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  • Masses of plastic particles found in Great Lakes

    Jul 29 • Featured • 1231 Views

    TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Already ravaged by toxic algae, invasive mussels and industrial pollution, the Great Lakes now confront another potential threat that few had even imagined until recently: untold millions of plastic litter bits, some visible only through a microscope.

    Scientists who have studied gigantic masses of floating plastic in the world’s oceans are now reporting similar discoveries in the lakes that make up nearly one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. They retrieved the particles from Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie last year. This summer, they’re widening the search to Lakes Michigan and Ontario, skimming the surface with finely meshed netting dragged behind sailing vessels.

    “If you’re out boating in the Great Lakes, you’re not going to see large islands of plastic,” said Sherri Mason, a chemist with State University of New York at Fredonia and one of the project leaders. “But all these bits of plastic are out there.”

    Experts say it’s unclear how long “microplastic” pollution has been in the lakes or how it is affecting the environment. Studies are under way to determine whether fish are eating the particles.

    The newly identified hazard is the latest of many for a Great Lakes fish population that has been hammered by natural enemies like the parasitic sea lamprey, which nearly wiped out lake trout, and man-made contamination. Through it all, the fishing industry remains a pillar of the region’s tourist economy. Until the research is completed, it won’t be clear whether the pollution will affect fishing guidelines, the use of certain plastics or cities that discharge treated wastewater into the lakes.

    Scientists have already made a couple startling finds. The sheer number of plastic specks in some samples hauled from Lake Erie, the shallowest and smallest by volume, were higher than in comparable samples taken in the oceans.

    Also, while it’s unknown where the ocean plastic came from, microscopic examination of Great Lakes samples has produced a smoking gun: many particles are perfectly round pellets. The scientists suspect they are abrasive “micro beads” used in personal care products such as facial and body washes and toothpaste.

    They’re so minuscule that they flow through screens at waste treatment plants and wind up in the lakes, said Lorena Rios Mendoza, a chemist with the University of Wisconsin-Superior. At the urging of scientists and advocates, some big companies have agreed to phase them out.

    During a meeting of the American Chemical Society in April, Rios reported the team had collected up to 1.7 million tiny particles last year in Lake Erie, which acts as something of a “sink” because it receives the outflow from the three lakes to the north — Superior, Michigan and Huron.

    Mason said preliminary samples indicate “Lake Ontario is as contaminated as Lake Erie, if not more so.”

    The Great Lakes are no stranger to ecological calamity. Zebra and quagga mussels have destabilized food chains, and ravenous Asian carp are poised to invade. Runaway algae blooms that had been stamped out a generation ago have returned. Dozens of harbors and river mouths are fouled with toxic waste.

    Now, researchers are stepping up efforts to determine how much damage the plastic could do. Mason and Rios are working with the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit group based in Los Angeles that has called attention to sprawling masses of plastic in the oceans.

    While Mason searches Lake Michigan for more plastic, Rios is poking through fish innards for plastic fragments. In ocean environments, fish and birds are known to feed on microplastics, apparently mistaking them for fish eggs.

    A more complicated question is whether the particles are soaking up toxins in the water, potentially contaminating fish that eat them — and sending them up the food chain.

    Rios said lab examination had detected two potentially harmful compounds in the Lake Erie plastic debris: PAHs, which are created during incineration of coal or oil products; and PCBs, which were used in electrical transformers and hydraulic systems before they were banned in 1979. Both are capable of causing cancer and birth defects.

    Everyone agrees the best way to avoid environmental damage from plastics is to keep them out of the water in the first place. Eriksen’s group has urged makers of personal care products to stop using microbeads. Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have announced phaseout plans. L’Oreal says it won’t develop new products with microbeads.

    For anglers who regularly feast on salmon, perch and other delicacies from the lakes’ depths, the most common reaction to the microplastic scare is a resigned shrug. They’re used to warnings against overindulging on fish because of mercury, PCBs and other contaminants.

    “I think people aren’t going to be really worried about it until more research is done to see just what we’re dealing with,” said Ron Dohm, president of the Grand Traverse Area Sport Fishing Association in northern Michigan. “You look in the waters and you see all those cigarette butts — the fish eat them, too.”


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  • Few problems reported with Wisconsin’s new voter ID requirements

    Mar 13 • Featured • 3944 Views

    The first elections under Wisconsin’s new photo identification law went off relatively smoothly, with the few problems mostly due to voters showing up at the wrong polling sites because of recent redistricting, local elections officials said Wednesday.

    Voter ID has been a divisive issue nationwide, with supporters saying it helps prevent voter fraud and opponents arguing that it disenfranchises some voters. Republicans who control the state Legislature passed a law last year requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, and the law went into effect with Tuesday’s primary elections.

    No statewide candidates were on the ballot but about 525 municipalities and several counties held primaries for city council and county supervisors.

    Local elections officials said voters generally showed up with their IDs in hand. A bigger problem was getting voters to the proper polling sites after local redistricting moves shifted ward boundaries.

    The city of Sheboygan had perhaps the hottest race in the state, holding its first mayoral recall election. Former state Rep. Terry Van Akkeren ousted Mayor Bob Ryan. The election stemmed largely out of Ryan’s problems with alcohol, including fallout from a three-day drinking binge last July. Witnesses say Ryan passed out at a bar and was involved in a scuffle.

    City clerk Susan Richards said nearly 40 percent of the city’s 30,000 registered voters cast a ballot. She hadn’t heard of any serious problems with voter ID.

    “For a change, things were relatively easy,” Richards said. “We had a few people grumbling because they just didn’t like the idea (of presenting photo ID to vote) or whatever, but very few.”

    La Crosse County held three supervisor primaries. County clerk Ginny Dankmeyer said her poll workers didn’t run into any problems with voter ID – county officials had encouraged voters to bring their IDs to the polls last year in a dry run – but they had to point some voters to the right polling places after new district boundaries left them confused.

    “People were calling to ask where to go to vote,” Dankmeyer said. “People out in the towns and villages used to going to the same place weren’t in the supervisory district on the ballot.”

    The story was the same in Green Bay, which held city council primaries in five districts. Interim city clerk Kris Teske said she didn’t hear of any voter ID problems, although poll workers had to redirect voters confused over new ward boundaries to the correct polling location.

    “I know it wasn’t very many,” Teske said. “It was really nice. I was happy.”

    Fifteen states have a voter ID law, and legislation pending in 26 states would introduce voter ID laws or strengthen existing ones.

    Republicans generally maintain that voter ID laws prevent fraud at the polls. Opponents say the requirement is really an attempt to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning constituencies who may lack IDs, such as the elderly and minorities. The League of Women Voters, the NAACP and the ACLU all have filed lawsuits challenging Wisconsin’s law.

    Meanwhile, the state Government Accountability Board, which oversees Wisconsin elections, has launched a major ad campaign to educate voters on what they need when they go to the polls. The push includes a new website, print ads, billboards, and television and radio spots.

    Richards, the Sheboygan city clerk, said the push has helped.

    “It paid off,” she said. “I think the public is so well-educated on this now.”

    The elections didn’t go off without a hitch everywhere.

    Sun Prairie held one city council primary and a judicial primary. City clerk Diane Hermann-Brown said most people showed up with their IDs, but two men began shouting at poll workers, saying they didn’t need to produce any. One swore and the other accused the workers of being part of a conspiracy, Hermann-Brown said.

    She talked to both of them, and they eventually produced their IDs and voted.

    “I don’t understand as an individual what good it did to yell at myself or take their aggression out on my poll workers. We don’t make the law,” Hermann-Brown said.

    Things didn’t go all that well for Gilbert Paar, either. The 69-year-old voter from Mount Pleasant tried using his U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs card, which he uses to collect veterans benefits. The card includes Paar’s photo but isn’t considered an acceptable form of identification under the new law.

    When poll workers asked him if he had a driver’s license, he told them he did but refused to show it and walked out without voting, he said.

    “I went to vote with the military ID that gave me the right to vote by serving four years in the Air Force,” he said.

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  • Howard sand mine deal hailed as model for others!

    Mar 13 • Featured • 6920 Views

    Sand in Demand
    Mining companies have shown particular interest in the sand available in parts of the Upper Midwest, including western Wisconsin, because it has just the right characteristics for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and is close enough to the surface to make its removal economically viable.The sand grains are the ideal size, shape and hardness to keep existing cracks in the rock open, making it easier to extract natural gas.
    Sand Mine Agreement
    The developer’s agreement between the Chippewa County town of Howard and EOG Resources of Texas stipulates:- EOG Resources will replace any water wells if contaminated. EOG also will test for the chemical known as acrylamide, a possible human health hazard.- Noise levels from the site must not top 60 decibels at the boundary of the property.- Blasting will be allowed only between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.- Light pollution must be controlled, with lights not pointed up and away from the site.

    – A fair market property value guarantee for homes that are adjacent to the sand mine. EOG will either buy the property at market value or will make up the difference if the property is sold below market value.

    – EOG will obtain a 20-year license and will not have to reapply every year.

    – There will be no mining, blasting or hauling from the site from May 1 through Oct. 15 each year. The company will be allowed to prepare the land and work on reclamation only.

    – The company will be allowed to haul sand 24 hours a day, six days a week, through the late fall, winter and early spring months, except during peak travel times. Sand won’t be hauled to the plant on Sundays.

    – The company cannot haul more than 600,000 tons of material from the mine site. The company will provide a monthly report to the town of Howard with an updated total on how much material has been removed.

    – Trucks will be allowed to use county highways only to get from the mine site to the sand processing plant in the northeast corner of Chippewa Falls.

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