall.  But Peters says those plants did NOT balance out the total amount of carbon dioxide released in the suburban neighborhood by burning fossil fuels over the year. 

If you're wondering: do certain species of trees do a better job than others?

"That is the question everybody wants answered – we can’t go out with this study and tell city foresters they should plant more of this kind of tree vs. this kind of tree."

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This is the Environment Report.

When was the last time you were someplace so dark that you could look up at the night sky and actually see the stars? Not just a handful, but hundreds or thousands?

“The Milky Way when it rises here looks like a thunderstorm coming toward you. And you think, oh my god, it’s going to cloud over and it’s not, it’s the Milky Way rising, it’s the edge of our galaxy coming up.”

That’s a scene from a new documentary. It’s called The City Dark and it airs tonight on PBS stations (check your local listings).

The film takes a look at our love affair with artificial light – and why humans and wildlife need the night sky.  Ian Cheney directed and produced The City Dark and he joins me now.  Ian, you grew up in rural Maine – and in fact we’re talking to you from your parents’ house in Maine right now, but you’ve been working in New York City – and obviously, those are two big extremes. Why did you want to make this film?

Cheney: Well, when I moved to New York City, one of the first things I realized was that I was missing the night sky, and that launched me on a journey to explore this broader topic of light pollution and how artificial light affects our world.

RW: So what do you think we lose when we’re in cities or suburbs with bright street lights when we can’t see the sky?

Cheney: Well, it probably varies person by person but a lot of the things I came to feel and a lot of the things I heard from the people I interviewed involved a loss of a sense of perspective, a sense of place in the universe, a sense of connection to the cosmos, the stars beyond the everyday world in which we live that provides all sorts of inspiration.

RW: I have to tell you your photography of the night sky in this film is so beautiful.  What kind of challenges did you have shooting the footage?

Cheney: Well, the word photography of course means writing with light. So the idea of making a film in the dark was challenging from the beginning, especially on a budget with small cameras. So we used a lot of time lapse photography in the film, using regular SLR still cameras, not video cameras, to shoot still images of the night sky in sequence. We would shoot hundreds of images of stars over the course of the night, then string them together in time lapse imagery so you can watch the stars rise up over a mountain, or in many cases, watch city lights twinkle throughout the night as a few stars pop up as best they can.

RW: Ian Cheney is the director and producer of The City Dark. It airs tonight on PBS stations (check your local listings). Thank you so much!

Cheney: Thank you!

RW: Michigan has one of only six International Dark Sky Parks in the country.  That’s a designation for a place with an exceptional view of the night sky. Ours is The Headlands, in the northwest Lower Peninsula about two miles west of Mackinac City. 

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

New Investigation Into Palisades Plant

  • The Palisades nuclear power plant in Van Buren County, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

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

The Palisades plant near South Haven has an aluminum water tank that’s used in case of emergencies or when the plant needs to be refueled. It’s been leaking. Last month, Entergy – the company that owns the plant – shut it down to fix the leak.

Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith has been covering this story. Lindsey, it’s just come out that that water tank has been leaking for a LOT longer than the company first admitted.

Lindsey: Yeah, at that time a Palisades spokesperson told me Entergy knew about the leak for several weeks. But it turns out that they really knew about this tank leaking for more than a year.

Rebecca: How’d you find that out?

Lindsey: So a watchdog group dug up a document – this is a document from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that’s the federal agency that regulates Palisades and all the other nuclear power plants in the country. So, go back to May 18th 2011. There’s water leaking into the plant’s control room. This is the brain of the planet. Workers determined at that point that rain was getting into the control room. But they also found a tiny leak in this huge water tank. The tank rests above the control room. Now, tiny is 400 milliliters – from a water tank that holds close to 300,000 gallons. So, because it’s such a super tiny amount they plan to fix the tank during the next planned refueling outage. No biggie.

So this past April – the plant shuts down to replace its spent nuclear fuel rods. Mark Savage says the tank was drained and repairs began.

“The modification we made to what’s called the nozzle in the tank we thought was the leak source.”

But when they fill up the tank it’s still leaking. In fact it’s probably worse.

Rebecca: Worse than before?

Lindsey: Yeah, remember before they tried to fix the tank the leak was nearly two cups of water a day. After the fix the leak got as bad as 31 gallons day.

Rebecca: So this water that’s leaking out, is it safe?

Lindsey: It does contain “trace amounts” of tritium – that’s a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. That’s because the water comes into contact with the fuel at the plant, Savage said. It was contained in smaller tanks when the big tank was leaking and federal regulators say there was no danger to workers or the public – it never left the plant.

Rebecca: Since the last time we talked about Palisades, a group of special federal investigators has launched an investigation into the leaky water tank. What’s going on with that?

Lindsey: Well, the company can’t comment – or it won’t comment – on the investigation and there’s not much the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can say about open investigations either. But NRC Spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng says the investigation isn’t about the current leak issues – it’s about the “historical handling” of the water tank leak.

“You know how much of a leak, and what did you know, when did you know it? Stuff like that – those are the questions that we have to wait before we can respond.”

I don’t know what they’re looking into but there was something that caught my eye in reviewing these documents. When plant workers were figuring out where the water in the control room was coming from they had to go out of their way to check out some of the pipes connected to the water tank. Documents show the pipes hadn’t been inspected in more than 17 years even though they’re supposed to every three or four years. But I don’t know if that’s what the investigators are looking into. And NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng cannot comment on this issue because it is under investigation.

Thanks Lindsey. Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s West Michigan reporter. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.