After the BP controversy alerted everyone to the fact that companies and municipalities are still polluting the Great Lakes, U.S. Sen. Richard Durban (D-Ill.) asked how much pollution is making its way into Lake Michigan on any given day, month or year. Weeks later, the Environmental Protection Agency responded with an astonishing 43-page document that essentially said: “We don’t know.”
The problem is one of data collection. Under the Clean Water Act, companies get permits limiting the amount of pollution they can spew into the lakes. The permit information is in a database that monitors reports of pollution permit excesses from major facilities, including public water treatment plants. The EPA letter explains that the database is limited to collecting permits and reports of excess or abuses and cannot be used to calculate how much of each pollutant is going into Lake Michigan overall.
This past Fall, USPIRG released a report that catalogues permit excesses for every freshwater body in the United States. Their report uncovered concerning generalities, such as, more than 60 percent of the nation’s biggest factories and water treatment plants have violated the CWA between July 2003 and December 2004, the most current year information is available.
Healing Our Waters sifted through USPIRG’s data on the eight states surrounding the Great Lakes and came to a similar realization –you cannot create even a rough estimate of the pollution going into the Great Lakes or their well known tributaries because of the lack of uniformity in data. It is comparing apples and oranges. This isn’t just a state-by-state problem; it is from permit-to-permit and from pollutant-to- pollutant. The measurements are all over the place.
So, there are two big problems here: one, the states and the EPA have failed to collect the kind of information that would allow it to enforce the CWA and overtime the pollution limits have not been re-evaluated and constricted by state and federal regulators as instructed in the law. It would behoove the Great Lakes States to agree to a uniform way to collect pollution information and create a workable database that provides us with an answer to this very simple question…how much pollution is going into each of the Great Lakes on an annual basis.