Great Lakes Pollution:
Through combined sewer overflow, agricultural and stormwater runoff, and various other paths, possible toxic contaminants find their way into coastal waters around the world. These toxins sink to the bottom of lakes, rivers, and oceans and accumulate in sedimentary deposits. Usually the concentration of toxins in the sediment is far greater than it is in the waters above. The dangerous aspect of this pollution is that changing weather patterns, high winds, and strong currents can disperse contaminants into the water where that accumulate in plant and animal tissue. Frequently, the build-up of contaminants in plant and animal tissue is in far greater concentrations than it is in the environment. Every year states across the U.S. declare “beach closings at rivers, lakes, and oceans due to disease causing microorganisms”(EPA 1). These areas are the victims of industrial effluents, sewage overflows, polluted storm runoff, and boating wastes. Swimming in areas with high levels of harmful bacteria, viruses, and various other pathogens can cause illnesses that range from a sore throat to meningitis or severe gastroenteritis(EPA 1). A major area of concern is the Great Lakes. Toxic pollutants plague this area. Through the collaborative efforts of Canada, the United States, and the International Joint Commission programs have been established with the needs of this fragile ecosystem in mind. Funding in the form of grants, awards, loans, and other investment mechanisms have been put together to build a program that promotes the overall fitness of this fragile ecosystem and all its inhabitants. This paper will discuss the various problems that are degrading the Great Lakes environment, the institutions that are committed to ensuring the natural cycle of this incredible landmark and the means by which they do this, and the obstacles that groups, programs, and counteries have encountered to progress.
The Great Lakes ecosystem is one that incorporates eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. They contain one-fifth of the all the fresh water on earth(GLIN 2). The vastness of these lake systems leave it vulnerable to so many different types of pollution and abuse that they cannot all be named here. Neighboring communities and industries also add to the large amount of toxins that the Lakes take in every year. Pollution coming from point sources likes waste outlets and discharge pipes have been identified as well as pollution coming from non-point sources like runoff, air pollutants, and releases from contaminated sediments(EPA 1). During the fourteen years covered by the EPA’s comprehensive study of Great Lakes beaches, “the number of beach closures averaged between 40 to 60 per year”(EPA 1). Closures were the result of combined sewer overflow, debris, pathogens, or any other occurrence that could negatively affect human health(EPA 1). Polluted storm water runoff and sewage system overflow is a problem for the lakes. Overflows are caused by sewage systems that have “insufficient capacity to retain heavy rains for processing through sewage treatment plants”(Natnl Oc. Atms. Admn.). As a result these drains are overloaded with water during a storm or snowmelt. These waters flow to the “beaches after running off lawns, farms, streets, construction sites, and other urban areas”(EPA 1). The entire trip of the water from a front lawn to the beach is spent picking up fertilizers, pesticides, trash, animal waste, gasoline, and oil and depositing them on the beaches. Rivers and lakes are exposed to coliform bacteria, E. coli bacteris, heavy metals, nutrients, grease organic priority pollutants and suspended solids during this runoff process(EPA 1). The 1983 Lake Erie Wastewater Management Study done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers states that a majority of the “sediment and nutrient inputs to Lake Erie [occurred] during runoff after rainfall”(U.S. Army). Another problem for the Lakes is contaminated sediments. A consensus has been reached among various sectors in the Great Lakes Basin that in fact contaminated sediments are a “major cause of environmental problems and a key factor in many of the impairments to beneficial uses of the Great Lakes(IJC 2). These desecrated sediments “are the last remaining repository of toxic pollutants still on lakes bottoms, still being released back into the water column and into the food web”(U.S. Hs. Rep.). Contaminated sediments accumulate in areas near shore embankments, river mouths or harbors where urban, industrial, and agricultural inputs of contaminants are also found. These areas also require dredging for navigational reasons. Over a period from 1985 to 1989, over 15 million cubic feet of sediment were dredged for navigational purposes. “Fifty-one per cent of this. . . had to be placed in some form of confined disposal facility due to high contaminant levels”(IJC 2). These toxicants not only cause problems with dredging but also can be ingested by animals living in the sediment. In turn, these contaminated animals are eaten by larger fish, which are eaten by larger fish, and so on. These contaminants do not metabolize, but instead deposit in fatty tissues and accumulate in food chain in large, increasing amounts(Natnl. Oc. Atms.). These ingested toxins can cause “cancerous lesions and organ disorders or interfere with an animal’s reproductive ability”(Natnl. Oc. Atms.). “Long-term low-level exposure of fish, wildlife, and humans to these substance has the potential to increase the risk of cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations”(GLIN 1). Contaminated sediments are a major obstacle in the effort to create some sort of abundant environment that supports a healthy balance in the ecosystem. A third problem in the Great Lakes is a condition known as eutrophism. Large amounts of phosphorus, a plant nutrient, and nitrogen input in the lake result in a lake that is eutrophic(U.S. Army). These bodies of water are characterized by excessive algae growth. Algae in itself is not harmful, however the decay of algae causes oxygen deficiencies in the water which causes fish to die. Phosphorus exists in the soil as compounds of low solubility. When subjected to erosive waters the phosphorus compounds behave as soil particles and runoff (U.S. Army). Some major sources of phosphorous in Lake Waters is municipal waste water treatment plant discharge, point sources, and non-point sources like land and runoff waters (U.S. Army). Winter rains on uncovered soil, that would normally be covered with vegetation and easier infiltrated, produces erosion that is far above the erosion produced during the summertime (U.S. Army). All these factors, and many others, contribute to the degradation of the Great Lakes. A healthy and successful interrelationship between the many components of this ecosystem is necessary to sustain a healthy environment. “Industrial practices, nutrient loading, urbanization, alterations, and destruction of natural areas, contamination of water and soil all stress the ecosystem”(GLIN 2).
One of the first steps to redeeming a polluted area is to address the problem and establish who exactly is responsible for clean up and the extent to which the clean up will extend. Article IV of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 established that Canada and the United States should assume a mutual obligation to the boundary waters around the Great Lakes (IJC 2). It also established that these waters should not be polluted in any way that could result in injury to health or property (IJC 2). In 1912, during an outbreak of typhoid fever, the Governments of Canada and the United States requested that the International Joint Commission determine the extent of pollution that had occurred (IJC 2). After determining that there was in fact considerable pollution on and about the Great Lakes, the IJC was given “ample jurisdiction to regulate and prohibit this pollution”(IJC 2). In 1950 the Commission established specific Water Quality Objectives specifically designed to reconstruct and preserve the waters (IJC 2). Eventually, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was established in 1972 and renewed in 1978. The Agreement reaffirmed the Commission’s Water Quality Objectives and stated “a number of objectives and guidelines to achieve these goals (IJC 3). The Agreement also asserts the “obligation of Canada and the United States under the Boundary Waters Treaty”(IJC 3). Before the passage of this vital piece of legislation, water pollution from untreated sewage was widespread and all too common (EPA 1). The role of the International Joint Commission is to regulate and estimate the progress under the Water Quality Agreement. The IJC has been actively and regularly involved in the issues related to the Great Lakes since the 1972 signing of the Agreement. Their involvement has aided in the establishment and implementation of “several significant programs and actions to address contaminated sediment”(IJC 2) and other problems plaguing the Great Lakes. In 1997 the IJC identified remediation and management of sediments contaminated with persistent toxic substances as a 1995-1997 priority. This work led to the widespread use of CDF s as a environmentally safe way of disposing of contaminated sediments. The IJC asked the Great Lakes Water Quality Board to review the exact extent of the contaminated sediment problem and make feasible recommendations to get past the various obstacles involved in solving the sediment problem (IJC 3). As a result of this research and reevaluation all of the sediment remediation completed to date has been funded as a result of enforcement actions taken against polluters, typically industries or municipalities (IJC 2). In 1991, the U.S. Congress appropriated one million dollars to establish the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion and Sediment Control. The purpose is to coordinate the efforts at various levels of government with the specific goal of protecting and improving the Great Lakes water quality by controlling soil erosion and sedimentation (GLC 1). Another program was established in 1989, the Great Lakes Protection Fund, and has made 155 grants and program related investments representing almost twenty-seven million dollars dedicated to improve the Great Lakes environment (GLPF). The Environmental Protection Agency also plays a recent and necessary role. With the EPA s assistance, ports around the lakes are developing treatment technologies for their contaminated sediments (U.S. Hs. Rep.). The EPA s Great Lakes National Program mandates activities to revive and persevere the physical, chemical. And biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem (EPA 2). The EPA established the BEACH Program to provide a framework for local governments by which they could develop consistent and quality programs for their pieces of beach. In 1994 the EPA developed a “national strategy to greatly reduce the number of combined sewer overflows causing human health and environmental problems”(EPA 1). The Great Lakes National Program Office, (GLNPO), of the EPA prints comprehensive studies on the Great Lakes that evaluate and note beach closings. These reports also survey “organizations responsible for maintaining Great Lakes beaches”(Natnl. Oc. Atms.). These surveys have been collectively summarized in the Survey of Great Lakes Bathing Beaches (1981 to 1984). The EPA has also awarded approximately 70 billion dollars between 1972 and 1996 to municipalities to aid the communities along the Great Lakes in improving and constructing effective and sufficient waste water treatment plants(EPA 1). Fish consumption advisories are in place to limit exposure and protect the health of swimmers and others in the community. Across the Great Lakes area, state and local health officials and environmental protection agencies are responsible for monitoring the quality of water at beaches and posting warning or closing signs when pollutant levels are too high. There are many different approaches to pollution control and prevention. Treatment is an obvious approach. But determining how to find markets and uses for what was formerly a waste product of vast proportions (U.S. Hs. Rep.) is often much more difficult but has many long-term benefits. The Army Corps of Engineers is working with Duluth s sediment beneficiation project to establish a sediment recycling facility (U.S. Hs. Rep.). Duluth has also found a viable market for its cleaner sediments, building roads. Milwaukee is also looking into using CDF sand to cap old landfills (U.S. Hs. Rep.). Green Bay is considering the implications of using CDF materials for road construction. Toledo is also working in cooperation with Scotts Lawn Products Company to mix its cleaned sediments with soil to produce bagged lawn products. All these approaches to pollution are ways in which the community and industries are trying to clean up the waters. By providing alternative ways of using the sediment the economic implications of storing it, safely, are not so high. The American people pay approximately 400 million dollars to the government that goes to dredging costs and treating various pesticides that run off the land and into the sediment (U.S. Hs. Rep.). The Dredging Subcommittee, which reports to the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, was responsible for the establishment and publication of the first bi-national Great Lake dredging register which has provided a considerable degree of public info on sediment contamination, (IJC 1) dredging projects, and the disposal of dredge spoils. All these different institutions have definitely contributed to the control of pollution. They have established laws to maintain and recover the Great Lakes area. Obviously, the governments of Canada and the U.S. have been actively aware and involved in the de-contamination of sediments, control of industrial and sewer system runoff, and high levels of phosphorus and other specific chemicals in the lakes since the beginning of the century. These combined efforts have made it possible, although they have not reversed the effects, for this vast ecosystem to remain in a somewhat stable environment.
As with any attempt to reverse the decline of an environment
there have been obstacles to progress. De-contaminating the sediment has been slow for several reasons. There have been problems with defining the problem, developing a viable strategy to deal with the problem, defining the standard by which the clean-up should be held to, and acquiring the proper funds and means to do so(IJC 2). There is also no single measure of success (IJC 2). Success is rather measured on a site-specific basis. Success of a clean-up project should be measured on whether or not the ecological contamination has been reversed enough to restore a homeostasis or on what the specific goals of that area is. A fairly obvious obstacle is lack of funding and resources. In the
United States a majority of the funding used to remediate sediment
contamination has been the result of enforcement actions taken
against polluters (IJC 2). This type of funding has been enforced
in areas only where the evidence against polluters was
overwhelming. Many other U.S. Areas of Concern do not display
such obvious signs of pollution. There is also a significant lack
of resources and research. Timing is a critical factor when
attempting to identify a pathogen and the extent of pollution
It is critical to protecting public health. Current laboratory
tests take too long to determine whether a beach is polluted (EPA
1). There is a need for research into different and speedy ways of
impacts toxicity will have. If researchers can identify what the
effects of pollution will be and what kind of community shifts and
species losses will follow it, then it will be easier to identify a
problem and the specific steps that will be needed to contain it.
Greater corporate involvement is also needed. With the cooperative
efforts of corporations and government the it will be easier to
remediate contaminated sediments. Contaminated sediment is a
invisible problem, so it is much more difficult to build
public support (IJC 2) for it than other environmental issues.
There is no doubt that public support is completely essential if
these problems are going to be addressed and effectively
remediated. Among other obstacles to progress there are the
issues of lack of decision-making framework and other regulatory
complexities. Delays due to legal negotiations, or industrial
cooperation, or shortage of funds are all too common.
Works Cited 1
Environmental Protection Agency. BEACH Program. Sept. 1997.
Online. Netscape Navigator. 20 February 1999. Available: http://www.epa.gov/OST/beaches/BeachPro.pdf
2. Office of Water. EPA Programs: BEACH Watch. Online. Netscape Navigator. 20 February 1999. Available: http://www.epa.gov/OST/beaches/epa.html
3. Summary of U.S. Great Lakes Beach Closings 1981-1994. Aug. 1997: 2-8. fiche 1, grids A1-8.
Great Lakes Commission. Online. Netscape Navigator. 21 Feb. 1999
2. Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion and Sediment Control. Online. Netscape Navigator. 21 February 1999. Available: http://www.glc.org/projects/basin/glbp.html
Lakes Region. Online. Netscape Navigator. 21 February 1999.
2. The Great Lakes Ecosystem. Online. Netscape Navigator. 21 February 1999. Available: http://www.great-lakes.net/ecosystem/ecosys.html
3. Great Lakes Areas of Concern. Online. Netscape Navigator. 21 February 1999. Available: http://www.great-lakes.net/places/aoc/aoc.html
4. Pollution in the Great Lakes Region. Online. Netscape Navigator. 21 February 1999. Available: http://www.great-lakes.net/pollution/pollut.html
Great Lakes Protection Fund. Online. Netscape Navigator. 20
February 1999. Available: http://www.glpf.org/
International Joint Commission: Canada and the United States.
2. Overcoming Obstacles to Sediment
Remediation in the Great Lakes Basin. 1997. Online. Netscape
Navigator. 21 February 1999. Available: http://www.ijc.org/boards/wqb/sedrem.html
3. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978. 1989. Online.
Netscape Navigator. 21 February 1999. Available: http://www.ijc.org/agree/quality.html
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sediment Toxicity
In U.S. Coastal Waters. 1998. 1-3.
Wastewater Management Study. June 1983. 1-6.
United States House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Water
Resources and Environment of the Committee on Transportation and