Key Note Luncheon Address by
The Rt. Hon. Herb Gray, P.C., C.C., Q.C.
Canadian Chair, International Joint Commission
2nd Annual Environmental Law and Compliance
in Ontario Conference
The Great Lakes: Are They Again Becoming
a Dumping Ground for Polluters? What is Being Done to Step-up
Protection and Restoration Efforts?
February 17, 2005
St. Andrew's Club and Conference Centre,
150 King Street West, Toronto
Check Against Delivery
I have been asked to speak about "The Great
Lakes: Are They Again Becoming a Dumping Ground for Polluters?
What is Being Done to Step-up Protection and Restoration Efforts"
These are important questions and ones that
are of great interest to the International Joint Commission.
As you may know, the Commission has a unique role assigned
to it by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
The Agreement is between the Canadian and U.S.
governments and its purpose is to restore and maintain the
chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes.
In it the International Joint Commission is charged both with
assisting the governments in realizing these objectives and
also with, assessing and reporting on their progress in doing
As required by the Agreement, we issue a major
report every two years on the progress or otherwise of the
governments in meeting their obligations under the agreement.
These Biennial Reports are addressed to the governments but
are also released to the public.
I will be referring to findings in these reports in making my
The Commission's role under the Great Lakes
Water Quality Agreement complements its broader role as outlined
by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the
U.S. In that Treaty, the Commission was established to prevent
and resolve disputes between the two countries largely about
the boundary waters, and the air above them. Of course the
Great Lakes are boundary waters.
As my Commission has said "About 40 million
people reside in the (Great Lakes) Basin itself. Spanning
over 1,200 km (750. mi) from east to west, these freshwater
seas have made a vital contribution to the historical settlement,
economic prosperity, cultural, and quality of life and to
the diverse ecosystems of the Basin and surrounding region".
"Water, (the Commission also has said)
contributes to the health and well-being of all Basin residents…
The Great Lakes are, however, more than just a resource to
be consumed; they are also home to a great diversity of plants,
animals, and other biota."
So I say again your questions have a special
relevance for the Commission and its work.
Let me now try to provide an answer to the
first of your two questions The Great Lakes: Are They Again
Becoming a Dumping Ground for Polluters?
The short answer is yes, there has been a significant
decrease in the level of most contaminants in the lakes since
the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was first signed in
1972. However wastes of all kinds - some of it toxic - are
still being dumped into the lakes.
I want to talk about how the Lakes have changed
since 1972; the impetus behind those changes and what challenges
In 1964 the IJC received a reference - a formal
request from the two governments - to look at Pollution in
the Lower Great Lakes (Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the international
section of the St. Lawrence River).
The Commission stated in its reports in 1964
and 1970 there was a crucial need for the two governments
to make commitments to each other to clean up the Great Lakes.
This led to the April 15, 1972 signing of the first Great
Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
In the preamble to the 1972 Agreement the governments
stated, and quote, that they are "Seriously concerned
about the grave deterioration of water quality on each side
of the boundary to an extent that it is causing injury to
health and property on the other side, as described in the
1970 report of the International Joint Commission on Pollution
of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the International Section of
the St. Lawrence River."
They then went on to state in the General Objectives
in the Agreement that the waters should be, among other things,
and again I quote, "Free from substances entering the
waters as a result of human activity in concentrations that
are toxic or harmful to human, animal or aquatic life; and
free from nutrients entering the waters as a result of human
activity in concentrations that create nuisance growths of
aquatic weeds and algae."
In 1978 a revised Agreement was signed between the countries.
While maintaining the same General Objectives it focused more
heavily on the assessment and management of toxic and hazardous
substances. It stated that persistent toxic substances be virtually
eliminated and the philosophy for control would be zero discharge.
Did it work? Did the dumping stop? In some
ways yes, in others no as not enough was done to stop the
dumping of all polluted material into the Great Lakes.
There is no doubt that we have come a long
way since the first Agreement was signed in 1972.
One of the things we have learned since 1972
is that in trying to stop the dumping into the lakes and their
cleanup while there has been real progress the job will never
be done. The lakes are a dynamic system.
As US President Andrew Jackson stated in 1837
(and as many since have repeated) "eternal vigilance by
the people is the price of liberty". I believe we can
apply this concept to the Great Lakes and to the environment
generally and say eternal vigilance is the price of a clean
and healthy environment. I believe that most Canadians and
Americans living around the Lakes would agree that it is a
price well worth paying!
As the IJC said in its 12th Biennial
Report released last September Lake Erie is a good example
of this need for eternal vigilance. The reductions in phosphorus
in the lake following the signing of the Agreement were quite
dramatic. The improved sewage treatment plants and reformulated
laundry detergent led to a reversal of the lake's eutrophication,
water quality improved significantly.
Unfortunately improved water quality also resulted
in less monitoring of the water quality of the lakes by governments.
In the last decade there have been mixed signals
from Lake Erie. The burrowing mayfly, an important indicator
of good water quality and sediment purity, and the walleye
have both recovered but whitefish is declining and phosphorus
levels are rising again. The return of blue-green algae blooms
and botulism in wildlife are cause for concern. Understanding
the complexity of the issues requires new research and monitoring
studies. The Lake Erie Millennium Network, a network of scientists,
managers and policymakers from both countries, are working
cooperatively to address these issues and to tell us how to
stop the "backsliding" of Lake Erie.
When looking at toxic substances in the Great
Lakes as a whole, there are impressive reductions in both
the emissions of these substances and their concentration
in the food web.
The Binational Toxics Strategy, created as
a result of an IJC recommendation, reports on the progress
in reducing key contaminants relative to established goals.
Canada, between 1994 and 2002, has achieved
an approximate 85% reduction in high-level PCBs, nearing the
reduction goal of 90%. Canada has also reduced mercury releases
by 83% since 1995, nearing the reduction challenge of 90%.
There is no longer use, generation or release of the Level 1 pesticides
(those determined to be most harmful) to the Great Lakes Basin.
Yet, given the persistence of many of these products, they continue
to be found in the environment.
An indicator of the level of contamination
still in the Great Lakes are the advisories by government
to the public to limit its consumption of certain fish from
Its recommendation that consumption of certain
fish be restricted because of elevated levels of PCBs, mercury
and dioxin in all the Great Lakes and chlordane and mirex
in some of them.
Some of these advisories reflect previous pollution
such as PCBs that are still circulating in the ecosystem.
Mercury contamination is from both historic and current sources.
Dioxins are a by-product from current combustion practices by
coal fired plants, incinerators, wood stoves, and burn barrel
In its 10th Biennial Report the
Commission recommended that "sport fish consumption advisories
state plainly that eating Great Lakes sport fish may lead
to birth anomalies and other serious health problems for children
and women of child-bearing age." As our science is improving
we are learning about impacts from many chemicals at even
very low doses.
But it is not just the chemicals identified
in the past that are a cause for concern - there are new chemicals
turning up in the waters of the Great Lakes.
Recent studies have found pharmaceuticals in
Fire retardants (PBDEs) have been raising alarm
bells in recent years as they are discovered in the water
columns of the Great Lakes and now showing up in human breast
milk. Also, as our science is improving we are learning about
impact from many chemicals at even low doses.
The IJC's Science Advisory Board reported in
2002 that ongoing fish and wildlife research and ambient monitoring
has identified new chemical classes in the Great Lakes including
fire retardants (PBDEs), chlorinated paraffins, various pharmaceuticals
and personal care products and approximately 20 current-use
pesticides. The Commission raised the alarm about these new
chemicals in its 11th Biennial Report released in September,
The IJC said,
"Many flame retardants are brominated organic compounds
similar in structure to PCBs, and can have even greater toxicity
than their chlorinated counterparts. Some have been appearing
in waters and biota of the Great Lakes system where they have
not been previously documented."
As you may have seen in Monday's Globe and
Mail (Feb 14), according to research commissioned by the Globe
and CTV, and I quote "Everyday foods consumed by Canadians
- such as salmon, ground beef, cheese and butter - are laced
with chemical flame retardants. In fact, the research found
that Canadian foods are among the most contaminated with polybrominated
diphenyl ethers in the world, with levels up to 1,000 times
higher than those found in tests in European countries."
How are these new contaminants getting into
The most direct way is through a pipeline discharging
from a facility into the Lakes. That facility can be either
an industrial plant or a sewage treatment plant. Municipal
sewage treatment plants are designed to remove human waste
that can cause excessive aquatic plant growth, bacteria and
oxygen depleting substances. They are not designed to remove
the thousands of potentially toxic chemicals in municipal
Surface runoff is another way in which contaminants
reach the lakes. In the urban areas, runoff usually goes to
a storm water collection system that may or may not be integrated
with the sewage system.
In rural areas the run-off likely will not
be conveyed through sewers, but there may still be a harmful
impact, particularly if the runoff is over agricultural land
that has been treated with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers,
manure, or sewage sl ge.
Emissions to the air are an indirect means
of polluting the lakes when the releases are deposited in
a water body. Emissions of mercury and dioxins have been well
documented in this regard.
For example, the IJC's 12th Biennial Report comments
on the ability of both elemental mercury and reactive gaseous
mercury to travel in the air prior to being deposited water. Once
deposited in water, mercury can be converted by bacteria into
organic mercury compounds, such as methyl mercury, that accumulate
in the food chain.
As I have stated, mercury contamination is
one of the primary reasons for fish consumption advisories
in the Great Lakes Basin. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin,
particularly to the developing fetus.
The province of Ontario issues Certificates
of Approval for some releases of substances to the environment
by industry. The quantities released frequently exceed the
In addition, there are accidental spills into
the water. For example there has been an increase in the number
of spills in the St. Clair River in the Sarnia area. Dr. Isobel
Heathcote, Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Guelph,
spoke to you this morning about the report of the Industrial
Pollution Action Team, (IPAT) of which she was co-chair, set
up by the Ontario Minister of Environment. Some of you may
know that Dr. Heathcote is also the co-chair of the Science
Advisory Board of the International Joint Commission.
The Commission is itself reviewing the spill
situation in the Great Lakes and its connecting channels and
will be issuing its own report later this year.
A direct spill of a substance, or even worse,
a toxic substance, is of obvious concern to eryone. Dr. Heathcote's
report says that there is no regulatory requirement for pollution
prevention or spill prevention plans under Ontario environmental
legislation. In some cases these plans are required as part
of a Certificate of Approval, but the requirement is not universal.
Discharges of untreated or partially treated
sewage are regular occurrences in the Great Lakes. This problem
is usually the result of the waste water treatment infrastructure
not having the capacity to handle the increased volumes from
a rain storm when storm sewers are combined with sanitary
In a report entitled "Swimming in Sewage" by
the Sierra Legal Defence Fund in Septem r 2004, they said
"If sewage really was simply human waste,
it would be relatively simple to treat and transform into
high quality fertilizer and water suitable for release back
into the env onment. However, typical municipal sewage contains
hundreds of chemicals and toxic pollutants that enter the
sewer system from households, businesses and industrial operations.
In some systems, urban run-off is collected in the same pipes
as domestic sewage, thus adding a new batch of harmful ingredients."
The IJC addressed the related issue of microbial contamination
in water in its 12th Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water
Quality released last fall.
The Commission observed that the combination
of population growth and aging infrastructure in Great Lakes
municipalities is resulting in increased waste, more untreated
runoff from hardened surfaces and increased discharges to
surface water. The high loads of pathogens, bacteria, parasites
and viruses can cause waterborne diseases. Beaches around
the Great Lakes are closed far too frequently in the summer
after rainfall events because of contaminated runoff and overflows.
Recent investments in municipal sewage treatment
facilities and stormwater handling facilities around the Great
Lakes have improved the situation for some municipalities.
However, keeping up with population expansion, at the same
time as upgrading existing facilities, is difficult.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed a policy
to allow wastewater treatment plants to partially treat or disinfect
wastewater surges during storm events. The IJC in its 12th
Biennial report said about this:
"process, called "blending" [it] would allow treatment
plants to blend flows of sewage that is combined with storm
water, together with flows that have gone through full wastewater
treatment. To meet water quality criteria for bacteria, the
levels of chemical disinfectants - typically chlorinated compounds
- will likely be increased. In Swimming in Sewage, experts
opposed to the policy expressed concerns about the potential
risks to humans from not only exposure to microbial contaminants,
but also to higher concentrations of disinfectant chemical
by-products that pose a known cancer risk. Routine disinfection
is not effective against reducing viruses and protozoa in
treated wastewater discharges, and opponents to the policy
argue that blending will release even greater loadings of
these potentially pathogenic microorganisms."
Also the 12th Biennial Report said:
"If the US and Canada do not invest in their aging
water infrastructure systems, the potential for more outbreaks
of waterborne diseases will increase. The investment cost to
shore up the nations' water treatment facilities are high,
but the potential costs of not doing so are even greater."
Increasing the handling capacity of sewage
and storm systems is one way of addressing the problem.
Another, equally important part of the solution
is controlling what substances are put into the systems.
In the future, hopefully, we can expect to
see more municipalities tightening up their own sewer by-laws
and investing in more enforcement.
Clearly, managing stormwater and sewage treatment
in our urban areas continues to be a major challenge for communities
in the Great Lakes basin.
So let's sum up where the Lakes are today as
a result of the measures which have been undertaken under the
Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement since 1972.
As I've said last September, the Commission
issued its 12th Biennial Report on Great Lakes
Water quality. In our key findings in the report we noted
that progress has been made on developing and implementing
best management practices to accommodate the growing pressure
of human development in the basin.
On other issues that I have not yet touched
on we also said:
- Alien invasive species continue to be introduced
into the lakes at a rate of one per every eight months.
- Chemical contamination continues to endanger
human health and restricts the number of fish we can safely
eat. The several adverse health effects associated with exposure
to methyl mercury, a highly toxic substance, caused the Commission
to urge the governments to reduce mercury emissions even further."
This leads your second question What is Being Done to Step-up
Protection and Restoration Efforts? First of all this is a
very important time for the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes
Water Quality Agreeement. The Agreement requires the governments
to review it every six years. The review is triggered by every
third Biennial Report of the Commission. Therefore the 12th
Biennial Report has triggered such a review.
A government scoping committee has proposed
an approach to the review in a document published for public
comment - available on our web page - www.ijc.org.
However the review itself has not yet begun!
The release of each Biennial Report is followed
up by a Biennial Meeting - a large meeting open to the public
organized by he IJC. The last one was held on the campus of
the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the next one this
coming June 9-11, will be held in Kingston on the campus of
This three-day meeting will focus on the current
science and issues regarding the health of the Great Lakes
and include breakout sessions and specific in-depth discussions
a wide range of topics fundamental to the review of the agreement
and it future. Our featured speakers include David Suzuki
and Professor David Schindler of the University of Alberta.
You are all invited.
The US Federal government has recently started
the "U.S. Great Lakes Regional Collaboration". This is an
initiative by President Bush to get all the U.S. agencies
in the Great Lakes basin to work together to achieve more
progress in Great Lakes clean-up. Last December in Chicago,
a declaration was signed to commit to a consensus process
for developing a strategy for Great Lakes restoration by the
This is a major undertaking and will hopefully serve to improve
coordination and action on the US side of the lakes.
In Canada, the new Federal Environment Minister
Stephone Dion, in the debate on the Speech from the Throne
last October emphasized the importance of "working cooperatively
with the United States to manage common ecosystems, particularly
the Great Lakes".
He stated that "Canada will be launching a
comprehensive process to bring together all the relevant federal,
provincial and municipal players to develop a long-term, sustainable
and competitive vision for the entire basin."
The renewal of the Canadian Great Lakes Program
is currently under consideration at the federal level. Its
five year term is close to ending. This is the program that
outlines the direction and scope of federal initiatives in
Finding enough financial resources for the
work still needed in the Great Lakes continues to be a challenge.
We will not really know what federal resources
will be available in the U.S. until Congress gives its final
decision on the President's proposed budget, and in Canada
until after the new federal budget and related estimates, which
are to be presented on February 23, are voted on.
Along with the actions by governments, I believe
every member of our Canadian civil society - individuals and
corporations have a responsibility not only to work for a
cleaner environment but also to support government initiatives
to achieve this purpose.
The current generation should not condemn future
generations to health, behavioural, or learning problems created
by environmental problems.
If some can argue that an excessive burden
of fiscal debt should not be left to future generations then
we also need to recognize that we cannot leave a burden of
environmental debt. We cannot risk damaging fundamentally the
ecosystem on which all life depends - in particular, for our
children and grandchildren.
Therefore I believe for us to protect them
- protecting the environment by us is not an option; it is
The Rt. Hon. Herb Gray is the Canadian
Chair of the International Joint Commission of Canada and
the United States
234 Laurier Ave. West, 22nd Floor
Ottawa, ON K1P 6K6
Phone: (613) 992-2417
Fax: (613) 947-9386