Efforts by the United States and Canada to clean up the Great Lakes aren't moving quickly enough to protect the public from exposure to toxic substances, a new report concludes.
The International Joint Commission (IJC) released its 11th Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality calling on the two countries to provide more funding to clean up 43 contaminated sites in the Great Lakes system.
"We estimate there is somewhere near 100 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment sitting in these 43 hot spots," said Dennis Schornack, chairman of the IJC's U.S. Section. "It's been 30 years since the agreement was signed (to clean these sites up). You'd think in three decades there'd be a little more work done."
The commission is a binational group that handles boundary water questions between the two nations. It also researches air and water quality issues and regulates the flow of water in and out of the Great Lakes.
Both countries have cleaned up a handful of the so-called hot spots, dredging contaminated sediments from harbors, rivers and lakes that feed into the Great Lakes. Environmentalists estimate the cost of cleaning up the remaining sites is about $6 billion.
Legislation sponsored by Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, and approved last week by the U.S. House would provide $50 million in matching dollars annually for five years for local sediment cleanup projects.
"It's $250 million over five years, and that's nothing to sneeze at," said Ehlers. "It should prove its worth in the first two years, so we can come back and reauthorize the program and seek additional funding."
Environmentalists say they're hoping the IJC's decision to highlight the problem of contaminated sediments will spur more action in Congress and even more attention from the Bush administration.
"If we're ever going to get the attention to the lakes they deserve, people are going to have to become aware of what's really going on," said Margaret Wooster, a spokeswoman for Great Lakes United, a coalition of environmental groups. "For a long time, people thought things were getting better, but the lakes are really looking like they're in trouble."
The IJC report agrees, noting that toxic substances, ranging from pesticides to heavy metals to PCBs, are entering the food chain through fish and eventually threatening the health of humans, particularly children.
"We are not saying to people don't eat the fish," Schornack said. "Fish are a healthy source of low-fat protein. What we'd like to be able to say is you no longer have to be concerned at all about eating the fish."
In addition, the report was unable to shed any light on why there are "dead zones" or sections of water without oxygen in Lake Erie. It calls for further study of the problem, which many scientists believe could be related to invasive species and lake water levels.
The report also concludes that invasive species such as zebra mussels, sea lampreys and the purple loosestrife are threatening the stability of the Lakes along with its fisheries. These species not only damage fisheries, driving native species from the waters, but the cost of keeping them in check runs into the billions.
In its report, the IJC asks the two countries to charge the commission with coordinating international efforts to halt the march of invasive species into the lakes.
"Whether you're in the fisheries or an environmentalist ... invasive species is a top concern," said Marc Gaden, a spokesman for the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, another binational group that tracks the waterway's fishery. "We'd like to see the IJC take the lead role in fighting invasive species. It's too important an international problem, and we need its leadership."
Ehlers and Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, are introducing legislation in the next week to provide additional money for research on invasive species and to tighten federal laws governing the release of ballast water by freighters. Alien species often lie in a ship's ballast tank and make their way into the lakes when the ship dumps its ballast water.
The commission also called on both countries to provide adequate funding for more research on water quality and to establish clearer measures to monitor the quality of the lakes and report that information to the public.