Great Lakes Cleanup and the Power of Lists |
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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


Great Lakes Cleanup and the Power of Lists

Tue, 09/29/2015 - 11:18am -- Jane Elder

Our culture is obsessed with productivity. How many times have you answered the question “How have you been?” with “Really busy, and you?” And so, we invent tools to help us get things done. I know I do.  My current “to do” list is color coded and runs about ten pages, although many things on it are long-term project deliverables. Yes, things drop in out of the blue that I didn’t anticipate, and I have to adjust for them, but I know in my life, things on the list have a much better chance of getting done than things that aren’t. Lists matter.

One list that concerns me is the list of critical persistent toxic pollutants that disappeared from the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 2012.

Jane and colleagues testifying in front of Congress at a Great Lakes week in the late 1980s on the need to address toxic chemicals.

When I was deeply involved in Great Lakes policy work in the 1980s, there were two extremely important lists that were driving restoration, clean-up work, and new strategies to protect the lakes.  One was the critical pollutants list—a sort of “Top 11 Worst Actors” in the Great Lakes ecosystem, singled out by the International Joint Commission’s Science Advisory Board (IJC SAB) in 1987. Chemicals on this list shared the common traits of persistence (not easily breaking down in the environment) and bioaccumulation (concentrating in the food web in living things). They were further characterized as “capable of producing adverse, often irreversible effects in a wide range of mammalian and aquatic species.” Depending on the specific chemical, these negative effects included neurological damage, reproductive failures, developmental deficits, lesions, tumors and cancer. That 1987 report included:

  • Total PCBs (all 209 variations of this industrial lubricant and electrical insulator)
  • DDT and its metabolites (as DDT slowly breaks down, it leaves behind other  toxic compounds, such as DDE)
  • Dieldrin (a pesticide)
  • Toxaphene (a pesticide primarily used on boll weevils on cotton fields)
  • Dioxin (2,3,7,8-TCDD; a compound formed from the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing matter, e.g. incineration; also a byproduct of chemical manufacture, e.g. agent orange, and can be a waste product of industrial chlorine-based bleaching)
  • Dibenzofuran (2,3,7,8-TCDF; origin similar to Dioxin)
  • Mercury (a naturally occurring heavy metal, emitted from coal burning power plants and some industrial incinerators, used in thermometers, paints, some light bulbs, etc.)
  • Lead (naturally occurring heavy metal, uses include gasoline additive, some fishing tackle, shotgun shot, old paints, old plumbing).
  • Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) (a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, produced from combustion of other compounds containing carbon, for example byproducts of coke ovens and cigarette smoke)
  • Hexacholorbenzene (a byproduct of  manufacture of pesticides, solvents, and other products, also used as a pesticide)
  • Mirex (a fire-ant pesticide)

This list became the template for the Agreement’s “Specific Objectives” on persistent toxic pollutants. These were also wrapped into a much longer list of nearly 300 other known hazardous polluting substances (as well as another hundred potential ones) when the United States and Canada updated and renewed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement through Protocols in 1987.  

The critical pollutants list sharpened the focus of research, remedial action, and new regulation. It drove the cleanup of the PCB-contaminated sediments at the bottom of the Fox River, the Kinnikinnic River, and Sheboygan Harbor. It helped ensure lead and mercury were no longer in consumer products. It changed strategies for making paper “bright white” at pulp mills around the world.

The IJC list, in turn, helped drive international conversations about controlling dangerous persistent organic (carbon-compound) pollutants that scientists and public health officials were finding around the globe. In 2001, the United States joined 90 other nations and the European Community in Stockholm and signed (but never ratified) what is formally known as the Stockholm Convention, informally known as The “POPs” Treaty. Their “Dirty Dozen list” (see above) is very similar to the “Top 11 Worst Actors” the SAB identified in 1987.

Local leaders discuss progress on the contaminated sediment cleanup on the Kinnickinnic River in 2009.

The 1987 Agreement Protocols also produced another list; it set in motion the intent to identify “geographic areas that fail to meet the general or specific objectives of the Agreement where such failure has caused or is likely to cause impairment of beneficial use of the area's ability to support aquatic life." These were described in diplomatic language as Areas of Concern (AOCs)—a polite way to say “toxic hot spot.”

This was a list that no one wanted to be on, but it was also a way to shine a spotlight on areas that were dangerously contaminated, and, if left alone, would continue to be a threat to fish and wildlife and human health. By the end of 1987, there was a list of 42 AOCs identified across the basin and across our border.

I remember a vigorous discussion with my father-in-law, who served as Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Resources for eight years. Many were advocating that Lake Erie’s Presque Isle Bay should be added as the 43rd AOC.   

My father-in-law was a remarkably committed and accomplished conservationist over the course of his career, but we didn’t always see eye to eye on strategy. In the context of the Presque Isle “listing” debate, I remember him asking me “Is this really necessary?” and I responded by saying that, from my understanding, there were serious contaminants in the Bay—heavy metals and the PAH compounds that were causing lesions and tumors in fish. This was comparable to the level of toxic contaminants in other listed Great Lakes harbors and bays, and so yes—listing was important. He sighed and said, “Jane, that community has already had so much to deal with, they need an economic boost, not a label like this.”

As someone who grew up close to Flint, Michigan, I was sympathetic to the economic challenges of the Great Lakes cities left to fend for themselves after big changes in the auto and steel industries. But I had also seen the photos of what PAH-induced fish tumors were like. I countered that, regardless, we had to clean up these toxic messes, and that listing would make it harder to ignore the challenge. No one needed or deserved a highly contaminated harbor in their community, but that’s what they had, and perhaps the list could help make it better. We didn’t come to agreement, but we did part on friendly terms. In January 1991, Presque Isle Bay was designated as the 43rd AOC by the State Department in response to concerns raised by the local community. In February of 2013, as a result of 22 years of effort, the Bay was clean and healthy enough to take off the list. 

The greatest challenge with the AOCs is that there was no automatic source of funding to clean them up and treat the contaminated sediments or other pollutants. In some cases in the United States, Superfund money was available, but this often took multiple rounds of litigation to trigger. Ultimately, Congress passed the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which earmarked more (but not enough) money to address the sediment contamination in the U.S. sites.  So progress was, and is, slow. Still, being on the list placed a certain expectation on these areas that they would, eventually, get cleaned up.

But lists can disappear, and their potency with them. When the United States and Canada renegotiated the Water Quality Agreement in 2012, the negotiating team tossed out the lists of substances under special objectives, i.e., the “Dirty Dozen” list, as well as the full list of hundreds of known and potential and hazardous polluting substances—in other words, the whole list! The new Agreement took a plunge even deeper into the waters of diplomatic nice-speak, and we now have “Chemicals of Mutual Concern” in addition to “Areas of Concern.” They also re-defined the roles of the SAB, and created a new two-tiered “Annex 3 Subcommittee” charged with identifying these chemicals of mutual concern. While composed of earnest and talented people from the various agencies that define the subcommittee, this is not a team of independent toxicologists, aquatic biologists, epidemiologists, or other scientists.  

Since 2012, the Annex team assigned to this task has identified seven “candidate” chemicals of concern.  Just seven:

  • Bisphenol A
  • Chlorinated paraffins (alkanes, including short, medium, and long chain)
  • Flame retardants (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, and Hexabromocyclododecane, or HBCD)
  • Mercury
  • Nonyphenol (NP) and its ethoxylates (NPEs)
  • Perflourinated compounds (PFOA, PFCAs, and PFOS)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

And what about the other hundreds of other chemicals (e.g. triclosan) that scientists have detected in the Great Lakes environment? Your guess is as good as mine.

It is also important to note that the Annex 3 Subcommittee established a CMC Identification Task Team that consists of experts from government, industry, environmental non-government organizations, and academia—few of whom are scientists. This group reviews and evaluates existing data and information and for each candidate CMC.    

And what happens to the chemicals for which we may not have much data? How do we assess the risks of known but not-investigated chemicals from chemical “families” that may have a history of bad actors, or emerging threats for which no one has a research grant? What makes a concern “mutual?” What if six experts agree and two don’t—is that a mutual concern or not? With massive cuts over the last decades in American and Canadian research, are we even tracking what PCBs are doing in fish and wildlife anymore?

So, put me on a list with other citizens with concerns. The Great Lakes and the life that depends on them are too important to sweep hundreds of chemicals off a list and then start over. If something isn’t a problem, and we know it through scientific evidence, then remove it from the lists (like the cleaned-up harbors). But to assume things are just fine because the list itself went away with a delete key seems illogical. At seven chemicals every three years (and remember, these are still just “candidates”), even with a nomination process put in place at the advice of non-governmental organizations, we might just catch up with the 1987 list in the year 2143. We need a more responsive and responsible approach.  


Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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