The New England Journal of Medicine has a few choice words for officials responding to the Flint water crisis, and they aren’t pretty.
Yesterday, the Journal posted a lengthy editorial piece titled “Lead Contamination in Flint – and Abject Failure to Protect Public Health” by Dr. David Bellinger. There is an interview with Dr. Bellinger attached to the article.
Dr. Bellinger chronicles historical treatment of lead and lead poisoning, demonstrating that its damaging effects have been public knowledge for millennia – well prior to the Flint water crisis. He outlines efforts on part of the U.S. federal government to reduce public exposure to lead through tight regulation on paint and gasoline additives. As a result, lead levels in blood have been significantly reduced in the American population through decisive, preventative action.
Detailing the background on Flint, Dr. Bellinger laments on the tragi-comedy of errors which went into the making of the city’s present day water woes. Sourcing water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron; removing EPA-mandated corrosion-control treatments; the addition of ferric chloride to the water. He states: “The water reaching consumers was therefore 19 times as corrosive as it had been when the source was Lake Huron. The more corrosive water is, the more readily it can dissolve metals such as lead. So the lead concentration in Flint’s water began to rise.”
Dr. Bellinger goes on to discuss the socio-economic and health fallout from the “cost-saving” decision of city and state officials. Rising lead levels in Flint hit children the hardest, he says. The children of economically disadvantaged families are particularly vulnerable. “In Flint, 4 in 10 families live below the poverty line, unemployment is high, and the majority of the population is black. In general, disadvantaged children are exposed to more lead than their wealthier counterparts because they are more likely to live in houses in poor repair that still harbor deteriorating lead paint, to live in urban neighborhoods with greater soil and dust lead concentrations from traffic and industrial activities, and to have nutritional deficiencies that increase lead absorption.”
He points out that proactive prevention is cheaper than reactive scrambling. “Although the cost of repairing Flint’s water infrastructure is uncertain, estimates range as high as $1.5 billion. The cost of reducing the corrosivity of the Flint River water at the time of the change would have been minimal, perhaps $100 per day — proving again that prevention is generally cheaper than remediation and treatment.” He suggests that money and time being currently allocated to fight lawsuits could have been spent instead on a number of beneficial social programs for Flint residents.
The article ends with damning words for public officials who are handling Flint’s water crisis.
“It is notable that the Flint contamination might never have been brought to light had citizens not persisted in efforts to force local, state, and federal officials to take action. This is not the way public health protection should work, and the crisis appears to reflect failures at every level of government. In 1969, environmentalist René Dubos warned that the problem of childhood lead poisoning “is so well-defined, so neatly packaged, with both causes and cures known, that if we don’t eliminate this social crime, our society deserves all the disasters that have been forecast for it.”5 We have yet to fully respond to Dubos’s admonition.
We have the knowledge required to redress this social crime. We know where the lead is, how people are exposed, and how it damages health. What we lack is the political will to do what should be done.”
A recent study done by researchers from Michigan Technological University suggests that methyl mercury contamination is a concern on both sides of Lake Superior.
Published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research last fall, an article titled “Legacy mercury releases during copper mining near Lake Superior” tackled the presence of residual mercury from mining operations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Professor W. Charles Kerfoot, a biology prof and director of Lake Superior Ecosystem Researcher at Michigan Tech, became curious about the mine tailings buried in waterways around campus. He told Allison Mills of the Michigan Tech News that “we document [mining] was discharging mercury at 1000 times the normal deposition rate in the region.” The research aimed to quantify this deposition, “and it was a real wake up call.”
Kerfoot set out with Noel Urban, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Center for Water and Society at MTU, and a team of researchers to collect core samples by boat. The team was looking to quantify how much mercury from the mining operations had turned up in Keweenaw Waterway and Torch Lake, and then to see how much had become methyl mercury over time. The watersheds mentioned are connected to Lake Superior.
Mills explains: “Booms and busts rocked not just the area’s economy, but also heavy metal fluxes. Naturally, some metals – including mercury – make their way into water bodies. Mining speeds up that process, and the more mining, smelting, and processing taking place, then the more heavy metals get deposited.”
While mercury is not toxic in its organic form, methyl mercury can be formed by bacteria, which then enters the food chain. Methyl mercury is the big concern: it can cause a host of health damages to both the ecosystem and the species dependent on it.
Canadian ports are no stranger to concerns over mercury contamination as well. Just last week, the Thunder Bay Public Advisory Committee sent a letter to local MPPs, Port Authority reps, and local media lamenting the lack of clean up for mercury in the North Harbour of Thunder Bay.
Kerfoot tells Mills that the goal was to compare mercury deposits with methyl mercury deposits to create a timeline and see how long it takes for methylation to occur. He says that their results “reveal that methylation occurred at the time of mining operations and shortly afterwards, with an apparent time lag of 20 to 40 years.”
To flesh out the findings, Kerfoot wants to scale up the next step of research. This will help understand the time lag, and draw more connection between local economic activity and regional environmental impact. He suggests that the research in Keweenaw gives other researchers a baseline for comparison at similar sites around Lake Superior.
Hopefully the publishing of new research can stimulate discussion around remediation projects to clean up the contamination, such as the proposed measures in Thunder Bay’s North Harbour and other affected areas.
A copy of the Journal of Great Lakes Research article is below.
The big boats are back.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit, MI, sent the below press release to celebrate the beginning of the 2016 shipping season. The Corps opened the Soo Locks on March 25th between Sault Ste Marie, MI and Sault Ste Marie, ON.
They mention that the first down-bound ship they received was the MV Edwin H. Gott, the first freighter Duluth Port Authority bid goodbye to this season.
According to the Detroit News, some 4000 commercial freighters travel through the Soo Locks each year, carrying everything from iron, ore, low-sulfur coal, to limestone between Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes. This article from 2014 on michigan.org estimates the traffic at a higher 7000 freighters. (The article has plenty more fast facts on the Soo Locks, for shipping aficionados!)
The article quotes Duluth Port Authority likening the opening of Soo Locks to another giddy season opening: ““The opening of the Soo Locks is, for us, the opening day of baseball,” Vanta Coda, Duluth Seaway Port Authority executive director, said in a news release. “It’s the excitement of a new season — the anticipation of seeing ships underway and commerce flowing in and out of the Duluth-Superior Harbor beneath the iconic Lift Bridge.”
The press release reads as follows:
For Immediate Release:
Soo Locks opens, 2016 shipping season gets underway
Contact: Jeff Hawk, 313-226-4680
DETROIT – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District, announces the Soo Locks in
Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., opened Friday, March 25, marking the beginning of the 2016 Great Lakes shipping season.
“The up bound Motor Vessel Roger Blough, an 858-foot freighter, was the first ship to enter the Poe Lock at 12:01 a.m.,” said Mark Aldrich, lockmaster. “It was followed by the down bound Motor Vessel Edwin H. Gott.”
“The Soo Locks are a vital component to the Great Lakes Navigation System,” said Lt. Col. Michael L. Sellers, district engineer. “I am proud of the entire District team in Sault Ste. Marie for successfully conducting another aggressive winter work program in order to ensure reliability of this critical link.”
The locks were closed on Jan. 15 and underwent critical repairs and maintenance during the winter shutdown. Crews had somewhat of a reprieve to the harsh conditions experienced over the past two winters and have performed extensive maintenance on several different items related to the Poe Lock’s Miter Gates. The work involved completion of the installation of a new hydraulic operating system and continued interim repairs to the embedded gate anchorages. Other major efforts included sandblasting, structural repairs and painting of MacArthur Lock dewatering bulkheads. The MacArthur Lock, located beside the Poe, will continue undergoing maintenance for several weeks.
The Detroit District operates and maintains the Soo Locks along with 91 harbors and connecting channels on lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, St. Clair and the portion of Lake Erie that borders the State of Michigan.
Acting Chief of Public Affairs
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
It wasn’t quite a photo finish, but 20,000 tonnes of metric weight might slow you down a bit, too.
Thunder Bay Port Authority, industry professionals, and shipping enthusiasts watched with baited breath to see whether the MV Tecumseh or the MV Algoma Equinox would be the first to make it into Thunder Bay’s harbour on Saturday. The MV Tecumseh managed to grind out a win with 45 minutes to spare ahead of the Algoma Equinox, and Tecumseh Captain Kevin Collard was presented with an award on Monday. According to the Chronicle Journal, it is the crew’s second first-in-port award in a row inThunder Bay.
Though the victory was welcomed, the Tecumseh crew wasn’t even aware it was a race until the last 24 hours of the journey. The ship left from Windsor, ON and was scheduled to load the aforementioned 20,000 tonnes of wheat, soy, and canola bound for Sorel, QC. The freighter was due to leave Monday evening. A mild spring and early ice breakup paved the way for an early start to the shipping season. MarineTraffic.com reports that the ship is in Lake Erie at the time of writing.
With the Great Lakes freighter (‘laker’) competition out of the way, all eyes turn to see which ocean vessel (‘salty’) will be the first to port Guy Jarvis of the Thunder Bay Port Authority speculated to CBC the first vessel was to approach the harbour by Tuesday night with a Wednesday docking. If the salty did come in last night, it would break the March 30th record for being the earliest ocean vessel in port. We’ve yet to see anything confirmed, but we’ll be on the lookout for the victor!
Several local news outlets covered the exciting race. Full coverage can be found at the following:
A short documentary by MotherBoard called “The Dirty Secret at the Bottom of the Great Lakes: Oil and Water”, released in August 2015, explores anxiety over an aging oil pipeline in the Great Lakes. It is said to be a “ticking time bomb” by a National Wildlife Federation rep in the video.
Over 60 years old, the oil pipeline in question is Enbridge’s Line 5, which lies in the Mackinac Strait between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. In the doc, filmmaker Spencer Chumbly details the history of oil spills in the Great Lakes regions and speaks with advocates, agencies, researchers, and oil reps to delve deeper into the concerns surrounding the pipeline’s age and condition.
Ph.D research scientist Dave Schwab from University of Michigan Ann Arbor created a computer simulated projection of how a break in the pipeline would affect the strait and lakes, seen here:
In the doc, he suggests to Spencer that the amount of water going through the strait at any given time is more than ten times what goes over Niagara Falls. He also projects that a best case scenario spill here would result in 1.5 million gallons.
Spencer speaks to one of the only remaining people alive who worked on the project, engineer Bruce Trudgen. Trudgen says the pipeline was only supposed to last 50 years, but that Enbridge continues to use it. He speculates that lack of proper supports and corrosion could mean major problems for the pipeline.
The documentary shows some footage from the National Wildlife Federation, and advocates for pipeline safety, who completed their own dive to assess the pipeline’s condition. Enbridge watched them as they did so. The 2013 footage showed some sections of pipeline completely unsupported, and some sections covered in debris. It is stated that Enbridge has put in 40 supports since.
Enbridge public relations rep Jason Manshum insists to Spencer and MotherBoard that the pipeline is routinely monitored and maintained. He also says that reports from outside organizations on the pipeline are “misleading” and “inaccurate.”
Using Enbridge’s own statistics and data, the documentary shows a map of major oil spills in the Great Lakes Region between 1999 and 2010.
Ultimately, Andy Buchsbaum of the National Wildlife Federation states that the pipeline is an ongoing concern for Great Lakes residents. He reports that the decision to replace or remove the line is left solely to Enbridge – that no state or federal risk parameters exist, despite a lengthy inquiry in 2014 by the Michigan Pipeline Task Force into the matter.
View the full video documentary here, on youtube. It runs 17 minutes.
A shipping regulation viscerally dubbed ‘swish-and-spit’ is being hailed as the breaking point in a century-long fight against invasive species in the Great Lakes. On March 28th, the Duluth News Tribune reported that there were “no new confirmed aquatic invasive species in [the] Great Lakes for 10 years.”
In 2006, a stringent regulation was introduced which requires ships to fill their ballast tanks out at sea, a salty death for any species which might survive and thrive in freshwater. The ships then release that ballast water before they cruise into the Great Lakes system. It’s said by some to have a 98% success rate at killing any species who pose threat. The measure was first suggested in 1993, but not passed by both the U.S. and Canada until 2006.
If the claim is true, it’s a “startling reversal of fortune” for the Great Lakes, which the Tribune reports has seen 185 new invasive species since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, roughly one new species every 28 weeks.
The Great Lakes Ballast Water Working Group boasts in a 2015 report that it has a 100% inspection rate for the vessels. According to the Tribune, “the inspection effort looked at 8,361 ballast tanks on the 455 vessels that entered the lakes.”
Going forward, U.S. regulatory bodies are seeking to hold the shipping industry to the same standard as companies and sewage treatment facilities, identified by the Clean Water Act of 2008. The U.S. Coast Guard, the EPA, and the International Maritime Organization are all looking into effective extermination methods for unwanted critters which hide in ballast tanks: combinations of UV light, chemicals, filters, and tech are on the docket.
Though the costs of outfitting and retrofitting freighter ships with ballast treatment is hefty, the Tribune quotes Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission, who insists that the treatments have preventative value and are a “great investment.” She contrasted the cost of preventative methods with expensive reactive cleanup efforts after species have invaded.
On the U.S. side, Minnesota and Wisconsin are to regulate and oversee freighter ships which never leave the Great Lakes system. Though shipping interests insist they are not to blame for invasive species introduction, regulators insist that their ballasts can still spread species which have already invaded. They will be holding Great Lakes freighters to IMO standards starting in 2018.
For the full story, please visit the Duluth News Tribune’s article here.
On May 10th, 2016, University of Wisconsin-Madison South will be hosting an summit titled Science, Policy & Water. The event aims to get conversation flowing between policy-makers, scientists, and citizens to form effective, informed protection for Wisconsin watersheds. Summit organizers want to ensure that water-related public policy is being backed by solid scientific research, and that lines of communication are open between all interested parties in the forming of these policies. Over the course of a day, attendees will hear about contemporary issues surrounding science and policy from politicians (present and retired), researchers, academics, environmental advocates, tribal leaders, and more. A list of lecture topics is included in the press release below.
Early bird registration ends April 1st, so hop to it if you want discounted rates! Final registration deadline for the event ends at noon on May 4th, 2016.
- Morning Keynote: “Science, Policy, and Uncertainty” with UW scientist Steve Ackerman
- Panel: “Shifting Currents – the State of Our Waters” with leading experts on water quality in Wisconsin
- Lunch Keynote: “Science, Policy & The Great Lakes” with IJC Commissioner Lana Pollack
- Panel: “Science & Policymaking” with a panel of current and past Wisconsin State Legislators and tribal leaders
- Panel: “Can We Save Green Bay?” with Steve Galarneau from the WI DNR, as well as four of the state’s foremost experts on Green Bay water quality and associated policy
- Closing: “Water, Science, Policy & Ethics” with Aldo Leopold Foundation Fellow Curt Meine
The first Progress Report on Great Lakes Strategy was released on March 22nd, coinciding with World Water Day and Canada Water Week. The Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate is bound under the Great Lakes Protection Act to report on key accountabilities every three years. The first Progress Report details how much the Ministry and its partners have accomplished since the release of the Great Lakes Strategy in 2012. The report represents the joint effort of over a dozen Great Lakes agencies and ministries, including Ontario’s MECC. As Minister Glen Murray writes in his introduction, the basic aim is to keep the Great Lakes “drinkable, swimmable, and fishable” for a future generations.
The Great Lakes Strategy outlined 6 key goals:
- Engaging and Empowering Communities
- Protecting water for human and ecological health
- Improving wetlands, beaches, and coastal areas
- Protecting habitats and species
- Enhancing understanding and adaptation
- Ensuring environmentally sustainable economic opportunities and innovation.
The report is broken down by these goals in a chapter-by-chapter basis, each chapter boasting a fast-fact header with bottom-line results for each. The report also takes some time to explain the new Great Lakes Protection Act, which was introduced in October 2015.
For a detailed look at the First Progress Report is accessible here, on the Government of Ontario’s website.
Bring your appetites – the second annual Michigan Seafood Summit is slated for April 9th in Traverse City, MI!
According to the event’s site, the summit aims to highlight aquaculture, commercial fisheries, and local seafood in Michigan. In what promises to be a mouth-watering celebration, you can rub shoulders with fish aficionado chefs, foodies, and fishery professionals as they sample the best in Great Lakes culinary treats. The event consists of two sessions, with an agenda that settles somewhere between conference and culinary feast. Of particular note is the multiple-course banquet prepared by star chefs from the Great Lakes Culinary Institute. Read on for the press release, and check out the summit’s site for details, registration, and accommodation options.
Attendees must register by April 1st – tickets are $50 per person.
Mark Breederland, Extension Educator, Northwest District, (231) 922-4628, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rhett Register, Communications Program Leader, (734) 647-0767, email@example.com
Now that’s what we call a full house: there was no sitting room left at the Thunder Bay Public Advisory Committee meeting, held at Lakehead University yesterday.
A diverse range of people came together to hear Doug Crump, a Biochemical/Molecular Toxicologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, speak about herring gull egg contamination.
Also on the docket was an education session and lively discussion around the PAC’s recent letter regarding lack of action around mercury contamination in North Harbour. The letter was sent to the Chronicle Journal editor, federal and provincial environmental Ministers, federal Minister of Transport, local MPPs, and Thunder Bay Port Authority. PAC members look forward to letters of response outlining future plans for harbour clean up.
Meeting attendees included North Shore residents, environmental interest groups, government representatives, and members of North Shore Steelhead Association, Thunder Bay Field Naturalists, ERCO Worldwide, and the Nipigon Bay PAC.
Attendees listened intently to Crump’s research, eager to greet him with inquiries during a question and answer period after the presentation. RAP coordinator Jim Bailey notes that the question and answer period had to be extended due to the number of questions forwarded.
Dougall Media was in attendance to cover the proceedings, following Chronicle-Journal, CBC, and Magic 99.9 coverage earlier in the week. PAC co-Chair Frank Edgson was interviewed after the meeting.
InfoSuperior and the RAP office would like to thank everyone who came out to the meeting, and we hope to see you at our next PAC meeting May 25th, 2016. This post will be updated with video and audio as Dougall Media releases it.