Government lacks instruments to measure Great Lakes pollutantsTRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The federal government is running behind on developing ways to measure highly toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes that accumulate in fish, creating health risks for people and wildlife that eat them, congressional investigators say.
By: By JOHN FLESHER/AP Environmental Writer, The Daily Telegram
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The federal government is running behind on developing ways to measure highly toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes that accumulate in fish, creating health risks for people and wildlife that eat them, congressional investigators say.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crafted guidelines more than a decade ago to help states crack down on the pollutants. But their efforts are hampered by a lack of tools for detecting small amounts discharged by factories and municipal wastewater systems, the Government Accountability Office says.
‘‘It’s like we established speed limits on highways but didn’t have radar guns for troopers to find out how fast people are going,’’ David Maurer, director of the GAO’s natural resources and environment staff, said in a phone interview Thursday. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.
Under a program called the Great Lakes Initiative, the EPA in the 1990s crafted water quality standards to control discharges of more than 100 toxic pollutants.
The agency also issued guidelines for states to use in limiting nine particularly toxic substances known as ‘‘bioaccumulative chemicals of concern,’’ which become more potent as they move up the aquatic food chain.
Their presence has led government agencies in the Great Lakes region to issue advisories about eating some types of fish.
‘‘Pollution levels have gone down since the ’70s and ’80s, but until those fish consumption advisories go away we still have a serious problem,’’ said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission.
EPA has come up with adequate measuring sticks for two of the chemicals: mercury and lindane, the latter an insecticide that has been used to treat head lice and scabies, Maurer testified Wednesday during a hearing in Washington, D.C., before the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment.
Using the measurements, states have determined that many polluters are exceeding water quality standards for mercury, Maurer said. As a result, the number of permits limiting mercury discharges in the region has risen in recent years.
‘‘This more sensitive method disclosed a more pervasive problem of high mercury levels in the Great Lakes basin than previously recognized,’’ Maurer said.
But the EPA has yet to finish comparable systems for the seven other bioaccumulative chemicals, including DDT, dioxins and PCBs, Maurer said. Their presence can be detected to some extent, but not well enough to know whether standards are being violated.
He acknowledged that developing the measurements was ‘‘a tough technical challenge’’ but said their absence was ‘‘a significant barrier’’ to reaching the Great Lakes Initiative’s goals for cleansing the lakes.
‘‘We are advancing the science and working with the states to reduce toxic pollution in the Great Lakes,’’ Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, said in a statement.
Members of Congress urged the agency to do more.
‘‘EPA should be working with state and local partners — such as our research colleges and universities — to speed up development of the detection methods,’’ said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.
Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said the GAO report shows that ‘‘there are many pollutants entering the lakes that need to be monitored vigorously so that we can prevent pollution before we are faced with cleaning it up.’’