Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Environmental Progress of the Great Lakes

After reading Szasz's text, specifically his discussion on the pollution of the Cuyahoga River and when in burst into flames in 1969, I decided to check up on the environmental progress of that specific region. I became very interested primarily because the waters of the Cuyahoga River flow into Lake Erie. Lake Erie is connected to Lake Ontario by the Niagara River (below) and the Welland Canal that was built. I happen to live about 5 miles from the shores of Lake Ontario, so when Szasz mentioned the catastrophic pollution of the Cuyahoga River, I became intrigued. Before I discuss the history of pollution and of recovery, I will first discuss why the Great Lakes are so important.

According to an Elementary School Geography class posting from Detroit, Michigan, the Great Lakes are some of, if not the most important lakes in the U.S. and Canada. The Great Lakes hold about one-fifth of the world's surface fresh water. The Great Lakes are the center of North America's industrial heartland, which supports the ecosystem 8 U.S. states, and two Canadian provinces which in turn supports nearly 40 million Americans and Canadians. These 40 million Americans and Canadians help support a multi-billion dollar tourist and fishing industry. So, as you can see, the Great Lakes are pretty important.

According to the Great Lakes Information Network, "Water pollution is defined as a change in the chemical, physical and biological health of a waterway due to human activity. Ways that humans have affected the quality of the Great Lakes water over the centuries include sewage disposal, toxic contamination through heavy metals and pesticides, overdevelopment of the water's edge, runoff from agriculture and urbanization, and air pollution." As industry boomed in the 18th and 19th century, companies used the Great Lakes and rivers as their own garbage cans, under the widespread belief that water could dilute any substance. The pollutants that enter the Great Lakes come from a variety sources, but the main three sources of pollutants are point source pollution (drainpipe draining directly into a lake), nonpoint source pollution (runoff that picks up pollutants), and atmospheric pollution (air pollutants from coal-burning energy plants and waste incinerators). After a century or two of disposing of waste in these ways, their consequences soon became apparent. The picture below shows the pollution in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The water pollution in the Great Lakes has greatly affected and altered many aspects of the ecosystem. One example of these effects and alterations has been the overall health of fish and wildlife that bases their health on the overall health of the waterway. Heavy metals such as mercury and lead, along with pesticides that enter the overall food chain create various deformities and death among sealife. These deformities include large tumors in fish and three-legged frogs that have been spotted in the past decade. The pollution of the Great Lakes has also greatly affected human health. People surrounding the Great Lakes ingest large amounts of fish taken from the lakes themselves. So eating contaminated fish will have drastic effects on human health such as sickness and disease. According to the Great Lakes Information Network, "studies have suggested that toxic chemicals (present in fish) can lead to reproductive problems, cancer and neurological disorders." Water pollution from industrialization has also created "eutrophication", or increased biological growth. Before industrialization, the Great Lakes naturally contained little plant nutrients which created high levels of animal life. When industry started to emerge, new nutrients were introduced to this natural cycle. These new nutrients were quickly loaded into the lakes which was much more than the natural waterbody could handle. This excessive nutrient loading into the lakes stimulated excessive plant growth, which soon decreased the amount of available oxygen in the water and eventually killing off certain species, therefore greatly altering the ecological balance of the Great Lakes.
After the Cuyahoga river incident and an increase in eutrophication, the U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in 1972. The GLWQA established pollution control levels (mainly to reduce phosphorus levels in Lakes Ontario and Erie), water quality research and monitoring regulations. Since then, countless agreements and regulations have been made to reduce the amount of pollution from nearly every source. GLWQA reports that "since 1970, the levels of toxic pollutants in Lakes Erie and Ontario have decreased by nearly 80%".
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) soon stepped in and reported that between 1992 and 2001 the Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) of the awarded 71 demonstration grants totaling $4,855,459 to States, Tribes, academic institutions, non-profit organizations, county and municipal governments, technical assistance providers, and others. These grants have leveraged $2,156,584 in contributions from grantees and others." These various organizations worked to reduce and prevent future pollutants entering the Great Lakes. Below is a list created by EPA in 2002 of various reductions in pollutants that could be measured from 1992-2001.
-8236 Lbs of mercury removed from use or uncontrolled storage
-5790 mercury thermometers collected from residents within the Great Lakes states and exchanged for alternative thermometers
-105275 Fluorescent lamps containing mercury collected and recycled.
-500 mercury containing auto switches collected from autos (both end of life and in-use) and properly disposed of
-451 PCB Transformers removed, and the PCB materials properly disposed of, while the metal, etc. has been recycled
-262,073 Lbs of Pesticides properly disposed of
-7041 Lbs. Of household hazardous waste collected and properly disposed of
-In addition thousands of pounds of electronics and computer equipment containing lead solder, mercury, and other precious metals have been collected from residents within the Great Lakes states and properly recycled.
These efforts and numbers will continue to grow as more and more residents within the Great Lakes states turn their "inverted quarantines" back outward and find systematic solutions to various systematic threats.

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