The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Environment Canada are poised to highlight more good news on North America’s environment.
The 2004 Annual Progress Report on the Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy, just off the press but, as of this writing, not yet released, documents progress in dealing with a particularly nasty suite of persistent, toxic chemicals which accumulate in the environment with increasing concentration up the food web. These are pollutants of national and international concern, but they have pronounced impacts on the biota and fisheries of the Great Lakes, and the people who rely on them, because of the size of the lakes and the longer residence time of the contaminants in such huge bodies of water.
The strategy was the result of a 1997 agreement between the U.S. and Canada “to virtually eliminate toxic substances from the Great Lakes to meet previous commitments under their Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. As ambitious or foolhardy as this goal may sound, it seems that success is within reach with respect to priority pollutants such as mercury, PCBs, dioxins/furans, and hexachlorobenzene (HCB).
Using “Great Lakes” in the title is some what confusing since the goals for both countries are, for the most part, national in scope. But these waters are major receptors of the pollutants addressed in the Strategy. Many of these pollutants travel great distances in the air. In the case of some, mercury for instance, they cycle about globally. Nevertheless, the 2004 report gives us a snapshot of tremendous progress which extends well beyond just the Great Lakes region.
Of the 17 reduction goals set forth for the top twelve toxic substances (“Level 1″) back in 1997, “ten have been met, three will be met by the target timeline date of 2006, and the remaining four will be well advanced toward meeting the targets by 2006,” states the report.
Regarding mercury, the subject of much debate in Washington these days, the report notes that the U.S. met its national mercury-use reduction goal of 50 percent, and currently stands at over 50 percent based on a 1990 baseline. Mercury is now out of batteries, paints, high-school labs, some illuminated tennis shoes, and other products. When was the last time your kids played with elemental mercury in the high-school chemistry lab? Digital thermometers obviate the need for mercury in that high-volume product, too. In the mid-1990s, this writer, on behalf of then Governor John Engler of Michigan, worked with the Big Three auto companies to phase out 9.8 metric tons of mercury going into convenience-light switches under hoods and trunks annually. The chlor-alkali industry accounted for almost 35 percent of mercury use in 1995, and its total mercury use decreased 76 percent between 1995 and 2003 (with some plant closures). The fluorescent-lamp industry reported using 6 tons of mercury in 2003, down from 32 tons in 1997.
The Canadians are also making great progress towards a 90-percent reduction goal (based on a 1988) baseline. They are now at 83 percent.
Keep in mind that these are figures for the deliberate use of mercury, not emissions per se. U.S. mercury emissions decreased approximately 45 percent between 1990 and 1999, according to the annual report. Significant reductions in emissions from municipal-waste combustors and medical-waste incinerators, by 1999, resulted from regulatory mandates under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The good news is that the U.S. has yet to see the new reductions to be achieved from regulation of the power industry pursuant to the new Clean Air Mercury Rule which will eventually cut those mercury emissions by nearly 70 percent.
The 2004 report recognizes tremendous progress by the U.S. and Canada in reducing emissions of dioxins and furans. The U.S. projects a 92-percent reduction in nationwide releases of these pollutants by the end of 2004 against a goal of 75 percent by 2006. Nothing like under promising and over delivering! Canada stands at 84 percent and expects to meet its 2000 target of 90 percent by 2005. Again, past regulation of combustion sources has yielded these substantial reductions. When pending regulatory actions are fully implemented, “the largest source in the United States will be household garbage burning,” according to the report.
Think about it: We have done such a great job controlling dioxin emissions from large, industrial sources that we only have backyard burn barrels to go after. Check out www.openburning.org.
PCBs, second only to mercury as a cause of fish-consumption advisories nationally, is also a top priority of the Binational Toxics Strategy. The goal for high-level PCBs was a 90-percent reduction of use in electrical equipment along with proper management and disposal to prevent accidental releases. PCBs were banned by law many years ago, but they were still in use at the time the strategy was conceived. In the U.S. about 87,000 PCB transformers and 143,000 PCB capacitors were disposed of between the 1994 baseline and the end of 2002. This represents reductions of 43.5 percent and 10 percent respectively.
The 2004 Annual Progress Report on the Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy is a treasure trove of statistics, graphs, and general information on our sustained, continuing efforts to protect human health and the environment. Executive summary: It’s a greener world than you know.
–G. Tracy Mehan III was assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency and director of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, serving in the cabinet of Governor John Engler. Presently, he is a consultant with the Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm.