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Great Lakes Article:

'Progress, but not enough'
By Gitte Laasby
Post Tribune
Published December 23, 2007


The Clean Water Act set out to "virtually eliminate" discharges to U.S. waterways by 1985. But a Post-Tribune analysis shows Indiana's major facilities discharged more than 378 million pounds of pollutants into Lake Michigan and its tributaries in just one year.

Dumping of nearly all pollutants discharged by Indiana's 33 major polluters has fallen dramatically since 1979. The Clean Water Act has made a difference.

Dumping of nearly all pollutants discharged by Indiana's 33 major polluters has fallen dramatically since 1979. The Clean Water Act has made a difference.

But it hasn't reached its goal of zero discharges, or come near it.

But it hasn't reached its goal of zero discharges, or come near it.

Releases of two substances have increased since then in Lake Michigan. Facilities dumped more than 10 times as much hexavalent chromium -- a human carcinogen -- than 26 years earlier. It would take 1.15 trillion gallons of water to dilute that much hexavalent chromium -- 1,918 pounds -- to safe drinking levels. Lake Michigan, at 1.3 quadrillion gallons, has 1,130 times that much water.

They also unloaded more than 227 million pounds of dissolved solids, such as salt. That's more than 15 times the amount released in 1979.

Effect on lake hard to gauge

How the discharges affect Lake Michigan and the animals and plants in it depends on the type of pollutant, Jim Filippini, a former EPA official, said. Some pollutants will leave the lake or settle. Others stay and increase in concentration as they move up the food chain, for instance, when people eat fish with mercury.

"Ammonia, BOD (biological oxygen demand -- the amount of oxygen needed to decompose the organic wastes in a body of water) and solids will settle out. But others will bioaccumulate. The more you add, the worse it will get. The mercury that's introduced will bioaccumulate over time. It's not going to leave the system at all," Filippini said. "Even oil and grease, that will eventually reduce over time. But pollution like mercury, cadmium and metals are there for good. We should be concerned."

Nearly 33 pounds of mercury was dumped in Lake Michigan in 2005 to 2006. That corresponds to the amount in 24,516 oral thermometers.

"As much as is going in, inevitably when it goes in, there's a dilution factor," said Lin Kaatz Chary, a Gary consultant on environmental health policy issues.

For toxicity to fish and wildlife, concentration matters more than overall amount for many pollutants. Concentration limits in water quality standards are intended to prevent harm to animals and humans.

Why goal wasn't reached

Experts say there are several reasons why the Clean Water Act's provisions haven't been met, but most agree the goal was too lofty.

"Everybody recognizes that the 1985 goal was not realistic," Lee Botts, a lifelong Gary environmental activist and member of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said. "The understanding of pollution at the time that law was written was very limited compared to what we now know. It simply turned out to be a great deal more complicated to reduce all discharges of pollution."

The first reductions happened quickly and easily, but the task got gradually more difficult as new types and sources of pollution were discovered.

"When the Clean Water Act first came in, you got all the low-hanging fruit," Allen Melcer, deputy chief of the water quality branch of EPA's Region 5, said. "When you get them under a permit you get immediate improvement.

"Now you look at nutrients, there's a large number of non-point sources (polluted runoff not subject to a permit) to it. Now we're going after the airborne sources and some of the ones that are more difficult to deal with."

Critics say laws fleshing out the Clean Water Act weren't tough enough and that the goal is watered down because regulators issue variances when facilities say they can't meet the standards.

"To me, something's wrong with the Act or the way it's interpreted. Mercury is being discharged into a stream that's impaired for mercury," Tom Anderson, executive director of Save the Dunes Council, said, referring to the Grand Calumet River, where mercury levels are many times higher than water quality standards.

At times, government gives facilities longer than they need to comply with new and stricter limits, Anderson said.

"Someone gave them more time to comply or said, 'The standards would be X and we're going to give them a variance to comply,'" Anderson said. "The point is not to have variances, but to clean up."

Peter Swenson, chief of the water permits section at the EPA Region 5, said the Clean Water Act doesn't prohibit discharges.

"There's nothing in the law that says you may not discharge pollution. It's a goal of the Clean Water Act, but not a current requirement of federal law," he said. "We can't enforce a goal. We have to enforce a law itself."

Swenson said water treatment technology isn't advanced enough to remove all pollutants and it's sometimes too expensive to make treatment viable.

"There's also a question of at what cost?" Swenson said. "The phrase is 'best available technology economically achievable.'"

Where do we go from here?

No new deadline has been set to reach the goal of no discharges. But with the public firestorm this summer over the wastewater permit for BP Whiting and increased public interest in wastewater permits in general, environmentalists say the Clean Water Act is getting new scrutiny.

The last major overhaul was 20 years ago and it may be time for a new generation of the act, Cameron Davis, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said.

"As I think the BP case told us, some people have lost sight of the fact that the Clean Water Act is supposed to get us to zero over time. And that needs to continue to be our goal. There's a lot of talk about reducing or eliminating our carbon footprints. We need to be doing the same to reduce our water footprint," Davis said.

Botts said last time public interest was this high was when pollution in the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire in 1969. The incident spurred an avalanche of pollution control activities, which resulted in the Clean Water Act.

"Progress, whether it's enough, remains to be seen. How it (the Clean Water Act) deals with growth, and still reducing pollution as you go, that's a bigger question for me," Botts said.

"The goal was to eliminate pollution. That's the direction we should continue to go. Recognize that we have made progress, but it's not enough."

Contact Gitte Laasby at 648-2183 or glaasby@post-trib.com

 

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