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The Planet

Reclaiming the Great Lakes

Marie Dolcini

The source of one-fifth of the world's fresh water -- and drinking water for 25 million people -- the five Great Lakes are the most conspicuous footprints left by glacial retreat. Truly an ecological sink, the lakes release only 1 percent of their water into the Atlantic each year -- so what's dumped into them stays put and concentrates over time. From toxic sediments and agricultural runoff to atmospheric deposition caused by air pollutants, the region has become our most enduring dumping ground as well as a persistent reminder of the pitfalls of industrial might.

When Sierra Club activist Lee Botts came to Chicago in 1950 and saw Lake Michigan for the first time, she couldn't believe such a large body of water had not been created by the Army Corps of Engineers. She settled on the lake's south shore with an Oklahoman sensibility shaped by dust-bowl realities and man-made reservoirs, but over the past 30 years, she has earned the nickname "the Lady of the Lakes" through her work to reverse the decline of one of Earth's largest living systems.

Botts became an environmental activist while raising her young children along the Chicago lakefront in the 1960s, spurred by public and scientific concern that Lake Michigan pollution levels would eventually reach those of Lake Erie. By the time Cleveland's oil-and-garbage-choked Cuyahoga River actually caught fire and Life magazine's obituary for Lake Erie thrust the region into the national consciousness in the early 1970s, Botts had already organized an unprecedented four-state Lake Michigan conference. The event resulted in a regional water quality agreement and the Lake Michigan Federation -- the first basin-wide alliance to address lake health on the national and local levels. With strong public support, Congress passed the 1972 Clean Water Act, which established industry-wide emission controls, and the United States and Canada forged the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1978. "Back then, we thought we could protect the lakes by preventing pollution from coming in by pipes," recalled Botts. "But things got complicated very fast." Most activists regard the Act as a major first step in addressing lake degradation: It curbed dumping directly into the lakes, but did nothing to prevent pollution or examine diffuse, "non-point" sources such as agricultural and urban runoff. Furthermore, persistent industrial pollutants such as dioxin, heavy metals and toxic sediment defied quick-fix solutions, and the region's political tangle of two countries, eight U.S. states, two Canadian provinces and three tribal councils remained an obstacle to effective policy and enforcement. This patchwork of management and regulatory systems created a climate where violations were the norm and powerful industries and port economies influenced the law's implementation.

By the mid-1970s, the success of the Clean Water Act was evident in the fact that airborne toxics eclipsed waterborne discharge as the main source of Great Lakes pollution. On the other hand, the Clean Air Act of 1970, which set important standards to reduce urban smog, had failed to curb pollutants generated hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of miles away.

Crossing Borders

Recognizing that pollution does not heed political boundaries, environmentalists rethought the wisdom of working state-by-state and embraced a new whole-system view that combined legal assistance, scientific research and volunteer activism. This broader approach to saving places spawned the Sierra Club's Great Lakes Program more than a decade ago. The Club was the first major environmental organization to frame issues in terms of the "ecoregion" model, and used the Great Lakes Program as a template for its continent-wide Critical Ecoregions Program launched in 1993.

Jane Elder organized the Great Lakes Program and served as its director for many years. Like her ally Botts, she embodies the spirit behind the ecoregion philosophy: Ecosystems don't acknowledge artificial borders, so neither should environmentalists. "The Great Lakes Program has seen some significant victories by recognizing watersheds over state boundaries," said Elder. Among its accomplishments, the Great Lakes Program added the first ecosystem amendment to the Clean Water Act, established uniform water quality standards between states, and added specific language to the Clean Air Act identifying air toxics -- such as mercury and PCBs -- as serious airborne threats.

The Great Lakes Program is as critical today as it was a decade ago. A May 1995 study by the State University of New York concluded that people in the Great Lakes region are exposed to substantially higher levels of environmental contaminants than residents of any other place on the continent and babies born to women who regularly eat Great Lakes fish are more likely to have abnormal reflexes, tremors and shortened attention spans. Despite the bans of DDT and PCBs, dozens of toxic hotspots persist. Nearly 500 chemicals have been found in the flesh of lake fish and contaminant levels in fish-eating birds are among the highest in the world. Reducing the use of phosphates has revived some wildlife populations, but biologists maintain that most Lake Erie fish and birds are diseased.

One way the Club is addressing these problems is by bringing together industries and the communities they affect. Activists are working to get paper mills along Wisconsin's Fox River to clean up their toxic discharge and have negotiated incineration controls for steel manufacturers in Chicago, Cleveland and Gary, Ind., that are stronger than required by the Clean Air Act. Elder is proud of the Club's success in building effective coalitions with steelworkers, lower-income residents, teachers, homemakers, recreational travel groups and tribal communities. "Breaking out of environmental boxes and helping these groups find each other is really exciting," she said. "We're stronger together and across borders. While there are cultural and political differences, we all agree the core agenda is Great Lakes health, and the level of cooperation is commendable."

'Dirty Water Bill' Threatens Recovery

Activists and Environmental Protection Agency scientists agree that the biggest long-term challenge to Great Lakes restoration is the persistence of toxic sediments. Currently, there are no sediment-specific laws to enforce cleanup beyond targeted Superfund sites, but the Club's newly formed Contaminated Sediments Project advocates expanded cleanup efforts and strong standards for toxic-free fish and water.

"No one knows what to do with toxic muck," said Andrew Savagian, of the Club's Midwest regional office. "We have the technology to separate out the toxics with heat, coal cleaning and defense technology, but funding has run out. We want full, not partial cleanup -- otherwise, everything in the mud ends up in water and fish." But the congressional assault on the Clean Water Act is the most immediate threat to basin-wide recovery. The Act's primary objective is to restore the lakes to swimmable and fishable levels. Activists say the 104th Congress' slash-and- burn approach will make this goal impossible. They also say that the same corporate polluters who had to be reined in by the original Act are orchestrating the attack on the law by demanding a return to the "good ol' days" when they policed themselves. The Act's reauthorization, H.R. 961, or the "Dirty Water Bill," has already passed the House. Its serious failings include severely limited powers for the EPA, removal of protections for hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands and coastline and a "takings" component to reward would-be polluters with tax dollars. And Club leaders are busy sounding the alarm. The Save Our Summer campaign has been making considerable waves throughout the region -- from a well-publicized media event in Cleveland commemorating the 25th anniversary of the infamous Cuyahoga River fire, to a Madison, Wis., rally with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt where citizens spoke in favor of a strengthened Clean Water Act.

Whether they are working to ban mercury in manufacturing and chlorine in pesticides, fighting destruction of wetlands in Michigan, countering incineration in Toronto or re- establishing a tallgrass prairie in Chicago, Great Lakes activists are making strides on many fronts. "Everyone said, 'There's no way you can change the Clean Air Act,' and they were wrong," said Elder, who left the Club this summer to take a position with a group that provides funding to promote biodiversity. "The ecoregion idea works and this program proves it. It's not about the Clean Water Act, it's about clean water and educating people about what they flush down their drains. Legislation is about getting there -- it's not the end point."

The answers lie, too, in coalition-building across traditional borders, added Botts. "My goal is to hang in there and continue to work with many groups on a regional basis," she said. "We've come a long way from being the enemy of business and industry, and our circle is much broader than just a group of environmentalists. My hope is that this kind of progress is happening elsewhere and that Congress just hasn't caught on yet."

To take action: Urge your senators to support initiatives protecting the Great Lakes. Tell them to vote no on any Senate version of the House's "Dirty Water Bill," H.R. 961, and oppose S. 851, which would gut wetlands protections. Call them at the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or write them at the U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20515.

Attend the International Joint Commission's Biennial Meeting on Human Health and Water Quality of the Great Lakes in Duluth, Minn., Sept. 22-25. Call (218) 726-1828 for details.

For more information: Contact Great Lakes Program director Brett Hulsey at (608) 257-4994; the Washington, D.C., legislative office at (202) 547-1141; or the Sierra Club of Eastern Canada at (613) 241-4611.

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