When abandoned wells aren’t sealed properly, they can pollute the water below. A number of states across the region are working to solve the problem. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erika Johnson has more:
When abandoned wells aren’t sealed properly, they can pollute the water below. And in some of
these wells, children and animals have gotten trapped. A number of states across the region are
working to solve the problem. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erika Johnson has more:
All states across the region have certain regulations for plugging abandoned wells. But not all
states have specialized programs to address the problem.
Programs to cap abandoned wells have existed in Minnesota and Wisconsin for decades. Now,
other states are developing their own programs.
Officials in Michigan face a particular challenge because more of these wells exist there than in
any other state in the country – close to 2-million by some estimates.
Jim McEwan is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He says surface
pollutants can be channeled down into unplugged wells:
“The contaminants can gain access by penetrating the corroded well casing because many of them
have been in the ground for 70 to 100 years, or so, and then going right down, like a drain, into
the lower drinking water aquifers.”
So far, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin each plug about 10-to-20-thousand wells per year.
It generally takes several hours and costs a few hundred dollars to seal each well. And
homeowners have to pay for the sealing of any unused wells on their property. But some states
do offer financial assistance.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erika Johnson.
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:
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.
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:
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
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
“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.