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HEALTH & ENVIRONMENT - December 19, 2001

Brian McKenna
Brian McKenna

John 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, he’ll 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 wouldn’t 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. There’s 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 boy’s 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 Hesse’s 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 banned.”
“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. He’s also updating the fish contamination data on PCBs and mercury for an MSU project to clean up the river. To date he’s 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,” he said.
Over the years Hesse has probably caught at least 5,000 fish in the Red Cedar. He’s 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.





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