By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC
At five IJC public meetings on the Great Lakes held March 21-29 around the basin, standing-room-only crowds packed venues in Canada and the United States to learn from presentations about topics reflecting local issues as they relate to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem, and to share their own thoughts and concerns.
The IJC held the meetings to obtain comment on the governments’ progress report released last fall, its own draft assessment of progress report released in January, and other issues that Great Lakes residents wished to address. All comments – from presenters and the public – will be reviewed as part of the public input into a final Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report to be released later this year. The report is part of the IJC’s responsibilities to evaluate progress by Canada and the US every three years to accomplish the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, including gathering comment on the government’s Progress Report of the Parties (PROP). Obtaining public input is essential to both the IJC assessment and to providing that comment as the Commission is directed to do under the Agreement. The IJC is grateful to everyone who took the time to attend and provide their thoughts and concerns. A public comment period on the reports ended April 15.
Issues raised over the course of the six meetings included: access to safe, affordable drinking water, and the role of agricultural runoff and urban infrastructure in creating harmful algal blooms and contributing pollution to the lakes as well as proposed US funding cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative; risks from nuclear power plants and the storage and transportation of nuclear waste; and threats to the lakes from the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Some issues mentioned at every meeting were agricultural runoff, identifying radionuclides as a Chemical of Mutual Concern, and the threat to the lakes from Asian carp.
Videos of each meeting as well as a summary video are available at ParticipateIJC.org. Here’s a brief summary of the presentations and comments received at the meetings.
Two sessions were held at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Outdoor Activity Center in Detroit, Michigan, on Tuesday, March 21: an afternoon roundtable with scientists, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, citizens and others to discuss the unique issues facing the Detroit community; and an evening public meeting.
During the afternoon, issues raised included access to affordable and clean water, threats from the proposed US federal budget to continued funding for local and regional restoration projects, and incorporating social science, environmental justice and economics into the IJC’s Great Lakes work, as well as specific responses to the IJC’s draft TAP report.
Leila Meikas of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, William Copeland of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Sandra Turner-Handy of the Michigan Environmental Council and Sylvia Orduño of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization urged the IJC to include more discussion of fair access to clean water and environmental justice in the final TAP report. “There’s a political separation between water and people, such as corporations being able to extract (Great Lakes) water cheaper than a person in poverty would be paying,” Orduño said. “Protecting the Great Lakes as a whole must also come back down to the household level, so everyone understands how environmental justice, affordability and public health relate to Great Lakes water quality.” Other participants encouraged the IJC to include experts in social science and economics on its Great Lakes advisory boards to expand the range of topics and research they can provide to the IJC.
These issues and others also were raised by the public in the evening meeting after brief presentations focused on the drinkability, swimability and drinkability of local Great Lakes waters. Participants expressed concerns about the threat from radionuclides as a result of possible emissions from existing nuclear power plants and proposals for nuclear waste storage and transport in the region, and urged that radionuclides be listed as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) by the governments. Speakers also urged that the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac be shut down and the oil transported on land instead, where a spill could be more fully contained than in the lakes. Proposals also were provided to designate the Detroit River as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, establish Lake Erie as a binational marine park from the Point Pelee Islands to the mouth of the Detroit River, and to address the imminent threat to the lakes from Asian carp.
Residents from as far as northern Ontario to mid-Ohio traveled to attend the afternoon public roundtable at the Lochiel Kiwanis Community Centre in Sarnia, Ontario, on March 22. After presentations about progress to remediate the St. Clair River Area of Concern, CMCs, and sustainable agriculture and harmful algal blooms, participants discussed the topics in small groups. These discussions included the need to: ensure adequate funding for cleaning up toxic Areas of Concern; identify radionuclides and other chemicals as CMCs on a timelier schedule; investigate pharmaceuticals in water from wastewater treatment discharges; and provide greater education and training on best management practices to reduce phosphorus loadings into the lakes.
Joe Hill, Sarnia Environmental Advisory Committee member, and others expressed concern for nuclear power production. “How do you know how safe is the drinking water that is being pumped in the area as far as nuclear is concerned? … We do not need nuclear power plants.” Sandra Sahguj, from Thunderbird Water Panther Circle, Walpole Island First Nation, identified dredging for shipping on St Clair River as a concern. “There is a plan for the St. Clair River to be dredged at Walpole Island. No more big ships on the St. Clair, and I don’t want any nuclear waste to be traveling through that water. It’s too dangerous.”
Attendees filled the Lake Erie Center meeting room and adjacent hallway on the evening of March 23 in Oregon, Ohio, near Toledo to hear about the latest Lake Erie research, as well as updates on the state’s Lake Erie protection and restoration plan and the connection between the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and domestic action plans to restore Lake Erie, before providing their own comments. Many participants expressed a need to regulate animal waste from CAFOs, which is used as fertilizer on agricultural land, in the same way that limits on fertilizers are regulated for crops. “Without mandatory regulations the objective of no nutrients into the lakes from human activity won’t be accomplished,” said Nick Mandros of the Ohio Environmental Council. Rick Graham of the Izaak Walton League’s Great Lakes committee added, “The western Lake Erie basin needs to be declared impaired to force people who are creating the problem to change their actions and restore our waters.”
Other comments focused on the effect of climate change on the lakes and the increased environmental justice issues it will cause over time, the need to preserve funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in the US to restore the Maumee River Area of Concern, and restoring wetlands on agricultural and common lands to slow water drainage and filter pollutants naturally. Effective public notice of beach closings also was raised as a primary need in all five lakes. “Ohio does a great job of monitoring,” said Lake Erie Waterkeeper Sandy Bihn, “and can be used as a model to assess how other states and provinces are doing to monitor microcystin and let the public know quickly of those results, and closing beaches as needed.”
The WBFO-WNED public broadcasting studios hosted two sessions on Tuesday, March 28, that brought more than 270 people together to learn and talk about the Great Lakes in Buffalo, New York. Eight presentations on topics ranging from restoration of the Buffalo River Area of Concern, the effect of emerging contaminants on fish and wildlife, and wetland habitat restoration, to the Great Lakes Coast Initiative and reclaiming accessible shorelines for recreation at restored urban waterfronts started the afternoon session, followed by questions and statements from the audience.
Among issues raised during the afternoon and the evening public meetings were the impacts of combined sewer overflows and nuclear waste storage. Paul Grenier, regional councilor for the City of Welland, Ontario, said, “Local governments … need consistent sewage discharge regulations, they are not the same across states and provinces.” Charley Tarr added that the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s long-term control plan is flawed for the same reason. “We need a regional plan that addresses upstream and suburban inputs,” Tarr said.
Several speakers raised concerns about possible leaks and the long-term viability of the West Valley nuclear waste facility in the Lake Ontario drainage basin. “Because of the extreme storms we have here, this facility is in serious danger,” said Lynda Schneekloth of the Sierra Club Niagara Group. “The facility is on glacial till so it is not secure. All nuclear waste facilities should be looked at in light of the more extreme weather events throughout the region.” Others raised concerns about hydrofracture waste, continued US funding for Great Lakes restoration projects, erosion and sediment loadings into tributaries to the Buffalo River, and the potential for water diversion as the climate warms. “The No. 1 priority is to keep Great Lakes basin water in the Great Lakes basin,” said Philip McIntyre.
The last public meeting at the St. Catharines, Ontario, Rowing Club on the afternoon of March 29 was in roundtable format. Four presentations discussed regional initiatives for sustainable agriculture and the Niagara River Area of Concern. Participants then divided into small groups to discuss these issues, agriculture and nutrients, and the Grand River and Lake Erie. Issues raised by these groups included the lack of access to beaches and waterways, beach closures due to pollution and bacteria, and the need for collaboration between regulators and farmers to identify common causes and sources of nutrients entering the lakes to develop plans with targeted reductions or each jurisdiction.
Concerns also were raised about possible decreases in funding for the binational Niagara River Area of Concern, which would impede progress, and how sewage is managed in the region. “I am concerned about the sewage lagoons in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie and the E. coli that is generated from the lagoons, which cause medical problems,” said George Jardine, from Citizens Against Unsanitary Sewage Effluent. “The temporary sewage lagoon was only supposed to last 20 years but it is still in force and was never shut down.”
As well, the rampant growth of Phragmites, an invasive grass plant with a feathered plume that increasingly can be seen along highways in ditches and in wetlands throughout the Great Lakes region, was brought up by Janice Gilbert of the Ontario Phragmites Working Group. “I think our biggest threat to our coastal areas right now is Phragmites. We are losing our habitat, we are losing our biodiversity, we are losing our native species. We need our government to help us get the herbicide that controls the Phragmites and we need a program in place in the province.”
Go to ParticipateIJC.org to read and watch more from the IJC’s Great Lakes public meetings, as well as comments provided online by others. The final TAP report will include all comments, as part of the body of the report and in an appendix of public comment, when it is released later this year.
Sally Cole-Misch is public affairs officer at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.