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Great Lakes Article:

New threats worrisome as lakes' cleanup pace lags

By Gord McNulty
The Hamilton Spectator

It's hard to miss the photograph of an eye-catching highway billboard in a new report on the Great Lakes. "Fish-n-ships: Our future hangs in the ballast," is the message posted on an Interstate highway by a Michigan citizens' group concerned about the spread of invasive species. That's not an exaggeration.

As the report by the International Joint Commission (IJC) warned, alien species exemplified by the zebra mussel and the sea lamprey continue to threaten the integrity of the lakes. They're a form of "biological pollution," capable of causing severe ecological and economic harm. Despite increasing public awareness of the risks, the costs of tackling alien species are massive and rising. Part of the problem is that the businesses and industries responsible for introducing the species are not bearing a large part of the costs of controlling them.

Ballast water from ocean-going ships entering the St. Lawrence Seaway remains the most significant source of foreign species. The IJC made an urgent call for a carrot-and-stick action plan: more aggressive inspection and disinfection standards, coupled with "green ship" incentives offering lower port fees for freighters with high performance standards. That's excellent advice.

The battle needs to be waged on many fronts, as shown by the menace of voracious Asian carp. They have spread up the Mississippi River from fish-farm ponds in Arkansas, and may now be within 40 kilometres of Lake Michigan. It's critical to reinforce an electrical barrier across the Chicago canal to keep the carp out. The IJC is pressing for emergency federal funds -- $360,000 US in one-time costs, and $340,000 US every year -- to secure the barrier. The investment would easily pay for itself and is good insurance. To neglect a problem such as this is to run the risk of staggering and perhaps irreversible damage to commercial and sports fishing.

The report presented a disturbing overview of the sluggish progress in cleaning up contaminated sediments that jeopardize human health, fish and wildlife. At the current rate, the IJC concluded, children who are born today won't live to see the lakes made clean enough for unrestricted fishing and swimming. A prospect as bleak as that should be enough to motivate politicians on both sides of the border to expedite cleanup efforts, such as the Remedial Action Plan for Hamilton Harbour. Cleaning up the toxic Randle Reef remains a top item of unfinished business on that score.

There is encouraging news. After many frustrating years, harbour stakeholders are developing a plan to cover the Randle Reef site and contain contaminated sediment from other areas of the bay. It's complex work, involving detailed design and engineering, and it must be done right. But the plans are moving forward, in painstaking fashion. It's essential for all partners to keep the momentum going.

A successful conclusion to the Randle Reef saga would do wonders to advance Hamilton's image as a leader -- as opposed to a laggard -- in doing its fair share to renew the Great Lakes.

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