THE DEAD ZONE
and the other Great Lakes are in
great trouble once again, as biological pollution takes
over where chemical pollution left off, poisoning birds
and fish and creating a huge area where nothing can live
Lake Erie is dying. Again.
Oh, sure, the water is clearer than it's been in decades.
Racing sailors can see the keels of competing boats as
yachts heel over to stiff lake breezes in close-quarter
sailing. Divers can see wrecks, where once they had to
strain to see a hand held in front of a face mask. Anglers
can see the one that got away, just before it does.
But the lake is dying anyway. Biological pollution has
set in where chemical pollution once held sway. The very
invaders that helped clear the water - zebra mussels,
primarily - may have triggered cycles as fatal as the
phosphorus loadings of the 1960s. There is a huge "dead
zone" in the lake each summer. Even worse, it's growing.
The prognosis is grim. Governments too quick to claim
victory in the fight to save the Great Lakes
cut back program funding a few years ago. That was a major
mistake. Great gains had been made in slowing the flow
of poison from the pipes of sewer systems and factories,
but that turned out to be only part of the battle.
"People need to understand - we need to understand,
commonly - that we're up against something nobody's been
up against before, cleaning up this wide and deep industrial
legacy," said Margaret Wooster, president of the
Buffalo-based Great Lakes United coalition of concerned
groups throughout the lakes basin. "What's at stake
is the largest freshwater system in the world, one on
which we, and all the life around us, depends."
Call it the war on error - a struggle against past sins,
commitments eased too soon, threats not fully foreseen,
impacts not completely understood. There indeed have been
major gains since the federal Clean Water Act was signed
in 1970 and the regional Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement
was signed in 1972 - but this fight is far from over.
"We continue to make progress in a lot of areas that
were problems 30 years ago," said Michael J. Donohue,
veteran executive director of the Great Lakes Commission
chair of the International Joint Commission's science
advisory board. "In the past 15 years or so, we've
been hit by a lot of surprises that are throwing a monkey
wrench into the works."
"There's a fair amount of effort going on, but there
doesn't seem to be the ability to get past some roadblocks,"
added IJC spokesman Frank Bevacqua.
Every day, unseen poisons still rain down upon the lakes
from sources far away, in what is dryly known as "atmospheric
deposition." Storm waves and ship propellers stir
up toxins long ago washed into the sediments at the bottoms
of lakes, harbors and rivers. Fertilizers stream lakeward
from farms, rain washes pesticides and petroleum from
urban lawns, streets and parking lots, and the shoreline
buffer zones known as wetlands vanish beneath the encrustations
Lake Erie's problems
The Great Lake that washes against Buffalo's
doorstep, Lake Erie, is the smallest
and shallowest of the Great Lakes.
The waters - and the pollution - of three upper lakes
flow through the Detroit
River to reach
it, and its own drainage basin is the most intensively
farmed and the most densely populated of the Great
Lake Erie bears the strongest impacts
of both agriculture and urbanization. It sends its waters
into the Niagara River at Buffalo,
and the Niagara adds another dose
of industrial and landfill poisons before sending the
flow of the lakes over the Falls and onward to Lake
Lake Erie's death was widely proclaimed
in the 1960s, and the nation's
attention was riveted on Cleveland's
when it caught fire in 1969. The Niagara River's
landfill became a leaking chemical nightmare in the 1970s.
Lake Erie is the canary in the
mine shaft, the sentinel for slower poisonings in deeper
and larger Lakes Ontario, Michigan, Huron and Superior.
Now, scientists are tracking - and puzzling over - a growing
lake-bottom zone in which nothing can live, a "dead
zone" that engulfs as much as three-quarters of the
lake by the end of each summer. And they're worrying about
massive outbreaks of botulism that are killing fish and
birds. Add in other changes in the lakes, from climate
as well as pollution, and their concern may be spreading.
"Whether it's (voiced by) people who live around
this end of the lake and were picking up dead fish and
birds all summer, or people in other areas of the lakes
where the water levels have gone down to the point that
they can no longer fish or boat, I think there's a general
sense that things have changed," Wooster said.
A litany of threats
Actually, things have been changing for more than a century,
starting with the onset of industrialization and sped
by the development of synthetic chemical compounds. It's
just that the pace is once again picking up - and the
threats are coming from more directions:
* Chemical pollution remains a major concern, although
end-of-pipe discharges have slowed. Attempts to seal toxic
wastes in shoreline landfills - efforts termed "cleanups"
by media, government, industry and even some environmentalists
- were merely containments, the encapsulating of pollutants
until reliable and affordable destruction technology develops.
"we have confined disposal facilities all along our
harborfront, and they're leaking."
* Airborne pollutants continue to poison the lakes. Some
reach this region from vast distances; DDT, now banned,
was detected even in the pristine wilderness of Lake
Superior's Isle Royale
after arriving on toxin-tainted winds from the Deep
South. Not all impacts are so distant, though.
Smokestack emissions of cancer-causing dioxins from Hamilton's
aging waste incinerator almost doubled last year, making
it Canada's largest single source of those critical lake
pollutants. All told, atmospheric deposition accounts
for up to 90 percent of some of today's toxic loadings
in the lake basin.
* Recent invasive species, from zebra and quagga mussels
to plants such as purple loosestrife to microorganisms
and plankton and fishes such as ruffes, round gobies and
Asian carp, have stepped up the pace of biological deterioration.
There are now 160 non-native species in the lakes. No
fisheries expert will admit to a clear understanding of
the lakes' changing fish populations, which impact a billion-dollar-plus
* Fish and birds have died by the tens of thousands from
type E botulism, a nerve toxin now in its fourth year
of a lakes outbreak that's the largest in the United States.
New York Department of Environmental Conservation Pathology
Laboratory director Ward Stone reported that his staff
picked up more than 5,500 dead birds along the Lake Erie
shore between Buffalo and Dunkirk in the first two weeks
of November alone.
Botulism thrives in the decay of aquatic weeds that flourish
penetration of sunlight made possible by clearer, zebra
water. It invades the food chain, taken in by mussels
and foraging gobies and other small creatures that are,
in turn, eaten by larger predator fish and birds.
Toxins in the sediment
While the lakes no longer have the record levels of contaminants
logged in the 1960s and 1970s, toxins still remain mired
in bottom sediments throughout the lakes.
Despite experimentation with electrical-shock destruction,
improved dredging techniques to keep poison silt from
mixing back into the water and other technologies to battle
pollution, there's no single solution. The slow release
of toxins from contaminated sediments are a major reason
advisories against eating too much lake-caught fish -
especially for children and women of child-bearing age
- remain fairly common throughout the lakes.
As pollutants move up the food chain from bottom organisms
and plankton to increasingly large fish, toxins "bioaccumulate"
and "biomagnify" in increasing concentrations
in fat and organs. Many of the most persistent pollutants
are hormone-disrupting chemicals or neurotoxins affecting
human health or behavioral development.
Enhanced by combined storm-sanitary sewer system overflows
and agricultural runoff, microbial and microorganism contamination
also remains a concern. While municipal water systems
tightened their watch after fatal contamination hit Milwaukee's
water system a few years ago, less-serious forms of contamination
triggered a rash of beach closings throughout the lakes
last year. Blooms of cyanotoxic algae also are being reported
again in some parts of the lakes.
Only a small fraction of humanity's poisoning of the lakes
is actually being tracked. More than 30,000 man-made chemicals
are produced in the Great Lakes basin, and 362 of them
have been identified as contaminants. Only about a third
of those identified contaminants have actually been evaluated
for health impacts on wildlife and humans, according to
the International Joint Commission. In 1985, 11 of those
- some heavy metals, but most of them from a family of
compounds known as organochlorines and used extensively
as pesticides - were put atop the priority list as "critical
It's a short list, but not a complete one. As detection
practices improve, new toxins are discovered. The latest
is BDE, a
flame-retardant cousin of PCBs now being found at increasingly
higher levels in some locations.
Toxic hot spots
The IJC also identified the 43 worst toxic hot spots -
a list that includes
the Buffalo and Niagara rivers and Niagara County's Eighteenmile
Creek - and launched citizen-government planning for remediation.
So far, only two Canadian sites have been cleaned enough
to be delisted.
Thirty-four "indicators" also have been chosen,
aspects of lakes life and
usage that serve as criteria to measure the impacts of
toxins on an
ecosystem, rather than identifying pollution on a "hot
spot" basis. By this fall's State of the Lakes Ecosystem
conference in Cleveland, though, 70 percent of those criteria
remained listed as mixed, mixed-deteriorated, or poor
- a percentage that mirrors the Great Lakes shoreline
assessment of the 2000 New York State Water Quality Report.
While many still consider the indicator process flawed,
the message is clear: The state of the lakes is not good.
Worse, the debates center more on how to measure the decline
than on whether to once again sound an alarm. The clearest
such call came from IJC co-chairman Herb Gray, also Canada's
deputy prime minister, who released the commission's 11th
Biennial Report recently with the warning that, "We
see no evidence, based on the nature and pace of current
activities, that restoration will happen within the next
This, despite more than $6 billion spent over the last
three decades on
sewage treatment and other regulatory measures, and $530
million in Superfund spending to augment even greater
amounts of industry investments in Great Lakes pollution
curtailment over just the past six years.
The problem is the scope of the work still needed - work
that not only will cost another estimated $2 billion to
$6 billion on the American side and $2 billion on the
Canadian side, but may require fundamental changes in
the way land is used and developed, the ways energy is
used and electricity is produced or oil and gas are transported
throughout the basin, and the way air pollution is controlled
for both toxic emissions and its impacts on global warming.
"The containment of "point sources' of pollution
has been a huge success story, and I think everyone needs
to pause every once in a while and pat themselves on the
back," says Donohue of the Great Lakes Commission,
stressing the victory over the pollution that used to
pour from the ends of sewers and industrial pipelines.
But, he admits, that's only part of the
lakes' pollution story.
Governments helped stop the phosphorus discharges, which
once "killed" Lake Erie, by banning that chemical
in laundry detergents, for example. That was a pipeline,
or "point source," victory. It stopped the huge
blooms of algae that fed off the phosphorus and other
But that problem is now back, perhaps having arrived by
a different road. While there are arguments that unreported
phosphorus discharges may still continue, one leading
theory blames zebra mussels for filtering particles out
of vast quantities of water, clearing it and allowing
sunlight penetration that encourages algae growth.
The result, eutrophication, is the same: The blooms die
and dead algae rains down on the lake bottom. Lake Erie
is shallow enough to allow the dead algae to decay, consuming
oxygen in the process. It's also just deep enough to form
different and distinct layers of water temperatures, blocking
the bottom waters where oxygen is being consumed from
mixing with warmer surface waters that can take in oxygen
from the air.
Anything that can't swim out of the resulting bottom "dead
zone" also dies, intensifying the process until early
winter storms churn the lake enough to drive oxygen-rich
surface water back to the bottom.
Recently, the summer dead zone has been growing, extending
into the eastern basin, nearer to Buffalo. People have
noticed fish kills. And an even more noticeable bit of
looming biological pollution, the threat of four-foot
leaping Asian carp entering the lakes and disrupting fish
communities, also is drawing attention.
"There have been some huge food web disruptions due
to invasive species," Donohue said. "It's almost
like the Cuyahoga River catching fire again. The lakes
are getting a lot of press because of these very visual
They have not been getting, however, a whole lot more
funding. "Funding continues to be an issue across
the board, but we are seeing moderately increased funding
to some problem areas," Donohue notes. Getting a
handful of the toxic waste hot spots actually cleaned
up might also encourage continued congressional support,
he believes - but even that's not the toughest challenge
on his list.
"Probably the best thing we can do is turn our back
on the lakes," Donohue insists. He doesn't mean ignoring
the lakes - he means focusing on the way we live alongside
"We're beginning to realize that most of our problems
stem from land-use issues," Donohue explains. To
keep the lakes from changing for the worse, we need to
change to better stewardship of their 10,900 miles of
shorelines, and to lesser impacts on the ecosystem we
occupy. Given already intensive
shoreline development, and continuing urban sprawl, that
won't be easy.
Huge expenses? You bet. Insurmountable challenge? Only
if we fail to rise to it.
Is this a battle worth fighting? Consider the future.
As the international
Year of Fresh Water dawns this year, a worldwide water
shortage looms. Already, Environmental Advocates activist
David Higby notes, clean drinking water is beyond the
reach of more than a billion people, and more than 3 billion
lack basic sanitation water supplies. By 2025, experts
predict global water demand will exceed supply by more
than 50 percent, and water may rank with oil as an international
Even in the United States, demand for water is increasing
in the United
States as Southwestern river diversions are tapped out
and the huge Ogallala aquifer under Midwest farms is drained
far faster than water seepage can replenish it.
The Great Lakes, meanwhile, hold about 20 percent of the
world's fresh surface water, about 95 percent of America's
surface water - more than 6 quadrillion gallons, enough
to flood all of North America to an average depth of three
Worth cleaning, preserving, protecting?
You be the judge.
Copyright 1999 - 2003 - The Buffalo News