Fish Farming in Detroit

  • Noah Link is the co-owner of Food Field. It's a small farm in Detroit's Boston-Edison neighborhood. Link calls the converted shipping container his "post-industrial" farm house. (Photo by Mercedes Mejia)

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

The Detroit Planning Commission recently approved the city’s new Urban Agriculture Ordinance. The action takes the city a step closer to officially recognizing the dozens of urban farms and gardens scattered across the city. The ordinance also defines the kinds of projects that would be allowed, such as farm stands, orchards or greenhouses. Mercedes Mejia reports some residents are experimenting with aquaponics. It’s a method of growing crops and fish at the same time:

Noah Link: “Over here is our chicken coop. We have about 42 chickens and four ducks so far. You can hear the ducks – they’ve awfully loud and hungry probably.”

Noah Link is the owner of Food Field. He lives and works in Detroit. His four acre property is on the site of a former elementary school. Imagine a farm tucked away in the city.

“So if you go a few blocks one way there are huge historical mansions, and you go a few blocks the other way and it’s all rundown old shops, and total poverty, and we’re right in between.”

Link and his business partner worked on several farms across the country. So they knew owning a farm wouldn’t be easy, but they’re doing the hard work. On the land are all kinds of crops, some chickens, a beehive, and a young orchard of fruit and nut trees, and there’s a hoop house to grow vegetables year-round.

“And we’ve just built an aquaponics system to be able to raise fish in there, which I’ll show you.”

Aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture – growing plants in water, and fish farming. Link’s system is a long underground tank for the fish, and raised beds above the tank where he plans to grow greens and tomatoes.

“And it takes the best of both of those in a self-sustaining system. The plants grow out of the wastewater from the fish that just gets circulated with the pump and they clean out the water to keep it safe for all the fish in the tank.”

A lot of people who do aquaponics raise tilapia. They’re fast-growing fish. But they’re also tropical and need warm water. So Link wants to raise bluegill and catfish because they can withstand colder water, and save him potentially thousands of dollars in heating bills.

He’s also trying to fill a void in the city. Detroit often lacks access to fresh produce and Link wants to change that with locally-grown fish and vegetables.

“Really what I’m interested in is showing different kinds of farming models that other people can apply either in their gardens or on bigger scales, and just producing as much food as we can sustainably here in the city.”

But Link, and others who’ve joined the urban agriculture movement in Detroit, have been working pretty much under the radar.

Underwood: “It’s not really illegal. The only thing that’s illegal is keeping farm animals and we’re not changing that quite yet.”

Kathryn Lynch Underwood is a city planner with the city of Detroit. She helped create the new Urban Agriculture Ordinance.

“Really, Detroit will, I think, be able to blossom and position itself as a global leader in how cities will feed themselves as well as positioning ourselves to have impact on urban food systems.”

The ordinance will go to the Detroit City Council and Mayor Dave Bing for consideration early next year. If it’s approved, it could open the door to more fish farming in Detroit.

For the Environment Report, I’m Mercedes Mejia.

Mapping Great Lakes Threats

  • The research team used the combined influence of 34 different threats to map environmental stress on the Great Lakes. (Image courtesy of University of Michigan)

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

The Great Lakes are under a lot of stress. 

34 different kinds of stress, to be exact.

That’s according to a research team that has produced a comprehensive map showing many of the things that stress the Great Lakes.  Think: pollution, invasive species, development and climate change… just to name a few. 

To learn more about this new map, I went to visit David Allan. He’s a professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, and he’s one of the people who led the project.

I asked him why he wanted to take on something like this:

David Allan: “So we set out to answer the question, what are the most important stressors in the Great Lakes, what’s the cumulative influence of environmental stressors in the Great Lakes, and what’s their spatial distribution – how do they vary from place to place? And we did that with the help of many by developing individual maps with 34 different environmental stressors; they represent invasive species and climate change and coastal development and contaminated sediments and land runoff, and we developed these individual stressor maps and then we combined them in a variety of ways but basically summed their influence so that we have the first ever spatial pattern of cumulative impact of humans on the Great Lakes.”

RW: “Let’s take a look at the map – we have it pulled up here – and it’s a colorful map and I can see there’s a key, the stress index, and it goes blue to red. Let’s take Lake Erie for example, we see an awful lot of red indicating relatively higher stress along these areas of Lake Erie. What’s going on there?”

David Allan: “So, Lake Erie certainly shows up as one of the lakes that has the highest value for our stress index. I don’t think that’s a big surprise to anyone. What is surprising though is the number of stressors that influence these coastal waters in particular. I think these coastal waters are most strongly stressed because they’re experiencing stressors that are occurring in the lakes themselves like invasive species and contaminated sediments, and they experience all the runoff from the land and all the aquatic habitat disruption that goes with coastal development.  And so, we’d have to look at the numbers to tease it out but there might be 18 or 20 or more of our stressors all having an influence on some of those coastal waters of Lake Erie, and that’s what gives it the red appearance on our map.  It’s the significantly larger number of stressors that are co-occuring in those locations.”

RW: “So what’s being done to reduce the stress on the lakes?”

David Allan: “So, right now, we are in the middle of a really important and useful set of activities called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and it’s invested over a billion dollars of federal money in Great Lakes restoration.  So, restoration is a mix of activities. We did another set of mapping.  We mapped all the locations that we could identify where restoration is taking place.  And we asked the question, would we have picked those places as well, and the answer was yes.  So, those restoration dollars are being invested in locations that we agree are places that are red on our map, they are places of high stress.  They tend to be places also that provide a lot of benefit to humans.  So, it’s a good thing that it’s taking place.”

David Allan is a professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at U of M.  I’m Rebecca Williams.

Palisades: The Year in Review

  • The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven, MI. (Photo courtesy of Entergy Corporation)

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

Palisades has been going through some significant challenges over the past couple of years. It’s been shut down eight times in two years – it had its safety rating downgraded to one of the worst in the country. (You can check out our interactive timeline of the events at Palisades over the past two years.)

Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith has been writing about the plant through the turmoil. She joins me now for a sort of year in review.

So, Lindsey, last month, federal regulators upgraded Palisades’ once poor safety rating to the best rating possible – is the plant safer now?

LS: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the plant was always operating safely or they would have shut it down. It’s got a pretty low threshold for screw ups. So the safety rating is a very technical process to measure a plant’s performance. It can be really confusing to hear that the rating jumped so dramatically – even though there’s been a number of water leaks at the plant – as recently as last month it shut down to fix a broken valve.

“I am very concerned about the leaks that have repeatedly occurred.”

This is Bette Pierman addressing the NRC at a meeting Tuesday night. She lives 15 miles away from the plant in Benton Township.

Pierman: “And when you tell me that you are very concerned about the maintenance of this plant, the physical part of this plant, I’m scratching my head. I can’t understand why you upgraded it.”

I asked NRC’s Regional Administrator Chuck Castro pretty much the same question during a press conference before the meeting. Why not gradually increase the safety rating if there are still problems?

Castro: “Because we expect them to completely resolve the issue and have nothing lingering. Lindsey: ‘But what you’re telling me though is they haven’t completely resolved some issues.’ Castro: ‘There’s other issues besides the two. The two issues are completely resolved and we’re satisfied with the fix but we have these other lingering sort of maintenance issues that aren’t risk significant but they indicate to us that there’s still some problems, underlying problems.’”

LS: So the bottom line: Entergy fixed the two issues that got Palisades the bad safety rating, but they’ve got these new problems with the leaks that aren’t directly tied to the safety rating, but that regulators still want to keep an eye on.

RW: Now I remember you saying that there will still be more regulators than usual at Palisades next year, even though they’ve been upgraded to this better safety rating.

LS: Yes, definitely. So, inspectors at the plant feel they need more support to make sure these mechanical problems causing the leaks get taken care of.  Castro petitioned his superiors in Washington to pay for an extra 1,000 inspection hours next year. The plant will need to shut down next fall to replace spent nuclear fuel with new stuff and at that time inspectors will be able to get into places that you can’t usually get at when the plant is running. So they should be able to get a more comprehensive look at the inside of the now 40 year old reactor with those extra inspection hours.

RW: What is the company, Entergy, saying about the extra inspections?

LS: Entergy officials were pretty clear that they are not satisfied with the plant’s performance yet either. They have this three year plan to return it to “operational excellence,” as they call it. They have replaced some people in key leadership positions as part of that plan. And they’ll get results of a new independent safety culture assessment early next month to see how they are doing.

Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s West Michigan reporter.

I’m Rebecca Williams.

Invader Watchlist & Highway Work Unearths Remains

  • Dikerogammarus villosus aka killer shrimp. (Photo courtesy of S. Giesen, NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

You can listen to today’s Environment Report or read an expanded version below.

More than 180 non-native species have made a home in the Great Lakes basin… and more could make their way in…

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

Scientists and government officials have their eyes on a watchlist of 53 species. It’s a list of the species that are most likely to become established in the Great Lakes region if they get in.

Take for example: killer shrimp.

Rochelle Sturtevant is a Regional Sea Grant Specialist for Outreach at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab in Ann Arbor.

“This is a species that shreds its prey. It is also cannibalistic, it will eat its own young; it will eat other closely related shrimp.”

She says killer shrimp are native to Europe but they haven’t been found in the U.S. yet.  Sturtevant and her colleagues recently launched a searchable online database – with pictures of the potential new invaders, and fact sheets about them, drawn from the available peer-reviewed research on the species. She says it’s a work in progress – in some cases there’s not much scientific literature available on a particular species – or it’s in foreign language and needs to be translated first.

She says scientists are always on the lookout for new potential invasive species in the lakes. But she says usually – scientists are not the ones who first find them.

“It’s by a fisherman or recreational boater or someone who has a cottage on the lake – so we really wanted to make the information on ‘how do you know when you catch something that you should report it to somebody?’ much more publicly available.”

She says you can report sightings of non-native species to the U.S. Geological Survey online or by phone: 1-877-STOP-ANS.

Sturtevant says it’s good to note the date, location where you saw the critter or plant and either a photo or specimen.

(music bump)

This is the Environment Report.

Earlier this year, a road crew in Oscoda, Michigan found some bones while they were resurfacing a stretch of U.S. 23.  Chris Zollars reports scientists have recently confirmed the bones are Native American remains:

In May, a road crew dug up the bones while backfilling a trench along U.S. 23.

James Robertson is the Michigan Department of Transportation’s senior archaeologist.

He says Oscoda’s U.S. 23 road project had federal funding.  So a 1990 law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act went into effect.

This provides a process that returns human remains, valuable or sacred objects, and objects of cultural significance to Native American tribes.

These items are occasionally dug up around the state’s former Native American lands.

But Robertson says MDOT’s 2 staff archaeologists use a variety of tools to try and avoid disturbing sites at all.

“We use historical maps, previously known site locations and a whole battery of information to do our risk analysis. But our first priority is to avoid impacts whenever possible.”

When they are human bones, Robertson says there are three steps.  First, they work with local authorities to determine if it’s a recent event.  If so, local law enforcement takes over.

If not, MDOT works with Michigan State University’s Forensic Science lab to determine the bones’ origin.  MSU’s team identified the Oscoda remains as Native American.  So James Robertson is working with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

William Johnson is the curator for the Ziibiwing Cultural Center for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

“The relationship between the Michigan Department of Transportation and the federally recognized Indian Tribe is strong.”

Johnson is the lead for these kinds of situations. The center has been working closely with MDOT to rebury native remains – since 1996.  He says that final step is an important honor for their tribal members.

“The ceremonies normally start in the morning with the lighting of the sacred fire. The use of all the medicines like sage, sweet grass, and tobacco and cedar are used in the ceremonies. The ancestors are spoken to in the language, especially if those are ancient ancestors like many of them are.”

Johnson says his tribe feels it’s a privilege to take care of the elders who provide the path that they follow today.  For the Environment Report, I’m Chris Zollars.

New Copper Mine in the U.P.?

  • Lake of the Clouds, in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. The proposed Copperwood Mine would be near the edge of the park. (Photo courtesy of

You can listen to today’s Environment Report above or read an expanded version below.

There could be a new copper mine in the Upper Peninsula…

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

The company Orvana Resources is one step closer to getting the approval it needs to build a new mine. The Copperwood Mine is proposed for a site north of the town of Wakefield in the western U.P. The state is reviewing the company’s final environmental permit.

The Department of Environmental Quality has already given the company mining, wastewater and air permits.

Steve Casey is the District Supervisor for the DEQ’s Water Resources Division.

“We’ve reviewed the application, put conditions on the mining operation that if followed, will be protective of water and air quality and also other natural resources.”

This final permit is the wetlands, inland lakes and streams permit.  Orvana withdrew its original application for this last permit and re-submitted it to address concerns from multiple parties.

The DEQ explains the action this way:

In response to comments from the public, Native American tribes, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and DEQ, the applicant made numerous improvements to its original submittal. The withdrawal and resubmittal of this application allows regulators to consider a single permit application instead of the original application with multiple corrected documents, and was necessary because of a pending deadline for resolving EPA concerns with the original application.

Major improvements to the original submission include:

  • An improved analysis of alternatives for reducing environmental impact, including a detailed review of the feasibility of placing tailings back in the mine.
  • Utilizing natural channel design (versus ditches) for channels diverting existing streams around the proposed tailings basin.  The new design incorporates wetland creation in the floodplain of the new stream channels.
  • Raising the height of the tailings basin to reduce its footprint.
  • Modifications of facilities to slightly reduce wetland impacts.
  • Adding two preservation tracts totaling 820 acres to the wetland mitigation plan.
  • Improving the stream mitigation plan by the creation of 10,500 feet of natural stream channel and replacement of a culvert on Two Mile Creek that is blocking brook trout passage on a tributary to the Wild and Scenic Cisco Branch of the Ontonagon River.
  • More accurately characterizing the length of streams impacted by the tailings basin.

The mine plan calls for a 320-acre tailings basin. It’s similar to a landfill that will hold water and ground up rock that the copper has been removed from.  Steve Casey says the company will build over about 58 acres of wetlands and three miles of small streams.  He says when they do that, the law requires that they try to replace the wetlands.

“The major issue yet to be resolved is what mitigation will be appropriate for the resources that will be unavoidably taken by this project.”

Overall, this mine has been less controversial than the Eagle Mine near Marquette.  A lot of people in the area want the mining jobs.  But environmental groups and tribes have still been voicing concerns.

Doug Welker is on the board of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition.

“The community basically is fairly desperate for any kind of economic stimulus in the Ironwood and Wakefield area, and as a result, the company’s been able to push the ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ argument without a lot of resistance.”

He says there are a number of issues with the mine plan that he thinks haven’t been adequately addressed, including potential water pollution, possible subsidence of the ground surface and the potential for catastrophic events.

Chuck Brumleve is the environmental mining specialist for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

“The Copperwood Mine, by design, there’s a number of problems. It’s located very close to the shores of Lake Superior. It’s right on the edge of the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness Area State Park.”

He says the tribes are especially concerned the mine could pollute Lake Superior and hurt the fisheries.

“We already have a problem with mercury, and fish advisories in Lake Superior; we’re all very concerned that we could be adding other metals to some of these fish advisories.”

One of the sticking points is how wastewater from the mining operation would be treated.

Dave Anderson is with Orvana.  He says the company believes their facility will exceed environmental standards.

“The wastewater treatment facility is designed for zero discharge for seven years. We know that if for any reason that facility should have any trouble, we have the ability to recycle water and hold water for extended periods of time, years, if necessary, so there’s no opportunity for an accidental release.”

He says, after those first seven years, the mine will release treated wastewater into a stream that flows into Lake Superior.

The mine is expected to operate for up to 15 years.

Anderson says wastewater from the tailings basin will continue to be treated for 3 to 5 years after the mine closes. After that, he says they’ll take the water out, and cap and close the basin.

Chuck Brumleve with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community says he’s concerned that if the cap on the tailings basin leaks, there could be problems.

“Anybody that knows landfills and worked around landfills that have caps on them: they don’t last forever. What happens in 50 years or further down the road, is that this thing will become a permanent source of contaminants to Lake Superior.”

The DEQ has approved the company’s plan for treating the wastewater from the tailings basin – and says it’s consistent with good environmental protection.

Orvana’s final permit application is open for public comment until December 18th. If the permit is approved, and the company decides to go forward with the mine, construction could begin next year.

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

Debate Continues Over Michigan Wolf Hunt

  • There are an estimated 700 wolves in the state of Michigan. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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

The Michigan Legislature is moving closer to allowing a hunting season for gray wolves.  The state Senate voted to designate the wolf as a game species last week. Now, the bill goes to the House. There are around 700 wolves in Michigan, mostly in the western Upper Peninsula.

If the Legislature makes the wolf a game species, then wildlife officials will still have to justify that a hunt is necessary and that it won’t harm wolf recovery.  Bob Allen reports:

Under state law, there can’t be a recreational wolf hunt for any old reason.

Wildlife officials would have to show that a hunt is warranted and that it would meet the goal of reducing wolf-human conflicts.

Adam Bump is a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“We’ve never had a wolf hunt in Michigan. We don’t know this is exactly what will happen if we do the following steps.”

DNR has a lot of information about wolf numbers, pack sizes and locations.

Wildlife officials also track incidents when wolves attack and kill or wound livestock or pets.

That’s referred to as depredation.

But some question whether a hunt is the best way to deal with it.

Jimmie Mitchell is head of Natural Resources for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee.

“The tribes oppose the wolf hunt based on the absence of information related to wise management practices. We don’t know whether or not the amount of depredation events that are occurring are enough of a reason to initiate a hunt.”

Mitchell speaks on behalf of five tribes that are part of a legal agreement with the state over treaty hunting and fishing rights.

DNR will have to consult with them before a wolf hunt is approved, and if the tribes aren’t satisfied there’s a good reason for it, they have the option of going back to federal court.  (You can learn more in this recent Environment Report story)

Senator Tom Casperson from the Upper Peninsula sponsored the measure to classify wolves as a game animal.  He recognizes that the state and private landowners have the authority now to kill wolves that are causing problems.

But he says that still isn’t good enough to control the population.

“I think the hunting community plays a key role in helping us get there. And to exclude them from the process, I think is a mistake.”

Casperson is hearing from hunters who complain that wolves are killing too many deer.  And he points to reports about wolves coming right into people’s back yards in the far western U.P.

He says it may make sense just to target a few counties there instead of a full blown hunt.

The Natural Resources Commission decides if there’s to be a hunt and what the rules will be, not the Legislature.

What researchers do know is that wolves will respond to any decrease in their numbers.

Wildlife biologist Rolf Peterson has studied wolf behavior on Isle Royale for more than 40 years.  He says a public hunt could split the animals into smaller packs and actually increase reproduction.

“It’s sort of if you kill one wolf, two come to the funeral. I mean that’s just a common sense way of expressing the ability of wolves to respond to any sort of increase in mortality.”

Peterson says a hunt designed to reduce conflicts with humans could work, depending on which wolves were killed and how many.  But he thinks it would have to be in a very small area.

But Peterson says over the last decade trained professionals have shown that they can move in quickly and get rid of problem animals.

“Wolf hunting by the public is not about solving problems, for the most part. It’s about people’s desire to kill wolves for whatever reason that might be.”

The law requires the DNR to manage according to best science that is available to them.  And in this case, DNR biologist Adam Bump says, the agency doesn’t know for sure how even a targeted hunt would change pack behavior or solve conflicts with humans.

“We can look at a lot of those things. But some of those questions you’re just not going to have concrete solid answers for before you move forward.”

If a public hunt is approved, he says, the DNR would monitor closely what happens and adapt to changes over time.

For the Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.