Council of Canadians, environmental groups push Great Lakes protection

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More than a year since the beginning of the second half of Ontario’s 40th parliament session, environmental groups across the province are calling for adoption of key legislation to protect and improve the health of the Great Lakes.

The legislation, introduced last February, would promote greater cooperation among the numerous local, state and federal agencies responsible for protecting the Great Lakes watershed.

It would require government agencies, including Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, to monitor the health of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence watershed and grant the agencies authority to set specific environmental standards.

Instead of focusing on broad legislation aimed at all waterways, Ontario’s proposal would emphasize understanding the challenges inherent to each lake.

These initiatives could address priority issues such as excessive algae, protection of important Great Lakes habitat or coordination of efforts to improve beaches, according to Ontario’s environmental registry, a pending legislation database.

The legislation would also give the ministry more authority over municipalities that monitor the lakes.

Kate Jordan, a communications representative for the ministry, said her agency recognizes the importance of handling such issues within the Great Lakes sooner rather than later.

“We need to take action now so we can continue to enjoy these resources in the future and so future generations can enjoy them,” Jordan said.

By allowing the ministry to set science-based goals for the lakes, including mandating the reduction of harmful pollutants like phosphorous, Jordan said it will have the teeth necessary to maintain fresh water resources in the province.

The current effort for greater environmental protection started with Ontario’s speech from the throne in November 2011, similar to the U.S. State of the Union, which promised renewed efforts to maintain the Great Lakes.

“Your government also knows that Ontario’s wealth is not just economic. It is found in our abundance of natural beauty and resources, and we all have a duty to protect it,” Lt. Gov. David Onley told the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

“That is why your government will follow through on its goal to become the continent’s water innovation leader by 2015 and work with environmental experts and community groups to develop and introduce a Great Lakes Protection Act,” he said.

Even with the introduction of legislation, some groups say regulators aren’t doing enough to solve the problems.

Emma Lui, national water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, a social action organization based in Ottawa, says the need for further protection is paramount, particularly in regards to transportation of toxic chemicals.

“Our biggest concern is how extreme energy is threatening the Great Lakes,” Lui said. “Extreme energy is a form of energy extraction that is more water- and energy-intensive and environmentally destructive, such as fracking and tar sands development.”

The expanding production of “extreme energy,” coupled with mounting concerns about invasive species such as Asian carp and global warming, have spurred the Council of Canadians to demand that Ontario’s government take the threats to the Great Lakes more seriously.

During discussions about tougher legislation, the environmental ministry noted declines in the health of lakes Ontario, Huron and Erie.

According to research from the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping project (GLEAM), it isn’t just risks from transporting toxic chemicals that threaten fresh water ecosystems.

For example, tests of native water species from Lake Ontario show elevated levels of mercury, which can severely damage the human cardiovascular and nervous systems. An increased emphasis on coastal development, including mining near Lake Superior and power plants near Lake Michigan, has caused additional strain on the lakes and their tributaries, according to GLEAM, a cooperative research project involving several universities including the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As Ontario’s government continues to weigh the options to address the health of the Great Lakes, Lui said even proposals like the Great Lakes Protection Act may not be enough to reverse the tide.

“We need a bold change in legislation and the way decisions are made that affect the lakes. We had urged the Ontario government to recognize the human right to water and include commons and public trust principles in the legislation.”

In reaching out to Ontario residents, the council of Canadians produced a video outlining the need for further protection of their great lakes resources.

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