Many rivers in the Great Lakes region were once used for waste disposal –and debate still rages over how to best clean up the lingering pollution.Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Mike VanBuren says futuregenerations will thank us if we do the job right:


Many rivers in the Great Lakes region were once used for waste disposal – and debate
still rages over how to best clean up the lingering pollution. Great Lakes Radio
Consortium commentator Mike VanBuren says future generations will thank us if we do
the job right.

Michigan’s Kalamazoo River has a colorful past. It used to be different colors on
different days. Sometimes it was green, sometimes red and sometimes white – depending
on which wastes were being dumped into the water.

And the stench was awful. I remember holding my breath whenever I had to cross the
river on the way to someplace else. Like many rivers in the Great Lakes basin, the
Kalamazoo was an open sewer. Life magazine even photographed some ugly fish kills –
when waste from paper factories choked the river and robbed it of oxygen.

It’s not much of a legacy – not for a resource that once attracted an international host of
anglers to its world-class fishery – including former President Theodore Roosevelt.

The Kalamazoo and other rivers have historically been among the biggest sources of
Great Lakes pollution. Industrial waste, pesticides and other contaminants have leached,
or been dumped directly into rivers feeding each lake. In Lake Michigan alone, toxins are
found from the Manistique River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to the Menominee
River in Wisconsin and Waukegan Harbor in Illinois.

In some ways, the Kalamazoo – like other rivers – has made a great recovery in the last
40 years, thanks to tougher anti-pollution laws and millions of dollars spent to upgrade
waste-treatment facilities. Today, ducks float quietly on the surface, deer frolic in the
shallows, and fish are practically everywhere.

But we still have a long way to go. What’s not so obvious is that local eagles can’t seem
to keep their young alive. And fish are so tainted that health advisories are posted at
every public access site, warning not to eat them.

The problem is invisible – leftover PCBs in the river sediment and along the banks. The
chemicals – once used in the production of carbon-less copy paper and other products –
often wash into the water when it rains, or when the river rises and falls.

Four paper-making companies were ordered to draft a plan for undoing the damage.
They’ve proposed a $73 million effort to stabilize the riverbanks, monitor the breakdown
of PCBs and continue the fish-consumption advisories.

That’s not good enough. For one thing, it only deals with part of the river. The rest
would be covered in a later phase. Secondly, it doesn’t really clean anything up. It
merely tries to contain the problem so it doesn’t get any worse.

That’s the trouble with many proposals to eliminate sources of Great Lakes pollution.
They avoid the real work needed for a thorough cleanup. The excuses are many – too
costly, too time-consuming, or too risky if the work dislodges toxins that are otherwise

Citizens shouldn’t accept these excuses. We should demand that polluters clean up after
themselves completely.

What’s good for rivers like the Kalamazoo is good for the Great Lakes. We need to act
responsibly when deciding how to restore our resources. After all, our children and
grandchildren will live with the consequences.