Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: Toxic substances


To contribute to the discussion about the toxic substances section of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, post your thoughts below. If you want the U.S. and Canadian governments to consider your input, send it to the official website.

Both Canada and the United States recognize that improperly managed chemicals pose unacceptable risks to health and the environment in their jurisdictions. Both countries are committed to managing chemicals effectively and to reducing risks from chemicals to acceptable levels. While certain persistent toxic substances (PTS) have been significantly reduced in the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem over the past 30 years, they continue to be present at levels above those considered safe for humans and wildlife, warranting fish consumption advisories in all five lakes and connecting channels. Toxic substances are a core element of the GLWQA but the provisions are very outdated.

1. Principles of Toxic Chemical Management

“Virtual Elimination” and “Zero Discharge” are guiding philosophies that are applied to preventing pollution from toxic chemicals that pose the greatest risk to environmental and human health.

“Virtual Elimination” appears in a number of different contexts and is applied in various ways, making it a difficult concept to understand. For example, generally it applies to the reduction of emissions (releases) of persistent toxic substances; but the idea of applying it also to the removal of these chemicals from the environment after release often occurs during discussions of virtual elimination. There are also different criteria for defining persistence.

The concept of “Virtual Elimination” is stated in the Agreement (Article II) …as the policy of the Parties that:

(a) The discharge of toxic substances in toxic amounts be prohibited and the discharge of any or all persistent toxic substances be virtually eliminated… .

And by Annex 12(2) whereby regulatory strategies for controlling or preventing the input of persistent toxic substances shall be adopted in accordance with the General Principles:

(i) The intent of programs specified in this Annex is to virtually eliminate the input of persistent toxic substances in order to protect human health and to ensure the continued health and productivity of living aquatic resources and human use thereof;

(ii) The philosophy adopted for control of inputs of persistent toxic substances shall be zero discharge; and

(iii) The reduction in the generation of contaminants, particularly persistent toxic substances, either through the reduction of the total volume or quantity of waste or through the reduction of the toxicity of waste, or both, shall wherever possible, be encouraged.

The following are some considerations for the amendments to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

* Retain/distinguish the concepts of “Virtual Elimination” and “Zero Discharge” as guiding philosophies rather than definitions

* Replace the terms with clear plain language describing how the Parties intend to risk manage toxic chemicals

* Other?

2. Water Quality Objectives

The Review noted that the Agreement is not currently designed to evolve or to be readily updated concerning the specific objectives noted in Article IV and Annex 1. It was noted that there are numerous discrepancies between the specific objectives in Annex 1 and the national, provincial or state criteria, including objectives or guidelines of Canada and the U.S. that have more recently been developed. The majority of specific objectives do not reflect the current knowledge base, advancements in analytical methods, or modern approaches to developing water quality criteria.

It is therefore recognized that these objectives are out-of-date. This demonstrates the importance of being adaptive so that the Agreement remains up-to-date (“evergreen”).

Also, it must be recognized that current approaches to developing water quality guidelines, the resultant guidelines, and their application, vary among agencies in the Great Lakes Basin.

The following are some considerations for the amendments to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

* Substance-specific objectives could be established independently by relevant jurisdictions for application to the Great Lakes Basin would be considered by the Parties to develop and implement programs and other measures to address toxic substance issues.

* Establish substance-specific objectives, which are specific to the Great Lakes and based on Great Lakes science

* Establish ecosystem objectives specific to the Great Lakes

* Other?

3. Toxic Substances Management

The current GLWQA commits the Parties to research, monitoring and assessment activities and to utilizing this information as a basis for decision-making in relation to Areas of Concern and Lakewide Management Plans for Critical Pollutants.

The Review noted in particular that the Parties 1) should consider how non-persistent but continuously-available toxic substances are addressed; and, 2) should consider a commitment to monitor for substances of emerging concern as called for in Part 5 of Annex 12 (Early Warning System).

The following are some considerations for the amendments to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement:

* Reference in the Agreement the existing national programs and binational programs to manage toxic substances

* Include commitments to develop a binational framework to identify and implement risk management strategies for emerging and re-emerging, persistent or continuously-available (pseudo-persistent) toxic substances

* Include commitments for cooperative monitoring, research and surveillance to inform risk management of the success of implemented measures and the need for further action

* Include commitments for monitoring and research to identify emerging issues due to emerging and re-emerging persistent and pseudo-persistent toxic substances

* Other?

One thought on “Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: Toxic substances

  1. I agree with those who commented on the Webinars that virtual elimination of toxic substances or “zero discharge” is at the heart of the agreement, and that notions of falling back to a “risk management” strategy are by and large a “well, let’s just learn to live with this stuff” approach.

    I’m also intrigued by the suggestion to look at the international POPs (persistent organic pollutants)for guiding language to specificity on definitions of what constitutes “zero” and elimination. The POPs treaty arose, in part, from the intense work rising from the Great Lakes to get serious bioaccumulative toxic compounds out of the lakes, out of our foodweb, and out of our bodies. The only hitch I see is that the non-organic chemicals (think mercury) aren’t covered, but the concepts are the same, no?

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