Water Quality & Climate Change in the Midwest

  • Lake Michigan, as seen from the Empire Bluff hike. (Photo by Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio)

Leaders from the U.S. and Canada are getting together to talk about water…

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

There’s a pact between the two countries. It’s called the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.  It takes on all sorts of threats to water in our region… from toxic chemicals to runoff from farms and sewer overflows from cities.

Lyman Welch is with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. He says when the agreement was first signed 40 years ago… it was promising.

“However, over the years, we have found the agreement has become somewhat more ineffective as new challenges have arisen.”

Challenges such as climate change and prescription drugs getting into drinking water. The two countries updated the agreement last fall.  Tomorrow, leaders will try to figure out how to implement it.  Both countries pledged to do more to tackle invasive species, adapt to climate change and clean up polluted areas.

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This is the Environment Report.

You probably remember that extreme weather was not kind to Michigan crops last year.

“We lost more than 80 percent of our apples and peaches, we lost grapes and cherries.”

Frank Szollosi is with the National Wildlife Federation.

“Our cherry farmers saw 90 percent of its crop destroyed because of the unusually warm winter last year followed by hard freezes.”

The federal government has put out a new draft report on how our climate is changing. More than 240 scientists wrote the report.  It’s called the National Climate Assessment.

Agriculture is one of the key messages of their chapter on the Midwest. The report says in the next few decades, longer growing seasons and rising carbon dioxide levels will increase yields of some crops.

“And so that could initially be good for agriculture. But then you have to think about what’s happening with precipitation.”

Don Scavia is a lead author of the Midwest chapter. He’s the director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan.

“We’re getting more and more extreme rainfall events and floods in the spring, coupled with a longer, drier summer. So that increase in the frequency of storms and heat waves could actually end up being bad for agriculture.”

He says the agricultural community will also need to find ways to deal with the potential for warmer springs with sudden cold snaps.

The report also notes that ice cover on the Great Lakes has been going down since the 1970’s, especially for lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Ontario.  

Don Scavia says less ice could mean a longer shipping season. But it could also mean more lake effect snow.

“Because there will be more evaporation off of the Lakes, so initially that increased water vapor will end up as larger snow events and lake effect snow events, but as temperatures warm, they’ll probably turn into rain events.”

This is the third National Climate Assessment.  For the first time, it includes a chapter on ways we might be able to adapt to a warming climate.

“Much of the focus is rightly placed on mitigation – on what the countries need to do around the globe to reduce emissions, so we can stop this progression of moving towards a warmer climate, but we have to start helping people adapt, because no matter what we do at this point, the climate is already changing and it’s going to continue to change.”

He says that means, for example, looking at the infrastructure in our cities and making sure we can deal with heavier storms, and protecting people who are at risk from increased heat waves.

The report is open for public comment.

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

Group Questions Use of Fracking Fluids & Sturgeon Season

  • Michigan DNR Fisheries Biologist Tim Cwalinski with students from Michigan State University and a sturgeon. (Photo credit: MSU)

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

A group that wants to ban hydraulic fracturing in Michigan says the state didn’t follow its own rules in disposing fluid from wells that were fracked. Ban Michigan Fracking has learned the fluid was spread on public roads close to a lake and in a campground near the Mackinac Bridge last summer. Bob Allen has more:

State officials have said the fluids used to fracture deep oil and gas wells are to be disposed of carefully. Those fluids typically are millions of gallons of water per well plus a mixture of chemicals necessary to the fracking process.

Last summer, the Department of Environmental Quality allowed 40,000 gallons of fluid from fracked wells to be spread on public roads.

Paul Brady drives Sunset Trail in Kalkaska County to get to work.

He noticed it stayed muddy during a dry period last summer so he traced the wet road directly to a well site.

BRADY: “We know that tons of chemicals went down that well bore. And it came up and it was spread on our roads. And that is why we should be concerned.”

When the issue was raised, the DEQ tested the water coming out of the wells and tested the roadbeds.

Hal Fitch is in charge of oil and gas development in the state.

FITCH: “It turns out there really wasn’t anything in that water that was deleterious above normal oil field brine. But still…”

Still, the state has decided not to allow brine from fracked wells to be spread on roads to keep dust down.

But it says the group trying to ban fracking altogether is overblowing the issue.

Ban Michigan Fracking says it’s been waiting for months for the DEQ test data so it can confirm the results.

And it questions how the state agency “can be trusted to protect the environment when it apparently can’t follow its own rules in treating the liquid waste.”

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Lake sturgeon are amazing fish. They can weigh several hundred pounds and they can live to be a hundred years old.

Sturgeon used to be abundant throughout the Great Lakes region. But they were overfished, and construction of dams on rivers where they spawn hurt their reproduction. They’re now a state threatened species.

Tim Cwalinski is a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

He says these days, sturgeon are carefully managed.  There are a few fishing seasons for sturgeon in different parts of the state.

The season for sturgeon in Black Lake in Cheboygan County opens February 2nd. Tim Cwalinski says there are about 1,200 adult sturgeon in the lake.  The quota this year is just six fish total for all the fishermen combined.

“If you get a fish you have to report it in right away to DNR as one fish if another person gets one 20 min later on the ice, that’s the second fish. Once it hits six the season’s over.”

So the fishing season can be over in just a matter of hours.  Canons are fired and sirens go off when the season closes.

Cwalinski says fishermen typically use spears to catch sturgeon on Black Lake.

“This is all big holes through the ice, big shanties, warm heated shanties. Big holes size of bathtubs or even larger. You get your shanty blackened out so you can see down that water, down the 10, 15, 20 feet and people wait patiently, with decoys.”

He says the sturgeon population in Black Lake is strong enough to support a limited harvest.

“People were spearing sturgeon in there many, many decades ago. If we can manage a small type of harvest and keep that fishery going, that’s part of our culture too.”

The lakes around Cheboygan have a long history of spearfishing for sturgeon. There’s even a festival celebrating sturgeon season called the Black Lake Sturgeon Shivaree.

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

The Future of “Green” Cars

  • A demo of the Hyundai Sonata plug-in hybrid drive train at the North American International Auto Show. (Photo by Mark Brush/Michigan Radio)

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

It used to be that fuel-efficient cars were not taken all that seriously. But that’s changed.

Jim Motavalli is the author of High Voltage and a blogger for the New York Times and Car Talk. He joins me from the North American International Auto Show.  Jim, there’s no such thing as a “green car” section of the auto show – because everyone is seeking better fuel economy. What’s driving that?

Motavalli: “I think what we’re seeing is green technology has been incorporated into pretty much all of the cars on display here, so the green cars aren’t in a little special penned-in area. That’s inherently a good thing. And maybe at this auto show 2013, we’re not seeing a lot of electric car introductions or plug-in hybrid introductions; what we’re seeing is “eco” incorporated into every model that’s introduced here, including the Corvette Stingray and the Grand Cherokee Jeep SRT, both of which have eco modes or eco buttons, because every automaker is being driven towards the 2025 goal of 54.5 mpg fleet average, which the federal government is demanding. And also, California has standards: automakers have to produce zero-emission battery cars to meet that mandate. So, these things are very powerful drivers. Also, people want very fuel-efficient cars. So, even the big performance vehicles that were V8s in the past tend to be V6s or even turbo four cylinders now. So, we’re moving downscale and we’re moving up in terms of the average fuel economy. Even that Corvette could maybe get 30 mpg on the highway, and that would’ve been unthinkable 30 years ago.”

RW: You mention the 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 standard – how are automakers going to meet that?

Motavalli: “Automakers are trying very hard to meet the 54.4 mpg standard by 2025 with a whole panoply of technologies. It’s electric cars, yes, battery-electrics, nearly every automaker has that, but they also have plug-in hybrids and it should not be discounted that they have these regular gasoline cars with very fuel efficient engines. They’re also getting into the very low end of the subcompact market, with cars like the Ford Fiesta and the Chevy Spark, which they probably would not have competed in previously. American automakers are really looking at the lower end of the market in a way they hadn’t done before. So it’s no one technology is getting them to the goal; it’s a lot of things combined, but they are very much mindful of reaching that 54.5 mpg goal.”

RW: What kind of cars do you see most of us driving 20 or 30 years from now?

Motavalli: “I think 20 or 30 years from now most people will be in some form of plug-in hybrid or battery-electric cars. And I also think we’ll see degrees of autonomy in cars – that means self-driving. I think by that time if we’re not in just totally self-driving cars, we will be in vehicles where many of the functions are done for you. Like the car will be retrieved by pushing a vehicle on your remote control – it’ll come out of the garage and pull up for you. And then, when you need to put it away, you’ll push a button and it’ll go away. There will be things like that. Maybe not total autonomy, maybe you’ll have some function as a driver. But I think we’re definitely moving away from your having to control the car totally. I think that’s pretty much going to be a thing of the past – every trend is pointing that way. So I think you’re likely to be driving a semi-autonomous electric car at that time.”

Jim Motavalli is the author of High Voltage and a blogger for the New York Times and Car Talk. Thanks so much, Jim!

“Thank you.”

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

A Crystal Ball for the Great Lakes

  • Courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video, Flickr

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

The Great Lakes are incredibly complex. There are just a lot of moving parts.

A new project is taking on a giant task… to try to predict the future of the Great Lakes and what we might want the region to look like.

21 research institutions from the U.S. and Canada are collaborating on the Great Lakes Futures Project. 

It’s not just a classroom exercise.  Along with researchers and grad students, government officials from the U.S. and Canada are involved, and so are industry and environmental groups.

This week, people from around the basin got together for their first workshop. 

“I’ve witnessed us doing haphazard good things in the Great Lakes, but it’s always repairing the damage done, it’s always reactive.”

That’s Gail Krantzberg. She’s the director of the Center for Engineering and Public Policy at McMaster University. She’s also the co-chair of the project.

“This is an opportunity to actually set a path forward for the next 20-50 years, where everybody understands what needs to be done and we finally have a forward-looking vision about how to make the Lakes excellent and resilient to change.”

One of the things that’s sort of unusual about this project is that it’s not just a bunch of professors sitting around debating each other. Krantzberg says they intentionally put grad students in charge of the research.

“There’s a lot of gray hair here. We really need to get youth mentored now, so that when I retire in… whatever… 20, 30 years – I’m being optimistic – that there are excellent leaders who have taken up the charge of making the lakes great.”

So – these teams of grad students (with faculty mentors) spent the past three months researching the biggest things that drive change in the Great Lakes region.  Things like energy, economics, pollution… climate change… invasive species.

Matt Cooper is a PhD student at the University of Notre Dame.

“You can imagine just pulling all this information together and trying to find a picture out of that and then projecting that into the future, we’re talking about literally hundreds, maybe thousands of variables that affect conditions in the basin. So daunting, very daunting.”

Yesterday, the student teams presented their work. They laid out a couple different scenarios for the future. So… for example, the team assigned to invasive species had four different possible futures.  They had to imagine what the future might look like if regulations on ships change… or what might happen if we don’t close canals.

It was a tough crowd.  The students got grilled.

Scavia: “The room was filled with some very hardened, practical people that’ve been dealing with these problems for a long time.”

Don Scavia directs the Graham Institute at the University of Michigan. He’s another chair of the project. He says they set things up this way on purpose. He says he likes making people a little uncomfortable.

“So what we have is a mix of innovation and ideas for the future with a sort of been there, done that mentality, and we think the tension between those two things are going to get us new ideas that wouldn’t come to the table if we did either one by themselves.”

And in fact… that’s one of the things that drew George Kuper to the workshop. He’s with the Council of Great Lakes Industries. 

“We look at future scenarios quite often and we too rarely have gotten the perspective of the people who are going to have to live in that future.”

Next, everyone – with all these different points of view – will sit down together and imagine four possible futures for the Great Lakes.  They’ll take a look at what policies are in place and where we’re heading as a region… and whether we want that kind of future. They’ll have another workshop, and then they’ll take the show on the road to Ottawa and Washington D.C. to get lawmakers involved.

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

Tax Credit Extension & More Uses for Treated Sewage

  • Green Energy Futures / Flickr

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

With all the buzz around the fiscal cliff in Congress… something happened that you might’ve missed.

There’s a federal tax credit – it’s called the wind energy Production Tax Credit.  And it was about to expire at the end of last year.  At the final hour, Congress extended that tax credit, and President Obama signed the bill. It now covers wind projects that start construction in 2013.

Peter Kelley is a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association.  He says the credit gives tax relief for the first ten years of a wind farm.

Kelley says companies had started laying people off last year with the future of the tax credit up in the air.

“We believe that factories that had a lack of orders for 2013 will start to get orders as contracts are signed and as development companies agree with utilities that they’re going to provide more wind energy. It may take a few months; it won’t be an instantaneous call back.”

He says in Michigan, there are at least 41 factories that make components for wind turbines.

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A new law in Michigan will make it easier for sewage treatment plants to sell or give away what’s left over when they’re finished. Rina Miller explains:

All the water we use in our houses and businesses goes down a municipal drain and ends up in a wastewater treatment plant. It’s processed and decontaminated and eventually becomes something called a biosolid.

Some of it then goes into landfills… and some is used as agricultural fertilizer.

A law signed last week will allow Michigan’s sewage treatment plant to sell or give away what’s called “exceptional quality” — or EQ biosolids.

Mike Person is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He says other states have allowed this for years. In fact, Michigan’s been buying a product called Milorganite that’s been generated and bagged by the city of Milwaukee.

“It’s often used on golf courses and things of that nature. It’s pelletized and what it does is provide a nice, slow-release form of organic nitrogen.”

The new Michigan regulations eliminate a layer of bureaucracy. It means these biosolids could be used in public parks, athletic fields, cemeteries, plant nurseries… and on your lawn and garden.

Person says that’s an environmentally smart thing to do… rather than putting biosolids in landfills or incinerating them.

Now, in order for these biosolids to be given or sold to the public, they have to meet certain criteria.

Dawn Reinhold is an assistant professor in biosystems and agricultural engineering at Michigan State University.

She says pathogens like E. coli, salmonella and viruses have to be eliminated. So do harmful metals.

Reinhold says she’s researching another aspect of biosolids: What happens to all those personal care products when they get into the water system?

“When you use things like antimicrobial soaps, and you’re washing your hands, that antimicrobial chemical is actually going down the drain, ending up in your wastewater treatment plant. A lot of that chemical actually ends up on the biosolids.”

Reinhold’s studies looked what would happen if you were to eat only fruits and vegetables grown in a garden amended with biosolids. She says the health risks would be a thousand to 10,000 times less than from using things like antimicrobial soap in the first place.

But there’s one area that still needs work. Reinhold says all those pharmaceuticals Americans use also end up in those treatment plants.

“And so we’re starting to understand what is occurring with these chemicals, but as far as being able to completely 100 percent answer that there’s no risk from pharmaceuticals in these biosolids, we’re not there yet.”

So Reinhold says using biosolids for landscaping limits your exposure to pharmaceuticals to just about nil, and if you’re not comfortable using biosolids in your veggie garden? Go organic.

For the Environment Report, I’m Rina Miller.

2012: One Hot Year

  • The redder the area... the higher the difference from average temperature, June-August 2012. (Image courtesy of NOAA)

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

The experts are still finalizing the data, but it looks like 2012 will go on the books as the warmest year in the U.S. in recorded history (ever since 1895).

Jeff Andresen is a professor of geography at Michigan State University. He’s also the state climatologist, and he joins me now. So… 2012 looks like it’ll be the hottest year on record for the U.S. What about in Michigan?

“Michigan, we’re very close. We can say with certainty at this point that it’ll be at least in the top three, if we average over the state as a whole, and if the average for the month of December turns out to be more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, we would move into first place. But right now, based on preliminary data that we have, I think we’re probably going to fall just short and either be the second warmest or perhaps the third warmest, again it depends on what the final version says, but we’ll have missed the all-time record only by maybe a couple tenths of a degree, so it’s very, very close.”

RW: I think it’s useful to clarify what we mean when we talk about weather vs. climate. So weather is essentially what you see out your window…

Andresen: “Right. And it’s a very, very important distinction between the two. We are essentially looking at the same variables, whether that be temperature or wind speed or precipitation, but we’re looking over different periods of time, or with respect to time. Weather tends to be associated with relatively short term: minutes, seconds, days, perhaps. Climate, on the other hand, is looking at the same variables, but over extended periods of time: decades, sometimes centuries or more. So it’s a very subtle but important distinction to make.”

RW: One of the analogies I’ve heard is that climate change is loading the dice so there’s a higher probability that we’ll roll more extreme weather events. Looking into the future, what kinds of extreme events could we see more of in Michigan?

Andresen: “Well, the projections for the future, in general, all of them call for warmer temperatures in the future for our part of the world, without exception. They also suggest wetter… some of the projections say wetter, some actually say drier, but the majority say that we will have more precipitation in Michigan. The key or the caveat there is that the timing of it might be different. Increases in precipitation are thought to perhaps be concentrated during the cold season, in the winter; maybe in the spring, we’ll have some of that precip falling, maybe in liquid form. And that is a concern because the forecasts for summer precipitation are basically level. Some of them even call for less precip in summer and certainly for agriculture, for natural systems, that’s when our water needs are the greatest. Plants need water during the warm season, the growing season, and that is a red flag certainly as we look ahead.

But in terms of extreme events, there is some suggestion that we will certainly see more extreme high temperature events; also more extreme heavy precipitation events than we have in the past. And one that seems almost counterintuitive or doesn’t make sense: but at the same time we have more heavy precipitation events and that would be like a 24 hour total – we may also see more or higher frequency of drought at the same time. It’s referred to as intensification of the hydrologic cycle, so we just have more extremes, whether they be high or low.”

RW: Jeff Andresen is a professor of geography at Michigan State University. He’s also the state climatologist. Thank you so much!

Andresen: “My pleasure.”

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

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.

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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.