This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Remember its goal? It was to eliminate the discharge of all pollutants into all waters of the United States by 1985.
This is also the 25th anniversary year of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States. It was intended "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem."
We've come a long way. In 1972, the Cuyahoga and Buffalo rivers were catching fire, Lake Erie was "dead" and many creeks in Western New York and around the Great Lakes were open sewers. But the work is far from done.
The Clean Water Act gave us sewage-treatment plants and a permit system for pollution that was supposed to ratchet down to zero over time.
The Great Lakes agreement gave us our own Great Lakes watchdog in the form of the International Joint Commission, with three commissioners from Canada and three from the United States. It was the IJC that finally, in 1992, seven years after the Clean Water Act's 1985 target was missed, spelled out the necessary philosophy of zero discharge, saying, "The manufacture, use, transport and disposal of persistent toxic substances must stop."
Both acts helped to empower citizens to take a stand for protecting clean water and the life web it supports.
There's much to celebrate.
But have we done enough? Consider these facts:
In 1995, the eight Great Lakes states dumped over 260,000 tons of toxic chemicals into the environment, according to industries' self-reporting under the EPA's toxic release inventory.
This tonnage is estimated to be less than 10 percent of the pollution actually discharged annually into our Great Lakes environment. The other 90 percent comes from non-reported sources, such as sewage-treatment plant discharges or chemicals stored or used in amounts below the 10,000-pound reporting level.
Collectively, Great Lakes states discharge more pollutants linked with human cancer and reproductive/developmental health than any other region in the United States.
Hormone-mimicking pollutants in Great Lakes fish have been linked to male and female sterility, developmental problems and neurological disorders in humans and to developmental and physical abnormalities in birds, fish and amphibians.
Advisories against eating the fish exist on all five Great Lakes and their connecting channels like the Niagara River. The four primary toxics responsible are mercury, PCBs, dioxin and DDT.
The cancer risk for Great Lakes sport fishers who eat their catch can be as high as 1 in 22.
Have we done enough? Our governments seem to think so. In this last decade of the 20th century, Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River environmental policies are dominated by "the three de's":
Devolution of federal regulatory powers to states, provinces, and in some cases, to industry.
Defunding for environmental protections at all levels -- from research to enforcement.
Deregulation in favor of voluntary programs for pollution prevention.
If this 25th year anniversary marks anything, it marks a critical moment in the midst of a journey. We have won a few battles, but the three de's are fueled by a revving-up global economy dominated by multinational corporations and a push to remove the barriers to free trade, including national or regional environmental protections.
On Nov. 1 and 2, the International Joint Commission is holding its ninth biennial Public Forum in Niagara Falls, Ont., to hear the governments' and citizens' evaluation of progress under the water quality agreement. Some fear this will be the last such meeting, that the IJC itself will be replaced by a new agency established under the North American Free Trade Agreement and involving Mexico as well as Canada and the United States.
Citizens from around the Great Lakes Basin are coming to tell their own stories -- mercury poisoning in Lake Superior, dioxin poisoning in Hamilton, groundwater poisoning at Tuscarora, a few miles away from the Niagara River. Lois Gibbs will be there to remind us all that our awareness of the link between poisons out and poisons in began here, at Love Canal, right in our own backyard.
Together we will demand renewed commitment to full implementation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and to the zero discharge philosophy. We who control these lakes are the stewards of 20 percent of the world's fresh water, the largest fresh-water supply on earth. In the name of protecting this irreplaceable resource, the manufacture, use, transport and disposal of persistent toxic substances must stop.
MARGARET WOOSTER is executive director of Great Lakes United.