Will This Lake Stay Superior?

The good news is that the greatest of the Great Lakes is still relatively clean, the bad news is that little is being done to keep it that way

  • Doug Stewart
  • Aug 01, 1993
Joan McGuffin appreciates fresh, drinkable water. When she and her husband, Gary, paddled a canoe 2,000 miles around the entire shoreline of Lake Superior in 1989, they scooped water from the lake whenever they were thirsty. Captivated by the lake's pristine beauty, the McGuffins settled last year on its northern shore, where they now share a scenic bay with loons, ospreys, bald eagles and herons. "You know how people say the rain forest is the lungs of the planet?" asks Joan. "Well, I think of bodies of water like Lake Superior as the blood of the planet."

As the McGuffins discovered in circumnavigating the lake-from the towering dunes of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the craggy cliffs of Wisconsin's Apostle Islands to the immense wilderness parks of Ontario-Lake Superior is remarkably unspoiled. Despite pollution from sources like pulp and paper mills that pour thousands of tons of dangerous chemicals into the water every year, lake trout continue to spawn here, the only Great Lake where the native predator fish (relatively high on the food chain) still reproduce. More bald eagles nest here than around any of the other four lakes. "Lake Superior is unique," says Chris Grundler, director of the Great Lakes Program Office in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "It's the least developed and least disturbed of the Great Lakes."

The challenge, say its advocates, is to avoid doing to this unique aquatic ecosystem what human activity has already done to the other Great Lakes in this century. "Lake Superior is the last best chance to do it right.- says Mark Van Putten, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center.

That challenge is being taken up not only by national environmental groups, but by local grass-roots activists along the shoreline and by a joint U.S.-Canada team, called the International Joint Commission, that serves as custodian of the countries' boundary waters. The commission is comprised of six political appointees, three from each country. Together, these odd bedfellows arc waging no less than a crusade to save the lake. Their strategy includes dosing loopholes that allow discharging of dangerous pollutants into the water and educating the public and industry. Activists are also pressuring Congress to pass a strengthened version of the Clean Water Act, due for reauthorization this year.

When Congress passed the act in 1972 (overriding Richard Nixon's veto), many of the nation's rivers and lakes had been reduced to foul, scum-covered sumps for factory discharges and untreated sewage. A key provision of the law mandated that polluted waters be cleaned up. (Let's have a show of hands: How many of you know that the Clean Water Act forbade the discharge of toxic pollutants into U.S. waters-any U.S. waters-by 1985?) Since its passage, federal efforts have indeed rescued a number of blighted bodies of water. Even Lake Erie, once a favorite dump of the U.S. chemical industry, today hosts thriving walleye fisheries.

Alone among the Great Lakes, Lake Superior appears nearly as unspoiled as it was after the glaciers of the last Ice Age gouged its basin from the rock of the Canadian Shield. The reasons? Simply that the lake is so big (with the largest surface area of any freshwater lake in the world, second in volume only to Russia's extraordinarily deep Lake Baikal) and so remote (90 percent of Superior's basin remains forested). Industries are still relatively scarce, and fewer than 700,000 people live in the lake's watershed. Yet people like the McGuffins may not drink without pause from Superior much longer unless a rarely followed directive of the original Clean Water Act gets stronger teeth.

For cleaning up dirty water is only half the act's mandate. The other half is a little-acknowledged provision that the nation's still-clean waters be kept clean. Not dumping pollutants is obviously simpler than trying to retrieve pollutants after you've dumped them. "We call that the putting-the-toothpaste-back-in-thetube scenario," says Sue Gilbertson, an EPA water-quality expert in Chicago.

Nonetheless, the EPA and most other federal agencies have largely ignored the act's "keep-clean-waters-clean" mandate. Washington has left protection of high-quality waters up to the states. And state officials find themselves fielding outcries about waters already poisoned with toxic substances. For budget-conscious agencies, worrying about water that's still clean can seem a luxury by comparison. So: More toothpaste is squeezed, and clean waters grow dirtier.

The EPA does offer one tool for protecting pristine waters. A state can nominate a river, lake or bay to be an Outstanding National Resource Water. The EPA will then make the designation, and any new or increased discharges of pollutants are forbidden in that water body. But there are loopholes. First, even within the EPA, people argue about whether an increase of pollutants is actually an increase if it's undetectable. And regulators differ over what "detectable" means. To wit: A water sample with more than ten times the pollution needed to flunk Minnesota's mercury-contamination test would sail through the easier, cheaper EPA-approved test, the mercury officially "undetected."

Second, the EPA hasn't set a standard for how clean a clean body of water must be to qualify as an Outstanding National Resource Water. In practice, the states decide, assuming their officials are even aware of the designation. The EPA goes along with anything that's not literally in violation of federal clean-water standards. "If the state designates it," says Dave Sabock, chief of the EPA's water-quality standards branch, "we will approve it."

In any case, states almost never bother to nominate bodies of water for the status. Altogether, only 0.4 percent of the country's river miles are Outstanding National Resource Waters. National treasures like Montana's Flathead Lake, Colorado's Gunnison River, the coastal waters off Maine's Acadia National Park and those around the Florida Keys are not included. Nor are other seeming contenders like New England's Lake Champlain or South Carolina's ACE Basin. (Though many of those waters are protected in various ways from development, they still are at risk of degradation from pollution.) In fact, says Sabock, the EPA doesn't even keep a list of which waters are protected by the designation. Confusion reigns.

A campaign is now underway to force the federal government to stick to its high-sounding promises-and Lake Superior has become the battleground. The International Joint Commission is strongly recommending that the EPA make the lake a demonstration zone for the EPA's own officially espoused goal of "zero discharge" of persistent toxic contaminants into U.S. waters. Its call is supported by large environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation and by the Lake Superior Alliance, an umbrella organization for some 20 citizen-activist groups around the lake.

Gordon Durnil, the International Joint Commission's U.S. chairman, realized he wanted to shake up the status quo shortly after President Bush appointed him to his post four years ago. "There's talk now of spending more than $100 billion to clean up the PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] from sediments in the Great Lakes, which is more money than any government has to spend," Durnil says. "Yet we're still discharging PCBs into the lakes." At some point, he says, "we have to turn the tap off.

Durnil is state chairman of the Republican Party in Indiana-even a proud member of the party's conservative wing. "But the environment is not a conservative-liberal issue," he says. "As a lawyer, I'm trained to weigh evidence. How much evidence do people need before they stop discharging persistent toxic pollutants?"

Persistent toxic chemicals, most of them industrial wastes, don't biodegrade into harmlessness. They include, in addition to familiar hazards like lead and mercury, thousands of synthetic chemicals, with names like 2.3,7,8-TODD, They often build up in ever stronger concentrations as they rise through the food chain: from microorganisms to little fish, little fish to big fish, big fish to carnivores like eagles and humans.

The level of PCBs in the eggs of a fish-eating bird can be 15 to 25 million times higher than the level in the lake water from which the fish came. State fish advisories now routinely warn against eating lake trout and walleyes caught in various parts of the lake.

Perhaps no one is more disturbed by this development than the region's Native Americans. "Part of the identity of the Lake Superior tribes is eating the fish here," says Judy Pratt-Shelley, environmental programs director of the Red Cliff band of the Lake Superior Chippewa. While pregnant last year, she swore off meals of local trout and walleye, her favorite foods. "People who rely most heavily on food from their environment, like us, arc the ones most heavily affected by environmental contaminants," she says.

Anyone working to keep the lake clean must contend with the fact that much of its pollution conies from nonpoint sources, including the air and agricultural runoff. DDT continues to contaminate the water even though it is banned in Canada and the United States; the potent pesticide apparently arrives windblown from Central America.

Still, many of the most dangerous persistent toxic chemicals in the lake come from local waste pipes, chiefly those of the pulp and paper mills on the lake. Joan McUuffin remembers waking up on the shores of a hay one morning to find the campsite enveloped in a reeking fog. She and her husband had trouble breathing. Looking across the hay, they noticed a yellow slick of chemicals spreading from a huge mill on shore.

The ingredients of a pulp mill's discharges aren't as easy to spot. Most of the mills on lake Superior use either chlorine or chlorine dioxide in the bleaching process. One byproduct is a family of compounds called organochlorifles. Several studies have suggested they cause birth defects, neurological damage, immune-system problems and hormonal imbalances in fish and birds. The Chlorine Institute, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group, points out that scientists have yet to demonstrate "proven risks" for each of these 300-odd compounds. Environmentalists respond that the chemicals should be considered guilty until proven innocent, especially when their family tree is so suspect.

The suspicions stem from the chemical family's most notorious member: dioxin, one of the most carcinogenic substances the EPA has ever tested. Though in recent years scientists have questioned the true severity of dioxin's effects, the chemical now appears to he even more harmful than ever suspected. According to scientific reports released this spring by the EPA, studies have linked dioxin to immune-system problems. birth defects, sterility and other complications in animals. Its effect on humans is still largely unknown.

The pulp and paper industry argues that plants have reduced dioxin discharges to the point where they're undetectable. But, again, what's detectable depends in part on how you do your detecting. With "bio-accumulating" toxic substances, moreover, testing only the outflow at the pipe outlet may be beside the point. "You'll find fish with elevated levels of mercury while all your discharges are below detectable limits," says permits engineer Scott Knowles of Minnesota's Pollution Control Agency. "So you have to look at other things. You look at fish tissue or sludge."

One popular loophole in the way the EPA has interpreted the Clean Water Act-a loophole that environmental groups would like to see closed-is the use of dilution to allow greater discharge of industrial and municipal wastes. Consider: If you pour a cup of dirty water into a pint jar, you can instantly double your sample's water quality by adding a cup of clean water and stirring. On a much larger scale, this is what pollution-control agencies have traditionally allowed polluters to do.

When a Wisconsin oil refinery on Lake Superior found itself saddled with a stringent new discharge permit recently, it announced plans to move its discharge pipe from the creek alongside the refinery to the lake itself. The same dangerous pollutants would be dumped into the lake, but their concentration within the "mixing zone" would be lower-and, if approved, perfectly legal.

This sort of ruse calls to mind the Reagan Administration's efforts to boost the nutritional content of school lunches by declaring ketchup a vegetable, and environmentalists have had enough. "It takes hundreds of years for the water in Lake Superior to change," says the NWF's Van Putten. "In terms of our lifetimes, the lake is a closed ecosystem. None of these toxics get out." Their levels remain highest in the bays and estuaries where they are released. "Dilution," he says, "is not the solution."

Thus the focus on zero discharge: removing persistent toxic chemicals from pipelines altogether instead of struggling to control, reduce and manage a mess already made. "For an industry, zero discharge doesn't mean treating your discharge in order to get that last little particle out," says Gayle Coyer, NWF's Lake Superior Project organizer. "It simply means not using persistent toxics in the first place." For a pulp and paper mill, that means bleaching paper with ozone or hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine or chlorine dioxide, a switch many European plants have already made.

The Federation is also pushing for a congressional bill to make Lake Superior an Outstanding National Resource Water once and for all. And if Congress reauthorizes and amends the Clean Water Act this year, it could mandate that the EPA set minimum standards for clean waters in all the states, and the agency could have the power to review how the states protect their waters.

Laws and regulations never solve real-world problems by themselves, of course. Keeping Lake Superior clean will take public involvement, cooperation across borders and "clean" industries to keep local economies on their feet. In Bayfield, Wisconsin, Inland Sea Society president Todd Kessler, for example, is working on a "water trail" around the lake's shoreline for kayaks, sailboats and other craft.

Wisconsin activist Dave Anderson has been exploring ideas for sustainable development along the timbered lakeshore-sawmills, perhaps, that would make high-quality tongue-and-groove paneling from local aspen. Such a sawmill would be far more benign environmentally than would a paper mill. "We've got to change our own behavior," he says. "We have to ask ourselves: Why do we demand white coffee filters, white bakery bags, white toilet paper? Is having a white coffee filter worth poisoning fish with dioxin?" For mill owners, the issue certainly must not seem that simple. But for people like Joan McGuffin, who sees the planet's blood in the lake's clear waters, the answer could not be more obvious.

Massachusetts journalist Doug Stewart previously has written about opossums and Canada geese for National Wildlife. For more information about Lake Superior, contact the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center, 506 E. Liberty, 2nd Floor, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104-2210.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates