LANSING- Life in the Rust Belt hasn’t been easy on the Great Lakes.
After years of careless dumping of industrial waste into the lakes, the sediments became polluted — posing a serious risk to the health of wildlife and humans.
Now, clean water and environmental advocates are turning their hopes of a healthier future to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal plan that could funnel up to $475 million into cleaning up toxic substances, protecting habitat and improving shore area health of the Great Lakes.
And tourism officials in beach towns along the coasts are counting on the initiative to preserve the purity of their biggest attractions.
The government should act now to “reverse the damage, or we could lose the ecosystem,” said Andy Knott, executive director of the Watershed Center of Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City.
Contaminated sediments “are remnants of an industrial past. Society wasn’t careful on how they disposed of wastes,” Knott said. “They pose a risk to fish and the drinking water of humans. It’s critical that we get those cleaned up.”
Hans VanSumeren, director of the Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, cited polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury and heavy metals as some of major pollutants embedded in the lakes.
The Great Lakes Initiative must target contaminated rivers in the state’s 30 “areas of concern” to have the greatest effect, VanSumeren said.
Areas are classified as areas of concern if there are impairments to uses such as swimming, fishing or drinking.
PCB exposure has caused bladder cancer, brain cancer, lower birth weights and reduced intelligence for children.
PCB discharge from paper mills took its toll on the Kalamazoo River, which flows directly into Lake Michigan, VanSumeren said. During the de-inking process, mills released the chemical into the river.
Other problem areas include Muskegon County’s White Lake, the Saginaw River, Detroit River and River Raisin in Monroe.
“We’ve got to start at the main tributaries,” VanSumeren said. “We can get a foothold on the sources coming into the lakes. Let’s start hammering away.”
Congress is still mulling over how much money will be distributed, said Jim Bredin, assistant to the director of the Office of the Great Lakes.
Under the $475 million plan approved by the House in June, $147 million would go toward cleaning up toxic substances while $98 million would be designated for “improving near shore health.” The Senate has agreed to a less costly plan allotting $400 million to lake restoration.
“The Great Lakes provide the basis for a lot of economic activity,” Bredin said. “We depend on them for recreation and employment opportunities that are very important to the economy of Michigan. We need to clean them up and protect them for the future.”
Lisa Shanley, executive director of the South Haven Visitors and Convention Bureau, said the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative ensures that the Pure Michigan advertising campaign fulfills its promise of pristine lakes.
Shanley credits tourism for nearly 1,400 jobs in the city, which hosts more than 1.6 million visitors each year.
“It’s very important to our area that the initiative be taken seriously, and that the experience that we’re promising in these campaigns” is delivered, Shanley said.
In Holland, boating and fishing on Lake Michigan are popular attractions, said Sally Laukitis, executive director of the Holland Area Visitors and Convention Bureau.
We must “keep the lakes as pure as possible,” Laukitis said. Lake Michigan is “truly something that is a 365-day-a-year resource that we have to take care of for future generations.”
Meanwhile, eight-miles of beaches with “sugary-white sand” and charter boat fishing are major draws in Ludington, said Amy Seng, executive director of the Ludington Area Visitors Bureau.
Dave Knight, special projects manager of the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Commission, emphasized that the lakes are part of the region’s makeup.
“They’re unmatchable resources. There’s nothing else like them in the continent or world,” Knight said. “It goes beyond economic value and what it means to jobs and economic benefits. It has to deal with quality of life.”