Great Lakes not really as clean as might appear
Waukegan Harbor, perched on the shores of Lake Michigan 35 miles north of Chicago, is as picturesque as its name. But it is also polluted.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The harbor has become the center of a new phase in the ongoing fight against pollution in the Great Lakes -- a fight which has had some resounding successes in recent years. No one talks about the Great Lakes "dying" anymore. But the fight is by no means over.
The problem is no longer with the visible, nasty-smelling, foul-tasting pollutants which a first and relatively easy round of controls has for the most part cleaned up.
Waukegan's problem -- and the problem for the Great Lakes as a whole -- is with the next generation of pollutants which leave no telltale traces in the clear lakes' waters. Some of the new man-made, nondegradable chemicals now slipping into the lakes like midnight swimmers are so far defying researchers' attempts to find ways to break them down.
Waukegan, a little harbor crowded with pleasure boats, fishermen, and swimmers, has been identified as a major source of PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) pollution. And toxic PCBs, though outlawed, remain a major challenge because of their heavy concentrations in many areas after years of industrial use. Some firms continue to store PCBs, with no way to get rid of the chemical safely.
Four separate research teams in Akron, Ohio; Philadelphia; Los Angeles, and Japan are each offering possible ways to break down PCBs for safe re-use. It at least one can successfully and profitably recycle the pollutant, the news will be most welcome in Waukegan.
To combat PCB discharges, which were finding their way back into humans through Grea Lakes fish, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed suit two years ago against Waukegan's Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), headquarters for the manufacture of Johnson outboard motors.
This spring, however, EPA checks revealed continuing high PCB levels in the soil at the manufacturer's site on the harbor's rim.
One OMC sample showed PCBs at 14,000 parts per million, with others up to 1, 000 ppm. (The permissable federal standard is 50 ppm.)
EPA officials are confident that they have the legal power and the monitoring equipment to locate and eventually eliminate such pollution sources.
There has been much visible improvement on all the Great Lakes; the warnings are no longer dire. Yet no one disputes the size of the challenge facing the 11 federal agencies and wide variety of state, local, and private groups involved in the Great Lakes cleanup operation.
Part of the challenge lies in the size of the project -- cleaning up 94,710 square miles of water. The size of the population affected adds urgency: The Great Lakes supply drinking water, transportation, an industrial base, an energy source, fisheries, and recreation to one-quarter of US industry, one-fifth of the US population, and over one-third of the Canadian population.