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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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April 2003

Binational Program puts lofty goals into practice

Nancy Larson & Karen Plass

Contaminated sediment

Wisconsin Lake Superior public advisory team & special designations

When the governors of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota signed the Binational Program to protect and restore the Lake Superior Basin in 1991, they recognized that this lake deserved special attention. For 12 years, the Lake Superior states have worked with the U.S. and Canadian governments, the tribes and others to design and carry out a strategic plan for Lake Superior and its drainage basin. The Lake Superior Forum, a citizens' group from the United States and Canada, has been an important partner.

"It hasn't always been easy," said Chuck Ledin, DNR Great Lakes Section Chief, who served as the first U.S. Co-chair of the Binational Program's workgroup, "but from the start, our goal was to develop and share common goals. We all have slightly different authorities, approaches and issues, but we are trying to protect the same resource."

In the 1980s, the aim of many Great Lakes environmental activists was "zero discharge" of toxic substances. The Lake Superior Binational Program includes zero discharge goal for nine pollutants dubbed the "nasty nine" because they are toxic, and accumulate over time.

Many communities and industries around the basin are working on ways to prevent these pollutants, particularly mercury, from entering Lake Superior. Consumer and commercial products such as thermometers, thermostats, switches, button batteries, fluorescent bulbs and dental amalgam can be a significant source of mercury. Industrial raw materials can also contain unwanted mercury.

It's more efficient and economical to keep these materials from entering the waste stream, rather than remove them later, at the end of pipe or top of the smokestack.

Community-based education and outreach activities are the foundation of the Zero Discharge Demonstration Program. By educating communities, working with industrial wastewater customers and offering hazardous waste collections, Duluth's Western Lake Superior Sanitary District markedly reduced its mercury discharges in the 1990s. Their "Blueprint for Mercury Elimination" (1997) provided guidance for other wastewater treatment plants. In Wisconsin, Superior's wastewater treatment plant is a regional leader in pollution prevention outreach, providing support to other comunities around the lake. Ashland, Superior and Duluth prohibit the sale of many mercury-containing products.

Contaminated sediment

Lake Superior's nearshore areas and shallow bays – the most biologically productive part of the lake's ecosystem – are crucial to the lake's aquatic life. At several sites around the basin, sediments remain contaminated from past industrial practices, degrading valuable shallow water habitat and acting as a continuing source of contaminants to fish and wildlife.

Because of contaminated sediments and other problems, the International Joint Commission designated eight areas around the lake, including the lower St. Louis River between Duluth and Superior as Areas of Concern. Cleaning up contaminated sites is expensive, but vital to the lake's health.

Wisconsin Lake Superior public advisory team and special designations
"Lake Superior is special, sensitive and unique and deserves a special designation."

This was the first consensus of a multi-interest stakeholder group invited in 1998 by former DNR Secretary George Meyer to develop recommendations for a special designation for Lake Superior.

Partners come to the table as pasrt of the Lake Superior Public Advisory Team. © Nancy Larson
Partners come to the table as part of the Lake Superior Public Advisory Team.

© Nancy Larson

Meyer asked these 40 people to advise state government and help implement the Lake Superior Binational Program. Wisconsin's Lake Superior Public Advisory Team represents a broad cross section of basin citizens, including elected officials and representatives of the tribes, business, industry and environmental groups.

The team started with other issues – mercury reduction and priorities for Wisconsin's share of the Great Lakes Protection Fund – before grappling with special designations for Lake Superior, which the state agreed to pursue as part of the Binational Program.

"After more than three years and 30 meetings, the group reached consensus on special designations," said facilitator Mike Kroenke, University of Wisconsin-Extension Lake Superior Basin Educator. "The issue has a long and difficult history, but they worked hard and made great individual compromises in order to achieve consensus for the greater good of the lake. Team members have such strong emotional connections to Lake Superior that they continue to work together, despite differences."

In August 2002, the group presented then DNR Secretary Darrell Bazzell with a recommendation to extend Wisconsin's Outstanding Resource Water designation into limited zones of the lake to afford the state's highest protection to parts of Lake Superior.

They also recommended setting special conditions to prevent increased point source discharge of toxic pollutants that bioaccumulate in the food chain. This is similar to special designations in Minnesota and Michigan. Looking beyond point sources of pollution, the Advisory Team stressed its interest in land use, watershed management and tributary health.

"Our tributaries are in trouble," said Ruel Fleming, a Wisconsin Conservation Congress member from Herbster, and Advisory Team member. "We need to do something about streambank erosion."

Nancy Larson is Wisconsin DNR's Lake Superior program coordinator. Karen Plass is a former Lake Superior specialist with the Wisconsin DNR and former executive director of the St. Louis River Citizens Action Committee; she currently works for the University of Minnesota-Duluth.