Officials in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario are all gearing up for another summer of fighting the emerald ash borer. The Asian insect burrows into and kills ash trees. The economic and the environmental costs of the invasive beetle are adding up. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Poorman reports:
Officials in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario are all gearing up for another
summer of fighting the emerald ash borer. The Asian insect burrows
kills ash trees. The economic and the environmental costs of the
beetle are adding up. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill
Researchers first identified the emerald ash borer just a couple of years
ago. The small, metallic-green beetle has killed millions of ash trees,
especially in southeast Michigan where thirteen counties are under
quarantine. Paul Bairley is the city forester for Ann Arbor, Michigan.
city is spending millions of dollars fighting the emerald ash borer. But
Bairley says, losing the trees has a significant environmental cost, as
well. Larger ash trees can provide enough oxygen for a family of four
year, and other benefits.
“That same tree will provide the cooling value of about twenty
room-size air conditioners, BTU equivalents…and probably most importantly, air filtration
of pollutants. A car driven 11-thousand miles per year, that tree could
absorb effectively, recycle the exhaust from that automobile.”
Researchers think the emerald ash borer first arrived in the mid 90s
packing materials for goods shipped from Asian countries. For the
Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bill Poorman.
Piles of GreenCel are dumped outside KTM Industries in
Lansing, Mich. It looks like garbage, but the biodegradable material will dissolve and wash away with the next rain. KTM is one of a number of new environmentally-conscious small businesses called "Green Gazelles." (Photo by Corbin Sullivan)
Workers at KTM put "Magic Nuudles" in bags to be
shipped to a fabric store chain. They're used as foam building blocks for kids. The "Nuudles" are made of processed cornstarch, and they dissolve in water. (Photo by Corbin Sullivan)
When the cornstarch foam comes out of KTM's processing machines, it's pressed into sheets for packing. These workers are sawing the sheets into pieces that will cushion used computers being sent overseas by a local charity. (Photo by Corbin Sullivan)
Most environmental issues pit environmentalists against business interests. But now, people on both sides say working together might be the only way to help the nation’s economy, and preserve natural resources. So they’re teaming up to promote a group of fast-growing, environmentally-friendly small businesses called “Green Gazelles.” The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:
Most environmental issues pit environmentalists against business interests. But now,
people on both sides say working together might be the only way to help the nation’s
economy, and preserve natural resources. So they’re teaming up to promote a group of fast-
growing, environmentally-friendly small businesses called “Green Gazelles.” The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:
People who love video games are scrambling to get their hands on the latest gadget in the
gaming world. It’s a new hard drive for Sony’s PlayStation2. The drive comes loaded with
a new version of the game Final Fantasy. And it comes packaged in a new kind of
environmentally-friendly foam, called GreenCel.
(sound of manufacturing facility)
“It’s gonna be a little loud out here.”
“What’s the smell?”
“It’s cornstarch, that’s exactly what you’re smelling.
We’re taking cornstarch and we’re doing something that nobody else in the world does.
We’re melting it, and then we’re foaming it into huge sheets.”
A company called KTM Industries makes “GreenCel.” It’s an organic packing material –
made from cornstarch, vegetable oil and water. Companies like Sony are using it instead of
products made with petroleum, like Styrofoam. Those products don’t break down naturally.
KTM also makes an arts and crafts product for kids called “Magic Nuudles.” The Nuudles
are made out of cornstarch, too. They look like those candy circus peanuts, but they’re in all
different colors. Kids can glue Nuudles to paper to make pictures. Or they can build things
Both GreenCel and Magic Nuudles dissolve in water.
Tim Colonnese is KTM’s president. He says business is so good right now
because people are getting smarter about how they spend their money.
“You’ve got a better educated population out there that recognizes that we can’t
continue to do business as usual. Our landfills are getting fuller, our air is getting
dirtier, our water is getting dirtier. And we’ve got to take those steps right now, as
our population increases and business increases, to start cleaning up our act.”
KTM is one of a new group of small businesses throughout the country, called “green
gazelles.” Green — meaning they make environmentally-friendly products using newer,
cleaner methods. And “Gazelles” — because they’re fast-moving companies able to quickly
apply new technology.
Colonnese started his company seven years ago. He says it was awhile before
KTM’s products became profitable. But now, Colonnese says his company and other green
gazelles could be the future of the American economy.
“So as big business takes its job elsewhere, where are those new jobs going to be
created? And it’s going to be created with small business, with innovators that come up
with new products and new processes that are completely different from what the big boys
are doing. And hopefully, if a few of us are successful, we will become the next large
And the numbers show that’s already happening. Mark Clevey is with the Small Business
Association of Michigan. He says green gazelles are creating new jobs in the
US. But Clevey says they’re doing so without a lot of financial help.
“These companies, although they’re fast-growing companies, one of the reasons they
grow fast is because their competitive advantage is based on some technological
advantage and, in order to get that technological advantage, they have to invest
several million dollars, at a minimum, in research and development. Banks don’t fund
that, venture capitalists don’t fund that, universities don’t fund it, nobody funds that
kind of technology.”
Except, Clevey says, the government to some extent. He says the US Department of Energy
offers grants to small businesses for research.
Clevey says most state governments offer tax credits and incentives for basic small
business development. But he argues it would be better in the long run if states would start
investing more in research and technology – even if it’s risky.
That’s something people in Rust Belt states are already talking about.
Steve Chester is director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
“I think there are some things that we can do environmentally, for instance, we do
have a lot of grants and loans that we provide. And to the extent that we might be
able to prioritize green technologies, I think that’s something we should try to do.”
Supporters of green gazelles are hoping to persuade Congress that helping green companies
is the best way to help the environment. During upcoming Congressional hearings, they’ll
ask lawmakers for more financial support and tax incentives for green gazelles.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.
Giant Canada Geese, Belle Isle, Detroit. (Photo by Celeste Headlee)
In just thirty years, the Giant Canada Goose has gone from near extinction to a now-thriving population. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of geese gather on golf courses and in state parks, often causing problems for their human neighbors. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Celeste Headlee reports, some property owners have found a unique solution to the problem:
In just thirty years, the Giant Canada Goose has gone from near
extinction to a now thriving population. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of geese
gather on golf courses and in state parks, often causing problems for
their human neighbors. As the Great Lake Radio Consortium’s Celeste
Headlee reports, some property owners have found a unique solution to the
A year ago, dozens of families flocked to Pier Park in the Detroit suburb
Grosse Pointe Woods for an annual Easter egg hunt. Children rushed
grass with their brightly colored baskets and then stopped abruptly when
they found themselves surrounded by Giant Canada geese and their
Park manager Michelle Balke says local residents decided
the geese had to go.
“They left droppings everywhere. You couldn’t walk on the grass. They’re
aggressive. If kids start going up to them, they start hissing back and it
got really annoying. They were everywhere.”
It hasn’t always been like that. The Giant Canada goose was so rare 30
years ago that many scientists thought it was extinct. But a few of the
large birds were spotted in the 1960s. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources began
an aggressive recovery program and there are now three and a half million Canada geese in the
Conservation agencies say the birds cause hundreds of thousands of
dollars in damage every year because of accumulated droppings, overgrazing,
attacks against people and threats to aircraft.
(sound of geese)
Tom Schneider is the curator of birds at the Detroit Zoo. He trades
glares with a large male bird that has taken up residence on a lawn at the zoo. The
big black and grey goose honks at Schneider, warning him to stay away
from his chosen territory. Schneider says one aggressive bird can be a bit of
a problem, but a large crowd of them is unacceptable.
“People tend to like them until they get to be a certain number where they
become a nuisance, and when they become a nuisance, they don’t want
any geese. So, you might have a lake that has five pairs on there and that’s
great, but if you have 50 pairs of geese on there, it’s not so good
Schneider is a member of the Canada Goose Coalition. The group
includes representatives from the government, hunters, scientists and animal
welfare organizations. The coalition deals with the large population of Canada
Geese in the Great Lakes region. Schneider says one of the problems
with the birds is that they eat grass. Most birds don’t.
“The problem is they don’t have very efficient digestive systems. So they
have to eat a lot of food to get their nutrients, so as a result they
produce a lot of fecal material.”
Schneider says property owners have struggled to deal with large
groups of geese and the droppings they leave behind. One adult goose produces
about a pound and a half of droppings every day. When there are a hundred
birds on a piece of property… well… you can imagine. But the birds are federally
protected. So there’s not a lot that you can do.
(sound of geese)
But…one guy got an idea and called Barbara Ray. Ray had for years
been training border collies to drive sheep when she got a call from a man
looking for a dog to herd birds.
“I had a golf course superintendent who just had an idea about trying to
use these dogs to herd the geese… not chase them because the dog
needed to be under control. We certainly can’t have a dog that catches the geese
and shreds them like other breeds would be prone to do. But one that is
simply jazzed by staring down and moving birds in a specific direction.”
Ray says it was easy for the dogs to learn how to drive geese and one
dog can cover several hundred acres. She says border collies naturally
intimidate prey without barking or attacking, so they’re perfect for this
kind of work.
“What they’re using is a ‘let’s make my day’ kind of approach where the
stock believes if they don’t move as the dog quietly approaches, staring at
them in this intimidating fashion, that they’re probably going to follow up and
do something more demonstrative.”
Ray has built a business around training goose dogs and has so far
sold more than 500 of the dogs. One of those border collies ended up at Pier Park
in suburban Detroit. Manager Michelle Balke says it’s been a year since
the dog, Kate, arrived and there is no longer a problem with geese at the
“She had just gotten rid of them, whether they sense her being here or
what, but they just stopped coming around. They were going next door, they
were hanging out on Lakeshore Road out there, but they just weren’t coming
into the park.”
(ambient sound of geese fade in)
Tom Schneider says goose dogs are an effective, humane way to deal
with Canada geese on private property, but it’s not a permanent solution to
the problem of overpopulation.
“The problem with that program… in many ways, it shifts those problem
geese to a different location, so maybe they may no longer be a problem on
this golf course but now they’re a problem on that golf course. While that
does provide some remedy for the people in those situations, it doesn’t really
solve the bigger, overall picture.”
Schneider has led a goose management program for over a decade at
the Detroit Zoo that involves destroying eggs. That program has cut the
number of geese on zoo grounds from between 500 and a thousand to 50.
This year, Schneider’s team will travel to other places to destroy eggs
and encourage thousands of geese to move on. But you have to have a
permit to do that which is not that easy to do. Schneider thinks goose dogs might
be the best alternative for private landowners.
(ambient sound out)
Goose dogs have become so popular that more than a dozen
companies around the U.S. now train and sell border collies to chase the Giant Canada
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Celeste Headlee.
The EPA is getting ready for smog season. (photo courtesy of USEPA)
On ozone action days people with respiratory
problems are asked to stay indoors. (photo courtesy of
Problem areas (with
ground-level ozone exceeding the new EPA standards) in the U.S. (photo courtesy of USEPA)
The federal government’s tougher regulations on pollution might have consequences on prices at the gasoline pump. To meet the Clean Air Act, some areas might be required to use cleaner-burning fuels. That could make it tougher to get gasoline supplies where they need to be. And that could mean higher prices. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
The federal government’s tougher regulations on pollution might have consequences on prices at
the gasoline pump. To meet the Clean Air Act some areas might be required to use cleaner-
burning fuels. That could make it tougher to get gasoline supplies where they need to be. And
that could mean higher prices. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
The Environmental Protection Agency says 31 states are not complying with the Clean Air Act.
The EPA indicates tougher standards for ground-level ozone make many areas that didn’t know
they had a problem in violation of air pollution laws.
John Mooney is an environmental specialist with the EPA. He says the government used to
check for ozone pollution for short periods… but started monitoring for longer periods and found
more instances of high levels of ozone.
“The other issue is that we’re changing the number of the standard from 120 down to 80 parts-
per-billion. So, it’s a lower level that we’re looking at. And we think that’s more reflective of
the health effects that are being caused by this pollutant.”
Ground-level ozone aggravates asthma. People with lung diseases can find it hard to breathe.
And those who work outdoors are affected by the unhealthy air.
Ozone is created when factories and cars emit volatile organic compounds. That chemical stew is
affected by sunlight and ozone can form. Cities that have had high ozone levels have worked to
reduce emissions from businesses, encouraged car-pooling, made announcements asking people
not to use gas-powered mowers on high ozone days.
And… for some cities… part of the solution has been reformulated gasoline. It’s gas that’s
cleaner burning. Different formulations are used in different areas. And… gas formulas change
from winter to summer. Refineries and gasoline suppliers have to empty their tanks and pipelines
before switching. That makes gas supplies tight for a while and that drives the price up. We
asked the EPA’s John Mooney about that.
LG: We’ve got several cities with reformulated gasoline right now and that’s put a strain on the
distribution system nation-wide. If more cities have to start using reformulated gasoline and each
city has to have a different formulation, that’s going to further strain the distribution problem at a
time when gasoline prices are at an all time high.
JM: “We’re extremely sensitive to the infrastructure issue and the energy issue and are trying to
promote clean-burning fuels that have environmental impacts without significant economic
disruptions. Having fuel shortages and price spikes and things of that nature don’t contribute to
the success of our mission to improve public health. And so, we’re going to be tied into the fuel
distribution issues and we’re going to be working with the oil refiners to make sure that the fuels
programs that are ultimately decided upon operate without significant disruptions.”
Significant disruptions that could cause gasoline shortages and high prices.
Bob Slaughter is the President of NPRA, the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association. He
says the government needs to work closely with gasoline suppliers to make sure that efforts to
make the air easier to breathe don’t make problems for the economy of an area.
“You know, you have to be very careful that you don’t have so many fuels in certain areas that it
becomes difficult to re-supply if there are problems, say, with a refinery or a pipeline in a
For instance, in recent years a fire at a refinery at a bad time meant shortages and higher prices.
But… even with lots of cooperation between government and the gasoline suppliers, the added
burden of different types of reformulated gasoline to the fuel distribution system might mean
spikes in gas prices.
(road sound, gas station)
We asked some people buying gas if they were willing to pay more if it meant cleaner air…
VOXPOP (voice 1) “Well, the gas prices are high enough. Uh, am I willing? I suppose so if it’s
better for the environment.” (voice 2) “Well, I think the federal government regulates everything
way too much right now. I think they do have a lot of safeguards in place right now to lower the
emissions in a lot of vehicles. Why do we have to make further regulation to control that?”
(voice 3) “I mean, I hate to – I hate to pay more gas prices. I really do. But, I guess for cleaner
air, it might be worth it.” (voice 4) “I haven’t thought about it too much. I pay what they make
me pay. I don’t care.”
The EPA is giving states and cities three years to get their ground-level ozone pollution problems
below the government’s new standards.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
A bill in Congress would extend a moratorium on drilling in the Great Lakes, but higher gas prices and a lower amount of OPEC oil production could make extending the ban tougher. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson reports:
A bill in Congress would extend a moratorium on drilling in the Great Lakes, but higher gas
prices and a lower amount of OPEC oil production could make extending the ban tougher. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson reports:
A bi-partisan group of senators is pushing to extend the moratorium on drilling for gas and oil in
the Great Lakes. The moratorium is set to expire next year. Democrat Russ Feingold of
Wisconsin is optimistic the moratorium will be extended to 2007, but he says the energy lobby is
opposed to it.
“The oil industry would love to drill in all kinds of places. Not only Alaska, but our coasts. They
even have a desire to drill in places like Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.”
Most Great Lakes states already have tight controls or bans on drilling in the lakes. Michigan
Geological Division Chief Harold Fitch says drilling has gone from an uproar four years ago to a
non-issue now. Even so, he says there are reservoirs of gas and oil under the Great Lakes.
“We have seven producing wells, producing from reservoirs that are beneath the Great Lakes.
We suspect there are other reservoirs out there.”
Fitch says other states including Indiana and Ohio have potential to tap into the gas and oil
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mike Simonson.
Michigan and Pennsylvania are among the top trash-importing states in the nation. In both cases, it’s because both states have lots of capacity and low dumping fees. In Michigan, lawmakers are trying to reduce trash imports, but their efforts are headed to court. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Michael Leland has more:
Michigan and Pennsylvania are among the top trash-importing states in the nation. In both cases,
it’s because both states have lots of capacity and low dumping fees. In Michigan, lawmakers are
trying to reduce trash imports, but their efforts are headed to court. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Michael Leland has more.
In March, Governor Jennifer Granholm signed bills aimed at limiting out-of-state waste in
Michigan landfills. The new laws impose a two-year moratorium on landfill construction. State
inspectors can also now turn back trucks bound for Michigan landfills with items like soda cans,
beer bottles and tires – all things state residents can’t put in their own trash.
“If you dump in Michigan, you have to abide by our rules. You cannot put things in our waste
stream that we would not put in our waste stream.”
The National Solid Wastes Management Association has filed a lawsuit to block Michigan’s
laws. Bruce Parker is the organization’s president. He says they unlawfully limit interstate
“The United States Supreme Court has said many times that garbage should be afforded the same
constitutional protection as food, automobiles, you name it. It’s an article of commerce.”
About a fourth of the trash in Michigan’s landfills comes from out-of-state. Most of that
imported amount comes from Toronto.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Michael Leland.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is looking at whether the gas mileage estimates that appear on the window stickers of new cars are over-inflated. The agency responded to a petition from a California environmental group. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Poorman reports:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is looking at whether the gas
mileage estimates that appear on the window stickers of new cars are
over-inflated. The agency responded to a petition from a California
environmental group. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Poorman
The Bluewater Network says that cars and trucks actually get as much as
twenty percent fewer miles per gallon than EPA window stickers suggest.
Spokesperson Elisa Lynch says that’s because driving patterns have changed
since the current testing system was set up in the mid ’80s.
“There’s been increased urbanization, there are higher speed limits, and more
traffic congestion, and all of these are factors that affect your fuel
economy when you’re out there driving in the real world.”
The EPA is seeking public comment on its testing procedure. EPA
spokesperson John Millet says that part of the process will wrap up in late
“After that period, EPA will go through what we anticipate will be
quite a lot of information, and that’s going to take some time.”
Millet says the EPA might decide its current testing system is just fine.
But if that’s not the case, it could still be up to three years before
another system is in place.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bill Poorman.
Characters in the upcoming film Barn Red. Ernest Borgnine plays a farmer, who's struggling to keep his 240-acre fruit farm in the face of development pressures.
People worried about land-use issues usually don’t laugh about them. But a Michigan filmmaker has made a romantic comedy about development pressures on America’s farmland. Director Rich Brauer hopes the humor of his movie “Barn Red” will make the issue more accessible for the general public. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Peter Payette reports:
People worried about land-use issues usually don’t laugh about them. But a
Michigan filmmaker has made a romantic comedy about development pressures
on America’s farmland. Director Rich Brauer hopes the humor of his movie
“Barn Red” will make the issue more accessible for the general public. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Peter Payette reports:
You might call Micheal Bollini puzzled at the beginning of the movie, “Barn
The old fruit farmer played by actor Ernest Borgnine is a picture of rugged self-
reliance. But he’s bewildered by the pressure he’s under to get out of farming.
“Did you ever get that feeling that you’re going too fast and you pass a police car
and he’s got his radar at you. That’s how I feel when they talk about selling the
farm and everything. It gives me butterflies in my stomach. Terrible.”
Bollini can’t comprehend developer Paul Haight, played by actor Wayne David
Parker. In their first meeting, Haight tells Bollini he figures Bollini has to sell his
farm. Haight wants to build a subdivision there called Oak Wind. In a
conversation with his assistant, Haight calls Bollini’s 240- acre family farm a
HAIGHT: “So you go in here, drive up this way, turn here and your home.”
ASSISTANT: “Oak Winds is a good name. Bollini has a ton of oaks up there.”
HAIGHT: “Actually we’ll cut those down and plant this… it’s a
juniperous…something. They grow faster and there’s no leaves, no messy yards,
no leaves to clean up. So they’re perfect, no lousy squirrels.”
He goes onto say they’ll plant purple loosestrife for ground cover in Oak Wind.
Purple loosestrife is an invasive species that chokes out other the naturally
Haight can’t figure out why loosestrife is so cheap.
A lot of the humor in “Barn Red” lampoons characters with their own lack of
Bollini, the farmer, doesn’t open letters from the IRS that say he owes hundreds
of thousand of dollars in estate taxes.
Haight, The developer, gets poison ivy while trespassing on Bollini’s property.
In this scene a woman notices him scratching himself.
WOMAN: “Look’s like a pretty nasty rash you got there.”
HAIGHT: “I don’t know what the heck it is. I’m doing all I can not to scratch it,
but it seems to be spreading.”
WOMAN: “Looks like poison ivy to me. Good thing you put that pink stuff on
HAIGHT: “Oh, yeah, I sure hope it clears it up. I don’t know where I could have
gotten it at.”
The Filmmaker, Rich Brauer, says he made his movie entertaining so people will
pay attention to an issue he cares about.
Brauer lives in a rural part of northern Michigan. The region is under as much
development pressure as just about any place in the Midwest.
And Brauer’s been involved with land-use issues for years. He says he didn’t
have to invent the antics of the developer from scratch. He just had to tell about
some of the things he’s seen.
“I’ve seen these guys and I thought they were kidding. But they weren’t. Therein
lies comedy. So all I did…I just sort of created a character that echoed what I
had experienced in real life…This isn’t just completely off of a blank sheet of
paper…I was inspired by reality.”
The developer isn’t the butt of every joke.
In one scene the township clerk gets out their master plan to show to a friend of
Bollinis. She tells how it cost the township 150 thousand dollars and then the
plan just sat on the shelf for last five years.
People unfamiliar with planning and zoning might miss the sarcasm here.
But Larry Mawby didn’t. Mawby owns a vineyard in the township where “Barn
Red” was filmed. He’s been involved in local government there for twenty years.
Mawby says the county put together a state-of-the-art master plan in the mid-90s.
Mawby says people came from other parts of the state to see what they had done.
“That master plan has been totally and completely ignored. The Board of
Commissioners doesn’t pay attention to that master plan at all. Where they’re
citing the jail is contrary to their master plan. None of their facilities questions
have they ever looked at that master plan or paid attention to it. It’s like, what’s
the point here?”
The point of laughing about it in a movie may be to get everybody to lighten up.
Glenn Chown is the executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land
Brauer consulted with Chown while writing the script for his movie.
Chown thinks the levity of “Barn Red” will help the image of environmentalists.
“Sometimes we can be accused of being all gloom and doom. And the sky is
falling and it’s all falling apart and we’re all doomed. And I think we need to
lighten up a little bit. If we do lighten up a little bit, we’ll reach people more
But… the film ends with a little gloom and doom.
Between the end of the movie and the credits a figure from the American
Farmland Trust appears on the screen. It says America loses more than 1.2
million acres of farmland to sprawl each year.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Peter Payette.
When tires are balanced, lead weights are attached to the wheel rim. The weights make sure the tires wear evenly, and ensure a smooth ride. But the Ecology Center says the weights fall off, and the lead degrades easily, posing a risk to human health. (Photo by Mark Brush)
Lead wheel weights are about 95% lead. Two recent studies found that when the weights fall off of cars, they get ground up by traffic. Lead dust is deposited by roadways and sidewalks, and some researchers think the dust might be harmful to human health. The Ecology Center's "Lead-Free Wheels" program is trying to get tire retailers and local governments to switch to non-lead wheel weights. (Photo by Mark Brush)
For years, the government and environmentalists have been working to reduce lead exposure in the environment. Lead can cause developmental damage to children and cause other health problems. The government banned lead in gasoline. It banned lead shot in shotgun shells. There are efforts to get rid of lead sinkers in fishing tackle. And now, environmentalists are trying to ban lead weights used to balance wheels. And some companies and fleet operators seem willing to comply. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert has the story about the move to a less hazardous alternative:
For years, the government and environmentalists have been working to reduce lead exposure in the
environment. Lead can cause developmental damage to children and cause other health problems. The
government banned lead in gasoline. It banned lead shot in shotgun shells. There are efforts to get rid of lead
sinkers in fishing tackle. And now, environmentalists are trying to ban lead weights used to balance wheels.
And some companies and fleet operators seem willing to comply. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie
Halpert has the story about the move to a less hazardous alternative:
When you buy a new car or get your tires replaced, manufacturers use lead weights, which clip onto the wheel
rim to make sure it’s evenly balanced. They use lead, because it’s heavy, dense. So a small amount by
volume is used.
Still, a few ounces of lead can be used on each wheel. And nearly every car and truck on the road has lead
weights. They’re the second largest use of lead in cars, next to lead acid batteries.
As long as the weights stay on the tires, they’re not a huge problem. But environmentalists are worried that
they come off too often. Many fall off when a car hits a pothole or collides with a curb. Then they’re run
over, ground down and get into the environment.
Each year, roughly 30-million pounds of lead are used to make wheel weights. A recent study estimates that
more than 300 tons of lead fall off vehicles each year in the Midwest alone. Jeff Gearhart is with the Ecology
Center which conducted that study.
“Many people don’t realize there’s a lot of lead in vehicles for this particular use and this is actually a fairly
small percentage of that lead actually falls off. But when you look at it as quantity, it’s pretty significant.”
The weights don’t just pose a problem on the road. Gearhart says there’s also danger when they’re not
properly recycled when new tires are put on and the weights are replaced. Another problem is when a car is
scrapped and then later when the parts are melted down, the lead can be released into the environment.
“Lead wheel weights are not managed very well as vehicles are scrapped and the difficulty in correcting the
management of these at the end of a life in a salvage yard or in a vehicle crusher or a shredder is very
He says the solution is to make sure lead is not used in the first place. Concerned about lead’s potential
health effects, Europe has already decided to ban lead wheel weights starting next year. And Gearhart is
pushing manufacturers who design for the U.S. market to do the same. He says substitute materials, such as
zinc, iron and tin, are readily available and work just as well as lead.
And with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ecology Center is making lead-free weights
available to those who service vehicle fleets.
(sound of weights being hammered onto wheel rims)
At the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s garage, a technician is banging zinc weights onto wheels. Tom
Gibbons helps manage this fleet of 400 city vehicles. Ann Arbor is the first city to switch to lead-free
“We realize lead is a problem in the environment and in the city, we’re really concerned about the
environment. We’re committed to doing as much as we can to protect it, so if we can take lead out of the
system, why not do it.”
Gibbons says the substitutes work just as well as lead weights. He says once the Ecology Center’s free
supply of weights runs out, the city will began buying non-lead weights, even though they’ll cost slightly
But not everyone agrees with the idea of using other materials for wheel weights. Daimler/Chrysler doesn’t
plan to switch to lead-free weights for its U.S. models. The company is concerned the substitutes are costlier
and more difficult to install on wheels.
Other automakers are looking at eliminating the use of lead weights. Terry Cullum is with General Motors.
He agrees they’re currently an issue, but says the Ecology Center’s estimate of the number of weights that fall
off cars seems high to him. And, he says there’s no imminent danger to the public.
“I think if you look at this from a risk-based situation, we don’t view lead being used in wheel weights
applications as a risk, well, as a large risk, let’s put it that way.”
Even so, General Motors is considering moving to lead free weights. Cullum says that everywhere the
automaker uses lead is a concern. And since the company will have to stop using lead weights on the cars and
trucks it sell in Europe, he says it might be easier just to take them out of all GM vehicles. Still, Cullum says
the substitutes present a big engineering challenge: because they’re not as dense. It takes bigger pieces of
metal to make the same weight. So, they take up more space on the wheel than lead weights.
“It becomes an issue, in terms of where do you put it on the wheel, how do you do it in such a way that it
doesn’t actually interfere with the actual operation of the wheel or the brake systems. That is an issue that is
going through research and engineering right now.”
But Cullum’s optimistic that the issue can be addressed. And other auto makers, such as Honda, are forging
ahead with lead-free weights on at least one of their model.
Still there’s resistance from U.S. tire retailers. The Tire Industry Association says the weights don’t fall off
wheels. And the tire retailers say the lead weights are properly recycled. The group has no plans to stop
using lead weights if they’re not legally required to.
Jeff Gearhart with the Ecology Center says that denial of the problem is a big mistake. He says if
manufacturers and tire retailers cooperated, they could get a substantial amount of lead out of the
environment within a few years.
“There is the potential to make a really significant impact here. We’re talking hundreds of tons of lead
released into the U.S. to the environment that can be eliminated. So we think this is a high priority project,
not just for us, but we think it will be for states and for EPA to look at how to facilitate this transition to
cleaner wheel balancing.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is starting to look at the issue. It plans to conduct a study within the
next year to get a better understanding of the problem and see how lead weights are handled. Then, they’ll
issue guidelines for consumers and tire recyclers late next year. That means the public will be more aware of
the use of lead wheel weights and the potential for toxic exposure. Usually, that means public pressure for
change, whether some automakers and tire retailers like it or not.
For The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Halpert.