Ten Threats: Mercury and Health Problems

  • Fish advisories warn about possible mercury contamination, but many people aren't aware of the risks. (Photo by Lester Graham)

There’s no disputing that fish is healthful food, but too much of certain
kinds of fish can be dangerous, especially if you’re a woman planning to
have children. That’s because some fish contain elevated levels of
mercury. Mercury is a toxic contaminant that can cause neurological
damage. Julie Halpert filed this report about the harms mercury can
cause:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ One of the
threats identified by experts was air pollution that in turn pollutes the
lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham is our guide
in this series. He says the next report looks at one pollutant that
eventually affects people.


There’s no disputing that fish is healthful food, but too much of certain
kinds of fish can be dangerous, especially if you’re a woman planning to
have children. That’s because some fish contain elevated levels of
mercury. Mercury is a toxic contaminant that can cause neurological
damage. Julie Halpert filed this report about the harms mercury can
cause:


Three years ago, when she was 18, Ayla Brown was healthy, but
suddenly, she started getting sick all the time. She was always tired, she
became anemic and had sore throats. Her tonsils had deteriorated so
much that they had to be removed. Her doctor couldn’t figure out why,
so he decided to test her for heavy metals poisoning.


The result? Ayla’s mercury levels were off the charts. They were five
times higher than the normal level. Her entire family was tested and
their levels also were above normal.


“The only conclusion we could come to is that in the past year or so since
we had moved to Ann Arbor, we had started eating a lot of fish and a lot
of fish that we now know is very known to be high in mercury, such as
swordfish and tuna and stuff like that.”


The Browns ate several meals of fish every week. Some of it was
ocean fish. Some of it was Great Lakes fish. After the diagnosis, they
cut fish out of their diet altogether. Within a year, the mercury levels
returned to normal.


“You are trying so hard to eat healthy and my family always was very
health conscious and so it’s so frustrating when you’ve done something
that you thought was good for you and realize that it was completely the
wrong thing.”


Fish are generally considered part of a healthy diet, but not all fish are
entirely safe. That’s because of mercury. Mercury exists naturally in the
environment at low levels, but higher amounts are getting into the food
chain.


Coal-burning power plants emit mercury, which eventually settles into
the Great Lakes. Then, aquatic microorganisms convert the substance
into methyl mercury, which is more toxic.


Those microorganisms form the base of the food chain. Small fish eat
microorganisms. Then, larger fish eat the smaller ones. As that happens,
the mercury concentrations escalate, making big large mouth fish like
trout, salmon and some walleye especially contaminated.


When people eat the fish, the mercury is passed on to them. Women of
childbearing age and their fetuses are most at risk.


Michael Carvan is with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Great
Lakes Water Institute. He says the exposure isn’t just from the fish that
women eat while they’re pregnant. A woman can pass her entire lifetime
load of mercury to her baby. He says that 15% of all women of
childbearing age have high enough levels so that their fetuses will
contain mercury of one part per million or higher.


“Even at really low levels, around one part per million, you’re talking
about some subtle coordination difficulties, you’re talking about
problems with memory and problems with neuro-processing and IQ
deficits.”


Because of these concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency and
the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory for women of
childbearing age and children, suggesting they eat fish and shellfish only
twice a week.


But one expert is concerned by all this talk about how mercury harms
people. John Dellinger was on a task force, which provided guidance on
fish consumption advisories. Dellinger studied people who lived on
Lake Superior who he thought would eat a lot of fish, but he found
something else.


“We basically discovered that from an epidemiologic point of view, these
populations have other things that are adversely affecting their health,
that in fact will probably overshadow anything we’re going to see from
the contaminants in their fish.”


Dellinger said the people were so concerned about contaminants in
fish, that they started relying on store-bought, processed food instead.
Those foods were higher in fat and sugar and contained other, less
healthful, ingredients. So, obesity and diabetes caused health problems,
not mercury poisoning, and Dellinger says that ended up being a worse
situation.


He says the key is to choose wisely, avoiding fish such as swordfish,
tuna steaks and the larger predator Great Lakes fish that are high in
mercury. That’s the only measure you can take right now, but that doesn’t
solve the problem. The real challenge will be to get rid of the mercury
that ends up contaminating the fish.


For the GLRC, I’m Julie Halpert.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Saving an Ancient Fish

  • A juvenile lake sturgeon. (Photo courtesy of USFS, Rob Elliott)

Biologists have been concerned about a number of native species that
have been disappearing. One of them is the largest fish in the Great
Lakes. Over-fishing and gravel mining in riverbeds have wiped out 99-
percent of the population of lake sturgeon. Sturgeon used to be common
throughout the Great Lakes, but they’re a rare sight these days. Celeste
Headlee reports… biologists are trying to save some of the sturgeon’s
spawning grounds:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you reports from the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ Lester Graham is
our guide through the series. He says our next report is about an ancient
fish that’s been disappearing.


Biologists have been concerned about a number of native species that
have been disappearing. One of them is the largest fish in the Great
Lakes. Over-fishing and gravel mining in riverbeds have wiped out 99-
percent of the population of lake sturgeon. Sturgeon used to be common
throughout the Great Lakes, but they’re a rare sight these days. Celeste
Headlee reports… biologists are trying to save some of the sturgeon’s
spawning grounds:


(Sound of the lake)


Sturgeon are the largest fish in the Great Lakes. The grayish brown
creatures can grow up to seven feet long, and weigh more than 200
pounds. Sturgeon have been on Earth for 100 million years, and they’ve
remained essentially unchanged in all that time. Instead of scales, the
fish have an almost leathery skin with five rows of bony plates running
along their torpedo-shaped bodies.


Fish biologist Bruce Manny says sturgeon were once abundant in the
Great Lakes. Back in 1880, in one month’s time, fishermen pulled four
thousand of them from the Detroit River.


“They tore holes in their nets when they were fishing for other fish that
they cared about. So, when they found a sturgeon in their nets, they
would kill them, bring them to the shore, pile them up on shore, dry them
out and use them for fuel in the steamships. Burn them up.”


Most of the time, the creatures were caught and killed while fisherman
angled for more valuable fish. Scientists think over fishing has caused
sturgeon populations in all of the Great Lakes to dwindle to less than one
percent of their former number.


The state of Michigan closed the Detroit River to sturgeon-fishing years
ago. Bruce Manny says he decided to check on the sturgeon and see if
the fish population had started to recover.


Manny assembled a team of biologists from the U.S. Geological Survey.
He says he was surprised when his team caught only 86 fish over the
course of four years. Manny says he realized the sturgeon were in
serious trouble.


USGS scientists followed the tagged fish for two years, and their
patience was eventually rewarded. Manny found the first known
spawning site ever documented in Detroit River in modern times.


“We were excited all right. Eureka moment. I mean this is like a very,
very great coincidence that we were able to find these spawning ready
males, and they were able to find a female. When there are only 86 fish
caught in four years out here, there aren’t that many around. So, to find
someone to spawn with is a real challenge, I would say.”


The area where the sturgeon mated lies close to a sewer discharge pipe.
There are limp, brown grasses bordering grey, mucky water. Manny sent
divers down and discovered the fish had actually produced fertilized
eggs. Manny says this was a major step forward for his project.


Sturgeon are pretty picky about their nesting sites. They need a fast
moving current and several layers of rock where eggs rest safely. The
problem is a lot of the gravel has been mined out of the Detroit River for
use in construction.


Another problem is the sturgeons’ long life. Fish biologist Ron Bruch is
in Wisconsin. He oversees sturgeon populations in Wisconsin’s
Winnebago river system. He says female sturgeons live more than 100
years and they don’t spawn until they are at least 20 years old.


“Their life history works well for a long-lived species, but it doesn’t
work well for a species that’s exploited heavily. So, sturgeon can only
tolerate very low exploitation rates, and when that exploitation is high
the populations collapse.”


Wisconsin was the first state in the U.S. to create a sturgeon management
program more than 100 years ago, and the fish are more abundant there.


Biologists in Michigan monitored the nesting sites in the Detroit River
this spring. Eight species of fish used the beds, including popular sport
fish like yellow perch and walleye. Only two sturgeon came by the sites,
but they weren’t ready to spawn.


Ron Bruch says biologists will have to create a lot more spawning sites
like the ones in the Detroit River before the sturgeon population is firmly
reestablished in the Great Lakes.


“In and of itself, it’s not going to restore all of Lake Erie or all the Great
Lakes, but it’s a shining example of what can be done in many areas
around the Great Lakes to help produce Lake Sturgeon spawning habitat
and rehabilitate the Lake Sturgeon population.”


USGS biologists will go back to the nesting sites next spring. They say it may
take years for sturgeon to notice the small beds in the 32-mile river.


One important development, though, is a change of policy from the
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Canadians used to allow
fisherman to take one sturgeon a day out of the river. Now, it’s illegal to
possess one of the endangered fish on both sides of the channel.


For the GLRC, I’m Celeste Headlee.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Air Pollution Into Water Pollution

  • Air deposition is when air pollution settles out into lakes and streams and becomes water pollution. (Photo by Lester Graham)

We’re continuing our series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our guide through the series is Lester Graham. In this report he explains one of the threats that experts identified is air pollution that finds its way into the Great Lakes:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes’. Our guide through the
series is Lester Graham. In this report he explains one of the threats is air pollution that
finds its way into the Great Lakes:


It’s called ‘Air Deposition.” Melissa Hulting is a scientist at U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency. We asked her just what that means:


“Air deposition simply is just when materials, in this case pollutants, are transferred from
the air to the water. So, pollutants in particles can fall into the water. Pollutants in rain
can fall into the water, or pollutants in a gas form can be absorbed into the water.”


So, it’s things like pesticides that evaporate from farm fields and end up in the rain over
the Great Lakes. PCBs in soil do the same. Dioxins from backyard burning end up in the
air, and then are carried to the lakes


One of the pollutants that causes a significant problem in the Great Lakes is mercury. It
gets in the water. Then it contaminates the fish. We eat the fish and mercury gets in us.
It can cause babies to be born with smaller heads. It can cause nervous system damage
and lower IQ in small children if women of childbearing age or children eat too much
fish.


One of the notable sources of mercury is from power plants that burn coal.


(Sound of coal car)


Railroad cars like this one empty their tons of coal at power plants all across the nation.
More than half of the electricity in the nation is produced at coal-burning power plants,
and with a 250-year supply, coal is going to be the primary fuel for a while.


One coal producing state is acknowledging that mercury is a problem. Doug Scott is the
Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. He says coal is important to
the energy mix, but we need to reduce pollutants such as mercury as much as possible.


“The policy of the state has been to try to work with the power plants to try to burn
Illinois coal as cleanly as you can. Now, that means a lot more equipment and a lot more
things that they have to do to be able to make that work, but we’re committed to trying to
do both those things.”


And, Scott says the federal government’s mercury reduction program does not go far
enough soon enough, but the electric utility industry disagrees.


Dan Riedinger is spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a power industry trade
organization. Riedinger says, really reducing mercury emissions at power plants just
won’t make that much difference.


“Power plants contribute relatively little to the deposition of mercury in any one area of
the country, including the Great Lakes, and no matter how much we reduce mercury
emissions from power plants in the Great Lakes Region, it’s really not going to have a
discernable impact in terms of improving the levels of mercury in the fish people want to eat.”


“Relatively little? Now, that flies in the face of everything I’ve read so far. Everything
I’ve read, indicates coal-fired power plants are a significant contributor to the mercury
issue in the Great Lakes and other places.”


“It’s really not quite that simple. Power plants are a significant source of mercury
emissions here in the United States, but most of the mercury that lands in the Great
Lakes, particularly in the western Great Lakes is going to come from sources outside of
the United States.”


Well, it’s not quite that simple either. The U.S. EPA’s Melissa Hulting agrees some of
the mercury in the Great Lakes comes from foreign sources, but recent studies show
some mercury settles out fairly close to the smokestacks. She says you can blame both
for the mercury in your fish.


“You blame the sources that are close by and you blame the sources that are far away.
The bottom line with mercury is that we’re all in this together and it’s going to take
everybody reducing their sources to take care of the problem.”


Taking care of the problem is going to take some money, and that will mean we’ll all pay in
higher utility bills. The Illinois EPA’s Doug Scott says it’ll be worth it if we can reduce
mercury exposure to people.


“We know what the issue is. It’s not a matter of us not understanding the connection
between mercury and what happens in fish, and then what happens in humans as a result
of that. We understand that. We know it, and we also know to a great degree what we
can do to try to correct the problem, and so, it’s a matter of just going out and doing it,
and so I’d like to think it’s something that can be done sooner rather than later.”


And since Great Lakes fish have elevated levels of mercury, sooner would be good.
It’ll take a while for the mercury already there to work its way out of the ecosystem and
return to more normal levels.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Ten Threats: The American Eel

  • Researchers measuring an American Eel. (Courtesy of United States Department of Agriculture)

Pollution and invasive species are killing off or crowding out native plants and animals,
but for some species, it’s not just one problem, but many problems that are hurting them.
Few species illustrate the dangers of the multiple threats to the Great Lakes as the American
eel. Only fifty years ago, the snake-like fish accounted for half of the biomass in Lake
Ontario. Today, it has all but disappeared. David Sommerstein has that story:

Transcript

In our next report in the series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes we hear about native
species that are in trouble. Our guide in the series is Lester Graham. He says some fish
and organisms are disappearing.


Pollution and invasive species are killing off or crowding out native plants and animals,
but for some species, it’s not just one problem, but many problems that are hurting them.
Few species illustrate the dangers of the multiple threats to the Great Lakes as the American
eel. Only fifty years ago, the snake-like fish accounted for half of the biomass in Lake
Ontario. Today, it has all but disappeared. David Sommerstein has that story:


Before you say, who cares about a slimy critter like an eel, eels are amazing. They spawn
in the Sargasso Sea, the Bermuda Triangle, but no one’s ever caught them in the act.


After they’re born, they’re like tiny glassy leaves. They float thousands of miles north
and west on ocean currents. Then, they wiggle up the St. Lawrence River and into the
Great Lakes. They live up to 20 years in fresh water before they start the long journey to
the Sargasso to spawn.


The problem is their offspring are not coming back. People are worried about the eel, and
those who relied on it for a living feel like they’re disappearing too.


(Sound of waves)


Just ask fisherman John Rorabeck. He grew up here by the lighthouse on Point Traverse,
a peninsula that juts out into northeastern Lake Ontario.


Rorabeck’s been fishing these waters for more than 30 years. Eels were his prime catch.
He points past the lighthouse.


“I remember when I started fishing there were nights on that south shore, the most fish
that would be eels at certain times and there was literally tons of them on that south
shore. Now, you could go back there and you’ll find nothing.”


Rorabeck stopped fishing eels several years ago because it just wasn’t worth it. Now he
dedicates his fishing time to science. He catches specimens for leading eel expert John
Casselman, who examines them in his lab.


“It is truly a crisis. A crisis of concern.”


Casselman’s a scientist at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. In 1980, at a point on
the St. Lawrence River in mid-summer, he counted more than 25,000 eels a day. Now
there are as few as 20 a day.


Casselman ticks off a list of causes. It sounds like a who’s who of environmental threats
to the Great Lakes – over fishing, dammed up rivers, erosion, pollution, invasive species,
climate change. If scientists could sift out how all the factors relate, they could take a big
step in better understanding the Great Lakes delicate ecosystem.


The problem is, Casselman says, there’s no time to wait. In 2003, eel experts from 18
countries made an unusual statement. In what they called the Quebec Declaration of
Concern, they urged more action, not more science.


“I’m a research scientist, and of course I love data. At this point, you don’t want me.
Don’t ask me to explain what’s going on here because by the time I get it figured out, it
may be too late.”


People are starting to do something about it, Casselman says. Several U.S. agencies are
considering giving the eel “rare and endangered” status. More money is going toward
research for fish ladders over dams.


Marc Gaden is spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.


“We’re committing ourselves, our resources to working to make the recovery of the
species a reality.”


The province of Ontario has closed the eel fishery in its waters for the foreseeable future.


(Sound up at beach)


Fisherman John Rorabeck supports that plan. He stares out across the waters he’s
trawled for decades. He says he’s behind anything to bring the eel back for future
generations.


“And hopefully we can, but I don’t expect to see it in my time. When I…[crying]…when I
think of all the times that we’ve had out in the lake and my forefathers and see what’s
happening here, it breaks you down.”


Rorabeck says when he thinks of the eel nearing extinction, he feels like he and his way
of life are becoming extinct too.


For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Break in the Food Chain?

  • Diporeia are disappearing from Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. The actual size of a diporeia is ½ an inch. (Courtesy of the EPA)

Some of the life in the Great Lakes has been hit hard by industry and trade. Pollution and
invasive species have hurt some of the native plants and animals important to the food
chain. While popular game fish might be the first to come to mind, it’s a little organism
at the bottom of the food chain that has biologists and fishing experts most concerned.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

In a survey, experts said one of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is a disappearing
species. Some native fish populations and organisms are declining. Our guide through
the Ten Threats series is Lester Graham.


Some of the life in the Great Lakes has been hit hard by industry and trade. Pollution and
invasive species have hurt some of the native plants and animals important to the food
chain. While popular game fish might be the first to come to mind, it’s a little organism
at the bottom of the food chain that has biologists and fishing experts most concerned.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


(Sound of swinging doors)


Jack Donlan is taking me behind the fish counter at Donlan’s Fish House. In the
backroom he’s scaling and filleting some whitefish.


“Of the fishes caught in the Great Lakes, whitefish is one of the big volume fishes. Lake
perch, walleye bring more money per pound, but I would think from a tonnage-wise,
whitefish, it’s an extremely popular fish.”


This is a popular place to get Great Lakes fish, but Donlan’s suppliers, the commercial
fishers, are worried about the catch. At some places in the Great Lakes whitefish aren’t
doing too well.


(Sound of Lake Guardian motors)


Tom Nalepa is trying to figure out why whitefish are struggling. He’s onboard the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency research ship, the Lake Guardian. Nalepa is a
biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes
Environmental Research Lab. He’s been studying Lakes Michigan and Huron, and on
this day he’s getting ready to study the bottom of Lake Erie.


He’s not studying whitefish. He’s actually looking for a tiny shrimp-like crustacean, only an
eighth to a quarter inch long, called diporeia. Eighty-percent of the whitefish diet is
made up of diporeia.


“And what we’re seeing is a dramatic drop in populations, and not only drops, but there are
large areas now in all the lakes, except Lake Superior, that no longer have diporeia. This
is real concern because diporeia is a very important fish food.”


Researchers used to find eight to 10-thousand diporeia or more in a square meter of sediment just
a few years ago. Now, there are only a dozen or so, or none at all. Diporeia is one of the
mainstays of the bottom of the food chain, and Nalepa says whitefish aren’t the only ones
that eat the tiny critters in the sediment at the bottom of the lakes.


“Just about every type of species found in the Great Lakes will feed on diporeia at some
stage in its life-cycle. Diporeia is high in calories and has a high-energy content. It’s a
very good food, nutritious food source for fish.”


Without it, fish are not getting enough to eat. Marc Gaden is with the Great Lakes
Fishery Commission. He says when diporeia disappears, commercial fishers can’t help
but notice.


“Right now we’re seeing skinnier whitefish. Whitefish that are somewhat emaciated in
some areas because they just don’t have as much of these low-end of the food web organisms
to eat, and we think it’s related to an invasive species that came in.”


That invasive species is the zebra mussel, and more recently another invader that was
likely carried to the lakes in the ballasts of ocean-going cargo ships, the quagga mussels.


Back on the Lake Guardian, Tom Nalepa says he’s seen the connection again and again.


“There’s no question that it’s related to zebra mussels and quagga mussels. In every area
that we’ve studied, regardless of the lake area, declines were happening a couple of years
after the quagga mussel or zebra mussel were first found, but that connection remains
elusive.”


Biologists thought the invasive mussels might have been filtering out all of the food the
diporeia eat, but when they find diporeia, they don’t appear to be starving. They appear
healthy. Now, scientists are wondering if there’s some kind of disease or toxin spread
by the mussels that’s wiping out the diporeia.


Even if researchers learn why the diporeia are disappearing, there might be nothing that
can be done to help. Some scientists worry that the decline of diporeia and other
organisms at the base of the food chain might ultimately lead to a massive collapse of fish
stocks in the Great Lakes.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Coaster Brook Trout

  • A close up look at a Coaster Brook trout. (Courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

A lot of native fish have been hurt by pollution, invasive species and changes we’ve
made on the lake, but one fish stands out. For anglers, the Coaster Brook trout might have
been the greatest Great Lakes fish. It was abundant, fun to catch and lived in the cleanest
water, but throughout the 20th century, its populations declined just as the health of the
lakes did. Now, slowly, a diverse group of people is trying to save the fish in an effort
that could improve the Great Lakes too. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris
McCarus reports:

Transcript

We’re continuing our look at Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Lester Graham is the
series guide. He says one of the threats is a disappearing species.


A lot of native fish have been hurt by pollution, invasive species and changes we’ve
made on the lake, but one fish stands out. For anglers, the coaster brook trout might have
been the greatest Great Lakes fish. It was abundant, fun to catch and lived in the cleanest
water, but throughout the 20th century, its populations declined just as the health of the
lakes did. Now, slowly, a diverse group of people is trying to save the fish in an effort
that could improve the Great Lakes too. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris
McCarus reports:


(Sound of river waterfall)


Hundreds of feet above Lake Superior, the Salmon Trout River flows fast and falls hard
onto a rocky bottom below. Much of the river lies within a large tract of private woods
and hills. It’s been untouched for about a century.


Peter Dykema and his family are part owners of the land. He speaks with affection about
fishing for coaster brook trout here as a kid.


“Well as you can tell it’s a beautiful river and there’s nothing a 14 year old boy would
rather do than get his feet cold and wet and throw flies into trees. So, I did it every
chance I had.”


Dykema is nostalgic because those days are long gone for almost everybody. He’s part
of a group of activists trying to restore the coaster brook population.


Coaster brook trout have sparkling colors. They’re even more colorful than Rainbow
trout, and they grow a lot bigger. They can reach 2 feet and 4 pounds. These indigenous
fish used to live in 200 streams around Lake Superior. People came from all around the
nation to fish for them. Presidents Roosevelt and McKinley came to Michigan to catch
them, and they were caught by the boatload.


Over fishing was one of the biggest reasons why they were nearly wiped out. Their
habitat was damaged from mining and road building. Silt filled in the rock bottom where
they like to lay their eggs. That also hurt the fish.


Logging damaged the coaster brook’s habitat. Scott Libants is a fish and wildlife
researcher at Michigan State University. He says loggers dammed up streams to flood
them. Then they packed them with logs. When they had enough, they broke the streams
back open so the logs would float down to the lake to be sold.


“You knock the dam out and send all the trees down. You scour the watershed. It’s like
flushing a toilet.”


The fish haven’t recovered since. They just couldn’t take the abuse.


The Salmon Trout River still has them because the private landowners banned fishing
and didn’t alter the land. It’s one of only a handful of streams in the U.S. and Canada
that still has the coaster brook trout.


(Sound of people walking in the woods)


Downstream on the way to Lake Superior, Peter Dykema and state environmental
officials walk to the spot where they have equipment that counts the numbers of coaster
brooks going up river to lay their eggs. Dykema says they counted more than 80 fish last
season. The population seems to be slowly increasing here, but the stream still isn’t
perfect. There’s too much sand and not enough gravel for laying eggs.


“Most of the sediment problem we are looking at is a creature of the last 40 or 50 years.
So if we can stop the input, I’m hoping that the river will be able to cleanse itself.


The sediment Dykema is talking about comes from the points where roads cross the river.
People and cars jar soil loose and it fills up the riverbed. This is the fish’s current
challenge. Coaster brook trout are sensitive and susceptible to pollution. Conservation
officials use brook trout as indicators of high water quality. Coaster brooks will die if
they don’t have nearly perfect conditions.


(Sound of Lake superior waves lapping on rocks.)


Few anglers alive today have seen coaster brook trout, but if they could this would be the
place. It’s where the Salmon Trout River meets Lake Superior. For a diverse group of
conservationists, this place symbolizes what people did to the land and water of the
region.


Laura Hewitt is visiting from Trout Unlimited in Wisconsin.


“This is a fish that presidents came to fish for, that Hemingway wrote about. It’s
something that captures the imagination, it touches the soul. It’s a fish that we care
very much about and think it can be sort of a rallying point for action in the basin.”


Those working to preserve the last few hundred coaster brook trout say we should feel
lucky that they’re not all gone. They say now’s the time to keep what’s left, build it up,
and use the eggs from this small population to start the fish in other streams of Lake
Superior. Then perhaps within our lifetime, our children can enjoy the fish that our great
grandfathers did, and in doing that, they’ll know the water’s clean.


For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Sewage in the Lakes

  • Workers build Toledo's wet weather treatment system. The system is expected to go online next fall. It will treat water in the event of a storm. (Photo by Mark Brush)

Point source pollution means just that. It’s pollution that comes from a
single point; usually out the end of a pipe. It’s easy to identify. Since
the passage of the Clean Water Act more than 30 years ago, most of that kind
of pollution has been cleaned up, but today, there are still some pipes dumping
pollution into lakes and rivers, but Mark Brush reports stopping that remaining
pollution isn’t that easy:

Transcript

We’re continuing our look at Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Lester Graham
is our guide through the series. He says the next report is part of coverage
of a threat called point source pollution.


Point source pollution means just that. It’s pollution that comes from a
single point; usually out the end of a pipe. It’s easy to identify. Since
the passage of the Clean Water Act more than 30 years ago, most of that kind
of pollution has been cleaned up, but today, there are still some pipes dumping
pollution into lakes and rivers, but Mark Brush reports stopping that remaining
pollution isn’t that easy:


(Sound of the Maumee)


We’re on the banks of the Maumee River near Toledo, Ohio. Sandy Binh
brought us here to describe what she saw in the river several years ago when
she was out boating with some friends.


“When there was a heavy rain maybe five years or so ago this is where we saw
a sea of raw sewage in this whole area. It was like, I mean it was like chunks
everywhere. It was just disgusting.”


Binh reported it and found that the city couldn’t do anything about it. That’s
because Toledo’s sewage treatment plant is at the end of what’s called a combined
sewer system. These systems carry both storm water from city streets, and raw
sewage from homes and businesses. If too much water comes into the plant, a
switch is flipped, and the sewage goes straight into the river.


(Sound of treatment plant)


Steve Hallett manages engineering at the wastewater treatment plant for the
city of Toledo. He says a rainstorm can bring twice as much water as the
plant can handle.


“And when hydraulically you can only take about 200 million of it – where’s
the other 200 hundred million go?”


“Where does it go?”


“Uh, it’s by-passed. Limited treatment possibly and then it would be
by-passed to the Maumee River”


Toledo is not alone. More than seven hundred cities across the country have
combined sewer systems that often overflow, cities such as Milwaukee,
Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago, and Cleveland. Every year billions of gallons of
raw sewage are dumped into the Lakes from cities with these old combined systems.


The sewage can cause problems for the environment, but the biggest concern
is that people might get sick. Some of the bugs found in sewage can cause
liver problems, heart disease, and can even cause death.


Dr. Joan Rose is a microbiologist with Michigan State University. She’s
been studying sewage in water for more than 20 years. She says sewage
contains viruses and other nasty microorganisms that can hang around in the
environment.


“Up here in the Great Lakes region with the cool temperatures we have –
these organisms can survive for months, and also these organisms
accumulate.”


Rose says what’s unique about the microorganisms in sewage is that it only
takes a few of them to cause diseases in humans, and once contracted they
can be contagious.


The Ohio EPA sued the city of Toledo. It wanted the city to clean up its
act. After a long battle, the city and the state reached a settlement, and
officials agreed to spend more than 450 million dollars to try to do
something about the problem.


(Sound of construction)


Back at the wastewater treatment plant we’re standing on the edge of a deep
pit. Down at the bottom sparks are flying as welders climb over towers of
green rebar. They’re building a new system that’s designed to treat water
quickly when there’s a heavy rainstorm. The water won’t be fully treated,
but the solids will be settled out and the water will be chlorinated before it’s
released into the river. It’s a compromise the city and the state EPA agreed
upon.


Steve Hallett says to fully treat every drop of water that comes to the
treatment plant in a big storm would require a project four times this size.


“You’d need massive amounts of storage to hold every drop here. You know, that’s
extremely costly and I think, uh, is deemed not feasible.”


Toledo’s project will mostly be paid for by a steady hike in water and sewer
rates over the next fifteen years. The increase was approved by voters
three years agom, and officials plan to go after federal grants and loans
to help defray the costs, but federal dollars are getting scarce. Big cuts
have been made to the federal low interest loan program many cities use to
finance these projects.


The demand for financing is likely to increase. The cost of upgrading the
nation’s combined sewer systems will cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
The question is, who will pay to stop one of the biggest sources of water
pollution left in the country?


For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

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Ten Threats: Chemical Valley Spills

  • Sarnia, Ontario's shoreline with Lake Huron. (Courtesy of the EPA)

Most people think the days of industry polluting rivers and lakes are past, but that’s
just not the case. There’s a lot less pollution spewing out of factory pipes, but there
are still some real problem areas. Rick Pluta reports on how one of those areas is not
in the U.S., it’s in Canada, but the pollution ends up in the Great Lakes:

Transcript

Here’s the next report in our series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. The series
guide is Lester Graham. He says our next piece reveals we still have a long way to
eliminate pollution in the lakes.


Most people think the days of industry polluting rivers and lakes are past, but that’s
just not the case. There’s a lot less pollution spewing out of factory pipes, but there
are still some real problem areas. Rick Pluta reports on how one of those areas is not
in the U.S., it’s in Canada, but the pollution ends up in the Great Lakes:


North of Detroit, just across the border from Michigan is Canada’s Chemical Valley. It’s a
complex of dozens of petro-chemical factories that employ thousands of people near Sarnia,
Ontario. Chemical Valley is the center of the economy here, but it also has a major
environmental effect on the Great Lakes.


That’s because Chemical Valley sits on the Saint Clair River, one of the rivers that connects
Lake Huron to Lake Erie. What happens on the Saint Clair River affects thousands of people who
downstream from the plants. Chemical spills from Sarnia have polluted the shorelines of both
countries.


Jim Brophy is the director of a health clinic for people who work in the sprawling complex of
factories on the Canadian side of the Saint Clair River. Brophy says he’s seen people suffering
and lives shortened by cancer, respiratory failure, and neurological disorders.


“It’s an unbelievable tragedy because these diseases are all completely preventable, but arose
both because of government and industry negligence over the course of 30 or 40 years, or even
longer.”


Brophy says many of those health problems are also being exported downstream to other
communities.


The Aamjiwnaang tribe makes its home right next to the Chemical Valley complex. A recent
study of Aamjiwnaang birth records found that, in the last decade, instead of births being about
half girls and half boys, only one-third of the babies born on the reservation were boys. Shifts in
reproduction patterns often serve as a signal of an environmental imbalance.


Jim Brophy says that suggests the impact of Sarnia’s chemical industry on the environment and
people deserves more attention.


“We cannot put a particular exposure from a particular place and link that at this point, but what
we are putting together are pieces of a puzzle, and I think that’s becoming a major concern not
just for our community and not just for the American community on the other side of the river,
but I think for people all along the Great Lakes.”


Environmental regulators agree. The province of Ontario recently ordered 11 facilities to clean up
their operations so there are fewer spills and emissions. Although the provincial government has
little power to enforce those orders, officials say it’s a step in the right direction.


Dennis Schornack is the U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission. The IJC looks to
resolve disputes and solve problems in the Great Lakes international waters. He says that, since
World War II, Chemical Valley has changed the character of the Saint Clair River.


“We really have to watch this for drinking water – that’s the main thing. Canada does not draw its
drinking water from the river and the U.S. does.”


So communities on the U.S. side have to deal with chemical spills and other pollution in their
drinking water, but they have no control over the polluters on the other side of the border.


Peter Cobb is a plant manager who sits on the board of the Sarnia-Lambton Environmental
Association. That’s a consortium of Sarnia petro-chemical operations. He says the problem is
spills into the Saint Clair River peaked in the 1980s, when there were roughly 100 spills a year.
He says now that’s down to five to 10 spills a year.


“We have made significant progress. Having said that, our target remains zero spills per year,
and industry is well aware that our current performance does not meet our own target as well as
the expectations of the public.”


Cobb also acknowledges there have been some major setbacks in the last couple of years. Some
big spills have forced downstream communities to once again stop taking their drinking water
from the Saint Clair River. Cobb says Chemical Valley will try to do better.


For the GLRC, this is Rick Pluta.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Pollution Hot Spots

  • Ruddiman Pond has been listed as a Great Lakes 'Area of Concern' for more than 18 years. (Photo by Michael Leland).

For decades, heavy industries made the Great Lakes a center of manufacturing
and employment for the United States. Those factories also left polluted waters
in many areas. In 2002, Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation
that promised to clean the Lakes’ pollution hot spots, known as Areas of Concern.
So far, work has only begun at three of those sites. Reporter Michael Leland
visited one of them:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our guide
in the series, Lester Graham, says one of the threats identified by experts
across the region is known as “Areas of Concern.”


For decades, heavy industries made the Great Lakes a center of manufacturing
and employment for the United States. Those factories also left polluted waters
in many areas. In 2002, Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation
that promised to clean the Lakes’ pollution hot spots, known as Areas of Concern.
So far, work has only begun at three of those sites. Reporter Michael Leland
visited one of them:


Picture what you might think one of these heavily polluted sites looks like.
Did you think of a big park in a quiet neighborhood, with lots of tall
trees, and a bandstand next to a lagoon? No? Well, welcome to McGraft Park
in Muskegon, Michigan, the home of Ruddiman Pond, one of the most polluted
spots in the Great Lakes.


“This little lagoon here is a sediment basin. It is a sediment trap.”


Rick Rideske is a research scientist at the Annis Water Resource Institute
in Muskegon. It studies the quality of Michigan’s lakes and rivers.


“All of the contaminated sediment from the upper part of the watershed has made
its way down here and is being deposited. They are taking out, in some places,
15 feet of contaminated sediment.”


Beginning in the 1930’s, heavy industries began setting up shop along
Ruddiman Creek, a few miles from the park. Many dumped their toxic wastes
into nearby storm sewers, which emptied into the creek, and flowed toward
Ruddiman Pond. Toxic heavy metals like chromium and lead, along with
hazardous chemicals like PCB’s, settled to the bottom. It’s been a long
time since the pond has been safe for swimming.


Rideske points to a yellow sign nailed to a tree next to the pond. It says,
“No entry. Hazardous substances.”


“If you look at that sign over there, that sign was put up in maybe 1997, 98.
You can see the tree has grown over the sign.”


But beyond that sign is some hope for Ruddiman Creek and Pond. Workers are
scooping toxic mud from the bottom of the lagoon. The material is trucked
to a landfill licensed to receive toxic stuff like this. The project should
be finished by next summer.


Ruddiman Creek and Pond make up one of 43 pollution hot spots in the Great
Lakes that the U.S. and Canada call Areas of Concern. So far, two in Canada
have been cleaned up. Ruddiman Creek is one of only three in the U.S. being
cleaned.


David Ullirch would like to see that work move a lot faster. He directs the Great
Lakes Initiative. It’s a group of mayors and other officials from the U.S. and
Canada that works to preserve the Lakes.


“This is a serious problem, not only in terms of a threat to the natural environment,
there are public health issues associated with them and often, even worse, is that
they are a stigma to those areas, whether it is Waukegan Harbor, or Gary, Indiana, or
Ashtabula Harbor, these are things that these cities have had to live with for
years, and it’s time to get them cleaned up and get on with it.”


The government is supposed to provide 270-million dollars over five years to
clean up the Areas of Concern in the United States, but so far, congress
has appropriated only about 35-million dollars. That relatively small amount
of cash has limited the number of cleanups that can be started, and it frustrates
Dennis Schornack. He’s the U.S. chairman of the International Joint Commission.
It’s a watchdog group that monitors the water quality treaty between the U.S. and
Canada.


“These areas were identified back in 1987, and only two, both of which are in Canada,
have been delisted since that time. At that pace of progress, it will be 400 years
before we are so-called clean, and I think that is very disappointing.”


In the case of Ruddiman Creek, they’re glad at least one site is being cleaned up.
Rick Rideske of the Annis Institute says the fact that it’s in a neighborhood park
played a big role in attracting the attention, and government cash needed to clean
it up.


“It really took the local residents, public advisory council, we have a Ruddiman
Creek Task Force, which is made of local people from this neighborhood. They called
frequently state representatives, federal representatives. Getting this site on the
priority list was a community effort for a lot of people.”


Rideske and people who live near McGraft Park are looking forward to celebrating a
small victory in the fight to restore the Great Lakes, and they’re looking forward to
taking down that yellow warning sign next year.


For the GLRC, I’m Michael Leland.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Luring the Lamprey

  • The sea lamprey, up close. (Photo courtesy of USFWS)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is the decline of many of the native species. The lake trout has been in trouble from over-fishing and because of an invasive species called, the sea lamprey. Conservation agents use a pesticide to keep the lamprey down, but it’s expensive, and sometimes it kills other fish. Now, researchers have discovered a lamprey pheromone that could help the fight against the sea lamprey. Stephanie Hemphill has that story:

Transcript

In our next report in the series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes we hear about how a native
fish has been hurt by an invasive species that swam into the lakes through a canal. Lester
Graham is our guide through the series.


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is the decline of many of the native species.
The lake trout has been in trouble from over-fishing and because of an invasive species
called, the sea lamprey. Ever since it invaded the Great Lakes, scientists have been trying
to keep the invasive sea lamprey under control.


Conservation agents use a pesticide to keep the lamprey numbers down, but it’s expensive,
and sometimes it kills other fish. Now, researchers have discovered a lamprey
pheromone. They think the chemical attractant could be a big help in their fight against
one of the most destructive invasive species in the Great Lakes. Stephanie Hemphill
has that story:


The sea lamprey came into the Great Lakes through canals more than a hundred years
ago. The slimy parasites attach themselves to big fish and feed on them until they die.
Each lamprey can kill 40 pounds of fish in its lifetime.


Between sea lampreys and over-fishing, the big native fish, the Lake Trout, was wiped out
in the lower Great Lakes. Only a few survived in small pockets in Lake Huron. Lake
Superior is the only place Lake Trout survive in healthy numbers.


There’s an aggressive 15-million dollar a year program to keep sea lamprey numbers
down. Part of the effort is using a chemical called TFM that kills the lamprey.
Wildlife managers spread the lampricide in streams in the spring. It kills some of the
young lamprey as they swim down into the lake.


University of Minnesota biologist Peter Sorensen says he and other scientists noticed that
TFM kills not just the juveniles, but the larvae that live in the streambed too. They also
realized, after a stream is treated, very few adult lamprey come back to the stream to
spawn, or lay new eggs.


“And this led to an observation decades ago, which was key, that adult lamprey must be
selective in how they pick streams. They only pick a few, and if you remove the larvae
they don’t seem to go in there.”


Scientists suspected the larvae might play a role in the spawning migration of adults.
That might mean the larvae are putting out a pheromone that tells the adults it’s a good
place to spawn. Just one larva attracts a lot of adult lamprey, indicating the pheromone
is very potent.


It was up to Jared Fine to determine what the chemical is. Fine is a PhD student working
with Peter Sorensen. For two years he sifted through the water in tanks holding lamprey
larvae.


“Separating the different chemical compounds, testing them biologically, seeing which
ones have activity, coming back to the active ones, further separating them, and just
repeating this until you get down to the one or two or three compounds that have the
activity.”


Fine narrowed it down to three compounds. He purified them and gave them to a colleague in the chemistry department, Thomas Hoye. Hoye created a synthetic version of the most potent pheromone. He says it should be possible to produce it on a large scale, and that means it could be used to treat the
Great Lakes. The question is, how much would he need?


“You know, would it be a tank car load, would it be a football field, would it be a dump
truck? It’s none of those. Would it be a barrel? No. Is it a bucket-full? No. In
fact it’s only about 500 grams, that’s just one pound, would treat all that water for a
month.”


And that’s all it would take, because the lamprey only spawn for a month, but the
treatment would have to happen once a year. Peter Sorensen says when lamprey
approach a stream to spawn, their clock is ticking. They have a powerful urge to lay
eggs, and once they’ve done that, they die.


“They are driven animals. Frankly they’re kind of on autopilot and pheromones are
what’s driving that autopilot to a very large extent, and now that we’ve got it, I think we
can really powerfully use that to our advantage.”


Sorensen says fisheries managers could use the pheromone to attract more lampreys to
streams outfitted with traps.


“You know the key here is the fact that this pheromone is natural, safe, and should be
very inexpensive to add.”


Fisheries managers hope the pheromone will help reduce the cost of controlling the
lamprey and add a new weapon to their arsenal.


The news on lamprey couldn’t have come at a better time for wildlife managers
around Lake Superior. After years of relatively constant numbers, the lamprey
population jumped dramatically this year. Scientists say lamprey may be finding new
spawning grounds in the mouths of streams, where lampricide is less effective. They’re
hoping they can use the pheromone to draw the lamprey to traps further upstream.


For the GLRC, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.

Related Links