The source of one-fifth of the world's fresh water -- and
drinking water for 25 million people -- the five Great Lakes
are the most conspicuous footprints left by glacial retreat.
Truly an ecological sink, the lakes release only 1 percent
of their water into the Atlantic each year -- so what's
dumped into them stays put and concentrates over time. From
toxic sediments and agricultural runoff to atmospheric
deposition caused by air pollutants, the region has become
our most enduring dumping ground as well as a persistent
reminder of the pitfalls of industrial might.
When Sierra Club activist Lee Botts came to Chicago in 1950
and saw Lake Michigan for the first time, she couldn't
believe such a large body of water had not been created by
the Army Corps of Engineers. She settled on the lake's south
shore with an Oklahoman sensibility shaped by dust-bowl
realities and man-made reservoirs, but over the past 30
years, she has earned the nickname "the Lady of the Lakes"
through her work to reverse the decline of one of Earth's
largest living systems.
Botts became an environmental activist while raising her
young children along the Chicago lakefront in the 1960s,
spurred by public and scientific concern that Lake Michigan
pollution levels would eventually reach those of Lake Erie.
By the time Cleveland's oil-and-garbage-choked Cuyahoga
River actually caught fire and Life magazine's obituary for
Lake Erie thrust the region into the national consciousness
in the early 1970s, Botts had already organized an
unprecedented four-state Lake Michigan conference. The event
resulted in a regional water quality agreement and the Lake
Michigan Federation -- the first basin-wide alliance to
address lake health on the national and local levels.
With strong public support, Congress passed the 1972 Clean
Water Act, which established industry-wide emission
controls, and the United States and Canada forged the Great
Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1978. "Back then, we
thought we could protect the lakes by preventing pollution
from coming in by pipes," recalled Botts. "But things got
complicated very fast."
Most activists regard the Act as a major first step in
addressing lake degradation: It curbed dumping directly into
the lakes, but did nothing to prevent pollution or examine
diffuse, "non-point" sources such as agricultural and urban
runoff. Furthermore, persistent industrial pollutants such
as dioxin, heavy metals and toxic sediment defied quick-fix
solutions, and the region's political tangle of two
countries, eight U.S. states, two Canadian provinces and
three tribal councils remained an obstacle to effective
policy and enforcement. This patchwork of management and
regulatory systems created a climate where violations were
the norm and powerful industries and port economies
influenced the law's implementation.
By the mid-1970s, the success of the Clean Water Act was
evident in the fact that airborne toxics eclipsed waterborne
discharge as the main source of Great Lakes pollution. On
the other hand, the Clean Air Act of 1970, which set
important standards to reduce urban smog, had failed to curb
pollutants generated hundreds -- and sometimes thousands --
of miles away.
Recognizing that pollution does not heed political
boundaries, environmentalists rethought the wisdom of
working state-by-state and embraced a new whole-system view
that combined legal assistance, scientific research and
volunteer activism. This broader approach to saving places
spawned the Sierra Club's Great Lakes Program more than a
decade ago. The Club was the first major environmental
organization to frame issues in terms of the "ecoregion"
model, and used the Great Lakes Program as a template for
its continent-wide Critical Ecoregions Program launched in
Jane Elder organized the Great Lakes Program and served as
its director for many years. Like her ally Botts, she
embodies the spirit behind the ecoregion philosophy:
Ecosystems don't acknowledge artificial borders, so neither
"The Great Lakes Program has seen some significant victories
by recognizing watersheds over state boundaries," said
Elder. Among its accomplishments, the Great Lakes Program
added the first ecosystem amendment to the Clean Water Act,
established uniform water quality standards between states,
and added specific language to the Clean Air Act identifying
air toxics -- such as mercury and PCBs -- as serious
The Great Lakes Program is as critical today as it was a
decade ago. A May 1995 study by the State University of New
York concluded that people in the Great Lakes region are
exposed to substantially higher levels of environmental
contaminants than residents of any other place on the
continent and babies born to women who regularly eat Great
Lakes fish are more likely to have abnormal reflexes,
tremors and shortened attention spans. Despite the bans of
DDT and PCBs, dozens of toxic hotspots persist. Nearly 500
chemicals have been found in the flesh of lake fish and
contaminant levels in fish-eating birds are among the
highest in the world. Reducing the use of phosphates has
revived some wildlife populations, but biologists maintain
that most Lake Erie fish and birds are diseased.
One way the Club is addressing these problems is by bringing
together industries and the communities they affect.
Activists are working to get paper mills along Wisconsin's
Fox River to clean up their toxic discharge and have
negotiated incineration controls for steel manufacturers in
Chicago, Cleveland and Gary, Ind., that are stronger than
required by the Clean Air Act.
Elder is proud of the Club's success in building effective
coalitions with steelworkers, lower-income residents,
teachers, homemakers, recreational travel groups and tribal
communities. "Breaking out of environmental boxes and
helping these groups find each other is really exciting,"
she said. "We're stronger together and across borders. While
there are cultural and political differences, we all agree
the core agenda is Great Lakes health, and the level of
cooperation is commendable."
Activists and Environmental Protection Agency scientists
agree that the biggest long-term challenge to Great Lakes
restoration is the persistence of toxic sediments.
Currently, there are no sediment-specific laws to enforce
cleanup beyond targeted Superfund sites, but the Club's
newly formed Contaminated Sediments Project advocates
expanded cleanup efforts and strong standards for toxic-free
fish and water.
"No one knows what to do with toxic muck," said Andrew
Savagian, of the Club's Midwest regional office. "We have
the technology to separate out the toxics with heat, coal
cleaning and defense technology, but funding has run out. We
want full, not partial cleanup -- otherwise, everything in
the mud ends up in water and fish."
But the congressional assault on the Clean Water Act is the
most immediate threat to basin-wide recovery. The Act's
primary objective is to restore the lakes to swimmable and
fishable levels. Activists say the 104th Congress' slash-and-
burn approach will make this goal impossible. They also say
that the same corporate polluters who had to be reined in by
the original Act are orchestrating the attack on the law by
demanding a return to the "good ol' days" when they policed
themselves. The Act's reauthorization, H.R. 961, or the
"Dirty Water Bill," has already passed the House. Its
serious failings include severely limited powers for the
EPA, removal of protections for hundreds of thousands of
acres of wetlands and coastline and a "takings" component to
reward would-be polluters with tax dollars.
And Club leaders are busy sounding the alarm. The Save Our
Summer campaign has been making considerable waves
throughout the region -- from a well-publicized media event
in Cleveland commemorating the 25th anniversary of the
infamous Cuyahoga River fire, to a Madison, Wis., rally with
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt where citizens spoke in
favor of a strengthened Clean Water Act.
Whether they are working to ban mercury in manufacturing and
chlorine in pesticides, fighting destruction of wetlands in
Michigan, countering incineration in Toronto or re-
establishing a tallgrass prairie in Chicago, Great Lakes
activists are making strides on many fronts. "Everyone said,
'There's no way you can change the Clean Air Act,' and they
were wrong," said Elder, who left the Club this summer to
take a position with a group that provides funding to
promote biodiversity. "The ecoregion idea works and this
program proves it. It's not about the Clean Water Act, it's
about clean water and educating people about what they flush
down their drains. Legislation is about getting there --
it's not the end point."
The answers lie, too, in coalition-building across
traditional borders, added Botts. "My goal is to hang in
there and continue to work with many groups on a regional
basis," she said. "We've come a long way from being the
enemy of business and industry, and our circle is much
broader than just a group of environmentalists. My hope is
that this kind of progress is happening elsewhere and that
Congress just hasn't caught on yet."
To take action:
Urge your senators to support initiatives protecting the
Great Lakes. Tell them to vote no on any Senate version of
the House's "Dirty Water Bill," H.R. 961, and oppose S. 851,
which would gut wetlands protections. Call them at the
Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or write them at the
U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20515.
Attend the International Joint Commission's Biennial Meeting
on Human Health and Water Quality of the Great Lakes in
Duluth, Minn., Sept. 22-25. Call (218) 726-1828 for details.
For more information: Contact Great Lakes Program director
Brett Hulsey at (608) 257-4994; the Washington, D.C.,
legislative office at (202) 547-1141; or the Sierra Club of
Eastern Canada at (613) 241-4611.
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