& ENVIRONMENT - December 19, 2001
Hesse is our river guardian
by Brian McKenna
In 1790, when Hugh Heward came to the Lansing area as
an explorer and clerk for the Askin and Robertson Fur Co. at Fort Detroit,
he wrote in his diary of Chippewa Indians spearing sturgeon a
mighty fish that sometimes reaches a length of seven feet and weight
of 350 pounds along the Washtenong River. Washtenong was the
Chippewa name for the Grand River. Washtun was a spirit
who acted as a guardian of the river.
Two centuries later, John Hesse acts as a modern-day guardian of the
Red Cedar and Grand rivers as he saunters along the banks nearly
100 days a year pulling in dozens of steelhead, salmon and small
mouth bass. But unlike the Chippewa, hell probably never catch
a sturgeon. It would be an extremely rare event, he said.
I doubt if there are any upstream of Grand Rapids. They likely
would be coming in from Lake Michigan and wouldnt likely be able
to pass the fish ladders.
Hesse is the kind of guy that if he were a sturgeon would
probably scale those fish ladders. Theres no one else in Lansing
who is as intimately connected to the Grand and Red Cedar rivers as
Hesse. And few who are as concerned enough to do something about it.
Over the last quarter century, as an environmental health specialist
for the Michigan Department of Public Health, Hesse helped bring down
contaminant levels in Michigan fish. He worked to get PCBs banned in
Michigan, the first state to ban them. And in 1990 his efforts led to
a new regulation that has probably averted misery for hundreds of children
and their families.
The story began in 1989, when a healthy 4-year-old boy in Southfield
became seriously sick with mystery symptoms, baffling the medical community.
Symptoms included excessive perspiration, rapid heartbeat, headaches,
redness and peeling of the hands, feet, and nose, and nerve dysfunction
in the lower extremities. The case was referred to the Public Health
Department, where Hesse worked.
Hesse investigated any possible toxic exposures to the boy. He found
that the family had painted the inside of the home a month earlier,
and sought linkages. Some colleagues belittled his hypothesis and derided
him. But his persistence paid off when his superiors agreed with his
conclusion that inhalation of mercury-containing vapors from phenylmercuric
acetate contained in latex paint was the probable toxin. The boys
blood levels for mercury far exceeded acceptable limits.
He was a really good detective, said Dave Dempsey, senior
policy adviser for the Michigan Environmental Council and Hesses
superior at the time. But, what is not so well-known about John
is that he then became very aggressive about getting mercury in paint
John pushed hard, said Dempsey, He got senior department
heads involved, and then the governor. Finally in 1990 the EPA banned
mercury in paint for the entire country. John has probably saved hundreds
of kids from serious neurological damage in the past decade.
Though retired from the state, Hesse is teaching a class on the Red
Cedar River for the Bailey Scholars program at MSU. He mentors students
on river ecology and is a persuasive advocate to reclaim the river by
fishing something banned by MSU. Hes also updating the
fish contamination data on PCBs and mercury for an MSU project to clean
up the river. To date hes caught a representative sample of fish
10 for each species of small mouth bass, carp, pike and rock
bass but it will take another year to get them all tested,
Over the years Hesse has probably caught at least 5,000 fish in the
Red Cedar. Hes seen many changes. In the 1960s he used to steal
away to several fishing holes on the Red Cedar, between East Lansing
and Williamston, but he laments, much of what seemed like wilderness
then in the stretches between the bridges is now filled with housing
developments. Access to the river now is much more difficult.
Dams are another problem. They prevent fish like steelhead and salmon
from reaching spawning areas upstream. We want to return the waters
to their natural state. Letting fish go as far as they need to find
good spawning habitat. Fish ladders have been installed to allow
fish passage over five dams on the Grand River already, he said. Currently
the Moores River Dam, one at Diamondale, and one at Eaton Rapids are
the only remaining barriers to opening up many more miles of river for
migratory and resident fish species to utilize freely. The Moores
dam captures water for the needs of the Lansing Board of Water and Light.
Hesse said that the state of Michigan is moving toward more dam removals
but more work needs to be done.
John Hesse: our Washtun.