TORONTO (CP) – Growing public awareness about the environment has done little to ease the plight of the Great Lakes, where an absence of federal leadership threatens to leave one of Canada’s most treasured resources irreparably damaged, says Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.
A recent report by Environment Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency paints a mixed picture of the lakes, acknowledging partial success in cleaning up over the last 30 years but also revealing new problems – some of which that likely can’t be fixed.
It will be almost impossible to eradicate the 300 non-native species that have invaded the Great Lakes basin, and new chemicals are being identified in the waters all the time, experts say.
“Sometimes I’m a little bit concerned that the Great Lakes have slid to the back of environmental concerns,” McGuinty said in an interview earlier this week.
“It’s really important that we keep the Great Lakes water quality on the national agenda.”
McGuinty called on Ottawa to spearhead a meeting of Canadian and American federal, provincial and state officials, which he said would go a long way toward better protecting a resource that’s being taken for granted.
“What I’d love the federal government to do is take on the whole idea of a national clean water summit,” he said.
“It is a tremendous resource, it is something that people around the world recognize as being a kind of crown jewel of the North American ecosystem and we have to continue to work together to protect it.”
Canada has been lagging behind its American counterparts in cleaning up the Great Lakes and it’s time the federal government stepped up its commitments, said Aaron Freeman, policy director for Environmental Defence.
Although the water quality is improving, Lake Ontario is the only one of the five lakes to be rated “poor” for its levels of contamination. The report noted that Ontario’s “ecosystem component is severely negatively impacted and it does not display even minimally acceptable conditions.”
“Although all four political parties nationally had a cleanup of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin in their (previous election) platforms, the issue has been non-existent on the federal scene,” Freeman said.
“There is no federal leadership whatsoever on this issue at a time when that leadership is desperately needed.”
Officials in the office of federal Environment Minister John Baird did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The advocacy group Great Lakes United, during its 25th annual meeting in Toronto, said the Ontario government is “doing their share” to clean up the lakes, while the federal government isn’t.
“Ontario has led on a few files, not to say Ontario’s water woes are over, but as far as a comparative analysis with other jurisdictions in the Great Lakes basin, Ontario really is ahead of the game,” said executive director Derek Stack.
“The federal government has skirted its responsibility with respect to the Great Lakes for a very long time. A lot of people have lost faith in the capacity of the federal government to deal with the Great Lakes.”
He said the federal government has the jurisdiction to greatly reduce the numbers of invasive species that enter the lakes, by altering the regulations involving ships that enter the Great Lakes basin from the ocean.
The majority of aquatic invasive species enter the basin through the ballast tanks of those ships, and the federal government should beef up its rules to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Great Lakes United and the Canadian Auto Workers union are calling for a moratorium on ocean-going vessels accessing the Great Lakes until new regulations are in place to better protect the waters.
“We really do need some federal action on that,” Stack said.
McGuinty would not say whether he plans to include any initiatives for Great Lakes cleanup in his election platform for the upcoming provincial vote on Oct. 10.