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Billions spent on Great Lakes restoration making progress on areas of concern

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A new study of pollution prevention for the Great Lakes found that an estimated $22.7 billion has been spent between 1985 and 2019 on the cleanup and restoration of all U.S. and Canadian areas of concern (AOC).

The Journal of Great Lakes Research study, entitled “Thirty-five years of restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern: Gradual progress, hopeful future,” states that every dollar toward Great Lakes cleanup has led to more than $3 worth of community revitalization. However, substantial and dedicated funding for remedial action was not provided in the U.S. until the enactment of the Great Lakes Legacy Act in 2002 and the establishment of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2010.

“Pollution prevention investments should be viewed as spending to avoid future cleanups,” states the study, which includes McMaster University’s Gail Krantzberg in Hamilton, Ontario.

Krantzberg, an engineering professor specializing in Great Lakes science, policy and governance, as well as fellow researchers John Hartig and Peter Alsip, state within the study that the industrial revolution not only helped establish and expand Great Lakes cities through industries built around mining, steel, lumber, automotive, chemical, energy, shipbuilding and grain, but also left a legacy of environmental pollution that is now clearly evident in 43 AOCs.

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“There is no doubt that the industrial revolution left a legacy of unchecked water pollution, loss and degradation of habitats, and contamination across the Great Lakes,” the study states.

Since 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has provided over $650 million for restoring AOCs. Since 1985, seven AOCs have been delisted, two have been designated as areas of concern in recovery, and 10 have implemented all identified remedial actions and monitoring is underway to confirm use restoration.

In addition, 79 of 137 known use impairments identified in Canadian AOCs (58%) and 90 of 255 known use impairments in U.S. AOCs (35%) have been eliminated as of 2019.

For example, in Toronto, the study found that decades of cleanup under remedial action plans (RAP) have led to the revitalization of Toronto’s waterfront with substantial economic and social benefits, including $4.1 billion in output to the Canadian economy. In Hamilton Harbour, too, funds contributed to a massive contaminated sediment remediation project at a cost of $140 million.

The new Great Lakes research traces the history of the Great Lakes RAP program from its 1985 origin in a recommendation of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board and identifies what has been accomplished and learned over the last 35 years.

Paul Sibley, president of the International Association for Great Lakes Research, says the new study shows how a strong foundation of federal environmental laws through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office and Environment and Climate Change Canada, can make a difference.

Sibley added that federal legislation combined with locally led cleanup processes can achieve restoration of the most polluted areas of the Great Lakes and inspire waterfront community revitalization.

“Lessons learned from this research will be helpful to all groups working to clean up polluted waterways and revitalize communities,” Sibley said in a water research post from McMaster University.

Based on the findings of the Great Lakes study, it is recommended that the U.S. and Canada view:

  • Investments in pollution prevention programs (consistent with the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement goals of zero discharge and virtual elimination of persistent toxic substances), such as design for the environment and a circular economy that eliminates waste and ensures the continual use of resources, as spending to avoid future cleanups of the Great Lakes.
  • Investments in cleanup of existing AOCs as spending to achieve community revitalization that has more than a 3 to 1 return on investment.

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