Great Lakes not really as clean as might appear

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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.

Another part of the problem is that the most serious pollution today, whether from farmland runoff, urban discharges, or industrial wastes, can be traced back to the chemical industry. That booming, $160-billion-a-year industry has as an annual end product of 57 million tons of chemical waste. The EPA currently estimates that 90 percent of these chemical wastes are disposed of without proper treatment to control their toxic effects -- effects which may be completely unknown in the case of recently developed chemicals.

A related problem is that these pollutants travel far and wide, often by air. One new pollutant showing up in the Great Lakes is Toxaphene, a pesticide used mainly in the distant cotton belt.

The EPA's past success in dealing with Great Lakes pollution has been dramatic.

Government regulations forced the closing of a number of steel plants which were major polluters -- including one plant near Waukegan.

Other plants stayed open and took corrective action. US Steel Corporation, under court order, installed a complete water-recycling system in its South Works in Chicago in 1970. With complex air-emissions controls also installed, South Works is part of a vastly changed Great Lakes steel complex that produces 55 million tons of steel in the US and 12 million tons in Canada each year -- quite cleanly.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) of the United States and Canada reported in 1978 that Great Lakes steel plants from 1967 to 1977 reduced overall discharges by 78 percent for ammonia, 74 percent for suspended solid, 80 percent for phenols, 77 percent for oil and grease, and 69 percent for cyanide.

Today, however, the IJC warns there is more work to be done. A recent IJC report concluded that "the disposal of hazardous or toxic liquid and solid wastes, generated by the intense industrial activity in the Great Lakes basin, is a matter of urgent and immediate concern." A recent Library of Congress report issued a similar warning.

Another group deeply concerned with Great Lakes pollution is the Great Lakes Basin Commission, representing all eight Great Lakes states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.)

The basin commission is campaigning hard at state and local levels to prove that even hazardous wastes can be reprocessed and marketed.

One of the leaders in this new field is the 3M Company of St. Paul, Minn. Its experimental "3P" program -- "Pollution Prevention Pays" -- has already saved $32.1 million, according to 3M officials.

One company reprocessing used automobile oil, Berks Associates, Inc., of Pottstown, Pa., created a market for the pollutants cleaned out of the oil: Rather than becoming a contributor to future Love Canal sites, it is being packaged and sold for tarring roofs.

Only 7 percent of motor oil is currently being reprocessed. The rest, one way or another, is not simply being wasted -- it's going underground, adding to the future costs of cleaning up our soil and water.

Getting full value of "waste" motor oil, the Great Lakes Basin Commission points out, pays many dividends: a new product from waste, profit for the clever producer, a cleaner environment for all -- and it's all being done without adding a single new government regulation or employee.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...