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Top polluted Great Lakes sites decades from recovery

At UT conference, scientists discuss region’s ‘areas of concern’

Despite huge progress made in reducing chemical discharges since the 1960s, many birds nesting across the Great Lakes region still struggle to reproduce or they give birth to chicks with twisted beaks or other deformities — signs that a full recovery is still likely decades away for some of the region’s most historically polluted areas.

One such area identified during a 90-minute panel discussion at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 Areas of Concern Conference at the University of Toledo was the River Raisin, where it empties into western Lake Erie near Monroe.

Keith Grasman, a biologist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., who has been studying bird and animal deformities and reproductive problems, said research done during the past five years on herring gulls shows that problems persist there and in Michigan’s Saginaw Bay.

Both were among the hottest spots for cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and dioxins in years past, he said.

“It does appear we are still seeing the same reproductive problems [in those areas],” Mr. Grasman said.

The session was one of several at the conference.

Areas of concern are large swaths of land and water, usually around big cities, that have historically been so significantly impaired by pollution and developmental issues that the U.S. and Canadian governments have given them a special cleanup focus. There are 43 of them across the Great Lakes region.

They were identified in a 1987 amendment to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that the two nations have used for 43 years as their primary framework for restoration.

Toledo is in the Maumee Area of Concern, which includes the Maumee and Ottawa rivers, and several other area waterways. That AOC was not part of Mr. Grasman’s research.

Mr. Grasman said it is important to note that western Lake Erie has ample food for fish-eating birds, being the Great Lakes region’s most productive fishery. So it is unlikely the problems some birds in that area still experience with reproduction or deformities is related to a lack of food, he said.

Evidence gathered throughout southeast Michigan, from the St. Clair River to the River Raisin watersheds, shows a “consistent story of elevated exposure” as it did years ago, but on a smaller scale, according to another presenter, Lisa Williams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife branch chief of environmental contaminants in East Lansing, Mich.

The conference continues today with a discussion about the effects on health by hazardous algal blooms, including the incident in Toledo in which the city’s drinking water system was crippled for three days last August. UT also will lead a tour of an Ottawa River habitat restoration project it has done on campus, with the help of federal cleanup funds.

Most attendees are affiliated with nonprofits attempting to get their areas of concern delisted, a process that takes years. The job is done when the U.S. EPA signs off on it and gets concurrence from the International Joint Commission, a State Department-level agency that serves the United States and Canada.

Cherie Blair, an Ohio EPA employee who coordinates Maumee AOC activities, said during a presentation how restoration work is tailored to each particular ecosystem. The Maumee watershed, for example, is more focused on agricultural nutrients than the Cuyahoga, Black River, or Ashtabula River AOCs, she said.

Contact Tom Henry at:, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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