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From the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to the Binational Toxics Strategy

  • Michael Murray, Ph.D.
  • Sep 07, 2012

Toxic chemicals, first recognized as a problem in the Great Lakes four decades ago, continue to threaten human health and the broader ecosystem in the Great Lakes region. To address these threats, programs at local, state/provincial, national and binational levels have been adopted in the U.S. and Canada. Much of the work addressing chemicals policy has occurred under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), first signed in 1972 and revised twice since then, and incorporating aggressive goals for toxic chemicals. One means of coordinating efforts towards these goals has been the Canada–U.S. Binational Toxics Strategy (BTS), signed in 1997. An important component in the development of chemicals policies in the region has been public involvement, including through the work of environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGOs). Many organizations were active in earlier chemicals policy work, including International Joint Commission meetings, negotiations around the 1987 GLWQA revisions, and involvement in the BTS in its first several years.

More recently, there has been increasing attention to broader Great Lakes threats, as reflected in both research and policy/program developments (such as the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative on the U.S. side). Given these developments and other factors (such as the economic downturn and organizational changes), it has not been clear to what extent ENGO attention to chemicals policy activities has changed, and whether capacity and interest in individual organizations remain sufficient to engage in these broad chemicals policy discussions and activities.

In order to assess ENGO capacity, trends, and activities on chemicals policy issues, an online survey was developed and administered to groups in the region, with a focus on groups likely to have had some previous chemicals policy involvement. The principal objectives were to assess the extent and type of chemicals policy work currently undertaken by ENGOs, any changes in the past decade, involvement in and assessment of the BTS (and recommendations for a BTS-type strategy going forward), and assessment of characteristics believed to be important in a revised GLWQA. The survey was made available to 180 groups in Canada and the U.S., ranging from smaller watershed groups to national organizations, and over 40% of the groups (73) responded. Among the findings:

  • 16% of groups indicated that chemicals policy work constituted at least a significant part (40% or more) of their time, with another 15% indicating a moderate part (20–40%), with the plurality (45%) indicating a smaller part (5–20%).
  • Concerning voluntary/other programs, 44 percent of respondents indicated at least moderate involvement in state- or province-led programs. In addition, a majority of respondents indicated at least minor involvement in a number of programs, including Areas of Concern, national and other regional or binational efforts, environmental preferable purchasing, extended producer responsibility, and general consumer products work.
  • Chemicals of greater focus included mercury and chemicals of emerging concern (such as brominated flame retardants), with 36% of respondents in both cases indicating a major emphasis on these chemicals/classes.
  • Concerning changes in chemicals policy work over the past decade, one-quarter of respondents indicated less work, one-quarter more work, and most of the remainder unchanged. For groups reporting less work, reconsideration following a planning process and staff changes were rated higher as reasons than belief that adequate progress had been made on chemicals policy, or that opportunities did not still exist.
  • 21% of respondents indicated some familiarity and previous involvement in the Binational Toxics Strategy, and some positive aspects of the process were identified as binational/international coordination, the collaborative nature of the process, the development of targets and timelines, and achievement of demonstrable progress in some cases.
  • Concerning characteristics in a BTS-type strategy that would encourage involvement of former participants, there was unanimity on the importance of clear and aggressive goals, objectives, and time frame, while the majority of respondents indicated it was at least very important that there be clearly defined responsibilities of stakeholders and opportunities to directly influence the type and scope of activities in the process. Regular and comprehensive reporting, accountability mechanisms, and evidence of (or potential) effectiveness were identified uniformly as very important at a minimum.
  • Among 30 groups responding to questions on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, involvement appears to have increased during the current renegotiation process. In addition, there was overwhelming support (over 70% indicating very important at a minimum) that a revised Agreement should maintain its current central purpose of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Great Lakes, have an emphasis on toxic chemicals and water quality, and contain zero discharge and virtual elimination goals for toxic chemicals. Respondents also indicated strong support for an Agreement structured to be able to address emerging issues, as well as a clear governance and accountability framework and ample opportunities for public engagement.

In synthesizing results from this assessment, some overarching recommendations concerning advancing Great Lakes chemicals policy include the following:

  • Characteristics that would encourage increased engagement by ENGOs in a Binational Toxics Strategy-type effort in the future include clear goals, objectives and timeframe in the process, a foundation in a Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with aggressive goals and objectives, and regular and comprehensive reporting, accountability mechanisms, and evidence of (or potential) effectiveness.
  • Characteristics that should be present in a revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement include a central purpose of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the lakes, zero discharge and virtual elimination toxic chemicals goals, an ability to address emerging issues, and a clear governance and accountability framework as well as ample opportunities for public engagement.
  • Regarding chemicals policy more broadly, policymakers should consider development of a more precautionary chemicals policy approach, strengthening chemicals legislation (in particular on the U.S. side), increased bans/phase-outs, increased promotion and support of green chemistry, and further work addressing chemicals in products.

From the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to the Binational Toxics Strategy

An assessment of NGO perspectives on chemicals policies in the Great Lakes.


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