Key Note Luncheon Address by

The Rt. Hon. Herb Gray, P.C., C.C., Q.C.
Canadian Chair, International Joint Commission

To the
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 so.

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 remarks.

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 lie ahead.

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 these lakes.

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 for example.

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 drinking water.

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, 2002.

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 Lakes?

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 wastewater.

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 amount permitted.

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 sewers.

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 -

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 Queen's University.

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 US agencies.

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 the basin.

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 an obligation!

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

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