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Great Lakes Article:

Leaders look for ways to protect lake
By Kenneth L R. Patchen
Pioneer Press
Published July 1st, 2004

About 60 North Shore area political leaders, their representatives and environmental activists met at the Highland Park Country Club Saturday morning to discuss new laws, programs and other ways to keep Lake Michigan clean.

Presentations focused on the need to work with the Great Lakes Cities Initiative, correcting problems related to mercury pollution and spent nuclear fuel-rod storage, cleaning up Waukegan Harbor and landfills at Fort Sheridan, preventing invasive species and eliminating beach closings.

Aside from the environmental ethic of Highland Park in general, the quality of Lake Michigan has an impact on the city's municipal operating revenue, beaches used for recreation, preservation of land on which homes have been built and the quality of the city's drinking water.

"This city has acknowledged that this lake is an important and defining asset," said Highland Park Mayor Michael D. Belsky.

"The health and welfare of the Great Lakes is essential to our life," said Highland Park City Council Member Steven W. Mandel, who also served as moderator.

Drinking water

Highland Park sells drinking water to 65,000 area residents, including Deerfield, Bannockburn and Lincolnshire, and the demand is expected to increase 4.4 percent annually in communities beyond the city limits. Water sale brings in $7.1 million and is the city's third-largest source of operating revenue.

At the end of Saturday's two-hour session, Belsky urged representatives of local governments to join the Great Lakes Cities Initiative whose goals are to enhance the roles of mayors in Great Lakes decision making, to share the best practices to maintain this invaluable resource and to encourage a Great Lakes restoration plan.

U.S. Rep. Mark S. Kirk, R-10th, of Highland Park, representatives for State Sen. Susan Garrett, D-29th, of Lake Forest, and Rep. Karen S. May, D-58th, of Highland Park, both of whom were in Springfield on state budget matters, Mark N. Hill of the city's Lakefront Commission, Joel Brandmeir of the Lake Michigan Federation and David A. Ullrich of the Great Lakes Cities Initiative discussed what is happening to improve the lake.

Ullrich said an Invasive Species Act is needed to protect the Great Lakes. Since ocean-going freighters ply the lakes, the opportunity for non-native species, such as zebra-muscles, to enter the water is ever-present.

"Ballast water (in ships) is the biggest problem we have in the Great Lakes," he said.

Ballast water taken from the ocean is used to maintain an even keel as cargo is delivered on the Great Lakes. Discharged ocean water introduces new species to the Great Lakes system.

Kirk recalled the die-off of alewives that plagued Chicago beaches three decades ago as he identified more current invasive species altering the Great Lake ecosystem.

For example, a fishhook flea arrived in the bilge water of a Baltic area freighter in 1998, Kirk said, and is becoming a problem for fish by attaching itself to their lips. Also, Asian Carp are within 20 miles of a Chicago River barrier maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep them out of Lake Michigan. If the carp gain access to the lake, Kirk said, it will radically change the ecosystem.

David A. Ullrich, director of the Great Lakes Cities Initiative, also supported the need to reinforce the effectiveness of the existing Asian Carp barrier.

Kirk argued for additional action to keep mercury out of the air and out of the lake because it is highly toxic. Former Highland Park Mayor Daniel M. Pierce praised Kirk's support to stop the North Shore Sanitary District's efforts to build a sludge burning plant in Waukegan which would have added mercury to the lake water.

Fuel-rod problem

Kirk said the 30 nuclear power plants on Lake Michigan are a potential problem. Indeed, the 1,000 tons of spent fuel rods stored in Zion within several hundred feet of the lake need to be removed.

In terms of contaminated landfills 6 and 7 at Fort Sheridan, Kirk told the group that he did not know what further plans there are to clean them up beyond the just completed remediation effort.

Environmentalists are concerned that contaminants will drain through the ravines into the lake and become a source for pollution.

For Kirk, one of the most important environmental issues, the cleanup of Waukegan Harbor, has potential economic benefits for Lake County homeowners, especially those in Waukegan. If the federal government commits $15 million along with a $6 million from Waukegan, he expects all homeowners to experience an increase of several thousands of dollars in property values.

"Environmental protection and economic development go hand-in-hand," he said.

Ullrich said beach closings and sewage overflow into the lake are a linked problem. A comprehensive effort is needed. He said 1,483 beaches were closed in Illinois last year.

Federal funding to eliminate leaky pipes and separate sewer and stormwater systems all along the lake coast has dwindled over the decades since major funding first became available in the 1970s. Other studies suggest there could be better control of food waste on beaches which attract flocks of gulls and other animals, which leave feces behind to be washed into the lake.

Hill reported that Sen. Garrett supports a local program to identify storm sewers leading to the lake so people will not pour contaminants, such as paint or oil, into them. In addition, soon, residents of Highland Park, Lake Bluff, Lake Forest, Waukegan and Highwood can expect to find a placard on their doorknob with an educational message about the problem.

The next major study of Garrett's Clean Water Fund is to study the relationship between ravines and the presence of E. coli bacteria in the lake since the presence signals fecal contamination, which can cause diarrhea.

Kenneth L R. Patchen may be reached at patchen@pioneerlocal.com

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