Great Lakes Spills Pose Toxic Risks

Every year, millions of gallons of toxic substances float across the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, carried by dozens of ships to and from terminals, docks and storage tanks, past dozens of drinking-water intakes serving 26 million people. At every stop, these substances some of them deadly contaminants must be handled, loaded and unloaded, and hundreds or thousands of times a year, they are spilled into the Lakes.

After the Exxon Valdez incident nearly two years ago put ship spills on front pages around the world, citizens and policy-makers around the Lakes/St. Lawrence region demanded to know what would be done about this threat. Commissions and task forces were formed, hearings were held, and a regional task force organized by the Great Lakes Commission is focusing on what its report called the region's woefully inadequate response capabilities. But a Center for the Great Lakes investigation has found that not much has actually been done to protect the Lakes.

The Canadian and US Coast Guards together estimate that between 400 and 500 spills of hazardous substances into the Lakes occur each year, though the data is inconsistent. The International Joint Commission (IJC) has estimated that there are as many as 3000 spills of hazardous substances in the Lakes basin (including tributary streams) each year.

Tanker traffic on the Lakes is dominated by finished petroleum products, like gasoline and heating oil, and chemical products, like ammonia and pesticides. Some of the petrochemical products shipped and stored on and along the Lakes include toxic substances determined by the IJC to be among the most hazardous to the Lakes' ecosystem, such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and styrene.

Canada's federal Cabinet in 1989 appointed a special Public Review Panel on Tanker Safety and Maritime Spills Capability. The panel concluded bluntly that “the capability to respond effectively to a spill of any significant magnitude does not presently exist anywhere in Canada”.

Energized by the threat of hazardous-material spills in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River system, public and private officials are working to better prepare for the worst. Four major petroleum refining and distributing firms operating along the St. Lawrence River have banded together to create a private company to respond to oil spills on the river.

While governments and private industry are focusing on upgrading their spill-response capabilities, The Council of Great Lakes Governors in wondering whether that is the heart of the problem. “I think prevention is where the big benefit can occur” said Robert Seitz, a member of Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson's staff and chairman of the Council's executive committee.

For more information on this publication, contact The Centre for the Great Lakes, 320 1/2 Bloor St., Suite 301, Toronto ON M5S 1W5 (416) 921-7662
From The Spring/91 Issue of The Great Lakes United (a bi-national coalition for the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Ecosystem)

Canada's Not-So-Green Plan by Julia Langer, Friends of the Earth, Canada
The Canada Green Plan was introduced with a flair as Canada's “bold environmental policy.” Now that it is completed, it cost taxpayers $8 million, took 18 months of bureaucratic maneuvering, and endless political posturing. The result?

“No details, no clout, no hurry” said an Ottawa Citizen editorial. “Vague eco-babble” said Carol Boar of the Toronto Star. “Not so green: Business to escape big environmental bill in $3B patch-up” gloated the Financial Post.

The Canada Green Plan started out as a much-needed initiative to map out the Canadian federal government's role in environmental protection. But neither the long list of ills facing the planet nor the vigour with which thousands of people provided suggestions could override the “business-as-usual” approach of politicians, bureaucrats and industry.

“The whole process has been a successful stall, a way for the government to avoid dealing with the environment for a year and a half,” said a Friends of the Earth spokesperson.

Excerpted from The Great Lakes Reporter, Jan/Feb 1991, Vol.8, No.1



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