50 Years of the St. Lawrence Seaway: An Environmental Disaster?

St. Lawrence Seaway

Last week, the St. Lawrence Seaway, a so-called engineering marvel that backers promised would be an economic boon the Great Lakes region turned fifty years old.

The series of seven locks and three dams in the St. Lawrence River between Lake Ontario and Montreal was promoted as means of bringing increased economic activity to ports across the Great Lakes. Supporters said that $1 billion project would increase international shipping on the Great Lakes and bring millions to communities on the Lakes. However, international traffic accounts for only 7% of all shipping traffic on the Great Lakes.

Instead, environmental groups say that the Seaway has been an environmental disaster. They point to the introduction of as many of 57 invasive species as a result of the Seaway:

“Since 1959, international shipping has been the primary source of new non-native aquatic invasive species, such as the zebra and quagga mussels in the Great Lakes. The University of Notre Dame estimates that such species cost citizens, businesses and cities in the eight Great Lakes states alone at least $200 million per year in damages to the commercial and recreational fisheries, wildlife watching tourism, and through increased water infrastructure costs. While exact economic data does not exist for the Great Lakes region in Canada, similar damages can be expected.”

Great Lakes United, the National Wildlife Federation, and Save the River are calling for changes in how the Seaway is operated to reduce its environmental impact, including plans to mitigate invasive species and deal with lower water levels brought on by global warming.

Beach Closings Increase in Michigan

Becah closings in Michigan have increased by 60% according to a new report due to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC finds that closings have increased due to contamination from sewage, stormwater, and unknown sources.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has released a new report on water quality at the nation’s beaches. The report–based on a review of federal data–found that Michigan’s beaches were closed or placed under advisories due to concerns over water quality 60% more frequently than they were in the previous year. The report states that Michigan’s beaches were closed or put under advisories 198 days last year, compared with 124 in 2006. Overall, Michigan was 20th nationally for the percentage of samplings exceeding US health standards in 2007. In Michigan, unknown sources of contamination caused 78 percent of the closings and advisories, 18 percent were from sewage and 4 percent were from stormwater.

Nationally, seven percent of beachwater samples violated health standards, showing no improvement from 2006. In the Great Lakes, 15 percent of beachwater samples violated those standards–the highest level of contamination of any coastal region in the continental US.

New Report Warns Congress of Global Warming Impact on the Great Lakes

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition has released a new report that urges the United States Congress to act to lessen the impact of global warming on the Great Lakes. The report synthesizes the current global warming and warns that warming temperatures will have direct impacts on the lakes including lower lake levels, more sewage overflows, and increased pressure to divert Great Lakes water to other regions.

Specifically, the report describes the following likely impacts:

* Daily high temperatures in the region will increase 5.4 to 10.8 degrees relative to what was typical from 1961-1990, with wintertime temperatures increasing even more than summer temperatures.

* Increased evaporation from warming lakes–particularly in winter–is expected to result in less ice cover, contributing to lower water levels and increases in lake-effect snow.

* Lake levels could drop during the next century by approximately 1 foot on Lake Superior, 3 feet on Lakes Michigan and Huron, 2.7 feet on Lake Erie, and 1.7 feet on Lake Ontario.

* Water quality will likely worsen as more intense storm events will send polluted urban and agricultural runoff to our waterways, leading to drinking water impacts, beach closings, and higher costs to water suppliers.

* Biological dead zones will increase, jeopardizing fish and other aquatic life.

* Great Lakes forests and grasslands will change as plants adapted to the area confront increasingly unsuitable habitat. The ranges of some plants and animals will shift northward, while other creatures will vanish.

The report–timed to coincide with a debate over global warming legislation in the US Senate–advocates the following federal policy solutions:

* Restoring the Great Lakes through full funding and implementation of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy, a comprehensive plan put forward by more than 1,500 citizens and backed by the region’s mayors, governors and Congressional delegation;

* Protecting the Great Lakes from water diversions by passing the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, a regional agreement to ban diversions outside the region and promoting conservation within the region;

* Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit the magnitude of change to our climate and ecosystems; and,

* Generating ecosystem restoration funding through federal global warming legislation.

For additional background information on the impact of global warming on the Great Lakes, the organization has posted a PowerPoint presentation with more details on the impact of warming temperatures.

Scrutinizing Michigan’s Water Assessment Tool

Withdrawing large amounts of Great Lakes water could be as easy as paying your bills online. With a few clicks and the right numbers you could tap into the Great Lakes.

Michigan legislators are currently discussing a proposal by Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, on whether to amend the Senate version (SB 212) of the Great Lakes compact by adding an Assessment Tool that would create a model based approach towards withdrawing Great Lakes water. The model is intended for large withdrawals exceeding 100,000 gallons per day.

The Great Lakes Compact is an agreement between the eight Great Lakes States to limit water diversions. For the compact to be valid it must go through both houses of Congress in each state and then be signed into law by the state’s governor. The compact must then be passed by both Houses of Congress at the national level and be signed into law by the president.

So far Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and New York have enacted the compact into law.

In a recent slideshow, Jon Bartholic, director of Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research had mock versions of an easy to use water withdrawal website that would provide instant approval or rejection.

The entire concept of an “Assessment Tool” and “Screening Tool” (the website), is from the government appointed Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council.

Public Act 34 was passed in Michigan in February 2006 mandating that the Council come up with “criteria and indicators to evaluate the sustainability of the state’s groundwater use.”

The model that the Council developed works by determining how much water is in Michigan streams and then to determine how much water can be withdrawn before there is an adverse effect on indicator species such as trout.

An indicator species is a species that is sensitive to environmental changes. Trout is the most likely candidate to be the indicator species for the Assessment Tool. Trout are sensitive to temperature changes and are seen as good indicators of stream health by ecologists.

The council has worked out four A-D Zones that water withdrawals will fall under, with A having the least amount of impact on the indicator species and D having the greatest impact on the population.

Zone B is where there is the beginning of a negative impact on the indicator species. What is unclear in the Council’s final report is whether it will be ok to fall into the Zone B range.

The report says: “In Zone B the proposed water use will likely begin to impact ‘thriving’ fish populations and, at a minimum, steps need to be taken to better understand water uses in the area and concerns regarding specific aquatic resources and to educate users.”

The council left the Zone B issue unresolved, the report stated: “The Council did not reach final consensus on whether or not a withdrawal in Zone B also should be considered as ‘not likely to cause an Adverse Resource Impact,’ either by the Screening Tool or following a site-specific determination. We recognize that this area required discussion beyond the time afforded the Council for deliberations.”

The unresolved Zone B is significant since the Council recommended that this model should become the legal standard for water withdrawals in Michigan.

Other legal aspects for the final decision are that the decision is based on the best available data and then the decision can be challenged legally by either a third party or by the applicant.

The Council did not set up any guidelines for anybody that over time ends up falling in the Zone C or D range. There also has not been consensus over whether these permits should be permanent or renewable.

James Clift, who was a member of the Council and is part of the Michigan Environmental Council disagreed with the report’s acknowledgment that some streams could be reduced by as much as 40-50 percent and still fall into Zone A and could still “support good populations of trout.”

In a press release Clift explains: “The numbers prove that the assessment tool should be used exactly for what it was intended – as a tool, not the sole means of determining whether water users can responsibly pump huge quantities of water from the ground.”

The Council did not come to a consensus over whether each stream should be valued equally or on a stream by stream basis since some streams are valued differently for their ecological or recreational importance.

Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council: Final Report

Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council MDEQ website

Excerpts from Suppressed Great Lakes Study Released


The Center for Public Integrity has launched a new website called “Great Lakes Danger Zones?.” The website contains excerpts from a 400+ page study titled “Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in the Twenty-Six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern” that has been blocked from release by the nation’s top health agency–the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–since July 2007.

The study, which was commissioned at the request of the International Joint Commission (a bilateral independent organization that advises the United States and Canada on water quality), found considerable problems with water quality in the Great Lakes. Clearly, with Michigan being bordered by the Great Lakes, this is an important issue. A summary of the study by the Center for Public Integrity states that the study:

“…warns that more than nine million people who live in the more than two dozen “areas of concern”–including such major metropolitan areas as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee–may face elevated health risks from being exposed to dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, lead, mercury, or six other hazardous pollutants.

In many of the geographic areas studied, researchers found low birth weights, elevated rates of infant mortality and premature births, and elevated death rates from breast cancer, colon cancer, and lung cancer.”

Yet, despite being reviewed by scientists since 2004, the CDC decided not to release it just days before its scheduled July 2007 release. While the CDC has Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has said that the study needs more review, scientists contacted by the Center for Public Integrity say that it is more likely that it has not been released because it raises uncomfortable points about the relationship between industrial pollution in the Great Lakes and human health.

BP Withdraws Plan to Increase Lake Michigan Pollution

British Petroleum (BP) has withdrawn its plan to increase the amount of pollution that it dumps in Lake Michigan according to the corporate media< and Environment Michigan. The Detroit News reported that BP is denying that they changed their plans due to public pressure, instead stating that they were concerned about “regulatory uncertainty.” However, environmentalists were quick to claim victory citing massive public opposition to BP’s efforts to increase the amount of pollution it dumps in Lake Michigan. Environment Michigan Director Mike Shriberg wrote in an email to supporters:

“Yesterday marked a great victory, one that demonstrates the power of everyday people to stand up and fight to protect their environment. Citing “ongoing regional opposition,” BP America Chairman and President Bob Malone announced yesterday morning that the company will avoid any increased pollution into Lake Michigan from its oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana. BP has heard the voices of millions of Great Lakes Region residents that Lake Michigan is our natural treasure and source of drinking water, not our dumping ground. BP’s statement indicates it will avoid increased dumping of ammonia and toxics-containing solids, which are allowed by its new discharge permit issued in June by Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management. We’ll be sure to keep up the pressure to make sure that BP lives up to yesterday’s promise — and we’ll let you know if they falter. Yesterday’s statement from BP couldn’t have happened without the actions of people like you, and I want to express my deepest thanks for the ongoing support everyone has shown throughout this campaign. Together, we made yesterday’s announcement happen and protected our lake.”

In recent weeks Environment Michigan had delivered 65,000 signatures opposing the plan to BP and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while the Alliance for the Great Lakes filed a legal petition to halt the pollution permit. The plan had also received widespread criticism from politicians in the region.

Petition Filed to Stop BP’s Great Lakes Water Pollution Permit

The Alliance for the Great Lakes has filed a petition to force the state of Indiana to suspend a permit issued to British Petroleum (BP) that allows the company to increase the amount of pollution that the company is allowed to discharge into Lake Michigan at a refinery in Whiting, Indiana. Under the new permit, BP would be allowed to discharge nearly 1,500 pounds of ammonia and 5,000 pounds of “suspended solids” from treated sludge into Lake Michigan. This represents an increase of 54% and 35% while also giving BP until 2012 to adhere to federal limits on mercury discharge.

According to the Alliance’s petition–filed with Indiana’s Office of Environmental Adjudication–the permit process lacked transparency and shut out groups critical of the plan. Organizations who had submitted comments on the draft permit were not notified that the final copy of the permit had been made available for review, nor were groups informed of the appeal process. The Alliance for the Great Lakes asserts that the “final” permit draft permit was placed online without notice and without indication that it was the “final” permit. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management now claims that the appeal process is closed, as interested parties only have 15 days to appeal a permit once the final copy is posted.

The Alliance for Great Lakes petition is asking that permit be suspended and that the appeal process be reopened.

Opposition Increases to BP Dumping in Great Lakes

In recent weeks, opposition to Indiana’s plan to exempt British Petroleum (BP) from some environmental regulations has increased. With the exemptions awarded by the Indiana state government, BP could significantly increase the amount of ammonia and industrial sludge that it is allowed to dump into Lake Michigan. Under the permit granted by Indiana, BP can now release 54% more ammonia and 35% more sludge into Lake Michigan.

Last week, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the decision by regulators in Indiana. The resolution further asks Indiana to reconsider the permit and directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prevent the dumping of chemicals and pollutants. The House resolution was drafted by Grand Rapids area Congressman Vern Ehlers, who said in a statement that “the increases in discharge permitted by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management are not consistent with the regional goal of keeping the Great Lakes clean and healthy for everyone.” The EPA has said that the permit is within federal pollution guidelines and has thus far said that the agency will not challenge it. Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow have sent a letter to the EPA asking EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson to assure them that the permit was reviewed as required by the Clean Water Act. A resolution similar to the one passed by the House is also expected to be put forth in the Senate.

There has also been considerable outcry about the proposal by individuals and entities outside of the political establishment. Environment Michigan has launched an online petition directed at EPA Region 5 Administrator Mary urging her to revoke the permits granted to BP. Additionally, YouTube videos are being used by bloggers and progressive activists opposed to the plan.

BP Allowed to Increase Toxic Sludge Dumping into Lake Michigan

bp killing image

Last week, the Chicago Tribune reported that British Petroleum, commonly known as BP, will be allowed to dump an average of 1,584 pounds of ammonia and 4,925 pounds of sludge mixed with 21 gallons of contaminated wastewater into Lake Michigan every day:

The massive BP oil refinery in Whiting, Ind., is planning to dump significantly more ammonia and industrial sludge into Lake Michigan, running counter to years of efforts to clean up the Great Lakes.

Indiana regulators exempted BP from state environmental laws to clear the way for a $3.8 billion expansion that will allow the company to refine heavier Canadian crude oil. They justified the move in part by noting the project will create 80 new jobs.

Under BP’s new state water permit, the refinery–already one of the largest polluters along the Great Lakes–can release 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more sludge into Lake Michigan each day. Ammonia promotes algae blooms that can kill fish, while sludge is full of concentrated heavy metals…

BP, which aggressively markets itself as an environmentally friendly corporation, is investing heavily in Canadian crude oil to reduce its reliance on sources in the Middle East. Extracting petroleum from the thick goop is a dirtier process than conventional methods. It also requires more energy that could significantly increase greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

Environmental groups and dozens of neighbors pleaded with BP to install more effective pollution controls at the nation’s fourth-largest refinery, which rises above the lakeshore about 3 miles southeast of the Illinois-Indiana border…

State and federal regulators, though, agreed last month with the London-based company that there isn’t enough room at the 1,400-acre site to upgrade the refinery’s water treatment plant.

The West Michigan environmental blog “Black Bear Speaks” has calculated what this means in terms of total pollution:

1,584 pounds of ammonia per day multiplied by 365 days equals 578,160 pounds per year, and 5,781,600lbs in the next decade.

4,925 pounds of toxic sludge multiplied by 365 days equals 1,797,625 pounds per year, or 17,976,250 pounds over the next 10 years.

The Grand Total? 23,757,850 pounds of BP bullshit.

At 21 million gallons of contaminated water per day, they will pollute 76,650,000,000 gallons of fresh water in the next ten years.

Coast Guard Withdraws Great Lakes Live-Fire Proposal

The United States Coast Guard has withdrawn a controversial plan to allow live-fire training exercises on the Great Lakes citing public opposition to the plan. Due to “meetings with many community leaders, …public meetings, and numerous comments from the public and their elected representatives,” Rear Admiral John E Crowley, Jr. described the proposal as “unsatisfactory” and pledged to “take the time to get this right” in a press release issued today. Crowley recognized the concerns of many opposed to the plan, including the potential for accidental injury or accident that could come from using live ammunition in areas located in popular recreation spots on Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes while also responding that he would pursue “environmentally-friendly alternatives to the lead ammunition” that the Coast Guard currently uses. In the months before the decision, the proposal for 34 live-fire training zones drew significant opposition from residents, activists, and elected officials–including Mayor George Heartwell of Grand Rapids–all of whom opposed the plan during the public comment period. Much of the opposition worked within Citizens for Lake Safety coalition while opposition spread across the internet to entities such as the Michigan Peace Network and You Tube.

Of course, the struggle to prevent the Coast Guard from establishing the zones is not over, as a close reading of the press release issued today reveals that the Coast Guard “will not conduct live-fire training on the Great Lakes to satisfy non-emergency training requirements unless we publish a rule,” suggesting that the Coast Guard is not opposed to the idea if there was a rule establishing guidelines. The entire release is written in a tone that suggests the procedure will only be fine-tuned rather than abandoned completely. When evaluating the sincerity of the Coast Guard it is also important to remember that it began conducting live-fire exercises in 2004 in “temporary” zones without soliciting public input.