Bigger Ships to Steam Into Great Lakes?

  • A freighter navigates the American Narrows in the St. Lawrence River. Expanding the system’s locks and channels would mean even bigger ships could enter the Great Lakes.

A new study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Midwest ports and shippers – and the businesses they work with – stand to gain billions of dollars from an expansion of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system. Building wider locks and deeper channels from Minnesota to Montreal would make way for bigger “container” ships that have become the norm of international trade. But critics say expansion would have dire environmental consequences, and they say the Corps’ study is full of flaws. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

A new study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Midwest ports and shippers – and the businesses they work with – stand to gain billions of dollars from an expansion of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system. Building wider locks and deeper channels from Minnesota to Montreal would make way for bigger “container” ships that have become the norm of international trade. But critics say expansion would have dire environmental consequences… and they say the Corps’ study is full of flaws. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:


The St. Lawrence Seaway began as a dream – to make the Great Lakes as important a shipping destination as the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico seaboards. In fact, Seaway boosters used to call the Great Lakes the “Fourth Coast” of the United States. But when the array of locks and channels was built in the 1950s, Congress assured East Coast interests that a shipping route between the Atlantic Ocean and America’s heartland wouldn’t hurt their business. Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar:


“The Seaway locks would be built to no greater dimension than the largest inland waterway locks of the 1930’s.”


In other words, the Seaway was outdated before it was built. Today less than thirty percent of the world’s cargo ships can squeeze into the Seaway.


The Army Corps of Engineers’ study is a first step to change that. It says the Seaway could generate up to one and half billion dollars a year more than it is now if larger ships – the ones that carry containers that fit right onto trucks and trains – could reach ports in the Midwest. Oberstar says that would mean an economic boon for Great Lakes states.


“Those are good jobs. Those are longshoreman jobs. And that economic activity means significant business for Great Lakes port cities.”


So along with other politicians and shippers in the Midwest, Oberstar wants the Corps to take the next step – a more detailed study, called a feasibility study – that would look at the nuts and bolts of expansion. It would cost some 20 million dollars.


But downstream, on the St. Lawrence River in northern New York, critics say any plans for expansion have a fatal flaw.


(sounds of water and fueling a boat)


Under a blazing sun in the part of the St. Lawrence River known as the Thousand Islands, Stephanie Weiss fuels up her boat at a gas dock.


(gas filling, and motor starting)


She pushes off and weaves among literally thousands of pine-covered islands that give the region its name.


“You can see how narrow things are and how close the islands are to each other.”


Weiss directs the environmental group Save The River that’s trying to stop Seaway expansion.


(motor slows and stops)


We stop in the part of the river channel called the American Narrows. It’s like the Seaway’s bottleneck. Ocean-going freighters the length of two football fields thread through here. To make room for anything bigger, Weiss says, might mean blasting away some of these islands and the homes perched on them.


“I can’t help noticing that there’s this enormous rock in between the Great Lakes and the Ocean. It’s the Laurentian Shield and it is what makes these islands. To pretend that this is just a coast that needs to be developed is unrealistic.”


Weiss says the idea of a Fourth Coast, with ports like Chicago and Duluth rivaling those of New York and San Francisco, is ridiculous.


Environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada, like Great Lakes United and Great Lakes Water Keepers, are also opposing expansion. And they say the Corps’ study frames the debate unfairly. It doesn’t factor in environmental and social effects the groups say would make the project seem less attractive: things like rising pollution, sensitive wildlife habitat, plummeting water levels. The Corps’ project manager Wayne Shloop says those things would be addressed in the feasibility study. Stopping before that, he says, means letting the system’s locks and channels waste away.


“So somebody needs to make a decision… is it in the federal interest to let the system degrade or is it in the federal interest between the United States and Canada to make some improvements?”


In the U.S., that somebody is Congress. Congress would need to appropriate half of the 20 million dollars for the study. Lawmakers could take up the issue in September.


New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton recently took a boatride down the American Narrows to learn more. She disembarked with questions, about oil spills, accidents, and the hazards of winter navigation.


“This isn’t by any means an easy decision, a cost-free decision, that there are tremendous consequences associated with it, so give me your pictures, give me your information, because I’ll use it to be in conversations with people who think it’s just an open and shut issue.”


The issue will be shut rather quickly if the Corps’ study can’t persuade Canada to join in. Canada would have to foot the other half of the bill for the feasibility study. But officials from Transport Canada say they’re in the “very preliminary stages” of studying the issue. And they’re listening to everyone from shippers to environmentalists to recreational boaters before they make a decision.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.

Brighter Future for Native Trout

Anglers in Lake Superior are looking forward to the return of the coaster brook trout. The native trout was fished nearly to extinction in the early 1900s. New efforts to help the remaining populations rebound are attracting the interest of fisheries managers around the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill has the story:

Transcript

Anglers in Lake Superior are looking forward to the return of the coaster brook trout. The native trout was fished nearly to extinction in the early 1900s. New efforts to help the remaining populations rebound are attracting the interest of fisheries managers around the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:


The French River tumbles into Lake Superior about 15 miles from Duluth. It’s a popular fishing spot, and people are catching rainbow trout. Rainbows are not native to Lake Superior. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources stocks them from the fish hatchery across the road.


People used to catch coaster brook trout here, but
there aren’t many of the fish around anymore.


“I haven’t seen one of those in years.”


“There aren’t any coaster brook trout. You’re dreaming.”


“‘You very seldom get them, but when you do they’re nice.’ Hemphill: ‘Why are they nice?’  ‘They’re so nice and clean, the colors are so beautiful.’ Hemphill: ‘Are they good eating?’ ‘Oh-h-h, there isn’t any better.'”


For a freshwater fish, coasters are colorful. Their sides are sprinkled with bright red dots. Their fins are edged with a bright white line. When they spawn, their bellies turn iridescent orange.


They hatch in rivers, and then swim downstream to grow up in the lake. They return to the river to spawn.


There used to be lots of coasters around Lake Superior, and in northern Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. They were a popular sport fish. In the 1850s, people came from all over to catch them. By the early 1900s coasters had practically disappeared.


Don Schreiner is the Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor in this part of Minnesota. He says coasters are fairly easy to catch. And that’s why they almost disappeared.


“There were no roads up here, people came in by boat, they came in by train. There’s accounts of people standing on the shore and on the riverbank and catching hundreds of brook trout.”


After the fishermen, lumberjacks came. They cut down the big trees that shaded the streams. They floated timber down the rivers, eroding the banks. Now these rivers are much more susceptible to flooding and sedimentation. The coaster brook trout need a rocky bottom, not a mud bottom, to spawn.


Then the state began stocking other fish here, so anglers would have something to catch. Pacific salmon, European brown trout. They compete with the few native brook trout that still survive in Lake Superior streams.


Some people want to try to restore the native brook trout. But others like to catch the big salmon, and the feisty rainbows. Don Schreiner says the DNR has to balance those competing demands.


“I think everybody cares about coaster brook trout as long as it doesn’t cost them anything personally. If I have to give up my favorite species in favor of a coaster brook trout, I might not be willing to do that. That’s the sort of thing we see.”


Angling restrictions imposed in the last few years have helped the trout. Schreiner says it’s possible they’ll bounce back, if people leave them alone, but improving the habitat is also key. That could take 50 years.


Some groups are trying to push things along a little faster.


The Red Cliff Tribal Fish Hatchery near Bayfield Wisconsin specializes in rearing coaster brook trout. Every year a million eggs are hatched here.


“Inside this building is where we keep our adult brood stock fish.”


Greg Fischer is the hatchery manager. He says they raise some fish for a year and a half before releasing them. Workers mark these fish to keep track of them in the wild.


“We have fin clipping parties where for several days we fin-clip each one of the fish, and when we’re stocking anywhere from 50 to 80,000 of these larger fish a year, that’s a lot of marking”


Some coasters from the hatchery might find a home at Whittlesey Creek near Ashland, Wisconsin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is turning Whittlesey Creek into a refuge for coaster brook trout.


Biologist Lee Newman says it’s a promising spot for spawning. Springs seep up through the gravel bottom. That provides the eggs with a constant flow of oxygen. Newman wants to plant eggs and very young fry directly over the springs. That’s what they did on the Grand Portage Chippewa reservation in Minnesota. And Newman says it worked there.


“We’ve captured pairs of adults that were radio tagged and captured on their spawning beds, and two years later catch the exact same pair on the exact same spawning beds, indicating that they are returning precisely to their home locations.”


Newman says when the fish are very young they can imprint on the chemistry of the stream, and find their way back years later.


Biologists still have a lot of questions about how to help the coaster brook trout. But right now, at least, its future looks a little brighter. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.

Long Road to River Recovery

  • Aerial view of industry along the Fox River. Photo by Great Lakes United.

One of the rivers that flows into Lake Michigan is polluted so badly that it’s being treated much like a Super Fund site…an environmental disaster. It’ll be decades before it’s cleaned up, and some environmentalists think it might never be cleaned up properly. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

One of the rivers that flows into the Great Lakes (Lake Michigan) is
polluted so badly that it’s being treated much like a Super Fund site –an
environmental disaster. It’ll be decades before it’s cleaned up. And some
environmentalists think it might never be cleaned up properly. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


(Sound of fish splash)


It’s late at night. The moon’s out. And the fish are flopping on the Fox
River. In downtown Green Bay, Wisconsin, Robert Hageman and a few of his
friends have been fishing. A couple of the guys are bragging about the big
fish they caught. But they’re not taking any home with them tonight.


LG: “Had any luck?” RH: “Yeah, I caught 23 fish.”
LG: “And wwhat did you do with them? RH: “Let ’em right back.” LG: “why?” RH: “Because it’s dirty. Fox River’s dirty.”
LG: “What have you heard about the Fox River?” RH: “The fish ain’t good for you. They can’t hurt you, but they ain’t good for you.
(friends in background say “PCBs, man.”) “yeah.”
LG: “What do you know about PCBs?
RH: “I don’t know nothing about it. That’s why I ain’t eatin’ them.” (all laugh)


Hageman and his friends are right when they say there are PCBs in the Fox
River. But apparently they haven’t heard that eating fish from the river
probably can hurt you in the long run. There are 60-thousand pounds of
PCBs, or poly chlorinated byphenyls, in the 39 mile run of the Fox
River. Of that, 50-thousand pounds – that’s 25 tons – is in the sediment of
the last seven mile stretch just before the river flows into Green Bay and
on into the rest of Lake Michigan. It’s that final stretch where Hageman
and his friends have been fishing.


The Environmental Protection Agency says seven paper mills along the Fox
River are the likely polluters. The EPA says PCBs were produced as a
by-product of the paper manufacturing process, and from the 1950s to the 1970s
they were dumped into the river. Now, the agency intends to make those
mills pay for cleaning up the contaminants.


Dennis Hultgren works for Appleton Papers, and is a spokesperson for a group
that represents the seven companies. Hultgren says the paper mills want to
clean up the pollution. But they don’t want to pay more than they have to.


“What we want to do is make sure that the money that we do spend
is spent wisely and it does the most environmental good for the region. And
so, we have one chance to do it right and we want to do it right the first
time.”


The paper mills have been working closely with government agencies to try to
determine where the PCBs are concentrated and how best to clean up the
pollution. Some of the companies have spent millions of dollars on tests in
the river. Just recently, Hultgren’s firm offered 40-million dollars… ten-million dollars a year for four years… for data collection and preliminary clean-up tests. The government agencies praised the decision and some environmental groups voiced their approval. But a local grassroots group, the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin, does not approve. Rebecca Katers is with the council and says it’s a delay tactic by the paper mill companies.


“It makes the company look generous. But, in fact, they should be doing this anyway. They should have done this ten years ago.”


Giving the money now, Katers says, only manages to delay legal action
against the company for four more years. Besides, she says, while
40-million dollars might seem like a lot of money, the estimated clean-up
could cost as much as 30 times that amount.


The Clean Water Action Council says this money and the government’s
willingness to accept it are representative of the cozy relationship the
companies seem to have with regulators. But Katers says the state and
federal agencies are forgetting about the people who live here. She
bristles when she hears the government agencies talk about how close they
are to the paper mills.


“They talked at the announcement about ongoing discussions they
have on a daily basis with the paper industries on this issue. But, they
haven’t met once face-to-face with the public. They haven’t held a public
discussion or debate on this issue.”


And it appears there won’t be many opportunities in the future. Although
the Fox River is not a Superfund site, the EPA is generally following the
process used for Superfund sites. The EPA says that means the public can
submit comments in writing. But there won’t be a lot of public discussion
until the EPA actually has a proposed plan. Katers thinks the people
should have a voice a lot earlier in the process.


But, the paper mills’ representative, Dennis Hultgren says it’s better to
let the experts work first.


“It’s complicated. For the normal citizen, it’s going to be very difficult to comment on it because they’re going to be looking at the technical merits
of their comments. And a general citizen, not having been involved, it’s going to be very difficult to have germane comments.”


The companies say they’ve been studying and testing and they’ve found
disturbing the sediment by trying to remove it proves that the PCBs should
be left in the sediment, allowed to slowly break down… a process called
natural recovery. And where there’s risk that sediment laden PCBs might
be disturbed by the river’s currents, engineered caps could be put in place.


The Clean Water Action Council says the paper mills tests were designed to
end up with that conclusion because that would be the cheaper way to deal
with the PCBs. The council wants the PCBs removed from the river and
disposed of safely… a much more expensive job.


The acting regional administrator for the USEPA, David Ullrich, says
there’ll likely be some combination of natural recovery, capping, and
removal. But, Ullrich says none of that will happen anytime soon. It’s a
big job, and it looks as though it will take up to ten years to deal with
the PCBs. And Ullrich says that’s just the beginning.


“The actual recovery of the resource, getting fish contaminant
levels down to acceptable levels and getting the PCB loadings to Green Bay
and out to Lake Michigan down, could take a longer period of time than that,
perhaps up to twenty years.”


And over that 20 year period, experts say that contamination will
naturally spread farther and farther into Green Bay and Lake Michigan.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Combined Sewers Under Pressure (Part 1)

  • An overflow point in a combined sewer line. The overflow is designed to relieve pressure on an overburdened sewer system. Photo courtesy of the USEPA.

Over the last century, cities across the nation have built an intricate web of underground sewers. These sewers originally channeled waste directly into nearby streams, but with the advent of the environmental movement, and along with it, the Clean Water Act, treatment plants were built to clean the sewage before it reached the streams. Today, a growing population and a continuing boom in development has placed increasing pressure on our underground network of pipes. In the first of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush reports the aging systems are in need of help:

Related Links

Massive Sewer Projects Drain Funds (Part 2)

  • A new sewer line north of Detroit in the Clinton River watershed. The new interceptor-sewer is being built by Jay Dee contractors for the city of Detroit. Photo by Mark Brush.

Cities across the region are feeling more and more pressure to fix their aging sewer systems. Most of the cities in the Midwest have what’s called ‘combined’ sewer systems. That’s where sewage from homes and industries mixes together with water flowing off city streets after a rainstorm. The rush of water is often more than treatment plants can handle, and when that happens, the dirty water overflows into nearby streams or into people’s basements. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush reports that cities are trying to solve these enormous problems at a time when federal money is hard to find:

Related Links

TOXIC SEDIMENTS THREATEN HUMAN HEALTH (Part 1)

Dozens of rivers and lakes in the Great Lakes region contain contaminated sediment. In the first of a three part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports on the severity of this problem facing the region:

Transcript

Dozens of rivers and lakes in the Great Lakes region contain contaminated sediment.
In the first of a three part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports on the severity of this problem facing the region.


(ambient sound – digging for worms)


A woman who only gives her name as Marsha is digging for worms along the shore of Muskegon Lake in Western Michigan. She says worms at the bait store are too expensive, so she comes out here every week or so to look under rocks and dig up night crawlers from the damp and silty soil on the lakefront.


(more ambient sound – more digging)


The Norton Shores resident says she fishes in the lake, and eats what she catches. While
she will eat the animals that live in Muskegon Lake, she says she has to be very careful
around the water. Marsha says she is seeing a doctor because of rashes and burning skin
that cropped up after spending too much time in the lake:


“I don’t stand in it anymore. I used to stand in it, but it was burning me, I was getting big burns. And then I started getting them on my hands. Now I have to wear gloves on my hands when I fish and touch the water.”


One possible reason for her skin troubles could be the massive amount of contaminated sediment in the waters – pollutants that have entered the lake over the past one hundred
years. Many of those pollutants settled in the sediment and silt that rests at the bottom of the lake, but some are also spread throughout the water itself. Muskegon Lake is one of 43 places that have been designated by the federal government as areas of concern in the Great Lakes Region. These toxic hot spots are bodies of water where pollutant levels are considered dangerous. Tanya Cabala is an activist with the White Lake Public Advisory Council, a citizens activist group trying to clean up contaminated sediment. She says years of Great Lakes residents allowing large industrial plants to locate right next to lakes and rivers is taking its toll.


“Where we live, we made some deliberate choices in past decades to chose jobs and development and those kinds of things over protecting the environment. There was the attitude that you couldn’t have both.”


Cabala says a major focus for her group is to educate people on the dangers of toxic
sediment in the Great Lakes region. Amy Mucha is an analyst with the U.S. EPA. She
says levels of PCB’s, mercury and dioxins pose many long-term health risks to people
who eat the fish or drink the water from these areas, or even come in contact with the
water.


“Impairment of reproductive ability, we have seen some of that in monkey studies. There have actually been some studies of children in the Great Lakes area in Michigan showing that women who ate contaminated fish out of the Great Lakes – their children had reduced IQ, children had reading difficulties and other kinds of learning difficulties.”


Mucha says since many of the health problems caused by polluted sediment take years to
manifest themselves in people, it is difficult to convince the public that there is an immediate need to fix the problem. The federal government has known about toxic sediment problems for more than fifteen years. That’s how long ago Congress first designated the Areas of Concern. Scott Cieniawski is with the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes Office. He says since then, only one million cubic yards of sediment have been dredged from the Great Lakes toxic hot spots. That’s less than two percent of the estimated total of sixty million cubic yards of polluted sediment. Cieniawski says there is still a lot of work to do and projects to fund.


“We have to find a way to start coordinating at all levels and get the funding and get the technical people involved and actually start cleaning up. Because I think we know where the contamination is for the most part, and now its time to go get it.”


But Cieniawski says now could be a turning point in the battle to remove toxic sediment.
He says the research is done and an opportunity exists for a major effort to begin taking
action. But dredging toxic sediment sites faces many problems. Companies that are often responsible for the contamination are fighting efforts to clean the sites in an attempt to avoid the blame and cost involved. And the numerous layers of government agencies are contributing to a very fragmented, and often under funded, effort to solve this problem that still plagues many bodies of water in the Great Lakes region. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.

BARRIERS TO CLEANER SEDIMENTS (Part 2)

Contaminated sediment is a major problem in the Great Lakes region. Dozens of lakes and rivers are lined with sediment full of chemicals that are killing plants and animals and poisoning area residents. In the second part of our series on contaminated sediment, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports on some of the major obstacles facing those who want to clean up the toxic hot spots:

Transcript

Contaminated sediment is a major problem in the Great Lakes region. Dozens of lakes and rivers are lined with sediment full of chemicals that are killing plants and animals and poisoning area residents. In the second part of our series on contaminated sediment, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports on some of the major obstacles facing those that want to clean up the toxic hot spots.

(ambient sound – White Lake)


It is a clear and cool day on the shores of White Lake in Western Michigan. While
the crisp wind and blue waters may make this lake seem clean and clear, this is one of the
43 areas of concern in the Great Lakes region – places the federal government has designated as containing dangerously high levels of pollutants. Even with that government designation, there is not always a consensus that there is a problem at a particular location. Rick Rediske is with Grand Valley State University, and has studied dozens of contaminated sediment sites. He says while pollution standards have been set for water and soil, there are no standards for defining contaminated sediment. He says since there are no rules on how many parts per million of pollutants like mercury or lead are acceptable in sediment, there is not a definitive answer to basic questions about the safety of a body of water.


“You can put together reasons why you think there’s a concern about the
sediment contamination, and somebody else can look at it too and put together a totally
contrary position by looking at other factors and twisting them a bit. So there is a lot of
wiggle room when you are operating in a situation where there is no numerical criteria.”


That means a company that has been polluting a lake or other body of water for years can
mount a reasonable defense to avoid blame for contaminated sediment – and in turn avoid
paying for the clean ups that often total tens of millions of dollars. Rediske says he
doubts there will ever be standards on polluted sediment levels because the material’s
very makeup is so complex. Michael Palermo is a contaminated sediment expert with
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He says for years, researchers have focused on ways
to clean up polluted air, water, and soil.


“But sediments don’t really fall clearly into any of those categories. There are aspects related to all three of them, and so magnitude of the problem and the nature of the problem, I like to think of it almost as a fourth environmental medium.”


Coming to a consensus on what areas are contaminated is just the first of many hurdles
that must be overcome before a site can be cleaned. Then communities have to decide how to
treat the contaminated area. Options include putting down a cap over the polluted area,
dredging and removing the sediment, and removing the pollutants from the sediment while it is
at the bottom of the lake or river. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, and there
can often be a protracted fight over which method is best for a particular site. One of the
most recent examples is the Hudson River. General Electric, which legally dumped PCB’s into
the Hudson until the late 1970’s, has fought for several years the possibility of dredging
portions of the river. GE officials claim the PCBs are now locked up in the river sediment, and dredging will only serve to release those chemicals back into the water. The EPA however recently ordered limited dredging, saying methods that would contain the PCBs in place would not work. GE continues to fight that decision. Even when a community can agree that an area needs to be cleaned, and agrees on a method to do it, there is the issue of money. Those groups often look to the government for help, and are often disappointed. Cameron Wilson is a staff member for Michigan Congressman Vern Ehlers.


“There are federal resources for dealing with contaminated sediment. But the issue from a nationwide perspective is so vast and issue is controversial and complex that I don’t think we have begun to scratch the surface on what we need.”


Wilson says Ehlers, along with other members of Congress in the Great Lakes region plan to reintroduce legislation to specifically fund cleaning contaminated sediment sites in the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, many of the funding problems could perhaps be solved if there were a cheaper way to remove contaminated sediment from lakes and rivers. A new Illinois Company may be headed in that direction. Peoria Dredging LLC is a new company that is developing a non-hydraulic dredger and sediment transportation system.


But this new technology is in its infancy. The new company hopes to have a full sized
prototype ready for testing in two years. Company officials say the success of the project is also dependent on federal funds to help development. The same federal funds that many
Great Lakes communities would like to see used to clean toxic hot spots with technology that
already exists. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.

Tests for Beach Closings Ineffective?

  • Many visitors to Great Lakes beaches are not aware of the risk of infections and other illnesses associated with bacteria in the lakes. However, one researcher says most of the time the beaches are being closed after the risk is past.

This past summer brought another season of beach closings around the Great Lakes. Officials close some beaches several times each summer because of high E. coli bacteria counts. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… while the public is growing more concerned, at least one researcher says the beach closings might be pointless:

Transcript

This past summer was another season of beach closings around the Great
Lakes. Officials close some beaches several times each summer because of
high e-coli bacteria counts. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham reports… while the public is growing more concerned… at least
one researcher says the beach closings might be pointless.

(open w/ beach sounds)


It’s a breezy, sunny day. People at this beach on Lake Michigan are trying
to slip in one more day of sun and swimming before it gets too cold. As they
hurry to the water’s edge, many of the visitors don’t seem to notice the
two bulletin boards they pass. They explain that bacteria levels on this beach
are sometimes too high for safe swimming.


About six times a year the Indiana Dunes State Beach here near Michigan
City, Indiana is closed because of high counts of e-coli bacteria. The
bacteria sometimes make swimmers sick. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting,
and fevers. The bacteria can cause rashes and infections. The beaches are
closed as a precaution when the e-coli levels are found to be high. But… in
reality closing the beaches might do no good at all.


That’s because it takes 24-hours to incubate test samples taken from the
water. So, that means the beach could be closed today because of
yesterday’s samples. Even though today the problem is past.


Doug Wickersham is the property manager of Indiana Dunes State Park. He’s
not happy with the 24 hour delay in testing for e-coli.

“No, it’s not a perfect system, but it’s the best we got at this
point, 24 hours. And it is frustrating ’cause you know when you are closed
the water may actually be clean and fine at that time. What you’re actually
testing is the day before and it may have been bad and you may have been
open.”

Where Great Lakes beaches are tested… they’re tested using this method.
One scientist who’s researching e-coli on Great Lakes beaches says the 24-
hour test is just about useless.

“That’s absolutely correct. We don’t have an adequate— in my
opinion, do not have an adequate way of warning visitors.”

That’s Richard Whitman. He’s station chief at the US Geological Survey’s
Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station. He says not only is there no
quick way to test for e-coli bacteria. But he says it’s probably the wrong
thing to use to try to gauge water quality.


“We are closing beaches using the wrong tool to close beaches.
E-coli is probably very poorly suited as a good indicator of water quality.
The more we learn about it, the less confidence I personally have in its
ability to predict the quality of the water that we’re swimming in.”

The problem is one of cost. For years, water officials have tested for
e-coli, not so much because it might make people sick, but because the test
was cheap, and it was an indicator of potentially much bigger problems. It
was thought that e-coli was found primarily in human waste. So, if e-coli
were present, officials felt confident that sewage would be nearby as
well. Sewage can contain pathogens potentially much more harmful than
e-coli.


But.. after many years of testing, the researchers are finding that e-coli
is present in much more than just human waste. In fact, e-coli are a natural
phenomenon. Researchers have found feces from mice, rats, and other
animals
also contain the bacteria. So, when the rain washes over the land, it picks
up those bacteria and carries them to the lake.

“The sand harbors e-coli naturally and then there’s a lot of bird
feces, sea gulls and sometimes geese, depending on where you’re talking
about, that can get re-suspended and cause beach closures.”

That means even when the great lakes were pristine, there were
probably background levels of e-coli bacteria in the water.


Whitman says it might be better to test for other bacteria, or chemicals,
or pathogens that scientist know are unique to sewage, but those tests are
much more expensive than testing for e-coli and often take just as long.


So for now, the beaches still have to close when the e-coli count exceeds
the EPA standards. To do that job better, researchers such as Whitman
are trying to put together predictability models. In other words, they’re
trying to forecast when e-coli will be high so the beaches are closed when
there’s actually a risk, not the day after.


Meanwhile, most swimmers here at Indiana Dunes State Beach seem to be
unaware of the problem.


Matt Swartz has brought his family to the beach. His two boys are
splashing in the water and playing in the sand. Swartz says he didn’t read
the bulletin boards outlining the e-coli risks. He was surprised to hear
about them, but not alarmed.

“I don’t know; I just think sometimes you take thinks for granted and
you just think everything’s safe. You know, it looks so nice and you just go
ahead and not worry about the actual things that are wrong with what’s
around you.”

Swimming in the Great Lakes is always a risk, although a slight one,
because of e-coli. But the Swartz family won’t know whether they were at
a greater risk from high e-coli counts, until the test results return
sometime the day after their visit.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

U.S. Urges Canada to Spend More on Lakes

The Canadian government is releasing money to clean up some problem areas in the Great Lakes. Although Canada now spends millions of dollars a year on overall cleanup, this additional money would be targeted specifically toward the cleanup of highly polluted areas known as hot spots. It’s probably not a surprise that some environmentalists in Canada don’t think it’s enough money. But the U.S. government also wants Canada to come up with more money to clean up pollution. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

The Canadian government is releasing money to cleanup some
pollution hot spots in the Great Lakes. It’s probably not a surprise
that some environmentalists in Canada don’t think it’s enough
money. But the U.S. government also wants Canada to come up with
more money to clean up pollution. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham Reports.

Canada’s environment minister David Anderson recently announced
the equivalent of more than twenty million U.S. dollars would be
available to communities to clean up several badly polluted areas
in the Great Lakes over a five year period. The program is called the
Great Lakes sustainability fund. John Shaw is the manager of the
fund. He says this is extra money to be used to clean up 16 pollution
hot spots called “areas of concern.”

“So we fully expect to be allocating resources across all of the
‘Areas of Concern,’ working with the municipalities and the province to improve sewage
treatment plant effluent, control stormwater and combined sewer overflows, rehabilitate fish and
wildlife habitat, as well as work with the landowners in watersheds and that would include
agricultural operations to improve their environmental quality and how they manage things.”

While other money will be spent on the lakes. The Great Lakes
Sustainability Fund is the bulk of environment Canada’s efforts to
clean up the nation’s heavily polluted “areas of concern” in the
Great Lakes.

Environmentalists in Canada say the money is long overdue. They
point out this is not new money but replacement money. John
Bennett is with the Sierra Club Canada. He says the 20-million
dollars restores funds that were cut by parliament in the mid-1990’s.

“It’s a very good sign to see that Mr. Anderson and the federal
government is now getting back into funding this work. It’s really up to the
provincial government now to get in and match the fund.”

Bennett says 20-million dollars is nice but really it’s just a drop in
the Great Lakes.

“It’s still not enough to meet the problems. You know, the
Great Lakes is the most important body of water in North America and Canada is
willing to spend 20-million dollars U.S. to keep it clean? I don’t think it’s enough.”

But the Canadian government says its Great Lakes Sustainability
Fund is just the start. The fund’s manager, John Shaw, says matching
money from municipal and provincial governments can triple the
amount to be spent on pollution cleanup in the “areas of concern.”

“I guess there’s always a desire to have more, but I think the
important thing with the Fund is that we can fund approximately a third of
the project and look for two-thirds of the funding from the other partnerships.”

Across the border meanwhile…the US government would like to see
the Canadian government pay a lot more for cleanup of the “areas
of concern.” While the Canadian federal government is putting up 20-
million dollars over five years. The Environmental Protection
Agency is asking for two-and-a half times that much each year to
clean up the pollution hot spots on the U.S. side of the border. Carol
Browner is the EPA’s administrator.

“We would welcome any financial-enhanced commitment that
Canada would make in this arena. I think that it is clear that the
United States has been leading the way in terms of financial commitment,
seeking in just one budget year alone an additional 50-million dollars for cleanup
in the Great Lakes. We would like to see an equal partnership.”

However before Browner will boast too much about the US money
to clean up the “areas of concern”. She points out congress has not
approved it and, in fact, its future doesn’t look good.

Meanwhile an organization that represents the eight Great Lakes
states says the 20-million over five years from Canada and the
proposed 50-million a year from the US should only be viewed as a
first step to cleanup the Great Lakes’ problem spots. Michael
Donahue is the executive director of the
Great Lakes Commission.

“I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought that this was a
one-time fix. I think what it is a, uh— should be viewed, hopefully, as
the first of many commitments to work in partnership with the provinces and
with the U.S. state and federal governments to get the job done over a period of time.”

In fact just last month a commission that monitors whether the US
and Canadian governments are keeping their commitments to a
water quality agreement between the two nations reported the two
governments had to step up their efforts. It warned if they don’t
there can be little hope of fully restoring and protecting The
Lakes.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Lester Graham.