As the International Joint Commission meets next weekend to mark the 25th anniversary of the Great Lakes Water Quality Act and the U.S. Clean Water Act, the tendency will be to look back. But the real problem for these troubled waters lies ahead.
Beaches are still being closed, wetlands and their protective habitat are being destroyed, raw sewage and contaminated water from agricultural lands and urban streets pour into the waterways, toxic chemicals from old dumps and industrial plants continue to taint the water and sediments, the fish remain unfit to eat and the skies drop chemical poisons that drift in from as far away as Mexico, where enforcement remains lax and DDT is still used.
It is not a pretty picture, and the job is far from done.
Citizens around the lakes must redouble their demands for action. Government and political leaders must find the courage to continue, and all must refocus on a vision of restoring a waterway system that everyone can use in an ecosystem that no longer poses health threats to humans, fish and wildlife. That rededication is what the IJC meeting must be all about.
Many activists are disturbed by the ability and political will of the current U.S. and Canadian commissioners to carry out this bold mandate. Many believed 25 years ago that the job would be all but done by now.
Commissioners are somewhat suspect because they tried to kill the biennial meeting. Now they are coming forth with a watered-down meeting devoid of workshops led by experts. Since the Niagara Falls, Ont., hotel selected is miles inland from the Falls, those attending may not even see the waters. The IJC will issue its reports too late for adequate preparation of those who would read and comment on them. Worst of all, it will conduct an elitist, invitation-only workshop on the critical issue of health impacts of chemical contamination.
"I don't think the IJC really wants this meeting," said Canadian John Jackson, a former Great Lakes United president. "They have done little to promote it, and their program -- unlike past meetings -- has little to attract people. I think they hope that people won't come and then they can say, 'see, we told you so' and abandon altogether future meetings."
Margaret Wooster, executive director of Great Lakes United, says representatives of Native American groups, Quebec, environmental and conservation groups, labor unions and local government officials plan to attend and speak at the sessions in the Americana Hotel starting at 9 a.m. Saturday. Buffalo's Common Council will present a resolution endorsing a strong Great Lakes water quality program.
There is a stack of reports two feet high that points to the needs -- and in some cases the inadequacy -- of the governments to address the problems. The IJC itself, a bi-national body unique for its role in overseeing boundary disputes and problems, is under fire. The states, provinces and federal governments have cut funding for lakes restoration, or, in some cases, simply lost interest. The effort has also been hurt by the loss of such leaders as Valdas Adamkus, a key U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, the loss of the U.S. Greenpeace presence, and moves that have weakened the ability of the commission to monitor progress.
The purpose of the biennial meeting was for the commission to hear firsthand about water quality and scientific issues, along with citizen input that they could use in a report they will file early next year with the two federal governments.
Citizens and other groups would like to know:
How are governments, including New York and Ontario, performing?
What is the state of remedial action at each of the 43 toxic hot spots?
Is zero discharge of persistent chemicals in sight?
What steps are under way to protect public health?
What progress can be expected over the next five years?
Will governments move to change or amend the agreement this year?
The commission's job is to review the facts, and the biennial forum has been the instrument for such disclosure. Based on the information, the three U.S. and three Canadian commissioners make recommendations to the government in the interest of keeping them on track. The U.S. procrastinated, and only three weeks before this meeting replied to the last recommendations of two years ago. The Canadians, however, remain silent.
The Commission boards at one time issued a government-by-government report on individual progress, but that was abandoned. To some extent, grass-roots groups have moved into the void and, in conjunction, will issue their own reports.
Expected to be announced this weekend are:
A report card grading the governments on their performance in meeting the terms of the agreement, along with assessments of water quality.
A scathing assessment of the governments' failure to forcefully address remedial action at the 43 toxic hot spots singled out for attention by the commission a decade ago.
A series of position papers on critical lakes issues -- from radioactive materials to legislative actions and budget cuts that are crippling cleanup efforts, along with recommendations for changes.
Citizens groups are doing an outstanding job in preparation for the meeting, but they face odds such as cuts by the Harris government that lopped $400 million from the Ontario Ministry of Environment and significant cuts to Environment Canada's finances.
Greenpeace Senior Toxics Campaigner Jack Weinberger wants recognition, and a campaign to attack global transport of airborne toxics that pose a long-term threat, while at the same time stepping up moves to cut off the flow of chlorine and other persistent toxic wastes into the lakes.
Longtime lakes activist Wayne A. Schmidt, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office, summed up the upcoming session saying: "In the final analysis, what the IJC says to the governments in its ninth annual biennial report next year will make, or break, its image."