Why does protecting the Great Lakes have to be a zero-sum game? Why is it a situation where every gain seems to be offset by a loss?
Here’s what I mean.
In February the EPA issued a release that said, “Presque Isle Bay removed from Great Lakes Area of Concern list.” The Lake Erie site in Pennsylvania had been on the list of legacy pollutant sites since 1991. There is similar good news in Michigan where White Lake near Muskegon and in Illinois where Waukegan Harbor north of Chicago are finally close to coming off that list.
Waukegan Harbor was once referred to as “the world’s worst PCB mess.”
These sites are primed for recovery due to an infusion of federal dollars and the grit and perseverance of community activists who advocated for their restoration for decades.
Good news, right? We’re finally turning the corner on cleaning up our polluting past.
Not yet, as this Buffalo News headline illustrates: “Toxic legacy’s time bomb.”
The article reports on “800 hazardous waste sites” and “the vast majority of these waste sites are located in the Great Lakes watershed.”
That’s bad enough but here’s the most troubling point in the article. These aren’t just legacy pollutants from the industrial era.
“More dangerous material continues to be hauled here from elsewhere because this region has become a dumping ground for other communities’ poisons and wastes,” the article says. “This region” refers to the Great Lakes watershed, the place to dump “poisons and wastes.”
My critical side says shame on New York for allowing this to happen, but it’s always best to look in your own backyard before criticizing.
Here on Lake Michigan the coal-fired S.S. Badger was just given a two-year pass by the EPA, allowing it to continue to dump toxic coal-ash into the lake. That’s more than 500 tons each year. This after it received a four-year pass in 2008 from the same EPA that is supposed to be shepherding Great Lakes restoration.
In a press release reacting to the decision, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin called the Badger “the filthiest ship on the Great Lakes.” He noted that the Badger dumps more waste than the total of the 125 largest ships on the Great Lakes. Coal-ash waste contains arsenic, lead and mercury, Durbin said.
The process goes on:
- A dam is removed allowing for a return to the natural flow of a river enhancing the fishery. But that’s offset by a company storing piles of petroleum coke only yards from the Detroit River, a practice right out of the laissez-faire industrial era of the1950’s.
- Near shore areas are enhanced by replacing concrete shorelines with natural habitat. Then comes someone who wants to build a 1,200 foot driveway on critical sand dunes in western Michigan. Michigan just enacted a dune bill that could make that possible.
Why does this happen?
It’s our mindset. There’s a disconnect between what we say and what we tolerate.
We love to talk about “Pure Michigan,” ride the tourist boats through the skyscrapers on the Chicago River and refer to the Great Lakes as a “national treasure.”
But Pure Michigan is not reality, it’s an ad campaign. The Chicago River is essentially an open sewer and communities are still shipping “poisons and wastes” into the watershed of the Great Lakes. That’s hardly how a “national treasure” should be treated 43 years after the first Earth Day.
A reader of this space recently asked me why, when it comes to conservation issues, the Great Lakes region doesn’t have the same sense of pride in place as other regions of the country. The Pacific Northwest is an example.
I agreed with the premise but didn’t have a good answer.
Have we accepted our fate as the “Rust Belt?” That includes younger generations whose knowledge of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire comes from history books. The same generations leave the region as soon as they finish school, looking for better opportunities or a healthier environment.
Even some of the big Great Lakes environmental groups are part of the zero-sum game problem. They fight the good fight to secure money to clean up the legacy Area of Concern sites but have no plan to deal with the mentality that allows the 800 toxic sites in New York.
Even their comments when the Badger was given another two years to pollute Lake Michigan were tepid. The Detroit Free Press reported that the Alliance for the Great Lakes was “disappointed” in the decision but that it was “appreciative” that the EPA’s decided to end it then.
And legislators of course talk a better game than they play, no surprise there. Almost any federal elected official from a Great Lakes state will trumpet their value.
But the Great Lakes Congressional effort to continue restoration funding at the $300 million level has lacked energy. A letter circulated in the U.S. House of Representatives has garnered only 38 out of 118 possible signatures and only seven from Republicans. Both numbers are hardly encouraging.
Here’s where we are
The federal government and the Great Lakes states — the governors — need to form a true partnership aimed at restoring the region’s economy and ecology. Governors have largely been absent when it comes to Great Lakes restoration.
Conservation groups can help by demanding accountability but they can’t do that by trying to be everyone’s friend, especially the EPA’s. Business, industry and agriculture should be part of the process but they have to stop clinging to the practices of the past.
If that doesn’t happen we’ll continue to play the zero-sum game. That’s a losing proposition for the Great Lakes region.