Contaminants and Climate Change Impacts Key Issues Raised in Last Consultations on Water Quality

Picture of Sally Cole-Misch
Sally Cole-Misch
December 12, 2019
mohawk council

IJC Commissioners and staff traveled in October to the last in the series of consultations around the Great Lakes region to assess progress by the Canadian and United States governments to restore and protect the lakes. Residents and leaders from the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne met with the IJC in Cornwall, Ontario, to discuss their water quality priorities. At Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, the IJC spent the day with students, many of whom are studying to become future Great Lakes researchers and policymakers.

Cornwall, Ontario

Six district chiefs of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, as well as several of their environmental science and policy staff, hosted Commissioners and IJC staff on October 8 at the A’nowarako: wa Arena. Before the meeting began, the IJC toured the Grasse River Remediation site, where PCB-contaminated sediments will be removed over the next three years. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a family of chemicals once used in electrical equipment and as industrial solvents.

The Grasse River site is part of restoration work for the St. Lawrence River Area of Concern, which was designated in 1985. Cornwall, the largest urban center in the area, has been a hub of industrial activity for more than 100 years, which caused the destruction of multiple uses of the waterway (known as “beneficial use impairments”).

At the meeting, individuals expressed frustrations and concerns about the continued impacts of these impairments on their communities. As an island surrounded by the Area of Concern, they said their culture, livelihoods and public health have changed dramatically due to pollution and inadequate action to clean up contaminants and restore habitat.

“Akwesasne incorporates one community across the border and is impacted by everyone’s actions,” said Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Environmental Services Officer Abraham Francis. “We were part of original research that established the Area of Concern, and yet we don’t get the opportunity to participate in deciding effective actions by New York, Ontario and Quebec. Akwesasne is a sovereign nation that needs to be recognized and incorporated into the process.”

Several individuals at the meeting also identified further research to fill data gaps and funding to coordinate effective solutions as essential. “Boundaries and borders shouldn’t be an issue. We don’t see the land and water as separate and neither should you,” said Tsi Snaihne District Chief Joe Lazore.

Potsdam, New York

Clarkson University Professor Michael Twiss opens the visioning session with students and Commissioners. Credit: IJC

The next day at Clarkson University, Commissioners and IJC staff met with undergraduate and graduate students from colleges and universities around the Great Lakes to participate in a visioning discussion and roleplaying exercise. Clarkson University Professor of Biology Michael Twiss organized the day-long event. Twiss is also a member of the IJC’s Science Advisory Board and the immediate past president of the International Association for Great Lakes Research.

Participants divided into five tables to imagine what the health of one of the Great Lakes would be like in 50 years, and presented their visions in a plenary conversation. Projections ranged from optimistic and thriving to struggling to maintain the status quo.

For example, one group envisioned that educational and legislative programs will have helped individuals to realize the impact of their consumer footprint on the ecosystem. They further imagined that sustainable lifestyles are the norm and the collective outlook is to be proactive, not reactive, in addressing threats to Great Lakes water quality.

The students also articulated expectations for a future that incorporates traditional ecological knowledge into policy and listens to scientists. Students hoped that communities would build better water treatment plants to deal with intensifying pollution from a growing regional population driven by climate change-related relocation.

Another group of students posited best- and worst-case scenarios for the Great Lakes region’s future. The other three groups said that 50 years from now, the focus would be on trying to maintain a consistent level of ecological health, particularly as a result of climate change. Common among all five groups of students was a top concern about climate change and its impacts for the region and the world.

Commissioners also learned about the students’ research in a poster session and engaged with students in an IJC role-playing activity. Video segments and complete recordings of both meetings will be added to the IJC website in coming months.

Picture of Sally Cole-Misch
Sally Cole-Misch

Sally Cole-Misch is the public affairs officer for the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office.