The lake rolls below onto a pebble beach, strewn with driftwood and the carcass of a huge chinook salmon. It's a striking wilderness vista that hints at what the entire lake looked like 200 years ago.
Two steps from the edge of the bluff, there's a chain link fence topped by three strands of barbed wire with a sign that reads "Radiation Danger", marking the infamous Port Granby nuclear wastes dump. Inside the fence are 45 acres of park-like landscape with gravel paths, lines of trees and lush grasses scarred by fresh mudslides. A collection pond sits below one of these, the water an oddly bright green as swallows dip and dive. The aqua-colored shallows of Lake Ontario ride 30 metres away.
"There's no question toxic wastes are leaking into the lake," says Mark Mattson of Lake Ontario Keeper, an independent environmental watchdog. From 1955 to 1988, wastes from the world's largest uranium processing facility at Port Hope, 10 kilometres to the east, were dumped into a big creek valley and covered with sand and gravel.
The Lake Keepers climbed these same bluffs two years ago and took samples from the various streams, seeps and discharge pipes. Besides uranium, they also found radium and thorium as well as high levels of arsenic and cadmium. Most water fleas placed in the samples, including the treated discharge, died. Water fleas are used by Environment Canada to determine toxicity. The sample is considered "acutely toxic" if more than 50 per cent of the organisms die, explains Mattson.
The wastes are maintained within federal guidelines by Cameco, a Saskatchewan mining and refining company that operates the dump site, and the Port Hope processing plant that supplies fuel to nuclear power stations. However, back in 1980 the federal government recognized the incompatibility of this unstable site on the shores of one the world's largest freshwater lakes. Nothing much has been done and no community wants to take Port Granby's wastes. Much more could be done to contain and detoxify them on site, says Mattson.
"Unfortunately, there's no urgency," he adds. "Governments take a we'll-just-have-to-live-with-it-attitude."
This blasť approach to the Great Lakes ecosystem results, in part, from their sheer size. Ten thousand years ago, glaciers scoured out vast valleys that became known to the early explorers as the Sweet Water Seas: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. They form a drainage basin or watershed that is 766,000 square kilometres (295,754 square miles) and form a chain of lakes with a coastline exceeding 15,000 kilometres. Together, they represent the world's largest freshwater reservoir, holding about 20 per cent of all the planet's unfrozen fresh water. This water is another gift of the glaciers: less than one per cent of the lakes' volume is renewed annually by precipitation and runoff. This also means pollutants discharged into the system stay there and can become more concentrated over time.
The Great Lakes are immense but a lot of big and bad things have happened to them since Europeans started to settle along the shorelines in the 1790s. By 1910, gone were the thick hardwood and pine forests in the eight Great Lake states and southern Ontario. Streams and embayments clogged with sawdust and exposed soils washed away burying streams and river mouths not already plugged up. Vast acreages of wetlands were lost. The once enormously productive Great Lakes fishery, where 15 to 20 million kilograms of fish were taken annually from Lake Erie alone, began to fail. Atlantic salmon was already extinct. Whitefish, chub, blue pike, lake trout and many other species went into steep decline.
In the following 100 years, nickel and iron ore mining and smelting, steel production, pulp mills and agriculture all fueled a giant economic engine that fallows more than 33 million people to live in the area, including about a third of Canada's population and 45 per cent of Canada's industries. But the price of this growth has been high. Most of the Sweet Water Seas are no longer swimable or drinkable and due to high contaminant levels, eating restrictions on fish products are in place.
The environmental health of the lakes is better today than they were in the 1960s, says Gail Krantzberg, director of the International Joint Commission's Great Lakes Regional Office. The water quality has improved and there are now small populations of osprey, bald eagle, peregrine falcon and lake trout.
"We have been successful at reducing pollution from industry," says Krantzberg, who is also an ecotoxicologist. However, lake sediments contain 200 years of contaminants that are regularly stirred up by dredging, shipping and natural wave action. Long banned chemicals like DDT, PCBs and Mirex are still entering fish and other species. Many harbors are toxic dead zones and are likely to stay that way. "It's very costly to remediate sediment and destroy the contaminants."
Despite reductions from industrial sources, toxic chemicals are still getting into the lakes from thousands of old leaking dump sites, raw and treated sewage, and from the air. Big fish like chinook and coho salmon contain dangerously high levels of mercury, which mainly comes from coal-fired power plants around the lakes. Ontario's Nanticoke power plant on the shores of Lake Erie is North America's biggest coal burner and Canada's largest single source of air pollution.
Reg Gilbert of Great Lakes United, an internation coalition of conservationists and environmentalists, says last year large volumes of PCBs were illegally dumped into storm sewers that terminate in Lake St. Clair, which joins Lake Erie to Lake Huron.
"We still dump tremendous amounts of crap into the lakes," says Gilbert. "Tens of thousands of pounds of pharmaceuticals are flushed down toilets every year and end up in the lakes. No one knows what impact they're having." Recent research does reveal subtle but important health impacts on people and wildlife even when many kinds of contaminants are at very low levels, he explains.
While Gilbert agrees progress has been made, the clean up of the Great Lakes has been stailed for the last decade. Stricter enforcement and monitoring of current laws would make a huge improvement but governments won't do it unless the public kicks up a ruckus, he says.
Sadly, we've become used to this ecological degradation, says Scott Brown, biologist at Environment Canada's National Water Research Institute. Edible fish, drinkable and swimmable water ought to be the minimum standard, but the lakes can't even suport most fish species. Every year millions of fish are stocked so there's something to catch.
"We should have self sustaining fish populations and we don't know why that's not happening," says Brown. Contaminants, loss of fish habitat and invasive species are likely major factors.
Brown notes the impact of foreign species, the alewife, smelt and carp, that arrived in the lakes nearly 100 years ago are still having major impact. There's been many more 'invaders' since. In the 1920s the new Wetland Canal enabled sea lamprey, and eel-like parasite that drains blood from large fish, to finally bypass mighty Niagara falls and invade Lake Erie and the rest of the lakes. Oceangoing ships using the St. Lawrence Seaway brought other aggressive invaders like zebra mussels from the Caspian Sea in their ballast tanks. Zebra mussels now blanket large areas of lake bottoms, have spread into rivers and inland lakes, costing and estimated $4 billion to cope with so far.
The future impacts of zebra mussels are still unknown, says Krantzberg, who considers invasive species a huge threat to the health of the lakes. One recent development bears this concern out. Thousands of ducks and loons died of botulism last fall. Scientists learned the birds had been eating round gobies, a small fish infected with botulism. Gobies, another recent invader from the Caspian Sea, are one of the few fish that consume zebra mussels. Zebras are filter feeders and tend to filter toxins and naturally occurring botulism spores out of water and concentrate them in their bodies. So the zebra mussels may have acted as little poison pills.
Despite ballast water controls, Krantzberg points out new invasive species are introduced every year. There are now more than 140 species, not including imported microscopic organisms, some of which may be pathogens. "We need strict ballast management rules and enforcement," she says.
Regardless of all the assaults on the ecosystem, Gilbert and Krantzberg agree things would be in much better shae if coastal wetlands hadn't been lost. In the southern Great Lakes, home to nearly all the coastal wetlands, 78 per cent are gone. Only 117,000 acres remain and thousands of acres are being lost every year to development, according to Mike Gendron, Ducks Unlimited Canada biologist in Ontario. Urban growth, golf courses, cottage and marina development are main causes. Recently the last remaining wooded wetland on Lake St. Clair was bulldozed to make way for a subdivision.
Even with the relatively small size of remaining wetlands, there are nearly 2,000 in total, which support and estimated 4.4 million migrating waterfowl from three flyways. Nearly half of the remaining wetlands are in private ownership and DUC hopes to preserve them through a new 25-year securement program. To purchase these wetlands outright would cost an estimated $116.5 million, although Gendron says conservation easements, agreements and municipal land use changes can achieve the same goal at a much lower cost.
It's not enough enough to preserve wetlands, but they need to be managed properly so DUC will also be working with managers of publicly owned wetlands. A key part of this management is more fluctuation in lake levels. Water levels, especially Lake Ontario's, are controlled by dams and vary little, allowing the formation of dense stands of cattails to dominate grasses and sedges, says Gendron. Property owners, Great Lake freighter pilots and hydroelectric companies have their own ideas about lake levels. The Canadian Wildlife Service is doing a major study on the impact of lake levels on bio-diversity that should help other lake users see the need for greater water level changes.
"Wetlands are the biological engines of the Great Lakes," says Krantzberg. We need to do everything we can to save what we have."
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