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#826 -- The Great Lakes at a Crossroad, 15-Sep-2005

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#826 -- The Great Lakes at a Crossroad, September 15, 2005
by Tim Montague

The Great Lakes stand at a crossroad. By some indicators -- like fish populations in Lake Erie which have rebounded in recent decades -- water quality has improved since the 1970's. But the fish aren't safe to eat. The beaches are increasingly contaminated with sewage. The water is generally deemed safe to drink, but we know that it is laced with at least 40 gender-bending and cancer causing chemicals.[1]

Today the region faces unprecedented impacts from suburban sprawl, agriculture, industry, sewage, non-native invasive species and global climate change. It was coordinated region-wide citizen action and protest[2] that sparked a major clean-up of the Great Lakes starting in the early 1970s and more of the same is sorely needed now. As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."[3]

The health of the lakes seems to be declining. Emily Green, the Sierra Club's Great Lakes Program director says, "There is a growing consensus among Great Lakes scientists that the ecosystem is reaching a tipping point." In July the Detroit News reported that although fish populations in Lake Erie have largely rebounded from their near demise in the 1970's, phosphate levels in that lake are once again on the rise and no one is sure why.[4]

Some of the current challenges include:

** Industry in the Great Lakes basin released at least 100,000 tons of toxic chemicals into the air and water in 2002.[4]

** Mercury emissions just from power plants lower the IQ of at least 50,000 children each year in the Great Lakes region. Total mercury emissions nationally translate into an economic loss of more than $5 billion each year.[5,6]

** Beach closures due to bacterial contamination from sewage and urban runoff are at an all time high. Lake Michigan beach closures doubled from 2003 to 2004 in Illinois.[7]

** Drinking and waste water infrastructure need an infusion of $13 billion over the next two decades to maintain safe drinking and recreational waters in the Great Lakes.[8]

** 50% of the wetlands -- critical wildlife habitat that absorb and clean storm water runoff -- in the Great Lakes basin are gone. A new exotic invasive species takes hold in the Great Lakes ecosystem every eight months.[8]

Gail Gruenwald, executive director of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council says, "Science often can't trace problems in the water back to specific sources on land or break down how much is caused by development and how much by other factors."[4]

To reverse pollution in the Great Lakes, we must pursue zero discharge and precautionary policies. Zero discharge means reducing human sources of toxic chemicals to zero. Precautionary decisions seek and adopt the least harmful means of achieving a goal. When we have a reasonable suspicion of harm, and scientific uncertainty about cause and effect, then we have a duty to take action to prevent harm.

In 1991 Theo Colborn, co-author of Our Stolen Future, sparked a basin wide acknowledgement that persistent metals and organochlorines were disrupting hormones, causing a variety of thyroid, immune and reproductive maladies in fish, wildlife and very likely in humans.

Simultaneously, citizen activists motivated the International Joint Commission (IJC) under the leadership of Gordon Durnil (a conservative Republican) to adopt a precautionary approach to the control of persistent toxic chemicals. The IJC recognized that quantitative risk assessment and a one-chemical-at-a-time regulatory approach were not going to solve the problems of pesticides, heavy metals, and organochlorines.

In the commission's biennial reports of 1992 and 1994 on Great Lakes water quality, the IJC recommended that the U.S. and Canada:

a) Ban incineration near the Great Lakes

b) Phase out the use of chlorine in manufacturing

c) Adopt a precautionary approach to toxic substances whereby we eliminate their use even if there is scientific uncertainty about how harmful they are.

d) Eliminate persistent toxic substances because they cannot be safely managed.

e) End chemical-by-chemical regulation, substituting an approach that eliminates whole classes of chemicals that form persistent toxic substances (e.g. PCBs and heavy metals).[9]

There are signs of improvement -- there is less mercury and fewer PCBs in the fish today than in the mid 1970's yet levels of contaminants have recently leveled off and new ones like PBDEs are being introduced all the time.[10, 11] We introduce 1700 new chemicals into commerce each year, almost entirely untested for health and environmental effects. The IJC's far-reaching recommendations of the early '90s seem but a distant memory.

Contaminants persist for years in the Great Lakes. Only about 1% of the Great Lakes are replenished each year by rain and snow. So the mercury, PCBs and pesticides end up cycling for a long time between the water, sediment, plants, fish and wildlife, and humans.

Five million people annually consume fish from the Great Lakes. A recent survey of Lake Michigan fish found that 97% of the salmon and 91% of the lake trout were so contaminated with mercury that humans should limit their consumption. By the same measure, 100% of the salmon and lake trout are contaminated with PCBs.[12]

Children exposed in the womb to PCBs from Lake Michigan fish tend to have low IQs, poor reading comprehension, difficulty paying attention, and memory problems. PCBs have also been linked to altering the sex ratio (the ratio of boys to girls born), reducing fertility, and causing abnormal menstrual cycles in women.[10] [See Rachel's #327 and #512.]

In its 1998 biennial report on Great Lakes water quality the IJC continued to admonish the United States and Canada to eliminate persistent toxic chemicals. And they noted a growing malaise among regulatory agencies: "...programs to restore and protect the Great Lakes have drastically slowed or halted, especially initiatives for Areas of Concern and those directed toward persistent toxic substances..." Malaise is a polite term for the influence of money in politics.[13]

In its 2004 biennial report even the IJC steps back from its precautionary stance on persistent toxic chemicals. Zero discharge is not mentioned.[8] And while it warns of real and imminent dangers to the ecosystem, it no longer promotes solutions that will fundamentally reverse the toxic legacy of the Great Lakes. Better fish advisories will not protect the children who eat Great Lakes fish. Zero discharge of persistent toxic chemicals will.

We have our work cut out for us. Of the five recommendations that the IJC made in the early nineties listed above, we've made significant progress on only one: incineration, which has largely ceased in the Great Lakes region. Even when there is overwhelming evidence that a toxicant is a major public health problem and we know how to solve the problem, the EPA is ineffectual. Mercury is a good case in point.

Coal-fired power plants account for over 40% of methyl mercury emissions in the Great Lakes. The Clean Air Act calls for maximum achievable reductions in mercury emissions by 2008. From 1995 to 2003 we reduced mercury emissions by 50% by phasing out incineration and industrial uses.[14] But emissions from power plants rose from 26% to over 40% of total mercury emissions in the last decade and they are expected to grow because we are burning more coal.[15, 16] Rather than heed the Clean Air Act, the EPA recently proposed to reduce current power plant emissions from 48 tons to 15 tons (69%) by the year 2026 at a cost of $750 million per year according to the Washington Post.[6]

The Post reported, "...officials emphasized that the controls could not be more aggressive because the cost to industry already far exceeded the public health payoff." EPA estimated the public health benefit at $50 million a year (by considering only human exposure through fresh water fish). A Harvard study put the public health benefit at $5 billion a year through reduced neurological and cardiac damage.[6] The 100-fold difference between EPA's $50 million and Harvard's $5 billion annual benefit reveals the highly-political nature of cost-benefit analysis.

Citizens, scientists, and even the Bush government are so concerned about the health of the Great Lakes that congress is considering sweeping environmental legislation to jump-start restoration of the ecosystem. With guidance from the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC), federal lawmakers are calling for a $20 billion investment over ten years to clean up the water, reverse the impacts of urban sprawl, improve thousands of acres of fish and wildlife habitat and control exotic species.[4]

But the fate of environmental legislation is uncertain at best in a post-Katrina, war-time economy. We are spending $4 billion a month on the Iraq war and according to the Wall Street Journal, rebuilding New Orleans could cost upwards of $200 billion.[17] It is going to take major political pressure for the Great Lakes to get the proposed $20 billion. What will it take to make the Great Lakes clean, swimmable, fishable, and drinkable for all? The IJC described what it would take back in 1992. But it seems unlikely to happen without a resurgence of coordinated, region-wide citizen activism.


[1] Great Lakes Commission, 2001 Inventory of Toxic Air Emissions.

[2] http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/index.cfm?issue_ID=909

[3] http://www.interculturalstudies.org/faq.html#quote

[4] Brad Heath and others, "Great Lakes an Endangered Legacy," The Detroit News, August 14, 2005. Citing data from North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

[5] Leonardo Trasande and others, "Public Health and Economic Consequences of Methyl Mercury Toxicity to the Developing Brain," Environmental Health Perspectives (May 2005) Vol. 113, No. 5, pgs. 590-596.

[6] Shankar Vedantam, "New EPA Mercury Rule Omits Conflicting Data," Washington Post, March 22, 2005, pg. A01.

[7] Nancy Stoner and Mark Dorfman, Testing the Waters 2005, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington DC, July 2005.

[8] International Joint Commission, Twelfth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality (Washington, DC and Ottawa, Ontario: International Joint Commission, 2004 ISBN 1-894280-45-8).

[9] International Joint Commission, Sixth and Seventh Biennial Reports on Great Lakes Water Quality (Washington, DC and Ottawa, Ontario: International Joint Commission, 1992, 1994),

[10] Scott Fields, "Great lakes: resource at risk," Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 113, No. 3 (March 2005), pgs. A164-A173.

[11] E. Hoh and R. Hites, "Brominated flame retardants in the atmosphere on the east-central United States," Environmental Science & Technology (2005; in press).

[12] EPA, Lake Michigan Mass Balance, 2004.

[13] International Joint Commission, Ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality (Washington, DC and Ottawa, Ontario: International Joint Commission, 1998).

[14] U.S. EPA Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy, 2004.

[15] Emily Figdor, Reel Danger: Power Plant Mercury Pollution and the Fish We Eat, U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, Washington D.C., August 2004.

[16] James E. McCarthy, Mercury Emissions to the Air: Regulatory and Legislative Proposals, Congressional Research Service (CRS), RL31881, updated May 26, 2004.

[17] David Rogers, "Katrina's Price Tag Surges Higher," The Wall Street Journal September 8, 2005, pg. 3.

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Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all. The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few. In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How do the few control the many, and what might be done about it?" As you come across stories that might help people connect the dots, please Email them to us at dhn@rachel.org. Rachel's Democracy & Health News is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject. Editors: Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org Tim Montague - tim@rachel.org ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: To start your own free Email subscription to Rachel's Democracy & Health News send a blank Email to: rachel-subscribe@pplist.net. In response, you will receive an Email asking you to confirm that you want to subscribe. ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: Environmental Research Foundation P.O. Box 160, New Brunswick, N.J. 08903 dhn@rachel.org