By Aaron Freeman
It’s been four decades since Lake Erie was declared “dead,” seemingly wrecked from agricultural waste and municipal sewage. Since then, through a range of government anti-pollution measures, the lake has shown a remarkable ability to rebound. In many ways, it has been an environmental success story.
Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes now face new threats, but unfortunately,Canadian governments have utterly failed to meet the challenge of protecting this vital ecosystem.
The Great Lakes provide drinking water for 40 million people. The lakes are home to 4,000 species of fish, plants and animals, and their 17,000-kilometre coastline provides widely used recreational activities, including a sport fishery attracting more than 5 million anglers each year.
More than 92 billion tons of raw sewage is dumped into the Great Lakes annually from Canadian and U.S. sources. More than 600 million kilograms of industrial pollution, including methyl mercury, PCBs, dioxins, furans and a host of other chemicals, are released each year into the air, water and land in the Great Lakes basin.
According to a report by Environmental Defence released last week, this pollution is causing severe problems in Great Lakes fish, problems that are getting worse.
The report examined trends in sports fish consumption advisories in the Great Lakes over time. While some isolated areas experienced modest improvements, overall, advisories are showing that pollution is going up significantly. In Lake Ontario, the most polluted of the lakes, eight categories of fish advisories became more severe between 2005 and 2007, while just one category had improved.
The sources of pollution are well known. Twenty cities around the Great Lakes still dump raw sewage directly into the lakes, while agricultural run-off and industrial emissions continue to rise. Toxic sediment from decades of pollution has not been properly cleaned up and continues to contaminate water and wildlife.
It is not enough to blame Great Lakes pollution problems on the United States. On a per-facility basis, Canadian factories around the Great Lakes emit 93 percent more pollution than their U.S. counterparts. Between 1998 and 2002, air pollution from Canadian industries in the Great Lakes basin increased by 3 percent, while U.S. facilities decreased their pollution by 24 percent.
In 2004, President George W. Bush pulled together regional, state and federal agency officials, together with top members of his cabinet, to address health and environmental concerns in the Great Lakes. Major funding for clean up efforts has followed and a bi-partisan bill in Congress would earmark $20 billion for additional measures.
Canada has done almost nothing to match this effort, with the result that, for the first time, the United States is poised to move unilaterally on Great Lakes management.
This lack of interest on the Canadian side is surprising, not only given the enormity of the problem and the recent upsurge in environmental concern, but also the potential political clout of this region. More than one third of federal electoral ridings are in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, and clean up of the basin was a promise made in all four major party platforms in the last election.
Governments rose to the challenge of protecting the Great Lakes in the 1970s and ‘80s. We reduced pollution, especially in Lake Erie. We worked with the United States on issues like acid rain. And efforts to limit pollutants like lead and PCBs made a real difference.
It’s time to renew our resolve and address newer threats. The federal government must lead the way with a major financial commitment and strict pollution controls on industries and municipalities, and an invitation to Ontario and Quebec to work collaboratively to safeguard one of the world’s most environmentally, and economically, important ecosystems.
– Aaron Freeman is Policy Director for Environmental Defence. The opinions
expressed are his own.