Great Lakes Getting Cleaner, EPA Reports

Published July 1, 2005

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Environment Canada have announced good news about North America’s environment.

The 2004 Annual Progress Report on the Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy, released in June 2005, documents progress in dealing with a particularly nasty suite of persistent, toxic chemicals that accumulate in the environment with increasing concentration up the food web. These are pollutants of national and international concern, as they have pronounced effects on the biota and fisheries of the Great Lakes and the people who rely on them, because of the size of the lakes and the longer residence time of the contaminants in such huge bodies of water.

Ambitious Goals Being Met

The strategy was the result of a 1997 agreement between the U.S. and Canada “to virtually eliminate toxic substances” from the Great Lakes to meet previous commitments under their Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Success is within reach with respect to priority pollutants such as mercury, PCBs, dioxins/furans (furans are a colorless, volatile liquid compound similar to dioxin), and hexachlorobenzene (HCB), the report shows.

Using “Great Lakes” in the title is somewhat confusing since the goals for both countries are mostly national in scope. But these waters are major receptors of the pollutants addressed in the strategy. Many of these pollutants travel great distances in the air. Some, such as mercury, cycle globally. Nevertheless, the 2004 report gives us a snapshot of tremendous progress that extends well beyond the Great Lakes region.

Of the 17 reduction goals set forth for the top 12 toxic substances (“Level 1”) back in 1997, “ten have been met, three will be met by the target timeline date of 2006, and the remaining four will be well advanced toward meeting the targets by 2006,” the report states.

Big Mercury Reductions Achieved

Regarding mercury, the subject of much debate in Washington these days, the report notes the U.S. has met its national mercury use reduction goal of 50 percent, and currently has reduced use by more than 50 percent based on a 1990 baseline. Mercury is now out of batteries, paints, high school labs, some illuminated tennis shoes, and other products. In the mid-1990s, Gov. John Engler of Michigan worked with the Big Three auto companies to phase out the 9.8 metric tons of mercury used in convenience light switches under hoods and trunks annually.

The chlor-alkali industry accounted for almost 35 percent of U.S. mercury use in 1995, and the industry’s total mercury use decreased 76 percent between 1995 and 2003 (with some plant closures). The fluorescent lamp industry reported using 6 tons of mercury in 2003, down from 32 tons in 1997.

The Canadians are also making great progress toward a 90 percent reduction goal (based on a 1988) baseline. They are now at 83 percent.

These are figures for the deliberate use of mercury, not emissions per se. U.S. mercury emissions decreased approximately 45 percent between 1990 and 1999, according to the annual report. Significant reductions in emissions from municipal waste combustors and medical waste incinerators, achieved by 1999, resulted from regulatory mandates under the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. New reductions to be achieved from regulation of the power industry pursuant to the new Clean Air Mercury Rule will eventually cut those mercury emissions by nearly a further 70 percent.

Other Pollution Sources Slashed

The 2004 Annual Progress Report recognizes tremendous progress by the U.S. and Canada in reducing emissions of dioxins and furans. The U.S. projected a 92 percent reduction in nationwide releases of these pollutants by the end of 2004 (the actual figures for the year have yet to be tabulated and released) against a goal of 75 percent by 2006. Canada stands at 84 percent and expects to meet its 2000 target of 90 percent by 2005.

PCBs, second only to mercury as a cause of fish consumption advisories nationally, are also a top priority of the Binational Toxics Strategy. PCBs were banned by law many years ago, but they were still in use at the time the strategy was conceived. In the United States approximately 87,000 transformers and 143,000 capacitors containing PCBs were disposed of between the 1994 baseline and the end of 2002. This represents reductions of 43.5 percent and 10 percent respectively.

G. Tracy Mehan III was assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency and director of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, serving in the cabinet of Gov. John Engler. He is a consultant with the Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm. This article first appeared on National Review Online.

For more information …

The 2004 Annual Progress Report on the Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy is available online at