Environmentalists: Stop Great Lakes damage before it happens
By John Flesher
AP Environmental Writer
Grand Haven Tribune
Published December 21, 2006
RAVERSE CITY — About five years before zebra mussels launched their invasion of the Great Lakes in the mid-1980s, Canadian researchers warned it was coming.
But neither Canada nor the United States took steps to stop the tiny mollusk from hitchhiking to the lakes from Europe inside ballast tanks of oceangoing freighters. Now, controlling the pest costs taxpayers hundreds of millions a year.
"We're paying many times the price we would have had to pay if we'd taken a preventive approach," says Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
"The entire history of the Great Lakes is like that — suspecting a threat but not heeding the warning signs."
As both countries ponder the first significant update of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in nearly two decades, a coalition of environmentalist groups has developed a wide-ranging set of proposed improvements.
Among them: adding to the agreement's list of bedrock principles the "precautionary approach," or trying to head off potential threats before they materialize instead of waiting to clean up the mess afterward.
"It means paying attention to scientific research and listening to the early warning bells," says Davis, whose group crafted the wish list with Great Lakes United, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and the Biodiversity Project. Numerous other organizations have endorsed it, he says.
Their 65-page paper is among a flurry of recommendations offered to an executive committee of U.S. and Canadian officials since it began a review of the water quality agreement last year to decide whether changes are needed.
Davis says the report, "Promises to Keep; Challenges to Meet," advocates building upon the successes of the water quality agreement while fixing its shortcomings.
While the agreement already calls for shielding the lakes from new sources of toxins, it should have a policy of identifying and preventing a broad range of chemical, biological and physical threats, the report says.
Climate change is among the emerging dangers, it says, with the potential to cause more precipitation and heavier storms even as it drives water levels lower by boosting temperatures and evaporation. Possible consequences include more pollution from runoff, sewer overflows, wetland shrinkage and wildlife habitat loss.
The report calls for a board of experts to keep track of developments in global warming research and recommend ways to minimize the damage by acting early.
Another part of the precautionary approach could be controversial: requiring people to demonstrate their actions wouldn't harm the lakes instead of placing the burden on regulators to prove otherwise.
Even so, some business interests say the precautionary principle — a fixture in many international declarations and treaties on the environment — can be acceptable. The key is to base preventive rules on good science and make them proportionate to the risk involved, says the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries.
The water quality agreement is "a vision document," says the group's president, George Kuper. "What I'm anxious for is that people not take that vision to outrageous extremes," such as demanding that industry prove it won't put any toxins in the water instead of showing the amounts won't be harmful.
"There is not a thing in this world that is risk free," Kuper says. "The question is how to balance the risk against the reward."
In addition to preventing new problems, the agreement should push for stepped-up cleanup and restoration of polluted sites, the environmentalists' report says. And it should demand accountability from both countries, urging them to set timetables and benchmarks and put specific agencies in charge.
"The governments are not keeping their promises under the agreement, in part because the political climate has changed," says Reg Gilbert, senior coordinator of Great Lakes United, a Canadian-U.S. advocacy group.
People have grown more hostile to regulation and government since the initial agreement was signed in 1972, he said. And the nature of today's threats to the lakes, while just as serious, are less apt to stir public outrage.
"There was a clamor for change back in 1972. People saw the fish kills, smelled the dirty water. Those things got better and people started to think the lakes weren't in trouble any more."