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Commissioner throws water on Ottawa's lakes cleanup
By MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT - Environment Reporter
The Globe and Mail - Wednesday, October 3, 2001
The Great Lakes, the world's largest freshwater ecosystem, are facing increasing environmental stresses, but the federal government isn't doing enough to protect them, says Johanne Gélinas, Canada's environmental commissioner. Ms. Gélinas issued the warning yesterday in her first annual report as commissioner, a scathing assessment of government failure to safeguard the lakes from contaminated sediments, farm manure and municipal sewage, the latter of which in many cases is being dumped with inadequate treatment into the environment. "I am alarmed by the lack of progress and loss of momentum in dealing with the immense pressures facing the basin," Ms. Gélinas said. "We depend on a healthy basin for clean air and drinking water . . . yet the federal government is simply not keeping pace."
The report noted with concern that farm livestock in Ontario and Quebec produce an amount of manure equal to the sewage from 100 million people, more than five times the human population along the Canadian side of the lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Much of this manure is released untreated into the environment, leading to the threat of disease outbreaks such as the one last year in Walkerton, Ont., in which seven people died after municipal water supplies were contaminated by E. coli from farm animals. "The misuse of manure and fertilizer on farmland has damaged the ecosystem of the basin," the report says. Ms. Gélinas also worried that cholera could spread to the lakes in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. Ships take on ballast to make sure they do not tip over, but if they fill their ballast tanks in a harbour where cholera is present, they could accidentally spread the disease to Canada.
Canada has voluntary guidelines instructing ship captains to take on ballast water in the open ocean, where the water isn't polluted, but the rules are viewed as inadequate because they carry no legal weight. "The guidelines do not provide enough protection," the report says in a blunt assessment. According to the report, there have been gains in fighting pollution in the lakes, but the improvements are due to policies adopted in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the ban on pesticides that threaten wildlife and controls on phosphorus in municipal sewage. But since then, the federal government has done little to fight new problems, such as the threat of diversion of water from the lakes to parched areas of the world, and old ones, such as the pollution from agricultural runoff. The report notes that nitrogen levels are building up in soils in rural areas, the consequence of heavy fertilizer application and manure usage by farmers. On more than 30 per cent of farmland, elevated nitrogen levels pose a risk of causing groundwater contamination.
More than one quarter of Quebec and Ontario residents draw drinking water from groundwater sources.
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