Seagrass Beds Declining

  • Recent studies show about a third of all sea grasses have disappeared worldwide.(Photo courtesy of NOAA/Heather Dine)

The Gulf of Mexico is losing sea grass beds at an alarming rate. According to a new aerial survey, Mobile Bay has lost nearly 14-hundred acres of sea grass beds in the last few years. And as Tanya Ott reports, that could affect your dinner plate:

Transcript

The Gulf of Mexico is losing sea grass beds at an alarming rate. According to a new aerial survey, Mobile Bay has lost nearly 14-hundred acres of sea grass beds in the last few years. And as Tanya Ott reports, that could affect your dinner plate.

Americans love shrimp. And shrimp love sea grass beds. But as Tanya Ott reports sea grass beds are dying at an alarming rate.

Each American eats on average four pounds of shrimp a year. But a new aerial survey of the Gulf of Mexico finds the place where shrimp, crab and a lot of different fish find their food is disappearing. Scientists say agricultural runoff and sediment from development are killing off sea grass beds. Dauphin Island Sea Lab scientist Ken Heck says part of the problem is PR. Sea grass beds just are’t as sexy as some other ecosystems.

“Many people know about coral reefs and they know about tropical rain forests. But sea grass habitats are a bit under-loved and under-appreciated.”

Sea grass decline isn’t just a problem in the Gulf of Mexico. Heck is part of team doing a global sea grass census. He says worldwide a third of sea grass beds have disappeared.

For The Environment Report, I’m Tanya Ott.

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Biomass Power’s Footprint (Part 2)

  • The future site of Russell Biomass Power Plant is already used as storage space for chips that are sold to another biomass operation.(Photo courtesy of Shawn Allee)

Biomass power is the new-fangled alternative energy source that uses a pretty old technology: basically, you just burn plants, usually wood, for electrical power.

Many states are looking into biomass power because they have plenty of wood and sometimes wind or solar farms meet resistance from neighbors.

For a while, Massachussetts looked like it would give biomass power a big boost.
Shawn Allee found the state could change its mind:

Transcript

Biomass power is the new-fangled alternative energy source that uses a pretty old technology: basically, you just burn plants, usually wood, for electrical power.

Many states are looking into biomass power because they have plenty of wood and sometimes wind or solar farms meet resistance from neighbors.

For a while, Massachussetts looked like it would give biomass power a big boost.
Shawn Allee found the state could change its mind.

A guy named John Bos gives me a tour of an old lumber mill.

It’s in Western Massachussetts, in a town called Russell.
The mill’s almost in ruins.

“So you can see this … it looks like movie set out of a bad , bad-guy movie.”

“Definitely. Watch your footing there .. ”

This factory used to turn wood into lumber, charcoal and paper.

Bos’ brother and other investors want to give the place a new life … but wood will still play a key role.

“We are walking into the site of what will be Russell Biomass.”

The Russell biomass plant would be a power station that burns wood to generate electricity.

It’d burn through half a million tons of wood each year.

And if you think that’s a lot of trees going up in smoke, Bos says the plant will use mostly waste wood.

“Our wood will come from discarded pallets, stump removal from development. Road side trimming. Every year there’s road-side trimming to keep utility lines clear. There’s a lot of waste wood out there.”

This is controversial talk in Western Massachussetts.

Critics of biomass power don’t trust the idea that local supplies of “waste wood” will hold out since investors are planning five biomass power plants.

Chris Matera is one critic.
Matera shows me what he fears could happen if projects like Russell Biomass come through.

He takes me to forest that surrounds a long, thin reservoir.

The forest filters rainwater and keeps the reservoir clean and clear.
The reservoir happens to supply water to the Boston metro area.
Anyway, Matera shows me there’s logging here.

“We’re looking at big stumps and rutted out muddy areas on a steep slope that actually dr ain into the watershed eventually. It’s not gonna help the water quality. This is a place you’re not even allowed to cross-country ski to protect the watershed. A lot of places you’re not even allowed to hike.”

These trees were NOT cut for biomass power, but Matera fears new biomass plants will use up cheap waste wood …
Then, they’d resort to logging like this to keep producing electricity.
And the water quality in reservoirs, streams and rivers would suffer.

There’s been plenty of heat between biomass proponents and their critics.

One sticking point is whether Massachussetts should subsidize biomass power in the same way it does other renewable power sources, like wind and solar.

The state hired an outside consulting group called Manomet to help it decide.

“We’ve been asked by the state of Massachusetts to answer some basic fundamental questions about woody biomass energy.”

John Hagan is Manomet’s president.
Hagan’s supposed to answer whether there’s enough waste wood or any kind of wood to supply biomass plants planned for Massachussetts.

He says his group’s not entirely finished, but …

“I think if four, fifty megawatt plants went in, they’d almost certainly have to pull wood from beyond the boundaries of the State of Massachusetts.”

Hagan says this doesn’t necessarily mean forests in the state will suffer … his group’s not finished with its report, after all.

But he thinks it’s good Massaschussetts is questioning whether biomass deserves extra financial help.

Hagan says states are subsidizing biomass without thinking through all the effects … not just on local jobs … but also forests, and local air and water pollution.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

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New Concerns Over Wastewater Sludge

  • Triclosan is an active ingredient in many products claiming antibacterial properties. (Photo by Kinna Ohman)

After sewage is cleaned at a wastewater treatment plant, sludge is left behind. This
sludge is often used on farms as fertilizer. But the wastewater treatment doesn’t get
rid of all the drugs and chemicals we flush down the drain. Kinna Ohman reports
researchers are finding some of these chemicals are affecting wildlife and could be
getting into our food:

Transcript

After sewage is cleaned at a wastewater treatment plant, sludge is left behind. This
sludge is often used on farms as fertilizer. But the wastewater treatment doesn’t get
rid of all the drugs and chemicals we flush down the drain. Kinna Ohman reports
researchers are finding some of these chemicals are affecting wildlife and could be
getting into our food:


Take a tour of any wastewater treatment plant and you’ll soon understand the main
objective: to separate the liquids from the solids. Until the mid 90s, most of these solids,
or sludge, used to go into landfills or were dumped in the ocean. But in 1994 the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency started a program to promote the use of sludge on farm
fields as fertilizer. The EPA thought this was the perfect solution… turning waste into a
useful product.


But scientists have found something which could turn the EPA program on its head.
Rolf Halden is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Water
and Health. He says sludge contains most of the chemicals we use:


“If you look at municipal sludge, it really is a matrix that reflects the chemical footprint
of our society.”


Halden’s focused on one chemical he’s found in sludge called Triclosan – and
there’s a lot of it out there. It’s in antibacterial soaps, and can even be in our toothpastes,
deodorants, and shampoos. Until recently, most if it was thought to break down. Now,
Halden says they found something different:


“In the work that we have done at Johns Hopkins, we have demonstrated for example that
Triclosan when it enters a wastewater treatment plant is not effectively being degraded
and half of the mass is left over.”


Halden and his colleagues found this leftover mass in sludge. And since half the sludge
produced each year in the US goes to fertilize farm fields, Halden says we might want to
think about our food supply:


“We really create a pipeline of contaminants that are first discharged into the water and
then accumulated in sludge and then applied in agriculture which opens a pathway for the
contamination of the food supply and the further distribution of these chemicals in the
environment.”


At this point, scientists are still studying levels of this chemical. They haven’t even
begun to understand Triclosan’s effects in agriculture. But there’s something they do
know about it.


Researchers found Triclosan can mimic a thyroid hormone in the North American
bullfrog and disrupt its growth. When its tadpoles were exposed to low levels of
this chemical for a short amount of time, their growth into a juvenile frog was impaired.


But this doesn’t sound like that big of a deal… the frog doesn’t die, it just doesn’t grow
properly, right? Keep in mind that this study tracked exposure to Triclosan over four
hours. Halden says by spreading wastewater sludge in agriculture, we could be exposing
wildlife to chemicals like Triclosan for their entire lives.


“When these chemicals are transported into the environment with the agricultural
fertilizer, which is the municipal sludge, then they sit there for in the soil, not only for
seconds but for days and weeks and for months and to even years and in some situations
in sediments, in aquatic sediments, they can sit there for decades and this implies that
organisms are, for their lifespan, exposed to very high levels of these contaminants.
What the outcome of that is really not fully understood right now and requires more research.”


The U.S. Geological Survey has also been looking for chemicals in sludge – or biosolids –
and they’ve found steroids, antihistamines, and antidepressants. Ed Furlong, a research chemist
with the USGS in Denver, Colorado, says they are now studying how these chemicals react in agricultural
fields:


“We’ve identified that many of the compounds are consistently present in biosolids from
across the country. We’re now trying to understand what happens after those biosolids
are applied to the soil.”


The USGS is not the only agency looking at this issue. The Environmental Protection Agency has been conducting its own survey of chemicals like Triclosan in sludge. They say the results of the survey won’t be released until next
summer. Then comes the complicated process of deciding what to do with the survey
results. A decision about whether to stop using sludge with hormone disrupting
chemicals to fertilize farm fields could be years away.


For the Environment Report, I’m Kinna Ohman.

Related Links

A Second ‘Hot Spot’ Considered for Cleanup

It looks as though a second pollution hot spot in the Great Lakes
will receive money for cleanup. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Mike Simonson reports on the progress of the Great Lakes Legacy Act:

Transcript

It looks as though a second pollution hot spot in the Great Lakes will receive money
for cleanup.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson reports on the progress of the
Great Lakes
Legacy Act:


The Great Lakes Legacy Act was passed in 2002. It earmarked 54 million dollars a
year for five
years to clean up pollution hot spots. In the first several years, not all the
money promised was
delivered. So clean up on the 31 polluted areas has been slow.


Right now, the Black Lagoon on the Detroit River is the only pollution hot spot
being cleaned
up. Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say they’re hoping to
start on a
second project in Lake Superior next year.


Wisconsin will need to pony up a third of the 5.2 million dollar cost to dredge the
sediments in
Superior Harbor. Wisconsin Project Supervisor John Robinson is hopeful. He says
two decades
after identifying the pollution, money may finally be available.


“The Legacy Act is clearly a catalyst that will allow us to go ahead. Without it,
the project
would be delayed into a period of time that we’re uncertain of.”


Some of the money will come from companies partly responsible for the pollution.
Robinson
hopes to begin cleanup in February.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mike Simonson.

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Cleaning Waterways From the Bottom Up

  • The Alcoa/Reynolds Company removes PCBs they once dumped into the St. Lawrence River. Photo by David Sommerstein.

Polluted sediments sit at the bottom of rivers and lakes across the Great Lakes region. They can affect water quality, wildlife and human health. More than 40 highly contaminated areas in the region have been identified by the EPA’s Great Lakes Office, but so far only about half of those sites have been cleaned up. This fall, dredging is taking place in at least three of those hot spots – all on rivers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports on the challenges of cleaning up a river bottom:

Transcript

Polluted sediments sit at the bottom of rivers and lakes across the Great Lakes region. They can affect water quality, wildlife and human health. More than 40 highly contaminated areas in the region have been identified by the EPA’s Great Lakes Office.
But so far, only about half of those sites have been cleaned up. This fall, dredging is taking place in at least three of those hot spots, all on rivers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports on the challenges of cleaning up a river bottom.


(Sound of dredging)


Geologist Dino Zack stands on the steps of a mobile home overlooking the St. Lawrence River. He watches as barges glide in and out of an area contained by a 38 hundred foot long steel wall. Each barge carries a crane that periodically drops a bucket into the river bottom, pulling up sediment contaminated with PCBs. The goal is to remove 80 thousand cubic yards of contaminated sediment. Zack’s trailer is the EPA headquarters for the dredging project. He’s an independent contractor working for the federal government, which is spearheading the operation. And he’ll spend the next couple of months watching the Alcoa-Reynolds Company remove the chemicals they once dumped in the river.


“I’ll observe them while they’re collecting their data to make sure they’re following the work plan. Then, I’ll bring all the data back, assemble it into tables and review it.”


Zack isn’t the only one keeping a close eye on the dredging project, which began in June.
There’s another EPA scientist here, as well as two members of the Army Corps of Engineers who are supervising the work. There’s also a representative from the St. Regis Mohawk reservation, which is downriver from the contaminated area.
The EPA ordered Alcoa-Reynolds to clean up the pollution in 1993. The PCBs were present in a flame retardant liquid the company used in its aluminum smelting process.
Over the years, the liquid drained into the river, contaminating sediments along the shoreline. The most polluted area contains 2000 parts per million of PCBs. That equals about one bad apple in a barrel-full. The goal is to leave only one part per million of PCBs in the sediment. Anne Kelly is the EPA’s project director for the site.


She says achieving that level in a river environment is a challenge.


“One of the biggest problems with dredging a river is that you’re working without really seeing where you’re working. The other problem is the issue of re-suspension, that whenever this bucket hits the sediments, it stirs up sediments and then it settles out again.”


One of the biggest concerns is that the disturbed sediments will move downstream.
In this case, they’d only have to travel a mile to reach the drinking water intake for the St. Regis Mohawk reservation. That means toxins could make it into the drinking water.
Local people have also expressed fears that the PCBs could contaminate the air as well.
The dredging project was temporarily suspended this summer when residents on nearby Cornwall Island complained of respiratory problems. But air quality tests found the dredging wasn’t to blame. Ken Jock is the tribe’s environmental director.
He says in addition to air and water quality concerns, the local people would like to see a healthier fish population. Some species have been contaminated with PCBs. And he says that’s why the tribe supports the dredging.


“We know the PCBs will be there in a thousand years and we’ll be here, and we’ll still want to eat the fish. So we think that any solution has to be a permanent solution.”


The Alcoa-Reynolds Company had wanted to place a gravel cap over the chemicals rather than dredge. But the EPA ordered them to remove the PCBs. Rick Esterline, the company’s project director, says they’re fully cooperating with the government.


“You’re required to clean it up, that’s the rules and regulations that we have in our country. Whether they come at you with court orders or whether you do it, it’s still you have to do it.”


The project is expected to cost the company 40 million dollars. That includes the eight million dollar reinforced steel wall around the contaminated area. Alcoa-Reynolds is also using a special electronic bucket to remove the sediment. The EPA’s Anne Kelly says this has become the bucket of choice for Great Lakes dredging projects.


“Based on the information that will be transferred to the operator on the barge, he’ll know if that bucket is completely sealed, which is very helpful because a clamshell bucket will begin to close and hit a rock… he won’t know it’s still open partially and begin to pull that up through the water column with materials basically pouring out of it.”


Kelly says every cleanup project requires a different approach. In Michigan, General Motors is using an environmental bucket and silt curtains to dredge the Saginaw River.
Engineers in Michigan’s Pine River built a steel wall and emptied out the water inside before dredging. The dredging in the St. Lawrence is expected to finish in November.
And it’s possible it won’t reduce the PCB levels to one part per million. The cleanup at the nearby General Motors plant fell short of that goal. If that happens, the EPA will require the company to cap the river bottom – and monitor the sediments, the water and the fish indefinitely. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.

Pollution Hot Spots Get the Scoop

Polluted sediments sit at the bottom of rivers and lakes across the Great Lakes region. They can affect water quality, wildlife and human health. More than 40 highly contaminated areas in the region have been identified by the EPA’s Great Lakes Office. But so far, only about half of those sites have been cleaned up. This summer, dredging is taking place in at least three of those hot spots, all on rivers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports on the challenges of cleaning up a river bottom:

A Fight Over Dam Decommissioning

More small river dams are being torn down around the U-S. In
fact, a recent report by conservation groups says several states in the
upper Midwest are leading the way at getting rid of dams that no longer
produce electricity. Environmentalists say tearing down thestructures
helps water quality. But some people who live near the dams feel like
they’re losing an old friend. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck
Quirmbach prepared this report:

Transcript

More small river dams are being torn down around the U.S. In fact, a recent report by conservation

groups says several states in the upper Midwest are leading the way at getting rid of dams that no

longer produce electricity. Environmentalists say tearing down the structures helps water quality.

But some people who live near the dams feel like they’re losing an old friend. The Great Lakes

Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach prepared this report:


(sound of rushing water)


“This is an excellent example of the state of many of the dams across Wisconsin and the fact they

are rapidly deteriorating.”


Stephanie Lindloff is standing on top of the Franklin Dam in Sheboygan Country. The rural area’s

about fifty miles north of Milwaukee. The Franklin Dam is about two stories high and half a

football field long. It was built in the 1850’s, to power a grist mill. But the mill is long gone.

And now, on its way to lake Michigan, the Sheboygan river pours through a small hole. That’s

slowly draining the impoundment, or lake behind the dam. Stephanie Lindloff says the hole is a

sign of advanced aging.


“This dam in particular, not unlike a lot of dams around the state, had a gate that was boarded up

and the wooden boards were what was holding the water back in the end of June, two lowermost

boards cracked and water started seeping out of impoundment… wasn’t an emergency situation, but

nonetheless there was a break in the dam.”


Lindloff is with the environmental group, The River Alliance of Wisconsin. She estimates it would

cost at least 350,000 dollars to fix the Franklin Dam. It might take only one-fourth of that

amount to tear it down. Besides saving money, Lindloff says removing the Franklin Dam would also

make the Sheboygan River healthier.


“Scientists agree dams devastate river systems. They continue to block natural functioning of

rivers, impact water quality, they block fish migration and spawning grounds.”


Lindloff says ten miles of the Sheboygan River and river shoreline could be improved if the

Franklin Dam comes out. But some people who live along the small lake are sounding off about the

proposed teardown.


“I mean the dam’s solid. It’s built solid.”


Kris Wilkins believes the Franklin Dam merely needs some repairs. She loves the small farm she has

along the lake, and has even taken to raising geese.


(sound of geese)


Wilkins predicts that removing the dam would drastically cut the size of the lake and harm the

value of her property.


“It’s gorgeous out here, we have all kinds of wildlife: green herring, blue herring, our geese,

fox, woodchucks all around, it’s just nature all the way.”


Wilkins and several of her neighbors are trying to create a lake district. That’s where local

people could assess themselves a tax to raise some of the money to fix the dam. The group’s

leader, Don Last, says he’s prepared to hike his own taxes.


“It’s really the only alternative we have to find the funds and possibly get matching money to

restore and maintain.”


But some wonder if the small number of folks in this rural township can raise enough cash. They

won’t get any help from the dam’s owner, which is the Franklin volunteer fire department. The

department no longer gets its firefighting water from the lake, and fire officials say they have

no money for dam repairs. A state bailout is unlikely too.


If the Franklin Dam comes down, it would join about fifty other Wisconsin dams that have been

removed in the last twenty years. Ohio and Pennsylvania have also taken out a sizeable number of

the old structures. Steve Born is a regional planner at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

He’s written nationally about dam removals. Born says the entire Great Lakes region can benefit,

as long as officials keep a check on contaminated sediments that may have built up behind the

dams.


“There has to be provisions for either draining the impoundment… dredging these… moving them

to safe landfill sites… neutralizing them in some way. But they can’t be allowed to just

disperse throughout the system.”


Born is an advisor to trout unlimited, which is another of the groups pushing for dam removals. If

state and local governments go about removing dams carefully, Born and others will welcome the

site of more free-flowing streams.


(sound of stream)


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chuck Quirmbach in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin.