April 07, 2023
30 Years of Protecting the Great Lakes
The Great Lakes are a global treasure, representing 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. ELPC’s work is literally at the shores of these waterways and has reinforced our mission over the past 30 years
In celebrating ELPC’s 30th anniversary and our commitment to the Great Lakes over the last three decades, what follows is a sampling of work we’ve done to protect to these precious lakes – from stopping coal ash dumping to preventing toxic algae blooms to holding polluters accountable. When we see a threat we go after it because these lakes deserve to be protected at all costs.
Great Lakes Restoration Initiative
ELPC joined the chorus of environmental and conservation groups in 2008 calling for federal funds to support the ongoing care of the Great Lakes. There was a clear and urgent need to bolster outdated infrastructure, counter threats of invasive species, and conserve eroding habitats, to name a few. Those advocacy efforts led to the Obama Administration i2010 establishing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative with a commitment to provide federal funds for dozens of conservation and restoration projects each year. The program has been wildly successful and proven a bi-partisan winner even when previous administrations threatened to cut it. Check out our latest Congressional testimony in support of this critical program.
SS Badger Car Ferry Forced to Stop Dumping Coal Ash into Lake Michigan
The SS Badger coal-burning car ferry between Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Ludington, Michigan, had been dumping an estimated one million pounds of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan each summer it was operating. In 2015, ELPC and partners declared victory with a public pressure campaign and federal consent decree that required the ferry to switch over to a coal ash containment system. Operators must now store the coal ash on board and haul it to a safe, land-based site. ELPC worked with many allies to make Lake Michigan cleaner including U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Alliance for the Great Lakes, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and others. The ferry is still in operation, but much cleaner.
ELPC Took on EPA to Clean Up Lake Erie’s Toxic Algae Bloom Crisis
Lake Erie’s western basin has been plagued with harmful algae blooms each summer for more than a decade, fueled primarily by excess phosphorus pollution. That pollution is primarily coming from the explosive growth of large-scale animal farms across the Maumee River Watershed. It got so bad in 2014 that Toledo’s water treatment system was shut down by a massive algae bloom; the National Guard trucked in drinking water for 400,000 people. US EPA and Ohio EPA had a hands-off approach to the problem, and Ohio’s then-Governor employed voluntary-only strategies that didn’t work.
As a result, ELPC stepped in. First, we pushed Ohio EPA to declare Lake Erie an “impaired waterway” under the Clean Water Act, which would trigger the US EPA to call for a mandatory plan to reduce the amount of pollutants emptying into the lake. The agencies took no action.
We didn’t let up. In 2017 ELPC sued US EPA for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act and protect Lake Erie communities. A federal judge agreed and Ohio EPA declared western Lake Erie “impaired” in 2018. That should’ve prompted a cleanup plan from Ohio EPA but it didn’t happen. ELPC, along with the Lucas County Board of Commissioners, sued President Trump’s EPA in 2019.
Our persistence paid off. ELPC and Lucas County prevailed in that lawsuit against US EPA in 2023, with a consent decree that requires Ohio EPA to create a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or a “pollution diet” dictating the maximum amount of pollution the water body can tolerate while still staying clean. While the TMDL still needed significant improvement as of April 2023, we are heartened to know the clean-up process wouldn’t even have begun if not for our litigation against US EPA.
ELPC Kept Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Off the Chopping Block
In 2017, the Trump administration announced it would review and possibly withdraw 90% of the boundary of the nation’s only freshwater national marine sanctuary, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, located on Lake Huron. We fought to protect this unique and important sanctuary and won. In early 2021, Thunder Bay was taken off the review list.
Holding Great Lakes Polluters Accountable: ArcelorMittal/Cleveland-Cliffs Victory
In 2019, ELPC and Hoosier Environmental Council sued Burns Harbor, Indiana, steel manufacturer Cleveland-Cliffs (formerly ArcelorMittal) in federal court in a citizen enforcement lawsuit for dozens of Clean Water Act violations impacting Lake Michigan. Violations included excessive discharges for ammonia and cyanide that killed thousands of fish and closed beaches in the Indiana Dunes National Park in the summer of 2019.
ArcelorMittal’s more than 100 permit violations initially showed up on ELPC’s radar as part of a report we produced analyzing US EPA’s Region 5 Great Lakes enforcement (or lack thereof) of Clean Water Act permit violations over a five-year span during the Obama and Trump administrations.
In May 2022, we got a big win – a consent decree was approved by a federal court that included: upgrades to the steel mill to prevent future cyanide and ammonia violations; $3 million in civil penalties; and beneficial projects such as 127 acres of Cleveland-Cliffs property slated for addition to the adjacent Indiana Dunes National Park.
The Battle to Shut Down Line 5
Under the Straits of Mackinac in Lake Michigan lie two aging and deteriorating pipelines called Line 5. These are universally considered oil spill disasters waiting to happen. ELPC, along with other environmental, tribal, and business organizations, has been working to shut down these unneeded pipelines to protect the Great Lakes. On behalf of the Michigan Climate Action Network, we targeted climate change reasons as the overarching argument in our case before the Michigan Public Service Commission why it should deny one of three permits Enbridge needs to build the replacement tunnel. The fight continues.
ELPC Releases Reports Assessing Climate Change Impacts on the Great Lakes
Understanding the impacts of climate on the Great Lakes is critical to ensure its health and survival. In 2019, ELPC compiled a state of the science report looking at existing research to assess how the shifting global climate is impacting the Great Lakes region. The report was drawn from research conducted by 18 leading scientists and experts from Midwest and Canadian universities and research institutions.
In 2022, ELPC released a report identifying 12 areas along Lake Michigan that face potential flooding which could release harmful toxins or damage nearby homes and businesses due to increasingly extreme water levels and storms exacerbated by climate change.
The Great Lakes are where we live, work, and play. We know that healthy lakes mean healthy communities and healthy economies. ELPC continues to work on many fronts to protect the Great Lakes even beyond the campaigns you just read about here. We are relentless in our efforts to address old and new threats to make sure the Great Lakes will continue to thrive for generations to come.