When someone says “You’re on my list!” it’s usually not good. And so it is – in some ways - with the Areas of Concern (AOC) list – an inventory of the Great Lakes’ most degraded sites, many of them chock full of legacy industrial pollutants like PCBs and mercury, or suffering from a loss of fish and wildlife habitat.
However, getting on the list can lead to more attention and action to address an area that needs special cleanup. What is clear is that once your area is on this list, you want to get it off, because being off the list is a sign of environmental progress.
Getting off “The List” isn’t easy. It requires the development and implementation of Remedial Action Plans under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. RAPs are developed under the leadership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or Environment Canada in collaboration with state and provincial governments to address up to 14 different environmental impairments (also called beneficial use impairments).
Although several AOCs have been partially cleaned up, only five of 43 Great Lakes sites on the list have been “delisted” since 1987. Fortunately, two recently restored sites – both in Michigan – are on the verge of having this dubious distinction scrubbed from their record.
A boundary map of the Deer Lake Area of Concern. Credit: EPA.
The White Lake AOC, north of Muskegon, was polluted with industrial contaminants and other toxic substances by a number of former manufacturing facilities and also experienced the loss of habitat due to lakeside development. The Deer Lake AOC in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was contaminated with mercury from historical mining operations.
The boundaries of the White Lake Area of Concern. Credit: EPA.
Under the Agreement, the governments solicit a review and comment from the IJC and others. To conduct its review, the IJC ensures that a number of issues have been addressed, including:
- Have the delisting criteria been met? Were appropriate standards, criteria, and guidelines used?
- Did qualified individuals peer review the delisting report and/or other key information associated with the delisting?
- Has the remedial action plan been an important step in elimination of the impaired beneficial uses?
- If any beneficial uses remain impaired, are they a result of influences outside of the AOC? Or are they the result of natural causes? Have all reasonable actions been taken to address the impairments?
- Are there plans and resources for long-term monitoring and other necessary activities?
- Has public consultation been adequate?
For a majority of AOCs, environmental impairments are primarily the result of historical activities. In some cases, pollution or degradation continues to occur. Therefore, the primary emphasis of AOC cleanup efforts is to address the legacy pollutants and degradation that exists, and ensure that any active sources of pollution are eliminated or reduced.
“After years of minimal progress, the past five years have seen a definite turn for the better,” says Lana Pollack, the IJC’s U.S. chair.
“Support for cleaning up the Great Lakes has been a fine example of bipartisan support and a show of respect for the greatest body of freshwater on the planet. We hope this focus continues, because a lot more work remains to be done.”
The 43 AOCs in the basin are made up of 26 in the U.S., 12 in Canada, and five shared between the two countries. Along with the five AOCs that have been removed, two have been redesignated as “AOCs in Recovery.” But with the imminent delisting of the two Michigan sites, the rate of AOC delistings is speeding up.
Gordon Walker, the IJC’s acting Canadian chair, says the two proposed delistings at Deer Lake and White Lake are a team victory.
“We congratulate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Deer Lake and White Lake Public Advisory Councils, and all partners on the anticipated delisting of both AOCs.”
* This post was updated on Oct. 24, 2014.