Great Lakes Environmental Controversies Heat Up

Published June 1, 1997

An ambitious, 25-year-old federal effort aimed at reducing water pollution in the Great Lakes region has undergone a steady erosion in public confidence in recent years. A growing number of critics in both the public and private sectors say the program has strayed so far off course from its original purpose that it has become more of a bone of contention between Washington and the states than an effective mechanism for addressing pollution in the Great Lakes.

In the eye of the storm is the International Joint Commission (IJC) established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 between the United States and Canada. Originally created to mediate water disputes along the U.S.-Canadian border in the Great Lakes, the IJC was given additional pollution oversight responsibilities in the 1970s and 1980s.

At first, the IJC’s environmental initiatives provoked little controversy. Its actions were focused on reducing the presence of phosphorus and persistent, bioaccummulative toxic substances in the lakes–goals supported by most observers of the IJC’s efforts.

But in recent years, the IJC has pursued a number of highly controversial policy recommendations, including the “virtual elimination” (not just zero discharge) of persistent, bioaccummulative toxics; the phase-out of chlorine and chlorine-containing compounds as industrial feedstocks; and the adoption of the principle of “reverse onus,” whereby the manufacturer or user of a suspected persistent toxic substance carries the burden of proving that it is not and will not be harmful.

“The chlorine recommendation set off a debate which polarized governments, industry, and environmentalists,” notes G. Tracy Mehan III, director of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes. Mehan adds that industry is now reluctant to participate in the IJC’s increasingly adversarial biennial meetings.

Also fueling the region’s discontent is EPA’s Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative (GLI). Launched in 1995, the GLI includes proposals that would significantly tighten controls on point- source pollution across the Great Lakes. In unveiling the GLI, EPA included a Benefits Analysis that estimated the benefits of the program to be $17,000 for each $1 million invested.

Overestimating the Benefits

But an analysis of EPA’s data by Daniel W. Smith of SMITH Technology Corporation concludes that the agency significantly overestimated the benefits of the program. “Benefits accrue from the estimated reduction in human cancer risk as a result of the decrease in point-source loading due to the initiative,” Smith points out. By using values that are more likely than those contained in EPA’s analysis, Smith found the benefits to be only $5 for each $1 million invested in the GLI. “Over the long term,” Smith notes, “one cancer should be averted sometime between now and the year 8086 after an expenditure of about $1.3 trillion.”

PF: Mehan’s remarks, first published in the February 1997 issue “Michigan Forward,” are available through PolicyFax. Call 847/202-4888 and request document #????????. Smith’s analysis, published in Environmental Science & Technology News (Vol. 31, No. 1, 1997) is also available through PolicyFax; request document #????????