Paying more for landfill might help recycling

Capital News Service

LANSING — A proposal to increase the cost of putting waste into landfills would produce an estimated $79 million annually for environmental initiatives.

The proposal was presented by Gov. Rick Snyder in late January and is pending in the House Environmental Committee.

Part of the proposal would allocate $15 million to support community recycling efforts. That would include $8 million for local recycling grants, $5 million for planning grants and $2 million for market development.

Michigan has one of the lowest recycling rates in the nation at 14 percent and throws away $368 million in reusable materials annually, according to a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) study. A recycling rate is the percentage of total waste that’s recycled rather than thrown away.

The DEQ now provides about $500,000 in grants to local recycling programs annually. Municipalities or other government agencies must match the state funding to be considered for the grant.

“Recycling grants can go to whatever makes the most sense for the community,” said Steve Sliver, the assistant director of the DEQ Waste Management Division.

“Good policy, planning dollars and grant funding are the keys to a good recycling program,” Elisa Seltzer, the director of the Emmet County Department of Public Works and Recycling, said.

Seltzer was hired to start the Emmet County recycling program in 1990. The program has received initial state aid for planning and infrastructure development, along with grants for expansion and education over the years.

“The upfront costs could mean hiring a consultant, staff person or paying committee members to work on how to increase recycling in a rural community such as ours,” Seltzer said. “We wanted recycling to be convenient, comprehensive and cost-effective.”

The county now has one of the highest recycling rates in the state at 42 percent, Seltzer said. There is currently no requirement for counties to report their recycling rates to the state, but the governor’s proposal would add that mandate.

Emmet County uses a combination of curbside pickup and community drop-off locations. The goal is that everyone has access to a recycling location within 6 miles of their home. A pay- as-you-throw policy that charges residents for dumping landfill but not recycling incentivizes making the trip, Seltzer said.

The county has a material recovery facility, which sorts and processes the recyclable materials to then be sold to manufacturers. The facility also receives material from Presque Isle, Cheboygan and Otsego counties.

“Sometimes we wind up covering the cost of the processing,” Seltzer said.

“Typically it is easier to be more cost-effective and efficient providing services in an urban environment because everything is more dense and you have more demographics with which to divide any upfront costs,” she said.

Communities attempting to expand or begin a recycling program have made more grant requests than the state has been able to fund during the past three years.

“In 2015, we had $635,000 in recycling grant funding available,” said DEQ recycling specialist Emily Freeman, “and received $3.9 million in grant requests.”

By focusing on smaller projects and working with communities to partially fund programs, the DEQ was able to help 25 entities in 2017, Freeman said. Despite those efforts, nine entities and a quarter of a million dollars in requests went unfunded.

The DEQ has has not been able to assess all grant applications for 2018, but estimates that there are $600,000 in requests.

A statewide recycling rate increase poses logistical questions for recycling programs.

Sliver said, “If Michigan actually doubled or tripled its current recycling rate, we do not have the capacity with our current material recovery facilities.

“There may be plenty of capacity in some parts of the state and none in others,” Sliver said. “Do you truck the material for a longer distance to a facility that has capacity, or does it make more sense to establish a new facility?”

Recycling in the state “employs 93,000 people, $5.7 billion in annual labor income, and creates $24.3 billion in economic input,” said Kerrin O’Brien, the executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.

Drink up? Depends on where you live

Capital News Service

LANSING – If you’re thinking of moving in Michigan and worry about water quality, finding the perfect area might be harder than you think.

Because of  a wide variety of contaminants, pinpointing one area that has the cleanest drinking water or the worst drinking water isn’t an easy task.  

“It’s hard to say where the most issues are. There are different issues in different communities around the state,” said Sean McBrearty, a program organizer at Clean Water Action, an advocacy group..

Lead receives the most headlines but Michigan’s main drinking water contaminants include arsenic, nitrate, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and lead.

Some areas are affected worse than others, but overall, Lansing has no worries about lead and Northern Michigan enjoys fairly clean water, according to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

One of the biggest problems facing almost the entire state is the crumbling infrastructure, McBrearty said. “Michigan has more lead service lines than almost any other state.”

With around 460,000 lead service lines, many local governments are scrambling to find the money to replace them.

According to McBrearty, the only area where all lead pipes have been removed is Lansing. The Lansing Board of Water and Light finished replacing all of them in 2016.

Lansing and  Madison, Wisconsin, are the only two cities in the country to replace all of their lead service lines, according the the Board of Water and Light.

Because of the makeup of Michigan’s landscape, the state tends to have naturally higher arsenic levels in the groundwater. Arsenic is found in some bedrock, sand, gravel and soil when it’s dissolved by and absorbed into drinking water.

Some areas with the highest rate of arsenic contamination are Bad Axe, Lapeer  and southeast Genesee County. The cleanest counties include Mason, Manistee, Alpena and Mackinac.

Unlike arsenic, problems with VOCs are generally caused by human activity such as the release of industrial solvents, fuel and chemical spills, and illegal disposal of waste products. VOC levels are also much lower in the northern parts of the state than in southern Michigan, according to the DEQ.

Areas with the most VOC problems include Jackson, Battle Creek, Portage and Muskegon. DEQ data shows counties with the least problems include Montmorency, Luce, Baraga, Iron and Keweenaw.

In contrast, nitrate levels have a pattern that follows east and west, not just north and south. High levels tend to be found in West Michigan, focused on the southern and middle parts of the Lower Peninsula.

These contaminants come from livestock waste, septic tanks and drainfields, crop and lawn fertilizers, municipal wastewater sludge and natural sources, according to the DEQ.

The counties with the most serious nitrate problems include Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Montcalm and Oceana. The east side of the state, particularly the Thumb, and the Upper Peninsula have lesser rates of nitrate contamination.

Another major factor whether the water is being pulled from the Great Lakes or from groundwater sources. Because the Great Lakes are so large, understanding the quality of the water is much easier and results in fewer  problems, according to James Clift, the policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council.

With groundwater, people need to be more wary of possible contaminants and localized threats, Clift said.

The Great Lakes Water Authority in Southeast Michigan gets most of its water from Lake Huron or the Detroit River. However, the region it serves has the most lead service lines in the state to deal with, Clift said.

Those who get their water from private wells need to be far more wary than those on municipal water, according to Clift, so it’s important to test well water not only when moving but also every two to three years.

County health departments can test for most common contaminants. For the consumer, strange smell and taste are indicators that something is wrong, Clift said.

McBrearty of Clean Water Action said some contaminants that are far harder to examine include perfluorooctane sulfonate, a VOC that’s been discovered in about 15 areas in Michigan.

“The science is not complete on how dangerous it is for human health,” McBrearty said. Only a handful of labs in the country can test for it, but the expensive testing is typically funded by the organization or company that caused the damage.

According to Clift, Michigan is working toward having its own means of testing for such contaminants.

Push underway to designate national water trails for Flint, Shiawassee Rivers


LANSING — Three years after the Flint River starred in an international horror story where cost-cutting measures led to toxic drinking water, state lawmakers are backing an effort to give it national recognition as a water trail.

The decision is up to the National Park Service.

National Park Service designation of a national water trail means the 73-mile river will likely draw more visitors and businesses, said Rebecca Fedewa, the executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition.

Meanwhile, the Shiawassee River Water Trail Coalition has submitted a similar application for designation for that 88-mile waterway between Chesaning and Holly.

The Flint River is a principal tributary of the Shiawassee, which flows into the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay.

The state House has passed a resolution supporting designation for both rivers, and a resolution is pending in the Senate Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Committee. The lead sponsors are Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso.

Resolutions are expressions of legislative sentiment but have no legal effect.

The Flint River “is home to bald eagles, ospreys, frogs, turtles, muskrats and a wide variety of fish. Used as a main method of transportation for Native Americans and early European settlers and later supporting the city of Flint as a major hub for fur-trading, lumber milling, and agriculture, the river has a rich cultural history,” the legislative resolution says.

The Huron River is a model for the Flint River group because it’s seen more visitors since its federal designation as a water trail in 2015, said Elizabeth Riggs, the deputy director of the Huron River Watershed Council.

“We are also seeing that they are coming from a wider variety of demographics,” she said. “Designation makes the route more of a destination.”

More people traveling to an area means more economic activity for local businesses, Riggs said.

Huron River visitors bring in $53.5 million each year, according to the Economic Impact of the Huron River.

“A national water trail designation can be used to promote recreation and tourism, enhancing economic benefits for communities. The program also opens opportunities to access technical assistance and funding for planning and implementing water trail projects and improving existing river water trails,” the resolutions say.

Water trails are like other park trails with multiple access points, mile markers and directions, but along a river, said Tom Cook, who heads Friends of the Shiawassee River.
He said Shiawassee River enthusiasts applied for national water trail status in hopes that it will create a sense of pride about that river, Cook said.

“The designation was a tool to bring our community together,” he said. “We hope that it brings the appropriate recognition of the work we have done and will continue do.”

The application process has brought together three service groups and 11 governmental organizations with responsibilities ranging from keeping the Shiawassee River clean to mapping out trail activities, Cook said.

The designations are in the final stages of review by the National Park Service, said Barbara Nelson-Jameson, who is the Michigan programs coordinator for the federal agency.

Fedewa said, “Getting the approval from the (state) House was definitely a surprise. To see them taking that on was very special and really reaffirms everything that we have been working on.”

Lizzy LaFavre writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Farmers concerned about air emission reporting requirement

Capital News Service

LANSING – Farmers in the state may soon be required to report air emissions from their livestock, a federal requirement that had exempted them in the past.

“It’s just a requirement for reporting for purposes of tracking,” said Laura Campbell, the manager of the Agricultural Ecology Department at the Michigan Farm Bureau. “This is a requirement with no useful purpose.”

The change is due to a recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling  in Washington, D.C.

Previously, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exempted farms from reporting hazardous substance air releases caused by animal waste. Only large concentrated animal feeding operations were subject to reporting under a related law.

Because the court ruling struck down the exemption, farms, ranches, livestock operations and animal operations, will be required to report releases of hazardous substances that exceed threshold limits.

According to the EPA, agriculture contributes 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Among them, methane from normal digestive processes of livestock represents almost one-third of the emissions, and manure management accounts for about 15 percent.

No one knows how many farms will fall under the requirement, Campbell said.

“The requirement depends on how much ammonia or hydrogen sulfide the manure on a farm might emit,” she said. “Confinement, pasture, all sizes of operations will have to review their farms to try to figure out whether they would estimate that their emissions meet the threshold.”

The threshold for ammonia or hydrogen sulfide from a farm is 100 lbs within a 24-hour period, according to EPA.

However, no reliable way exists to measure air emissions from any type of farm, “whether a livestock barn, manure storage structure, feedlot, pasture or any other type of (animal) housing,” Campbell said.

The EPA has recommended a few calculators that farmers can use to estimate their emissions, but she said estimates are likely to be questioned because there is no way to scientifically verify them.

According to Campbell, the Farm Bureau has been working with Michigan State University Extension, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and other partners to get out information on how farms can comply.

Gary Voogt, the owner of Voogt Farms, a beef cattle farm in Marne, Ottawa County, said it will be a paperwork burden if farms have to report air emissions.

He said when farmers have to do “foolish things” that have nothing to do with raising livestock, “it passes onto the consumer, and the cost of food goes up and poor people can’t afford to eat.”

Campbell said there would be a “significant financial penalty if farmers don’t comply” with the requirement.

Beyond that, reporting would present a risk to their privacy, she said.

“Farm information submitted under most regulatory programs has some level of protection from release to the public,” Campbell said. But, under the federal Superfund law, “that information can’t be held private because the entire reason for the act is to provide that information to the public and emergency managers for response.

“Therefore, farm and farming family information would become public. There are many activist groups who want information about livestock farms specifically because they want to harass, demonize or find other ways to eliminate livestock farms,” she said.

Tom Zimnicki, the agriculture policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, said it’s essential to be able to track air emissions from all major sources that contribute to pollution, whether that be agriculture, transportation or other industry.

“Our hope is that both state and federal policy recognizes the impact these livestock operations, especially the large ones, have on air quality and address air pollution issues accordingly,” he said.

“I do not think the new air emission reporting requirements will result in any new standards to limit emissions from agriculture,” Zimnicki said. “To my knowledge it is only a reporting requirement.”

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Senate would exempt farms from reporting air emissions. Neither of Michigan’s senators, Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, or Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, are co-sponsors.

Campbell said the Farm Bureau supports the proposal which is pending in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The organization says the new requirements won’t result in any benefits.

“This act has nothing to do with increasing protection of the environment,” Campbell said. “The best approach for helping farms do the best they can do for protecting air quality will come from university and Extension research under the kind of conditions that can be measured.”

That, in turn,  will allow them to make recommendations to use for state standards, she said.

According to the EPA, farms won’t be required to submit reports until the appeals court issues its order eliminating the exemptions on May 1.

Piping plovers rebound on Great Lakes shores

Capital News Service

LANSING — Piping plover advocates are looking to capitalize on the bird’s record-setting success last year by expanding habitat restoration efforts.

Piping plover nests were found on the shores of all five Great Lakes last year for the first time since 1955.

The shore-dwelling bird disappeared from most of the Great Lakes in the 1980s and was listed as endangered in 1986, said Vince Cavalieri, the Great Lakes piping plover recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At one point, up to 600 pairs nested throughout the Great Lakes. In 1990, only 12 pairs remained.

Once found on sandy beaches from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, most survivors clustered around Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan’s northwest shore.

But with the discovery of a nesting pair in Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park last year — the first to take up residence on Lake Erie for 60 years–the winds have changed. Researchers found 76 nesting pairs throughout the region in 2017.

“Finally the last two or three years we’re starting to see bigger numbers in Ontario, in Wisconsin,” Cavalieri said. “We’ve got nesting in Illinois now.”

There’s a new call to restore and protect plover habitats–and the Huron-Manistee National Forest’s Lake Michigan shoreline is one location under consideration.

A stretch of that shoreline at Ludington State Park has been an excellent spot for plovers, hosting eight nesting pairs in the past, Cavalieri said.

They’ve declined in the last four years, however, and only one pair remained last summer. Higher water levels have swallowed up stretches of the beach and  predators like the merlin, a native falcon, have attacked nests.

Advocates have focused on protecting piping plover nests, said Christie DeLoria, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes coastal program coordinator. That’s done mainly by placing wire cages over nests to keep predators out and by limiting access to nesting grounds.

Eggs are often abandoned if a nest is washed out by high waters, one of the pair dies or if they become too agitated by nearby activity. Beach-goers in Northwest Michigan often come across signs warning them of closed nesting sites.

The hope was that increasing the birds’ numbers would allow them to spread.

Two projects on the shores of Lake Michigan have successfully developed plover-friendly habitat: one at Wilderness State Park on the northern shore of the Lower Peninsula, the other on a series of eroded islands in Wisconsin’s Lower Green Bay.

DeLoria has headed the project at Wilderness State Park where plovers abandoned the shores in 2006 after invasive, fast-growing vegetation infiltrated what used to be unadulterated beachfront.

“[The plovers’] strategy is to look like the beach,” DeLoria said. “And that’s how they survive, to look like the sand and the cobble.”

Results came quickly.

Park staff started clearing brush and trees from the shore in 2014, DeLoria said. In the summer of 2015, they observed a pair nesting there. In 2016, that same pair returned to raise three chicks.

Cavalieri said measures exist to protect the birds at Ludington State Park, like expanding the area of the cage enclosures. But the beach’s popularity limits even those options, and the opportunity for habitat restoration is limited.

“It just may be that Ludington is the kind of place where we have to wait for the lake levels to go down before we see a bunch of birds come back there,” Cavalieri said.

But there may be opportunity further up the coast at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, which hasn’t hosted a nesting plover pair since 2010, said U.S. Forest Service Forest biologist Philip Huber.  It’s part of Huron-Manistee National Forest.

The beaches there are narrow–sometimes only 2 to 3 feet wide before they butt up against sandy cliffs–and high lake levels haven’t helped.

Simply put, there’s not enough room for plovers, aside from the occasional nest among the dunes.

There was talk of using heavy equipment to flatten the beaches, Huber said, but the expense, long review process and logistical issues of moving heavy machinery into a roadless area make that unlikely.

And in a rapidly shifting environment like the dunes, such efforts could be wiped away in a single season.

“We just didn’t believe it would be a good thing to be mucking around on the beach trying to make nesting habitat for the plovers,” he said, especially without guarantees of its permanence.


Spreading cobble along the beach and among the dunes would be more feasible and make the area more attractive to plovers, Huber said. There would still be no guarantees, but the project’s lower cost and relative ease make it easier to justify as an experiment.

Continued success requires continued maintenance — a lesson Wilderness State Park staff learned last summer.

The female didn’t return to the nest the pair had established the year before. After waiting a short time, her mate also left. Invasive spotted knapweed and sweet clover had again overtaken both the shore and hopes for another round of chicks.

DeLoria said staffers learned from that failure. They’re now trained and equipped with herbicides that should make it easier to keep the beaches clear. She said she hopes maintenance will become easier as they continue to beat back the vegetation.

Meanwhile, plover advocates are looking for the next habitat to rebuild, especially historic nesting sites that are near enough to established colonies like the Sleeping Bear population to allow the chicks to recolonize it easily.

Steven Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Add deposit to water bottles or raise landfill rates: debate is on

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan residents soon may have to pay a 10-cent deposit on plastic water bottles.

In a renewed effort to increase Michigan’s recycling rate, Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, sponsored a bill to expand the 1976 beverage containers law to include water and all beverages in metal, glass or plastic containers, except for milk products.

“We need to recycle more materials, keep things out of our landfills,” Hoadley said. “We need to recycle more so we save energy, and we need to invest in this type of recycling because it creates jobs as well.

“So it’s a win-win-win,” he said.

Efforts to expand the deposit law over the past decades have failed in the face of  opposition from grocers and retailers. Even some environmental advocates argue that other measures would provide a bigger boost to recycling in the state.

Michigan’s 15 percent recycling rate is the nation’s third-lowest, Hoadley said.

“We have an abysmal recycling rate,” he said. “But when you look at the bottle deposit bill, somewhere between 95 and 98 percent of bottles that have a deposit on them end up being returned for recycling, which is incredible.”

The bill was introduced around the same time Gov. Rick Snyder announced his new statewide initiatives for reducing waste and increasing recycling. This includes an increase to the fee to dispose waste in landfills from 36 cents/ton to $4.75/ton. This would generate $79 million annually, some earmarked for grants to local governments and nonprofits for recycling infrastructure, market development initiatives, education and outreach.

However, Snyder didn’t propose expanding the scope of the beverage deposit law.

“This is the first serious conversation we’ve had on recycling in years,” Hoadley said. “The governor’s recycling task force is finally issuing recommendations, the governor is bringing a mouthpiece to it and the governor has proposed some other solutions.”

Legislators want to show that they have solutions to propose as well, he said.

When it comes to recycling, some groups would rather see the focus placed on the governor’s initiatives rather than on an expansion of the bottle bill.

“While the bottle bill is an important part of the tools that we use to increase recycling, we’re trying to go much further beyond that,” said Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.

The association represents recycling and composting interests.

“A bottle deposit law expansion bill comes up periodically, and it would capture an additional 2 percent or so of the waste, but what we’re trying to do with the governor’s initiative is get to a 30 or 45 percent recycling rate,” O’Brien said.

Other experts say it’s not an either/or situation, but rather an opportunity to combine potential solutions to create the best plan.

“While we support an expansion of the bottle deposit law, it must also be accompanied by other efforts and significant funding to assist communities into developing effective recycling options,” said Amy Trotter, deputy director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

MUCC led the successful petition drive to enact the original law.

This is not the first time an expansion of the bottle bill has been brought forward, but past proposals have generated opposition.

“Grocers have a very slim profit margin, which makes it difficult to absorb costs,” said Meegan Holland, vice president of communications and marketing for the Michigan Retailers Association.

“They would likely need new machines to take expanded bottle returns and figure out how to store additional bottles,” Holland said “It would require hiring additional personnel to sort and maintain machines that accept returnables, plus keep a sanitary environment.”

At the end of the day, Hoadley said, most people want to do the right thing for the environment.

“A clean earth does not know party lines,” he said. “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, we can be supporting these initiatives that are working to create an individual incentive to do the right thing, create jobs and protect our environment.”

Co-sponsors of the bil are Reps. Tom Cochran, D-Mason; Bill Sowerby, D-Clinton Township; Brian Elder, D-Bay City; Erika Geiss, D-Taylor; Kristy Pagan, D-Canton; Robert Wittenberg, D-Huntington Woods, Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township; Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit; Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor; and Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit.

The bill is in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Pipeline attacks in video game sparks Great Lakes controversy

Capital News Service

LANSING – In the “Thunderbird Strike” video game, the conflict is over oil pipelines crossing Great Lakes landscapes.

Some petroleum industry advocates say that it encourages ecoterrorism. And that’s a serious claim – a federal offense.

A quick synopsis: Players control a figure of Native American mythology on a flight from Canada’s large deposits of heavy crude oil to the Straits of Mackinac. They gather lightning from the clouds and use it to strike representations of oil and gas machinery or to resurrect animals.

“I grew up with thunderbird stories being passed on to me,” said Elizabeth LaPensée, a Native American games developer and Michigan State University assistant professor in the Department of Media & Information.

“We talk about a time when the people will call for the help of the thunderbirds to heal the lands and waters,” said LaPensée,whose ancestry is both Anishinaabe and Métis, as well as Irish-American.

“The game really reflects that. It’s a story that’s combined with an understanding that there will be a time where there will come a snake that threatens to swallow the lands and the waters whole,” she said.

This snake appears in the final level of the game, a visual metaphor for Enbridge Line 5, the controversial pipeline that transports oil beneath the Straits of Mackinac. The pipeline, built to last 50 years, is now 62 years old.

Environmentalists and other critics say it’s old, worn, poorly maintained and in danger of polluting the world’s largest supply of fresh surface water.

The game also features scenes where people cross the screen carrying “No Pipelines on Indigenous Land” posters.

LaPensée advocates for this cause on the “Thunderbird Strike” website, encouraging visitors to learn more about oil pipelines and their environmental impacts.

“Thunderbird Strike” won Best DIgital Media award at ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto. It’s the leading indigenous media arts festival in the world.

The game doesn’t sit well with supporters of the oil and gas industry, however.

When asked what Enbridge Inc. thinks of the game, company corporate communications representative Michael Barnes provided this statement: “No matter your view on future energy sources, reasonable people understand that destroying or tampering with existing infrastructure is dangerous – it has the potential to harm people and the very environment we want to protect.”

Barnes referred questions to the American Petroleum Institute, which said it doesn’t comment on fictional items like video games.

But criticism has been sparked elsewhere.

LaPensée received funding to make the game through an arts grant from the Minnesota-based Arrowhead Regional Arts Council and the criticism has been especially harsh in that state.

Minnesota state Rep. Bob Gunther, a Republican, called the Arts Council grant an abuse of funding.

LaPensée was audited, but everything checked out for her, she said.

Minnesota state Sen. David Osmek, another Republican, called the game “an eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds.”

Toby Mack, president of the Energy Equipment & Infrastructure Alliance, accused the game of encouraging eco-terrorism.

LaPensée disagrees.

“Nowhere in the game is there anything that really would encourage that,” she said. “It’s not meant to be violent. It’s meant to say that we can remove these structures in a safe way that will help the lands and the waters and the animals.”

Since the game’s release, LaPensée said she’s endured attacks on her reputation as a professor and game designer. She’s had to change her phone number.

“When the first oil lobbyist group put out a press release, their goal was the complete deletion of the game,” LaPensée said. “So I think it could be feasible they’ll keep following the game, even though everyone who has published about the game to date has not actually played it themselves.”

Kate Habrel writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Fishery managers excited by lake trout’s not-so-picky palate

Capital News Service

LANSING — Scientists may have settled a debate between anglers and fishery managers over the future of the lake trout in the Great Lakes.

With salmon hauls on the decline in recent years as their favorite food dwindles, anglers are anxious to prioritize their protection even over recently resurgent native populations like lake trout.

Salmon reigned as the undisputed king of the Great Lakes fishing industry for decades after they were introduced in the 1950s to curb the invasive alewife. It was around that time that the highly lucrative lake trout fishery took a dive as populations crashed.

Alewife populations, the salmon’s key food source, have dwindled in recent years. Now anglers are afraid that the lake trout’s comeback could hasten the salmon’s disappearance and compete for the few alewife that are left, said Jory Jonas, a fisheries research biology specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.

But that’s not necessarily true. Jonas is the co-author of a new study showing that lake trout eat whatever’s available, meaning they don’t always directly compete for food with species like the Chinook salmon.

Both species mainly consumed alewife for years, Jonas said. That’s still true of most of the lake trout in Lake Michigan, where alewife populations are more stable.

Athough they’ve lost a main source of food, the lake trout’s flexible diet may make them beneficiaries after all.

“Nothing is ever truly good or bad,” she said. “It’s always a mix.”

Alewife consumption was probably harming lake trout eggs, said Austin Happel, who co-authored the diet study as a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois. He’s now an instructor at Colorado State University.

Lake trout reproduction in the Great Lakes has been handcuffed for years due to chronically low levels of thiamine, a fat-binding agent key to a healthy egg membrane, according to the study.

Fish have to consume a healthy ratio of fat and thiamine to lay viable eggs–alewife are fatty and often low in thiamine, Happel said.

The goal for lake trout is self-sufficiency, he said. That’s not the reality these days because lake trout must be stocked for populations to survive.

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission seeks to protect native species like lake trout, said Marc Gaden, the commission’s communications director. But the agency is also pleased with each state’s efforts to save the salmon by growing the remaining alewife population.

“They have to take on this elephant in the room, which is that there’s not much food for the salmon to eat,” Gaden said.

Fishery managers face a balancing act. They need to support the alewife enough to meet the demand for salmon, while rooting against it–and in favor of other prey species–in the interests of the native lake trout.

The diets of lake trout differ drastically between lakes Michigan and Huron, and even between the east and west coasts of Lake Michigan.  

That kindles some hope for that balance managers need to protect both the salmon and lake trout, Jonas said.

The variation is consistent with availability – alewife in northern Lake Michigan still make up a large portion of lake trout diet, while the Lake Huron fish consume the more-abundant rainbow smelt. A booming population of round goby, another invasive, is now an important food source for lake trout in western Lake Michigan.

But Happel said the alewife’s downturn won’t necessarily solve lake trout reproduction troubles. Thiamine deficiency has been found in other Great Lakes fish that don’t eat alewife–meaning the alewife might not be the crux of that problem.

“At some point we wanted to point fingers,” he said. “We wanted to find a culprit.”

Scientists have turned the log over only to find a larger problem–the entire food web in the Great Lakes is full of fat withoutt much thiamine to offset it, Happel said.

Alewife are a large part of the problem, but Jonas said prey like rainbow smelt are also low in thiamine to a lesser extent. The good news: round goby don’t share that problem. Researchers could start seeing higher natural reproduction among lake trout in goby-rich territory like Lake Mchigan’s western shore.

Happel said the study is encouraging. If lake trout can diversify their diet–and with it, their vitamin intake–the odds look much better for reproduction.

Steven Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.

New research tackles Great Lakes regional problems

Capital News Service

LANSING – We’re used to troubling news about the Great Lakes basin — Asian carp, zebra mussels, habitat degradation, fluctuating water levels, algal blooms, chronic wasting disease, lead-poisoned drinking water, endangered species and other problems.

But we pay less attention to promising news with useful findings from science and public policy experts.

I learned a lot about promising news as the co-editor of a new book, Biodiversity, Conservation and Environmental Management in the Great Lakes Basin (Routledge).

Co-editor Mark Neuzil, a journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I saw a need for an in-depth look at groundbreaking research that may shape the future of the ecologically unique and economically vital Great Lakes basin.

It encompasses parts of eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces and contains an estimated 179 native fish, 75 native mammals and a rich biodiversity of plants, forests, birds, reptiles, insects and amphibians. Yet it’s also a region where millions of now-extinct passenger pigeons used to blacken the skies until overhunting and disappearing habitat wiped them out.

We enlisted the help of experts from the United States and Canada, including Michigan ones at the Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, the Gun Lake Tribe based in Shelbyville, the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station in Lansing and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Alpena.

They worked in places as diverse as Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, a northern forest that straddles the territory between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Northeast Wisconsin, the Red Cedar River near Lansing and Sudbury, Ontario.

We learned about artificial reefs and reef restoration, about the impact of dam removals on fisheries, about conflicts concerning agricultural irrigation and about how endangered freshwater turtles survive in a changing landscape.

We also learned about the legacy of toxic chemicals, citizen engagement in managing natural resources and cooperation between Native Americans and conservationists.

The research reflects the real-world interplay among geography, hydrology, climate, economics, biology, politics, culture, history and human emotion.

The book’s four closely connected themes overlap: a) habitat, conservation and restoration; b) extinction and survival, c) pollution, climate change and invasive species; and d) public policy.

The region’s environmental problems and potential solutions ignore national, state or county borders. Lessons about the invasive emerald ash borers, the movements of predators and nutrient pollution of waterways are relevant throughout the Great Lakes Basin.

However, borders have political and diplomatic significance. That reality suggests questions about which governments assume what legislative, regulatory, remedial and protective steps to safeguard the basin’s natural resources.

Those questions arise when determining who’s responsible for monitoring ballast water, repelling Asian carp, cleaning up abandoned industrial sites and promoting renewable energy.

Should it be a state or provincial legislature, a federal agency, a bi-national organization or a local government that protect wetlands, restore fish habitat, manage forests, cap pesticide use and determine which species can be hunted?

Should private industries be trusted to shoulder some of those responsibilities? What about nonprofit and community groups? What roles should scientists play?

If there’s a single overarching lesson, it’s that high-stakes environmental issues in the Great Lakes basin are complicated, making it tough to craft realistic and publicly acceptable policy

alternatives. But ongoing scientific research is essential to making credible decisions.

More money sought to clean up brownfields

Capital News Service

LANSING –  A new $79 million-a-year proposal from Gov. Rick Snyder would increase funding to protect Michigan’s environment, including $45 million to clean up and redevelop contaminated sites.

Snyder plans to generate the money by increasing landfill dumping fees from 36 cents to $4.75 per ton, also known as “tipping fees.”

Jeff Hukill, the brownfield coordinator at the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said he is not aware of any opposition to the proposal at this early stage.

“As more people are becoming aware of it, I could see some groups having issues with where the money is coming from,” Hukill said.

Brownfield sites are abandoned land with contaminated soil, groundwater or both.

It’s hard to estimate how much money it would take for the state to clean up all abandoned brownfields, as the cost depends on the condition of a specific site, he said. “Some require $5 – to $10,000 to do something very small, and some lands require hundreds of thousands of dollars to address severe risks.”

The state’s brownfield redevelopment program aims at improving the environment, protecting public health, reusing infrastructure and creating economic opportunities, according to the DEQ.

James Clift, the policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said manufacturers and other businesses benefit from the program.

“Sometimes brownfield sites are located in better areas because they were originally chosen by businesses to develop markets,” Clift said.

“A lot of times, those sites are close to transit lines and train tracks that make them good manufacturing sites,” he said.

Andy Such, the director of regulatory and environmental policy at the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said in terms of the site selection, questions like “greenfield vs. brownfield: which is better for manufacturing facilities?” is not really a decision for manufacturers.

Such said the decision depends more on transportation, worker availability and other specific factors, rather than on a general choice between greenfield and brownfield. Greenfields are previously undeveloped lands.

However, Clift said redeveloping brownfields requires overcoming more difficulties than developing greenfields, including contamination assessment and funding. “Most of the state funds have been used up now. There is not as much available in the state resources.”

“We would like to see the governor’s proposal move forward, and to see legislators provide more funding for the brownfield site redevelopment project,” he said.

On Jan. 30, Grayling Northern Market, a brownfield redevelopment project in Crawford County, received a $175,000 grant and a $175,000 loan from DEQ.

Julie Lowe, the Crawford County’s brownfield redevelopment coordinator at DEQ, said it is Grayling’s first brownfield project,which has other funding as well.

Lowe said funding and contamination clean-up are the main challenges for the project.

In terms of funding, she said, “We would like to see some similar path in the future so that we can continue to do great work for our community.”

Elsewhere, the Grand Rapids Urban Market is a brownfield redevelopment program finished in 2012.

The market was redeveloped on a site that included five underground storage tanks, six unsafe buildings and about 52,000 tons of contaminated soil.

The market is a mixed-use facility including vendors, restaurants, education facilities and entrepreneurship opportunities.

Kara Wood, the executive director of the Grand Rapids brownfield project, said the Urban Market is a year-round enterprise funded mostly by local tax increment financing.

Wood said one of challenges for the project was “to get the funding from the state” rather than  local government.

Furthermore, she said putting several funding sources together is a challenge. “We worked really hard to build the relationships with the DEQ and Environmental Protection Agency to apply for and receive grant and loan funding.”

Based on past experiences, Grand Rapids “is trying to increase the amount of property that is developed as the result of the brownfield program,” Wood said.