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Great Lakes Article:

Watchdog says Great Lakes cleanup going too slow
Robert Melnbardis
Posted 10/30/2002

MONTREAL - Canada and the United States are moving too slowly to clean up the five Great Lakes to ensure that the vast freshwater system remains safe for drinking, swimming and fishing, an international watchdog agency said.

In its biennial report, the International Joint Commission, an independent body formed to make policy recommendations to Ottawa and Washington, said the two countries are making only slow progress on their pledge to restore and maintain the chemical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin.

Herb Gray, former Canadian deputy prime minister and chairman of the Canadian section of the commission, said there is "no evidence" that the basin's ecological system will be restored within the next generation's life time.

"I think that this report is coming out at a time when the public will demand a more aggressive response than may have come in the past," Gray told reporters in a conference call.

In its 99-page report, the commission singled out three pressing issues: cleaning up toxic sediment, preventing the introduction of invasive alien animal species such as Asian carp and zebra mussels, and improving the monitoring of Basin's ecosystem.

"Research continues to show toxic substances in part of the Great Lakes ecosystem can injure human health and that the primary pathway for exposure in the consumption of fish," Gray and his U.S. counterpart, Dennis Shornack, said in a joint statement accompanying the report.

"Toxic substances, ranging from pesticides to heavy metals to PCBs, that contaminate the Great Lakes ecosystem, threaten human health, particularly that of children exposed in the womb to chemicals ingested by their mothers through contaminated fish."


Forming the earth's greatest freshwater system, the Great Lakes - Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario - are estimated to hold one-fifth of the planet's drinkable surface water.

Stretching 750 miles (1,200 km) from west to east, tracing a shoreline of some 4,500 miles (7,240 km), the Great Lakes Basin is home to one-tenth of the U.S. population and one-quarter of Canadians.

Hosting heavy industries such as iron and steel mills, auto-making and paper plants, the region's ecosystem has long been used to flush pollutants down through the St. Lawrence River and into the Atlantic Ocean.

The International Joint Commission was formed in 1909 and was given new life 30 years ago under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States. In 1987, the two countries decided to step up the attack against Great Lakes pollution in an amendment that focused on 43 "areas of concern."

But the cleanup of the millions of cubic metres of contaminated sediment at the bottom of urban harbors, tributary rivers and nearshore areas has been hampered by "woefully inadequate funding," Gray and Shornack said.


The U.S. and Canadian governments are expected to publish formal responses to the report next year. In a statement last week, Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson said the Great Lakes are cleaner today than they have been in 50 years.

"This is evidenced by the reestablishment of self-sustaining populations, such as the lake trout in Lake Superior," he said, adding there is still work to be done.

Commission members said those people living in the Great Lakes Basin need answers to three key questions: Is water from the Great Lakes safe to swim in? are the fish safe to eat? Is the water safe to drink?

But after the tainted groundwater scandal almost two years ago that killed seven people and made some 2,000 sick in the farming community of Walkerton, Ontario, other questions are being raised about the safety of water in and around the Basin's ecosystem.

"We have a critical need for more information on groundwater quantity and quality," said Gail Krantzberg, of Ontario's Ministry of Environment, who contributed to the report.

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