The New Standard, December 4, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: A new report says massive discharges of sewage into the Great Lakes are making fish unsafe to eat, rendering the lakes unsafe for recreation, and polluting one of the main sources of drinking water in the region. The Lakes contain 84% of all the fresh water in North America.]

By Catherine Komp

A new report has found that U.S. and Canadian cities are polluting the Great Lakes system with billions of gallons of a toxic "cocktail" of sewage and storm water each year.

The Canadian-based Sierra Legal Defence Fund, which produced the report, says it means parts of the largest freshwater ecosystem on the planet are "in peril."

The researchers say the massive discharges of sewage into the lakes are making fish unsafe to eat, rendering the lakes unsafe for recreation, and polluting one of the main sources of drinking water in the region. About 84 percent of North America's "surface fresh water" comes from the Great Lakes, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The "Great Lakes Sewage Report Card" analyzed twenty US and Canadian cities, from Deluth to Kingston to Cleveland. It concluded that despite billions of dollars invested to improve sewage treatment over the last three decades, the cities dump a combined 24 billion gallons of municipal sewage -- a mixture of water, human waste, micro- organisms, disease-causing pathogens and toxic chemicals -- directly into local water systems each year.

Detroit and Cleveland ranked the lowest in the Sierra Legal report, generating a combined 338 billion gallons of sewage per year. Both scored poorly for some 19 billion gallons of "overflow" from their sewer systems into the environment.

Green Bay, Wisconsin received one the highest scores in the report because it had no known discharges of untreated sewage, no sewage overflow and no pollution-related violations.

Unlike Green Bay, the researchers said, numerous cities around the Great Lakes use combined sewage systems, or CSOs, that carry both sewage and storm-water. During heavy rainfall, these systems can exceed capacity and raw sewage can overflow directly into the environment.

The US government drafted a Combined Sewer Overflow Control Policy in 1994 and requires communities to develop long-term CSO control plans to help local governments comply with the Clean Water Act. The problem is not isolated to the Great Lakes region. As previously reported by The NewStandard, some 770 cities across the country use combined systems.

In 2004, President Bush signed an executive order creating the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force to deal with the accumulating environmental problems facing this freshwater system. The task force's responsibilities include improving water quality.

Calling the Great Lakes "a gift to all that live in the basin," Sierra Legal makes several recommendations, including a bigger financial investment from federal and local governments to improve CSOs. The group also says that more regulations, from banning toxic substances in manufacturing industries to enforcing sewer-use laws, could help to protect the water and biodiversity of the Great Lakes region.

"Countries as wealthy as Canada and [the] United States can surely afford to adequately treat their waste accordingly," wrote the report's authors.