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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Making a Difference Contest Promo

Air Date: Week of


CURWOOD: After two years in regulatory limbo, the Environmental Protection Agency has released sweeping new draft rules aimed at controlling pollution in the Great Lakes. The rules were held up for nearly two years by the Bush Administration, and were finally released only under orders of a Federal judge. When the rules go into effect, they'll form the basis of a comprehensive plan to restrict toxic contamination in the Great Lakes, which together form the world's largest freshwater system. Doug Johnson of Michigan Public Radio has our story.

JOHNSON: Stretching from Minnesota to New York State, the Great Lakes Basin is a vast region, home to over forty million people and 95 percent of the United States' fresh surface water. But the mighty lakes aren't invulnerable: over the years, a host of persistent toxic chemicals, such as PCB's and dioxins, have found their way into the Great Lakes food chain, affecting fish, wildlife and even human populations. The draft rules, once adopted, will set one standard across the region for reducing the flow into the waters of such bio-accumulative toxics from industrial pipes and municipal wastewater treatment plants. James Hanlon, the EPA's acting director of the Office of Science and Technology, says because of the sheer number of substances and sources targeted by the initiative, it's the most comprehensive project ever undertaken by the EPA.

HANLON: The impact, we believe, will require local governments, municipalities, local industries to look very closely at their discharges, their effluents and their internal processes to assess what the source of any toxics contamination are, in particular the bio-accumulative chemicals of concern.

JOHNSON: The rules, however, almost never saw the light of day. Completed and slated for public comment in 1991, the EPA shelved the plan, keeping it from public view. The National Wildlife Federation brought suit last year, charging that by holding the report the EPA was violating both a Congressional mandate and the Clean Water Act. Ultimately a Federal judge ordered the EPA to release the rules. The new standards will cost the region $2.7 billion over ten years, and according to those calculations, much of those costs will fall directly onto the industries and wastewater treatment plants that ring the lakes.

NIEL: We are concerned that there may be very little benefit for the costs of this program because of the very narrow focus.

JOHNSON: Karen Niel is with the Great Lakes Water Quality Coalition, as association of Great Lakes manufacturers and local governments. Niel says the proposed rules would greatly increase the cost of doing business in the region with limited benefits, a position she hopes will be borne out by other studies.

NIEL: We estimate that the cost is far greater than what has been put forth in EPA's preliminary economic analysis. We'll be very interested in seeing an economic analysis that the Council of Great Lakes Governors is conducting, to determine what the impact of this initiative might be on the Great Lakes region both from the standpoint of output and jobs.

JOHNSON: Each of the Great Lakes states currently set its own water quality standards, a situation that has led to competition among the eight states to lower their standards and attract sorely-needed industries. While the new EPA rules would eliminate that regional competition, Tracy Mehan, head of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, says the new rules may put the region as a whole at a disadvantage in relation to other regions with lower water quality standards.

MEHAN: I think we've got to also discuss thoroughly not just the idea of leveling the playing field regionally but also what does this do to the region in terms of its competitiveness nationally and internationally.

JOHNSON: But environmentalists like Dick Kubiak aren't troubled by the prospect of higher costs and taxes in exchange for cleaner water. Kubiak, president of the region-wide organization Great Lakes United, warns the costs of not doing anything are simply too high.

KUBIAK: What will be the costs in respiratory diseases, what will be the costs in cancers, what will be the costs in childrens' abnormal behavior, the behavior abnormalities that we're seeing in kids now? What about lower IQ's? All of those things are costs that are now being paid by we the citizenry as a result of allowing this toxic loading in the Basin. We need to stop that.

JOHNSON: The new EPA standards probably won't be finalized for at least two years; it's expected to take another two years for the eight Great Lakes states to put them into practice. But the clean-up process will not end there. Already EPA researchers have begun work on a set of rules protecting the waters of the Great Lakes from sources such as air pollution and agricultural runoff. Given the scope of the Great Lakes basin, it's expected that set of rules won't be finished until after the century's turn. For Living on Earth in East Lansing, Michigan, this is Doug Johnson.



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