Algal bloom in western Lake Erie off the mouth of the Maumee River. Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
By John Hartig
The Detroit River experienced massive winter duck kills due to oil pollution in the 1940s and 1950s when tens of thousands of waterfowl would die at a time.
From 1946-1948, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare estimated that 5.9 million gallons of oil and other petroleum products were released untreated into the Detroit and Rouge rivers each year.
It is generally accepted that one gallon of oil is enough to pollute one million gallons of water.
That means that there was enough oil being discharged into the Detroit and Rouge rivers annually at this time to pollute virtually the entire western basin of Lake Erie, including all Michigan, Ohio and Ontario waters.
During the 1960s, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration (the predecessor of EPA) characterized the Detroit River as one of the most polluted rivers in the United States and opened a laboratory (i.e., Large Lakes Research Station) on the island of Grosse Ile to monitor environmental quality.
Lake Erie was declared “dead” in a 1965 Time Magazine article that documented massive, phosphorus-induced, algal blooms.
During this time, bulldozers were brought in to remove decomposing algae and dead fish from bathing beaches.
The entire fishery of the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, Detroit River and western Lake Erie had to be closed due to mercury discharges by the chemical industries in Sarnia, Ontario and Wyandotte, Mich.
Environmental problems in the Detroit River helped provide the rationale for the passage of the Clean Water Act and the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
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