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Great Lakes Article:

New Great Lakes plan is fishy

June 9, 2002
Chicago Times


In April, Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced Great Lakes Strategy 2002, "a new plan to clean up and restore the Great Lakes." The plan sets specific goals and calls for federal, state and local officials to work more closely together "to advance Great Lakes protection and restoration efforts."

Green groups did cartwheels, federal and state officials were cautiously optimistic and liberals complained it didn't go "far enough." Those of us familiar with government efforts to clean and protect the Great Lakes, though, see Strategy 2002 as just more political rhetoric.

If the Great Lakes need a grand new restoration plan, why were no federal dollars allocated for a cleanup? What is the truth about all the contaminants that we read about in the press?

The principal targets of past Great Lakes cleanup plans were PCBs and DDT. However, total PCB and DDT concentrations in Great Lakes sport fish have declined dramatically since monitoring began in the late 1970s. As PCB levels in Great Lakes sport fish fell, government regulators changed the definition of safe from 5.0 parts per million in the 1980s to 2.0 ppm by the mid-1990s.

PCB levels in Great Lakes sport fish continued to decline, thanks to regulation and technological improvements. So in 2001, bureaucrats reduced PCB action levels in the Great Lakes to just .05 ppm, even though the 42 other states in the union are still at 2.0 ppm. Even so, Great Lakes sport fish are now coming close to the .05 ppm standard.

PCBs were characterized as probable human carcinogens based in part on a 1975 study by Renate Kimbrough of rats fed large quantities of PCBs. Kimbrough's latest study, published in the March 1999 issue of a peer-reviewed medical journal, is the largest-ever human study of occupational exposure to PCBs. It found no association between PCBs and deaths from cancer and any other disease. Yet the nation's fish eaters and politicians have not been made aware of these findings.

Just as PCB levels become vanishingly small and evidence of their adverse health effects is discredited, federal regulators decide to focus on a different theoretical health threat: mercury. At high levels of exposure, mercury can be toxic, but the same is true of every substance, even water. Mercury exists naturally in the environment, though it also can be released through industrial emissions. What matters is the dose.

A study released in 2000 by the National Academy of Sciences, based on hair samples collected when mothers gave birth, found mercury concentrations ranging from 0.5 ppm to 27 ppm, with no adverse effects in their children. The academy found "little evidence" that low-dose pre-natal mercury exposure affects children.

Academy scientists said that for most people, the nutritional and other benefits of eating fish outweigh the risk, particularly if people follow consumption advisories. Nevertheless, the EPA's "safe" level of mercury exposure is based on a maternal hair level of about 11 ppm, less than half the level determined to be safe in the NAS study. Even this level is well above what anyone is likely to accumulate by eating fish.

As Great Lakes water quality has improved, Great Lakes states have increased the number of fish consumption advisories from 1,538 in 1996 to 1,964 last year--a 28 percent increase. Their 11 neighboring states during the same time reduced their fish consumption advisories from 439 to 233--a decline of 47 percent. Minnesota increased its advisories by 32 percent, while its three non-Great Lakes neighbors reduced theirs by 38 percent. What's wrong with this picture?

The pointless pursuit of PCBs in the past and the new jihad against mercury are evidence of an environmental movement more interested in shutting down industries than protecting health. Our political and regulatory systems are filled with appeasers eager to "do something" to get on the right side of what they think is a popular movement, even if it means selling out small businesses and millions of recreationists.

The Bush administration gave us a new EPA administrator, but the dynamic that drives environmental public policy in the Great Lakes hasn't changed. Fishermen, consumers, small business owners and taxpayers are still the losers, and a small cabal of professional agitators and bureaucrats are still winning.

Dan Thomas is president of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council. E-mail:

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