Delicate Ecosystem, Heavy Industry

Great Lakes region weighs the economic demands of manufacturing with the environment's needs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ALONG the shore of Lake Michigan in northwest Indiana, steel mills rumble and flash like distant thunderclouds and dump out vast hills of slag that seem to push back the lake itself.

The towering mills spew a dense, rust-colored haze of heavy-metal smoke. The corrosive gas apparently has eaten away all life except for clumps of brown grasses clutching the shoreline dunes.

Sharing the shoreline with the factories, however, is the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the home for the richest biological diversity per acre of any national park in the United States, federal scientists say.

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Scientists have gained such profound insights from the 1,445 species of plant life at the park that it is called the birthplace of ecological science.

Still, the lakeshore has suffered significant losses in biodiversity and today is badly threatened by human development, federal scientists say. Indeed, pollution has harmed nature more in northwest Indiana than anywhere else in the intensively industrialized Great Lakes Basin, according to a 1991 Environmental Protection Agency report.

For much of this century, the unique strip of fragile verdure on the lakeshore has been bound in a destructive marriage with heavy industry. Nowhere else in the United States has mankind forced a tighter embrace between such a rare natural beauty and such an overbearing industrial beast, says Richard Whitman, chief of the National Biological Survey at the Dunes.

Now the same dunes that offered scientists a better understanding of plants and animals could help people find a way to bring nature and industry into harmony in the basin and other polluted regions, federal officials say.

This month the Great Lakes Commission, an interstate agency formed to protect the environment and promote the economy in the basin, plans to propose an initiative to restore plants and animals at the Dunes in a way compatible with economic growth.

The commission's Sustainable Development Initiative for Northwest Indiana could be a model for similar efforts elsewhere, because it would reconcile the greatest extremes of both industrial pollution and delicate biological diversity, says Michael Donahue, executive director of the commission.

If people can ensure lasting coexistence between frail nature and heavy industry on the fouled southern shores of Lake Michigan, they can probably do so anywhere else in the basin and beyond it, Dr. Donahue says.

This month the Great Lakes Commission, an interstate agency formed to protect the environment and promote the economy in the basin, plans to propose an initiative to restore plants and animals at the dunes in a way compatible with economic growth.

The commission's Sustainable Development Initiative for Northwest Indiana could be a model for similar efforts elsewhere, because it would reconcile the greatest extremes of both industrial pollution and delicate biological diversity, says Michael Donahue, executive director of the commission.

If people can ensure lasting coexistence between frail nature and heavy industry on the fouled southern shores of Lake Michigan, they could probably do so anywhere, says James Hartung, director of the Port of Indiana and a board member of a business coalition called the Northwest Indiana Industry Forum.

Successful efforts at sustainable development in the basin would benefit man and nature far beyond the region. The five lakes hold the largest store of surface fresh water in the world, or nearly 20 percent of earth's total.

Endangered habitat

Moreover, the Great Lakes watershed is home to some 100 species and 31 ecological communities that are rare or imperiled worldwide. Half of them are either unique or best represented in the 210,000-square-mile basin, according to a recent report by the Nature Conservancy, a private environmental group.

At least 38 million Americans and Canadians rely on the lakes to some degree for their livelihood, drinking water, and recreation. Despite reports of ``Rust Belt'' decline, the basin is still the industrial hub for North America, churning out more paper, steel, and automobiles than any other region.

Great Lakes natives desperately need a way to harmonize their grimy economy with their unique but battered environment. They are subjected to more toxic substances than people in any other North American region of similar size, according to Pollution Probe, an environmental group based in Toronto.

The shimmer of blue reflecting off the lakes today is deceiving. While the US and Canada have reduced the levels of phosphorous, sewage, and other conspicuous pollutants since the late 1960s, the levels of many invisible toxics have persisted or risen in recent years. Industry continues to pour long-lived contaminates into the lakes, where they settle in sediments and pose a lasting threat.

The toxic substances are widely viewed as the greatest danger to people and wildlife on the lakes. Some of the chemicals have been identified by scientists as carcinogens and are believed to hinder people's reproductive capabilities and damage human intelligence, according to reports quoted by the National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit group.

Nowhere is pollution in the basin more glaring than amid the factories and dunes along northwest Indiana's lakeshore. A visit to the smoggy dunes is like a return to America's bygone era of heavy industry, when pollution was a symbol of progress rather than of waste.

Steel mills on the lakeshore produce 25 percent of the nation's steel, alongside fossil fuel plants, four oil refineries, and many other factories.

In the past century, industry has left behind five federally mandated Superfund toxic-waste cleanup sites and more than 400 other places requiring government-managed clean-ups. Moreover, one-third of the 452 underground storage tanks registered in the area leak harmful chemicals, according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Much of the waste from the dunes flows into the Grand Calumet River in Gary and East Chicago, Ind., and the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal, an area widely considered the dirtiest of 42 polluted sites identified by the International Joint Commission. The body was formed by the United States and Canada in 1909 to monitor the lakes and resolve bilateral differences.

Each day, industries dump more than 1 billion gallons of waste into the river and canal, adding to the 5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment already there. Each year some 150,000 cubic yards of the poisonous outflow drains into Lake Michigan.

The gush of polluted air and water has significantly damaged the 13,000-acre patchwork of dunes run by the National Park Service, says Dr. Whitman of the National Biological Survey.

Rainfall in the area is 15 times more contaminated than the national average. Airborne ozone and sulfur compounds have ruined white pine forests and many other species of plant life. Ninety percent of the lichen species in the park have died off this century.

Three steel mills, a port, and two power plants are just some of the construction that pock the dunes and fragment many species into interbreeding enclaves. Five residential subdivisions blotch the sands; roads and a railroad scar the park down its entire 18-mile length.

The most stubborn threats are several exotic plants and animals that have invaded the dunes on the heels of man. Offshore, the zebra mussel and Asiatic clam have crowded out native species.

On land, black locust, garlic mustard, and some 300 other immigrant species have proliferated where people have trod. Purple loosestrife, native to Europe, is the most dogged and destructive new arrival. It pushes out lakeshore plants and severely degrades the diversity of plant life, according to Whitman.

Rich ecology

Still, the lakeshore remains one of the richest ecological communities in the Great Lakes, according to the Nature Conservancy.

The park owes its biological wealth to Lake Michigan. The lake moderates extremes of hot and cold, creating a unique crossroads for Canadian conifers, hardwood trees from the temperate forests of the eastern and northern United States, tall-grass prairies from the Midwest, and hearty species of cactus from the far south.

Also, the lake has gradually receded in the last 14,000 years and left behind ridges dividing different groups of plants and wildlife.

Early this century, Henry Cowles, a botanist at the University of Chicago, walked inland from the lake over dunes covered only by marram grass and through several distinct communities of plants. He noticed that the floral communities varied according to how long their soil had been exposed by the lake.

Eventually Dr. Cowles determined that on any given parcel of land, different plant and wildlife communities slowly succeed one another in sequence and ultimately give way to the dominant community of the region. For formulating this theory of succession, a keystone of ecological science, Cowles is known as the ``father of ecology.''

Environmentalists aim to restore Cowles's living laboratory by implementing a plan for ``sustainable development.''

A group representing governments, industries, universities, and environmental organizations plans to hold a Sustainable Development Congress late this year, a broad, grass-roots conclave for the diverse interests in northwest Indiana. The public meeting would seek to nurture a consensus over how to harmonize the economy and environment in the region.``There will be as much of a challenge in group dynamics and bringing people together as in any other aspect of the project,'' says Mr. Donahue of the Great Lakes Commission. He co-chairs the Science Advisory Board for the International Joint Commission and is a specialist in inter-governmental relations.

Indeed, a primary goal of the initiative is to find administrative mechanisms that reconcile the advocates of industry with champions for the environment, and enable them to cooperate on public policy, organizers say.

``Sustainable development'' has already brought together hirsute environmentalists and clean-shaven industrialists in part because each group can interpret the vague idea as it pleases.

The concept is very broadly defined as any effort to promote prosperity without compromising long-term environmental health. Pollution prevention is a cornerstone of the concept. Models for the idea are crude, however, because it has not been widely implemented.

Project organizers seek ``to take this esoteric term that gets bandied about with nobody quite knowing what it means, and actually apply it to a defined area and come up with some real projects for sustainable development,'' Donahue says.

The initiative is the first effort to apply the principles of sustainable development in a defined area. It would complement state and federal clean-up efforts in northwest Indiana by focusing on pollution prevention and broad, grass-roots consensus-building among the myriad interest groups in the area, Donahue says.

Project organizers acknowledge that environmentalists and industrialists might only agree on toothless ways to put industry and nature in sync, because they often embrace contradictory interpretations of sustainable development.

Shifting the problem

Moreover, the organizers say that until sustainable development programs are widely applied elsewhere, some factories might try to shift pollutants outside northwest Indiana rather than curb or treat their waste.

Finally, the organizers acknowledge that because of their limited understanding of nature, they will find it difficult to determine when the economy and environment have reached a benign balance.

Despite its limits, the initiative has apparently made progress even before its start by bringing together environmental activists and the leaders of heavy industry.

``These people come from either ends of the spectrum, but they realize we don't have the luxury anymore of taking extreme positions,'' says Michael Stewart, a research ecologist with the National Biological Survey in the dunes.

``The time has come for environmentalists and `developmentalists' to stop fighting through the media and start communicating with each other face to face with a very clearly structured agenda for progress,'' says Port of Indiana director Hartung.

Organizers say the tone of compromise will probably be tested by controversial efforts in the basin to eliminate DDT, PCBs, dieldrin, toxaphene, and seven other persistent toxic substances identified by the International Joint Commission. Chlorine and its compounds are also under review.

The bilateral commission noted in a report last month that Canada and the US have failed to fulfill a 1978 commitment to phase out the invisible, long-lasting, and little-understood toxics.

The US Environmental Protection Agency allows industries to dump many of the toxics into the lakes at prescribed levels. It claims that total elimination of most substances is unwarranted because so little is known about them. Of the 30,000 chemicals poured into the lakes, only a small fraction has been tested for toxicologic harm.

The joint commission asserts that the likelihood of injury is so great for humans and wildlife that companies should be required to prove the substances are benign before discharging them.

The commission also chides Canada and the US for tolerating any levels of toxics in the lakes, noting that many of the chemicals accumulate at high levels in birds, fish, humans, and other living things.

How toxics concentrate

Wildlife and humans at the top of the food chain are especially vulnerable to magnified concentrations of the harmful chemicals. For example, herring gulls in the basin have been found with levels of PCBs 30 million times greater than the water in their native lakes, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Moreover, a person would have to drink Great Lakes water for more than 1,000 years in order to accumulate the same amount of PCBs as eating a lake trout weighing two pounds, according to a report last year by the International Joint Commission.

It will take several hundred years for tainted water to completely flow out of the basin. Even then, toxics would remain in lake sediments.

Until the release of toxics is banned, environmental groups have called on Washington to expand the list of chemicals that industries must register before discharging them.

Since 1987, citizens' groups have held large companies accountable to the Toxics Release Inventory of 320 persistent toxic substances. Environmentalists want the roster to include the tens of thousands of other chemicals pumped into the lakes.

The dazzling myriad of species at the lakeshore park in Indiana suggests that at least some Great Lakes plants and animals can endure the pollution and other kinds of human intrusion at least for a while.

``The Indiana Dunes landscape has demonstrated that nature does hang on,'' Whitman says.

But over the long term, he adds, the rich range of plants and animals might prove to be a fading vestige that lacks sufficient resiliency to revive itself.

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