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pollution

One Michigan county tells the story of a nation plagued by water pollution

Sep 24, 2020
J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Farms housing thousands of animals are one of several sources contaminating the Pine River and dividing a mid-Michigan community.

Murray Borrello, wearing khakis and a loose-fitting brown button-up, walked down a backroad during the summer of 2019 listening to the sounds of the woods. Water from the Pine River flowed slowly beneath him as he looked out over a bridge.

“Oh, I hear a frog,” the Alma College geology and environmental studies professor said. “That’s a good sign.” 

PFAS foam on the Huron River.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

New legislation in the Michigan Senate would increase the timeframe during which legal action could be taken against polluters in Michigan.

Under current state law, the clock on when legal action can be taken starts ticking at the moment pollution occurs.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office has settled a case dealing with leaky underground fuel tanks. The state will be getting $35 million to clean up the sites now owned by Premcor Refining Group, Inc.

“We entered into this settlement with the group because Premcor is the entity that is liable under state law for the releases at these sites. So, you know, we're just trying to reach a settlement if that's sound and enforceable and it's in the best interest of the public,” said Ryan Jarvi, spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office.

Michelle Hurd Riddick (used with permission)

The two dams that broke near Midland caused a massive flood that swept away bridges, roads, and damaged a lot of property. Because Midland is home to Dow’s original chemical complex, a lot of people were concerned about hazardous waste or waste in ponds at Dow.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

President Donald Trump is proposing a slight increase in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). 

It’s a change in policy for an administration that tried to slash funding in the past. The president had proposed cutting the GLRI’s budget by 90%. But Congress reinstated the funding. 

The president’s budget proposal calls for spending $320 million on projects to clean up the Great Lakes in Fiscal Year 2021.   

pollution
veeterzy / Unsplash

State House Democrats are rolling out a package of bills aimed at forcing corporate polluters to pay for cleaning up their messes.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy indicates there are 1.4 million homes in Michigan that are not hooked up to a sewer system. Many use septic tank systems. But Molly Rippke, an aquatic biologist with the agency, says there’s a big problem. 

For Love of Water

The condition of Michigan's groundwater is getting worse, according to a report released this week by the non-profit group FLOW, or For Love of Water. 

The report  is entitled "The Sixth Great Lake: The Emergency Threatening Michigan's Overlooked Groundwater Resource." According to FLOW, the volume of groundwater in the Great Lakes watershed is comparable to the volume of Lake Huron.

Takeout containers
Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

There's a scene in the 1967 film The Graduate where a well-meaning friend of the family pulls Dustin Hoffman's character aside at his graduation party, and gives him this advice:

"There's a great future in plastics - think about it, will you think about it? ... That's a deal."

But back then, the downside of plastic wasn't apparent.

Sybil Kolon
Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

In Michigan, we have laws in place that give the state the power to essentially rope off polluted areas instead of cleaning them up. Instead, those laws tell the public: don’t drink the water or build your house here.

There are land use restrictions at more than 2,000 sites around Michigan. Officials say they are necessary at sites with environmental contamination to keep people from coming into contact with harmful chemicals.
Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

 

At more than 1,600 sites across the state of Michigan, you can’t drink the groundwater. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t be safe or legal.

A Bald eagle perched on a branch
ellenm1 / flickr

After nearly going extinct, the bald eagle population across the United States has been recovering. In Michigan, the number of nesting pairs of bald eagles in Michigan has doubled in the past 15 years.  

Heather Good is the executive director of the Michigan Audubon Society. Good joined Stateside to talk about the bald eagle's recovery, and new challenges facing the birds of prey today.

The Velsicol Superfund sites in St. Louis, Michigan.
Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

 

There are a lot of former industrial sites in Michigan that need to be cleaned up. The pollution left behind in one town in the middle of Michigan is particularly bad. The Velsicol Chemical Company (known as Michigan Chemical up until 1976) produced a lot of toxic chemicals in St. Louis, Michigan.

 

Chloroform was detected in the groundwater at about 5 parts per billion in some tests in Waterworks Park in Ann Arbor.
user UnagiUnagi / Google Maps

State officials have a new water contamination investigation on their hands: what is the source of newly-discovered contaminants found in the groundwater near Slauson Middle School in Ann Arbor?

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality discovered the chemicals trichloroethane and chloroform there after conducting tests for a different chemical - 1,4 dioxane. 

The 1,4 dioxane is a known contaminant from the chemical company Pall-Gelman. The plume of 1,4 dioxane is slowly moving underneath Ann Arbor towards the Huron River.

Dredging on the River Raisin. A mechanical dredge removing material on July 11, 2012.
USEPA

State and federal officials are celebrating the completion of a twenty-year river cleanup effort in southeast Michigan.

The River Raisin was once one of the most polluted rivers in Michigan. It will soon be clean enough for both commercial navigation and recreational use.

The Environmental Protection Agency says the cleanup effort is in its final stage, which is set to be finished by the end of October.

Cameron Davis is senior advisor to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The hidden costs of pollution

Feb 25, 2016
markbwavy / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

We often hear about the economic costs of environmental regulation on the energy industry.

But there’s a flip side to that equation — the price society pays for pollution.  One scientist has added up those costs. And she found they’re going down.

Flickr / bitznbitez

The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with the state of Michigan, other states, and industry groups in a challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions rules.

The justices ruled the EPA was unreasonable when it refused to consider costs in its initial decision to regulate mercury emissions from power plants.

Read the Supreme Court's ruling in Michigan vs. EPA here.

The DeYoung Power Plant in Holland.
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the state of Michigan, and many other states and industry groups, in their challenge to emissions rules from the Environmental Protection Agency.

They argued that the EPA should consider the costs and benefits of regulating mercury pollution from power plants.

Toxic hotspots, or "Areas of Concern" around Michigan's shoreline.
Great Lakes Commission

"Lake Erie is dead" and "the Cuyahoga River is on fire."

Those were actual headlines in the late 1960s spotlighting the deteriorating conditions of the Great Lakes in an age when rampant pollution was the norm.

Stories like these led to the passing of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which helped restore the Great Lakes.

Brian Wybenga

Back in December, there was a toxic spill in Detroit.

In my kitchen.

It was a Sunday morning. My kids were watching a cartoon. I was reading the paper. And my husband, who does some small-time antiques dealing in his spare time, was monkeying around with one of his treasures in the kitchen.

Rachel Kramer / User: Flickr

A research team has discovered high levels of flame retardants in bald eagles in Michigan.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are in all kinds of consumer products.  They're in our couches, our TVs, our cars, our office chairs, the padding beneath our carpets, and the dust in our homes. But the chemicals don’t stay put. They leach out and build up in people and in wildlife.

"What we found was that some of the eagles, particularly in Michigan, had some of the highest exposures to flame retardant chemicals in the world," says Nil Basu, a professor at McGill University in Montreal.

The site of the former Velsicol Chemical Corporation in St. Louis is going to take a long time to clean up.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The city of St. Louis, Michigan would much rather be talked about as the geographic center of the Lower Peninsula.

Instead, there's a lot of focus on the legacy of pollution here.

The story of Velsicol Chemical in St. Louis, Michigan is quite complicated. 

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

This week, we’ve told you about efforts to clean up the old Velsicol Chemical plant. There’s a threat to the local drinking water supply after the first attempt to clean up the plant failed. Birds still die from DDT, decades after the plant stopped producing it.

But we haven't told you who's paying to fix it.


Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign legislation that changes pollution clean-up procedures in Michigan. Senate Bill 891 is backed by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The DEQ argues too much money is being wasted by the costs of cleaning up inconsequential amounts of pollution. The agency says it should assess risks to human health and use more cost-effective methods when determining pollution clean-up requirements. Leaving some contaminants behind in an area not used by people would allow the agency to deal with more of the clean-ups that do threaten public health, the agency believes.

Velsicol Chemical operated on the banks of the Pine River in St. Louis, Michigan from 1938 to 1978. It was the site of the infamous PBB mixup. The entire plant was buried in place and now it's leaking.
Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force

There are a lot of former industrial sites in Michigan that need to be cleaned up, but the Velsicol Superfund sites in St. Louis, Michigan are unusual in their size and in the amount of nasty chemicals lurking in the ground where people live, work and play.

The company tried to contain the pollution before, but its solution didn’t work. Ask some of the community members about that original plan and they say they could have told you it wasn’t going to work.

An ailing robin fledging in Teri Kniffen's yard in St. Louis, Michigan in June of 2013.  Some of the highest levels of DDT ever recorded in bird livers and brains were found in this neighborhood.
Teri Kniffen

All this week we're bringing you stories about the chemical company responsible for the PBB tragedy in Michigan. Michigan Chemical accidentally contaminated the state’s food supply in the 1970s, but the legacy of that company is still very much with us today.

Michigan Chemical – which later became Velsicol Chemical – made more than just PBB, and it left these toxic chemicals behind in St. Louis, Michigan.

One woman insists something is wrong with the birds

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

More than 40 years ago, people in Michigan were poisoned. Researchers are still following those people today.

In 1973, a fire-retardant chemical called PBB, polybrominated biphenyl, accidentally got mixed into livestock feed.  It took a year to discover the accident. 

Studies estimate 70-90% of people in Michigan had some exposure to PBB from eating contaminated milk, meat and eggs. The MDCH says the "overwhelming majority of those who were exposed to PBB received very low levels."

Other people had higher levels of exposure.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta are studying the long-term health effects of exposure to PBB. The team was in Michigan this past weekend to continue the study. 

EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency announced today two toxic hot spots in Michigan have been cleaned up.

Work is now complete at White Lake in Muskegon County and Deer Lake in the Upper Peninsula.

The sites are on a list of about 40 toxic hot spots surrounding the Great Lakes; 14 sites are in Michigan.

Quincy Mine near Hancock, Michigan back in the day
Don...The UpNorth Memories Guy... Harrison / Flickr

Copper.

Its use in our lives is astounding, and so is the cost of mining it. When Bill Carter moved to Bisbee, Arizona, he found himself directly affected by the mining history in the town.

And so he wrote “Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, The Metal That Runs The World.” The book comes from his firsthand experience with the effects of living in a copper-mining town.

Carter calls copper the invisible metal. We hear a lot about gold, aluminum, and iron. But the 400 pounds of copper in our homes, 9,000 pounds in airplanes, and 50 pounds in our cars, is overlooked as it “runs modern civilization.”

“The programs we offer are the ones that (veterans) desire,” says Garland Williams, the University of  Phoenix’s vice president for military affairs.
Carlos A. Moreno / CIR

Update 10:30 p.m.

The showed has already aired on Michigan Radio. If you missed it, you can catch it again here.

Original post- 11:30 a.m.

Who’s really benefiting from the GI Bill? Why does the U.S. Coast Guard have some explaining to do? How much arsenic in our water is actually safe? There’s always more to the story.

“Reveal,” the radio show dedicated to investigative reporting, is back. Brought to you by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, the third pilot episode examines the value of a degree from a for-profit colleges reaping millions of dollars from GI Bill funds, explores the Coast Guard’s shaky safety record, exposes the backroom deals over arsenic in our water and delves into the secrecy around lethal injection drugs.

Catch Reveal tonight on Michigan Radio at 7 p.m.!

Here’s a rundown of the stories you’ll hear:

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