Opinion | Cleanup of Great Lakes pollution hot spots is good for economy

John Hartig

John Hartig is Great Lakes Science-Policy Advisor to the International Association for Great Lakes Research

The Great Lakes are an unparalleled natural resource that can be seen from space, representing one-fifth the standing freshwater on the Earth’s surface.  The industrial and agricultural revolutions and associated human population expansion powered growth of Great Lakes’ cities and provided jobs and wealth to millions. But they also left a legacy of unchecked pollution and impaired Great Lakes waterways.

A recent study titled “Great Lakes Revival” by the International Association for Great Lakes Research shows how cleanup of Great Lakes Areas of Concern leads to reconnecting people to waterways, which in turn leads to community and economic revitalization. The study was funded by The Erb Family Foundation and features 10 case studies: Buffalo River, Collingwood Harbour, Cuyahoga River, Detroit River, Hamilton Harbour, Muskegon Lake, River Raisin, Severn Sound, St. Louis River, and Toronto Harbour. 

In the 1960s, the Detroit River was one of the most polluted rivers in North America. Today, more than 40 years of pollution prevention and control have resulted in substantial environmental improvements and surprising ecological revival, including the return of bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey, lake sturgeon, lake whitefish and walleye. This revival of the Detroit River has led to transformation of the waterfront, including the creation of the 5.5-mile Detroit RiverWalk. The investment of $80 million in building the Detroit RiverWalk has returned over $1 billion of public and private sector investments in the first 10 years. Mark Wallace, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, notes:

“Without this early focus on cleaning up the river and improving water quality, this transformation of the river’s edge would not have been possible."

The River Raisin is located in southeast Michigan with its watershed overlapping five Michigan counties and dipping into a small portion of northern Ohio. Like in many areas of the Great Lakes, industrial development, including paper mills and automotive manufacturing, left behind a legacy of pollution.  

Monroe rose to the challenge and has been actively involved in this cleanup effort for more than 30 years. The community has invested $45 million to upgrade the Monroe Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant. In addition, $43.1 million has been spent on contaminated sediment remediation and nearly $7 million on habitat restoration and dam removal to open the River Raisin an additional 23 miles for fish migration and spawning. Critical to this success was $36 million of funding through the Great Lakes Legacy Act and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Today, all remedial actions deemed necessary for restoring uses have been implemented and monitoring is underway to confirm use restoration.  Bald eagles have returned to the watershed and the fishery has improved.

This revival of the River Raisin has been essential to the revitalization of Monroe, which has now rebranded itself as a vibrant urban center with an ecologically-significant river, significant historical assets, a new national park, a state park, and an international wildlife refuge within its city limits – all connected by greenway trails. River Raisin National Battlefield Park attendance is projected to reach 635,000, improving the local and state economies by over $53 million annually.  

During the lumber era of 1860-1910, Muskegon Lake had 47 saw mills along its shoreline. During World War II, Muskegon’s Continental Motor Co. produced tank, aircraft and automobile engines as part of the war effort that led to its reputation as a foundry town. Historical development along Muskegon Lake supported waterfront-dependent industry and commerce, but left behind a legacy of contaminated sediments, habitat loss and environmental degradation. 

Cleanup of over 177,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment at a cost of $42 million and rehabilitation and conservation of habitats at a cost of $22 million has led to substantial improvements in Muskegon Lake. In 2009, a $10 million restoration project was implemented along the south shore of Muskegon Lake, removing 24.7 acres of historical and unnatural fill, restoring 27 acres of wetlands and softening 1.9 miles of shoreline. An economic benefits study found that this $10 million restoration project will generate nearly $60 million of economic benefits for the Muskegon area over a 20-year period, or a 6-to-1 return on investment.

These three case studies and the others in “Great Lakes Revival” provide compelling rationale to sustain Great Lakes funding and revitalizing and re-establishing funding to the Clean Michigan Initiative in. Investing the Great Lakes cleanup means investing in community and economic revitalization. To learn more about this study, visit: http://iaglr.org/aocdocs/GreatLakesRevival-2019.pdf

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Roger Rayle
Fri, 09/06/2019 - 12:56pm

Retention time (average time it takes a drop of water to flow through) ...
for Lake Erie - ~2.6 years
for Lake Huron- ~22 years
for Lake Michigan- ~99 years
for Lake Superior- ~191 years
for the "6th Great Lake" (i.e. Michigan's groundwater) - ???? years
"forever chemicals" like dioxane and PFAS that flow with water may take years to vent from surface water (not counting redispersion from sediments), but time to vent from groundwater may take many decades or centuries. Best to fully remove them or not release them in the first place.