Helping With the Gulf Oil Spill

  • Kirsten Novotny gives Julie Blackhall a trim at Fran Coy's Salon and Spa in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The owners collect hair trimmings to send to the Gulf. (Photo by Suzy Vuljevic).

Oil continues to gush into the Gulf… so what can we do about it?

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

Many of us have watched the coverage of the BP Oil Spill unfold, and we wondered, what can we do to help? Tanya Ott reports that some people are traveling to the Gulf region, but others are trying to come up with ways to help right here in Michigan.

Contact the Unified Command for the Gulf Oil Spill

Volunteer in Louisiana

Volunteer in Mississippi

Volunteer in Florida

Volunteer in Alabama


Wendy Spencer is a busy woman, so busy we had to catch her between meetings, in a hallway, on her cell phone. Spencer is CEO of Volunteer Florida, the Sunshine State’s official volunteer recruitment program. She’s registered thousands of volunteers to spend their Florida vacations picking up trash.

“When oil hits it will be easier to clean the shoreline if it is free of litter and debris.”

So far, 3,000 volunteers have logged more than 17,000 hours of work in Florida alone, and there are countless more in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, but what if you can’t jet down to the Gulf Coast?

Well, some people are coming up with a few creative ideas like getting a shampoo, cut and style.

John Coy owns Fran Coy’s Salon Spa in Ann Arbor. He says when he looks at the cutting room floor, he sees opportunity.

“Right now we just have this one bag of around 30 pounds of hair stored up to go, and you can see it just has inside it all different colors of hair,and you can see there’s just all different types of hair of different lengths and colors.”

Coy ships the hair to a San Francisco-based non-profit environmental group called Matter of Trust. The group sends the hair to warehouses in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, where it’s stuffed into donated pantyhose. Some people are calling them “hair sausages.” The official term is “booms.” The homemade booms are put in the water to soak up oil and keep it from shore. Fran Coy’s Salon Spa has donated 100 pounds of hair to the effort, and customers say they’re happy to help. Julie Blackhall is getting her haircut today.

“I think it’s great. I mean I’m not going to do anything with my hair that you cut off. Why not help the world with it?”

The response has been overwhelming. So far, nearly half a million pounds of human hair and animal fur have been donated nationwide. So much, Matter of Trust’s warehouses are overwhelmed and they’re not accepting any new donations.

There is some concern it won’t all get used. Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say these hair booms can get water logged and sink, and a Coast Guard spokesman told the Huffington Post the booms can add to the debris problem when they wash up on shore.

Still, some towns and counties along the Gulf Coast are willing to take the chance, and will continue to use these hair booms.

The BP oil spill isn’t just an environmental crisis. It’s an economic one too. Thousands of coastal families have lost work because fishing boats aren’t fishing and tourists aren’t visiting.

Wendy Spencer of Volunteer Florida says it’s only going to get worse.

“Our food banks are being impacted by people who are out of work. We are seeing an increase in the applications for food stamps. Go to your local food bank. Say, look, can we provide some help in collecting food and connect with the food banks in Florida or Alabama and have this shipped in to the region to help?”

And, she says, don’t forget money. It might not be as hands-on as getting a haircut. But, she says, Gulf-based social service and environmental organizations could really use the cash right now. For the Environment Report, I’m Tanya Ott.

Asian Carp Found in Lake Calumet

  • The Bighead Asian Carp found in Lake Calumet. The first physical specimen found beyond the USACOE's electric barrier. (Photo courtesy of the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee)

A Bighead Asian Carp has been found in Lake Calumet in Illinois. This is the first carp to be found beyond the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s electric barrier system. Shawn Allee has been covering this story for us and Rebecca Williams caught up with him:




The elusive Asian carp, not so elusive now.

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

Two species of Asian carp have been moving east, closer and closer to the Great Lakes. There’s a system of electric barriers in a canal near Chicago that are supposed to be the last line of defense. But scientists have wondered whether these carp already swam past that barrier and are breeding in or very close to Lake Michigan. They got that hunch because last year they detected Asian carp DNA in rivers and streams connected to the lake. Now, their fears are confirmed. They found an Asian carp past Chicago’s electric barrier. Shawn Allee reports for us in Chicago and Shawn is here to bring us up to speed.

So where did they find this carp?

Shawn: They found a single 20-pound male Asian carp in Lake Calumet, that’s just west of Lake Michigan.

Why is this location important?

Shawn: Well, I talked to a scientist about that. His name is John Rogner and he’s with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He tells me that Lake Calumet is open and it connects to a small river that is also connected to Lake Michigan. And there’s more on this too:

“When you look at Lake Calumet it does appear to us to be ideal habitat. These fish prefer quiet waters in large river systems. You’ll find them in the backwaters and side channels and so Lake Calumet really fits that model to a tee.”

Shawn: But, here’s the thing Rebecca. Commercial fishermen found this Asian carp in Lake Calumet and federal scientists and contractors had already looked there for Asian carp so now they have to go back again.

So why does it matter if the carp is there?

Shawn: Well, these two species of Asian carp are voracious if they’re in the right kind of environment. Basically, they can overtake a food system. They breed so much and they eat so much that there is not enough food for other species of fish to eat. That sort of thing has already happened in the Illinois River system. That’s a river that goes between the Mississippi River in the west all the way to Lake Michigan in the east. And John Rogner tells me that they’re still trying to figure out if this Asian carp is the only one in Lake Calumet or if it’s got a lot of company in there. So they’re going to be using nets and poisons to find that out.

“What we’re trying to determine now is does this fish might represent an individual fish in the lake or might it be part of a larger population and that’s what our intensified sampling over the coming days and maybe even weeks is intended to tell us.”

Shawn: Rogner tells me that they’re going to be testing this particular fish’s DNA down in Springfield, Illinois to see if the fish grew up in the wild or if someone may have moved that fish from somewhere else and maybe just dropped it into Lake Calumet.

Okay, so what are they going to be doing next?

Shawn: They’re going to be going back over places that they have already looked because it’s obvious that they’ve missed at least one fish and they think that maybe they’ve missed some more. The other thing they’re going to be doing is studying whether this kind of carp could breathe in the lake, as Rogner mentioned before. But, one thing they will not be doing is this. They’re not going to be closing the locks that connect Lake Calumet and the rivers in that area to Lake Michigan.

Why not?

Shawn: Well we got one answer from the Army Corps of Engineers. That’s the federal agency that runs the locks. Here’s Mike White:

“At this time we see no reason relative to the threat that’s been identified to take any step for permanent lock closure.”

Shawn: White says the real reason that they’re not really all that worried at this point is that there is just one live fish that they’ve found and it would be expensive to stop barge and boat traffic just for that.

But nobody knows for sure whether there are any Asian carp past the barrier.

Shawn: Not at this point.

Alright, thank you Shawn.

You’re welcome, Rebecca.

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

Urban Farming in Detroit

  • Entrepreneurs in Detroit want to build the "largest urban garden in the world." (Photo by Shawn Wilson)

The world’s largest urban farm in downtown Detroit?

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

In cities where there are a lot of abandoned houses and miles of vacant land some people are starting gardens. But now one entrepreneur in Detroit is taking this a step farther. He’s ready to spend millions to create a large-scale urban farm. Julie Grant has more.




Money manager John Hantz is one of the richest men left in Detroit. While many have made fortunes in Detroit and fled to greener pastures, Hantz continues to live in an older, wealthy enclave of the city. Mike Score works for Hantz. Score says a couple of years ago, Hantz was driving his daily commute to Southfield.

“He noticed that there were large vacant, blighted areas that were expanding within the city, and he wondered when the city would be able to get around to addressing the declining quality of life in the city of Detroit.”

There are more than 40 square miles of vacant property in Detroit. Score says Hantz realized the city wasn’t in a position to fix broken neighborhoods.

“And it really comes down to actions in the private sector. Business leaders like himself putting their equity at risk to make a difference in Detroit as a livable city.”

Score says John Hantz came up with the idea of taking all that unused land and making a huge farm in the city. He committed to investing 30-million dollars over ten years to make it happen.

He’s talking about greening thousands of acres in Detroit, as much land as a huge Iowa cornfield, and he plans to eventually hire hundreds of people to grow everything from horticultural plants to vegetables, fruit and even Christmas trees.

Old industrial cities like Detroit usually swoon at the possibility of large business investments and new jobs. They offer tax breaks and help with infrastructure costs, but the city isn’t rushing to embrace Hantz’s mega farm idea. And some well-established community activists and urban farmers in Detroit say the plan is downright insulting. Some have called it a land grab, and worse.

“I think the third word that was said by somebody in the room in April a year ago when this was presented to us for the first time – the word ‘plantation’ came up.”

Chris Bedford is founder of the Sweetwater local foods market, which features food exclusively grown in Michigan.

“And in fact, it is kind of a plantation. This guy owns all this land, and he’s going to have a lot of people working for him.”

Bedford says Hantz is proposing a top down approach. He says depending on big corporations in this way is what got Detroit into trouble with lost jobs and home foreclosures.

“And so in the guise of helping Detroit, he’s grabbing square miles of land to do something that’s really not going to help the people of Detroit. Maybe they’ll have a few low wage jobs, but it would be much better to have the land owned by the people, gardened, farmed by the people, growing food for themselves and for the neighboring communities. It’s just the opposite of what Detroit needs.”

There are urban farming organizations in Detroit that have worked for many years to help communities establish gardens and learn to grow food. Mike Score at Hantz Farms says people don’t need to choose small, local gardens or a large-scale farm. He says each fills a place in the market.

“Those organizations lack to capacity to create jobs, and also they are not well suited to meeting the needs of larger scale buyers like grocery stores and distributers. So, we’ll focus on the larger end of the marketplace, to complement what’s being done by the smaller scale operations.”

But the city of Detroit isn’t ready to sell off all its vacant properties to Hantz. Mayor Dave Bing has said he’s looking into issue of vacant properties, and will come up with a plan for the open space within the next 12 to 18 months. In the meantime, Hantz Farms says it has already purchased some acreage and plans to have crops growing in the city of Detroit later this season.

For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

You can learn more about the Hantz Farms plan at environment report dot org. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Decades Spent Battling the Sea Lamprey

  • John Stegmeier electro-shocking for lamprey in Sand Creek. Stegmeier is one of the many people who go out every year to find where lamprey are spawning. (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

What has rows and rows of sharp teeth…. sucks blood and rings up a 20 million dollar tab?

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

If you were thinking shark… or maybe blockbuster vampire movie… nope! It’s actually the sea lamprey.




It’s an invasive parasite found in every one of the Great Lakes.  It invaded the Lakes in the early 20th century, and no one’s been able to get rid of it.  It’s a fish with a round mouth like a suction cup.  It latches onto big fish like lake trout and salmon…. and gets fat drinking their blood.

Fishery managers in the U-S and Canada work to keep this parasite in check.  It costs them 20 million dollars a year.  Those are your tax dollars, by the way.

Marc Gaden is with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.  It’s the commission’s job to protect the multi-billion dollar fishery.

Gaden says the lamprey control program has beaten back the lamprey’s population by 90 percent.  And he says for now, humans are winning.

“The threat from lampreys at the moment is like a coiled spring.  As long as you have your thumb on it you’re going to be okay.  But the moment you let up on that control they’re going to spring back pretty quickly out of control.”

Gaden says they’re using a combination of weapons against the parasite.  They include a targeted poison to kill lamprey larvae, traps and barriers and sterilizing male lampreys. 

He says we are probably stuck with the lamprey forever.  That means we’ll be continuing to spend millions of dollars… every single year.

(music sting)

This is the Environment Report. 

So we’ve been wrestling with the sea lamprey for decades… maybe you’re wondering who’s actually out there in the trenches?  Dustin Dwyer caught up with one of the lamprey hunters:

John Stegmeier stands in a shady stretch of Sand Creek near Grand Rapids, looking like a Ghostbuster. He’s wearing waterproof waders, and has a metal box strapped to his back, with wires and knobs sticking out.

I meet him in the middle of the stream, where he’s prowling for sea lamprey larvae. But he tells me to stay up on a log out of the water, because he’s packing a charge.

“That’s giving little pulses of electricity into the water. And then if one comes up, then we give them a fast pulse, and that would keep them from being able to swim and we’re able to scoop them up with our paddles here.”

 They go into a bucket alive, then they’re counted for a survey. These surveys help determine where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service decides to dump a poison targeted specifically for sea lamprey.

Stegmeijer is one of just a dozen people on a survey team that’s responsible for testing every stream and river in the entire Lower Peninsula, plus the southern shores of Lake Erie.
On days like this one in the gentle stream of Sand Creek, he says, it’s a fun job.

“But there are days on little trout streams in beautiful woods and there are days in agricultural ditches next to dairy farms that might smell a little, and there’s some industrial ditches.”

In short, he has to go wherever the sea lamprey larvae go, and sometimes they go to some inconvenient places.

It’s all part of the battle to keep the sea lamprey in check, and Steigmeyer says it’s not exactly a losing battle.

“We’re kind of winning it, but it’s only a kind of win because we can’t get rid of them.”

What they can do is control them – keep the population low.
Stegmeier says if they weren’t doing this, sea lampreys could devastate the multibillion dollar fishing industry in the Great Lakes, but even with the treatments, every year, sea lampreys make it farther up Michigan’s rivers to spawn. And every year, there’s more area for his small team to cover, and more places that need chemical treatment – treatment that can get extremely expensive.
Still the battle must be fought.

For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer in Grand Rapids.

You can take a look at a sea lamprey’s ugly little face… and see photos of what the lamprey does to fish at environment report dot org. 

I’m Rebecca Williams.

Spill Dredges Up Great Lakes Drilling Debate

  • The oil spill in the Gulf is stirring up old debates about drilling in the Great Lakes. (Photo courtesy of the USGS)

The Gulf oil spill is churning up an old debate…

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

Now that the oil is spreading throughout the Gulf Coast states, some politicians who have called for offshore drilling in the past are being attacked for their stance. Julie Grant reports that one of the Republican candidates for Attorney General in Michigan is being forced to defend a decade-old vote to allow drilling in the Great Lakes.


TER story about Mike Rogers’ effort to block a federal ban on drilling in the Great Lakes


The Michigan Democratic Party has a new online ad.

(sound of the ad)

It starts with photos of the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. We see fish washed up onshore. And these words appear on screen: “Habitats destroyed, wildlife killed, an economy in ruins.” It continues, “Despite these risks, one man wants to drill for oil in the Great Lakes.”

The ad attacks Bill Schuette, one of the Republicans running for Michigan Attorney General.

“When Mr. Schuette was a state senator here in Michigan, he sponsored and voted for legislation which would have allowed oil drilling in the Great Lakes.”

Mark Brewer is chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

“We think it’s particularly timely to be reminding the voters of Michigan about this, given the disaster that’s occurring in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Mr. Schuette has responded with an online ad of his own.

(music from Schuette’s ad)

In it, he calls the attempt to connect him with offshore oil drilling in Lake Michigan “pathetic.”

“An attack ad by the Michigan Democratic Party completely distorts my record of safeguarding the Great Lakes. It’s a lie, it’s a complete lie. And they know that it is.”

Well, it’s not a complete lie. According to the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, when Schuette was a state senator in 2001, he sponsored and voted for a bill to allow drilling in Lake Michigan.

Bill Schuette says he never supported drilling in the water, the way BP was doing in the Gulf. In the bill he supported, the oil wells were required to be at least 1,500 feet from the shoreline. This is called directional drilling. The wellheads are actually on land, and the pipelines slant underground, into the rock bed under the water.

“We first made sure we had the strongest, toughest, most stringent regulations that protected the dunes, protected the lake shore, made sure there was no drilling on the lakeshore. Made sure there was no drilling in the lake, itself. And I voted for that bill.”

So, Schuette did vote to allow drilling in Lake Michigan. That was in July, 2001. There was a public outcry when the bill passed. Many people didn’t want drilling in the Lake. In November that same year, the U.S. Congress approved a federal ban on drilling in all of the Great Lakes. Congress wanted better study of the safety concerns. Then, just a few months later, the Michigan legislature revisited the issue. Schuette switched his vote. This time, he voted to ban drilling in Lake Michigan.

There’s now a state and federal ban on drilling in Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes.

There are some Republicans in Michigan who think drilling should be allowed in the Great Lakes, but the Michigan Democratic Party doesn’t want anyone to reconsider the ban. Chair Mark Brewer says an oil spill even a fraction of the size of what’s happened along the Louisiana Coast would devastate the fragile ecosystems and the struggling economy in Michigan. Brewer says voters should be concerned about who Bill Schuette would serve as attorney general.

“We need somebody who is going to stand up to big oil here in Michigan as our attorney general, not somebody who’s done its bidding over the course of his 25-year career.”

Bill Schuette says he eventually voted to ban all drilling on Lake Michigan because it was the safest way to protect the Lake, and he says he doesn’t support drilling in the Great Lakes today.

Even if he did, he probably couldn’t do much about it right now. Polls show Americans have a growing distaste for offshore drilling.

While there’s a ban on drilling on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes, that’s not the case in Canada. Canada is currently drilling in Lake Erie.

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

30 Fish in 30 Days

It’s national fishing week and two guys from the Michigan United Conservation Club are marking the occasion by trying to catch 30 different species of fish in 30 hours. That’s 30 straight hours of non-stop fishing. They want to show what’s at stake if Asian Carp make their way into Lake Michigan. Tom Kramer rode along to see how the guys did.

The “Thirty in Thirty” Website


(sound – motor starts on boat)

Tony Hansen and Gabe VanWormer started Tuesday morning at seven o’clock in two boats, on two bodies of water, with two long lists of fish. Their plan was to go through the night.

VanWormer launched his boat in Frankfort, and headed out onto Lake Michigan.

(sound of Duck Lake and fishing gear)

I met up with Hansen who was putting his boat in about 40 miles east of Frankfort, on Duck Lake, in Grand Traverse County.

To prepare for the fish-a-thon, Hansen loaded his boat with at least a dozen tackle boxes and almost as many fishing rods and reels carrying every type of spinner and jig imaginable, and a small container of worms, just in case.

Within a few minutes of seven o’clock, the guys already caught four species: Chinook Salmon; Lake Trout; Largemouth Bass; and Rock Bass.

Hansen would go on to catch a lot rock bass…

Hansen says the idea for the fish-a thon started as a way to work while fishing:

“We’ve kicked around this idea of having this, marathon type thing, where we see how many different species we can get in a certain number of days, and from there we were working on… got a fish… it’s a large mouth… nope, rock bass… already got him. And we just started talking and said, ‘this would be a really good opportunity to do something that people would pay attention to because it’s crazy to think you’re going to go and fish 30 hours straight and catch 30 different species.’”

The guys wanted to show how diverse the fishery is in Michigan – how many fish anyone can go out and catch on their own. And what’s at stake if the Asian Carp gets into the Great Lakes.

Asian Carp have already traveled up the Mississippi River system.

They’re now believed to be within a few miles of Lake Michigan.

Hansen thinks Asian Carp will make it into Lake Michigan, and when it does won’t be long till the fish is everywhere.

“I think they’re going to have a major impact on rivers and streams. Because of the way they spawn, and the way they use habitat. They’re a very dominant type of specie. They are going to kick-off native fish out of their habitat and they’ve already done it in all those rivers around Chicago. 80-90 percent of the biomass in the rivers is Asian Carp? I mean, come on.”

Along with all of the fish, Hansen is also hoping to collect 10-thousand signatures to put on a letter to President Obama.

He wants the President to close the shipping canal between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan. The State of Michigan wants the canal closed, but so far, the President has placed his support behind Illinois on this issue – keeping the canal open for shipping.

Hansen thinks that’s a bad idea, and he’s willing to do just about anything to make his point.

I rode along with him for a while on Tuesday. I didn’t stay on the water all night, which is just as well.

Tuesday night, the duo fished through some rough weather. It rained through the night and all that the guys caught were bullhead, suckers and dogfish using a bow and arrow and a spear.

Hansen posted this video at 8:30 Wednesday morning:

“It was just a miserable time. We, literally just got back in from bow-fishing all night and I’m stopping in to get some dry clothes… and we’re right back at it. We need 9 species and we have a little over four hours. It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to give it our best shot.”

A little after one o’clock Wednesday afternoon Tony Hansen and Gabe VanWormer reported that they were able to catch 30 species of fish in 30 hours. For now, aside from some sleep, Hansen has just one request. This one is for the President:

“You’ve got to do something and you’ve got to do it fast.”

For the Environment Report, I’m Tom Kramer.

A New Look at Dioxin

There’s a class of chemicals called dioxins that’ve polluted rivers between Midland and Saginaw Bay.
They cause cancer.
The federal government’s made the polluter, Dow Chemical, promise to clean contaminated soil from the river bottoms as well as from yards and parks, but at the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency never finished a report on just how toxic dioxins are.
This makes some people mad, like Bob McKellar from Midland.


“I can’t understand how the EPA and those people can set those standards when they don’t have data generated sufficient enough to tell us which things we really need to worry about.”
On the flip side, other people think the government standards are too weak.
Well, after nineteen years, the EPA put out a final draft of its so-called dioxin reassessment.
We had Shawn Allee look at how it could affect Michigan:

The US Environmental Protection Agency admits the dioxin reassessment is overdue, but the end is near.

“Hopefully this will be the final word, for now, on the assessment of the toxicity of dioxin.”

Dr. Peter Preuss (prew-ss) heads up EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment.

He uses the word “hopefully” since the dioxin reassessment needs final peer review.

But the current draft shows the government’s more concerned about dioxin than ever.

Take cancer for example.

Back in 2003, EPA scientists stated dioxins could cause cancer at very low concentrations.

Dow Chemical objected, and so did some independent scientists.

Preuss says EPA considered objections but it is sticking to its guns … this draft reaffirms even small doses of dioxin cause cancer.

In Michigan, this could mean EPA asks Dow to remove even small traces of dioxin from contaminated soil.

“We have made clear that once this reassessment is complete, we will evaluate those soil clean up levels and see if they need to be changed or not.”
That could add tens of millions of dollars to Dow Chemical’s clean-up costs.

Scientists say the dioxin reassessment deals with more than just cancer risks, though.

“Each time they get an analysis of the toxicity, it turns out it’s more toxic.”

This is Peter DeFur (duh FURR), an environmental consultant who’s peer-reviewed older drafts.

“This version of the reassessment confirms that same trend. The non-cancer cancer affects are seen to be occurring at lower levels than previously. So, it’s worse than we thought.”

Here’s why DeFur’s worried.

The state government already warns people to avoid eating certain fish from the polluted Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers.

DeFur predicts the reassessment will push the state to issue even stronger warnings, especially for vulnerable people.

“For example, if a pregnant woman consumes a lot of fish with dioxin throughout her pregnancy, she may be putting the fetus at risk for developmental problems later in life, when the child begins to grow up. And this doesn’t have to be a long-term exposure, it may be a matter of a few months during the pregnancy.”

There’s a chance the EPA’s dioxin reassessment will not end up strengthening any dioxin clean-up or fish advisories, though.

After all, the EPA wants comments from people who could be affected by the latest science.

One EPA official says he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the loudest voices on both sides come from Michigan.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Dow Chemical emailed Shawn their comments, saying EPA ignored scientific objections. A scientific advisory board will be looking into that.

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

Growing Fruits and Veggies in the City

  • Planting an urban garden in Louisville, KY. (Photo courtesy of the City of Louisville)

For decades, people in American cities have relied on farmers in rural areas to grow the fruits and vegetables we eat. But a new generation of farmers says there’s no reason to keep agriculture out of the urban core. Ann Dornfeld reports:


For decades, people in American cities have relied on farmers in rural areas to grow the fruits and vegetables we eat. But a new generation of farmers says there’s no reason to keep agriculture out of the urban core. Ann Dornfeld reports:

Sean Conroe and Amber Banks found each other like so many people do these days: on the Internet. They met for cupcakes, and talked about their hopes and dreams.
It wasn’t a date. Amber and Sean both wanted to start a farm. In the middle of the city.

“Because there are a lot of neighborhoods that don’t have access to healthy, fresh produce and if they do it can be very expensive. So we see unused space as a great place to grow food to make it more accessible to people.”

They call their project Alleycat Acres. Conroe created a Web site to recruit volunteers and donations. Within a week, they were offered a plot of land between two houses in south Seattle. Conroe says 20 volunteers worked for six weekends to turn the grassy land into what it is now. A farm.

“We have spinach, onions, radish, lettuce and chard that’s all ready to be harvested right now.”

There are carrots and green onions. Peas, beans, and turnips.

“Broccoli, tomatillos and cucumbers which are all starting to pop up. And then strawberries.”

Sean Conroe is in college, and Amber Banks is a teacher. But they both grew up farming and gardening.

“Since this is our first year it’s gonna be tough. But we are very pleased so far. We did not expect there to be this much food already, so things are definitely off to a good start.”

The Alleycats have harvested nearly 200 pounds of produce so far. They’ve donated most of it to local food banks. They deliver it by bike.

(sound of snipping and bagging greens)

Bridget Barni is sitting in the dirt thinning the salad greens. She’s one of the 80 people who’ve signed up to volunteer on the farm.

“I just learned how to do this this morning. It’s amazing what you can learn when you show up on a Saturday and are willing to get dirty!”

Like a lot of the volunteers, Barni doesn’t have much gardening experience.

“So what’s the secret to picking in the right place. The right leaves?”

“Y’know, I asked that same question! And it turns out there is no science to it! It’s more like, just get in there and let the new leaves get some sun and grow.”

Exposing city-dwellers to the joys of growing food is one of the Alleycats’ missions. They invite school groups to the farm to help out. And Amber Banks says they want the same people who get food donations to know how to work the soil.

“Y’know, ’cause we’re not gonna be around forever. People are eventually gonna have to take over these gardens.
To teach people that they can feed themselves from the ground that’s right around them is really a good message as well.”

Sean Conroe says Alleycat Acres is expanding to other vacant lots in the city. So are a lot of other urban farming groups. They’re planting carrots in unused yards. And broccoli where old businesses were torn down.

“We’d like to expand as much as we can where there are empty lots that have ample sunlight, that have access to water and that have community rallying around projects such as this.”

The city has even dubbed 2010 “The Year of Urban Agriculture.” But these farms’ growth is limited. That’s because like a lot of cities, Seattle has restrictions on urban farms. The city council is now considering changing those laws.

For the Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld.

New Air Pollution Rules

  • New rules for sulfur dioxide pollution.(Photo courtesy of the USDOE)

The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized new health standards for one kind of air pollution. Lester Graham reports:


The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized new health standard for one kind of air pollution. Lester Graham reports:

In 1998 the American Lung Association sued the EPA to prod the agency to further reduce air pollutants that cause health problems. Among the pollutants was sulfur dioxide—known for causing acid rain. The primary sources of the pollutant are coal-burning power plants and other industrial plants. Sulfur dioxide emissions are capped at yearly limits, but this new rule also restricts short spikes in the emissions. Deborah Shprentz is a consultant to the American Lung Association. She says this new rule is a good first step to reduce the pollution.

“To protect the health of people, especially those with asthma and other respiratory conditions from breathing these short-term bursts of sulfur dioxide that can make them sick and send them to the hospital and even contribute to premature death.”

States will have a couple of years to comply with the new rule, but if it were put in place today, a projected 60 counties, mostly in the eastern half of the nation, would be out of compliance.

For the Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Water Lessons From Israel

  • Moses Zohar is a farmer in the Negev desert is Israel. (Photo by Sadie Babits)

A lot of fresh water goes to grow food. But as the population increases in the world so does the demand for that water. In the U.S., states like California and Arizona already face water shortages. In Israel, farmers are using short-term solutions until they can find long term answers. Sadie Babits reports farmers there are raising crops that don’t necessarily need the best water:


A lot of fresh water goes to grow food. But as the population increases in the world so does the demand for that water. In the U.S., states like California and Arizona already face water shortages. In Israel, farmers are using short-term solutions until they can find long term answers. Sadie Babits reports farmers there are raising crops that don’t necessarily need the best water.

There’s not much out here in the Negev desert except for the occasional sand storm and scrub brush. So if you want to grow something out in the desert, you need water. And that’s a hard thing to find in a country that doesn’t have much of it. Just ask Moses Zohar.

“ When you have water you have life. If you have no water you have no life here.”

Zohar is a farmer in the Negev desert. He remembers the day he and his family stood on this barren land. Zohar says h is knees were shaking.

“He stood here and said there is nothing here how am I going to do this [Hebrew [duck below translator]] He didn’t have any income… he had kids to feed and he’d just left his job and he had to start anew.”

Now ten years later Zohar has a small vineyard, an olive grove and dozens of pomegranate trees. He says the secret lies in huge underground aquifers. There’s a catch though. The w ater is too salty to drink, but it turns out pomegranates and olives don’t mind the brackish water. Shaher Nizre is a student at Ben Gurion University who helps farmers select and grow crops that can handle saline water.

“It depends on the tree itself because it has a system that can take salt out from the water. Not all of them can do this.”

Right now he explains scientists are testing different kinds of pomegranates on Zohar’s land.

“For example this tree will have very red fruits. This one will have soft seeds and what we try to do is try and see the best variety for Israel and the best variety for Europe.”

In other words, they’re trying to find pomegranates and olives that can be exported to European markets without using water people would normally use to drink. But even these crops can only be grown here for a while. Eventually the brackish water will put so much salt in the ground, nothing will grow.

Eilon Adar leads the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. It’s in the Negev desert.

“The population will increase so we should need more water for domestic use, for agriculture and for food production. It will indefinitely have to come from new non-conventional resources.”

One of those resources is saltwater seas. In the mid 1950s, when the country was designing a national water network to tap into the Sea of Galilee, scientists were also building the first desalination lab to take salty water and turn it into drinking water.

“So now that the Sea of Galilee is deprived from surplus of water we are ready with desalination. And what we are doing now is the same. We are happy with the results. We keep developing new technology for the next generation of producing new water.”

Adar says Israel must also learn to treat and desalinate sewage water that can be used to irrigate crops.

Water experts in the U.S. say we can learn from Israel and how that country deals with water scarcity. America’s era of using fresh water from underground aquifers and diverted rivers won’t last forever. Researchers say we need to learn to conserve water better and like the Israelis, plan for the day when the current supplies are sucked dry.

For The Environment Report, I’m Sadie Babits.

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