Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Eli Chen

Science Reporter

Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

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The West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, seen from St. Charles Rock Road.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Bridgeton Landfill LLC and other companies responsible for cleaning up the West Lake Landfill are developing a plan to study radioactive contamination in groundwater at the site.

Federal officials and community members became concerned about groundwater contamination especially after the U.S. Geological Survey released a report in 2014 that found high levels of radium in samples taken from wells at the landfill. But at the time, scientists could not conclude that it was caused by the radioactive waste at the site.

Republic Services subsidiaries Bridgeton Landfill and Rock Road Industries, the Cotter Corporation, and the U.S. Department of Energy have until June 6 to submit a plan to the Environmental Protection Agency for how they will study the groundwater.

An electric car being charged at a station in Hillsboro, Oregon.
Visitor7 | Wikimedia Commons

After a failed attempt and months of delays, Ameren Missouri has received approval from the Missouri Public Service Commission to install electric-vehicle charging stations along highways in Missouri.

The utility’s $4.4 million pilot program, which will run for five years, aims to install fast-charging stations at rest stops and businesses near highway entrances. The company also will offer financial incentives to businesses that want to help install charging stations.

The effort could ease the “range anxiety” that motorists feel when they’re worried that their electric vehicle will run out of power before they reach a charging station.

TransCanada workers doing maintenance work on a natural gas pipeline.
TransCanada Corporation

Updated Feb. 13 with statement from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources –  TransCanada officials have located the part of the Keystone pipeline that was the source of an oil spill in St. Charles County last week. Workers are preparing to replace the section of the pipeline that leaked. The amount of oil spilled may be less than the 43 barrels the company originally reported, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. 

Original story from Feb. 7: 

Energy company TransCanada has shut down a part of its Keystone oil pipeline to investigate a leak that occurred in St. Charles County.

A TransCanada technician discovered crude oil near the Keystone base pipeline covering an area of approximately 4,000 square feet at 7:14 a.m. Wednesday. The leak occurred in north St. Charles County on private property, just southeast of Two Branch Marina, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

An aerial shot of two closed coal ash ponds at the Meramec Energy Center in St. Louis in February 2018.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Coal-fired power plants that dump toxic waste in ponds could be required to monitor groundwater near the ponds and landfills under a plan released by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Under the plan released this month, utility companies would have to test every six months for harmful toxins that are typically found in coal ash waste, such as arsenic and mercury.

In recent years, Missouri utilities have closed or have announced that they will soon close many of their coal ash ponds. The utility can choose one of two methods: closing the pond by removing all of the waste or by leaving and capping the waste in place.

Missouri has 36 coal ash ponds, according to MDNR. Many have existed since the 1970s and 1980s and do not have liners that keep contaminants from seeping out into the environment.

Saint Louis University graduate student Paige Muñiz looks for bees at the International Institute of St. Louis' community garden on Folsom Avenue.
File photo | Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Scientists who study pollinating bees and butterflies report that state laws across the U.S. aren’t doing enough to protect the very animals that help crops grow.

Girls in Vemasse, Timor-Leste carry containers of water across a rice field after heavy rains.
UN Photo/Martine Perret

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are developing a water filter that could help people in countries where there is not enough clean drinking water.

Engineers at WashU are combining bacteria and tiny engineered particles to create a filter that can kill harmful bacteria. The United Nations expects that by 2025, about half of the world’s population will be living in areas where water is scarce. That’s put pressure on scientists to develop water-purifying technologies to help increase global access to drinking water.

The filter under development at Wash U blends fibers generated from bacteria. They combined the fibers with graphene oxide, an extremely thin material that can convert sunlight into heat, which then kills the bacteria on the surface of the filter’s membrane.

A soybean research plot.
Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project

A recent study from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center suggests that rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels could have opposing effects on nutrients in soybeans.

About two billion people globally suffer from iron and zinc deficiencies, according to the World Health Organization. Many communities that deal with this problem rely on soybeans and other legume crops to be their source of essential nutrients. As a recent report from the White House noted, climate change will cause temperatures to rise past productive levels for corn and soybeans.

Scientists at the Danforth Center, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the U.S. Department of Agriculture examined the effects of raising carbon dioxide levels and temperatures by three degrees Celsius on soybean plants. They found that while carbon dioxide raised soybean yields and lowered iron and zinc levels, hotter temperatures lowered yields and raised mineral levels.

A red total lunar eclipse seen in Greenbelt, Maryland.
NASA Goddard

If weather cooperates, people all over the Western Hemisphere on Sunday will be able to see a “super blood moon” eclipse.

The total lunar eclipse begins at about 8:30 p.m. in the St. Louis area. Totality — when the Earth completely blocks the sun from the moon — will occur after 10:40 p.m., as the moon turns a dull shade of red.

The moon also will appear large, because it will be at a point in its elliptical orbit that’s close to the Earth. Total lunar eclipses happen almost every year, but this exact type of lunar eclipse happens every 18 years, said Brad Jolliff, a professor who studies lunar geochemistry at Washington University.

Meramec Valley Grotto members
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

On a cold, rainy Saturday morning, about a dozen people hopped out of their trucks with helmets, headlights and other climbing gear at the side of a gravel road in Summersville, a small Ozark town located almost 200 miles from St. Louis.

They arrived on a mission to find five caves off the trail of the state-owned Gist Ranch Conservation Area, relying on decades-old records from the Missouri Speleological Survey.

Many records of Missouri’s caves don’t contain precise locations, since a lot of them were reported before sophisticated mapping technologies were developed. The state largely relies on recreational cavers to help track them down.

Maryland Heights resident and environmental activist Dawn Chapman at a meeting held by Missouri health officials in January 2019.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Dozens of people who live or work near the Bridgeton Landfill demanded answers late Monday from state health officials they met with to discuss a recent study on the harmful effects of odors caused by an underground fire.

The report released last September by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found that sulfur-based compounds detected in the air near the landfill may have harmed people living and working near the landfill. Officials found that emissions from the Bridgeton Landfill between 2013 and 2016 were high enough to harm those with respiratory illnesses and chronic health conditions.

The conclusion did not surprise area residents and activists, many of whom expressed anger at the meeting the state health department hosted in Bridgeton to discuss the study. Residents have long blamed the Bridgeton Landfill for foul odors and respiratory illnesses.

A large balloon used by scientists to carry an x-ray telescope into the Earth's stratosphere in December 2018.
X-Calibur Research Team

Just before the new year, a Washington University professor was among a group of scientists who launched a telescope from Antarctica that could observe bright, massive objects in space, like black holes.

The international team of researchers, which included Wash U physics professor Henric Krawczynski, wanted to collect data on black holes and neutron stars, a very dense collapsed core of a giant star.

Studying such celestial phenomena helps astrophysicists test the fundamental laws of physics, Krawczynski said.

An illustration of pollution, 2017
Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering making changes to its 2012 mercury standards, which were responsible for major improvements to Missouri’s air quality in recent years.

In 2011, a report from Environment America showed that Missouri was one of the top mercury-polluting states in the country. Since then, mercury emissions in the state have dropped by more than 75 percent.

The EPA’s mercury regulations are largely responsible for that major drop in emissions of the toxic metal. Utility companies installed pollution-control equipment at coal-fired power plants in order to comply with strict federal standards. However, the federal agency last week announced that it’s proposing to revise the rule, based on its conclusion that it’s too costly for the coal industry.

The Great Flood of '93 swept blankets of sand onto a Missouri River flood plain near Berger, Missouri.
Provided by Bob Holmes

Scientists who have studied the historic 1993 flood agree that a similar event could strike the St. Louis region again. But they disagree on how likely it could occur.

Seedlings of a rare Tanzanian tree, the Karomia gigas, in a greenhouse at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Andrew Wyatt | Missouri Botanical Garden

No one has seen the flower of the 60-foot-tall Karomia gigas tree in Tanzania; scientists at the Missouri Botanical Garden hope they’ll be the first.

For decades, botanists at the garden have been helping the Tanzanian government prevent rare and threatened trees from becoming extinct. Scientists recently started growing one of those trees, the Karomia gigas, in a greenhouse at the garden. There are 19 members of the species in the wild.

The garden’s scientists are cultivating the trees in St. Louis because conservationists have had no luck growing them in Tanzania. The seeds are extremely vulnerable to fungus and insect predators, said Roy Gereau, the garden’s Tanzania program director.

A Missouri state biologist sinking a Christmas tree in a lake to build fish habitat.
Missouri Department of Conservation

State and local government officials in Missouri are offering to collect natural Christmas trees to be turned in to mulch or fish habitat.

After Christmas, residents of St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County will be able to drop off trees at various parks and recycling centers. Most trees collected by St. Louis’ forestry division and St. Charles County will be processed through a chipper and turned into mulch that residents can use for home gardening.

St. Louis County is working with the Missouri Department of Conservation to collect trees for fish habitat.

One of many tunnels in St. Louis that collects sewage and rain water.
File photo | Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio

The Environmental Protection Agency is giving the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District a $48 million loan to build pump stations and sewers to help divert stormwater runoff in St. Louis County.

The federal loan funds nearly half of the $97 million cost to construct the series of wastewater projects that will be connected to the Deer Creek Sanitary Tunnel. The 4-mile underground tunnel, which would run through Webster Groves, Brentwood, Richmond Heights and other nearby municipalities, is designed to collect and separate wastewater from sewage. MSD began building the tunnel earlier this year.

A levee near Wood River in November 2015.
Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio

State and federal officials in Illinois will use a $95.2 million grant to stabilize levees that protect Metro East communities.

The St. Louis Army Corps of Engineers and local levee districts have been trying over the last decade to prevent water from seeping under and behind the five levees that protect Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties in Illinois. Scientists expect flood risks along the Mississippi River to rise due to climate change and hard structures, such as levees, that push water to surrounding communities.

The Corps of Engineers and local levee district officials recently restored the levees’ ability to protect against 100-year floods, which have a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. The latest federal investment through the Water Resources Development Act will strengthen the levee system to the 500-year level, which protects against floods that have a 0.2 percent chance of happening in any given year.

Max, a 14-year-old African elephant, at Grant's Farm.
Grant's Farm

The last remaining elephant at Grant’s Farm has died this week, following the deaths of two others this month.

Max, a 14-year-old African elephant, died on Wednesday night. Two elephants, Toby and Mickey died earlier this month. Grant’s Farm did not release a cause of death for them, but Mickey had lived with a brain tumor. Another elephant, Bud, died in March due to pneumonia. 

Grant’s Farm did not release a cause of death for Max. 

A pair of bald eagles.
Christopher Grau

Conservation groups are looking for volunteers to contribute their birdwatching skills for the 119th annual Christmas bird count.

Between now and Jan. 5, experienced birders around the world are holding events where people can help count local birds. In Missouri, there are 20 counts taking place in areas that are good for observing wildlife, such as state parks and wildlife refuges.

Citizen surveys like the Christmas bird count can help scientists track bird populations, said Jean Favara, conservation manager at the Audubon Center at Riverlands in West Alton.

A seedling of the Torreya taxifolia, or the Florida nutmeg tree, at a private area in Tower Grove Park in December 2018.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

An endangered species of a Florida cedar tree is growing in St. Louis, where arborists are helping it recover from decades of blight.

Arborists at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Tower Grove Park and the Bellefontaine Cemetery have planted and are studying the Torreya taxifolia, an evergreen tree commonly known as the Florida nutmeg.

The three locations received seedlings from the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which has spearheaded a project to save the species.

NASA engineers celebrating the successful landing of the Mars Insight spacecraft at the Mission Support Area in Pasadena, California on Nov. 26, 2018.
NASA/B. Ingalls

Engineer Brooke Harper has spent the last four and a half years making sure that the Mars lander InSight would make a graceful descent on the red planet. When the day finally came on Nov. 26 for InSight to land, she recalled feeling “extremely tense” in Mission Control.

When the announcer declared that InSight had landed, engineers and scientists celebrated. Harper and her colleague, Gene Bonfiglio, performed a touchdown dance, which was caught on NASA’s livestream camera. The elaborate routine has drawn widespread public attention to the mission.

Two elk in Missouri
The Missouri Department of Conservation

Missouri’s elk herd has grown so much in recent years that state conservationists want to allow hunters the chance to hunt them.

The Missouri Department of Conservation is hosting three public meetings this week to take feedback on a limited elk hunting season that could take place in 2020. There are 170 elk that roam in Reynolds, Shannon and Carter counties. State officials want the population to grow to a minimum of 200 elk in Missouri before they allow hunting.

Hunting would help manage the elk population and reduce conflicts between elk and humans, said Barbara Keller, the department’s cervid program supervisor.

The "tip room" at Republic Services' processing plant in Hazelwood, where trucks bring in recycling.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

The stuff we’re throwing into recycling bins is getting so dirty that it’s driving up costs and forcing recycling companies to shut down.

In St. Louis, several municipal governments began sending their recycling to other processing plants. O’Fallon officials told residents they were no longer going to pick up paper and cardboard.

China, which has long accepted a large portion of paper and plastics from western countries, last year started rejecting paper and plastic from the United States. That’s because single-stream recycling contains too much contamination, such as food residue and rain-soaked paper.

An illustration of climate change's impacts in St. Louis, Missouri.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

A national climate report released last Friday from 13 federal agencies predicts increased flooding and hotter temperatures in Midwestern states like Missouri — and that unless carbon emissions are significantly reduced, changing climate patterns could be costly.

Food waste being dropped off Total Organics Recycling's facility in St. Louis.
Total Organics Recycling

Residents in a Maryland Heights subdivision are dropping off their food scraps near the street for composting in the first Missouri program to collect food waste at the curb.

In June, composting company Total Organics Recycling, Republic Services and St. Louis County began the service to residents of the Brookside subdivision. The program is funded by a $26,340 municipal waste grant made possible by landfill tipping fees. The grant pays the cost of providing collection bins and having Republic Services haul the waste to Total Organics Recycling’s facility in Maryland Heights. There is no cost to residents. 

Workers for the Metropolitan Sewer District begin to demolish a house on Greer Avenue as a part of program to turn vacant properties into green spaces in March 2017.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

The city of St. Louis and the U.S. Geological Survey this month are starting a study to determine if filling demolition sites with clean soil instead of building materials can help address one of St. Louis’ biggest environmental problems: sewage overflows.

Typically, contractors working for the city fill the basement with concrete and other materials from the demolished building. In north St. Louis, they recently began filling some basements with soil that’s been tested for environmental toxins. City and federal officials want to compare how well the two methods can absorb stormwater runoff.

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, speaks to supporters and media on Tuesday night. She defeated Democratic challenger Cort VanOstran in Missouri's 2nd Congressional District.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

U.S. Reps. Mike Bost and Ann Wagner bucked a national trend to survive tough Democratic challenges Tuesday.

The two Republicans will return to a House that Democrats control after the GOP lost a number of other seats across the country.

Sikeston farmer Trey Wilson said he saw substantial damage to his soybean crops this year. On the left is what a healthy soybean plant looks like; on the right is a soybean plant showing signs of dicamba damage.
Trey Wilson

Scientists are concerned that the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced limits on dicamba herbicide use will not be effective in preventing widespread crop damage.

The federal agency last week approved the use of dicamba-based herbicides, such as Bayer’s XtendiMax, until 2020. However, it noted several restrictions in attempts to curb the herbicide’s off-target movement that has ruined more than 1.1 million acres of soybeans in the United States this year

Flares at the Bridgeton Landfill are used to burn off smelly underground gases.
Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio

Firefighters in north St. Louis County extinguished a surface fire that occurred at the Bridgeton Landfill on Friday evening.

It took two and a half hours for crews from the Pattonville and Robertson fire districts to put out the fire, which began approximately at 5 p.m. Because gas from Bridgeton Landfill’s infrastructure kept refueling the fire, firefighters had to switch to a tactic that required increasing the water supply, said Matt LaVanchy, assistant chief for the Pattonville Fire Protection District.

Workers at a conveyor belt at Resource Management's processing facility.
File photo | Veronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio

As waste processor Resource Management terminates its single stream recycling services, some St. Louis area municipalities will begin sending recyclable metal, paper and plastics to new destinations Thursday.

In August, Resource Management informed its customers that it would stop accepting single-stream recycling at the end of October. Contamination in recyclable materials led China to impose stricter policies on the materials it would accept, which raised costs for processors like Resource Management.

Since then, municipalities contracted with the company have sought other options to maintain residential recycling services. Kirkwood and Brentwood signed contracts with Republic Services, which processes recycling for much of the St. Louis area.