Epa Responds to Disparate Water Quality Standards

The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s trying to get states around the Great Lakes to use uniform standards to monitor water quality. But the EPA says the fact that different states use different methods doesn’t put anyone at risk. We have more from the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill:

Transcript

The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s trying to get states around the Great Lakes to use
uniform standards to monitor water quality. But the EPA says the fact that different states use
different methods doesn’t put anyone at risk. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie
Hemphill reports:


The agency is responding to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project. That group says
different states have different standards, and that means no one has a clear idea of how clean – or
dirty – our rivers and lakes really are.


Thomas Skinner is administrator of EPA’s Region Five. He says the Clean Water Act allows
each state to design its own program.


“It may be that some states are being overly protective or over protective of their citizens, and
that’s their right to do it. But if that’s the case, then that could explain some of the
inconsistencies. It doesn’t mean the states that have a different set of fish advisories are not
protecting their citizens; they’ve just chosen to go about it in a slightly different way.”


Skinner says the EPA asked the states seven years ago to use the same standards. He says the
states are gradually moving toward that goal.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.

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REACHING ASIAN IMMIGRANTS WITH FISH WARNINGS (Part I)

Some people, because of culture or because of necessity, rely on fishing as a way to supply an important part of their family’s diet. While fish is healthful food, experts warn that fish from lakes and rivers can be contaminated by pollutants. In the first of a two-part series on communicating the risks of eating contaminated fish to ethnic groups… the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… conveying that warning to some cultures is especially difficult:

Transcript

Some people, because of culture or because of necessity, rely on fishing as a
way to supply an important part of their family’s diet. While fish is healthful food,
experts warn that fish from lakes and rivers can be contaminated by pollutants.
In the first of a two-part series on communicating the risks of eating
contaminated fish to ethnic groups… the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… conveying that warning to some
cultures is especially difficult:


As the United States pulled out of Southeast Asia during the Viet Nam war, many people who
had been allies from Laos, Cambodia, and South Viet Nam found their way to the U.S. Some of
these people have always relied on fish for a large part of their diet.


After settling in the United States, they naturally turned to public lakes and rivers and began
fishing. They ran into a couple of problems. First, U.S. conservations laws put limits on the size
and how many fish they could catch, something they were not used to. Second, health officials
and conservation officials began to warn them about contamination. They told them chemical
pollutants could harm development in children and fetuses.


Josee Cung is with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She says many of the
Southeast Asian immigrants were skeptical. They thought the government was conspiring to get
them to buy ocean fish from stores rather than take free fish from the lakes and rivers. Cung says
the immigrants had never heard of such a thing as contaminants you couldn’t see.


“PCB, mercury, they don’t understand that. So, that’s the big challenge. So, there are real
cultural, but there are also real educational barriers.”


As she distributed fish advisories suggesting that certain fish had higher levels of contamination,
Cung found the Southeast Asian immigrants were astonished. She says they are a practical
people. They feel if that can’t see something wrong with the fish, it must be okay to eat.


“‘But they’re fat! They’re shiny! They are big!’ You know, ‘But they are good to eat!’ So, that’s
the kind of thing. It’s more prevalent than relying on the advisory to change behavior.”


The State of Minnesota had pamphlets of the advisories printed up in the various languages of the
immigrants and handed them out at every opportunity.


Pat McCann is a research scientist with the Department of Health. She’s worked closely with
Josee Cung to try to explain the fish contaminants issue.


“But we found, with the Southeast Asian populations, the written translations aren’t that effective
because that group seems to communicate more verbally. So, in order to do outreach with those
groups, we try to do presentations and reach community groups in that way.”


And so Minnesota took a more hands-on approach. Josee Cung says instead of handing out
pamphlets alone, they started meeting with leaders in the various Southeast Asian communities in
Minnesota. For example, the Hmong, who helped retrieve downed U.S. pilots during the war are
a people of clans. Cung found if they could demonstrate to clan leaders ways to trim away the fat
of fish where contaminants such as PCBs concentrate and show which fish have lower levels of
contaminants, the word would spread throughout the community. Cung also found that it was
important not just to talk to the anglers who got the fishing license – usually men.


“And we go in homes doing cooking. And really check out their kitchen and say ‘Oh, this is how
you should do.’ And it’s most effective because it’s the women that prepare. He hasn’t got a
clue. He bring the fish home and leave it to the women. And the women decide how to cook it.”


Minnesota’s outreach program with Southeast Asian cultures is pretty advanced. Not every
government in the Great Lakes basin is as active. In recent years, the International Joint
Commission, the body that monitors the U.S. and Canadian boundary waters treaties and
agreements, has been admonishing the states and provinces to do more.


Alan Hayton is with the Ontario Ministry of Environment. He says the governments have taken
the message to heart, but finding the money to do the job is always a problem.


“We do have some communications with some groups such as in Ontario, such as the Chinese
community, which is well-organized and receptive to the information that’s in the guide. But, it’s
difficult. We don’t. We do the best job we can given the resources that we have.”


The International Joint Commission warns that it’s important that the states and provinces work
harder to reach cultures, such as those from Southeast Asia, that rely heavily on fish for protein.


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

NATIVE AMERICANS WEIGH CONTAMINATED FISH RISKS (Part II)

There’s a trend among some Native Americans. They’re trying to return to more traditional diets. Many believe various health problems among Indian populations are due, in part, to adopting a diet much heavier in sugars, starches, and fats than their ancestors’ diet. But they’re concerned that pollution has tainted many of the traditional foods, such as fish. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports in the second of a two-part series on communicating the risks of eating contaminated fish to ethnic groups:

Transcript

There’s a trend among some Native Americans. They’re trying to return to more traditional diets.
Many believe various health problems among Indian populations are due, in part, to adopting a
diet much heavier in sugars, starches, and fats than their ancestors’ diets. But they’re concerned
that pollution has tainted many of the traditional foods, such as fish. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports in the second of a two-part series on communicating the
risks of eating contaminated fish to ethnic groups:


A high rate of Native Americans suffer from diabetes and obesity. It’s commonly believed that
the European diet of processed grains, processed sugar, and fatty foods has contributed to the
health problems. So, some tribal members are looking at a traditional diet of fish and game and
the kinds of agriculture practiced by their forbearers. The idea is that traditional foods might be
more healthy for Native Americans.


But it’s become clear that some of those foods, particularly fish, are contaminated by pollutants.
PCBs and methyl mercury have been found in certain fish. Studies show those chemicals can
cause permanent health problems. Tribes have issued advisories, but some tribal leaders are
reluctant to discourage people from eating fish, even if it’s contaminated.


John Pursell works for the Minnesota Chippewa tribe. The tribe has issued advisories about
mercury in fish. But, Pursell says there’s a balance that has to be considered.


“We have to be careful that we aren’t advising people, tribal members, if we say ‘Don’t eat fish
of a certain size or from certain lakes,’ that we’re relatively certain that what they’re going to
replace that protein source with is not going to be more detrimental to their health. And that’s the
big concern.”


Pursell says, for example, his tribe is very concerned about dioxins. The tribe believes that
dioxins are responsible for a higher rate of cancer and other problems. And dioxins might be
present in the foods people in the tribe would eat instead of fish.


“But, we also know from the draft documents that the federal government has issued on dioxins,
that dioxins exist in fairly large quantities in such fatty foods as hamburger and cheeses. And of
course, these are foods that are found routinely in reservation commodity outlets.”


So, if it’s a matter of trading one kind of contamination for another, the logic goes, might as well
eat the healthier food, fish.


But the different tribes have different concerns and no one likes the idea of consuming
contaminated foods of any kind. So, there’s a lot of confusion about the best route to take to
dealing with the health problems among Native Americans.


Kory Groetchs is an environmental biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife
Commission. He says as interest in traditional foods builds, his agency is being asked for
answers.


“They have questions about industrial pollution and their impacts on traditional foods and, you
know, the balance between risks of consuming that food and the benefits of consuming it.”


Groetsch says the Commission is looking for funding to study ways to reduce the risk of
consuming contaminants. For example, one study tried to determine what size and where to catch
walleye with lower levels of mercury. He says more studies like that need to be conducted so
Native Americans can avoid the contaminants that might be present in traditional foods.


“And then definitely point out the situations where there is not concern so people can clear their
minds of these, if they have concerns, and they seem to, about industrial pollution such as methyl
mercury in fish, clear their mind of that and go back to a more traditional diet and eat in a more
natural, traditional way.”


Even those who are responsible for bringing the advisories on contaminants in fish to the
members of the tribe are hesitant. Maria Mabee is with the Seneca Nation in New York. She’s
an environmental activist and concerned about the effects of contaminants on health. At the same
time, she says there’s a limit to what she’ll recommend.


“You know, I can’t tell people to stop using fish for ceremonies. I just can’t do it. I won’t do it.
(laughs) I just, you know, I tell them about the risks, you know. I tell them what I know and I tell
them to make the best decisions for themselves.”


The tribes stress that the health benefits of fish should not be ignored. For many tribes, fish is a
staple. The question to answer they say is, if you don’t eat fish because of the risk of
contamination from pollution, will the food you eat instead be any more safe?


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

Eliminating Mercury in Sewage Treatment

A city along Lake Michigan is fighting the construction of a waste-treatment plant. The town filed a lawsuit against the local waste-treatment company that wants to dry and burn sludge from half the surrounding county. City officials say they don’t want an eye sore on their lake front and environmentalists are worried about mercury getting into the lake. But the sanitary district says it has a system that will virtually eliminate emissions. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie MacDowell reports, environmentalists say that’s not enough:

Transcript

A city along Lake Michigan is fighting the construction of a waste-treatment plant. The
town filed a lawsuit against the local waste-treatment company that wants to dry and burn
sludge from half the surrounding county. City officials say they don’t want an eye sore on
their lake front and environmentalists are worried about mercury getting into the lake.
But the sanitary district says it has a system that will virtually eliminate emissions. As
the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie Macdowell reports, environmentalists say
that’s not enough:


After rolling out of bed in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? Do you use the
toilet? Take a shower? Brush your teeth? Probably one or all of the above. And what
happens to that unwanted dirty water? It just vanishes, right? Flushes into oblivion?
Disappears down the drain? Wrong. All that scummy sludge heads straight for your
local waste water treatment plant.


The North Shore Sanitary District along Lake Michigan in northern Illinois receives 187
tons of waste water a day. That adds up to 20 trillion gallons of the stuff a year. And in
among all that waste there are 26 different toxic metals. At this point, North Shore is
trucking the toxic sludge to landfills and dumping it. Brian Jensen is the general manager
of North Shore. He says toxic chemicals aren’t necessarily safe in a landfill because a
landfill liner can leak.


“If in fact, that liner were to leak, and there’s been a history around our country and in
Europe that these liners do leak, when that happens, the environmental liability is
extremely significant.”


With these worries in mind, a couple of years ago Jensen started looking around for a
new way to dispose of the sludge. He says a process called “sludge-drying” was the best
option.


Here’s how the system works: the sludge is pumped into a dryer where most of the water
is sucked out. Then the dried sludge is burned as fuel for the next part of the process –
the melter. The melter burns up the organic part of the sludge at 3000 degrees. That’s
hot enough to melt heavy metals. So after everything else is burned away, what remains
are the toxic metals locked up in a glass matrix that looks a lot like lava. It’s called glass
aggregate. It can be used in concrete where it’s sealed and can no longer pollute water or
soil.


The only toxic metal that doesn’t go into the glass matrix meltdown is mercury. That’s
because in the hot melter, mercury becomes a vapor. Over the course of the year, north
shore gets about 33 pounds of mercury – a third of it comes from fillings in people’s
teeth. The rest is from industry and commercial sources.


People in the area and environmentalists, object to the idea of the plant emitting all that
mercury into the air. That’s because it could further contaminate Lake Michigan which
already is contaminated by mercury from coal-burning power plants. Cameron Davis is
the head of the Lake Michigan Federation. He says mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin.


“You know the MadHatter in Alice in Wonderland? That character was developed
because in the old days, people who made hats actually used mercury in the hat
manufacturing process, and that mercury being around it in the manufacturing of hats,
would cause people, literally, to go insane, to go crazy.”

Davis says Lake Michigan already has a fish advisory because mercury has contaminated
the water so badly. If people eat the fish, especially expectant mothers and children,
there could be serious health effects. Mothers could pass mercury poisoning onto their
infants. Children’s bodies are especially susceptible because they’re developing so fast.
Davis says anyone who cares about the environment is against the construction of any
new source of mercury emissions.


But Brian Jensen says the North Shore sludge incinerator will fix that problem too. The
plans include a filtration system, to catch mercury in the vapor state. The air travels
through carbon canisters and the mercury particles cling to the carbon. The canisters last
for up to 5 years and then the mercury is recycled and reused. The result is something
less than two pounds of mercury emissions a year. Jensen says that’s such a small
amount that today’s scientific instruments can’t detect it in the normal emissions each day.
They’ve tried. And in the end, Jensen says it could very well be that the new North Shore
Plant will emit no mercury at all.


But Cameron Davis says any uncertainty is unacceptable.


“We do want to encourage different ways to be able to get to zero and if we are in fact
getting to zero, then we’ve got a different game here, and that’s important, but we are
talking about zero.”


But Davis doesn’t have any better ideas for getting rid of the sludge. He says North
Shore should continue landfilling for now.


Michael Murray with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Office says there is
a better alternative. It’s a process called land application. That’s when sludge is used as
fertilizer for crops.


“There’s a study published on work in France recently where they looked at number of
different options for sewage sludge treatment and they found that land application in
general had the lowest environmental cost, in other words it was the best environmental
option.”


Murray says companies must have a really good pre-treatment program if they’re going
to use land application. That means capping levels of toxic metals before they get into
the sludge.


Brian Jensen at North Shore says he looked into land application and saw too many
problems. He says North Shore already has an award-winning pre-treatment program,
but they still get too many metals to land apply. And he’s heard about problems like e-coli bacteria growths from the fecal matter in the sludge. Beyond that, he says they just
have too much sludge and not enough land to fertilize.


Jensen says he’s confident the judge will not let the lawsuit stop north shore sanitary
district from building the plant. It already has the permits from the Illinois Environmental
Protection Agency. He’s amazed that people are giving north shore such a hard time,
when right next door to where they want to build the waste treatment plant, a coal-burning incinerator emits up to 450 pounds of mercury a year.


“The North Shore Sanitary District is truly people that are concerned about the
environment. And this process, even though it probably, it does, in fact, cost a little more
to own and operate than a landfill, the environmental gains, I’m saying the environmental
gains, not losses, are significantly greater than any other sludge disposal method.”


Jensen says environmentalists should be the first to recognize when a waste water
treatment plant is doing the very best job that’s possible with the most recent technology
available instead of criticizing the effort.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Annie Macdowell.