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Op-Ed: Great Lakes Cleanup a Priority For Both Environmental and Economic Reasons

For decades, Great Lakes pollution has been ignored, despite the health consequences. But politicians, especially the next U.S. president, should not ignore the environmental and economic impact a Great Lakes cleanup could do for future generations.

Digital Journal — The Great Lakes are dirty. And that’s an understatement of the decade. But it’s not enough to simply lament the toxic mess swirling inside these freshwater legacies. Rather, the Great Lakes pollution should be a wakeup call to politicians who should realize a $26 billion cleanup of the region could give the U.S. an economic benefit ranging from $80 to $100 billion.

Along with the financial perks, cleaning up the Great Lakes would also give comfort to the 35 million people who live in the provinces and states surrounding them. Health concerns are of paramount importance to Great Lakes residents, and the era of complacency should finally end.

First, the ugly part: the Great Lakes, which account for 90 per cent of the United States’ fresh water, has been soiled by decades of pollution and chemical runoff. The Lakes have become a popular highway for immigration and ship traffic, resulting in years of dirtying at the hands of heavy industry. Companies have used the Lakes as garbage cans, dumping everything from animal carcasses to raw sewage into the water. Today, pollution sources range from fertilizer runoff from agricultural lands; grease and salt from nearby highways; sediment from eroding shorelines; atmospheric pollution from coal-burning plants; and PCBs transported to waterways via air deposition.

Swimming beach in proximity to industry Calumet Park in Illinois. – Photo by David Riecks, U.S. EPA

All this toxic soup spells danger for nearby residents. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that “more than nine million people who live in the more than two dozen ‘areas of concern’—including such major metropolitan areas as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee—may face elevated health risks from being exposed to dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, lead, mercury, or six other hazardous pollutants.” The water-quality concerns in the Great Lakes have contributed to high cancer rates and low birth weights for people living in the region.

Time is running out. The Bush administration has shelved reports on the toxic stew affecting 26 “areas of concern,” such as the Buffalo River and Detroit’s Rouge River. Canadian-U.S. cooperation has been spotty at best. Congress has yet to reauthorize the Great Lakes Legacy Act to get rid of decades-old pollution in Great Lakes’ rivers and harbors.

Politicians should be looking to the Great Lakes for more than just environmental reasons (although those should be enough to warrant action). A study from the Brookings Institution found for every dollar invested in a Great Lakes restoration plan, $2 would be returned in direct benefits to the U.S. Indirect benefits could total up to $50 billion. So if the U.S. wanted to do the right thing and spend the $26 billion it would cost to clean up the Great Lakes, the long-term benefit could reach $100 billion.

Point-source water pollution, Unknown location in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. – Photo courtesy U.S. EPA

How so? Cleaning the garbage out of the Lakes would raise property values in the area. Increased fish abundance would improve catch rates for anglers, valued at $5.8 billion. Reduced bacterial and contamination would lead to fewer beach closings and thus add more tourist money to the area, resulting in a $3 billion benefit, Brookings estimates. And those are just a few examples out of the dozen the think-tank cites.

The study also pointed out how the Great Lakes region can nurture their natural environs as a lever for economic advantage, making it a magnet for national innovation. As the study explains:
Aiding the Great Lakes region’s transition to a similarly robust talent center and hothouse should fuel the nation’s economic strength as well.The Great Lakes issue has been on the minds of presidential hopefuls who want to undo years of degradation. In an interview, Hillary Clinton said she wants to “rebuild America,” with one area of freshwater in her crosshairs:
We have pollution going into the Great Lakes because our water and sewer systems are so antiquated. At some point, we have to make a commitment to investing in our country.

Junk cars in Illinois River, Peoria, Illinois. Photo by Romy Myszka, courtesy USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain are taking the issue seriously, signing pledges to support a comprehensive cleanup plan. When a new president takes over the White House in 2009, whether Democratic or Republican, the leader must shoulder the responsibility of environmental protection. The Great Lakes have become symbolic in how the U.S. handles its own environs, even if the task seems daunting. The problem shouldn’t be left to think tanks and university profs; instead, the next U.S. administration needs to clean up an area directly affecting the health of millions of people. It might not be a sexy issue plastered above the fold of daily papers, but the Great Lakes cleanup remains one of the most pressing environmental disasters of modern America.

And if politicians only think in dollars and cents, recent reports on the economic benefits of a Great Lakes cleanup should be the additional incentive the feds require. What else do they need to finally take action?

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