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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A manure-to-energy operation at one of Smithfield Foods' farms in Missouri.
Smithfield Farms

Hog producer Smithfield Foods has completed a pipeline in Missouri to transport natural gas derived from pig manure. 

The company announced Monday that it finished building a pipeline that connects one of its farms to Milan, a city located 130 miles north of Columbia. Smithfield Foods also captures methane, or natural gas, at two other Missouri farms, near Bethany and Princeton.

Remnants of a former mining operation near Fredericktown at the Madison County Mines Superfund site in May 2017.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri Mining Inc. plans to create up to 700 jobs by reopening a mine at a Superfund site in Fredericktown, Missouri. 

The company wants to extract cobalt from the Madison Mine, which it purchased last year. The mine has been inactive since the 1960s and is a part of the Madison County Mines Superfund site, an area contaminated by historic lead mining. 

Environmental Operations, a Missouri Mining subsidiary, plans to begin cleaning up the site this winter. Missouri Cobalt, another Missouri Mining subsidiary, could hire as many as 400 temporary workers and 250 permanent workers to rebuild and operate the mine. 

Richard Luttrell, owner of North Shore Marina in St. Charles, leases two parcels of flood-prone land from the county. Local officials demolished homes on the land through FEMA's voluntary buyout program.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

At the edge of an open lot in St. Charles, tiny blades of grass are beginning to sprout.

A neighborhood once stood here — but the homes are long gone.

They were among the more than 5,100 homes demolished in Missouri since 1990 through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s voluntary buyout program, which removes buildings from flood-prone land. After the homes are demolished, local governments are responsible for ensuring that no one rebuilds on the properties.

The West Lake Landfill, in the distance, sits adjacent to the Bridgeton Landfill.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

People who live near the West Lake Landfill want to know how they will be protected from exposure to radiation when the Environmental Protection Agency begins removing nuclear contamination from the Superfund site in three years.

At a meeting late Thursday, EPA officials sought to assure residents they would be protected during the excavation. The federal agency last fall decided it would remove 70% of the site’s radioactivity.

Several residents said that they would like to be relocated while the waste is being removed.

A male American black bear trapped near Warrenton, Missouri in 2016.
Missouri Department of Conservation

The number of black bears in Missouri has more than doubled in seven years, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. 

There are now as many as 840 black bears in the state, primarily in the Ozarks south of Highway 60. In recent years, there have been more sightings of black bears in other parts of Missouri, conservation officials say. 

The presence of black bears has particularly increased near Lake of the Ozarks and in southwest St. Louis County, said Laura Conlee, a furbearer biologist at the Department of Conservation.

A 14-pound rock collected from the Moon's Taurus-Littrow valley.
NASA Johnson Space Center

Geologists at Washington University will be among the first researchers to study lunar samples from the final crewed mission to the moon. 

The Apollo 17 mission in 1972 brought back moon rocks that have been kept in a vacuum-sealed tube for nearly five decades at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Nine research teams across the country will receive portions of the collection this fall. 

The samples will help scientists understand how the moon and the solar system formed, said Brad Jolliff, a lunar geochemist at Wash U.

A corpse flower at the Missouri Botanical Garden in July 2019.
Tom Incrocci | Missouri Botanical Garden

A corpse flower on display at the Missouri Botanical Garden likely will not perform one of its stunning and foul-smelling blooms.

The corpse flower, one of the largest flowers in the world, typically blooms within a couple of weeks after it reveals its spadix, the spike in the middle of the plant. The plant, named Octavia, has not bloomed for more than 25 days since the spike’s emergence.

Engineering researchers noted damages caused by the tornado and by debris that flew because of strong winds.
File photo | Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

President Donald Trump has issued a disaster declaration to help residents in 20 Missouri counties who have experienced major damage from tornadoes and floods this year. 

The declaration allows homeowners to apply for grants to cover repair costs and replacement of household items not covered by insurance. Business owners and farmers also can apply for loans for property damage caused by extreme weather events. 

Missouri is among several states that have been hit hard by natural disasters this year, said John Mills, a regional spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A male or bull elk.
Missouri Department of Conservation

If Missouri’s elk population grows enough, state conservation officials will allow hunters to apply for permits to hunt elk next year.

The Missouri Department of Conservation expects the state’s elk herd to grow from 175 to 200 by early 2020. The department released plans last Friday for a elk hunting season to take place in Carter, Shannon and Reynolds counties the following fall and winter. 

A NASA satellite image of light pollution in North America in 2016.
Joshua Stevens | NASA Earth Observatory

When students and faculty at Truman State University come back for the fall semester, they might notice more stars in the sky. 

After four years of research on how artificial light brightens the night sky, scientists are planning to change lighting on campus to direct light away from the sky. That could limit light pollution, which prevents people from seeing stars and galaxies, and also can disrupt sleep patterns.

Salvador Mondragon, left, with a large alligator gar caught near the Mississippi River.
Salvador Mondragon

On a hot morning in Cape Girardeau, two men pulled up nets from a lake in hopes of catching alligator gar, one of the largest and most feared fish species in North America.

They’re scientists with the Missouri Department of Conservation, which has spent 12 years trying to restore the alligator gar’s dwindling population in the state. Its numbers in Missouri have fallen partly because the state doesn’t have strong regulations to prevent overfishing of the species.

Man-made structures like levees and dams have also separated the Mississippi River from the floodplain. They block the alligator gar from reaching critical habitat, said Solomon David, an aquatic ecologist at Nicholls State University in Louisiana.

Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region is the last provider of abortion services in Missouri. It could lose its license this week.
File photo | David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 1:55 p.m., June 24 with comments from an attending physician at the Planned Parenthood clinic  — A circuit court judge has allowed Planned Parenthood in St. Louis to continue providing abortions until late Friday afternoon.

A ruling Judge Michael Stelzer made Monday would allow Planned Parenthood to make its case for keeping its license to the state Administrative Hearing Commission, which resolves disputes between state regulators and private entities.

Director of Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri M'Evie Mead addresses reporters outside the St. Louis Circuit courthouse on Friday. June 21, 2019
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 2:15 p.m., June 21 with comments from Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and the state health department director — The only abortion provider in Missouri has lost its license, but the clinic’s future remains unclear after a court hearing Friday morning in St. Louis.

Citing patient safety concerns, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on Friday declined to renew a St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic’s license to perform abortions. Officials said some abortions were not performed properly and failed.

Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer said the injunction he previously issued keeping the clinic open will remain in effect for now. It’s not known when he will make a final decision.

About 80 percent of the buyouts in Missouri took place after the Great Flood of 1993, when the Mississippi and Missouri rivers overflowed their banks, killing 50 and causing $15 billion in damages.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

When Amy Papian bought her three-bedroom house in University City 31 years ago, she thought she’d never leave.

Her bedroom had a large window that overlooked the backyard — and in the summertime, the sweet smell of honeysuckle drifted inside the house. 

But then four floods invaded her home over 15 years, and she decided she’d had enough. After the last flood in 2008, a neighbor’s body washed up in her backyard. Papian and her daughters moved out, and the city purchased their home through a voluntary buyout program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Josh Davis tends to his American mulefoot hogs on his farm in Pocahontas, Illinois on September 15, 2018.
File photo | David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

At the end of 2018, Green Finned Hippy Farm in Pocahontas, Illinois, decided to stop selling its meat and poultry at farmers markets.

The reason, according to co-owner Alicia Davis, is she and her partner Joshua were spending a large amount of time driving their products to markets and explaining the farm’s practices, but only a few patrons would actually buy anything. They decided to pursue other ways of reaching customers, which included joining the Missouri Coalition for the Environment’s Known & Grown campaign that launched this month.

May 29, 2019 A kayaker paddles down flooded Main Street west of Grafton. The river had reached 32 feet, on its way to a projected crest of 36.3 feet, which would be the second highest on record and less than two feet below the record set in 1993.
File Photo | Brent Jones | St. Louis Public Radio

Recent flooding could have contaminated more than 140,000 private wells in Missouri, according to an estimate by the National Ground Water Association.

However, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services only has about 130,000 registered in its database, said Jeff Wenzel, chief of the department’s environmental epidemiology bureau.

Floodwaters can spread pathogenic bacteria, like E. coli and chemicals used in home gardening and agriculture. During large floods, water can rise over wells and expose private water supplies to contaminants.

Trees along Leonor K Sullivan Boulevard are seen surrounded by rising water on Tuesday as the Mississippi River reaches a near-record height.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Andrea Mcmanus and her three children had lived in their apartment in Grafton for less than six months before they evacuated to escape the rising Mississippi River floodwaters.

They left on March 22, as the flood overtook Grafton and began rising downstream in St. Louis. The Mississippi has been above flood stage at St. Louis for more than 80 days and last weekend surpassed the 1973 level, the second highest on record.

Many residents, government officials and scientists compare it to the Great Flood of 1993, when the river crested at 49.6 feet, the highest flood on record for the St. Louis region. Some residents worry that it could surpass that height.

A tree along Leonor K Sullivan Blvd. is surrounded by rising water as the Mississippi River reaches a near-record height.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 1:30 p.m., June 6 with revised river crest forecast from the National Weather Service — The Mississippi River at St. Louis is expected to crest at 45.8 feet by Saturday afternoon. 

A group of tourists posed for a selfie under the Gateway Arch midday Wednesday, while just a few feet away, murky floodwaters from the Mississippi crept up the riverfront steps.

Flooding has continued unabated for more than 80 days along rivers in the St. Louis area. Most major waterways, including the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers, are expected to crest Friday — with peak floodwaters in some regions rivaling records set in 1993.

An active coal-ash pond at the Meramec Energy Center in St. Louis County in February 2018.
File Photo | Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has scrapped its proposal to regulate disposal sites for coal-fired power plants, a plan that environmentalists and federal regulators heavily criticized.

The plan would have required utilities monitor groundwater and clean up contamination near ponds and landfills that store byproducts of coal combustion, which contain toxic chemicals like mercury, arsenic and lead. Environmental groups, residents near power plants and the Environmental Protection agency wrote letters to the state agency earlier this year saying that the plan won’t address groundwater contamination.

DNR officials chose not to submit the proposed regulations to the Environmental Protection Agency because the federal agency did not give clear guidance on enforcing cleanup at the sites, said Chris Nagel, DNR’s solid waste director.

Missouri S&T engineering researchers inspect a damaged apartment building in Jefferson City in May 2019.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Among the volunteers and workers moving furniture, broken lumber and fallen trees at Hawthorne Park apartments in Jefferson City last weekend, three engineers with a large remote control watched a drone fly over a building that was missing a chunk of its roof.

A team of engineering professors and students from the Missouri University of Science and Technology began inspecting damages after a violent tornado struck parts of the state capital last Wednesday. For several years, some have been studying ways to design houses in Tornado Alley states like Missouri to withstand extreme weather events.

Missouri S&T engineering professor Grace Yan and her students survey post-tornado damages in Jefferson City in May 2019.
Missouri University of Science & Technology

Engineering researchers from the Missouri University of Science and Technology are spending several days in Jefferson City to study the destruction caused by a tornado that battered the city late Wednesday.

Missouri S&T engineering professor Grace Yan and her graduate students began Thursday to interview residents and capture drone footage of the damages. Her research has focused on designing buildings to become more resistant to tornadoes.

There have been many examples of damages in Jefferson City that are unique to tornadoes, such as roofs being torn off, Yan said.

Roger Ideker's farm in St. Joseph, Mo. during the 2011 Missouri River flood. Ideker is the lead plaintiff in the suit against the corps.
Ideker Farms

U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley and Roy Blunt want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop focusing on protecting wildlife in the Missouri River and instead focus on flood control and navigation, a move that environmentalists are calling misguided.

In 2004, the Corps of Engineers changed its management strategy for the Missouri River to protect two endangered species of birds and one fish, the pallid sturgeon. However, landowners near the river have alleged that prioritizing wildlife over flood protection has caused them extensive property damage from major floods.

A flame lit on the International Space Station.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

NASA scientists are lighting flames on the International Space Station to help a Washington University engineer learn how soot forms from fire.

The NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio is conducting the flame experiments remotely. The space agency is sending data to researchers who are exploring ways to eliminate soot so that fuel can be burned more cleanly.

Washington University Chancellor Andrew Martin speaks at a press conference with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in May 2019 about climate change.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

Washington University in St. Louis will become the anchor of a regional effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop climate change.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced on Thursday the creation of the Midwest Collegiate Climate Summit at a press conference in downtown St. Louis. The summit, which would take place at Wash U in 2020, would involve universities, local governments, nonprofits and businesses.

A heavily littered yard containing furniture and automobile parts in Dutchtown, a neighborhood in south St. Louis.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Community organizers in Dutchtown are struggling to stop people from outside of the south St. Louis neighborhood from dumping construction debris, mattresses and excessive amounts of trash in alleys and vacant lots.

The Dutchtown South Community Corporation has been working to reduce illegal dumping in the neighborhood through an Environmental Protection Agency-funded campaign since 2016. There’s also been an effort to address illegal dumping city wide. Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office launched its Clean Up St. Louis initiative last year to improve trash-collection services.

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

The Environmental Protection Agency has decided to conduct additional tests for radioactive contamination at the West Lake Landfill, which would delay its excavation of the Superfund site.

When the EPA region that oversees Missouri released its final plan last September to remove 70% of the radioactivity at the site, officials said the cleanup would begin after they spent 18 months planning how to remove the World War II-era waste.

EPA officials announced this week that parties responsible for the landfill signed an agreement with the agency to design the excavation plan. Because of the additional testing, the cleanup won’t begin for two and a half years, EPA spokesperson Ben Washburn said.

Mussels stuck to a bottle
Zhang Laboratory

Engineers at Washington University are studying the substances that make mussels cling to boats and ships to develop stronger, waterproof types of glue.

Many super glue products and other adhesives on the market are ineffective when they become wet. Researchers want to know how the proteins in mussels allow them to stick to any surface despite being in very wet environments.

A geothermal test well at Parkway South High School in Manchester, Missouri.
Erik Lueders| Parkway School District

Parkway South High School in Manchester this year will use geothermal energy, an uncommonly used form of renewable energy, to power its heating and cooling systems.

Parkway School District plans will soon install the geothermal units, which use heat from the earth. The $2.4 million system, which will replace the school’s aging chillers, was largely funded by a recent bond issue.

Replacing the chillers with cooling towers would have been less expensive than the geothermal units. But the geothermal units would save the school district $1.9 million over 30 years, said Erik Lueders, director of purchasing and sustainability at the Parkway School District.

St. Louis outdoor educator Cara Murphy teaching children in Tower Grove Park about the food web.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

It was one of the first days of spring, and Cara Murphy had her work cut out for her.

In a field in St. Louis’ Tower Grove Park, the outdoor educator sat on a blanket, surrounded by more than a dozen loud and distracted children between the ages of 4 to 10. She held a large poster covered in illustrations of animals and plants. Some children pointed and named animals on the poster; a few focused more on digging up the dirt around them.

Murphy is teaching a class called "Food Web” about how animals, plants, the sun and other organisms consume energy from each other. It’s one of several classes she started teaching this year for In The Field, an outdoor education organization she recently founded.

Waters continue to rise around I-55 near Butler Hill on Wednesday morning. May 2017
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Engineers at Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla are developing algorithms that could provide early warnings for motorists about flooded roads.

The system could warn drivers to stay off flooded roads. Researchers began the yearlong project to use artificial intelligence to enhance flood evacuation plans in February for transportation agencies in the Midwest, including the Missouri Department of Transportation. The work focuses on the Meramec River basin in eastern Missouri and the areas of Nebraska and northwest Missouri that experienced record-breaking floods in late March from the Missouri River.

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