Pollution plagues the Great Lakes

By Angelica Sanchez

Toxins in the surface waters of the Great Lakes increased by 12 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to the annual Toxic Inventory report released by the U.S. Environmental Agency, released Jan. 16.

According to the EPA, the sources of this ecological challenge to the Great Lakes are sewage disposal and discharges of industrial waste waters containing

toxic chemicals.

The recent upswing in toxicity levels has caused alarm among some Great Lakes advocates, despite some reports indicating the second-lowest pollutant level in a decade. According to the EPA, the toxic releases in the lakes have decreased by approximately 40 percent since 2003.

Olga Lyandres, research manager at Alliance for the Great Lakes, said the EPA’s recent findings do not present immediate health concerns, but the public must be vigilant when it comes to preserving the lakes because the lakes are a major source of drinking water to surrounding areas.

She explained that drainage from rain and irrigation and other sources of runoff collect in a pool underground called a basin, ultimately draining into the Great Lakes. It is the basin that is becoming more polluted with substances like nitrates and pesticides, common surface water pollutants from agricultural land and municipal wastewater

treatment plants.

“It’s concerning but not surprising,” said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “While the pro-longed term trend is down, we have to be really careful about backsliding to the ’60s and ’70s where we were confronting a host of problems that really threatened the future of the Great Lakes.”

Brammeier said it’s the public’s responsibility to keep the lakes clean, and the focus should be on conserving the source water, not waiting to clean it once it’s polluted.

Pesticides that originate from residential properties often show up in reports, he said. The water in most Great Lakes communities is affected by what nearby property owners put in the ground, as well as chemical manufacturing and primary metals facilities.

“What you put on your lawn, your gardens and into your pipes at home goes into a sewage system that eventually gets discharged into the Great Lakes … Many of those chemicals make it through the sewage treatment plant with out being cleaned out, so when you make a choice to limit the amount of chemicals that go into your garden or into your home, you are making a choice not to put those into the

Great Lakes,” Brammeir said.

Because Great Lakes pollution has decreased during the last few decades, the recent spike is no cause for alarm because the condition of the lakes has improved overall, according to Charles Shabica, a professor at Northeastern University and president of Shabica & Associates, Inc., an organization that deals with coastal erosion.

“I look at the long term, and the long term is things are getting better,” he said.

However, Shabica believes the water should be cleaned up through sewage treatment plants. He explained that there are three kinds of sewage systems: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary filters the water, secondary filters out bacteria and tertiary takes nutrients out. Most sewage treatment plants are primary and secondary because tertiary treatment is expensive, but he said the tertiary method should be utilized in areas like the five

Great Lakes.

Shabica and his firm have worked closely with a few of the North Shore communities in Illinois by building wetland filter systems using plants that can uptake nutrients like nitrates, phosphates, pesticides and other toxins, like the ones found in the EPA report. The plants filter storm water before it reaches Lake Michigan, Shabica said.