U.S., Canada urged to ramp up lakes pollution fight
Written by Rochester Democrat   
Friday, 17 February 2006 17:40

If a copper smelter in Ontario, Canada, or a car factory in Pontiac, Mich., pollutes the air, residents of Rochester won't see billows of smoke. But they will feel its impact in Lake Ontario's cleanliness, biodiversity and even taste.

"It all adds up," said Laura Arney of Pittsford, who serves as a local spokeswoman for the Sierra Club on water quality issues. "Upstream determines what the water quality is like downstream."

That's why an international agreement to govern water quality is so critical, according to several environmental groups that joined forces to prepare an analysis of all major industrial polluters in the 200,000-square-mile Great Lakes basin.

Significant progress has been made, but total pollution levels remain high — a fact that lawmakers and residents of the basin need to consider as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is updated during the next year, said Rachel Heckl of the nonprofit group Great Lakes United.

The agreement, first signed by the United States and Canada in 1978, is designed to coordinate efforts to combat pollution throughout the Great Lakes watershed.

"The whole system is connected, and it's really on the brink of an irreversible degradation," said Heckl, who is based in Buffalo.

The lakes hold one-fifth of the world's fresh water and provide drinking water for 42 million people, including those served by the Monroe County Water Authority, which draws from Lake Ontario.

But the historically industrial basin also provides a home to 20 percent of all American manufacturing and about half of all the automobile production in the United States and Canada.

More than 220 million pounds of pollutants were discharged into the air and 11.6 million pounds into water within the lakes' watersheds in 2002, the most recent year for which information was available to create this snapshot of the region.

The report combines data from the Toxic Release Inventory, an industrial pollution database maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Pollutant Release Inventory, a similar effort by the Canadian government. In total, more than 4,000 facilities were scrutinized.

Neither nation is blameless.

About 51 percent of air pollution originated on the American side of the border and 49 percent from Canadian companies. Lake Erie had the largest air pollution problem, followed by Lake Ontario, with electric utilities the largest source of air pollution in both countries, the report said.

Although more total air pollution comes from the United States, which has more shoreline within its borders, the pollution per facility was 73 percent higher in Canada — about 43,000 pounds of pollution here per facility compared with nearly 75,000 pounds there.

However, American companies were responsible for three-quarters of all the water pollution cited in the study.

"I think the numbers speak for themselves," said Fe de Leon, a researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association in Toronto. "There's a loading of chemicals into our air, our water ... it suggests we're not doing enough."

De Leon hopes that the revised agreement puts more focus on the cumulative effects of pollution. Though each of the facilities meets legal pollution limits most of the time, the total numbers will remain problematic until regulators consider the environmental quality of the basin as a whole, she said.

"The (Rochester) embayment is at the downstream end of a watershed that begins in Pennsylvania," said Charlie Knauf of the Monroe County Department of Environmental Services.

"The watershed doesn't respect a municipal boundary," Knauf said, describing the pollutants that enter the Great Lakes from erosion and runoff along the Genesee River, as well as from atmospheric pollution that drifts east on the prevailing winds.

Eastman Kodak Co. remains the single biggest polluter on Lake Ontario and one of the few companies to appear on both the air and water pollution lists included in the report. In 2002, Kodak reported about 3.7 million pounds of air emissions and more than 500,000 pounds of water emissions. A survey of more recent Toxic Release Inventory data reveals that 2002 was not an exceptional year. While air emissions went down in 2003, water emissions rose.

Christopher Veronda, a Kodak spokesman, said that any list built on the Toxic Release Inventory overlooks the growing category of nonpoint sources of air and water pollution, such as vehicle exhaust and urban and agricultural runoff. Emissions from Kodak Park have been declining over the past 20 years and make up a smaller proportion of overall pollution than in decades past, he said.

Many environmental groups are making a similar case.

Every homeowner and business can affect water quality, "whether it's for good or bad," Arney said.

De Leon said that the revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement must address the impact of pollutants from multiple sources building up over many years, and to do so, environmental regulations in both countries must be comparable.

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