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United States Great Lakes Program Report on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement


Figure 1: The U.S. Great Lakes Region

This is the fifth Biennial Progress Report to the International Joint Commission (IJC) and the citizens of the Great Lakes Basin on actions taken by the United States (U.S.) to protect and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem. This report reviews some principal challenges facing the ecosystem; outlines approaches taken by Basin stakeholders to address these challenges; highlights some historic and recent actions by Federal, State, and Tribal agencies, as well as their non-governmental partners, to implement these approaches; and outlines future activities on behalf of the Great Lakes.

This report is being issued at a propitious time as we celebrated, during the last biennium, the 25th anniversaries of the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (the Agreement), the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, or the Agency), and the signing of the Clean Water Act. As we pause to reflect on the last two years of progress under the Agreement, we should recognize that what is being achieved today is built upon, and a direct result of, the last 25 years of binational cooperation on the Great Lakes. Indeed, we have achieved many significant environmental victories as we work to restore the ecosystem. A few prime examples include the following:

The United States
and Canada signed
the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement on April 15, 1972.

Since 1971, over $8 billion worth of wastewater infrastructure improvements have been put in place throughout the Great Lakes Basin to upgrade sewage treatment plants in order to address excessive phosphorus and low dissolved oxygen levels in the lakes. This has been augmented by bans on high phosphate household detergents, and farm practices to reduce agricultural runoff. Partly as a result of these activities, Lake Erie returned from the "dead" to become a prized sportfishing location.

Since a stretch of the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 due to oil and debris present, water quality has improved dramatically, largely due to the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, requiring investments by public and private dischargers for treatment of their effluent. Because of these actions, many fish communities have returned to their natural abundance.

As a result of a combination of pollution prevention and site restoration, the release of toxic substances into the environment has been greatly reduced. Subsequently, levels of toxic contaminants have dropped dramatically in fish and wildlife, improving the health of many species.

As a result of a combination of pollution prevention and site restoration, the release of toxic substances into the environment has been greatly reduced. Subsequently, levels of toxic contaminants have dropped dramatically in fish and wildlife, improving the health of many species.

Figure 2: DDT in Lake Michigan Lake Trout

Figure 3: Atmospheric Loadings of Lead to the Great Lakes

Figure 4: Bald Eagle Territories in U.S.

The bald eagle, our proud national symbol,
has made a strong recovery in the Great Lakes

Figure 5: Reproductive Success of Great Lakes Osprey

EPA's actions to get lead out of gasoline has dramatically decreased its levels in the environment. Lead is a toxic metal that presents environmental and human health risks, including brain and kidney damage, especially to children.

Twenty-five years after the U.S. canceled the pesticide DDT, many fish-eating bird species have experienced remarkable recoveries. The ban has been characterized as one of history's great environmental success stories. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey, and double-crested cormorants, viewed as "DDT victims," have all experienced increases in breeding populations in the Great Lakes Basin. Other shorebirds have also experienced dramatic population rises.

Over one million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), one of the compounds largely responsible for fish consumption advisories in the Great Lakes, were removed from the bottom sediments of Waukegan Harbor, Illinois. This mass represented one of the largest single sources of PCBs to the Great Lakes.

Since 1958, the binational Great Lakes Fishery Commission has achieved a dramatic reduction in the numbers of sea lamprey, a non-native predator which had decimated populations of prized fish such as lake trout and lake whitefish.

These few examples do not do full justice to the variety of the major environmental achievements of the last 25 years. Nor does this document provide an exhaustive summary of all the important and impressive work undertaken by the community of Great Lakes stakeholders during the last biennium; rather, it offers representative actions being implemented to restore and protect the Basin. And indeed, it is heartening to see the scope and breadth of activities being implemented. The progress being achieved points to the existence of a strong Great Lakes stakeholder community, supported by dedicated government and private sector professionals, who are forging ahead with Great Lakes restoration and protection activities.

Innovative partnerships, projects, and research are the norms in the Great Lakes. We are working smarter and more efficiently to deliver on the promises made under the Agreement via the Lakewide Management Plan (LaMP), Remedial Action Plan (RAP), and other Agreement programs. New challenges and opportunities will continue to present themselves to the U.S. Great Lakes Program as it continues to make steady progress in improving the Great Lakes ecosystem for all of its inhabitants. With these thoughts in mind, EPA is proud to present this report to the IJC on behalf of the U.S. Great Lakes Program.


A variety of significant events have occurred during the last two years. Most of these environmental "victories" have been made possible through the collaborative efforts of a variety of Great Lakes stakeholders at the Federal, State, Tribal, local and non-governmental levels.

New Particulate Matter and Ozone Standards

In July 1997, EPA published final standards for particulate matter and ozone (otherwise known as soot and smog), a major step forward in protecting the public from the health hazards of air pollution. These updated standards, the product of many years of intensive scientific review, move us toward fulfilling the Clean Air Act's goal of ensuring Americans that their air is safe to breathe. The new standards will provide new health protection to 125 million Americans, including 35 million children. EPA will issue guidance and rules designed to give States, local governments, and businesses the flexibility to meet these protective public health standards in a cost-effective manner.

Signing of the Great Lakes Binational Toxics Reduction Strategy

The non-native sea lamprey has had a significant impact on the Great Lakes fishery

The Agreement calls for the "virtual elimination" of discharges of persistent toxic substances into the Great Lakes Basin. In keeping with this commitment, Prime Minister Chrétien of Canada and President Clinton of the U.S. committed in February 1995 to the development of a coordinated strategy to virtually eliminate persistent toxic substances, particularly those which bioaccumulate, from the Great Lakes Basin. The Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy (the Strategy), signed on April 7, 1997 by EPA Administrator Carol Browner and then Canadian Minister of the Environment Sergio Marchi, fulfills that commitment. The Strategy sets reduction targets for the following persistent toxic substances: aldrin/dieldrin, benzo(a)pyrene, chlordane, DDT, hexachlorobenzene, alkyl-lead, mercury, mirex, octachlorostyrene, PCBs, dioxins/furans, and toxaphene. These substances have been associated with potential widespread long-term, adverse effects on wildlife and human health.

The Strategy sets ambitious reduction targets or "challenges" within a ten-year time frame for these substances, such as a 50 percent reduction target for the release of mercury and a 75 percent reduction target for the total releases of dioxins/furans for sources resulting from human activity. The Strategy concentrates on the long-range transport of these substances through the atmosphere, recognizing that the Great Lakes receives inputs of persistent toxic substances from both within and outside the Basin.

The Strategy presents a vision of a new, creative approach to environmental protection, inviting voluntary pollution prevention measures, while building upon existing regulatory programs. From the beginning, EPA and Environment Canada have involved State, Provincial, Tribal, industrial, environmental and other interested stakeholders, recognizing that the governments alone cannot achieve the goal of virtual elimination -- all parts of society must contribute to ensure success.

Protecting our Children -- Our Most Vital Resource

In September 1996, EPA issued a report entitled Environmental Health Threats to Children which highlighted the potential health threats faced by children from toxic contaminants in the environment. It argued for a comprehensive approach to providing children with stronger health protection and it set forth a new national agenda to protect children from those risks more comprehensively than before. Under its National Agenda to Protect Children's Health from Environmental Threats, EPA's policy will be to ensure that all standards that the Agency sets are protective enough to address the potentially higher risks faced by children, and that the most significant current standards are re-evaluated as new scientific knowledge emerges. Under this new policy, the Agency will select, with public input and environmental peer review, five of its most significant public health and environmental standards to reissue on an expedited basis.

The U.S. is focusing on environmental
health threats to children

Protecting our children was made a national priority when President Clinton issued an April 1997 Executive Order requiring each Federal agency to identify and assess environmental health and safety risks that may disproportionately affect children and to ensure that their policies, programs, activities, and standards address any disproportionate risks. In support of this effort, the first Federal research centers dedicated to the protection of the health of children from environmental threats are being created. Research will be conducted on the possible environmental causes of children's illnesses and disorders, especially respiratory diseases; the impact of common environmental contaminants, such as lead or mercury, on intellectual development; and the influence on initial growth and development of exposure to certain environmental agents before or after birth.

In May 1997, EPA Administrator Browner expanded this Children's Agenda internationally by persuading environmental leaders of the world's leading industrialized nations to increase their commitment to protecting children from environmental risks when developing national regulations and international treaties; to work jointly to harmonize risk assessment procedures and protocols to address environmental risk to children; to develop mechanisms to share information on lead hazards in products designed for children; and to support an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development initiative to develop more complete guidelines for testing potentially endocrine disrupting chemicals, with a particular emphasis on screening those that could specifically affect children.

At the State level, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), for example, has announced a new program to identify toxic hotspots that put children at risk in their communities from exposure to lead, mercury, nitrates, ozone, and E. coli.

State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference and the State of the Great Lakes Report

The State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) is one of the principal means for the U.S. and Canada to report on the health of the Basin and its inhabitants. SOLEC `96 addressed the nearshore areas of the Great Lakes, the most biologically productive and the most heavily impacted part of the system. In September 1997, the Parties published the State of the Great Lakes -- 1997 (SOGL Report) as a summary of the state of the Great Lakes at the end of 1996. It also contains updates to information presented at SOLEC `94. The first two SOLECs reviewed the state of various components of the Great Lakes ecosystem through the use of indicators and a subjective assessment of conditions. These indicators were developed through the best judgement of the scientists involved.

The SOGL Report serves as the most up to date and comprehensive collection of Great Lakes indicators to date and also as a jumping off point for SOLEC `98, whose theme is the establishment of a consistent, easily understood suite of indicators that will objectively represent the status of major ecosystem components across the Great Lakes Basin. SOLEC will use these indicators to report on progress every two years and to assess progress toward achieving the purpose of the Agreement. The indicators will also establish a benchmark against which Great Lakes ecosystem assessment, monitoring, and management efforts can be measured. The acceptance and use of a core set of indicators can drive data collection activities throughout the Basin and ultimately lead to better decision-making for its protection and restoration. It is important to note that the LaMPs are focusing on ecosystem objectives and lake-specific indicators which are serving these purposes at the individual lake basin level.

Lake Michigan Mass Balance Study/Enhanced Monitoring Program

The SOLEC conferences and papers have presented the leading scientific opinions on the state of the Great Lakes

The Lake Michigan Mass Balance Study/Enhanced Monitoring Program is the largest multi-media toxic contaminant monitoring and modeling project ever undertaken. It is designed to answer questions that will help environmental managers make well informed, scientifically based decisions on reducing toxic pollutants in Lake Michigan. The mass balance model will determine what effects reduction in pollutant loads will have on the lake and, in particular, on contaminant levels in fish tissue. The model's findings will help target future Lake Michigan LaMP toxic load reduction efforts at the Federal, State, Tribal, and local levels.

Numerous State and Federal agencies and universities are participating in this EPA-sponsored effort. The chemicals being monitored are PCB congeners, trans-nonachlor, atrazine, and total mercury. Over 30,000 samples from the lake, tributaries, atmospheric deposition, biota, and sediments were collected during 1994 and 1995 and close to 1,000,000 analytical measurements are being reported to EPA where they will be quality assured by 1998 and made available via the Great Lakes Environmental Database. All methods used in collecting and analyzing samples have been made available in a "Methods Compendium". Data sets will soon be made available to the public, starting with atrazine. These data are feeding the current development of mathematical models to assist in making LaMP management decisions to reduce toxic pollutant concentrations. The first integrated model runs will be completed in 1999.

Implementing the Great Lakes Water Quality Guidance

The Great Lakes Water Quality Guidance aims for consistency in water quality standards and permitting procedures across the Great Lakes system. It was initially developed by the eight Great Lakes States, EPA, and other Federal agencies in consultation with citizens, local governments, and industries. It targets especially the long-lasting pollutants that accumulate in the Great Lakes food web. In addition, the Guidance helps establish consistent goals for state water quality management plans, which are critical to the success of the international multi-media efforts to protect and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem. Once the Guidance is implemented, EPA estimates that an annual reduction of almost one million pounds of contaminants entering the lakes is expected. Implementation of the Guidance will protect human health, expand commercial and recreational fishing, and improve the safety of recreational activities in the Great Lakes. To date, the States of Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin have completed the adoption process of the Guidance. The remaining States are on schedule to complete the adoption process by the end of 1997.

Uniform Fish Consumption Advisory

The R/V Lake Guardian is supporting
the Lake Michigan Mass Balance and other monitoring activities

In 1993, the eight Great Lakes States developed a protocol for development of a uniform fish consumption advisory. This provided a new scientific approach for determining the amount of fish that can be ingested without significant health risks. The higher rates of local fish consumption and effects upon the developing child were considered as well as potential cancer effects and impacts upon the immune system. The ultimate goal was to have consistent fish consumption advisories among States, which helps the public better understand the risks associated with consumption of contaminated sportfish. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) assisted EPA in encouraging a uniform fish advisory by providing recent preliminary findings from its Great Lakes Human Health Effects Research Program on increased body burden levels in at-risk populations, and observed neurobehavioral deficits from consumption of contaminated Great Lakes fish. The protocol has undergone two independent scientific reviews. Currently, seven of the Great Lakes States apply the protocol or one which is equivalent.

Lake Trout Natural Reproduction in Lake Superior

Native lake trout in Lake Superior were severely depleted by the 1950s in part due to overharvesting and sea lamprey predation. Restoration efforts since the 1950s of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), including researchers now with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in concert with other Federal, Provincial, State and Tribal agencies, and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC), have resulted in a 1996 declaration of victory in restoring lake trout in Lake Superior. Lake Superior lake trout populations have become self-sustaining in offshore areas and, accordingly, stocking of Federally reared lake trout has been discontinued in areas of the lake extending from the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin eastward to Grand Marais, Michigan. Some inshore stocks have also recovered. In Canadian waters, lake trout populations have improved in several areas such that stocking has been reduced to about a third of stocking levels in the 1980s. This major success is attributed to the combined management effects of reduced harvest, effective sea lamprey control, and a successful stocking program.

Update on Waste Incinerator Rules

In September 1997, EPA issued rules to protect public health by significantly reducing the harmful air pollution that comes from medical waste incinerators, a major source of mercury and dioxin air emissions. When fully implemented, emissions will be reduced by 94 percent for mercury and 95 percent for dioxin. In addition, several other major air pollutants, some of which are suspected of causing cancer or other serious health effects, will be reduced by 75 to 98 percent. In a related activity, EPA and several of the Great Lakes States are engaged in a project to reduce sources of mercury in medical waste through targeted education and outreach activities and through direct mercury reduction assessments in hospitals. These activities will enhance the medical community's understanding of the dangers of mercury in the environment, particularly for certain high-risk populations.

In 1995 EPA issued separate air pollution standards for municipal waste combustors that will reduce dioxin from these sources by 99 percent and mercury by 90 percent; additionally, in 1998, the Agency intends to develop final rules for hazardous waste incinerators, which are expected to significantly reducing dioxin and mercury emissions.

Other Toxic Emission Reduction Activities

Lake Trout are once again naturally
reproducing in Lake Superior -- an environmental success story

New and pending regulations will help
decrease emissions from waste incinerators

EPA is also using its authorities under the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants from many other sources. Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards have been and are continuing to be developed to reduce emissions of 188 hazardous air pollutants from a diverse list of source types ranging from steel mills to synthetic chemical manufacturing to dry cleaners. Included on the list of pollutants are mercury, dioxins, PCBs, hexachlorobenzene, and other Great Lakes pollutants of concern. Other activities are focused on urban areas, electric utility steam generating units, and sources of mercury.

Waukegan Harbor Fish Consumption Signs Come Down

Signs warning anglers not to eat any fish caught at any time in Waukegan's North Harbor were removed on February 20, 1997, putting fish taken from the harbor in the same consumption categories applied to all Lake Michigan fish. Removal of the signs marks the end of nearly two decades of restrictions imposed after PCB contamination of the harbor was identified in 1981. The decision to remove the warning signs and withdraw warnings targeted specifically at fish taken from the North Harbor reflects continuing improvements at the site following the removal of approximately one million pounds of PCBs from bottom sediments in 1992. Following the removal, three years of annual fish sampling showed no violations of action levels for PCBs in alewife, coho salmon, chinook salmon, rainbow trout, and yellow perch. A lakewide fish advisory still remains in effect, but since sampling has shown no appreciable difference in PCB concentrations in fish taken from the harbor and those from the open lake, the local advisory is no longer needed.

Manistique River and Harbor Area of Concern (AoC) Superfund Site Remediation

A Superfund removal action at the Manistique River/Harbor AoC site is ongoing, and will remove at least 122,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediments by 1998. This is a removal action in part, because an estimated 100 pounds of PCBs are being washed into Lake Michigan annually, and possibly more due to storm events. The removal action involves dredging, separation of the more highly contaminated sediments, and their proper disposal. After early disagreements with EPA's initial dredging proposal, the community supported the proposal and have continued to support EPA activities. Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) contributed over $6.4 million to the site work as part of a mixed funding settlement with the Agency. To date, almost 60,000 cubic yards of river and harbor sediments have been removed. Turbidity measurements in the water column in close proximity to the dredged areas indicate that the dredging is not causing the resuspension of the contaminated sediments and that there are no localized impacts on water quality due to the dredging project. This project has demonstrated EPA's commitment to consider community preferences as well as the ability of the Agency to conduct environmental dredging projects in a cost-effective and environmentally sensitive manner. These lessons can be applied to many other contaminated sediment projects on the Great Lakes.

Second Great Waters Report to Congress

Under section 112(m) of the Clean Air Act (CAA), as amended in 1990, Congress authorized EPA to undertake the Great Waters Program to evaluate the atmospheric deposition of hazardous air pollutants (including mercury and PCBs) to the Great Lakes and other waters. The Program's Second Report to Congress (June 1997) found that levels of toxic pollutants are declining slightly or leveling off but remain a significant concern. It also reported that, at this time, no specific revisions to requirements, standards, and limitations pursuant to the CAA or other relevant federal statutes have been identified as necessary to assure protection of human health and the environment in response to EPA's assessments of deposition of hazardous air pollutants. In the future, as EPA evaluates progress of ongoing efforts and considers new information as it becomes available, new approaches may be pursued. In addition, the Report introduced a special inventory of emissions and list of sources prepared under Section 112(c)(6). This inventory data shows that recent emissions of PCBs and hexachlorobenzene are extremely low, and all sources have been regulated. Emissions of mercury and dioxins show declines since 1990, due to activities by industry and municipalities. Additional rules and actions on incineration sources are expected to reduce mercury to less than half of 1990 emissions by 2005, and dioxins will also be down, from approximately 12.5 pounds (in toxic equivalency factors) in 1990 to under 4 pounds by 2005. Emissions of alkylated lead from onroad vehicles has stopped after the phaseout of leaded gasoline for onroad motor vehicles was completed in December 1995. EPA is actively developing ways to better integrate air and water programs to address air deposition to the Great Water bodies.

The flow of the four upper Great Lakes tumbles over Niagara Falls on its way to Lake Ontario

Niagara River Toxics Management Plan Targets

EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) have identified 26 hazardous waste sites on the Niagara River responsible for over 99 percent of the estimated input of 18 toxic chemicals from all such sites on the U.S. side of the river, and put them all on remediation schedules. Remediation of these sites is intended to virtually eliminate the migration of toxic pollutants into the river. All remedial construction has been completed at seven sites, with remedial construction underway at eleven more. For many of the sites, significant remedial controls are already operating, providing substantial load reductions. The remaining sites are under design or study. EPA estimates that remediations to date have reduced the potential inputs into the river by at least 25 percent. EPA also estimates that remedial activities to be completed in 1997 will reduce the potential inputs into the river by 80 percent. Revised remediation schedules call for all sites to be completed by 2001. EPA and NYSDEC are working to refine reduction estimates which may show even higher reductions to date.

In addition, upwards of ten sediment remediation projects in the Niagara River Basin have been completed between 1990 and 1996, accounting for the removal of well over 160,000 cubic yards of sediments contaminated by a variety of hazardous substances, including PCBs and heavy metals. An additional five projects, either planned or underway, will remove approximately 113,000 additional cubic yards of contaminated sediments.

Table 1: Niagara River Toxics Management Plan Priority Pollutants
Niagara River Toxics Management Plan Priority Pollutants

Automotive Pollution Prevention Project Reductions

The U.S. Automotive Pollution Prevention Project,
piloted in the Great Lakes, has been expanded to facilities nationwide

The third progress report for the U.S. Automotive Pollution Prevention Project, highlighting the progress made by America's car companies in reducing the use, generation and release of persistent toxic substances and other materials of concern, was releases in June 1997. The Auto Project began in September 1991 as a Great Lakes regional effort and expanded to include pollution prevention and resource conservation activities at assembly and component manufacturing facilities nationwide. Combined pollution prevention achievements include: a 9.2 percent reduction in project targeted substances on a U.S. vehicle produced since the Project began in 1991. Two foundries recycling zinc galvanized sheet metal accounted for over 50 percent of the total targeted substances released in 1995. Excluding these, the Auto Project achieved, a 60.8 percent reduction in EPA 33/50 Program substances and a 53.2 percent reduction in EPA Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) reportable releases since the 1988 base year, and a 54.5 percent reduction overall since 1991.

Beach Closings

In 1997, EPA announced a new national program to reduce the potential public health risk of getting infectious diseases from swimming or playing in contaminated beach water. Through the Beaches Environmental Assessment, Closure and Health (BEACH) Program, EPA will work with State, Tribal and local governments to ensure effective beach monitoring and advisory programs are in place, that bacteriological criteria in water quality standards programs are protective, to improve detection methods and create predictive models, and to keep the public informed. EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) has been conducting annual surveys of beach closings for the 582 recognized beaches along the U.S. coast of the Great Lakes. This information in now available in a document entitled A Summary of U.S. Great Lakes Beach Closings 1981-1994. The report finds that for the reporting years, on average, approximately 20 percent of the beaches experienced a period of closure. In addition, there are AoCs in eleven of the nineteen counties having beaches considered poor or deteriorating. The primary causes for these closures are overflows of combined stormwater and sewage systems with insufficient capacity to retain heavy rains for processing through sewage treatment plants. The information contained in this report is helping county health departments concentrate their monitoring efforts and remedial activities on those beaches which experience periodic closings.

Despite aggressive actions to protect human health,
beach closings still affect some Great Lakes beaches.

In Northwest Indiana, the Inter-Agency Technical Task Force on E. coli (Task Force), consisting of technical experts from local, State, and Federal agencies, is seeking a comprehensive approach that addresses beach closings. As data is collected and analyzed, the Task Force will develop an implementation strategy that can address causes and solutions to periodic coliform bacterial contamination of Indiana's beaches on Lake Michigan. The strategy will include consistent methods of data collection, the development of a real-time forecasting system, identification of the sources and fate of the bacteria, and a systematic program of remediation.




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