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While We Weren't Looking
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Ecology Of Great Lakes Under Assault

By James Donahue

All eyes are focused on the tragedy occurring this spring in the Gulf of Mexico but there is another ecological disaster unfolding on the Great Lakes, one of the largest reservoirs of fresh water left in the world.

As always, big industry is the culprit, the people are mad, and government appears either unwilling or incapable of stopping what is happening.

The assault is coming from four fronts:

--The $3.8 billion expansion of a giant oil refinery owned by British Petroleum in Indiana, on the southeastern short of Lake Michigan that will process oil from Canadian tar sand.

-- Kennecott Eagle Minerals, of Vancouver, Canada, is starting construction of a mining operation on the Yellow Dog Plains, a sacred Native American site near Marquette, Michigan, near the shore of Lake Superior. The company is exploring for nickel, copper, gold and zinc imbedded in sulfide ores.

--In the Tittabawassee flood plain along the Saginaw River in Lower Michigan, an estimated 5,000 acres of some of the richest farmland in the state and the site of large crop farming operations, has recently been found to be contaminated with dioxin from the operations of the Dow Chemical Company located in Midland, Michigan. The fish in the river and in Saginaw Bay also are found contaminated.

--Algae blooms from all of the chemical runoff from factory farming operations, including the large cattle, pig and chicken warehouses are creating dead zones on nearly all of the lakes. This problem has been strangely compounded by the introduction of zebra and quagga mussels in ballast tank water from foreign ships entering the lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway.

On the surface some might say that all of the things listed above are “progress” and/or have been going on for years and nobody has had any complaints. But this is not true. The change in farming operations, for example, has gone through major changes in recent years. Some of the farms now pack thousands of head of livestock in small containment areas. The runoff from the animal waste, chemicals in that waste, and the feedlots are getting into the soil, streams and the lakes.

The produce farms, all in competition to produce a lot of food in as efficient means possible, are laced with chemicals that make plants grow faster and larger, chemicals that kill unwanted weeds and chemicals that kill unwanted pests and mold. These chemicals also are washing off the land and into nearby streams and eventually into the Great Lakes.

The BP Whiting oil refinery in Indiana is already the nation’s fourth largest refinery and is being made even larger. In its present form the refinery is rated as the sixth largest source of industrial pollution in the Chicago area. The expanded plant to process oil from Canadian tar sands is expected to increase greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claims the refinery has violated air pollution rules by modifying the plant to increase toxic emissions without adding pollution controls or seeking permits.

The State of Indiana granted the BP refinery a permit in 2007 that allows it to substantially increase ammonia releases and heavy metal releases into Lake Michigan. The ammonia and suspended solids promote algae blooms that suffocate fish, destroy fish habitat, rob other plants of sun and oxygen and bring about beach closings.

The Kennecott sulfur mining operation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a nightmare just waiting to happen. The act of extracting sulfide ore involves a mining technology that creates an acid mine drainage. The mine will be located next to a small brook that feeds into the Salmon Trout River, which in turn flows into Lake Superior. Sulfur turns into sulfuric acid when it comes in contact with water. This acid has the potential of killing the trout and other fish in the river, and in Lake Superior.

In addition to the acid threat, the heavy metals mixed in the sulfur ore will be leached out and easily enter the water and the ground throughout the Yellow Dog Plain. The material harvested from the mining operation is expected to be trucked, possibly to some other industrial facility or to waiting ships. The toxic dust from the trucking operation will be spread with the wind.

Local Native American tribes and other citizens have been protesting the Kennecott mine project. Their presence on the mining site has been in the news. Police have begun arresting the protesters and charging them with trespassing. The construction site at Eagle Rock is considered sacred ground to the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

The dioxin issue along the rich Tittabawassee River flood plain has shocked Michigan residents since it was recently uncovered in a University of Michigan study. The Michigan Department of Community Health says the problem is so serious it is recommending that no more food be grown on the farms in the area.

The Dow Chemical Company of Midland, which has been operating in the area for years, has been found responsible for dioxin emissions throughout a major part of the Saginaw Bay watershed.

In a Health Department statement, published in the Michigan Messenger, the chemicals found in the soil are “Polychlorinated dioxins (PCCDs) and polychlorinated furans (PCDFs) referred to collectively as ‘Dioxin-like compounds’ or DLCs are persistent compounds that build up in the body and remain stored in fat and other tissues for years.”

The health effects of DLCs include cancer, disruption of the endocrine, immune and reproductive systems and developmental problems in children.”

A recent posting by a person identified only as Muskegon Critic in the website The Daily Koss, outlined the algae problem as it has been evolving on the Great Lakes.

The algae blooms began some years ago because of increased amounts of fertilizer containing nitrates, plus the run-off from things like laundry soaps and lawn chemicals containing phosphorous. These chemicals were natural food for algae, a simple marine life that some researchers identify as a form of bacteria. When it exists, it chokes off all other life in the water around it.

The Daily Koss article noted that when the zebra and quagga mussels arrived, they began feeding on the algae, which by then had virtually killed Lake Erie. The mussels multiplied from this rich food source and spread throughout the lakes, eventually cleaning the lakes not only of algae but all of the other tiny sea life that was part of the natural food chain for the fish.

All of the bad chemicals in the lakes collected in the bodies of the mollusks that eventually died, their remains collecting along the shores of the lakes, thus turning themselves into “a band of algae fertilizer right near the lakes edge,” the story said.

“And now that the water is extremely clear, more sunlight can penetrate deeper into the water for even more algae.” Thus new algae blooms are forming. What is worse, this blue-green algae variety is toxic to birds, fish and small mammals so it has no natural enemy.

We have not mentioned three other foreign invaders that also are threatening the natural fish of the lakes. They are the lamprey eels and alewives that also came from the ballast water of foreign ships. They attach to the sides of fish and drink their blood, eventually killing the fish.

The third destructive force coming soon to the lakes is the Asian jumping carp, a giant fish that has been working its way up the Mississippi River and is expected to enter the lakes through the canals and lock system that links to Lake Michigan. These are giant fish that can grow up to 100 pounds. They virtually eat all of the other fish in the lake. Efforts are being made to stop them at the locks.