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

The Blob in Lake Superior

Air Date: Week of

Fred Jones of Canadian radio station CBQ reports from Thunder Bay, Ontario on a huge chemical blob that lurks below the surface of Lake Superior. For years, chemicals used to treat lumber have been slowly dripping into Thunder Bay's harbor, settling to the bottom and creating a "hot spot" — a highly toxic area the size of two football fields. Local observers say the failure to clean up the Blob reflects the political and scientific difficulties surrounding the health of the entire lake.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Lake Superior is the second-largest body of fresh water in world, outranked only by Lake Baikal in Siberia; and like Baikal, Superior is in trouble. The biggest threat is toxic contamination, and its sources are numerous. The toxics come from local industry, from agriculture, and from remote parts of the world, carried on atmospheric currents and deposited by rain and snow. Two years ago the Federal governments of the US and Canada, and the four state and provincial governments bordering Lake Superior, agreed to combine their efforts to ensure tough compliance with environmental laws by all industry operating in the Lake Superior Basin. But much pollution still continues. Today we visit two lakefront regions - one in Canada and the other in the US - that are confronting the problems and promises of cleaning up the sources of contamination. The largest estuary on Lake Superior is Thunder Bay. For decades the city of Thunder Bay has thrived on its port traffic, much of it from the logging industry that's been so important to the region. But the wood products industry has also contributed to some serious problems. Just below the surface of the bay, a hot spot of toxic trouble has been literally brewing for almost half a century. Fred Jones of Radio Station CBQ in Thunder Bay has our story.

(Sound of foghorn)

JONES: The hot spot is called the Blob. It hovers below Lake Superior's surface, in front of a pier in Thunder Bay Harbor. The Blob is a horrible cocktail of creosote and such tongue-twisters as pentachlorophenol, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and PCB's - all this mixed together in dense and dangerous levels.

(Sound of sawmill)

JONES: This sawmill and preserving plant sits on the pier. It prepares lumber for markets in the United States and overseas. Workers here make railroad ties and the kind of wood we'd use to build a deck around the house. For 50 years, the soil on this pier has been saturated with the drippings of the highly toxic chemical mix used to preserve the wood. The size of this contaminated area is mind-boggling - 50,000 cubic meters, enough toxic muck to fill boxcars of a train more than one and a half miles long. And that's just what's on the land. For 50 years this cocktail has also oozed out into the water, and onto the harbor floor, to form the Blob. Bob Hartley is a biology teacher. He also works with the local remedial action plan. He's a long-time community conservationist. now looking at ways to clean up the soil and get rid of the Blob in the harbor floor.

HARTLEY: You have this pool of organic creosote, preservative-type material, with a variety of different, horrendous molecules that one would certainly not want to bathe in or drink unless you want to be instantly sick. It's much denser than water, and it's, thank goodness, fairly immiscible with water, it does not dissolve, mix with water. However, with a big ship close by and its propellers all awhirl and doing their job, these little things roll to the surface and appear for a short while and then settle back down to the bottom. So, one wants to stop, there's two aspects - you've got to stop the ongoing drip, you've got to contain it, and you've got to clean it.

JONES: The present mill operator, Northern Wood, is owned by Buchanan Forest Products. This firm, with a less-than-glowing environmental record, is the first group to actually take concrete measures to stop the toxic drip. Company official Tom Ingliss.

INGLISS: We put a dike around the penta cylinders, so that the drip, which is about 95 percent of what came on to the ground is now contained and recycled into the operation. The balance of five percent that went out onto the tracks is now being contained by putting felt down where the water runs through it and the oil will be retained on the top. So we feel now that we have or very shortly will have contained 100 percent of any contamination going into the soil.

JONES: So that leaves the contaminated soil under the factory, the continuing seepage into the lake, and the Blob still to be dealt with.

(Sound of underwater air bubbles from diving, fade under)

JONES: Take a dive beneath the surface of Lake Superior, right in front of the pier. Matthew Haringer did. He doesn't like to talk about it, but in 1986, he was hired to strap on his scuba gear, swim down, and explore how far this poisonous brew has spread. What Matthew found was an area of the harbor floor the size of two football fields, permeated with a toxic seepage. Later that day, when Matthew hung his diving suit up to dry, the neoprene stretched like melted mozzarella from contact with the Blob. Back here on the surface, passing boaters describe the water above the Blob. It sometimes looks like a gasoline slick, oily and rainbow-hued. It's an environmentalist's nightmare. Bob Hartley says the problem is unique - nowhere else have scientists found such a stew of chemicals beside a busy waterway.

HARTLEY: Organisms and fish do move through the area and that creates a problem, and wind action, wave action, prop action tends to disperse this over larger areas, and toxic materials, and we're talking real toxic molecules, they will eventually enter into a variety of food chains, if they haven't already, and the ultimate receiver of these food chains is you and I.

JONES: It's not as if this hot spot is newly discovered. The problem has been known for two decades. So why hasn't it been cleaned up? Well, a big reason must be a lack of political will - the will necessary to cut through a complicated maze of competing jurisdictions, to face the economic pressures to preserve hundreds of jobs and ever-changing government priorities. But also this pollution continues because scientists can't decide what cleanup method to use, and efforts made ten years ago to contain the problem failed. Now the continuing problem of seepage has become so scary that everyone involved has finally agreed to get moving. They want to worry later about who's going to pay the bill - a bill experts have estimated could be $3 to 5 million dollars - relatively cheap in the expensive world of environmental cleanup. But Bob Hartley says it's still a slow process.

HARTLEY: There is something we want to look at and do with the cooperation of the Northern Wood Preservatives company, and the owners of the property and the past operators of the property and come to a way of doing it that's going to make Northern Wood Preservatives a viable company still, and stop the ongoing problem and rectify what's already happened.

JONES: So there's been lots of study and lots of talk, but the pollution into the lake continues, and the Blob still hovers just below the surface of Thunder Bay Harbor. The latest Lake Superior cleanup initiative draws our attention to this kind of problem. There's much less willingness to continue the talking. Environmentalists around the lake are looking for action. Yet success demands a new political will to rid Lake Superior of hot spots like the Blob. I'm Fred Jones, at Thunder Bay.



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