IAGLR Great Lakes Revival Report Inspires Hope
Posted on: September 5, 2019
The International Association of the Great Lakes released the Great Lakes Revival report on August 13, 2019. It documents 10 Area of Concern case studies where clean-up and collaboration has lead to community revitalization.

In the current climate crisis, it is nice to come upon a positive story once in a while. The Great Lakes Revival report tells several such stories. It details some of the most important actions that citizens around the Great Lakes have committed to and delineates why funding for these efforts is so essential. Developed in response to the “Restoring the Great Lakes Areas of Concern” symposium at the 2017 International Association for Great Lakes Research conference, the report presents 10 unique case studies where contaminated waterways were, or are being, cleaned-up thereby reconnecting communities with their waterways: Buffalo River (NY), Collingwood Harbour (ON), Cleveland Flats and the Cuyahoga River (OH), Detroit River (MI), Hamilton Harbour (ON), Muskegon Lake (MI), River Raisin (Monroe, MI), Severn Sound (ON), St. Louis River (Duluth, MN and WI), and Toronto Harbour (ON).

Read the full report: Great Lakes Revival

Industry Boom to Bust

Each of these 10 AOC regions experienced substantial prosperity during the industrial revolution in the 1800s and into the early 1900s. Cities like Buffalo, Collingwood, and Duluth were critical port cities for transporting grain, lumber and iron. There was also substantial ship building industries in Collingwood and Duluth. In the 1880s, Cleveland was the centre of American petroleum production, being home to 90% of US refineries and pipelines. Cleveland also had active paint production, ironworks and steel mill industries by this time. Hamilton, Ontario was the centre of Canadian Industry in the mid-1800s. The lumber industry on the shores of Muskegon Lake made many people into millionaires in the late 1800s.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire due to extensive pollution. The event spurred major environmental protection efforts and was influential in creating the Clean Water Act and the US-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. (Open Access)

Unfortunately, there were not significant protections in place for the waters that surrounded, and were essential to, these industries. The consequences of industrial and municipal development was obvious by the 1960s. The Buffalo River and Cuyahoga River each caught fire in 1968 and 1969 respectively, though the Cuyahoga had done so many times before. These major events helped to garner awareness and by 1970, public opinion had shifted towards greater care for the environment. The same year, the first Earth Day was held. The public outcry associated with the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire was influential in the passing of the Clean Water Act and the signing of the US-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, both in 1972. Further protections for wildlife were ensured in 1973 when the Endangered Species Act was passed.

Nearly a decade later, the industrial recession led to the closure of many industries. In 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act and Superfund was passed to help fund the associated clean-up required. In 1985, progress had begun on identifying the 42 most contaminated regions in the Great Lakes watershed, now known as Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs). A 43rd AOC was added in 1987. Communities from each of the 10 AOCs covered in the Great Lakes Revival report began by committing to initiating Remedial Action Plans (RAPs).

Remedial Action Planning Takes Off

Most RAP processes were conducted in three steps. Step 1 generally entails identifying the nature and causes of contamination. The Buffalo River RAP, St. Louis River RAP, Toronto and Region RAP, and Cuyahoga RAP all completed the first step of their RAP processes by 1990. Collingwood Harbour became the first AOC to be delisted in 1993. RAP initiatives were reenergized in the 2000s with the passing of the Great Lakes Legacy Act and Superfund in 2002 and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2010. By this time, many RAP processes had reached step 2: determine what actions can and should be taken to remediate, with consideration for who the responsible parties are. 

From one of the country’s most contaminated rivers to a great place for a waterfront stroll. This is Gabriel Richard Park, located at the eastern end of the Detroit River Walk. (Credit: Detroit RiverFront Conservancy)

Remediation results are now starting to show. In 2003, Severn Sound became the second AOC to be delisted. Four of the original eleven beneficial uses at Toronto Harbour have been deemed no longer impaired. The aesthetics and public access uses of the Cuyahoga River were deemed no longer impaired in 2017. Fish and falcons have returned to the Cuyahoga, Detroit and Buffalo rivers, along with a variety of other creatures. Buffalo River and Muskegon Lake are aiming for delisting in 2020, while the St. Louis River is expecting to be delisted by 2025.

Benefits Inspire Forward Thinking

Citizens, stakeholders, farmers and multiple levels of government in both the US and Canada worked together to make big changes. These case studies show that when people come together to better the environment, major improvements can be made without damaging the economy of these regions. In fact, remediation leads to economic improvements.

In Muskegon Lake, restoration of habitat and wetlands was shown to create a 6-to-1 return on investment over a 20 year period. Millions of dollars in economic benefits were found in economic impact studies for Hamilton Harbour, Monroe and Severn Sound. These benefits are thanks to diversifying economies that were once completely reliant on industry, encouraging waterside businesses and improving ecosystems, which in turn improves human health. Chapter 12 of the Great Lakes Revival document includes table summaries of RAP institutional structures, contaminated sediment remediation costs, habitat restoration, and economic benefits at each of the 10 AOCs discussed in the document.

The Buffalo River waterfront is now a hub of activity where previously unused remnants of industry were all to be seen. Remediation of the river has encouraged reconnection with the waterway. (Credit: Joe Cascio)

Remediation has created communities that are forward thinking and focused on incorporating the maintenance of healthy waterways into industry development. For example, a 2002 shoreline development plan in Collingwood included the creation of enhanced fish habitat. In Muskegon, partnerships and plans are ensuring continued stewardship from 2018 through 2025. The Ecosystem Action Plan will continue the work initiated by the RAP on Muskegon Lake. In Severn Sound, which has already been delisted as an AOC, agreements and financing for long-term implementation and emerging environmental and sustainability challenges have been arranged.

News Release on IAGLR website: http://iaglr.org/releases/great-lakes-cleanup-leads-to-community-and-economic-revitalization/

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