Rachel's Democracy & Health News, November 30, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Protecting the Great Lakes from ecological collapse is a major challenge. A joint U.S.-Canadian governing body, the International Joint Commission, is calling for a new Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to set clearer standards and timelines for restoring the Great Lakes ecosystem. Could it work?]

By Tim Montague

The Great Lakes are a national treasure in danger of ecological collapse. They contain 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water and they provide essential services for the 42 million residents who live in the region -- drinking water, food, biological diversity, and recreation. The lakes also symbolize how humans have damaged the natural world. Industrial pollution, urban sprawl, pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, sewage and over-fishing -- have degraded the Great Lakes to the point where their future has become very uncertain.

Industrial pollution was so bad in the late 1960's that the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland caught fire several times. Oxygen depletion and algal blooms were choking the lakes and causing widespread fish kills. Public outcry led the governments of the U.S. and Canada to develop stronger laws.

With the 1972 Clean Water Act the U.S. set the goal of making our navigable waterways fishable and swimmable by 1983. From 1972 to 1998 the percentage of fishable and swimmable waters did grow (from 36% to 62% according to some sources) -- though how the EPA defines fishable/swimmable is vague at best. But present day fish advisories on all the Great Lakes tell us that the fish aren't safe to eat. And though the beaches might be open for swimming, it doesn't mean they are safe.

Another response to the degradation of the Great Lakes was the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement forged by the International Joint Commission -- a joint U.S.-Canadian governing body established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The Agreement's stated purpose was to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Initially the Agreement focused on phosphorous pollution which was successfully reduced by better sewage treatment and reduced usage in detergents and fertilizers. As knowledge of pollution expanded, the Agreement was updated in 1978 and again in 1987 to become more comprehensive and to address persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals like PCB's, mercury and dioxin. The IJC became one of the most forward thinking government bodies in the 1990's, recommending 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. chlorinated compounds, PCBs and heavy metals).

But the political will wasn't there. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972 was never ratified by the U.S. Congress or the Canadian Parliament. And over the years the Agreement has become long, complex, and ineffective. There are few concrete deadlines for phasing out chemicals or cleaning up contamination hot spots (called "areas of concern"). Over the years, rapid gains in water quality in the 1970's have been eroded by steady increases in industrial activity, new chemical contaminants, biological threats like invasive exotic species, and unbridled urban sprawl.

In other words, despite early improvements, the Great Lakes ecosystem has now deteriorated badly -- despite all the good intentions embodied in the Agreement.

Now a new report from the IJC, issued in August, 2006, signals renewed willingness at the IJC to grapple with the many issues that have brought the Great Lakes to the threshold of ecological collapse. The report calls for the old Agreement to be scrapped and replaced by a shorter, easier to understand version that applies current science and modern decision- making. Importantly, this report heeds the call of many of the 4,100 residents who commented on the Agreement in 2005. Here are some highlights of the IJC's recommendations in this new report:

** The agreement should be more accountable and inclusive: "Plans should be designed to reach out to residents around the basin so that the public becomes more engaged in the process." Furthermore, "The Commission believes that because the Agreement is important to millions of people across the Great Lakes basin, it needs to be known, understandable and meaningful to them."

** The report highlights the Agreement's strengths and needs: "Key principles and concepts from the current Agreement, such as virtual elimination and zero discharge of persistent toxic substances, should be retained in order to unite all constituencies and resolve any concerns that governments are reducing their commitment. Other concepts that could underpin and strengthen the Agreement, such as the ecosystem approach, adaptive management and the precautionary principle, should also be clearly enunciated in the new Agreement."

** It goes on, "Today, however, there is recognition that protective Action [towards the entire ecosystem, not just water quality] is required to prevent degradation and avoid or minimize costly restoration. The age- old adage that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" applies to the waters of the Great Lakes as much as it does to other domains of social and environmental activity."

** The report also points to the importance of keeping human health front and center in the new Agreement, "Human Health should be more explicitly reflected in the Agreement. The evolution of scientific knowledge and understanding indicates a need to reinforce the integration of human health in the goals by explicitly recognizing it in a new Agreement. This would also help to identify the health- science gaps in Great Lakes research; set the stage, scope and context for the Agreement's specific objectives; and assist the Parties in setting their environmental health priorities."

The report acknowledges that unlike the current Agreement, a new Agreement must specify:

** The actions that need to be taken to protect and restore the Great Lakes basin ecosystem;

** Their precise goals and timelines for implementation and achievement;

** Who is responsible and accountable for progress;

** Which indicators will be used to measure performance; and

** What assessments will be undertaken to evaluate success or failure.

The report calls for the President and the Prime Minister to sign the new Agreement, and for the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament to ratify the Agreement so that adequate resources will be available to implement it. In 2005, a U.S. presidential commission concluded that the Great Lakes will require $20 billion to clean up the water, reverse the impacts of urban sprawl, improve thousands of acres of fish and wildlife habitat and control exotic species. Does Congress have what it takes to make such a commitment?

Not unless they feel the heat from voters. A more open and accountable Agreement with measurable goals and benchmarks would be a step in the right direction. But organized action by residents and communities is ultimately the only thing that can save the Great Lakes. And time is running out.

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To voice your opinion of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement you can contact Dennis L. Schornack, U.S. Chair or Herb Gray, Canadian Chair. Mr. Schornack can be reached at the International Joint Commission,1250 23rd St NW Washington, DC 20037 SchornackD@Washington.IJC.org tel. (202) 736-9000; the Canadian Chair is Herb Gray. Mr. Gray can be contacted at the International Joint Commission, 234 Laurier Ave. West, 22nd Floor, Ottawa, Ontario, K1P 6K6 commission@ottawa.ijc.org Tel.: 613-992-2417 Fax.: 613-947-9386.